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Through the Looking Glass

“A stick of charcoal is a form of technology,” says 9e2 organizer John Boylan during an open conversation preceding the festival’s opening. In the first known days of human artmaking, charcoal inscriptions on cave walls were as vanguard as Oculus Rift is today. 

9e2 invites artists, performers, researchers and engineers to break ground and in the process produce new works. Boylan conceives of 9e2 as a beginning, with open-ended experimentation taking precedent over a finished piece. This collaborative, rebellious spirit was at the core of the original "9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering" series that first shattered creative boundaries in 1966.

King Street Station’s top-floor space has been transformed into a glowing landscape peppered with deep-pink flora—a large-scale photograph lit with LEDs titled Dreamscape: Azalea Walk, Central Park, NYC, created by California-based Daniel Ambrosi. Butoh dancers clad in white gowns, faces painted and feet turned in, sway along its perimeters. The performers move slowly throughout the exhibition and will eventually converge under a canopy of Google DeepDream projections. 

As I understand it, DeepDream is an artificial intelligence that processes images (in Ambrosi's case 63 computational photos) through interconnected networks, similar to the neural networks of a biological brain. If a network has been trained on an image of a fish, that information is inserted into the new image, resulting in patterning that’s holographic, in a way. DeepDream’s origin lies in advanced visual recognition software developed in 2014, with the goal of helping engineers understand how neural networks learn. Its aesthetic signature is a byproduct of those experiments, and DeepDream was released in open-source form by Google in 2015 largely as a tool for artists.

With my eyeballs mere inches from its screen, I see swirls that seem to vibrate within Azalea Walk’s blue sky. There are knots in its tree branches, rainbow-hued rings that look like tiny oil slicks on its garden path, all generated using DeepDream. It’s my first IRL encounter with artificial intelligence. Likewise, for many visitors, 9e2 offers a first look at AI and virtual reality, technologies that are creeping into the present while still floating in a future of unknowns. 

Elsewhere in the exhibit, The Observer Effect is an immersive VR installation developed by by Reilly Donovan, Cory Metcalf and David Stout. Strapping a headset over my eyes, I’m transported into a field of geometric shapes flowing and crashing in and out of one another. I pace around, losing all sense of direction until a grid warns of a nearby wall, looping my brain back to the physical. The virtual landscape is stunning. 

I love VR’s philosophical underpinnings: The physical world is understood as real through the brain’s perception, so is a virtual world any less real? Some accounts chronicle intense disorientation, loss of physical grounding, even sensory transcendence, none of which I’ve experienced. My favorite VR sessions have involved human interaction, like an animal-themed meditation led by a guide at last summer’s Out Of Sight. 

Stunning landscapes and abstract philosophies aside, what's most intriguing about VR is its potential to help reshape this reality—a reality hurtling deeper into crisis by the day. It remains a highly privileged medium at the moment, but for future generations VR will likely be part of everyday life. As such, it’s ripe for critical examination. Already there are accounts of women being virtually assaulted, groped and chased in gaming environments. And in conversations about VR’s capacity as a social tool—for example, enabling one to step into the body of another and experience their reality in social space—we’re still faced with environments often designed on the premise that the default user is white. To foster true empathy this process must be reciprocal, must offer a subject position for people of color. (For more on the topic, I recommend this article). VR has huge potential for POC and womxn to author realities, alternate realities and personal narratives. 

To that end, distinct from 9e2 but presented in conjunction is The Machine To Be Another, a project by internationally-based collaborative group BeAnotherLab, which allows participants to simultaneously experience switching physical bodies as facilitated through VR. The project was brought to Seattle by Sandy Cioffi and Gretchen Burger and sponsored by Oculus Rift as part of the TWIST queer film festival. Each day of the MTBA program, organizers asked a local queer artist to lead their own experiment with the work.

As I waited my turn to participate, I became nervous. Womxn have been trained into an ever-present state of self-protection. Especially for assault survivors, boundary experimentation can be loaded. The prospect of body-swapping provoked consent questions—would another person somehow be able to access my feelings and thoughts? After all, they would be “inside of" me.

Then I was introduced to my partner, a Black man (and I, a white woman). Our prompt was to improvise arm and hand movements in unison. We were seated across from each other on a platform divided by a screen, each with our own human facilitator and hardware encasing eyes and ears. Looking down to see my hands, I discover they’re his hands and vice versa. Initially a surprise, the swap was almost seamless once in the groove. He held his palms up and I followed. The goal was to connect physical movement and sight, tricking the brain into the act of body-swapping. We danced together this way—opening and closing our fingers, clapping, squeezing fuzzy toys. Finally, we were face to face, essentially seeing ourselves from the outside. It differed from looking in a mirror as we weren’t merely reflected, but virtually embodied in one another. 

A few evenings later I returned to King Street to observe Kaoru Okumura’s Butoh and DeepDream performance, a collaboration with Google researchers. Butoh is an inward-focused art arising in post-WWII Japan that aims to articulate authenticity through the body, while DeepDream is concerned with cultivating authentic intelligence in machines. The dancers writhed within hallucinatory patterns. A performer appeared to merge with the DeepDream video projected directly upon them.

At 9e2, many projects that fully shine foster empathic advancement and/or critically examine ethical relationships in addition to technological ones. Machine To Be Another is one such experiment. Another is The Oregon Project, featuring drawings presented with corresponding audio by Scottish painter Keith Salmon. For the project, Salmon collaborated with Seattle-based artist Daniel Thornton and Microsoft researcher Neel Joshi. Technology will enable Salmon, who has become visually impaired, to continue working as a professional artist, communicating through sound what a color looks like, for example. The sight-sound relationship is an example of synesthesia, and it can be developed to make visual work accessible to someone with low vision. 

Of course there’s also room for art that intersects technology in simpler terms, like sculptures that model protein molecules and vanity mirrors that reference selfies and surveillance. But if we're to truly aim big, we need a reflection so rigorous it takes us into the experience of the other. As Boylan remarked, a stick of charcoal is technology. Whether ash from a fire that birthed visual language or artificial environments that will birth the next phase of human reality, our tools can do more than distract us. 

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