[News from NYC] Dumbo Arts Festival 2013: Dressed up to get messed up

It's the festival that everyone is talking about, at least from North Williamsburg to the East Village. It's that time of year when the tiny, tony district of Dumbo becomes the furiously beating heart of Brooklyn, if only for one weekend. And, after the neighborhood was severely flooded by hurricane Sandy last autumn, causing many of its street-level storefronts and galleries to close indefinitely, it was especially heartwarming to see all local operations fully recovered, restored and revived for Dumbo Arts Festival 2013.

Maybe it was the Taikoza drums echoing under the Archway. Maybe it was the colorful Bubbles of Hope Art Processional parading down the waterfront. Maybe it was the sheer density of artistic activity taking place from September 27-29 that gave us vertigo... Like the Louvre, you can't see it all in one day, but you can pick and choose your pleasures while leaving a few hidden gems up to serendipity.

"Macaron" by Daisuke Kiyomiya (Audience Award)

The area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, now seriously referred to by its playful acronym, has seen its share of development over the past years, and the annual arts festival has gentrified along with the neighborhood. For kids and their parents, this is a good thing. While experimental and media art in particular can easily be fragile and elitist, this year's edition was openly accessible and all-ages friendly. If the officially designated Kidlot kept many tots busy in the park, older children revelled in outdoor activities ranging from composing on old-fashioned typewriters to tossing pennies on colored message cobblestones, while others engaged with interactive gallery exhibitions as if discovering an exploratorium. One of the delighted artists didn't hesitate to use the word "childproof" in describing how she adapted her piece to the space.

This was indeed the case of "Strings", Luisa Pereira, Monica Bate and Johann Diedrick's aptly named interactive sound installation, a sort of immersive instrument whose extra-strong red thread sensors transmitted vibrations to an Arduino that converted them into pleasingly harmonic musical notes.

"We were thinking about how controllers for synthesizers tend to be at your fingers, and we were wondering how we could have an experience with synthetic sounds but that also had to do with texture and movement and color. When you play a traditional instrument, like a guitar, you feel the wood; if you're playing an electric guitar, you're moving around…" Pereira explained. "In parallel with that, Monica and I were playing with materials that were conductive and that we could make circuits with, and we were playing with thread… We wanted it to be magical, using just your hands... to feel like you had an instrument surrounding you, that you could go inside it and somehow be part of the instrument."

The enchanting result of their meticulous research resembled a wall-to-wall post-modern pentatonic harp.

"Strings" by Luisa Pereira, Monica Bate, Johann Diedrick. 

It's no coincidence that the three artists met in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). Self-described as a "Center for the Recently Possible", ITP has been challenging graduate students with the creative use of technology in the physical world for more than two decades. Thanks to its strong presence in this year's festival, Dumbo's digital arts offering just got a lot more interesting.

Not far from the strings, a corner wall projection titled "Bird on a Wire", by Matt Richardson, Christie Leece, Inessah Selditz and Ben Light (a.k.a. Team Scotch), featured a delicately animated silhouette of crows sitting on telephone lines against a sunset sky. Call the number on the screen, and the birds audiovisually flew away, flocked and resettled in the installation's only spectacular moment.

Around the corner at 111 Front Street, a more traditional upstairs white-walled gallery space hosted a group show of 2012 ITP residents experimenting with more interactivity and sound, dance and data. Among all these smart artworks, the most popular with young and old alike was Nick Yulman's "Animal Magnetizer", which was playfully addictive, no instructions required. Orchestrated by a single author, this five-piece installation used real instruments with mechanically moving parts to play a rhythmically controlled composition—and once again, magic made the music. Hands waved and bodies hovered over big drums and metal marbles, a wooden box and a closed book, with immediate sound feedback from individual components of a harmonious whole. Better than a beatbox.

"Animal Magnetizer" by Nick Yulman. 

Alas, the puppet percussions musically eclipsed Yulman's own adjacent "Random Sampler" of vintage transistor radios, a cute visual interface that varied its soundwave output according to how close the viewer/listener was standing.

Meanwhile in the video darkroom of 85 Washington Street, ITP alumni Crys Moore and Manuela Donoso's "DeNovo" installation offered peacefully silent interaction through a liquid interface. Instead of a touch screen, viewers were invited to attract projected light specks that flocked to their fingers as they touched, swiped and tapped the shallow pool of water. The algorithmic biomimetic effect recalled the best-selling classic iOS app Koi Pond, except that this fish tank used real water. However, these luminous spots were animated by a Boids flocking-simulation program written in Processing, which made the imaginary creatures seem to act more like paramecia on steroids. Or more poetically, a barracuda ballet.

"DeNovo" by Crys Moore and Manuela Donoso. 

Back on Main Street, at least two other interactive installations, not associated with ITP, used retro analogue devices to convey digitally processed media.

M Bethancourt's "zipCoda" prompted visitors to enter a 5-digit zip code using red and black switchboard buttons, complete with clipboard instructions. The magic wooden box then interpreted geographic, economic, demographic and other data associated with the coded location in order to feed back a customized musical composition. Although the device was certainly a novelty and fun to play with, the subtle variations in sounds would have been better appreciated in a more isolated environment.

Inhye Lee's "Piano: Face Jumble" was like an exercise in synesthesia, where playing a toy piano provoked a synchronized display of diverse faces on the built-in screen. As each face was individually linked to a specific key, chords were mirrored by curious facial mash-ups, as if giving a distinct personality to each musical note.

"Piano: Face Jumble" by Inhye Lee

Outside the gallery walls, when art is all around you, some things are simply surreal. It's no surprise that the Instagrammed Audience Award went to Daisuke Kiyomiya's giant stackable styrofoam macaroons, whose pastel colors sweetened the otherwise industrial landscape.

But many other impromptu, in-situ artworks fell right in line with the digitally influenced "New Aesthetic" trend, as visually epitomized by the ubiquitous pixelation of Minecraft: LEGO toy tree houses, with words spelled out on one side, perched along the sidewalk; the Supply Closet Cabal's 8-bit Post-its depicting a supersized Pac-Man scene in office windows; Anthony Heinz May's "Appropriation of Nature", in which a tree stump was progressively quartered and chopped into 3D wooden voxels, extending the three trunks upward and outward like a real-world digital zoom frozen in space and time.

"Appropriation of Nature" by Anthony Heinz May

And what if we took this infiltration of the digital into the physical to the extreme? Augmented Reality is the future, of course, but we're not all quite there yet. Fortunately, until Google Glass brings it to the masses, dedicated artists such as Mark Skwarek are making it actively accessible to anyone with a smartphone or tablet who's willing to download the app.

Skwarek's free mobile application creatAR allows you to create and position an existing or uploaded image in augmented reality. Last year, in his AR world of "Monster Island", precisely juxtaposed onto the Main Street lawn of Brooklyn Bridge Park, you could peek through your device to view digital imagery of crashing waves and sea monsters. This year, the island decor remains, but not only can you add your own pictures to the party, you can also point your device at one of several different pre-programmed cardboard squares to see monster parts pop out of them—and by extension, of people's bodies.

"This is just a component of a bigger project that we're working on for Kickstarter called PlayAR", says Mark Skwarek. "The idea is to make video games that would be impossible to make or play in any other place than in physical reality. One example is a massive slingshot that you can use to shoot at the city and knock over buildings like dominos (like Angry Birds). The idea would be to create experiences that interact with physical space. This is something that's very specific to augmented reality, and you're not seeing it in the area of games yet. A lot of that would come down to the user and development community to take it on. We're working on the tools to make it easy to create, to get them excited about creating and giving them content to create with, and then trying to help inspire and work with people who are interested in developing for AR."

Mark Skwarek on Monster Island

Looking forward to Dumbo Arts Festival 2014!

Cherise Fong