“Characters” creators talk union of art, technology

Photo courtesy of Shimmy Boyle

In the first “Made@GT” art and technology project commissioned by the Office of the Arts, artist Katherine Helen Fisher and research scientist Clint Zeagler have collaborated to produce the interactive performance “Characters,” centered around a wearable computing costume called “Le Monstre.”

The project was funded by an engagement grant through the Institute for People and Technology and the GVU Center. According to Zeagler, the focus of the “Creative Collisions” was “looking at how artists can work with technologists together in groups to come up with something creative… not just the artist is saying ‘this is how I want it to be,’ but the technologist is also being creative and part of the process.”

The Technique had the opportunity to speak with Zeagler and Fisher ahead of the performance on Sunday, March 5.

Technique: How did you come up with the idea for this performance?

Fisher: Through mutual creative friends on Facebook… I was introduced to Madison Cario… who is the producer and director here at the Office of the Arts. Madison is amazing and really
is interested in engaging audiences and pushing them in unexpected ways.

I founded a company called Safety Third Productions with my partner [Shimmy Boyle]. It’s a media production company, and we had started a photo series called “Characters,” where we were taking pictures of mostly myself that were kind of Cindy Sherman inspired… she plays with shifting her own identity…

So we were doing this photo series, and Madison kept commenting on it. It grew into us trying to extrapolate that photo series into a full length evening performance that incorporated new media because that’s what my company creates…

We started workshopping, Clint’s team and my team, and we had meetings talking about a lot of different things. One of the things that came up was how do we engage the audience in a way that feels inclusive and gets them to touch and interact and play with the media on their phone, and be creators of the project inside of it without having them feel put upon or forced…

So we try to really make a safe space, in the truest sense of the word, for people to be able to kind of explore themselves… I feel a certain vulnerability in what I’m showing the audience, I take my makeup off in the beginning of the piece, I start with makeup on and then I take it off, so it’s kind of a stripping away of artifice as we go.

Zeagler: At the beginning of the show, people are asked to turn on their cellphones and turn up the volume and turn up the ringer to the loudest possible, which allows people to hold their smartphones the whole show.

I think that smartphones are this generation’s safety blanket: it’s a device that gives you comfort enough to be able to disengage with people on an elevator or say, ‘well I can’t talk to you because I’m actually videoing you.’ It’s a step towards engagement that I think is really nice.

Fisher: And also, the way I use my smartphone is like a constant creative suite. I’m editing on my phone, I’m taking pictures, I’m doing all sorts of things. So I really like it as a way that the audience creates as well…

Technique: What kinds of materials are used in the costume itself , “Le Monstre”?

Zeagler: I just bought the loudest, most sparkly fabrics I could find… the actual touch materials are anything that’s conductive, so there’s conductive thread that’s tied into yarn puffs.

There are some copper fabric stripes that you can touch, there are actually a silver plated chain on one of the shoulders, and then there’s a whole bunch of buttons and snaps on the back that are sewn with conductive thread.

At the end of the piece, there are these pockets on the dress that have tassels that you can pull out across the stage, and they have stretch sensors…

The dress acts as a midi controller, so when you touch parts of the dress, through capacitive sensing it creates a signal, and then that is turned into a midi control or a note like a keyboard.

Then it’s sent over wifi to the show computer, so it actually changes the video content on the screen and also produces sound in the space. So when you touch the dress, the space changes…

Fisher: There are other elements that the dress has capacity to do, but that we haven’t had time in this iteration to develop, like the accelerometer.

Zeagler: The accelerometer is working, but we’re scared to dance too hard in it because we’re worried that a wire might pop and then it stop working…

Fisher: There’s a distance sensor, so you can get closer up, and the light gets brighter and brighter. We just think the garment has a lot of potential, we’ve become close friends through this process, and we’re hoping we get the chance to develop it further.

We could see it at places like music festivals and art fairs because it’s a thing that can go anywhere and be installed anywhere. It brings together all these different media in a way that feels really current.

Technique: How do you envision Georgia Tech and the larger community bridging the gap between arts and technology? What do you think each field has to offer the other?

Zeagler: My background is a little in both, so I tend to on a large number of projects act as that bridge. I think part of the divide is vocabulary and terminology, like people can use design and mean a multitude of different things in their head…

The way a designer works through a problem is sometimes different from the way an engineer is trained to work through a problem… I think that if you give an engineer some design thinking tools about iteration and the way that designers work through a process, sometimes they might come to a different or even a better solution to their engineering problem and the workarounds might be different.

I think that’s important, just working together, especially working together before you get out of school, so when you get into the industry you’re not just talking to a designer for the first time. That’s part of why we have an artist in residence program here and why we bring people like Kate in.

Fisher: I feel like they have a sense of the scientific method in what they’re doing… It seems really strategic and calm, like lead by this logic and hierarchy whereas I think in the arts sometimes it can get really emotional because it’s more subjective.

So when you’re looking for solutions, it’s opinion based then if you don’t agree, there can be some tension there. So I would like to bring in a more strategic, problem solving to working with my own teams and trusting that there is
an answer.

Technique: What inspires you as an artist or digital creator?

Fisher: I love collaboration because it makes your ideas bigger. I think when you find a collaborator who is willing to suspend their disbelief for a second and buy into the magic of the creative process, it’s gold. That’s what you really need in order to come up with something revolutionary idea wise.

When you’re in your sensory place where you’re like ‘I wonder if this is good’ or ‘will they like it,’ it’s harder to innovate, so I really like it when I am able to foster that type of environment with my team so we just trust each other.

Zeagler: For me, this experience was wonderful because a lot of time when you work on a project for a company, there’s a very specific deliverable that they want. Even if it is a design project, it has to fit within their brand scheme. So you’re really designing within narrow parameters.

This was so open-ended: we were able to just say well if you were gonna touch something, what would you want to touch? The things that started coming to my head were like those Nick Cave outfits, where they dance and they’re all furry and textural…

It was an opportunity for me just to go wild and play because I was making a piece that was part of a piece of art rather than part of something that was directed towards a specific industry required deliverable.

Technique: What are some challenges of incorporating technology into a live performance?

Fisher: I think it’s so exciting to be really pioneering new technology, and again I think it’s good that we make ourselves vulnerable in the show. Well it’s live theater, this is not

Zeagler: Sometimes you can do everything that you can possible try to do, and something will happen. You just have to pray to Mercury, the god of communication and electronic signals, before the show [laughs]…

Fisher: It’s a lot to track. There are three different cameras going during the show… projectors, ring light has to fly down from the ceiling, balloons get dropped, strip lights on  stage…

It’s all part of the process. Once you get the show up and you get a touring version of it, it’s easier to get consistency in those things. You troubleshoot just through doing it again and again. You have to get okay with letting it hang out and improvising.

Technique: What are your future plans, with this show specifically or broader plans not related to the show?

Fisher: I would love to take this show on the road. I had put together a few different European residencies to build the piece, so I feel like it would be possible that we might be able to do a tour in Europe. We’re applying for the Stars Electronica prize.

Zeagler: We’re gonna apply for some additional arts funding outside of Georgia Tech, and see where we can get and who wants to show the piece. There’s been some interest out west.

Fisher: That would be really fun to tour the piece. It’s been two years since I’ve been talking to Madison and trying to figure out and secure funds to get this going.

It’s been a solid year of me working on the show… I have just invested a year of my life, and it’s kind of a wild thing, and sometimes you’re like what’s it all mean [laughs], but I think as creators we believe in the work…

Zeagler: I think it’s too good to end here.

Fisher: That’s the interesting thing about being an artist, you don’t get to choose. Your only job is to make the work. You can try to show up for interviews on time [laughs] and do things to get the word out.

But if you’re focused on the end outcome, you’re almost always disappointed. It just has to be for the love of actually doing it.