School Day: ITP Spring Show 2009

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Image: Mike Rosenthal, The Traveling Sound Museum, 2009

The spring show of ITP, New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, which was open to the public last Sunday and Monday, was a like science fair, with students eager to show the results of their projects, and also like a job fair, with middle-aged men in suits prowling for fresh-faced innovators. There’s an atmosphere of authentic creative exploration surrounding the projects displayed, but more often than not the starting point is a vaguely corporate-sounding buzzword: Sustainability! Wearable technologies! Arduino! Connecting to nature was a particularly hot topic, with variations on it ranging from urban botany—like the iPhone app Twigster that helps users identify species of plant life they encounter in parks—to the New-Age crunch of Root Boots, bark-covered footwear that encourages the wearer to stand still and contemplate nature by providing pleasant, low-frequency vibrations when at rest and making scary uprooting sounds when lifted. Voice from the Past also followed the trend of adapting technology to slow the pace of life down; the program lets callers leave a voice message and designate a time in the near or distant future when the recipient will be notified of it. The inverse of that was the whimsical Traveling Sound Museum, with sounds of events like the 1293 sacking of Jaisalmer by the emperor Ala-ud-din Khilji and the 1835 arrival of European explorers in Galapagos in mason jars displayed on an antique wooden cart. (The creator cagily batted away questions about what the burlap in the jars was hiding, and where they “really” came from.) Other projects let computers and audience share the credit for art-making. The “cobots” ShadowBot and SoundBot moved in response to environmental light or noise, respectively, to create messy, Spirogram-like doodles. With the heavy crowds at the show Monday, both were spinning out of control. Outis generates music from live video feed, performing a sonification of the input its camera picks up. If the structure and atmosphere of the ITP Spring Show recalled a science fair or job fair, the individual pieces were like fair sideshows, each designed to grab an audience’s attention for a short time before letting them continue to the next attraction. That has an analogy to the kind of viral fame that apps and devices like these might aspire to--postings on Boing Boing or Slashdot that momentarily tickle the interest of a few thousand readers before they move on to the next one.