As new media artists are given access to fulldome spaces, the possibilities for what they will create is endless. Ginger Leigh, professionally known as Synthestruct, is a prime example of the creative potential that can be realized when institutions allow artists the opportunity to explore these spaces as new artistic mediums. Not only does Leigh create visually stunning fulldome productions, she also programs the audio and explores new means of interfacing with these systems using up and coming technologies. Her most recent production, VISCERALITY, was performed live as part of Otronicon, a celebration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) at the Orlando Science Center, and featured many examples of cutting edge artistic development. VISCERALITY was the first live fulldome show presented at the Orlando Science Center and was also the first fulldome performance to implement the use of Mi.Mu Gloves to control both the audio and visual elements of the show at the same time. In this artist highlight Ginger Leigh discusses her process and experiences in working in the fulldome medium and creating VISCERALITY.
What is your background and how did you first get started creating content for fulldome?
I have an interest in so many different areas (sound, visuals, data, coding, science). When I was a little girl I loved merging sound and visuals, making up music videos in my head for songs that would come on the radio. I always loved bridging different sensory experiences and could never settle on one thing that I wanted to focus on, so I learned to find creative ways of merging and exploring different things that I love at the same time. After college, I started up an industrial/electronic club night in Orlando called Destruktion and immersed myself in DJing (locally and at bigger festivals and events), organizing themed club events, and working with bands doing graphic design for several years. DJing is essentially manipulating sound in real-time to orchestrate a shared experience. I loved this aspect of it, but I wanted to explore new and different ways in which these shared experiences could be created.
The first dome performance I created was a 30 minute live audiovisual piece called Soniforms, which visualized physical sound vibrations as patterns of light reflected off the surface of water in motion. This visualization of physical sound vibrations, called “cymatics”, is an area I’d been working with for years, exploring different aesthetics that could be created from different frequencies and complex sounds, as well as different liquid mediums, sources of light, etc. The motivation to turn these studies into a live fulldome performance came about when Derek Demeter at the Buehler Planetarium invited me to be the first artist to present work as part of their new Dome Designers series in 2015. I spent several months exploring, recording, and assembling sounds for the soundtrack, based on the visual patterns that the sound’s physical vibrations produced. I continued working with cymatics, but also turned my focus towards working more with data and sensors, and creating interactive and generative works. A number of the projects and interactive experiences I’ve developed are centered around exploring ways of connecting with sound or data through these multimodal experiences.
I was invited to do an artist residency at the Society for Arts and Technology [SAT] in Montreal last year, and developed a full dome audiovisual performance Interference, which was a hybrid of live cymatics and real-time generative visuals that further explored patterns in wave interactions. Creating this performance at SAT allowed me to experiment with spatializing sound in the dome and other live performance techniques I had not previously had the opportunity to explore in depth. Interference was first presented live at SAT’s IX Symposium last May, and the following month I presented several live shows of Interference on the dome at SONAR Festival in Barcelona.
You recently performed the audio/visual experience VISCERALITY at the Orlando Science Center as part of Otronicon. Can you discuss what Otronicon is and how that collaboration initially came to fruition?
Otronicon is a celebration of interactive technology in all its forms and functions, which happens annually at Orlando Science Center. They recruit a host of partners to demonstrate how their technology impacts how we live, learn, work and play. Otronicon is like a tech expo meets arts festival - partners from industries as diverse as education, military, medical, gaming and the arts come together to connect with thousands of visitors over four days. Orlando Science Center created Otronicon as a way to educate people of all ages about the connections between STEM education and exciting hi tech careers.
Orlando Science Center was looking for an opportunity to create a world premiere event as part of Otronicon, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them over the past several years to bring new interactive experiences to some of their shows and special events. VISCERALITY explores new methods of orchestrating audiovisual experiences in real-time, using sensor-enabled gloves to communicate gestures that control all of the live elements presented on the dome. This merging of technology, interaction, and creativity fit perfectly with Otronicon, and was a natural evolution in our relationship.
What were some of the challenges and successes you faced in preparing your production for the science center?
Developing every aspect of the performance (audio, visuals, and communication pipeline between each element) can be an interesting challenge, because sometimes I’m in the mindset to work on sound, and sometimes I’m in the mindset to work on visuals...and other times, I’m working on both in parallel at the same time. It’s like a little web I get wrapped up in because I’m thinking of everything as a ‘whole’ while also developing and thinking about all of the individual parts. I actually really enjoy these moments, and being able to completely immerse myself in every aspect of this creative process. I fully embrace and seek out projects that challenge me from different sides, and give me the opportunity to learn new things, and experiment.
For VISCERALITY, doing 19 live shows over 4 days - with so many variables all working together - every show has the potential for something (or many things!) to not go as planned. I always like to prepare for anything that could possibly go wrong, so I developed each scene to be flexible. If I ever ran into a situation where something wasn’t working quite right, I could navigate around the problem, and just go a different direction with that particular scene. Over all of the performances, though, there were only a few small, quirky issues that came up, and these never had any major impact on the performance.
Knowing that I’d be doing several performances almost back to back, I designed the show to have individual scenes that were open-ended, which allowed each performance to be a live exploration rather than a predetermined, precisely set path. This allowed me to focus on the moment during each performance, and make decisions on how I wanted to sculpt the audio and visuals specific to that moment. This freedom to make decisions in real-time meant that each show, and the presentation of each show, was a new experience every time.
Was your show an unusual production for the science center? Had the center featured anything like it before?
VISCERALITY is the first live, original show presented on the dome at the Orlando Science Center, and it also holds the distinction of being the first full dome performance using the Mi.Mu gloves to control both audio and visual elements live at the same time! I have worked with Orlando Science Center to bring several unique audiovisual installations to their ongoing Science Night Live events, as well as interactive experiences at previous Otronicon events. Last year I was also commissioned by Orlando Science Center to create a permanent installation, the Cymatics Theremin as part of an expansion to their FUSION Gallery, which is showcases artwork that interprets science concepts. Do you feel like your production enhanced the mission of the science center and Otronicon? If so, how? VISCERALITY added another layer to Otronicon by creating a world premiere audiovisual presentation on the giant screen of their domed theater. They were looking for an unique experience that combined art and technology in an immersive, compelling and educational way. VISCERALITY was a top attraction during Otronicon, drawing new visitors to the event, and was selected by the Orlando Weekly as a “must-see” and one of the “best events this week”. I hosted Q&A’s following each showing of VISCERALITY, which allowed visitors to ask questions about how I developed the performance, the technology behind the Mi.Mu gloves, opportunities for learning more about coding, STEAM, interactive design, and exploring creativity through technology. Education being one of the main focuses of the event, this provided an intimate opportunity for visitors learn and experience an immersive performance orchestrated by new technology, which helped provide original programming to the event. This helped Orlando Science Center from a programming and a marketing aspect.
What was your artistic motivation behind VISCERALITY?
For VISCERALITY, the focus was to create a live audio and visual experience for the dome controlled entirely through gestures, and to explore how interactive works can be presented in a live setting, making decisions in real-time on how the live audio and visuals elements will be created, manipulated, and navigated.
Aesthetically, my work often focuses entirely on monochromatic/ black and white forms. For VISCERALITY, I felt I wanted to go a different direction, and created a more retro-futuristic style that uses a lot of purples, pinks, and blues inspired by cyberpunk cityscapes and some of the works by James Turrell. I enjoy playing with spatial perceptions and illusions and there’s a few moments that are specifically made to toy with one’s sense of space and scale in the dome.
I created individual ‘scenes’ which allowed me to make each one very modular and explore different visuals, sound, and interactions within each one. The performance isn’t so much about large, expressive gestures, as it is about focus and being in tune with what’s happening in order to control the flow of the live elements. During the live performances at Otronicon, I stood in the center of the Cinedome theater in an open cove, looking up at the projections that towered above me. In that moment, it feels like I’m controlling a massive mythical creature that I’ve reared and trained, but it’s still its own entity. I make a gesture that I’ve programmed it to respond to, and it responds. During the performance, I’m watching the same visuals that the audience is watching, studying how the visuals move and deciding what I want the visuals to do next, while with my other hand I sculpt the audio. This element of intuition during the live performance plays an important role, and was something that I had set out to explore when creating it. The name ‘VISCERALITY’ refers to this necessary intuition and connection during the live performance.
You built the visuals and the audio for this performance. Can you explain a bit about your process?
I divided the performance up into individual scenes, which allowed me to take a more modular approach to creating the audio and visuals for each scene. There were a lot of things that I wanted to explore, so this approach allowed me to organize everything as pieces that would eventually all come together as a whole, rather than thinking linearly.
Often when I create visuals, the audio that they will be paired with already exists, and I’ll design visuals based on how I see the audio in my mind. For VISCERALITY, I began creating the project from scratch, so all of the audio and visuals were conceived together during the 2 months leading up to the first performance. I focused on creating the visuals first, and exploring different methods of working with the visuals in a live context. All the visual programming was done in TouchDesigner, using routed OSC messages to communicate gestures and other data from the glove’s sensors. It was important to me to utilize the full potential of the gloves to connect with the visuals and have fine-tuned control - and also, to be able to not just ‘control’ the visuals, but also to sculpt, and create visual elements from an empty canvas in real-time during the performance.
When I was working on the audio, I mostly sat in my studio in the dark with the visuals projected on a screen in front of me, so I could stare at them while I was creating a palette of sounds that would eventually become the soundtrack for each scene. Since I’m controlling the audio live at the same time that I’m controlling the visuals, I focused on using only a few core audio elements per scene that, when manipulated, would evoke the range of emotions. For example, by manipulating the cutoff frequency of a low pass filter on sounds corresponding to the movement of geometric shapes, this scene can be made to feel beautiful...or ominous.
You used the not-quite-released yet Mi.Mu gloves to help control your audio and visuals. Can you explain a bit about that experience? Working with the Mi.Mu gloves is an incredible experience. Being able to connect with what I’m creating is such an important part of creating something genuine. VISCERALITY is a balance between presenting a live audiovisual experience for the audience to enjoy, and also, as an artist, being able to personally explore ways of connecting with sound and visual worlds in ways I’ve previously only dreamed of.
With the Mi.Mu gloves, I could interact with the sound and the visuals I developed in a way that allowed me to think spatially about how these interactions are mapped. It’s really a beautiful thing, because when I’m interacting with these elements, part of it is about creating the physical gestures...but there’s another layer where it feels more like sculpting. There’s an expressiveness that is very different from other live control methods, such as working with knobs and sliders on a MIDI controller.
The gloves have many sensors which can detect 3 axes of rotation as well as finger movement and gestures, among others. The Mi.Mu gloves and the sensors they are enabled with represent possibilities, and there’s a multitude of ways in which the gloves can be used creatively. As an audio and visual artist, being able to explore ways of using the gloves to interact with both these sides together was one of the first challenges I took on when I began working with them. I’m happy to say that the Mi.Mu gloves did not disappoint, and I definitely look forward to working with them more!
What are your future plans for VISCERALITY and fulldome production?
I’m talking to a few different event organizers in different cities currently, so I hope to announce the dates for some more performances soon! There’s a number of great festivals and events around the world with fulldomes, focusing on emerging technologies and innovation with audiovisual performance. I’ve fallen in love with fulldome production, and presenting audiovisual works in this medium, so I definitely plan to continue in this direction for some of my work, creating immersive experiences specifically for the dome.
What insights do you have for anyone interested in fulldome?
It’s addicting. Experiencing anything in a dome can, in itself, be such an incredibly memorable experience. It’s different from watching a flat screen - the dome surrounds you...envelops you...its more immersive and intimate. When it’s your own work on the dome, a white hemisphere transforms into whatever possible space you can dream up. You can really play with spatial perception, and make the space within the dome one moment seem as infinite as the stars in the open night sky, and the next moment, as tiny as a cage.
Creating work for fulldome, you think differently about how the visuals and audio are presented. Light bounces within the dome, so in my work I’m always conscious of how much light I’m introducing into each part of a scene. I’m also careful to avoid moments of pure darkness, which often gives the opportunity to see the details (seams) of the dome itself, which takes away from the immersion.
For someone interested in creating fulldome projections, I recommend finding out what domes are in your area. The first dome performance I created was Soniforms at the Buehler Planetarium in Florida. The director of the planetarium was interested in presenting creative fulldome works by select artists, and started the Dome Designers Series. He knew my work well, and I was the first artist invited to present an audiovisual work I had created specifically for the dome. Lots of spaces that have domes are exploring ways of presenting creative audiovisual works, so there may be opportunities right in your own city! You can also go the DIY route and build your own dome in your backyard. If you have a VR setup, you can create your own visuals (through a variety of ways) and explore creating immersive spaces. This practice of designing spaces with consideration for depth, balance, and placement of objects, are all things that come into consideration when designing for a dome as well.