Commissioned in 2012 for The Creators Project's San Francisco event, Chris Milk’s The Treachery of Sanctuary first debuted inside a giant Fort Mason pavilion. Tomorrow in London, a major digital art exhibition launches at the Barbican Centre, that features The Treachery of Sanctuary with a special, reactive sound design accompaniment by Mira Calix. Digital Revolution, the so-called survey of practitioners in the various fields of tech-art, has tons to see—both retro and modern—across the genres of art, design, music, film and video games.
The Treacher of Sanctuary is composed of three white monolithic screens sitting above a black reflective pool, visitors are invited to the pool's edge, where their shadows appear on the first screen before dissolving into a flock of fluttering birds. On the second panel, the birds appear again, this time pecking away at and consuming the spectator's spectre. In their shadows on the third screen, the participant is bestowed with wings.
Expanded for the Barbican, this new iteration features some changes— not least the addition of a dynamic score by Mira Calix. We caught up with Milk and Calix and spoke about the nature of their collaboration and the differences between this iteration of The Treachery of Sanctuary and the original installation.
The collaboration itself came about as something of a happy accident.
Back at the San Francisco event, Calix and Milk's installations were neighbors. When the sounds from Calix's piece bled over into The Treachery of Sanctuary, Milk describes having a "magical moment" when he realized this intrusion was actually a blessing—the choral sounds of the artist responsible for these singing stones were a perfect fit for the virtual metamorphoses taking place on-screen. The collaboration was born when Milk asked Calix to custom-compose a reactive soundscape that changes when participants unfold their wings and perform various motions.
While the music was the most dramatic change, it's wasn't the only one. "We’ve added a few easter eggs that people can discover," Milk revealed to The Creators Project. "We’ve also updated the hardware to use the new Kinect sensors. And we're doing something I've been trying to do for the last two years. In the third panel I've always wanted for you to actually be able to fly up into the air and off the screen. It’s been a bit of a programming nightmare, but we have a working prototype."
As well as bestowing it with flight, the piece's programmers—creative software developers Aaron Meyers and Brian Chasalow—also had to modify the piece to fit the smaller space, as well as updating it for the new Kinect and ensuring it was in a ready state to tour with the exhibition for the next five years. The first two panels have been cut in width, but they provide no less of an emotional experience. The smaller space came into play when Calix was creating the sound. "Chris wanted the emotional soar that we had in San Francisco by accident," she said, "but it was also about making sure harmonically everything fits."
One issue Calix faced was the lack of a fixed time for the music. It's constantly active, as participants work their way through the installation, which is "Tricky," she notes, "because it’s creating a three-part harmony that always works no matter where it’s triggered. The thing about music is it’s very difficult when you don’t have a fixed time. It has to be incredibly simple to always work. There’s a background sound, a background part, which is really a harmonic of all three screens, a kind of harmonic bed that runs through the whole installation. It’s three parts and then a harmonic of those three parts, so it’s a four-part piece. And it's voices, except for the background part which is a sort of granular version of that."
These voices were informed by the memories of the space in San Francisco, including the high ceilings and the chamber-esque reverb it created. “We wanted to remake that haziness almost as if the voices were coming across the waves," notes Calix. "We’ve taken excerpts from that sensation and that feeling.”
Along with The Treachery of Sanctuary, other pieces by Milk, including The Johnny Cash Project, a collaboration with Aaron Koblin, and The Wilderness Downtown, his interactive browser-based music video for Arcade Fire, are present in the show, too. "I’ve been making these projects in different ways for different audiences, and I’ve been trying to figure out ways to use technology to connect with an audience on a deeper level than we could without the use of that technology," Milk says. "To do it at scale means doing it on the internet. If we want a million people to be able to experience something simultaneously with interactive I can’t do it in a museum. I have to do it online."
But there might be a way of combing the two, and Milk sees virtual reality as being the key to creating emotionally engaging work which can also reach a mass audience."My goal is always a human one," he explains, "The technology that I’m using on one end of the spectrum is emotionally engaging, but not scalable, and on the other side it’s scalable but not as emotionally engaging. And what I’m trying to find is how to have both: emotionally engaging and scalable. And that’s VR." We anxiously await the day we'll be able to enjoy The Treachery of Sanctuary from home.
To learn more, visit the Digital Revolution exhibition website.
Photo credit: Matthew G Lloyd. Getty Images