Underneath the Sibley dome, adjacent to the College of Architecture, Art and Planning Dean’s Office, is Polyphony. It is an interactive art installation designed by Liu (Leo) Jingyang ’15, Shining (Christina) Sun ’17 and Yue Gu ’16 — all current or former architecture students. To say that the project sounds interesting — “an interactive audio-visual installation that generates a simultaneous feedback loop between performance, image and sound” — is to say little about the installation. Yet, how does it actually look, sound and perform?
The first time I entered the John Hartell Gallery (where Polyphony is installed), I sensed that something was wrong. There were multiple stands with computers and other devices in the middle of the room, but all of them were turned off. TVs mounted onto one of the walls showed pictures of how, presumably, the entire room should have looked. At the Dean’s Office, I was told that someone accidentally unplugged a part of the system, which shut down the rest. Before leaving, I reached out to Jingyang, hoping the exhibition would soon resume. A few hours later, I received a response from Sun, who assured me the system was back up.
The next day, I met Sun in the gallery as she showed me the installation. She was enthusiastic and soft-spoken, wearing a cream colored dress with silver, iridescent brogues. The computers were working, connected to two motion sensors with cameras. Each was pointed in the opposite direction, facing a wall. Two projectors were set up side-by-side, also turned away from each other. One showed a computer simulated graphic of water, and the other seemingly nothing. As Sun walked in front of the sensor responsible for the blank wall, she turned and waved her arms in sweeping motions. Suddenly, glitter-like trails illuminated the wall. They followed her hand movements and could be reset by clenching one’s fist. The trails were computer simulated animations. The computers in the room analyzed and processed data from Sun’s movements in real-time. Along with the animations, polyphonic sounds emerged from the speakers (hence the title Polyphony). In music, polyphony refers to two or more tunes played simultaneously, as opposed to a single coordinated melody. Cacophony would be a fitting word to describe the term and the exhibition. As long as there was movement, there was “an audio-visual response.” Between the image and acoustic elements, “there is a simultaneous feedback loop,” said Sun. This allows each system to generate responses to the same input data, in this case people’s movements.
She told me to try it out. I moved in front of the device, flapping and swinging my arms while praying not to look like an imbecile. It worked. I had just directly influenced a work of art by creating a pattern on the wall. It was a liberating experience. Polyphony gave agency to the viewer, allowing one to create images and sounds that fulfill the purpose of the work itself. The other wall reacted to movements by disturbing the water graphic. Sounds played without delay. The artwork looked professional with an aura of D.I.Y. ingenuity on a budget. The sensor tools were Xbox Kinect devices, developed by Microsoft for interactive gaming without the need to use a controller. The team used open-source software, such as Supercollider for the audio responses. They received a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts and additional support from the Hartell Gallery, which also helped finance the opening reception. According to Lindsay Lavine, the exhibitions and Event Coordinator at the College of Art, Architecture and Planning, “this was one of the first interactive art exhibitions [at the college].”
When we left the gallery, Sun invited me to talk at her desk in the architecture studio in Milstein Hall. On her desk were several 3D printed models, a laptop and some sketches. There was also a computer mouse, whose shape was deconstructed into individual panels with sharp, aggressive edges. Seeing the mouse, I had to ask Sun the age old question of how form should relate to function, whether in art or architecture. “I think [form and function] are inseparable; it is not either or. Something could be beautiful and functional as well. I cannot design without thinking about one or the other,” she said. Jingyang joined us after a few minutes, wearing jeans and a button-down. He graduated Cornell with a masters in architecture. and implemented most of the technical aspects of the project. I inquired about any challenges, such as the accidental shut down, he encountered during the development stage. “The pipeline between these [various systems] can be fragile,” he said, referring to the line of communication between the parts that collect movement data and those that implement the audio-image duet based on that data. “It’s a hurdle that every interactive artist will face, but fortunately for this project, I think it is very robust,” he added.
Gu, the third partner, now works in New York City at RAMSA, one of the world’s premier architectural firms. She also graduated from Cornell’s masters in architecture. program this past spring. “I kind of dragged them both into [the project],” joked Sun, who was the mastermind behind Polyphony.
The inspiration for the project came from a variety of sources, but also seemed to be a product of organic, artistic growth. Sun comes from a family of art collectors. She hosted her first exhibition at 17 years of age, in Shanghai. She met her teammates at Cornell; Gu was her partner for Prof. Jenny Sabin’s robotic fabrication studio, while Leo was the teaching associate. Drawing ideas from Prof. Sabin’s work on digital fabrication, the trio was “interested in designing interactive experiences through design algorithms,” said Jingyang. Prof. Sabin was the main advisor and mentor for Polyphony.
Despite the challenges, the exhibition was a definite success. The trio is now planning to show Polyphony at a gallery in New York City. As interactive installation is coming in vogue in contemporary art and the use of technology as an aesthetic tool is as prevalent as ever, we can expect to see many artists venture into digitalization and virtual reality. Architecture students, like the team of Polyphony, tend to understand the interplay of beauty and engineering like no one else does.
Andrei Kozyrev is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.