Re:NEW Frontiers in Creativity

Thursday, September 30, 2004
6:00 p.m.–8:30 p.m.
Low Rotunda
Morningside Campus

Representing some of the finest new-media performance art in the world today, Columbia artists presented new pieces followed by responses from a panel of leading critics.

Re:NEW Cochairs

Bradford Garton, Professor of Music, Director of Computer Music Center
Elaine Sisman, Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music, Music Department Chairman, and President-Elect, American Musicological Society

Executive Summary

What is the new in art? What is its relation to tradition? How is it created? Why does it matter? These questions were in the air as Columbia hosted "Re:NEW," an evening of avant-garde art by Columbia students, faculty, and alumni, which was accompanied by a critique by five members of the Columbia faculty.

Prior to the program of performances and critical commentary in the Rotunda, the evening began with a dance on the steps of Low Library by Jonathan Lee and Theresa Ling. Inside the library, Dan Trueman played one of the new musical instruments he designs and builds, and strolling musician Terry Pender played a mandolin connected to an overhead installation by Douglas Irving Repetto, which transformed Low Rotunda.

Situated throughout the library and on the plaza were seven electronic and robotic installations by New York artists, including Tristan Perich, Noah M. Fischer and Graeme White, Ricardo Miranda Zuniga and John Arroyo, Jason Van Anden, Jeff Snyder and Gandalf Gavan, Stefan Prosky, and LEMUR.

An installation by The Builders Association simulcast the program in Low Rotunda onto video screens on Low Plaza and College Walk.

To a large extent members of the critical panel shared the view of moderator and musicologist Elaine Sisman that announcements of the new in art must be greeted with a certain amount of skepticism, yet she herself felt that recent events suggest "the new may be in the air again." To art critic Arthur Danto, the narrative of art history has changed from a story of a single shifting frontier to the present-day paradigm of radical pluralism where "the whole of artistic production can be cutting edge." Musicologist Walter Frisch considered five moments of change in the history of Western music when radical programmatic announcements of novelty exaggerated the break with tradition and tended to overlook continuities with the past. Drawing on the ideas of Theodor Adorno, philosopher Lydia Goehr theorized how the new transfigures public taste-the shockingly new provokes both public rejection and frisson, but the effect of the new hardest to ignore is the one that makes us see the art of the past in new ways. The panelist most skeptical of "proclamations of novelty" was British historian Simon Schama, who noted the Americanness of the frontier metaphor and maintained that the new always negotiates between past and present.

The first performance of the evening was named for its central character, Pikapika (Tomie Hahn), a part anime, part robot, decisively female figure whose dance vocabulary was drawn from traditional Japanese dance (nihon buyo) and puppet theatre (bunraku). Pikapika's movements received sonic punctuation as sensors in her costume picked up gestural information and sent it to an interactive computer music system. Her movements were also recorded and digitally manipulated to striking effect on a large video screen behind her. Under questioning from the panel, the creators of the performance, Tomie Hahn and Curtis Bahn, explained that while each performance is improvised with no narrative plan, Pikapika improvises "within pre-composed, flexible structures" from the palette of techniques and sounds at her disposal. They do not see her dance as a struggle between the human and the machine in the mode of Italian futurism, but as an assertion of a strong female character in control of the technology.

In the next performance, much like Pikapika, Maja Cerar herself became an instrument as she played her violin and danced in the darkness in front of a large video screen. Photoluminescent wires attached to her leotard glowed in the dark, tracing her movements and facilitating motion capture by a video camera. A computer digitally manipulated the video signal, creating onscreen images that sometimes resembled animated stick figures or glyphs in a new language. In response to questions from Arthur Danto, the artists explained that the mirror-like video screen piece creates a site of interaction between the human performer and her image. The conception of the piece was influenced by ideas about the origins of the universe and string theory, and its shamanistic narrative, noted by Professor Danto, moved through two cycles of creation and destruction. Professor Schama asked about the relation of the sound of the violin to the onscreen animation, and the artists replied that image and sound are always linked and that they wanted to produce not the rich, "beautiful" sounds of classical music but a stripped-down, primal sound, "a genuine kind of expressivity . . . linked with emotion at a given moment."

Brad Garton's interactive reading prompted several of the panel members to note how the evening's performances restored the centrality of the artist to the work through digital enhancement or multiplication and autobiographical reference. As Professor Goehr put it, "all these works seem to be about lonely souls looking for big bangs, big gods, but more than that it seems as if these works are structurally very dependent upon the artists themselves." Professor Frisch noted the resemblance between Brad Garton's piece and the genre of melodrama, spoken dialogue or narrative accompanied by background music, which was popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Professor Sisman also noted how the interaction between the human subject and technology was seen in a positive way.

The final performance of the evening featured improvised musical interactions among a laser koto, a laptop computer, and trombone played by, respectively, Miya Masaoka, Damon Holzborn, and George E. Lewis. Once again the issue of narrative came up. Miya Masaoka explained that although her background is in traditional narrative-based Japanese arts, no single narrative informs the music performance, yet the musicians bring their own narrative to their playing as they improvise and instinctively react to one another. The points of convergence in the piece noted by Professor Sisman occur spontaneously as the musicians react to one another onstage.

In his closing remarks, after noting that all of the evening's performances combined contemporary digital technology with "improvisative practices and techniques," George E. Lewis returned to the idea of the new through an examination of improvisation. Improvisation has been seen as perhaps glibly valorizing uniqueness, but in Lewis's view the jazzman's admonition to improvise, "to get your own sound," implies both an avoidance of imitation and "a connection with individual and collective expression, with agency, personal responsibility, community, uniqueness, and social and historical and political content." The creation of the new product in music or any art form occurs through a dialectical process of "renewal" of cultural affiliations. Improvisation is an endlessly "transgressive act, preparing fertile ground for a politics of permanent contestation . . . where process and product are equally valued." Here the new becomes something to be pursued in a process of achievement that still never quite reaches the finality of attainment.


Re:NEW Performance Art and Installations
6:00 p.m.–6:30 p.m.
  • Johnathan Lee (CC 96, GSAS 98, GSAS 04) and Theresa Ling (BC 99) presented a site-specific dance on the steps of the Library. With visual design by David Sun (CC 99, SOA 01), this piece explores the line between pedestrian and performer and re-imagines a well-known public space as a transformed game-space.
  • Immediately inside Low, Dan Trueman, an accomplished Norwegian Hardangar fiddle player, performed on one of the new musical instruments he designs and builds.
  • Above the audience, a light/sound art installation by Douglas Repetto (CMC staff) transformed the rotunda into an art gallery.
  • Cyber troubadour and strolling mandolinist Terry Pender (CMC staff) roamed in Low, his mandolin connected to the rotunda installation overhead. The mandolin sound, transported via wireless technology to a surround-sound speaker system, was modified by computers from the Computer Music Center.
  • Seven electronic and robotic installations by New York artists, including Tristan Perich, Noah M. Fischer and Graeme White, Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga and John Arroyo, Jason Van Anden, Jeff Snyder and Gandalf Gavan, Stefan Prosky, and LEMUR.
Re:NEW Music Program
6:30 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

Introductory Remarks
Re:NEW panelists

Moderator: Elaine Sisman
Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music
Music Department Chair, Columbia University

Arthur Danto (GF 53)
Emeritus Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

Walter Frisch
H. Harold Gumm/Harry and Albert von Tilzer Professor of Music, Columbia University

Lydia Goehr
Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

Simon Schama
University Professor, Columbia University

Re:NEW Performance Pieces
After each performance, there will be a short discussion between the Re:NEW panel and the artist(s).
  • Tomie Hahn and Curtis Bahn
    Pika Pika
    Interactive robotics dance/technology drawing upon traditional Nihon buyo and bunraku Japanese dance.
  • Maja Cerar (GF 98, GF 01) and Liubo Borrisov (GF 04)
    Interactive violin/media piece.
  • Bradford Garton
    Short reading about music and technology.
  • Miya Masaoka, Damon Holzborn, and George Lewis
    Improvised interactions for laser-koto, laptop, and trombone.

Final Remarks
George Lewis
Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, Columbia University

Reception—Low Memorial Plaza
8:30 p.m. The Re:NEW video presentation along College Walk produced by The Builders Association
Marianne Weems: Artistic Director
John Cleater (AC 95): Project Director
Peter Norrman: Video Design
Dan Dobson (JN 78): Sound Design
Lexi Robertson: Managing Director
Neal Wilkinson: Technical Director

We are grateful to Andras Szanto, director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia, for his assistance in planning this event.

Conference Video
View the full conference video (RealPlayer).
Conference Transcript
View the full text of the conference proceedings (PDF).
Computer Music Center
Learn more about Columbia's innovative Computer Music Center.
Learn More About Re:NEW
Brad Garton, director of the Computer Music Center, introduces the Re:NEW performances.
Cyber Troubadour
CMC's Terry Pender discusses his upcoming performance at Re:NEW.
George Lewis
Renowned trombonist joins Columbia's music department.
Stand, Columbia
The first single-volume interpretive history of the University in 100 years.
Write Columbia's History
Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.
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