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Tuning In to ‘White Noise Now’

By Charles Purdy

Experiential designer (and Adobe Creative Resident) Craig Winslow, choreographer Erika Senft Miller, and sound designer Miles Dean have embarked upon a unique collaborative project—titled White Noise Now—intended to explore and draw attention to stimuli that we have grown accustomed to overlooking or otherwise ignoring.

What is “white noise”—and how do we experience and connect to the static in our lives? From their studios on opposite ends of the United States, Craig Winslow (an experiential designer based in Portland, Oregon), Erika Senft Miller (a movement artist and choreographer based in Burlington, Vermont), and Miles Dean (a sound designer based in Brooklyn, New York) have created the first in a series of site-specific installations—incorporating movement, sound, and projection mapping—that address these questions and others. Their goal, as they explain on the White Noise Now website, is, in part, to awaken our senses to everything that is around us and within us.

AN IDEA TAKES FLIGHT

Craig and Erika first collaborated in an impromptu way, at a creative retreat they both attended. As Craig was experimenting with projecting light on a vineyard after sundown, Erika was inspired to put herself into the frame, while she was inside a body-covering bag made of a stretchy fabric. The bag acted as a “canvas within a canvas”—the larger canvas being the illuminated vines.

Click to watch a brief video: Introducing White Noise Now.

Erika, whose work involves performance, movement, kinetic strategy, and education, explains that when you’re inside the bag, you’re completely covered, but you can see light—that’s how she was able to play with the idea of making the fabric a surface for the projected light.

Craig says, “I started out with two projectors, one on either side…I was projecting abstract visuals, playing with them, and something really compelling started to happen with Erika and her movement.”

Erika remembers, “The same evening of the stretch-bag projection improv, I remember I had a white Tyvek suit, and then we were throwing little paper pieces in the air and projecting on those—we were seeing what we could project on and what moved, and it was just amazing…. It was a total creative explosion, and somehow that image of static on a TV late at night came up, and that led to the idea of white noise and a discussion of what white noise is.”

The first White Noise Now installation, titled Salt, featured the white fabric bags that had helped to spark the original idea. The event took place in a railway salt warehouse. The outer images show dancers using the bags in rehearsal; the interior image shows a pile of salt in the warehouse (the salt piles were incorporated into the production). Photos by Amira Silverman.

The profundity of this experience led the two to want to collaborate further—they talked about ideas off and on for a few months, and they realized that in addition to movement and visuals, sound would help them explore these ideas. That led them to Miles, an experimental sound artist whom both Craig and Erika knew.  

Together, the three intend to create a series of immersive experiences—Craig adding light and video components, Miles creating the soundscape, and Erika incorporating movement and costumes. The first installation was called Salt.

A DASH OF SALT

The Salt audience of more than 200 people not only experienced the work but also participated in it. And the video of the event (by Micah Dudash in collaboration with the White Noise Now team and others), below, is a powerful creation in its own right.

Click on the image to watch a video of the White Noise Now: Salt installation.

The project started with a unique location in Burlington, Vermont: a salt shed—complete with massive piles of salt—owned by the Vermont Railway. During the event, Winslow projected light throughout structure and on the performers who danced there; Erika’s choreography made use of the entire space, and Miles’s audio completed the experience.

Erika says, “To me, site-specific work is really about listening to the space, and bringing out the characteristics and the story of the space.”

The team looked at other sites—including an empty former Kmart store that they found interesting—before landing on the salt shed. Then they began building a narrative and an experience that fit the site they’d chosen.

Photos of the Salt installation show the projected light interacting with the dancers, the environment, and the audience. Photos by Michael Wisniewski.

Craig says, “Erika looked into salt production—the process of salt cultivation—and the way that the railroad uses the salt. For me, the site was really inspiring; there was a giant salt pile, and this canvas of the walls, and then the ground is sort of this powdered material. Then there was Miles’s audio…and it wasn’t just all digital, there are bits of actual analog things, where we were actually banging on the physical building to create sounds.”

Miles adds, “Connecting with the space for me was really important, incorporating recordings of the actual space…I knew I needed to surround the audience with sound, so we had independent channels of sound from each corner of the room and different sounds getting fired from different corners. And there was so much cool metal and so many interesting sounds that the space had on its own. I developed this midi-controlled solenoid system that I called the Tesla, and I used midi data and Ableton to fire solenoids that struck the sides of the building rhythmically as part of this centralized design…. I’ve done pieces in the past, but this is definitely a whole new level for me as an artist working in a site-specific way.”

The site presented some interesting challenges: for one thing, the team could not be sure exactly how much salt would be in it on the scheduled day of the performance. In the end, it was about half full, which Erika says was the ideal situation. The team carefully planned an experiential flow—developing a “sensory attention arc,” a cross between a mood board and a timeline—but they also allowed for improvisation and happy accidents.

Erika says, “From a dance perspective, there was a story line: there was a climax and a final piece and a beginning—so there was an intention…telling the story but not in a very obvious way, and leaving some things open to interpretation.”

And creating the experience involved not only the artistic end of things but also logistical requirements like getting insurance and publicizing the event. Miles describes it as a learning experience for everyone on the team—learning they are looking forward to applying to their next White Noise Now endeavor.

Photo by Michael Wisniewski.

MORE WHITE NOISE

The team is planning future site-specific performances that will take place in what they call “underappreciated spaces”—for example, abandoned department stores and silos.

Erika says, “The type of spaces we are looking for are spaces that are mostly unseen but that are pretty incredible when you actually see them. White Noise Now is about finding the adventure in the known, or seeing the unknown in the known.”

Check out the team’s website to find out how you can tune into White Noise Now.