I wish I had been there 50 years ago when Robert Rauschenberg's teenage son was a ball boy in a very strange game of tennis.
Every time a racket struck a ball, it sent two signals, one triggering a gonging sound and the other turning off an overhead light. When total darkness arrived, the players stopped. A crowd took their place and began shuffling around. It was still dark. The shufflers appeared only as ghosts in a red sea on an infrared closed-circuit television monitor above the audience.
"You could hear and you could sense their presence," the former ball boy, Christopher Rauschenberg, told me in a phone conversation recently. "That was very powerful somehow. It was also this notion of rearranging the hierarchy of your senses."
This was art, not tennis. It was one of the performances in a nine-evening series aptly titled Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, created by 10 artists and 30 engineers from Bell Labs. It drew 11,000 people to the 69th Regiment Armory building—where the 1913 Armory Show had introduced Americans to modern art—as well as, seemingly, just about as many reviewers. Critics had a field day hating it.
But this year, Nine Evenings tributes are happening in multiple cities. Seattle has one of the biggest. It's called 9e2.
As Rauschenberg told me, "In physics in college, they used to say the result of a successful experiment is 10 more experiments."
9e2, organized by John Boylan, is a festival of 18 new events created by dozens of artists and engineers and presented over the course of nine nights this month (October 21–29), keeping with the format of the original series. Artists will try out big dreams, and engineers and scientists will use their tools and knowledge in ways they hadn't imagined. The Bell Labs engineers in the original Nine Evenings invented the modular backstage light-and-sound systems that are still the standard in theater. Who knows what 9e2 will yield? It includes astrophysicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, geneticists, and programmer/inventors from Google, Microsoft, Oculus.
A robotics engineer is trying to make a standard-issue set of outdoor plastic chairs dance expressively in response to an idea by choreographer/filmmaker Dayna Hanson, who's also using GIFs to inspire movement in her dancers and in the esteemed New York experimental theater actor Jim Fletcher. Hanson's piece is called 28 Problems, and only a few days before showtime, she's nervous.
"This is a total act of faith even telling you about it, because I'm just so desperate for it to work," Hanson said to me. But, she added, she could have cut the parts that are the biggest risks, and she didn't. That's the spirit of 9e2. The point is not that these performances be tailored to consumer-style audiences but rather to those driven, like these art-tech researchers, to expand their ideas of what's possible.
Back in 1966, at the Armory, audiences bemoaned having to wait through technical glitches. Will we, who have endured the buffering of countless stalled YouTube videos, be more tolerant?
At Cornish College of the Arts last spring—in a performance that will be presented on video at 9e2—five students planned to dance for less than an hour, but approaching two hours, they were still spinning, becoming exhausted but oddly energized. The machine behind their performance had malfunctioned, but they didn't know it.
Guided by the Cornish artist-engineers who taught them, Robert Campbell and Brendan Hogan, as well as Nine Evenings scholar Robin Oppenheimer, the students had developed a backstage system to synchronize an onstage spotlight with a randomized feed from music across the internet. When the spotlight hit a dancer, the plan was, that dancer would spend two minutes improvising movements specific to whatever music had come up. When they heard raga, they did Indian dance. Hiphop, Mozart, go, go, go.
"They did beautiful stuff," Oppenheimer said. "We finally had to stop it!" She giggles now as she describes that night because she doesn't consider it a failure at all. What happened was instead a visceral metaphor for the absurd larger-scale dance between all humans and all machines. Who is in charge when we tell machines to tell us what to do? The malfunction may have led to some worn-out watchers and dancers that night, but it also added a lasting philosophical layer to the piece.
The projects of 1966 gave audiences experience in not knowing whether what they were watching was live or recorded, in not knowing whether what was in front of them was fully present or more like a hologram, and in not knowing how sound, light, and people were moving, given no visible wiring. We're still figuring out how to manage our relationships to each other, our environments, and our own bodies, given the power of one of the most consciousness-altering drugs ever invented: wireless technology.
BeAnotherLab, a decentralized group of nine artists and technologists living around the world, is participating in 9e2. They created The Machine to Be Another, a virtual-reality system using Oculus Rift and a series of performance protocols to project one user's sight and sound into the headset of the other. They swap bodies, in a sense, and trigger complex experiences of empathy across difference.
One version of empathy might come if a user who is cisgender has the experience of being in "the wrong" body. "For those of us who live that feeling of dysphoria, we don't have that relief of being able to just lift the helmet off," trans woman Jessica Janiuk told Polygon.
Not all the pieces in 9e2 are high-tech. David Rue—a Liberian immigrant who grew up in Minnesota and has studied West African dance—will respond physically to a group of tall prints, mounted vertically as if they were other dancers' bodies. The prints are by Romson Regarde Bustillo, who makes dense forests of coded symbolism referring to personal as well as cultural information from his Filipino roots. Out in the audience will be a group of people who've been given instructions by both Bustillo and Rue on how to interact with them during the performance. Most of the audience has no pre-knowledge.
Afterward, the artists may host a discussion about the way cues, especially cultural ones, are read—or missed or misinterpreted. To create the piece, Bustillo studied with a scientist to understand the latest discoveries about how cells send and receive signals.
Like Nine Evenings, 9e2 is meant "to use technology without allowing technology to be the theme itself; it doesn't control the work." The person who said that was the late Robert Rauschenberg, who also told the New York Times in 1966, "Part of the responsibility an artist has is to acknowledge the resources of his own time."
When I hear the dogmatism of that quote, I consider the other side of the festival's experimental and utopian spirit, captured in another quote by another artist asked the same questions about why Nine Evenings was important.
"Mushrooms are making sounds," John Cage told the Times, "and we should be listening to them."
He sounded like a goofball then; the Times put his quip in a diminishing parentheses. But today it seems like of course we should be listening to mushrooms, in addition to plenty of entities considered effectively dumb in previous eras. (Where are my bacteria going, where have they been?) Nine Evenings was ahead of its time; I hope 9e2 makes strides of its own.