"The Living Room"

Installation and collaboration with Taurin Barrera. Museum of Human Achievement, Austin TX, July 2014. 

The Living Room is an interactive multi-media installation by Bill Baird and Taurin Barrera. The Living Room was originally installed at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin, Texas, with funding provided by a City of Austin Cultural Arts Grant.    "Fantastical Orwellian playscape...some of the most adventuresome and ambitious work we’re seeing in TX right now." - Glasstire

The Living Room is a hybrid installation and performance utilizing modern surveillance and home monitoring equipment to create an immersive living space. Framed as an interactive performance, visitors are guided by a fictional salesman from Boise Idaho named Rick Boss. who is teleconferencing in from his spacious office.  Bill Baird and Taurin Barrera are his live in-person assistants.  Before the event, they uploaded an informercial to YouTube, which went viral on Reddit. Rick Boss was very pleased. Here is the signed proposal for the living room. It was inspired by the 1965 Armory Concerts featuring the work of Gordon Mumma, Billy Kluver, John Cage, and David Tudor, and many other notable artists.

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The living room installation is a room within a room.  It was constructed over several days using salvaged wood for the frame, saranwrap for the walls, and freecycled living room furniture to place inside the space. The walls themselves are made of saran wrap since according to rick boss the technologically integrated future is all about quote unquote transparency.

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Visuals were provided by thirty cathode ray tube televisions (also known as CRTs) which had been intentionally distorted using magnets and large speakers in close proximity.  The result is a unique distortion possible only on older model televisions. Three projectors displayed live camera feeds of the audience as well as surveillence footage from inside the living room. The live video was projected upon the saran wrap facade, as well as the main wall. Cameras were directed at their own source, creating video feedback.  Kind of reminiscent of the modern cable news cycle. The main projector showed a rotating input of stock imagery, video feedback, and surveillance footage from inside the Living Room.

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For audio, two separate PA systems with six different speakers were placed throughout the room.  Transducers were also attached to the wooden frame. Transducers are speaker drivers that turn any object into a vibrating speaker, amplifying an object’s natural resonance. In other words, the living room had sound being played through the structure itself. A transducer was also mounted inside of a ceramic cat.  The resultant sound almost seemed like a purr, if perhaps the cat had a cold.  In addition, each of the 30 CRTs had a speakers through which audio was played. WIth over 40 speakers in close proximity, the result was immersive and overwhelming as sound seemed to literally envelop anybody who entered the living room.

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Upon arriving to the performance, visitors are greeted by large print outs of Rick Boss’ head pasted on top of  actual real estate signs, similar to those littering the lawns of Americas suburban sprawl.  Rick’s smiling visage graced some quite fancy business cards as well.  Visitors were seated in pews lined up towards a row of televisions and a projection on the wall.  A looping video and audio track played stereotypically quote unquote soothing music, so soothing  and maddeningly repetitive that it’s actually quite passive aggressive. Speakers played a remixed smooth sax version of the Elton John classic “Can you feel the Love tonight?” It felt quite reminiscent of a dentist waiting room, or perhaps an uncomfortable elevator ride.

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After being teleconferenced into the room, Rick Boss makes a sales pitch for the living room, framed as something similar to a timeshare presentation. Halfway through his spiel, the floor is opened to a q and a sesh, wherein Rick answers the audience members’ questions. All of his answers were pre-programmed and triggered remotely via an iPad. His answers employ corporate jargon and circular logic and seem to have no relation to the questions being asked. After the Q and A session, Mr. Baird and Mr. Barrera unveil the living room, pulling down a curtain to great fanfare and canned applause. After a brief demonstration, the audience members are invited inside.

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Visitors were allowed to explore the space five at a time, while the remainder of the audience watched through the saran wrap walls. Upon entering the installation, numerous sensing systems were engaged. Motion sensors were placed in the doorway and hidden under surfaces throughout the room to detect activity in different zones.  These infrared sensors flip on and off multiple lights and a home stereo tuned to a quote unquote hot! new country radio station.

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Visitors were able to relax on a couch and control the living room at an interactive coffee table, set with objects that epitomize unhealthy domestic relaxation — an oversized cigarette, an absurdly large can of beer, a bowl of stale Cheetoes, and a box of kleenex. Each object was embedded with RFID tags, and could be placed in the center of the coffee table to immediately trigger a specific video clip on the 30 televisions lining the walls.888

The video clips related specifically to each object — the beer can triggered a video of a sparkly smile overseeing a lengthy beer pour, while smooth jazz aurally depicted the relaxation that awaits. The beer can itself is cartoonishly large and fabricated.  Who doesn’t love an extra large beer?  The cigarette was also fabricated using paper ma shay. The cigarette triggers a video made from clips of old cigarette commercials, except the commercials are now extremely glitchy, creating a sense of unease that is a far cry from the commercial’s original intent.  The bowl of cheetos triggers some high energy heavy metal along with some queasily wavy cheetos and an overly cheery pair of shirtless personal trainers standing in what appears to be an unfurnished kitchen. The box of kleenex triggers the earliest known CGI animation, created by Fred Parkes in 1972, an eerily sad face morphing next to clips from the movie “Beaches.” A real tear jerker. The televisions only show these clips when the RFID tags are moved into place.  When a video is not triggered, the whole video trigger system stays in quote unquote sleep mode.  Sleep mode also turns on when the room has been vacated.  During this mode, the system displays a circular waiting graphic, with accompanying music made on the original Buchla synthesizer at Mills College.

The clearest attraction in the living room was the rug. Using motion tracking and computer vision, the rug was transformed into an interactive dance floor — a dance floor where dancing creates the music, rather than the other way around. As a visitor stepped onto the rug an audio clip played. Moving around on the rug changed the pitch and speed of the clip.  If the visitor didn’t like the sound being layed, he or she would simply step off the rug and their clip would stop.  Stepping back onto the rug played a new audio clip, which was modulated in terms of pitch and speed according to one’s place on the rug. The audio clips used ranged from synthesizers to loops of acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards.  We kept the sonic vocabulary in a range of familiar instruments, so that the changes in sound would be especially notice-able.

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Up to five people could engage with the rug at a time. Five separate samples being controlled by five separate people allowed for infinitely various interactions.  By dancing with one another, people ended up creating a sort of sonic duet. Five people on the rug often resulted in a somewhat cacophonous noise, but by properly coordinating movements, visitors were able to interact quite musically.  At the end of the performances there was an impromptu dance party where all visitors gathered around the living room and took turns dancing on the rug.  It was quite magical.

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And, lest we forget, we have our ultimate symbol of domestic bliss, Golly Golem. Golem is a Hebrew term meaning robot, more or less. Golly Golem is a animatronic robot dog, originally available as a ridiculously expensive toy.  The artists aquired Golly on craigslist from a family who was uncomfortable having their infant play with a robot.  This pet simulates dog ownership, except without the fuss of an actual living being.  A sure fire way to mess up your kid’s conception of the natural world, or at least your kid’s relationships with dogs. Golly Golem responds to certain commands and has conductive strips along parts of his body that, when touched, initiate a response. Scratching his ears, for example, makes Golly Golem scrunch his head in your direction, touching his paws causes him to shake hands. The interactive responses are extremely cute, but the animatronic dog bears a terrifying apearance. Golly’s fur and skin were removed to reveal the robot’s innards and also to place an induction microphone on Golly’s central processing circuitry. The induction microphone picked up electromagnetic activity going inside Golly’s brain, as he moved, his circuits would squeal and twitch, making the animatronic dog substantially more disturbing for those seeking an actual human-dog bonding experience.

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In the corner of the room, a desktop held several books with magnetic contact switches inside.  Opening these books triggered videos related to those books. A book titled “Positive Living and Health,” played a clip of an overly enthusiastic man desperately attempting to get viewers to sit and be fit.  A Jimmy Buffet novel triggered a video clip showing 5 different Jimmy Buffetts, each ascending a staircase to the heavens. Each Mr. Buffett is singing the relaxation rock staple “Margaritaville,” except, used in this context, it is not even remotely relaxing.   After the participants have been given ample time to explore the installation, Rick Boss gives his farewell speech, emphatically thanking visitors for their time expressing his deep deep gratitude. The Living room was open to the public from July 5 to 7 2014 with several performances each day. Throughout the opening, visitors were confronted by issues of surveillance, interactive media, and hypercapitalist salesmanship. Many people left confused, but everyone had a great time.

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Special thanks to the Museum of Human Achievement, Zach Traeger, Jason Camacho, Maverick fisher, the City of Austin, and of course Rick Boss.