Pub Night with Breihan, Cabaj, & Sheppard: What You Missed

Today’s post was written by library student assistant Catalina Garcia.

Our first Faculty Pub Night of the spring semester featured the work of Christine Breihan, Stacey Cabaj, and Jason Sheppard, a dream team who collaborated to explore how the senses through the use of technology can be integrated into the performing arts. Due to COVID-19, 2020 was a difficult year; and the performing arts weren’t able to fully express themselves in their art because of all of the safety regulations and which posed a challenge. In response to this, the dream team collaborated on how to involve technology in performing arts to further express themselves through a project called “The Sound of Touch.”

Cabaj starts off the seminar by sharing her experience in 2020 and how it was a tough time in her life. As a communicator of collaborative art, she sat at home and wondered how her experience was shifting as a human being and how the pandemic affected her sensory perception. She also realized that like many other people, she also spent a lot of time on screens, on her phone, and she saw how technology-mediated presence. Through this, she discovered Playtronica, which is a “creative technology studio… [that] has found a way of making music with pretty much anything including vegetables” (source). These electronic devices were created in 2014 to broaden a fresh path for musical education and to invent instruments from everyday life. So far, there are three devices, the first one is called Playtron, which “allows you to play on any object that conducts electricity, as on a piano keyboard,” and can turn almost any object into a conductive object like if you were to touch flowers, you would be able to hear the flowers (source). The second device was created in 2018, and it’s called TouchMe, which uses human touch to make music and allows it to “play music on skin” (source). An example of this would be if you were to hold another person’s hand, the device you are holding would able to create music from touch.

The reason Cabaj decided to introduce this project is that it is a deliberate choice to use technology and mix our senses, and it allows us to view the world differently or see how the world is through people who are wired differently. Breihan was very intrigued by this project because she has synesthesia, which is “an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality.

Synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes,” and in Breihan’s case, she can see the colors of numbers (source). Breihan is a movement instructor and she describes theater as a team sport collaborative form, and her role in this project was to lead a workshop by gathering a group of students to explore different ways how we see movement. One sense in particular, touch, was very hard to work with because touch comes with trauma and she wanted to know what was the role of touch in a movement classroom that feels safe and comfortable within our boundaries, and if you could even incorporate these devices in the theater.

However, they were still lacking the technical skills to fully start their project, which is when they contacted Sheppard to help them with that aspect. Using TouchMe, they created a short movement piece that expresses the evolution of touch in relationships. The way TouchMe works is that your body conducts electricity and completes a circuit, so the movement with what you touch creates a sound using a synthesizer. The last device hasn’t come out yet, but it is supposed to convert color to sound and it’s coming out later this year. There were three phases to this project. The first phase is using TouchMe, they paired up actors into groups and uses some iPads to connect TouchMe to each actor. They then prepared a scene to tell a story using sound. The second phase consisted of using the Playtron and they had participants record their experience of the pandemic and how they felt. They then used metal cookie sheets and ran circuits back to the computer and a speaker. When you stepped on the cookie sheet and held the Playtron in another hand, you can hear the voice of a student recording. The third and final phase was creating a pandemic sculpture where the participants filled out a questionnaire about what sounds and objects they associated with the pandemic. You would then hold the device in one hand and touch the copper element in the other hand, and a sound would make.

Through this project, Breihan was able to utilize the laban movement which is a way of analyzing and articulation what we see in human movement. Human effort is a quality used to describe human movement and the amount of weight you are giving to a movement or touch, special awareness, time, flow is something that they incorporated through the devices. The dream team soon realized that pressure changes the pitch and tone, so if you were to touch something hard, the tone of that note would change. Another factor they used was the Amber thesis, which means acting through the senses to explore multi-sensory experiences. Through using TouchMe, they told a story of a daughter and a mom based on the different sounds. The story went from the mom and infant, to later on in life having arguments, to making up and completing the circle of life as the daughter has her child. This allowed them to develop the pandemic experience project and using the recordings they developed something emotional and raw. The minute you step on a cookie sheet with bare feet, you could hear someone’s experience living through the pandemic.

This made many participants feel emotional and raw because they felt like they were invading someone’s space but they realized how they experienced what that person was feeling and stepped into their shoes. The Sound of Touch allowed them to find meaning through touch and sound, and what that physically does to use to recreate an emotional response.