The Science of Communication: “WHaLE OPTICS” and “Red Rovers” at Philly Live Arts

15 September 2011
by Mashinka Firunts


Cybernetic models of communication posit that all information exchange is fraught to a certain degree with glitches, bugs, and processing malfunctions. At this year’s Live Arts FestivalWHaLE OPTICSand Red Rovers explore what happens when communicative channels are disrupted and signals distorted before reaching receivers.


In WHaLE OPTICS, director Thaddeus Phillips and Lucidity Suitcase International structure their investigation as a technologized “modern Moby Dick adventure” in three acts, punctuated by screened Carl Sagan micro-lectures and a love story involving an information systems technician who mimes cetacean mating habits in the throes of passion. Here, Captain Ahab is figured as a composer conducting research on the sonic vibrations of humpback whales whose subjects continually elude him because their migration trajectory has been unsettled by global telecommunications networks.  They give chase and he follows in pursuit, sailing across several of the seven seas. He is foiled along the way by his inability to effectively interact with his Spanish-speaking shipmates, a fact which results in a series of somewhat comedic mistranslations.


Throughout this seafaring journey, the lavish techno-landscape of the stage shifts in correspondence with changing geographical coordinates. Multiple mesmeric visual environments are generated within a confined space, with the audience seated onstage and immersed in the action.  Reading lamps suspended midair mark scenes at the Public Library, a Dan Flavin-esque lighting installation flickers on and off at a New Jersey fiber optics station, and starscapes flash across television monitors.


Ambitious in scope and meticulously researched, WHaLE OPTICS is wildly successful when it functions as a curated data transmission. Its first act in particular is replete with library browsing, archival material, screened lectures, and textual paraphrases offered by Hypatia the librarian. Admittedly, there are few things I prefer to the spectacle of performed scholarship.


The show is approximately three hours long in its entirety, including intermission. As it wears on, the script becomes more heavily reliant on the familiar comedic misadventures of a stranger in a strange land, and certain expository scenes come across as excess. These are nevertheless interspersed between scenes of intense poignancy. One such moment involves the telecommunications technician explaining how the flow of billions of bits of information might one day shut down the internet. Put differently, the increased circulation of information may become a self-terminating process that ultimately effectuates its own demise.


We transitioned from this nautical expedition to a staged symposium on interplanetary exploration inRed Rovers, a pitch-perfect collaboration between Headlong Dance Theater and visual artist Chris Doyle. Its scenario positions the spectator as a Jet Propulsion Laboratories employee attending a professional conference on the rover mission to Mars.  Participatory from the first, the ushers instructed us to register and select nametags corresponding to actual JPL scientists before entering the auditorium.


After a witty motivational address from our Session Leader illustrated with Powerpoint slides, we were divided into Affinity Groups based on our preference for iPhones vs. swimming and subsequently assigned a timed collective exercise. What followed was a micro-study in group interaction, with the commotion of indecipherably dissonant voices escalating in volume the closer we inched to our time limit.


The beautifully disjunctive narrative of Red Rovers concerns a romance gone south between the conference session leaders, Jeffrey Merbold and Clementine Nardello (impeccably played by David Disbrow and Christina Zani). Videoconferences between the two are plagued by feedback delays and their images distorted by pixilation. The impotency of their communication attempts is articulated through robotic rovers aimlessly trekking across the stage, a Ziggy Stardust soundtrack, Gary Cooper mutely romancing a silent film starlet, and the haunting sight of a lone astronaut dancing en pointe in a space suit. Stellar visual design shuttles us seamlessly back and forth from the electronoise of bitstreams and datascapes to the disco-lit cosmos. END OF DATA TRANSMISSION flashes across the projection screen.


Much like the conference couple on the outs, the rover anthropomorphically referred to as Spirit is no longer capable of relaying messages. Jeffrey muses, “Spirit. I am really going to miss her. She just gave us so much data.” Red Rovers offers a gorgeously wrought view of communication as so many lost broadcasts from Ground Control to Major Tom and malfunctioning circuits floating in a sea of space oddities.




FRINGE REVIEW: Headlong’s Red Rovers

September 9th, 2011


“Welcome to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories 2011 Rover Driver Conference,” said the nice lady manning what looked like a conference registration table scattered with name tags. “Oh, I must be in the wrong place; where is the theater showing Red Rovers?” I said. “You’re in the right place, believe me,” she said with a smile. “Name tags are on the table.” Huh? The table was lined with name tags; each had a name in NASA font, and not one of them belonged to me. “Excuse me; there must be a mistake. My name isn’t here.” Smiling just as broadly as she had when I had first entered, my host gestured to the table again. “Choose whatever name you like. It will be yours for the duration of the conference. All your team members will be doing the same.” I could tell I needed to be slightly more flexible. So I rolled up my shirtsleeves, thumbed out a nametag, and slipped into character: Sam Dallas, member of Spirit team, whatever that was supposed mean. Headlong Dance Theater’s Red Rovers is an interactive performance inspired by NASA’s 2004 robot mission to Mars. This mission sent two Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to the surface of the Red Planet to collect samples and take photographs. The “conference”/dance performance was designed to inform the base team of the loss of radio contact with Spirit, and also help to ease the team’s subsequent grief. In the process, the show’s ultimate goal was to help the audience, ‘let go.’ Pardon the New Age verbiage. To facilitate this difficult transition, the performance demanded temporary shutdown of the frontal lobe. For most productions, this would be an egregious comment to make, but it was clearly the intent of the company. A computer desk with an Apple computer on it was suspended from the ceiling to within half a foot of the floor. Don’t ask why. White orbs littered the ceiling, spread out in haphazard disarray, eliciting astronomical sentiments without scientific understanding. Once the performance had started, communication occasionally disintegrated into a nonsensical tongue that simulated Javascript and sounded like Captain Beefheart while the action would collapse into dance sequences seemingly inspired by Donkey Kong. It was unclear whether the lead had taken a single dance class, though I suspect that walking like a video game hero took a lot of practice. Contrary to most performances, Red Rovers required its audience to stop watching and start doing. By the end, I was amazed to find myself in the center of the action, still trying to ward off the positive juju that oozed, for some reason I could not fathom, from everyone around me. I did not understand what Headlong Dance Theater had done to me; I couldn’t even tell you whether it was good. But I think it was pivotal in the emotional development of Sam Dallas.