"Cosmicomics" Ready to Blast Off
Space exploration is still a daring leap into the unknown; as the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster demonstrated, even the most expensive technology can't stop accidents from happening. Artistic exploration is rarely that risky, but it too can involve a leap of faith. And when it comes to Tales of the Universe, at the H. R. MacMillan Planetarium Star Theatre this Friday and Sunday (October 1 and 3), I'm willing to take that leap, because it's an interesting idea, and because the artists who have been engaged to bring it to life have impressive résumés.
But I can't tell you what all of it is going to sound like, and neither can they--or at least that's the case for Kenneth Newby and Aleksandra Dulic, the media artists who are teaming up to provide computer-based images for composer Ben Wilson's Cosmicomics, itself inspired by the writings of Italo Calvino.
"We've had regular meetings with Ben, but to be honest, we haven't heard one sound that he's made yet," says Newby, on the line from the couple's Vancouver home. "He's seen some of our visual materials--I guess we were just more eager to say, 'Hey, look at this! Wow!'--but he's playing his cards close to his chest."
It's all part of the process of exploration, which seems apt for an artistic event that's being presented as a prelude to the 55th Annual International Astronautical Congress, which will be held in Vancouver from Monday to next Friday (October 4 to 8). Jointly produced by the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre, Simon Fraser University, and the Western Front, Tales of the Universe is a multi-artist, multimedia look at space and its myths. In addition to Newby, Dulic, and Wilson, the night will feature performances by singer Christina Duncan and percussionist Hamin Honari, visuals from media artist So-Young Park, the Vancouver debut of Montreal composer Cléo Palacio-Quintin's Le Chant des Nébuleuses, and a remount of SFU prof Martin Gotfrit's Lima Alpha India Kilo Alpha, an audiovisual eulogy for Laika, the dog Soviet space scientists sacrificed to research in 1957. (That I have seen, and can testify that it's an alternately tender and amusing tribute to the early days of space flight.)
Interviewed separately, Wilson expresses considerable excitement about getting to work with the Planetarium's extravagant sound system. "Having a 13-speaker setup in a big room with fantastic acoustics is a great opportunity," he says. "So I'm going to try to create a really dynamic piece that goes a lot of places and is, I guess you could say, kind of flashy-sounding. I'm going to try to make like a pretty Hollywood kind of experience. I'm working with big sounds, big densities, a large frequency range, stuff like that. I'm interested in creating grand sonic gestures."
And it sounds like Dulic and Newby have equally big plans. "For Cosmicomics, we're using a cosmic kind of imagery," says Dulic. "We are using 3-D worlds to actually create a kind of universe. Of course, some [of the imagery] is abstract, but we're also using accurate images of planets and satellites--and we're mixing that with some surreal imagery which is mainly made with stop-motion animation, íƒ la [Czech artist Jan] Svankmajer."
"We're also using some alchemical images, because they make this nice blend between science and art," Newby continues. "And there will be lots of astrological images... because they fit very nicely into Calvino's very playful representation of history.
"The Internet is a beautiful thing, because I found these textures for all the planets, which I can layer onto these 3-D spheres," he adds. "And I found a site which has 3-D models of Russian satellites, so we're using one or two of those in 3-D space, and then texturing reflections of the earth onto them, so it looks as if they're made of that silvery material that satellites are often made of."
Not content with throwing spacey 3-D images onto the dome of the Planetarium, Dulic has also crafted a pair of Balinese-style shadow puppets that Duncan will work with during the performance, the idea being that the vocalist will develop these as male and female characters, then give them voice. It's also possible that Duncan may be able to use the puppets to control the movements of Newby and Dulic's 3-D images, but it's uncertain whether the technology will be in place by Friday.
"That's one of the more experimental aspects of what we're trying to do," Newby admits. "But we'll try to make that happen."
Even if it doesn't happen, there's still a lot to look for in Cosmicomics, which touches on the old-fashioned arts of music, dance, drawing, and literature as well as today's cutting-edge technology. Combining so many media might not be as physically perilous as space exploration, but it's a bold venture nonetheless.