Darwin: Yeah. All right. This week we're going to meet with Barry Threw. Barry Threw is a pretty amazing guy. He is one of the busiest people I know in the media arts and so I'm really pleased that he's been able to take a little time out of his schedule. Hi Barry, how are you? Where are you right now?
Barry Threw: Right now? Well, I can't actually tell you where I am, unfortunately. I'm in a very big public venue. I'm working on an ongoing project, very large media integration and a screen project for a major franchise. You'll all know about [it] later.
Darwin: All right. Well, congratulations on the mystery gig, let's kick this off by having you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. What do you do? What are the many things you have your hands into?
Barry: Yeah, sure. I mean, in general I deal with design and execution of spatial media projects. I really like things that exist in space. I've never been somebody that's been particularly drawn to electronic arts that existed exclusively in squares or screens, projects that exist in reality that deal with the spatial characteristics of rooms and space through sound and video, and also interactive and performance works. So, these kinds of immersive and interactive things, both for installation settings and for performance. So that's the kind of space that I'm really have been working in and I'm interested in pushing further.
Darwin: Right now, primarily, I think the thing that people would see - if they went to your website (which is barrythrew.com) one of the things that's most shocking is the large scale projection mapping that you're doing that's for a company called Obscura Digital, right? And, what kind of stuff does Obscura focus on doing,
Barry: Generally stuff in that same space I just described: Obscura does a large variety of projects. We're really a creative technology studio that deals with design execution of these immersive and interactive events and installations. And so one of the big buckets of work that we do is event work, and this can mean things like architectural projection mapping, which we've a number of projects in. We do stage shows, design for stage shows, interactive installations. So things that exist for a longer period than just some event, which takes a whole different sort of planning and design around those things. And we're really pushing into projects that push more towards concepts of interactive architecture. So things that aren't just installations in that they don't just get dropped into an existing space, but really the design of spaces and experiences around technology and how technology can transform space - and affect people's emotional experiences within space and really engage them to whatever the use cases of the those environments might be. And so that's the general overview of what we're doing; we're about a 50 person company, and it's full of a whole bunch of people with varied backgrounds, a lot of musicians and artists and designers, and fairly interesting people from a unique San Francisco scene.
Darwin: Right. You mentioned that because this kind of work is the kind of work that even 10 years ago, I don't think that anybody was really projecting out as being a future career option. And, so it means that your background wasn't one of studying architectural projection mapping or show design or, or anything like that. Why don't you give us a little history about where you're coming from, that leads you to be able to pull this off?
Barry: Sure. I think that in one sense the dots always connect in retrospect. So it's one of the things where I'm going to describe how I got here, but whenever anybody asks me for advice, I kind of draw blanks because I grew up in Southern Illinois, which is a pretty ignored area of the country. And it's also pretty culturally conservative. And so there's not much in terms of a media arts or contemporary scene there, although there are a couple of university towns where things come through and they're more progressive. You know, but I was very into computers, and that might, that might be the irony of it.
Barry: It might've been a sort of escapism from seeing that first one, whatever reason, it wasn't particularly interesting to me. So I had computers very early on. I think I got, we got an Apple // clone when I was pretty young and I started programming on it. Just from stuff that, like there was a manual that shipped with the Apple // clone that talked about Applesoft Basic. And I remember starting to dig into that stuff pretty early, and then kind of kept with it and spent way too much time with video games and computers and all that stuff. Not doing anything. I mean, I wish I was one of those kids that, came up with anything particularly of note.
Never in my teenage years, but no, I just kind of consumed media and hopefully gained to some sort of feel for what interactive and narrative experiences were like from that stuff in terms of, so that's one thread kind of like the computer thread. And in high school I had worked in it just as a job. I guess another way I got to where I am is from an aversion to doing food service. So it's like anything to do to keep from having to do physical labor. I was kind of all over.
And so, IT and computers were a good way to do that and they were a little bit more interesting. And for some reason we were just kind of more in my desires than any other job I could think of getting. So anyway, that's one kind of thread that developed those skillsets th the other is that I was always in music, and band from early on, I played saxophone for all the way through college. I have two music degrees. And so this music thread is a big one for me. And when I left high school, I was in marching band. You know, I don't know if there are people that aren't familiar with the Midwestern United States, which I'm sure there are several listening to this, there's a big drum and bugle corps, which is like people that March around on fields and halftimes on games.
And like all the high school bands there have these marching band programs and they all compete. Like it's a competitive sport they're, to the point that you could you could get out of taking PE credits in high school, if you were in marching band in the summer, this is a pretty interesting phenomenon. Anyway, this was a bit I was always in this marching band stuff and it got me into music. And, when I left high school and was trying to figure out what on earth could I possibly do with myself now, I really fell into being interested in sound recording, I think, because it was a way to integrate this musical experience with a lot of the technology things I was interested in anyway. And so the plan at the time was to get into recording engineering.
And so to those ends, I was at the University of Illinois for a year, finding myself, and then went to Berkelee college of music in Boston. Oh yeah. And so I was in the sound recording program eventually there. And then it was kind of an interesting twist of fate, I guess, the thing with the, music production and engineering program at the Berklee college of music, is that there's very limited student studios or control rooms are small, there's very limited space. So they only introduce a certain number of students every year. There are a lot of people that don't make it. And what ends up happening is that if you don't get admitted to the program in your first year, basically your first two semesters or three semesters, if you want to have that major, you wind up adding on tacking on semesters.
But it turns out that it shares a few core, or it did at the time. I don't know what their procedure is now, but it used to share a few core music technology classes with another program called synthesis, which is a computer music. They called it music synthesis then because [of] when it was established, and there are a lot of interesting people in there. Richard Boulanger, Tom Guy, Tom Ray, Jeff... I can name all these guys they're there. And it had no admission requirements to the major. So the school planning hack was to declare yourself music synthesis, start taking the core classes, and then you weren't behind when you finally got accepted. The byproduct of that as I started getting into all this computer music type of world and interactive music and synthesis, that's when I started learning programming synthesis like Csound. That was the first time I encountered Max/MSP and Richard Boulanger's class. And so it was an interactive music thing, but I think even more than that, for me, it opened up this whole idea of interactive sound and visuals and performance, and like a bigger way.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, that's, it's really interesting because there are a lot of kind of common threads between some of the things you're talking about and other people's experience, first of all, this kind of Midwestern escape trajectory seems to be common. I certainly hold that for myself as well, but also, the entree from a music background, but also this engagement with technology that leads you to swing the door open wider than you had initially expected. Now, some of that is because I think things like what we now call media art. That wasn't even a sparkle in anyone's eye, even not that long ago, but it certainly wasn't an academic track or one that was treated seriously anyway. And a lot of times to get access to the technology that would do this stuff, you found yourself moving in the directions of either recording engineering or musicianship or whatever, because those provided entree into getting behind a mixing desk or a editing suite or some of that.
Barry: Yeah. I mean, who had the gear, right? That was, and this is the big problem that it seems like. I mean, I'm no expert on the development of academic institutions, but it seems like the first problem was you had all these - certainly there's this in media arts - there's this concept of an interdisciplinary study because you have to meld all these things together. The other side of that is that you have to have disciplines to be interdisciplinary between, I guess. And so you have these programs that have the gear and they end up being host disciplines to a strange media arts program. So, I mean, certainly Berklee as an example, they had a music synthesis program by and far, it was geared at the time towards sound design for film and music soundtrack with computers but it happened to have all of these weird little classes and outcroppings of interactive things that were more experimental.
And I imagine that that's common for a lot of people - I'm sure there are a lot of people that came out of, like, broadcast departments or whatever that ended up getting into and music and music departments in general as well, because that for me - we haven't got into, we'll get into more of the spatial media stuff later, but for me, music is really a great metaphor for all this stuff for one, because sound is kind of inherently spatial. You know, it's omni-directional, it fills a space and you have to deal with it that way. You know, despite only having two ears, it turns out that rooms and how you specialize sounds important. And because sound is so mutable and transparent and you can morph into other things and it's time-based, so all of those just very general concepts carrying on into visual arts and experiential media with technology in general - the time-based transmutable, spatial; those types of things are already inherent in music.
Darwin: Yeah. Right. Well, speaking of spatial media and spatialized media - the first time I really interacted with you to any significant extent was when you were doing work with Recombinant Media Labs, which is, at the time that I first met you, it was a building in San Francisco that had an immersive media display environment. How did you get involved with that? And what did you do with RML?
Barry: Yeah, I mean, we could have a whole radio show about the very interesting history and cultural development that is Recombinant Media Labs and it's artistic director, Naut Human is the guy's name. And he's, he's had a lot to do with just... A plug for Naut for a second, because I think he's a guy that a lot of people aren't aware of, and has had a lot to do with events in San Francisco in the seventies in terms of weird audience abduction events and just kind of like making situational environments and things like that, as well as the really development of turntablism, experimental music and records, he he's helped start the Digital Musics jury at ARS Electronica and then past that did a number of things. So there's my kind of... he had some pretty seminal bands as well...
Darwin: Yeah, well, I appreciate you bringing that up cause I feel like it's not only RML, but in general, all of the many things that Naut Human had embraced turned out to be sort of the breeding ground for an amazing generation or several generations of wild work...
Barry: He's still around so many more generations. I moved to San Francisco to get a master's degree at Mills College in electronic music and recording media. I basically picked the most different thing from the Berklee college of music I could find, which was the school - Mills has an electronic music master's program and their history is very much in the New York school: John Cage and Feldman and all the all type of more experimental stuff, which is much different from the Berklee - has experimental elements, but you also are very much into like commercial music production. So you take a class where they tell you how... there's a design pattern at Berklee College of Music called commercial funk. And you learn how to write that.
It's useful, but it's, yeah - what it is. Yeah. And so I was looking for something different from that and ended up at Mills. Let's just say it's a more permissive environment, aesthetically. So I was living in Berklee, California and was walking around somewhere and saw a flyer for a show called RAM. It was a red flyer and it was for this weird place, Recombinant Media Labs. And so, the show was from a guy Daniel Menchaes from Portland who were a couple of noise artists and this other, amazing artists and gentlemen who unfortunately just passed away, Zbigniew Karcoskie. And it was strange.
And the flyer was strange enough that I just I had kind of had to go and see what this thing was about and wandered into this, extremely interesting environment, which was, which was Recombinant Media Labs. And it was on Brandon street, in San Francisco between 6th and 7th streets. I think what existed there was a the first stages of this 16-channel immersive audio and video surround cinema presentation system. And the show I saw there the first time was just sound, but this was - if you talk to anybody who's seen this show, basically, I can say that that show was definitely transformative for me, and it was still the loudest thing I've ever heard. It was just crushing and it was the first time that I've experienced sound in a way that, really that visceral and where there's really nothing else in your head besides what's going on.
I mean, it was brutally transcendent and visceral and a punishing show. The fun story about that one is that, during one of Zbigniew's sets the system crashed, like the sound cut off in the middle and everybody's "What, what happened? What went on?"" We couldn't really tell if it was intentional or not. It was one of those hard noise music cuts and everybody just kinda went on with it. But what, it turned out later upon inspection, happened was that the mouse had - due to the vibrations in the room - had bounced all the way across the dock on the bottom of the Mac and opened every program on there and crashed Pro Tools, which - the sound was routed through Pro Tools for that thing. So when the program crashed the sound just cut.
And so that was the kind of environment, and they had all these projectors and screens in there too that were being set up. And I basically at that point was like, "I need to see what else is going on here!" And through that net Naut... it was also the, it's also a recording studio and the home of Asphodel records in San Francisco. And so there was a lot of interesting experimental record releases being done there. And I volunteered my time there basically. And was working on shows there for two years. And we did all sorts of kind of a who's who of European and Japanese noise and experimental stuff. You know, we had Yashi, Antoni and Alvo Noto and Panasonic and Biosphere. And so that's kind of where I got involved in - it's definitely my entrance more into video and visuals in space. You know, this is really a surround cinema presentation system. The room had a 360 degree video screens in a 3x2 configuration of 16/9 screens. And so you really are in a situation where you have this idea of spatial media synthesis. So sound and visuals linked together in space.
Darwin: Well, I experienced it for the first time when I went there for a show that had Sue Costable, who did some work specific for the space. And then, I can't remember who it was, who did a noise piece with like really superjarring visuals . First of all, the 360-degree both sound and visual - and I think it's important to realize that the 360-degree sound was really important too, because it meant that you would find yourself orienting your body in a way that, based on where you're sitting in the room, to sort of experience things in a very personal way. It was really interesting.
Barry: It was a small room - 120 people and it started to get uncomfortable.
Darwin: Yeah. Right. Well, I have personal space issues, so there's that too. But, I just remember Sue did a piece for specific for the space and it was phenomenal because her sensibilities, but mapped into that space and with that sound system - it was fantastic. And I was just charmed by it.
Barry: The Morton Subotnick piece, maybe? She did some work with Morton in there. Silver Apples...
Darwin: Right. I think this was, yeah, I think this was something she had done just personally, but then this noise artist came and took advantage of this visceral experience. One of the things that you said really resonates with me is this idea that it expunges your ability to think of anything other than what you're feeling at that moment. And it was astounding. So I just really found that environment to be a unique experience and incredible one. Now, what kind of work did you do with RML? Were you working on the technical end or more with the show development?
Barry: I was working on the technical end and collaborating with a lot of artists to realize different works in there. And it's an interesting thing I think media arts has a very interesting problem right now in terms of who is an artist and who isn't in terms of how people brand themselves and things like that. Because a lot of these works at this point require a kind of division of labor to even pull off. And I can say I've done a lot of technical collaborations with artists, and I can say that they invariably become creative collaborations and you're building a canvas for somebody else to work within. And so you're curating a set of possibilities that someone else can help explore. I'm far from the only person who does this type of work.
And so I think that there's a whole community of people that have worked on every media art piece that you're aware of (and love) that don't get much credit to it. And so this isn't sai in like a "I did this!" kind of position of whining about not getting enough credit, but it is, I think, an interesting problem in terms of getting people engaged, and how people's perception of how these massive sets get pulled off, because there's too many tasks for any one person to be able to take care of all of them anymore. And so we're really getting to a place where this lone artist warrior myth is kind of unraveling, falling apart, it's falling apart and you have pieces that are vast collaborations of tools, technology, people, and aesthetics. And it's hard to package that in terms of people's personal story - it's a little bit difficult.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, I think that, there's another thing about that as well, which is that it changes the way that a person's artistic resume is put together and validated as well.
Barry: Exactly. That's kind of what I was getting into was like, who do you perceive as who gets put up there? Who do you perceive as artists? And it's not just an ego question and it's also one that defines someone's career possibilities and what kinds of things they get to work on, because I guarantee I can name 20 people that the listeners have probably never heard of that have worked on things that they have heard of.
Darwin: Yeah. That's, that's interesting. Well, one of the things I asked you about what you were doing at RML, but I do that already knowing, because one of the things that I did, when I came to see this show is, you actually took me into the control room and gave me a quick tour of what technology was used for that show. And what I remember about that was that, I was surprised that it was not a preset control room full of staff that was just reused from show after show. It was very clear that for this show custom work had been done to provide the best possible experience for that one show. Is that a common story?
Barry: As I see that, and in general, I think that's a common story even more and more from that time. I mean, that was 2006 probably. And there weren't more preset options available. And, you know, one of the progressive things that we've done as we've this, this system still exists. I mean, the quick story behind Recombinant Media Labs is that we ended up losing... the Aspinall records was the parent company. And due to just the general disruption of the music industry, it couldn't afford to maintain that space. And so we had to move out of there, and we're trying to figure what to do with it and ended up turning it into a touring festival system. And we've done a number of festivals playing - we probably have 40 pieces of surround audio/visual content by major artists that we can play and tour around.
Barry: And so we've done TransMediale, and MuTech, and several more - fast, ORF Music Protocol at Gratz and a few more festivals. And I was going to say is that first system was really about - nobody really knew how to author content for that environment yet. And we wound up doing a lot of things is pre pre-rendered video. You know, you were really just setting up a scene in After Effects or Final Cut and rendering out 10 screens in a big line, and then you wrap those around the room. But as we progressed, we started to do more things that were real-time rendered and interactive, and trying to figure out how to really make that space a completely mutable canvas for real-time performance, where you could have performers in the space that could control spatial sound, could control video, interact with the audience, bring audience interaction into the installation. And so it really is this interesting gray area of installation, performance, sound, video, interactive control, in this weird black box environment that is, by its founding nature, completely open to as much as static experimentation as you can possibly fit into there. So in terms of like a natient clean room for people to explore ideas, it's pretty, pretty powerful.
Darwin: Yeah. But now I am, I'm having trouble imagining this being a mobile unit. Cause again, I experienced it in a fixed space and it was overwhelming, first of all, in its kind of complexity. And secondly, it seemed to really demand the environment that it was in. How can you lift that up and turn it mobile and still end up with that same experience?
Barry: I mean, I can say that that certainly the building, the Brandon Street location was the flagship that that's it until we can design out a new space. I mean, this space at Brandon street had a lot of characteristics that were - it was designed out particularly for this purpose. And so we, there was a room within a room. It was, it was sound isolated. A lot of the work was done for sound particularly. And so the sound isolation, acoustic treatment, the floor contained 32 subsonic floor shaking transducers, to augment the base that we had eight Elacoustics 18 inch subs, and two big subs at the end of the room, 16 channels of PA speakers system. So they were all Elacoustic point sources. So in terms of the sound setup, it's impossible to recreate the clarity and power of that room without building another location.
In terms of the video, that's a little more doable. I mean, if you can hit 10 screens with 10 projectors, we've done things like increased resolution. You know, things to improve that, that's a lot easier. And so basically what you have - I guess it's hard to explain without pictures, which if you go on my website or whatever, but it's basically a floating cube, a video or a rectangular prism or whatever, a video that kind of floats in the middle of the room. We have a platform that you walk up to, to go inside where we put subs and the floor shakers under and generally have... The original location was 16 channels of sound, but it was in two rings of eight and two levels. So you got 3D is - it's important, 3D sound spatialization and panning, in a mobile, we usually only have an eight channel system of smaller speakers, which does for the spatial content it does well. There were different things you could do in the room.
Darwin: So, well, I'm really happy to hear that that continues as a thing because I remember being deeply saddened to hear that RML was having to be shut down. And so the fact that it continues to live, I think, is really important if for no other reason than as a showplace for these works that were created specifically for that [envivronment].
Barry: Exactly. I mean, there's things we have so many works and - it's funny, there's one reason I'm not worried cause I've had been to festivals and talked to a number of people about it. There've been various prognostications of the death of Recombinant Media Labs. And what I end up saying is I have a hard drive in my backpack with 40 surround cinema pieces on it and they're not going anywhere and somebody is going to want to see them. So, the content's there. And so we can recreate the system to show it. I will say that both Recombinant Media Labs and the kind of previous and sister space to it called The Compound, which was out in an industrial warehouse in the Hunters Point area of San Francisco and was there where Naut lived for 30 years until it also, the lease didn't get renewed from the state or city.
And he had to move out of there and it got leveled as well. That was also another place where a lot of after-hours, underground, San Francisco surround and noise shows and recording took place, and was also - all these things kind of culturally connect. It was also the place where many of the people that founded started and work at Obscura Digital met. So it's in a similar cultural vein, all this stuff. I was kind of in a second generation of people to come through the Recombinant Media Labs grinder and emerge. Can't say unscathed, but still standing here.
Darwin: Well, it's funny because at the time it probably felt like a grinder, but now you look at it and it's like a hotbox for growing incredible plants. Because again, the number of people who have had interaction with that have come out and done not all necessarily even related stuff, but just, there's something about that environment that caused people to crack their heads open and say, let's say that there is a creative way to live your life.
Barry: It's extremely true. And I, I there are some stories like this, where you look back and you say, actually, "That was really great...", but I mean, in this I can safely say for everyone that was involved, that every day we walked into there, you felt that it was like, we are going to be sorry when we don't get to be in this environment and space anymore. And we still say it. And even in terms of the city, the Bay area in the city of San Francisco as a whole, with those two spaces gone, there's really been nothing to replace it. And it has been just a massive cultural deficit for a certain type of work in San Francisco since those have gone away. Nobody's really - Naut's one of these guys and and the people around there were really the type of people that were willing to kinda put their dick on the anvil and say we're doing this thing because it needs to happen. And we haven't quite found that type of investment in digital arts in San Francisco, which is a big problem. And it's one of the areas that I'm kind of focused on a lot right now, is this problem of the digital arts economy in the Bay area in particular.
Darwin: Yeah. It's very much coming to the fore, there is a lot of discussion now about San Francisco as touchstone for this whole idea of the creative class moving into a place. But what we're seeing actually is sort of the decrepitude that can come with that as well.
Barry: Well, yeah, what does it mean to be creative? And the thing is like filling out your Facebook profiles, not creativity, like that's not like user content generation and a template is not generally that creative outlet in a serious sense. And so in San Francisco you have this interesting problem and it seems to come back to money. I think it's deeper than that, but it that's a big part of it. And the economic part of it, where you have - I run this quarterly meetup and kind of platform about these issues called Art Up that happens. There's another one that's going to happen on Tuesday, around Sonic and music technology.
Darwin: So people, people time shift this. So Tuesday is what date,
Barry: Oh, Tuesday is March 4th. Okay. The year of our Lord, 2014 CE, I guess. So I run this with a with a fellow artists and collaborator, Matt Dryhearst, fellow Max user Vlad Spears is involved as well. And so we we got a good crew on this thing, and we generally run these events around different aspects of the arts and technology economy in San Francisco. And what our goal or realization is, is they're really two sides of this coin. One is that you have a technology sector that's not for one reason or another really supportive of the arts economy, cultural economy in San Francisco. You don't have Facebook and Google and Twitter investing in the cultural sector in the same way as you had Hewlett Packard investing.
Darwin: And AT&T, I mean, it's strange
Barry: The old world companies tended to do this. And I mean, just go to the opera sometime and, look in the back of the program and see who's in there. And I tell you who's not in there, which is any of these startup companies that are pulling all the money in the last 10 years. So you just don't engage in the cultural sector in the same way. So that's one problem - how to engage them, how to make them realize that, that the type of art that uses new tools and new techniques is directly related and vital to the type of work that they're trying to do. And they need to be engaged with it. And the other side is you get a lot of tech workers that have come to San Francisco and they got engaged with technology because it was something that really made them feel creative and made them feel like they could control things.
And they had a voice and they ended up programming like SQL and like making CSS changes to add notifications to your... like all this junk that whatever you're socially empowering. Like I get it. That's not actually not dismissive of the jobs, but it's not exactly a creative outlet. And I don't think a lot of these people know that there really are creative outlets that their technical skills can play into to, create some really amazing cultural output. And so the Art Up events are really just all about getting all these people in the same room and hopefully throw some beer in there and something would catalyze. I mean, it's serious that that's the main thing is it's a cultural divide. It's just from not having people in the same space and them even knowing that they're doing the same thing.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of people look at money as sort of the evil in this, because all you know is people become avaricious. But I think a lot of times, the money is there as much to just allow people to say, you know, all I'm doing creatively is changing these CSS things, but that's going to give me the money that maybe someday I'll have the freedom to be able to do what I want. And I'm making sure they actually utilize that when the money shows up. But...
Barry: It also takes a lot of investment and work just to figure out aesthetically what you want to do with yourself. And that takes years as well. And so it's kind of something that you have to do every day and you should be involved now; I guess what I'm saying is instead of some arbitrary time in the future, if that's the kind of thing that interests you, but it's funny because there's a lot of digital art production that doesn't take as much investment. You know, there's a whole net art community out there right now. There are people that make GIFs, it's exciting work. It's aesthetically interesting that they're speaking and contributing culturally, but there's the type of stuff that I'm interested in for the performance and installation space. And a lot of other people are as well, which is making media pieces that exist in actual reality. You know, it's like augmented reality, but it's like alternative environments and experiential spaces that takes just such vast infrastructure.
Darwin: And investment of both time and money.
Barry: And money that artists can't do it without some sort of... it's not something that someone can take on, on their own financially. And those types of things are a drop in the bucket for the types of revenues that a lot of the technology sectors put putting in. And so I don't want to demonize these guys in the tech sector, because I don't think that's the case at all, but it is an interesting issue in that, why don't we see the cultural contribution or interest. I think there are a lot of reasons, but it's a problem that we're trying to solve just through dialogue.
Darwin: Well, that's cool. That's really interesting. Anyone in the Bay area should definitely check that out.
Barry: And we'll have that. We have another event that's I I'm not announcing yet, but it's going to happen. March 25th Year of our Lord, 2014 C. So that'll be another opportunity if you can't make it on Tuesday the fourth.
Darwin: Okay, cool. Now, in, in terms of infrastructure, I mean, cause we kind of swung the door a little bit for large scale infrastructure, that kind of leads us directly into the Obscura Digital stuff, which every image I see from it is art on the largest of scales. I mean, it's like the obscene scale. You work on the scale of that.
Barry: Yeah. I mean, doing work at scale and in a couple of types of scales both physical scale - and increasingly timescale. I guess spatial scales and the way to say it, but like network scale or something like that. So things that exist in longer periods of time, like larger campaigns where you can - and I switch over into corporate terms. That's another interesting conversation as well. I can say things like campaigns, right? But like I said before, just making these kinds of works. And I think if you look at our catalog, you can see that it's not like we're just throwing advertisements up on that right up on the wall. But a lot of them do have corporate sponsors. A lot of them have civic sponsors.
A lot of them have museum sponsors, but there's always a client-type figure involved. We are a commercial, for-profit entity. Although one very focused on wanting to do where artists wanting to do interesting cultural things. But so larger type of campaign things and things that take integration of mobile devices to have personal connections along with campaign - a type of singular events, like building projections and things of that nature along with installation experiences that you can deal with different types of concepts, and content across many different types of lenses. Conceptual lenses is like something that we're very much about.
Darwin: I mean, in a way there's a sense to which the experience with RML would prepare you for working with this, but this stuff is quite amazing and also has no precedent - or does it, I mean, what do you think is the artistic precedent for doing this?
Barry: I mean, I think there's a lot of it: there have been artists that have done projections in space prior to Obscura. There has been art that's been in just situational environments. There's also a whole lot of prior work. And in the sense of things that have fed into this type of stuff, there were a handful of other companies around the world that are doing some similar types of work.
Darwin: Right. I, I guess I'm thinking more in the abstract, not necessarily about Obscura versus others, but the concept of this artistic, structural or architectural mapping, because that's the stuff that I find almost overwhelming. And it seems to me, and again, maybe I just missed the memo on where this came from, right? Because prior to seeing some of this work, any time I saw something large scale, or almost every time there are probably a few exceptions. But for the most part, what you saw was signage the equivalent of large scale signage so if we could make the sign bigger, let's make it bigger. And all of a sudden there was some shifts where people said, "Hey, well, let's take some of the technology that allows us to do this signage stuff and let's tip it on its head."
I mean, it was either signage or it was promotional I tend to think of a lot of like concert video and stuff. Just promotion of the artists on the stage. And maybe, I guess, there were some things that you too did it early in their days when they were engaging with, trying to do large scale video artwork as part of their stage shows, that was a precursor to this. What are some of the other things though that for you represent kind of the precursors to this large scale and are specifically architectural type work?
Barry: Interesting. So, there's certainly all of these types of historic dome shows or antecedents to that. And I think the caves in Lascaux are a precursor, I mean, really, any sort of spatial experience where you really want to put people in an environment and those sorts of caves were religious and immersive experiences. A cathedral is a perfect immersive experience to this. You have, I'm blanking on the names of a lot of the pieces and artists, but certainly during the Baroque Renaissance period, you had a lot of Trompe-loeil effects and domes that were static painted type of work. But that were really meant in a religious sense to put you in an environment in a immersive spatial environment that was brought you into some sort of state of elation or religious experience or connection with the heavens. And so I think that that type of cathedral, which has really meant to draw you up, put you in an environment, both sonically and visually in a religious or transcendent space is the most direct sort of precursor work for what we're trying to do now, which is kind of this reboot of the Baroque. You know, it was kind of a Baroque idea of construction of ornamented space as a mechanism for some sort of transcendent concepts, you know?
Darwin: Sure. Now, one of the things you said during your intro is that you talked about how you are moving beyond the idea of just shooting projection onto existing space or providing a mediation of existing space into being involved with design, where this kind of mediated environment is literally part of the design. And I think this speaks to this Baroque in an almost church-driven processes, because one of the things I think is important is that there was a desire to harness art's ability to draw emotion out of people and to utilize that for the purpose of making a ecstatic experience in the church. How does that translate? Or what are the kinds of things that you can do in a secular environment where you aren't necessarily trying to get religious, ecstatic behaviors, but, having a wonderment or at least satisfying result?
Barry: Yeah. And I think maybe that's enough, maybe maybe beauty in and of itself is an end. I don't it's funny how many similarities there are between the Catholic church, what we have is different sorts of sponsors of this work now. So it's Google instead of the Holy See, right?
Darwin: Or it's Coca-Cola instead.
Barry: You know, the magic, but we're in a very similar situation where you have some abstract God-like, entity, who's trying to make an ecstatic experience in an architectural media, augmented architectural environment. And so I think we're in a very long tradition of this this sort of stuff. I guess your question was like, what kinds of stuff can you do?
Darwin: Like the things that it implies and by laying the groundwork of talking about a cathedral as an option, if you think about a cathedral - a cathedral has very much a specific sonic footprint, and it has a visual... I mean, when you say the word cathedral, I think everyone flashes a vision in their head of what that looks like, what that sounds like, what the interaction with other people is like. And do you think that many of those things still hold as being the way that the way that it works to bring this kind of artwork to an architectural place?
Barry: I think it certainly can. And I think one of the problems with talking about this stuff is by its very nature it's meant to be sort of non-verbal and a lot like I'm sure you've had with Recombinant Media Labs. It's a good example is trying to explain to somebody what a performance is like in there. You always end up being lacking and get back to you just had to be there, man. That's that's one of our, I can think as Andrew Benson is the coiner of a concept that we're going with called basically "you had to be there", which is like, it's really just about the doing the thing, having a performance, not writing articles about it, like just make the work. There's a little bit of that, to something like this, because you really have to get in this state and environment to feel what it's, what it's like to be in that's I'm sure people have been in cathedrals it's it can be similar.
Barry: I think that you can do lots of things with these types of environments. You can help people be social. You can bring a sense of community to people. You can create a sense of societal - or societal maybe isn't the right word, but - common shared focus on a certain concept, whether that be community just as authentic or a cause like environmental things and things of that nature. And so, so there's a focusing aspect to it. I think there's a lot of the same sorts of religious aspects of the experience, but not necessarily with those overtones, like just a feeling comes with humility and questioning of your place in the world and all those sorts of feely things that we like to feel.
And it's with the interactive aspect of it, there's really for any sort of concept or thing that you might want to be a proponent of, there's usually a way to help people to understand it and engage with it through some sort of either immersive or - we've talked more about that than the interactive, but this type of interactive thing where you're actually having someone be in a dialogue with some sort of technological experience in a way where they have effect over it and it becomes reactive or adaptive to their presence which is a whole other vector.
Darwin: There's, there's another hour for us to talk about. And the fact of the matter is, I mean, there's a bunch of things I was hoping to get to and already we have kind of shot our time. But one of the things that I know is sort of a thing for you is the design of interaction. And I wanted to talk a little bit about your work on the K-Bow, because that is a very specific kind of interaction. How you do stuff where it's not sort of clap-your-hands/flash-a-light kind of interactions.
Barry: Yeah. I mean, we can totally go over that briefly. I think we probably should have put it earlier in the conversation since it was a big developmental thing for me, but the K-Bow was the,... let me go back a little: Sometime around 2004, I responded to a Craigslist ad and met up with this guy, Keith McMillan, who's a brilliant instrument designer out of Berklee, California - and the long tradition of amazing electronic music instrument designers in Berklee, California, like Don Buchla and Dave Smith and Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim. And he was looking for a studio assistant, but it was kind of a bad way to phrase that job because what he was doing - and had been for a while - is this sort of interactive music ensemble we called Trio Metric, which, I think, you saw at Recombinant at AES.
So, briefly, the concept behind this group is that it was violin, bass and guitar - an electric bass and guitar trio, where the instruments were augmented with sensors. And so in addition to the sound that came from the other instruments, which is normally how an ensemble plays, you have this data that can be passed around. And so what it means is you can have this sort of richer interaction and than a standard ensemble, because things can happen. Like there's all this analysis involved and they're all networked through a central computer system. And so things can happen like the position on the violin players bow can affect the filter sweep on the bass. And so you have players that can actually affect each other's sound and composition. We had a whole composite, notation system to this thing where notes can be moved around and transpose based on realtime interactions from the other players and all the electronic scoring system to save these pieces.
And this is another whole hour of discussion, but basically our goal - and this organization is called the Beam Foundation and still still exists - is to try and spur a method of electronic composition or a new aesthetic, that is based out of these kinds of tools and techniques of the 21st century. Because there's a whole story of the history of music and composition is a history of technological innovation. People don't really think about it that way a lot, but like the introduction of the piano in and of itself was a huge sea change for what was possible, musically the Viola da Gamba, there's, there's all these instruments - saxophone more recently - there's synthesizers most recently, but there's this computer music... There's this whole world of change and music that's driven by technology change.
And, we were creating this conceptual system to link traditional musical instruments of the orchestra with new technologies to try and leverage the virtuosity of traditional orchestral players, with some of the interactive things that were possible. And so the short story is we ran out of money in that company and started to spin off products to support it. The first of which was the K-Bow, which was in there, there's some prior work, particularly at MIT and some other places. And from a violinist named John Rosa, there's a lot of stuff that's gone about electronic bows in the violin, and electronic bows in particular, but this was the first commercially available sensor bow for string instruments that was stage ready. So you can buy it, pick it off the shelf, it's Bluetooth enabled. So it connects to a standard computer and sends over data from, I think it's something like nine sensors that are on board, so you can get - there's an accelerometer for gestures there's, and tracking of the hair pressure, grip pressure, all of this stuff, that gets sent to the computer.
And you can do things like if you want the compression or a distortion to go up, when you go down the bow, or if you want to control echoes by shaking the violin bow, and there was a whole suite of software and this was written and Max/MSP along with it, that allowed you to take all these interactions and do different sonic and visual things with it. And so in terms of interactive data and how to use it and how to use it compositionally and artistically along with what's a very demanding group of people, which is string instrument players, classically trained string instrument players, was a big sort of learning experience for me. And in a lot of ways just in terms of how to even deal with these types of concepts, from a software development and artistic sense and all of this stuff. And the company turned into Keith McMillen Instruments that still exists. They do they've recently do products like the, the QuNeo is their newest sort of release, which is a multi-dimensional drum pad type controller. It's all things that are still in line with these concepts that we were working with back then. So it's pretty interesting stuff to look into if you're interested in alternative electronic music controllers.
Darwin: Right. Well, in fact, I think what we're going to do is we're going to book another interview sometime in the future for talking about specifically interaction design, because I think that that's something that a lot of people don't necessarily have their brains wrapped around yet, but also...
Barry: It's a big, like it's a big need right now because interaction designers - that's big money, man. And I didn't go through the post-it note and boxes and lines school, well, I guess boxes and lines a little bit, but that type of conceptual school of interaction design, but I have been designing actions for a number of years. I can say that it's a skill that's very much in demand. And so it's something that needs further elucidation.
Darwin: Right. And so often when people talk about interaction design, it's like "How do I interact with my website?" But the things that you do are interactions in so many simultaneous dimensions. And I would really like to dive into that. So we're going to book some time and talk about that.
Barry: We'll do that sometime. That'd be fantastic.
Darwin: Yeah. We've completely shot the time allocated for this. So again, I apologize for like squeezing you out of your day, but before we go, I would like to ask you about one thing kind of prominent on your website is a discussion about, Bassel Khartabil, who you mentioned has been imprisoned since 2012. Could you give us a little bit of background about that and tell us, I noticed on your site, it says that there's a Free Bassel day on March 15th, 2014, for sure. Can you give us a little front end on what we're talking about?
Barry: Sure. Bassel, I met through a lot of work. One of the things that I've been interested in for a long time is open source software and open culture and these types of things. And I am not as involved as I used to be, but I still try and support those projects and keep up to date with what's going on in that world as I can. And I met Bassel through some mutual friends, a guide, John Phillips, and some more people, from Creative Commons. He was very involved with Creative Commons and he lives in Damascus. And I met him in China at one point and then went out to Doha to work on an open source software conference out there with a bunch of friends and Bassel was out there. And then we went to Damascus and hung out anyway, it is interesting.
He, he opened up a hacker space or educational space in Damascus, and it was really a focal point for people in that area to learn about technology in all sorts of all sorts of respects, in a city that doesn't have much of that stuff. So there were workshops there, educational stuff, all this different type of interesting programs that were running in Damascus. And he's also done a lot of interesting projects. It's a web development framework and he has an interesting project where he recreated a 3D model of the city of Palmyra. It's kind of a historical project is a lot of interesting stuff. Anyway. He was very basically through the dangers of creative technology, as perceived by the Syrian government, Bassel was detained in - I don't remember when it was now.
It must be about two years ago, and has been imprisoned in Damascus since, since that period we're in contact with him, he's there and could be doing worse, but we're trying very hard through as many avenues as possible, to get his message about the things that he believed in out and to try and push, in a public media sense. And in other ways for his release, as basically a non-combatant, that's being detained just for his work, really try and bring a creative technology and technology in general, to as many people as possible educationally. So, we're all crossing our fingers on that and - look up his story if you're around, Bassel Khartabil, and it's a pretty interesting tale in and of itself.
Darwin: Sure. I'll put a link up on the, on the podcast website, but what can people do? What can our listeners do to help?
Barry: I would say the easiest and one of the most effective things that people can do is bring attention to the story. I can say with certainty already that the public attention on him and his causes has had an extremely positive impact for him in his conditions and livelihood. So as much as that continued we can continue to gain attention and hopefully bring action on that. That's, that's the easiest thing to do rich share, share the story, and that actually does something in this case. So it's good.
Darwin: Fantastic. Well, Barry, thank you so much for your time. Fascinating stuff we're gonna, we'll get together again soon to talk a little bit more about some of the many things that we were, we only glossed over, but it was a fantastic discussion.
Barry: Yeah, if I could have a discussion like this every Friday, then I think my life would be a lot more fruitful.
Darwin: I'll tell you. It's one of the things that I really enjoy is the opportunity to talk to creative people. It helps me feel, motivated to stay creative as well.
Barry: Yeah. So I officially forgive you for having Josh Goldberg on and...
Darwin: Well now, Josh, Goldberg's not gonna forgive me for saying that we're that you and I are going to talk again.
Barry: Yeah. Now everybody's going to need a second round now. Well, thanks again.
Copyright 2014-2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.