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Autumn 2020 Faculty Interviews

Marc Downie on Digital Theater and Alternate Reality Games

By Amy Skjerseth

Marc Downie wears a number of hats. He’s a lecturer in Cinema and Media Studies and in Media Arts and Design. He’s a world-renowned artist—part of OpenEndedGroup, along with collaborator Paul Kaiser—who has had commissions from the Centre Pompidou, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and other institutions, and has worked with such luminaries as Merce Cunningham (including the extraordinary piece Loops). He designs his own 3D camera systems, neural networks, and virtual reality interfaces to support the artistic experiments he undertakes.

Currently, however, Downie is working on a game, as he is helping to develop an alternate reality game with Patrick Jagoda, Heidi Coleman, and Ashlyn Sparrow, a team he collaborated with first in 2019 for the ARG Terrarium. “We got the band back together again for A Labyrinth, a game mainly for undergrads that we ran in April 2020. It brought an unexpected audience—undergrads’ parents, Lab School kids, alumni, and even extended family.” Downie reports that the team that almost won Terrarium were 7th graders. Even though the audience and conventions of ARG diverge from his own work, Downie enjoys its porous audience: “The delight from that surprise hasn’t gone away. So we’re back at it again this fall.” They’ll have two film shoots at the Regenstein library and an event later in the quarter that ties together several online quests. The theme is “Staying Safe on Campus,” which will feed into narrative themes and quests. “Anything could happen, which is part of the joys of the medium,” Downie says. “I’m going around claiming that ARGs are the new opera. They’re a site of interdisciplinarity, something big that you want people to take seriously. And they’re even more expensive than opera. But they’re also expansive: 10 years ago, the first ARGs were online but now leak into different locations and our lives in ways we sort of expect media to do at this moment.”

Downie’s work with OpenEndedGroup has also changed significantly during the pandemic. In February, they were working on two VR pieces, one of which was days away from being finished. “I have no idea if they’ll ever be shown,” Downie says, “since you can’t put on a VR headset in the museum.” Downie and Kaiser’s work with dancers is likewise on hold. However, digital theater has given them a new opportunity, and they have collaborated on the piece Theatre for One, which initially was installed throughout New York, even Times Square. Then, it was a booth where a performer and a one-person audience sit down in to enjoy a five-minute performance, one-on-one—from two feet away. After Covid, OpenEndedGroup played a significant role in setting up One online. While opera companies livestream recordings from previous productions, many theater companies have opted to record shows on Zoom, even live. But Downie wanted to divest One of any Zoom corporate packaging, to avoid making “the thing everyone has done the whole day already. When I log in and see myself, it’s quite damaging to the theatrical experience,” he reflects. “So I spent a good chunk of the summer making a one-on-one experience for One—my own version of Zoom.” 

After launch in August, One’s shows run every Thursday; tickets go live Monday mornings and sell out in two minutes. “There’s a huge appetite for real theater interaction, presence, liveness… danger, even. I built a teleprompter-like apparatus for actors so that they can stare directly into the middle of the screen and maintain eye contact with their audience member—something you realize you’ve been missing.” One commissioned eight new plays written and directed by BIPOC women that address this moment in time. “It’s been a fabulous way to feel connected to the current moment. I’m already thinking about alternate possibilities for this technology, such as increasing audience size, adapting it for dance, or allowing audiences to draw on the screen, which would appear inside the physical world the performers share.” OpenEndedGroup also designed the audience “waiting line” to get into the virtual one-on-one booth: it is a completely anonymous chat room where theatergoers wait to be assigned to a particular play. “It’s very hard to find anonymous chat spaces online where you’re not being logged or analyzed—an unsaid part of our online experience during quarantine. This is a space where the audience can be whoever they want to be, whether they’re telling campfire stories or making abstract art using characters on the keyboard or emojis I didn’t know existed.”

OpenEndedGroup also is collaborating with a composer in California—a friend of Downie’s—on a VR piece that is centered around drawing in 3D to music. “It seemed impossible, so we decided to do it,” Downie says. “But it’s hard to exchange work online. Just sending a single point is really easy, so that’s become the collaborative space for drawing to music. We made a piece with this composer a couple years ago in California. With him at the piano and us using projections and computers, we edited a movie semi-algorithmically to him as he played. That improv session was absolutely delightful. We’re trying to get to the point where we can do that in VR.” But with the artists spread across the country—Kaiser is in New York—the audio can lag, and they are using a fair amount of archaeology to fix technical issues on computers. But on the other side of that, Downie says, they’re eager to make something fantastic.  

Related to this audio-visual project, Downie also has taught a Sound/Image Mapping course. He began the course by showing Fantasia up to MTV, and then taught students code to write sound. It turns out that MTV has had quite an impact on Downie’s career: “While now I hang out with people who cut classes to see films at Anthology, I cut class to go watch MTV for experimental films that were all 3 minutes and 30 seconds and cut to music. In my world, if an image takes more than a ninetieth of a second to draw, I lose patience, and witnessing VR that isn’t at 90 frames per second causes everyone to want to throw up.” He was delighted by the rotoscoped video for A-ha’s “Take on Me,” where the jitteriness and skittishness of shading massaged over any inconsistencies in rotoscoping. “That’s what computer graphics is—a place where we can genuinely do mixed media. Computer graphics at that time looked more like the video for Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing,’ which is from 1985, the same year as the A-ha video but the opposite of its gorgeous handmade art. I spent a lot of my life desperate to marry those two things together. That’s the secret decoder ring for my career,” Downie laughs. “Can we make MONEY FOR NOTHING look more like TAKE ON ME?”

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