Immersed in the Broken Box

2019.5.15
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“3-Legged Dog” (3LD) believes in the power of technology to amplify human experience and human expression, provoking empathy and complex reflection, thought and action. We exist to produce original works in theater, performance, dance, media and hybrid forms; to explore the narrative possibilities created by digital technology; to foster artists’ self-expression and skill through training initiatives; and to provide an open environment free of censorship in which artists can create new tools and modes of expression and excel across a range of disciplines.

3LD draws artists from our urban community and around the globe to create large-scale, immersive and technology-driven art projects at our home, 3LD Art & Technology Center in Lower Manhattan. Since opening 3LD in 2006, we have been an unrivaled talent magnet, producing or presenting 127 award-winning new works of theater, opera, dance, immersive experience, interactive art, VR, AR and cinema, and serving approximately 700 artists per year.

Big video, video mapping, sensor-driven content delivery, augmented and virtual reality and various takes on “immersive experience” have dominated the discussion of technology and the arts for nearly a decade, and this narrow focus has been especially prevalent in Asia. 

These imaging modalities do hold some promise, especially for commercial messaging and in some cases a more participatory relationship between audience and artist. But many of these imaging modes (especially VR and small screen modes) engender a solipsistic, single-user locked-in experience that inevitably and innately limits the power and reach of the media on display.

The revolution in moving image technology of all types is an important advancement and has created new ways of experiencing content, but its deployment has, with a few exceptions, been characterized by a lack of imagination driven by corporate tunnel vision focused on “messaging” and the bottom line.

Unlike previous technology explosions, the dominance of the large corporate model driving development has limited the potential of all of these technologies because there is a very limited “free space” for properly funded play, open experimentation or pure research. Even the platforms where free development used to flourish—university labs, state-funded arts centers, and various “garage” style lab—have succumbed to “sponsorship,” creating a virtual work-for-hire mode in research and development so that pure research and playful development are very rare.

Art and technology centers and informal networks of code artists are filling this void, despite being cut off from the financial resources that would greatly accelerate the free development of new technologies. This is why some of the more interesting deployments of new media and interactive technologies are being done by independent artists, sometimes working on artistic projects and sometimes in the entertainment or marketing space. Companies like Moment Factory come to mind.

In my view, however, the most important technological innovation in the arts isn’t imaging technology or interactive technologies but the development of protocol agnostic multiplexing software that “plays well with others,” allowing the user to control multi-channel audio, video, sensor input, and machines and devices in tight synchrony from a single interface. Tools like Isadora, Q-Lab, Touch Designer and Ableton Live are affordable, powerful and flexible.

The A/V and so-called “systems integration” industry often relies on and promotes difficult-to-use, expensive and unreliable systems to propagate a business model we call the Broken Box. In this model, software and hardware systems are locked out with proprietary technology or are “crippled” and require additional expenditure to “unlock” functionality that the user/buyer doesn’t have access to for maintenance and repair or the system uses a proprietary software base that the client cannot control or maintain. The business goals of the Broken Boxers are to create the necessity for long-term maintenance, “upgrades” and content contracts with large institutions, and to keep those institutions from developing internal capacity.

3LD creates designs and technology solutions in the context of immersive experiences, live performance, interactive displays and soundstage and location filmmaking that are built to allow the user to control and maintain their own complex multimedia integrated systems if they so choose. 3LD uses common, affordable, easily maintained, replaced and upgraded hardware, and affordable open SDK software (that we train the client to use). We also push the limits of artistic expression, leveraging immersive, interactive, holographic, theatrical and cinematic techniques and modes to update, deepen and expand the experiences we create.

When we planned our 21st Century Art & Technology Center in Manhattan, we interviewed 32 architects. We had a trick question for them: “How should we wire our 21st Century Art & Technology Center?” We got a plethora of answers, most apparently driven by experience with or relationships with the “professional” A/V industry. Each answer was more inappropriate and expensive than the next. The correct answer, of course, was “You shouldn’t ‘wire’ your 21st Century Art & Technology Center, because the wires are going to change or disappear in two years.” I’ve seen many new facilities build out and then need to have a capital campaign for a “technology upgrade” immediately after the main capital campaign was over, because by the time construction was complete the so-called “digital infrastructure” was obsolete. We often use a tour specification for our “permanent” installations: for example, everything on wheels, open wire troughs instead of conduit, etc.

Technology development at 3LD focuses on creating tools and methods that help artists do more with less. We strive to give adventurous artists time in our space and access to equipment and know-how otherwise beyond their means. We minimize or eliminate many of the hard costs of production, allowing them to complete their most ambitious new works.

Our hybrid mission-driven work, focused on technical innovation, has unlimited potential for commercial applications. Therefore, we have developed a mixed-revenue business model designed to balance high-margin earned revenue with philanthropic support.

3LD’s Special Projects Group is our earned revenue business. Through it, 3LD creates large-scale event, installation, interactive, and media design on commission by corporations, large nonprofit institutions and commercially successful artists. Recent clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, American Express, Michael Kors, Lady Gaga, and Björk.  This year we will work with Nokia/Bell Labs, Vogue China, and The Harvard Global Institute on large-scale film, immersive experience and event designs.

This successful model results in income that supports our mission-driven activities and provides critical jobs to our network of technically-skilled artists. Drawing upon our collective talents and relationships, the Special Projects Group holds exceptional potential to advance underserved and under-resourced artists. It allows 3LD to offer the artists who make artistic works in our facility—large and small—an equipment and technology complement to match their imaginations. And it supports the research and development of new, affordable technologies and methods that we share with outside artists and companies once we have created them.

The Special Projects Group has proven the value of grassroots innovation to institutions and corporations previously insulated from the experimental and entrepreneurial sector we represent.  It has become a unique organic system in which we bring financial and technical resources from well-financed commercial and institutional sectors to the artist-driven environment in which we make our most meaningful work. This is especially satisfying. Building productive pathways between sectors, disciplines and economic strata is critical to creating an environment that fosters both equality and true creative and technical innovations.

Digital technology has deeply transformed artistic practice and fine arts production.  It is now possible to closely coordinate all aspects of performance, installation, or interactive work, including media, lighting, special effects, mechanical and human elements, and to make those elements interactive with each other. Even elements that are completely external to the artwork, such as human behavior, neural signals or the weather, can become interactive. In many ways digital code has become a universal translator between modes of artistic expression. For many artists what were formerly discrete disciplines have become complex techniques under the pervasive sway of digital integration tools and methods. This program aims to prepare artists to take control of the terms of this rapidly shifting and exciting new reality.

Powerful new software tools allow for the precise coordination of every aspect of the creation and expression of time-based artwork. These inexpensive tools can precisely coordinate multi-channel digital video, audio and machine and device control signals from a single interface, greatly increasing the ease with which artists from many disciplines can collaborate and the capabilities and reach of individual artists. Finally, advances in digital technology have made geopolitical borders more porous, allowing routine international collaboration on production organization, design, multiple simultaneous instances of the same live work, or even the creation of virtual supercomputers via distributed computing that can drive artworks of immense complexity.

When used properly these tools expand the scale, richness, reach quality, and creative fluidity of the artist’s work while greatly decreasing the expense of production. Finally, contrary to popular belief, these new tools can heighten the “human” aspects of performance, intensifying or easing the connection between collaborating artists themselves and between artist and audience. They can allow artists to include their audience in a deeper, more intimate way in the realization, expression and experience of their work.

These profound improvements in basic capability have been accompanied by an equally profound loss of funding and access to basic resources for artists, especially artists based in the United States. For all practical purposes, more than ever the decision to become an artist is a decision to become a small business owner. Artists need to acquire the basic skills to start and run a business and to take as much control of resource gathering as they have over creative use of those resources. Therefore, this program will focus on the practical realities of interdisciplinary arts production and on artistic production as the holistic activity that it is, making no distinction between the gathering and use of resources as the artist’s primary creative responsibility.

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