BAM Fishman Space, Brooklyn, NY
It feels paradoxical that when I think back to a live performance event from before the pandemic year of virtual interaction, the one that comes rushing back to me is all about virtual reality. Billed as a technology showcase designed to “embolden a renewed sense of play for all ages,” BAM’s Teknopolis was a family-oriented digital arts exhibit, curated by BAM’s Steven McIntosh, that featured about twenty interactive installations along with multiple 360-degree films. I attended Teknopolis on March 1, just days before New York City shutdown on March 12. The virus was already in the news, and speaking for myself, I was confused but taking the advice to wash my hands thoroughly and frequently very seriously. Still, the seriousness of the virus and the idea of the city shutting down seemed utterly unbelievable, and so this performance event, where we touched nearly everything and shared VR headsets with the public, went ahead as scheduled.
Looking back now, Teknopolis feels peculiarly befitting of the moment. It marks a memory of the past—a time when we could share space and exchange headsets with strangers, blissfully unaware of the invisible danger around us. But it also marks a harbinger of the future as an event celebrating the potential of virtual reality right before we were hurtled into a virtual world of interaction. Perhaps the memory stands out to me now as a reminder of what potential lies in the virtual realm, and what I found missing in so many virtual performances and play readings. The event was brimming with energy and felt like a playground with five levels of digital arts drawing in attendees, calling for physical touch or participation to activate the technology that highlighted one’s own physical presence. These installations ranged from an array of music-making games, to an augmented reality “ARcade,” to a film lounge with six 360-degree films to choose from, to larger environmental installations that immersed the whole body through different uses of mixed-media. But this sense of free play invited by the exhibition was also strategic and stimulating. The ways in which the installations interpellated bodies invited different relationships with ourselves and with space—sometimes immersing the body in acutely responsive environments where light played with the human form, sometimes transporting awareness into virtual spaces free from our reality’s rules. In concert, the installations suggest that technologies such as AR and VR can make use of disorientation and fascination to offer provocative revisions to our human perspective.
My lingering impression of the exhibition overall was the interactive nature of its installations. For instance, I played drums in the air through motion capture [End Page 54] technology, drew my own doodle and turned it into an augmented reality animation, and danced along with my silhouette as it morphed through different colors and figures. One installation that stands out to me was created by Superbe and Dogstudio, called “SMing.” First, the participant makes a brief recording of their voice and face, which is then multiplied and processed to create an entire choir of their likeness on separate screens. I squirmed to see myself multiplied (though after a year of seeing my Zoom reflection, perhaps now I wouldn’t find it so unnerving). But the real fun came next, when participants took the position of conductor with baton in-hand to create our own music by changing the tempo and pitch of the virtual choir. The experience reinforced the nature of imaging within contemporary media and the ways different technologies assimilate our representative features before transforming them for a variety of purposes, as in playful face filters so popular on TikTok and Instagram, or the far-reaching uses of facial recognition software. But more than that, it also built on the way those images are separated from their sources, allowing our images to travel and interact far beyond ourselves. This experience reflects how the lack of control one has over their identity in contemporary media may feel overwhelming, but in this moment, control was handed back to that image-maker in the form of a literal baton...