The Institute for Interanimation
Art, at its best, is an invitation to another world.
Last September that world was temporarily housed in the Helms Theatre at UVA where the newly-formed Institute for Interanimation hosted its first “collective environment.” The event was a collaborative deep dive exploration into the spaces that exist between the real and the imagined, between live and alive, and between the virtual and real worlds.
Once guests adjusted to the intentional darkness of the new environment, they were greeted with a circle of installations offering an unspoken yet unmistakable invitation to engage. Remember those science museums you visited as a kid? Imagine one of those on steroids.
There was a portal with a drones-eye-view into the sky above the building that let you take the wheel of the experience and bring the perspective all the way back into the room. There were hanging orbs that you could slap, push, and grab, and in the process elicit all manner of sounds that allowed you to intentionally add to the room’s emerging soundscape. There was another pod that took you inside an immersive 360-degree VR experience featuring light, sound, and a“live” dance performance. There were opportunities to create your own animation that could be seen by all in the room. Each module had its own feel, look, and sound creating a collective visual and sonic symphony with one important distinction – you were in the role of instrumentalist, conductor, and audience member. The modules were in a constant state of interanimation with no predetermined outcome. They were navigated by curiosity, allowing you to harness and maximize the connectivity between them.
If you are still wondering why you’ve never heard of this particular “institute,” you need wonder no more. It doesn’t exist. Well, not in the real world anyway. And that seems appropriate for an effort poised at the border of reality and imagination.
Mona Kasra, Assistant Professor of Digital Media Design at UVA explains that in the early stages of their conversations, Kasra and Peter Bussigel, former Jefferson Teaching Resident in Interdisciplinary Arts, decided to play with the idea of what she called the “fixity” or “formalness” of institutions in general, and then to launch the ambitious-yet-fictitious Institute for Interanimation. It would be a sort of shape-shifting structure to house an organization where structure is steadfastly avoided and discouraged. Those working on the project, from students to fellow faculty members and community artists, were anointed as “fellows.” And any lingering questions about the randomness of this particular institute model can be found in its mission statement, which was created by an algorithm that took some key words and combined them with 8 or 9 mission statements from other organizations.
While the Institute’s structure may be imagined, and infused with whimsy, the work generated by this unique collaborative is both real and highly intentional. “Peter and I started this project in the Fall of 2016,” Kasra said. “It was built with the intention of creating a hybrid research + creative project around the idea of aliveness in the 21st Century. What does it mean to be ‘live’ in terms of performing live or ‘live’ in term of being alive? We wanted to explore how new media technologies – from Virtual Reality to social networking – urge us to reconsider both meanings. We also wanted to combine digital technologies and new media perspectives from areas of art, performance, and music to explore the intersections between these modes of liveness.”
Once this intentionally loose framework was decided upon, Kasra and Bussigel began to build in a pedagogical component, developing courses and activities around the project based on their own areas of scholarship and interest, with Kasra’s students focused more on visuals and Bussigel’s more on sound. The courses would then build toward the September “performance,” with many of the students contributing in various ways to the event.
“We started brainstorming what we wanted to do,” Kasra said. “It began with a very horizontal model where every creative idea was a reactive force and would be treated equally. Then we started curating, and felt the sense that this ‘institute’ was actually bigger than us, that it would have an actual impact. We felt the responsibility and pressure of creating a definable, polished work that functioned appropriately, and realized we could not necessarily continue with this horizontal super collective mode.”
From the beginning, collaboration was at the center of all they did. “We had all these different artists involved from divergent methodologies and approaches,” Kasra said. “We came from two different departments, so we automatically had drama and music students working together. We built the project over the course of five weeks, so along with our collaborators we were pretty much living in the Helms aside from doing our daily classes and teaching.”
Despite all of the inherent artistic freedom in the project, all participants were united under the banner of interanimation. “Every idea, module, and interface in the final installation was developed using the framework of interanimation, a concept about the continual and mutual animation between bodies, technological and human.” They decided on nine modules, with each producing some audiovisual result or movement of some sort. Each would be in a responsive relationship to, or activated by another module somewhere in the installation. The modules, Kasra said, “had their own unique identities, but all contained material that would entice people to touch and interact with them.”
When the work of imagining and building and interconnecting was done, Kasra and Bussigel and their Institute colleagues got to stand back and see the fruits of their labor as they watched hundreds explore the fascinating and random interanimation experience unfold like a jazz symphony. “The whole piece was constantly changing because every engagement with it would change the overall tone of the music or the visuals,” Kasra said. “It was fascinating watching the audience interact with the installation. Some were clearly uncomfortable. And some were like ‘Cool! Let’s play!’” The approach often broke down on generational lines, she said. “Kids were loving the process of exploring and figuring things out. They loved that they could be rough with the objects, whereas the adults felt like they needed to be very gentle.”
Audience members left a constant impact on the installation itself as well as carrying that impact to the outside world through a “control room” installation that allowed them to use mobile devices to livestream their experience as they moved through the space.
The project’s impact on students and audiences alike would not have been possible without the critical support of Faculty Research Grant for the Arts from the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost of the Arts, Kasra said. “There is absolutely no way to create this kind of large-scale interactive environment without that kind of support. The support went toward funding all of our artists and students with small stipends, allowing us to use very progressive labor practices like any institute should. Even acquiring the materials we had to use would never have been possible at this scale without this grant. We are so appreciative for the opportunity to empower our vision and provide our colleagues, our students, and our community with this unique collaborative experience, and with a window into the extraordinary power of interanimation.”
As for the future of the Institute for Interanimation, it is, rather appropriately, somewhat undefined. Kasra and Bussigel, who completed a residency as a lecturer at UVA and took a position at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, continue to receive inquiries to revisit and present modified versions of the installation at festivals and events. There is talk of creating a journal or embarking on a book project that further launches the concept of interanimation into the world.
Meanwhile, the lessons learned by students involved in the project continue to resonate, Kasra said. “Our goal was in many ways about inviting our students to stretch their artistic boundaries. One of the challenging parts of this process was that it lacked a predefined output, yet it had hard deadlines. In five weeks, we had an opening and we needed to work collectively to figure out what we needed to do. It was a matter of constantly reminding each other that the project was not about a tangible result, but about the process, and about bringing this unique collective together to say, ‘Let’s take some risks and do something here.’”
Today, months later, Kasra’s office is a sort of museum to the project. It is like riding through an unplugged Disney attraction where you find yourself looking twice and even three times to see if something might come to life. There are furry masks, cage-like orbs, and a blank flat screen.
Something like wonder in repose.