On interdisciplinary studies in knowledge media and the performing arts

Here is a brief profile interview I did for the University of Toronto’s Knowledge Media Design Institute, one which I think (hopefully) begins to explain my research focus as a doctoral student with the KMD collaborative program.

What department are you part of and what is your research focus?

I come from the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (CDTPS) with a background in music technology and sound design for theatre and performance. My research focuses on how our ability to capture and process certain forms of data (i.e. ’big data’, biodata, etc.), are transforming how artists create immersive and/or participatory theatre and performative experiences.

Why did you decide to join the KMD collaborative program?

I’ve always tried to position myself at the intersections between disciplines. Working this way is not easy, but it’s always rewarding and ripe with opportunities for innovation and cross-fertilization. I first heard about the KMD/CDTPS collaborative program through Dr. Bruce Barton (a former CDTPS faculty member now at the University of Calgary), just after it had been established. Being one of the first KMD/CDTPS students was a little strange at first — in my KMD classes, I usually ended up being referred to as ‘the drama guy’, which I think was actually a blessing in disguise. It motivated me to clarify (for myself) and to articulate (to others) what I thought the most important connections between knowledge media design and theatre/performance are — or should be — and how these disciplines might benefit most from collaborative cross-pollination.

How has KMD impacted your research?

The prerequisite KMD courses helped me develop a solid grounding in the contexts and practices surrounding ‘big data’ and ‘open data’ while providing me with an opportunity to begin researching the methods and practices of contemporary artists specializing in data visualization and/or sonification. KMDI’s Human Centred Design course was particularly valuable in expanding my understanding of the methods and practices employed to cultivate meaningful user participation in the design of products, services or systems and — by extension — theatre/performance experiences.

How is your research related to the KMD collaborative program?

People ask me what contemporary knowledge media design has in common with the traditions of theatre and performance. It’s a great question and while I am not a specialist in the theatre of Ancient Greece, scholars such as Derrick de Kerckhove[1] (McLuhan Program, University of Toronto) and others have attempted to demonstrate how a primary function of the ancient Greek theatre was to provide the predominantly illiterate spectator with models for processing, integrating and communicating their perceptions and experiences of the world as knowledge. Theatre has always served as a form of knowledge media. More specifically though, I tend to view theatre as a kind of ‘reality simulator’ — a place where complex or chaotic situations or scenarios can be conceived, enacted and rehearsed and new personas, behaviours and perceptual models can be prototyped and tested, all in a comparatively safe and controlled environment.

How did you find the transition to KMD and how compatible is it with the goals of collaboration and innovation within Performing Arts studies?

I found it was relatively easy. Sound design and interactive technologies have always been essential components of my work in theatre and performance. Yet, I’ve always been equally interested in exploring how this particular design knowledge could be transferred to other fields, such as the design of sounds produced through a user’s interaction with a physical object, system or environment.

What words of advice would you give a future Theatre and Performance Arts Student who thinks about pursuing further studies with KMD?

If you focus on the places where KMD and theatre/performance overlap and intersect meaningfully, opportunities for cross-pollination and trans-disciplinary insight can be discovered and explored. Part of this involves thinking beyond the more popular definitions of ‘theatre’ (i.e., plays, musicals, dramatic texts, etc.) until you begin to see how most people engage some form of ‘performance’ as part of their daily lives.

[1] for example,see the article Theatre as Information-Processing in Western Cultures by Derrick de Kerckhove

Punchcard rewind: a contemporary reconstruction of Udo Kasemets’ Tt

On reviving a cybernetic audience-controlled, audio-visual performance piece. A tribute to Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and John Cage

Tt by Udo Kasemets (1919-2014)

A cybernetic audience-controlled, audio-visual performance piece. A tribute to Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and John Cage

Performed by David Schotzko, Richard Windeyer , and Adam Tindale on March 27, 2015 at the Robert Gill Theatre (Centre for Drama Theatre & Performance Studies) as part of the Opening Up the Space Festival (T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, David Schotzko and Dennis Patrick, producers). Realized in Max/MSP/Jitter with an iOS data entry template for TouchOSC (https://github.com/drart/Kasemets)

Udo was a pivotal figure in the evolution of the electronic arts and contemporary music communities in Toronto. He was a composer of chamber works, orchestral and electroacoustic works. He was a conductor, a concert presenter, and a teacher to young artists — most notably at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). For a time, he was also the music critic for the Toronto Daily Star. Like so many people in the 1960’s, his work became heavily influenced by the ideas of John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall McLuhan. He maintained correspondences with all three of them and continued to compose music — often employing — like Cage — the I Ching, and exploring the application of fractals in algorithmic composition. With Udo’s passing just last year, it seemed fitting to remount his own ‘tribute’ piece.

According to Kasemets’ instructions, “aural and visual presentations and illuminations (by means of speech, recordings, slide projections, films, sculptural constructions, etc.) of words ideas and images of B. Fuller, M. McLuhan and J. Cage,”1 are manipulated according to a live audience poll which is then processed by a computer. The first and only performances of Tt occurred at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute on the weekend of March 9 and 10 in 1968 — part of a weekend extravaganza of ‘environmental compositions’ entitled SightSoundSystem that capped off the Kasemets-curated ‘Festival of Art and Technology’2. As an aside, I should also point out that this was the same festival at which John Cage and Marcel Duchamp rather famously performed their ‘chess game’ piece Reunion. Despite computational challenges and harsh reviews by the Toronto Daily Star’s William Littler and The Globe and Mail’s John Kraglund, Tt may be regarded as a curiously ambitious local landmark in the pre-history of ‘crowd-sourced’ and participatory performance situations now made possible through 21st C computational advancement.

In a forthcoming lecture-demonstration at the 2015 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium in Toronto, Adam and I will delve into the data capture (punchcards) and processing methods (manual data entry), performance material curation and historical contexts researched and developed for this digital reconstruction of Tt.

Special thanks to Kasemets scholar, Dr. Jeremy Strachan.

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