Tucked away in the Music Building on the University of North Texas campus is a gateway to the sublime.
Some gateways are like shrines, or mythical holy places, or unexplainable monuments to the cosmos. This one is a small black box theater where science and art merge to produce hyper immersive audio-visual experiences.
Dubbed HAL, the Hybrid Arts Lab is the brainchild of professor David Stout, a visual and sonic artist working at the intersection of art and technology. He has been a UNT faculty member since 2009. Stout occupies a unique role as both a researcher and practitioner, operating between the College of Music and the College of Visual Arts and Design.
HAL is Stout’s gallery-cum-research facility where he works with graduate students across disciplines on interactive video installations, interdisciplinary performance works, and even networking software for audio-visual systems. Yes, that’s a lot to absorb, and he knows it. There’s a reason HAL is housed within the school’s larger Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts. The program pokes and prods emerging technologies and new media looking for surprise connections between arts, engineering and the sciences.
HAL also serves as Stout’s personal studio, and the room is chock full of computers, projectors, monitors, and sensors that transform the space from potentially oversized AV closet into a mind-bending voyage through endlessly unfolding cosmic landscapes.
To one side is a vertical stack of flat-screen monitors Stout designed for a recent piece that scrolls through his personal photostream; in a corner hangs a virtual reality headset, ready to take participants on a journey through an alien world; projectors drop down from midceiling, easily cued to showcase one of Stout’s many performances that incorporate shifting geometric shapes and sounds. All is controlled via a command station composed of a vast array of knobs, wires, keyboards and monitors.
Although Stout’s work is at the forefront of digital technologies, it’s not about the whiz-bang. He is instead focused on the potential for technology to explore larger ideas about humanity and our relationship to the cosmos, primarily within the phenomenon of transformation — the ability for one thing to shift into the next, each succession bearing an imprint of its predecessor.
Stout’s work has ranged from the overtly political to the sublimely poetic, but the core of his practice remains rooted in blending artistic formats in order to evoke a sense of connectivity between the spiritual and the scientific, the physical and the immaterial, the conscious and the unconscious.
Raised in rural Oregon, Stout can trace the origins of his work as far as the age of 4.
“My parents were horse people, and I remember two seminal experiences — one was attending a live performance by Native American dancers, singers and drummers; and the other was attending livestock auctions where I heard the droning, amplified voice of the auctioneers. I immediately set about trying to emulate that powerful vocal sound,” he says. “Being immersed in sound as a transcendental physical experience is a very important aspect of my work to this day, as is folding in different musical and aesthetic traditions.”
Stout’s interest in sound and movement led him to pursue studies in dance, choreography and musical composition. His early works combined dance, multilayered hand-drawn projections, electronic music and voice, “the kind of theater you might imagine a painter would make,” he says. He earned an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied under a number of experimental film, video, new media and sound pioneers; and taught at CalArts, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the College of Santa Fe, before landing at UNT.
While in Santa Fe, Stout began Noisefold, his award-winning collaboration with interactive media artist Cory Metcalf, and the vehicle through which the bulk of his work is produced.
The name alludes to the duo’s practice of utilizing noise as an elemental material and the process of “folding” digital imagery in on itself to create evolving forms. Through live performances, installations and films, Noisefold explores the behavioral possibilities of digitally crafted, autonomous systems. In other words, Stout and Metcalf create artificially intelligent visual and auditory systems that can respond to shifts within their own ecosystems and/or interact with actual living, breathing participants.
To achieve this level of digital autonomy, Stout and Metcalf constructed a software-based “instrument” that allows them to manipulate an existing image database in order to “breed” new images. The accompanying audio is derived from the sonification of this imagery, creating a living sound “field” that operates as the three-dimensional yin to the imagery’s two-dimensional yang. With the instrument running, the artists serve as live choreographers, manipulating images so as to sculpt the resulting sonic performance into a room-engulfing entity.
At Currents New Media Festival last summer, Noisefold, along with collaborator Reilly Donovan, debuted their most ambitious project to date: Vesica Pisces, a hybrid virtual reality and multichannel video installation that allows audience members to inhabit a continuously collapsing and expanding landscape. Stout will build on this and more recent concepts for new work he will unveil this November at the Downtown Dallas public art event, Aurora.
Vescia Pisces, named after the shape formed by two intersecting circles, turns the audience into a choreographer/performer that Stout likens to a cosmonaut or deep-sea diver, an explorer of a world within a world, or perhaps at the intersection of two or more worlds.
Wandering the alien plains, the ground falling away and building back up while the landscape shifts from icy stalagmites to rolling desert, the experience is far grander than the sum of its technological components.
It’s the encapsulation of life and death, the moment you cross between planes of existence and the collapse of everything both familiar and foreign into one. It’s a gateway to the sublime.
Disclaimer: The Dallas Morning News is the founding media partner of Aurora.
Danielle Avram is a Dallas-based writer and a contributing curator for the 2018 Aurora Festival.