Last week, I had the good fortune to be in New Jersey for a rather unique preview at Nokia Bell Labs’ Murray Hill HQ: Raw Space, a ‘world-first’ 360-degree album experience by UK singer-songwriter and digital art innovator, Beatie Wolfe, who has been collaborating with interactive creative firm Design I/O and Nokia Bell Labs.
You can experience it too; ideally, via VR goggles or Google Cardboard if you have them. If not, you can still pan around with your smartphone, or with Chrome or Safari browsers. Since 5 May, the vinyl disc of Raw Space has been playing, streaming live in anechoic sound to anyone who logs in, offering a dreamlike cocktail of words, imagery and music, thanks to synced visuals that complement each song from Wolfe’s new album.
But be quick – the live streaming ends Friday night (12 May).
A room without echo
A small group of collaborating artists and media gathered last week to watch Beatie Wolfe perform tracks from the album live from the legendary anechoic chamber (a room with no echoes) at Bell Labs, as well as from the purpose-built ante-chamber created specifically for such multimedia performances as this, and allowing for a remarkable show where sound and augmented reality melted together rather beautifully.
This all harks back to Bell Labs’ long heritage of EAT (Experiments in Arts and Technology), an initiative first launched more than 50 years ago, and recently revived by Nokia Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon, who will be addressing attendees at Inspirefest in Dublin on 6 July.
The EAT legacy
In its day, EAT boasted collaborations with such icons as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Today, Beatie Wolfe and other artists are ‘pushing the boundaries of physical and digital expression’.
Indeed, watch out for a special collaboration between our own national treasure Philip King (founder of Other Voices) and Bell Labs on stage at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on 6 July at Inspirefest. Be prepared for a unique experience, notwithstanding the absence of an anechoic chamber!
‘We are trying to create new, human, cognitive magic’
– MARCUS WELDON
Wolfe was introduced to Weldon at a live event she was performing at in 2016. Weldon and his team had just had the first performance of their Human Digital Orchestra to celebrate both the centennial of Claude Shannon’s birth and the 50th anniversary of EAT, when he was told he might like to meet an artist who was also exploring art and technology.
“So we decided to have a chat to see if there was something we could do together and she was game – which is amazing – to allow a few Bell Labs scientists to ruin her performance for her,” laughed Weldon.
“We put up a screen behind her and employed audience feedback. She would perform and we monitored the strumming of her guitar … and, in response to that, we wove a digital tapestry behind her. So a piece of art that was being created live.”
Nokia Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon with musician Beatie Wolfe
Nokia Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon with musician Beatie Wolfe. Image: Nokia Bell Labs
Wolfe said: “I jumped at the opportunity, because I thought Marcus was so great and loved the fact that Bell Labs were thinking different about art and technology.
“I had had this idea of creating an ‘anti-stream for the streaming world’, which Raw Space is and, when I saw the anti-echo chamber, I saw it as the place where it could launch!” And so it was.
Wolfe has a track record of experimenting in digital. “I always remember being such a passionate lover of music and of the art of music, the tangibility of records and being able to tell a story through an album.” Her first release, 8ight, was “a 3D interactive vinyl for your phone”.
She said: “That was the first application, and it was almost about how you could use technology to reintroduce some of the more traditional aspects of listening to music – that tangibility, that sense of storytelling, that magic – yet making it exciting for today’s generation.”
Beatie Wolfe performs in Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber
Beatie Wolfe performs in Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber. Image: Nokia Bell Labs
Meeting of minds
“That was the meeting of our theses,” said Weldon. “She laid out clearly her thesis of how the physical could be expressed over digital media and some part of the physical experience or ceremony could be recreated. And we were very interested in that idea, recognising that the way humans have communicated over time has actually decreased the sense of contact – indeed, starting with telephony, which facilitated the dispersion of diaspora of people. In the process, we haven’t truly found a way to reconnect people as if they were there.”
He joked about Star Trek and that teleportation is what he and his team are hoping to achieve. “I joke, but in a way we are,” he said. “We are really trying to teleport human state or sentiment or connection; not physical beings like in Star Trek, but connect us so that we feel that we are together. That physical-digital idea was one that really resonated with us.”
Weldon says a kind of magic happened when Wolfe and Bell Labs collaborated. “And that’s really what we are looking for. We are trying to create new, human, cognitive magic.”
We certainly got a taste of that magic in New Jersey last week. Don’t miss the Inspirefest iteration this July.