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Big Tent at Lotus will immerse festival-goers in 360-degree faculty, student work

Susanne Schwibs’ new film engulfs the viewer in flames.

The 360-degree work created from Super 8 footage she shot at a piano burning performance last winter will span eight screens, moving its way around viewers like a dancing inferno.

“The idea is for people to wander in, and to be in this environment — an environment of flames and an environment of sounds,” said Schwibs, a Media School senior lecturer.

Media School senior lecturers Susanne Schwibs and Norbert Herber, and Jacobs School of Music student Cole Swany preview a display for the Big Tent at the Lotus Festival. (Ty Vinson | The Media School)

It’s one of several projects commissioned by Media School senior lecturer Norbert Herber for an immersive video presentation space at this year’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival Sept. 28 and 29. Big Tent, conceptualized and developed by IUPUI faculty members Robin Cox and Benjamin Smith, is a highly portable, 12-foot-tall octagonal array of viewing screens and speaker systems that use projectors to create an immersive viewing experience. Herber, Schwibs, senior lecturer Jim Krause and lecturer Rush Swope are all contributing work to the performance. Herber is leading content development for the project as artistic director.

The work of sophomores Sabra Binder and Cole Swany, senior John Kwon, graduate students Blake O’Brien and Felipe Tovar-Henao, and Ray Kim, BM’18, will also be a part of the Big Tent performance. All of the artists’ work is funded by grants from the College of Arts and Sciences Ostrom Program and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

Big Tent will be at Fourth and Washington streets. Unlike most of the festival’s performances, entry won’t require a ticket, making it free to everyone.

“It allows us to take a multimedia performance environment and put it in a public space,” Herber said.

When Lotus’ organizers approached Cox and Smith about bringing Big Tent to this year’s festival, their goal was for artists independent of the festival to create pieces for display.

“They wanted others to rise to the challenge of thinking about eight screens of real time, sounds, light, video,” Herber said. “There are a whole lot of things that are possible, but there aren’t a lot of precedents for a space like this.”

A circular view

Schwibs created her film, Fire Song, because she wanted to take advantage of the 360-degree setup to create something immersive.

At points in the film, bursts of flame envelop the viewer as they radiate out from a central point, swirling across the eight screens. The film itself has no clear beginning or end, and that’s by design. Schwibs said she wanted to create a freeform piece that could be experienced differently depending on when the viewer enters the space. To her that circularity is just another dimension of Big Tent’s singular presentation environment.

“It just creates another one of those special experiences, where what the film is, is completed by the act of viewing it,” she said. “It doesn’t work any other way but for a viewer to wander around and start making their own connections between the screens, and experience it in this sort of circular fashion.”

Schwibs shot the piano burning, a part of the Wounded Galaxies: 1968 festival, on 8 mm film to invoke the aesthetic sensibilities of the ’60s when Annea Lockwood first composed her now famous piece, Piano Burning. Schwibs said she wanted to create an experience that felt purely elemental, stripped down to the powerful visuals and sounds of flames and cracking wood.

“It’s not a relaxing experience,” she said. “It’s really an examination of the fundamental elements, of film, of fire and of sound. I think, even with the music, it evokes certain spaces and certain emotions that to me are a little bit nightmarish.”

Tovar-Henao, a composer and Jacobs School of Music doctoral student, worked with Schwibs on the project. His musical score, which accompanies the haunting visuals of Schwibs’ film, is an electroacoustic composition that incorporates a range of sounds created with a piano, Schwibs said.

Tovar-Henao said the presentation format of Big Tent provides an interesting opportunity for experimentation.

“One of the advantages of this resource for composers is to have control over the spatial dimensions of sound, and having a more or less accurate prediction as to how things are going to be experienced psycho-acoustically,” he said.

Part of the medium’s complexity, he said, is in the fact that viewers won’t experience the sounds or images from a fixed perspective. Rather, they’ll be free to walk around the space.

“For me this technology resembles more a sound installation, where the mindset for writing the music – and by extension, for putting the film together – needs to be more open-ended,” he said. “That is, taking into account the infinite amount of possibilities of experiencing the same work, depending on many other variables including the physical location of the listener.”

A digital canvas

Smith and Cox developed Big Tent out of a vision they shared. Coming from a musical background – both are violinists – they shared an affinity for experimental mixtures of acoustic and electronic sounds, as well as visual stimuli.

It was a platform they wanted to create for other artists to use, too.

“As soon as we started making it, we invited other artists and musicians to come and work in it,” Smith said. “It started changing quite a bit as they brought their ideas and their own aesthetic interests into it.”

He said he anticipated the platform to lend itself to visually bombastic presentations, ones that conjured tempests of visual stimuli from the multitude of screens. But as the development process went on, Smith and Cox discovered their eight-screen format to be innately involving, but also meditative and soothing.

“Immediately we started doing very peaceful things,” Smith said. “Robin started writing very peaceful music and it became very contemplative.”

Smith said he wants to experiment with presenting pre-existing films in the eight-screen format, and reimagining how they might expand beyond their original boundaries.

But above all else, he’s excited to see what other ideas artists dream up and bring to life with Big Tent.

“We’re excited to provide this as sort of a canvas,” he said.

A collaborative creation

Herber wanted to offer commissions to IU students to create new art specifically for Big Tent’s unique platform, so he applied for – and received – two grants to fund students’ work. The result is the creation of several new films, all with original scores, by Media School; School of Art, Architecture and Design; and Jacobs School of Musicstudents.

Additionally, an immersive, 360-degree game and a Lotus Festival retrospective created specifically for viewing on the eight-screen format will debut at the festival.

Herber said Big Tent will provide Lotus attendees an interesting change of pace from the live music and dance settings of the other performance venues.

“This provides something that is completely different — it’s potentially meditative,” Herber said. “They’ll enter and they’ll feel like they’re moving into something that’s completely dislocated from the rest of the festival.”

But whatever their tone – be it contemplative, overwhelming or invigorating – the experiences will be completely singular, he said.

Works included

Soaring over Four
Dear Everyone,
The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Matters
Tallgrass: An Osage Reverie
Fire Song
Exquisite Corpse
Wishes + Fractured Vision
Windfall Dancers
School of Art, Architecture + Design