2016 marked both the centennial of Claude Shannon’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the pioneering collaboration between artists and technologists known collectively as Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.). Despite being much heralded at their inception and spawning many chapters worldwide, E.A.T has been dormant for decades, but the concept has made a recent resurgence as art becomes increasingly digitized, and technology becomes increasingly omnipresent yet harder to fathom and ‘see’.
Bell Labs announced in April the first of a new series of EAT performances, created together with Stevens Institute of Technology, and titled The Shannon Effect, featuring The Human Digital Orchestra – an ensemble where the movement of humans in digital space creates a multimedia sensory artist experience.
The Human Digital Orchestra merges the motion of artists and the audience to create a multimedia experience with music, speech, and video dynamically reacting to the humans present, with its inaugural performance during the First Shannon Conference on the Future of the Information Age.
The Shannon Effect, a one-time performance, blended sensory input from accelerometers, GPS, and other mobile devices (including smartphones) to control the music, synthesized speech, video, and other multimedia experiential aspects of the performance environment to bring the audience as a participant inside the performance. The next public performance of the Human Digital Orchestra and its algorithms and interfaces was at the Propeller festival in Hoboken, NJ on May 20th 2016.
The Human Digital Orchestra is part of the rich pedigree of Bell Labs, which has a long and distinguished history in the creation and production of the digital arts. For example, in video, Bell Labs broadcast the first long distance TV signal in 1927, transmitted the first satellite video signal across the Atlantic, invented the charge coupled- device (CCD – digital image sensor) in 1969, and pioneered high definition TV, making seminal contributions to the standard that came to define compressed video (MPEG) and audio (MP3). In sound, Bell Labs invented High Fidelity stereo recording and reproduction in the early 1930s, having also participated in early sound-motion picture productions such as “The Jazz Singer”. We created the first computer-generated singing voice in 1961 and then pioneered the early fields of computer generated graphics, art, and movies. Bell Labs also originated the basic signal processing algorithms and hardware that are ubiquitous in music, video and other areas today.
Due in part do the proximity to New York, as well as the diversity of interests of its populace, Bell Labs was a natural partner for the arts. Artists and engineers embarked on a collaboration in 1966 which came to be known as E.A.T. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiments_in_Art_and_Technology) to create a new kind of performance art that brought technology into the artist’s realm, and art into the realm of science. In its inauguration, at an event at the Lexington Armory on 26th Street, one of the seminal events in New York City’s cultural history took place — and it was created together with Bell Labs.
The E.A.T collective brought together Bell Labs engineers and New York City artist/composers to create new works that changed music, theater and the media arts forever. They organized 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of performance art presentations that united artists and engineers. The artists included John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman, with many notable engineers involved including Bela Julesz, Billy Klüver, Max Mathews, John Pierce, Manfred Schroeder, and Fred Waldhauer. These performances included rarely-seen demonstrations of video projection, wireless sound transmission, and Doppler sonar. These collaborations broke through the traditional boundaries between the arts and sciences in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and led to greater understanding of how art and technology were increasingly coming together. Recordings of the performance have also been curated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology.
*The Human Digital Orchestra is a creation forged in partnership with Stevens Institute of Technology.