Originally published in the October 1994 issue of:

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State-of-the-Arts Technology

by Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

The advent of technology is having an impact on the arts that hasn't been seen since electricity replaced gaslight in theatres. Technology offers the artist new tools and additional colors in their palette of expression, but mastering the techniques of new tools requires time and an understanding of the interfaces. The interface between the artistic vision, and the technology used in implementing that vision, is in a state of constant change. With the rate that technology is changing, one has to wonder if the artist is lagging behind the technology, or is the technology still working on catching up to the artist. This is not a trivial question for the people who design technology for the performing arts, or for the artists who are creating new work.

The past 60 years of artistic endeavours have seen a completely unremarkable split develop between the artists and the technologists. If we had a painter that needed a paint brush operator, or a guitar player that needed a fretboard string operator while playing, we would find that completely odd. We don't see it as unusual that record producers have worked with recording engineers that can manipulate the technology in the manner required to achieve the artistic vision of the producer and the recording artist. Artistic directors of theatre and dance companies work with technical directors who take care of the technical details necessary to make the artistic vision come alive. The division between the artist and the technologist has been accepted as a necessary part of the creative process where technology is involved. The artist and tecnologist are viewed as being on the opposite sides of the same process. The growth of interdisciplinary performing arts is blurring the dividing line as artists who work with video, computers, lighting, sound and music bring their unique perspectives to new types of work. Some artists and technologists would tell you that division has to disappear completely. half moebius

Music, dance and theatre are fundamentally human expressions, and they exist independently of any technology. For the people creating and presenting art, the question of what role technology plays is an important one. Technology may allow the presentation of these art forms to a larger audience, it may provide new creative possibilities, or it may allow the combination of artforms. Technology is a big part of the world we live in and artists are as affected by its presence as the rest of us, it is inevitable that technology will become part of the expression of art. The technology has to support the creative process, it must not hinder expression, and it ultimately has to become transparent to the artist. The path from idea to realization should not be filled with numerous technical hurdles that are not related to the artistic technique. As any one who works with technology knows, that is a tall order, even in technical fields we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time working on the infrastructure (how long does it take you to load and setup every new piece of software so that it runs without co-opting something else).

One overwhelming requirement that the performing arts have for technology is that it be transparent to the audience. The audience should not be able to see the dividing line between the artistic vision and the expression of it. Whether it is the illusion of Peter Pan flying onstage, or that a singer in a 3,000 seat theatre can be heard in the back row, the technology is most successful when it is invisible. The arts have seen a number of technologies succesfully integrated into the artistic product. Take the example of wireless microphones, which twenty years ago were a techno-nightmare worse than anything Wes Craven could dream up, but have become quite reliable and affordable (if the wardrobe people would just stop pinning the lavalier microphones to the costumes). The use of a wireless microphone provides the illusion of an actor's voice being large enough to fill a theatre over top of all the other stage sounds and music. It may not have been a problem in a Elizabethan theatre in Shakespeare's time, but in a 1500 seat venue, invisible reinforcement using wireless microphones helps achieve the artistic vision of the director.

That is an example of technological maturity, one crucial aspect of the use of technology in the arts. In early applications of wireless microphones, the production had to be staged with the provision of adequate off-stage time to change batteries to make sure that the wireless microphones would work through the show, and that a back-up plan was available. The current technology is mature enough that the reception and performance of the wireless are not an issue that affects the decision to use them(ignoring for the moment Murphy's Law as it relates to wireless, which says that it will work perfectly in the rehearsal, and die when the curtain goes up.).

A wireless microphone is an example of "hard tech" or a specific tool that is used to fill a certain job. The biggest growth areas in the arts are digital musical instrumentation, and the realm of computer based support systems for sound, lighting and mechanical controls. The technology can be dividied into the broad categories of equipment as the medium of expression, and technical support equipment. These are much more controversial areas to deal with in the arts. This combination of hardware, software and wetware(the artists) have to be able to work together effectively. Unlike "hard tech" tools like a wireless microphone, these systems are simultaneously very flexible and yet quite constrained in their capabilities. Any system that is extremely flexible will not be simple or straight forward to use. The more complex the capabilities of the system, the more difficult it becomes to find an efficient form of communicating with it, and having it communicate with the user. The interface between the human user and the technology has become an issue.

The interface of technology with the artist was one of the topics that was discussed at a summer workshop at Simon Fraser University's School of Contemporary Arts in Burnaby, BC. I had an opportunity to sit in on this forum and listen to a variety of artists from around the continent, working with computers in different performing arts contexts, discuss the artist to computer interface. Many of these artists were musicians experienced with MIDI, while others were visual artists, video artists, film makers, choreographers, and performance artists. The overwhelming consensus of the discussions pointed to the interface hardware as being a limiting factor in the flexibility of expression when using computer based technology. Computers do exactly what you tell them to, instead of what you want them to do. This is certainly not a new problem, and not limited to the world of the artist.

Where an analogue musical instrument, such as a piano, has all the characteristics of a piano, and can be explored and used equally well by a jazz musician, a classical pianist, a country musician or an avant garde composer, the computer based musical instrument interface only does what it was developed to do. This is an example of the problems that come from the division between the technologist and artist. A technologist (likely in collaboration with an artist) developed a musical instrument interface that has characteristics that allows specific types of expression to be included in the music. It may be adequate for the original artist, and may be general enough for some large artistic population segment who find the range of expression adequate, but it will be a limiting factor for the artistic expression of some artists. With the piano, the artist can always find alternate ways of using it for expressing their artistic vision; plucking the strings, covering them with tinfoil and spoons, playing the strings with a chainsaw, whatever their musical influence may dictate. Computer-based instrument interfaces are less intuitive in the exploration of the range of expression. Some musicians have embraced the technology and have become technologist enough to explore the computer instruments, but many musicians are not interested in having to become technologists in order to produce music. In these cases the technology hinders the artistic expression. Even though the technology is capable of a tremedous range of expression, the expression has to be accessible to the artist to be perceived as valuable. This is a typical problem encountered in the rapid deployment of fast changing technology.

Technical support systems do not have the same problems that musical instruments do, but they still have to interface with a human being during a performance with human beings in it. The main criteria for these technical support systems is the ability to gracefully recover from human error and the ability to provide viable control of the show in the event of a catastrophic control system failure.

The majority of the computer based applications have been developed in the lighting side of the equation. The view has generally been that lighting systems technology was ten years ahead of audio in the implementation of programmable control systems. Audio has been made some significant progress in the computer control and digital realm, now it's probably only eight years behind the current lighting technology in acceptance and implementation by the arts community. Computer control of lighting was originally limited to memory storage of complete scenes of lighting levels, with minimal dynamic component. With the advent of motorized pan/tilt lights, with dynamic color and gobo selection capability, the range of computer control has expanded. Lighting is generally easy to computerize because it is still a function of light level/time coordinates, with the possible addition of x,y,z space coordinates for some motorized lights. Compterized lighting control actually provided the lighting director with the possibility of producing more elaborate lighting cues than would be humanly possible to preset on a manual lighting console before the next cue call.

Lighting systems generally meet the criteria for graceful recovery from human error but still have some difficulty in maintaining control in the face of catastrophic failure. If the lighting tech happens to call up the wrong cue, it is easy enough to call the correct cue quickly, often before the audience has seen the cue develop fully. If an actor drops a line or two, and unexpectedly propels the production into another scene, the cues can easily be called up. In the event of a control system failure however, a replacement lighting console still needs to be connected in place in a few hectic, panic-stricken moments and then the show can continue at some abbreviated level from a manual cue sheet.

Digital audio is being accepted by the performing arts world. The promise of higher sound quality, less hiss, (especially with the amount of manipulation of source material that is required), and fast access time, all combined with the conventional appearance of control interfaces, have made digital audio a natural for the arts. Digital sources such as CD's provide sound effects material, often for use in digital samplers providing keyboard access to short sound effects such as gunshots and door slams. Digital audio tape multitracks, or hard-disc based multitracks are being used for production of show tapes, and even for running show audio. DAT recorders with RAM buffers are now able to provide the instant start capability that two track reel to reel analog recorders were capable of providing. This not an advance in concept, so much as a different format for running the show tapes. While digital audio can sound better, it carries its own set of technical limitations. Editing with a razor blade had its drawbacks, but it had the advantage of requiring some fairly unsophisticated hardware; a good splicing block and a sharp razor blade. Digital technology is providing the hardware that makes audio production better sounding, and both the learning curve and the affordability curve are flattening out. Reliability and error recovery are generally good, as long as one is diligent in doing backups of work in progress and the finished product.

Computer based audio control systems have been slower to gain market sharedue to the cost and complexity in providing the required number of control parameters. Sound cues often consist of sound sources, sound levels and routing, maybe with addition of equalization changes. Large scale productions with large numbers of microphones have found a computerized mixing console to be a benefit. This benefit is largely dependent on having a well defined and well rehearsed production with little or no opportunity for accidental or purposeful improvisation on the part of the actors. At this time, many of the computerzed audio control systems (that aren't using moving fader type automation) suffer from the inability to provide show control in the event of a control system failure, and it can be difficult (or impossible) to patch another console in with all the EQ and routing settings in place in the event of a catastrophic failure.

There has been much discussion about integrated show control systems over the past few years, but the implementation of such a system in a show with live performance is still difficult. From the technologist's point of view, the biggest impediment in a successful show control system is the inability to connect the live performers to it. Human beings have just enough randomness associated with them to make any kind of integrated show control difficult. From the artist's point of view, the biggest problem with a show control system is the inflexibility of it. When lighting, sound and effects cues are tied together, there is no margin for error in performer position or props, or any of a dozen other aspects of Murphy's Law. When interdisciplinary performing arts were first hitting the stage with audio tape backing or click tracks, or with video taped images intended to synchonize with live performance, the artists and technicians both found the inflexible and unyielding nature of the electronic conductor difficult to deal with. The artists were constrained to a no-margin-for-error time frame for the live performance, and the technicians would have to find some way of correcting mis-synchronization. The application of computers hasn't yet changed the fundamental problems of such an excercise, although the coming generation of computer/performer interface technology may have the capability of allowing the synchronization by taking the cues from the performers themselves. The seeds of this level of technology have already been sown, but are a few years away from maturing.

If one considers the other areas of technology that are finding applications in the performing arts such as video and computer graphics, and all the possible avenues of presentation of performance using them, there are some staggering possibilities for hardware, software and human performers coming together. Video is widely used now by the stage technicians to see the stage with Infrared eyes in a blackout. It is used for documentation, distribution, and for the presentation of performances. Video is here now as a technologist's tool, but the possible uses in the performing arts by the artists are only just opening up. Combining video and computer graphics in a virtual reality world will open up new performance "venues" where technology is the performance space. It will open up new concepts in performance and art that were never possible before. moebius

One of the central difficulties in the use of technology in the arts is the fluid nature of both technology and the arts. Almost by definition, the performing arts tend to exist on the outer edge. The technology that intrigues the artists tends to be the most innovative, and the application of it to the arts is often very different from the intended use. When technology is developed for the arts, the technologists have to aim at a moving target, the artist's need for the technology is not static, it has to respond to today's use and next year's use too. The artist's expectations of the technology change with the familiarity with the technology. The artistic vision sometimes moves in step with technology, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, the same is true for the technologist. The relationship between the artist and technologist needs to be seen less as a two sided topology, with a not-so-simple half twist we can turn that into a Moebius Strip, which has only one side.

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