Post by Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman
Why are scientists less popular than artists? Take Mozart and Doppler, for example, both born in Salzburg. Mozart’s music is remembered and loved centuries after he composed it. Although the Doppler effect led to the invention of radar and influences our lives every day, Doppler does not enjoy the same level of fame or popularity.
Even if you produce both art and science, the disparity is noticeable. Natalie Portman just won an Oscar for her acting in “Black Swan”. She also has a graduate degree in neuroscience and a research award from Intel. As an article in the New York Times noted, “You can be a scientist, but if you want your name in lights, you’d better play one on TV.” Few people are aware of her scientific achievements–and most who are heard about them after her Oscar.
We enjoy and appreciate art with our senses; sight, smell, hearing, and touch. It doesn’t require analysis, or comparison to some outside truth. Art has no defined boundary. But science can seem hard to appreciate without just this kind of analysis.
If we combine science with art, will the science be appreciated more? Will its essence become more memorable? Will it touch people’s hearts?
Science has been expressed through art many times. Many movies make use of science (Terminator or Iron Man), as do many video games (Half-life). Yet another place where science and technology are integrated with art is opera. “Death and the Powers” is the latest example. It was composed and directed by Tod Machover at MIT media lab, and the premiere is coming to Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre starting March 18th. The opera comes to Chicago’s Harris Theatre starting April 2nd.
“Death and the Powers” is centered on Simon Powers, an entrepreneur and a computer genius who gets tired of his life in the flesh, and wants to upload his “self” into purely digital form. He tries to find out what happens after his death: What is left behind? What can he control? By moving from one form of life to another he hopes to project himself into the future. Whether he is even still alive or not is a question. His wife, his daughter and his adopted son must come to terms with events, and decide whether they want to join him in his digital existence.
In addition to being about technology, the show also takes advantage of technology for its effects. Several robots transform into human form, reenacting the lives of the Powers family in order to learn more about humans and to understand death. The performance uses moving and flashing walls, and a chandelier whose strings seem to speak and respond to touches from a human performer.
The opera also uses something called disembodied performance system. This system allows an off-stage actor or singer to give compelling and rich performance on stage in a completely non-anthropomorphic form. The system uses a variety of sensors to collect the performer’s gestures, action, and voice, distilling the character’s essence at any moment. Light, projection, mechanical movement, and sound then recreate the performance on stage. So just as the play is about humans becoming part of a machine, it also takes advantage of the same phenomenon. Simon really is inside the system.
The motive behind the opera is to use technology to tell a story about how humans relate to technology. You can see excerpts here.
When people watch “Death and the Powers,” will they appreciate the art, the science, or both? And which will be remembered the longest?