Experience the deep sea at immersive show created by IU professors

Seven musicians. Seven projectors. One immersive experience.

That’s the goal of “Dark Zone,” a free live performance this week at the Grunwald Gallery on the IU Bloomington campus. The brainchild of IU professors Aaron Travers and Arthur Liou, the multimedia event will feature live music by contemporary collective Ensemble Dal Niente. Travers is an assistant professor of composition in the IU Jacobs School of Music, and Liou is an associate professor of digital art in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Hope School of Fine Arts.

An image from 'Dark Zone.'

An image from ‘Dark Zone.’

After being commissioned by the Chicago-based group to create a new piece, Travers said he spent plenty of time in thought before transforming his young son’s obsession with marine biology and deep sea creatures into a concept for the show.

“I was thinking it would really be quite an interesting idea for the band, something really special that was like nothing they’d done before,” he said. “I’d worked with Arthur before, and knew his work, and asked if he’d join me.”

The two professors worked closely to create the show, which will use projectors throughout the darkened gallery to project bioluminescent patterns and images of a variety of deep-sea creatures on the walls, accompanied by the music Travers wrote.

Both said they found themselves working with each other in mind.

“I had some ideas about how the music might go, but I didn’t know how Arthur was going to create his video component. His work tends to be very organic and fairly fluid, so I knew I needed to make my process somewhat open,” Travers said. “So I deliberately tried to put some moments in the music that were extremely open and, in some cases, the ensemble actually follows the video.”

Liou described his 3D video work, done with the help of graduate student Catherine Chi, as conceptual.

An image from 'Dark Zone.'

An image from ‘Dark Zone.’

“We’re talking about a subject matter that I can’t go and film — the deep sea — and we weren’t using any third-party video,” he said. “So we decided to approach things loosely and take some artistic license to emulate the patterns, the energy and the feel of the environment as a way to re-render this space and these creatures. We intentionally tried to create creatures that are unreal in a way. So we may borrow a motif and characteristics from a real creature, but apply a bit of our own imagination in terms of what it looks like.”

The show’s projectors are all linked, Liou said, so his fantastical creatures can “swim” throughout the gallery, moving from wall to wall in such a way that creates a seamless experience for audiences.

Travers said he ran into a bit of unanticipated difficulty during the process: how to handle things for musicians who would be playing in the dark.

“One of the problems was the pianist: He couldn’t see the keyboard,” he said with a chuckle. “So I decided to do almost everything inside the piano, experimenting with using different types of mallets to use the piano’s interior as a type of percussion instrument. … One of the other things was figuring out the structure of the music over time. I wanted something fairly simple but, as you get deeper into the sea, there’s fewer creatures there. When you’re very close to the bottom, there’s hardly anything there, so the music itself gets very sparse as well.”

“Dark Zone” opens at 5 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Grunwald Gallery of Art. A panel discussion is scheduled from 5:20 to 6:15 p.m., and a second performance of “Dark Zone” is expected to begin at 6:30 p.m.

Both shows and the discussion are free and open to the public, but all audience members must be inside the gallery space at the beginning of each performance. No one will be admitted during the performances.

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