The new black box has global reach

The New Black Box

The following article was originally published in the East Villager News

In 1961, Ellen Stewart revolutionized the New York performance scene when she opened Café La MaMa in the basement of an East Ninth Street tenement. The African-American fashion designer-cum-impresario imagined the new space as an alternative to popular Off-Off Broadway venues like Caffe Cino and the Gaslight — small spaces that were relics of, and still very much associated with, the Beat coffeehouse scene.

Those early venues had been created with a particular ambience and with a specific audience in mind. Stewart’s innovation was to create a truly neutral performance venue to serve as a tabula rasa for emerging playwrights, allowing them to create new work on their own terms. La MaMa was truly a “black box” — a theatrical architecture that inspired future generations of underground performance, and spawned what might be called a micro-theatre movement in the East Village and the Lower East Side that continues to this day. But the black box wasn’t the only experimental innovation happening in the 1960s New York art world.

Early in that decade, ideas driving the convergence of art with cybernetic and computer technology, being conducted in Europe by Roy Ascott and others, reached the United States. In 1966, American composer and sound-art pioneer Max Neuhaus teamed up with NYC radio station WBAI to create “Public Supply” — an experiment in two-way aural public space in which listeners could contribute to a composition in real time by phoning in to the station and having their voices electronically transformed into components of a musical composition. The project is considered be one of the first successful artistic collaborations over an electronic network in real time. The very same year, renowned abstract expressionist Robert Rauchenberg met an engineer from Bell Telephone Lab named Billy Klüver. Together, they launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), with the aim of connecting artists and technologists to launch experimental explorations into the intersection of art and technology.

Meanwhile, Ellen Stewart was connecting La MaMa with theatrical communities around the world, and building a global circuit of independent theatrical practitioners. Networking, collaboration and technology were all emerging into the cultural zeitgeist — blending, morphing and generating new art forms and schools of thought.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that in 2009 La MaMa launched CultureHub — its own art and technology incubator, in partnership with Korea’s Seoul Institute of the Arts. The collaboration is dedicated not only to blending technology with performance, but also to using tech as a tool to continue the theatre’s long tradition of connecting cultures around the world. The new laboratory’s stated mission is to provide “a shared space for artists to collaborate, share ideas and create interdisciplinary works of art that explore emerging mediums and technologies.” For the past four years, they have been doing just that. In addition to presenting art/tech hybrids in their wired black box studio on Great Jones Street, CultureHub is equally invested in youth media and educational initiatives, conducting workshops for students, teens and young artists. Virtualab, one of their flagship programs, is dedicated to connecting students and professional artists via distance learning.

One of the core technologies utilized by CultureHub specifically for this purpose is something called telepresence, which might be thought of as a hyper-customized version of teleconferencing. As opposed to participants sitting around a table and projecting to a single screen, telepresence uses live video to build virtual environments, utilizing multi-camera viewpoints and projecting video to an entire wall, creating an atmosphere of virtual “liveness.”

CultureHub Artistic Director Billy Clark says that by incorporating this technology on a larger scale and using multiple cameras, you can “get to a certain level of abstractly feeling like you’re there.” CultureHub has already implemented this technology for several projects, including workshops conducted with students at their partner organization in Korea, and a virtual spoken word workshop connecting youth from New Orleans and New York City in collaboration with the Hip Hop Re:Education Project ( The latter experiment was so successful that, after the workshop, the students in Louisiana raised their own money to travel to New York to meet their “classmates” in person.

“It’s never going to be entirely like being physically present,” said CultureHub Managing Director Anna Hayman, “but you do make eye contact, you do hear people breathe.” She also pointed out that the technology seems to increase the engagement of its participants, particularly kids. “They feel like they’re being treated to something special. It’s actually more engaging than a conventional classroom where they’re just sitting there. Kids forge real relationships in that environment.”

Photo courtesy of the artist Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, will be at RE/MIX to present work he’s been developing with the Seoul Institute.

Though the young organization represents an exciting new direction for La MaMa, CultureHub recognizes its place in a continuum of artists working with technology — and acknowledges that, while the work they create and support is innovative, it also builds on decades of experimentation by prior artists. Clark concurs noting, “The ideas aren’t that new. Nam Jun Paik was doing this in the late 70s and early 80s. But now the technology is more ubiquitous, it’s cheaper. High-speed Internet is on all the time.”

That ubiquity has necessitated a cultural space for artists — some of whom have never used technology in their work — to begin experimenting with tech in a low-risk environment. “We’re trying to support artists in their very early stages of development,” Clark said. “We want to give them a space where they have access to technology and can just try something, like a sketch. Some might get developed, and others end up as more of a one-off. It’s a learning experience.”

Having worked on a project-to-project basis since its inception, CultureHub is borrowing a page from the theatrical establishment by launching its first-ever “season” of technologically based works (running until the end of the year). The centerpiece of that season is RE/FEST — a three-day festival of mediated performance, interactive installations and talks taking place from November 29-December 1, at CultureHub’s Great Jones Street studio.

RE/FEST kicks off on Friday night with an evening of performance curated in collaboration with the annual RE/Mixed Media Festival (which returns in April 2014 at The New School). In addition to performances by Adriano Clemente and David Commander, Friday’s kickoff event will feature a piece called the “Long Table” — a discursive art form pioneered by performance artist Lois Weaver that begins with eight artists seated at a table discussing a topic provided by the curators. As the conversation progresses, audience members are invited to come to the table and add their voice to the discussion, and may even ask for one of the participant’s seats if the table happens to be full.

Saturday and Sunday will continue with work by, Culture Hub says in a press release, revealing “how new technologies are changing performance practices, how networked screens and communications technologies are changing the way artists collaborate and create, what the exhibition/performance venue oftomorrow might look like, and how the nature of storytelling is becoming cross-media, multi-modal, and multi-locational.” Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, will also be on hand to present work he’s been developing with the Seoul Institute which, according to Hayman, will involve “new hardware and software and have a performative element.”

The partnership with RE/Mixed Media Festival in curating the first night of RE/FEST is demonstrative of the collaborative ethos that CultureHub has inherited from La MaMa. “So often in the not-for-profit world, you’re forced to have your head down,” Clark said, “you don’t have enough resources, you’re always too busy, you’re trying to scramble. But a lot of us are scrambling in the same direction, without taking the time to look up and say ‘Hey, they’re doing something similar. What if we worked together?’ We certainly can’t solve that whole problem, but the spirit is one of collaboration.”

In recent years, New York’s micro-theatre movement activated by Ellen Stewart’s “black box” has foundered in the wake higher rents and aggressive real estate development. Several storefront theaters that flourished in the Lower East Side in the 90s — Surf Reality, Todo Con Nada and Collective Unconscious, to name just a few — have disappeared. But the loss of physical space doesn’t necessarily mean that those artists have stopped working. Surf Reality has resurfaced as a producing entity that dabbles in the technological, and Collective Unconscious recently collaborated with Three Legged Dog to produce a 3D cinematic adaptation of their 1999 theatrical experiment, “Charlie Victor Romeo,” a film that was lauded at Sundance and other festivals throughout the country. Other organizations exploring the intersection of art and technology such as Eyebeam and IMC Lab + Gallery have developed performative works with independent artists.

Perhaps for the performance community, the current circumstance isn’t one of loss, but one of transition — one that may require we revisit the ideals of community and collaboration embraced by Ellen Stewart. CultureHub claims they are “transforming the black box for the new century.” Their MaMa would be proud.

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