Engulfed in an ex[p]ansive and r{i}ppling landscape, mAn T a RR AY a, questions the notions of the ephEmeral and the corp0real. A coLLaborative performance, this (re)active and gene(r)ative installation extends the reach of the musician beyond the [b]oundaries of acoustics and into the realm of \pro\jection, allowing for the /m/anipulation of light and a.r.c.h.i.t.e.c.t.u.r.e, ti/\/\e and meAning, s p a c e and | form |.

Puebla Projects 2014

In late March of 2014 I got an email from Manuel Alcala – one of the organizers of Proyecta in Peubla Mexico. Due to some unforeseen circumstances they were down an artist, and wondered if I’d be interested in collaborating on a new piece for their projection festival May 9th, 10th, and 11th. The site they had in mind is called the Mantarraya (Manta-ray). This large public park overlooks down-town Puebla, and is a rolling expanse 75 meters square of wooden decking that rise and roll in true surrealistic form. This rolling wooden landscape feels almost ocean like as you sit on the benches – the horizon and the deck creating a disorienting vision of a modernist vista. Interspersed throughout the deck are trees and large pillar lights that further accent the strangely haunting topography in front of you.

A view of the Mantarraya overlooking the rise where the Violin and Cello players were located.

I said yes to the project, but knew that there was no way I’d be able to tackle a venue at this scale on my own. Daniel Fine, my colleague and collaborator, graciously agreed to help with this project despite the short notice and the complications it created in his schedule. Dan’s work is always inspiring – his attention to detail and drive never cease to amaze me, and working with him always pushes me to be a better artist. Faced with this huge space the two of us had more questions than answers, but decided to trust the process and one another.

In the conversations we had with the organizers we learned that Epson was sponsoring this venue, offering eighteen 10,000 lumen projectors, and sixteen medium throw lenses. We knew that it was going to take as much light as possible to bring the Mantarraya to life, and so we set out to find a way to use as many projectors as possible, driving everything from a single server.

We also learned that we’d have the opportunity to work with six live improvisational musicians – Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Cello, Percussion, and Guitar. The team of musicians created a playful and dynamic sound scape of interwoven melody and dissonance that ebbed and flowed in a call and response structure. Their work is nearly entirely improvisational, and while they sometimes work with a score they were also excited at the idea of being conducted by the media.

When all was said and done our design and installation challenge was to create a site specific piece for an expansive outdoor venue, that could both react to the musicians as well as be flexible enough to conduct and cue them during performance.

A Little Generative Programming

rolling landscape
A look at part of the visual landscape crafted for our performance.

Where to start working and what the artwork would look like was a big question. We played with several different starting points, and while Dan worked with creating some traditional video, I worked on creating some responsive digital environments. One of the joys of working with a tool like TouchDesigner is the ability craft landscapes algorithmically. In thinking about how to create relationships between the visual elements and the performance of the musicians it was also important to consider how to we might control other elements of the environment – as well as considering a unifying visual style. Working from the position of landscape we started with an effect that would try to bring the surface of the Mantarraya to life. To that end a geometrically inspired noise-scape of moving shadows helped to act as an anchor in our visual word, and helped to drive the inspiration for the rest of our piece.

Inside of one of the many TouchDesigner networks that were created for the piece.

Another driving concern was how to process, parse, and use the audio from the performers in a meaningful and transformative way for the performance. We knew that we wanted to be able to link the audio analysis of the individual instruments to the iconic elements that each controlled, and that meant we needed to be able to see each of the microphones individually. To do this we used a Tascam 1800 audio interface. On another laptop I built a audio analysis method that was streamed over our network to the media server. Here I have to offer a huge thank you to Mary Franck –  being able to take a look inside of her custom built media system, Rouge, got me started in the right direction and made all the difference for me when it came to building an audio analysis tool. Each microphone was processed and packaged to include highs, mids, lows, along with a raw unfiltered signal. The package of each microphone was then put together and passed from the laptop doing the analysis to the media server over a network via ethernet.

Audio In
A look at the TouchDesigner network created for audio analysis.

A Score and A Show

The performers started their process by crafting a score for their improvisation. As the piece began all of the performers would contribute in a sparkling bounce between all of the locations of the musicians. As that moment came to a close, each rise on the Mantarraya would feature a duet one at a time passing from one location to another the pace quickening slowly before a improvisational section that featured all of the musicians. The second half of the piece would reverse the previous progression slowing down gradually until only one hump at a time was featured, ending as the musicians improvisation gently faded away.

In moving forward we used the rolling landscape that helped define our visual style to inspire a unique generative dirven  emblem for each pair of musicians. These emblems were projected on the ground in front of the musicians allowing for a visual and auditory unity for the audience. Using their structure as we began the process of working with the musicians we quickly discovered that it was difficult to synchronize the media with the artists. While we could make their emblems appear and disappear easily it was difficult for them to see this quickly. We also realized that we weren’t truly doing enough to light the performers so the audience could see them. Here our solution was to create a performer “special” that both illuminated the performers, and acted as a much stronger cue-light. This approach solved multiple problems and made for a better overall performance.

A view of the percussion and guitar player during the performance.

Controlling, cueing, and conducting the show happened from a tent located between the three performance locations. This vantage point gave us the ability to both see all of the performers, as well as conduct the performance. Three computers controlled the visual elements of the performance, with an iPad acting as a wireless interface to drive several other visual elements. This gave us the flexibility to take our control surface with us if we wanted to see the show from another vantage point. This also gave us the ability to control multiple elements simultaneously through a multi-touch interface wirelessly.

Show Control
A look at our show-control table in our control tent.

Made of improvisational and generative elements, the Mantarraya moved and drifted between states in front of the eyes of the audience. While each show was built on the same principles, each show was also a unique auditory and visual experience. No two shows were ever the same – each audience treated to a uniquely fleeting and tenuous link to an anchor in time and space.

Many warm thanks to the team that made Proyecta Puebla 2014 happen

The State of Puebla
The Governor of Puebla | Rafael Moreno Valle Rosas
The Government of the State of Puebla

Proyecta’s Sponsors


The Proyecta Production Team

Producer | Carmen Ortega Casanovas
Artistic Director | Manuel Alcala
Production Management | Sofia Prado & Jose Juan Garnica

Generación Espontánea

Ramón del Buey
Carlos Alegre
Misha Marks
Natalia Perez
Darío Bernal-Villegas
Fernando Vigueras

The Mantarraya Production Crew

2014-05-11 20.08.21

Core Equipment and Software

Datapath X4 – video distribution
Custom Windows 8 Media Server – video generation
MacBook Pro (2 Bootcamped Machines) – audio analysis, remote cuing / control machine
TP Link 24 Port Switch – networking  and computer communication
Belkin Wireless Router – network extension and iPad Connectivity
Tascam 1800 – audio interface
iPad – interface and touch control surface
TouchOSC – OSC interface for iPad
TouchDesigner 088 Commercial – software development environment