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Falling for Icarus in Digital Media Art

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Those who absolutely can’t stand mixing vanilla and chocolate ice cream or think that Linkin’ Park’s collaboration with Jay-Z was blasphemous would probably not enjoy ‘Pasiphae: Out of the Labyrinth,’ a professional digital art performance combining arresting visuals with improvised violin and guitar to produce a disconcerting yet satisfying take on Greek mythology.
Presenting the dual stories of Pasiphae’s erotic attraction to a bull and the doomed, wax-winged flight of Icarus, Computational Poetics performed ‘Pasiphae’ Wednesday, April 25 in the Calit2 Auditorium at UC Irvine.
Computational Poetics is an artistic Canadian threesome: Kenneth Newby on five-string violin, electronics and video software, Martin Gotfrit on guitar and electronics and Aleksandra Dulic in charge of the real-time animation/video.
No two ‘Pasiphae’ performances are ever the same. ‘One of the hallmarks of our work is improvisation,’ Newby said. While the images that Dulic has created play on the screen, Gotfrit and Newby play intermittently, improvising short melodies that one of their laptop computers distorts and stretches, treating the sounds like pieces of rubber. Newby believes they have found the ‘sweet spot between total automation and total control.’
‘Pasiphae’ rewards the audience member not just because of how amazingly the performers bring to life the story of Icarus but also simply because Computational Poetics has managed to create a work in this collaborative medium at all. The beautiful, low frame-rate animation by Dulic, combined with Gotfrit’s computer distortions and Newby’s instruments, creates an experience you won’t find in most art museums.
The initial visuals are mostly abstract and appear as though someone had dropped a canvas on a slowly rocking ocean. The Greek mythological story of Pasiphae and her forced attraction to a bull is ‘told’ through repeated visual sequences to music, including a memorable one in which Pasiphae’s hair morphs into leaves.
What follows may best be described as Computational Poetic’s modern tribute to the early ’90s screensaver in which rectangles changed color and dimensions, continually moving about the screen. Although the relationship of this to Greek mythology is questionable, it is important to remember that ‘Pasiphae’ is an abstract celebration of this immersive new media form as much as it is a presentation of Greek mythology.
Still, the story of how Icarus flew too closely to the sun with his wax wings and fell to the ocean is presented more vividly than you will perhaps ever see or hear it anywhere else. After Icarus’ wings melt, the puppet-like representation of him is seen from above with the previous frames visible for a few seconds after Icarus moves his body. The effect, with the waves of the ocean below, is captivating and, with the odd musical additions, disconcerting.
If Newby slides down an octave on his violin, the slur will be altered by the computer to sound very similar, but not quite the same, to what he played. The notes played back on the computer are either sound like an ordinary violin, sped up to double speed or transformed into other sounds, like an artificial human voice.
In this way, the guitars and violin players can engage in a call-and-response with their computers that (hopefully) fits the mood of the images displayed.
Along with the visuals, the music was reminiscent of the psychedelic, dreamy sounds of the Icelandic group Sigur R