The swarming crowd

Rhana Devenport on Cicada’s MOB

Cicada, MOB

Cicada, MOB

Cicada, MOB

While current academic research into comparative cognition is spanning temporal and spatial scales, certain artists are quietly getting on with it via spirited investigations of crowd behaviour in all its mesmeric and terrifying glory. In the scientific domain, computer modelling of neural circuits and the behavioural patterns of robots are, for some, showing the way. Meanwhile, natural behaviours (in ants, bees, fish and such) are frequently offered as windows onto the baffling mental processes and social behaviour of humans. While pockets of behavioural ecology are specifically concerning themselves with complex predator-prey interactions and the mysteries of mate choice, the broad research terrain draws on ideas from computational neuroscience, adaptive behaviour, neuroscience, ethology, evolutionary biology, connectionism and robotics.

Instinctive swarm intelligence has been described as the collective behaviour of independent agents, each responding to local stimuli without supervision. The swarming model can be employed to comprehend phenomena as diverse as blood clotting, immune responses, footy crowd behaviour, warfare and freeway traffic patterns.

Cicada (artists Kirsten Bradley, Nick Ritar and Ben Frost) tested these waters in February with an elegant immersive project presented in the cavernous 125 year old Meat Market Arts Space in North Melbourne. The trio work as a self-described “creative team exploring landscapes; urban, natural, sonic, constructed and imagined.” The work marks a shift from previous live theatrical collaborations and from the domain of vast real time projections and soundscapes in the architectural outdoors, as seen in their Electrofringe projects and in Re_Squared, 2003, a work that temporarily transformed Sydney’s Australia Square. MOB is concentrated conceptually, and is surprisingly modest, spare and contained in scale.

MOB, in the words of Cicada, “takes its inspiration from the monumental forces, collective emotions and emergent behaviours of the human crowd.” They have “developed MOB into an abstracted and emotive world which explores and parallels the crowd experience.”

MOB comprised 4 projections on 2 long low screens with a grunty 5-channel speaker array hung in parallel. The audience, allowed in only in small groups, entered at either end and experienced the work as an internal ‘corridor.’ The procedure of presenting new work in this intimate way to small gatherings of people and eliciting immediate feedback is a strategy to be commended. Keith Armstrong, among others, employed this approach in the 2003 and 2004 previews of his significant collaborative Intimate Transactions project (see p25).

As part of the 2-year gestation period for MOB, Ritar filled vast amounts of memory capturing footage of South Korean vigils—including the requisite 80,000 control police—for the impeached president. Possibilities continued and finally, the imagery was pared back to what best served the idea. The visual form of the work eventuated as the barely manipulated footage of tiny Chinese ‘white cloud’ Tetra fish swimming in a tank. (The fish themselves are emblematic of yet another Australian ecological disaster; they represent a badly informed attempt to control mosquitoes that went wrong with drastic impact on local fish populations.) The treatment of the imagery was purely temporal, at 110% speed in places with up to 30 layers of repeated movement in others. Parallels were quickly seen by the artists to do with the synthetic relationship between the evolution of the organic movement and the sound score—both were compositions, both held emotive sway.

The aural encounter with MOB was particularly memorable. For this work Frost, who is now based in Iceland, composed a short libretto: “You have lost yourself/ I have lost myself/ We have lost ourselves.’ The text was sung to his score by an Icelandic children’s choir comprising 13 tender voices from the tiny village of Skáholt (population 40). Again the treatments by Frost of his choral recordings were temporal rather than textual, resulting in a bare, haunting and soaring beauty that marked the composition. In both Bradley and Ritar’s video, and in Frost’s audio the treatment was reduced to a process of interruptions, re-arrangements and repetitions. Frost’s attraction to choral music is cognisant of its weighted history, he says. “The recording was made in a church, and the subtext embedded in this form of music remains like a trace in the final piece.” For a short piece, just over 10 minutes, the composition packs an emotional punch: “the disjuncture between the structural pillars creates the tension and forms the connectivity within the work”, Frost explains.

Sound and movement are of course indicators of crowd behaviour while the parameters of the bounded space—the fish tank, the church the Korean public square—are also under scrutiny. A question for Cicada was the point of distinction between the individual and the collective, and the point of disintegration within the group itself. Cicada continues to inhabit the uncomfortable organic space between sound and image as they work towards the formation of, as Ritar explains, “a true synthetic experience.” This is achieved with refreshing subtlety and intelligence.

Cicada, MOB: Investigation of the crowd as a discrete organism. Part one; Arts House, The Meat Market, North Melbourne, Feb 15-18, http://cicada.tv

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 24

© Rhana Davenport; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006