A black box — that intimidating name marks the stage of the Experimental Media Performance Lab at UCI, and for good reason. It is hardly a stage at all, just a black floor where the audience and performers are on the same level, dangerously close to one another. When you enter you have no choice but to join in as your pupils involuntarily adjust to the darkness and quickly follow blue spotlights aimed at the contorted dancer on the floor. Then your eyes are drawn to enormous screens, two of them behind the dancer where ocean waves crash and her gray and grainy projection is dancing too. It looks as if she is dancing on the rocks, but rather than waves crashing, you hear the dissonant shrieks of an electric guitar being plucked one string at a timEncircled by an array of screens, cameras, projectors, speakers and many, many cords along the edges of the box, the dancer is free to twist, fall, run and leap without choreography.
She is reacting to a plethora of factors that Professor John Crawford, Director of the Digital Arts Minor, designed for his project, EMERSE, an art installation that traces relationships between humans and oceans. She responds first to a prompt from her choreographer to embody “melting glaciers,” then to her reflected shadow on the screen that follows her every move, and also to the strange rhythmic sounds that break this vacuum of silence.
Her improvisational piece, and those of many other dancers who came into the black box between January 20 and 22, 2016, are part of the workshop that Crawford hosted to collaboratively brainstorm for his full installation planned for fall 2016. Crawford’s specialization in digital media combines scientific data with dance and art to explore and share his lifelong fascination with the ocean. EMERSE refers to both “immersion” of the individual in the visual and auditory environment and the “emerging” understanding one can gain from it.
“I wanted to combine my feelings and passion about the ocean environment, particularly the coastline, which is such an interesting space, with the arts. I realized that one of the ways to do that might be to implicate science,” said Crawford.
Another one of the dancer’s prompts is a smaller central screen where a blot of red surrounded by other rainbow colors fluctuates rapidly next to silhouettes of continental coastlines. It is a visualization of changing surface level temperatures of the Pacific Ocean since the 1980’s, but hardly seems scientific when one watches the mesmerizing motion of currents and colors.
Global warming and diminishing ocean communities threaten the coastal life that Crawford monumentalizes and the possibility of destruction is imminent in the eerie and irregular music. After visiting the workshop, UCI Earth System scientists found significant relevance in the piece and suggested a joint symposium and exhibition that could provide both educational and artistic immersion, where “people can come in and experience without being trained performing artists,” as Crawford has always wanted for this installation.
If the projections and screens aren’t stimulating enough, the auditory effects push immersion even further. The dissonant chords turn out to be someone gliding their fingers along a single string of an electric guitar that Crawford’s composer colleagues have amplified into a rhythmic white noise, almost like waves. It reverberates increasingly when the dancer moves in the camera’s field of vision; in the triangular perimeter marked by glow-in-the-dark tape, the camera picks up the dancer’s movement and translates and incorporates it into the source music.
“I originally had thought we would just make an installation, so what has really developed for me is the idea that it really is and can be an interesting performative space,” said Crawford.
One sound, one movement triggers another and they continue to evolve inextricably together like waves pounding upon each other, building in size and strength, in a way that can’t be explained by the science involved. The overwhelming amount of stimulation from many mediums at play, instead of causing panic, produces the hypnotic cycles of the tides and you cannot help but be immersed in this multi-faceted, multi-media reproduction of the ocean’s extravagant yet fragile power.