Among the rapidly multiplying number of artists whose work falls under the generic umbrella of “multimedia,” there is probably no better natural practitioner than an experienced deejay. The record-spinning, digital music-tapping sonic provocateurs have spent the past three decades blending multiple musical art forms into one steady stream of entertainment, all the while collaborating with live musicians, working beneath fantastic light shows, and using their intuition to play to the crowd, whether it be a bar mitzvah, downtown disco, or desert rave. Who better, then, to tackle the dovetailing of sounds and sights than these fast-fingered, professional dabblers in the art of mixing?
The answer, at least on Tuesday night at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, came in the form of one Paul D. Miller, the prolific music maker, writer, director, and thinker known popularly as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. Presenting his hour-long, “work-in-progress” called Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, the baby-faced DJ Spooky took the crowd - many of whom seemed to be taking notes as if for a classroom assignment - on an audio-visual tour of the icy continent, intending it to serve as “hip-hop’s response to environmental change.”
What that looks like is three screens relaying a choppily arranged barrage of images, from recent videos of icebergs, Antarctic vistas, and the requisite penguins to computerized maps, informational charts on rising sea levels, raising global temperatures, and an old Soviet propaganda film about discovering the elusive South Pole that gratuitously comprised nearly all of the third act. All of these visuals, meanwhile, were musically interpreted via an intricate melange of digital noise and live string music, provided impeccably by UCSB musicians Dimitry Olevsky and Katie Waltman on violin, Kate Mendenhall on cello, and Sonia Tripathi on piano. Together, it made for an hour of thought-provoking, sometimes confusing, and occasionally beautiful art, with the live musicians often stealing the show, reminding us all why it’s great to see classically trained impresarios unleash their energy on abstract projects.
On the downside, Terra Nova also made clear that multimedia art shows of the audio-visual nature will never reach their peak until venues are created to properly house them. If multimedia such as DJ Spooky’s do have a place in our 21st-century future - and all signs point to more of them, not less - fans and patrons must advocate for the widespread development of appropriate showspaces, rather than trying to cram such exhibits into places built strictly for sound or film. What exactly that means can be left up to the architectural experts, but plenty of massive video screens teamed with a focal spot for the musicians would be a good start. It might not be financially feasible anytime soon, but if we recognize the potential of multimedia and digital art as an enduring genre, we should get ready to pay for their proper home.
That being said, Campbell Hall worked about as well as any existing venue for DJ Spooky’s show, which turned out to be very much like attending a traditional deejay showcase. In both the concert and multimedia realms, attendees show up knowing a little about what to expect, and then are treated to snippets of information. Traditionally, that comes in the forms of sampled music and selected cuts. In the multimedia case of Terra Nova, that translated to bits and pieces of both audio and visual information, giving just enough to pique our interest in the material, but not enough to satisfy our curiosity entirely. Those who want to know more, whether that means tracking down the source material for the deejay spinning in the club or the full charts that flashed briefly onscreen, must go on their own journey of discovery, likely learning a lot more on the way.
What was the central thesis? No one’s entirely sure, as the show came with no explanation other than being a study of sound in Antarctica, which we learned is the only continent not owned by any country, was the location of the first arms agreement during the Cold War, and remains a mysterious, dangerous land. The dire sound of the accompanying music clearly means we should be worried about Antarctica’s future, but DJ Spooky’s presentation had no room for long-winded policy statements or straightforward enlightenments. What is certain is that the show will be talked about for days on end, and maybe that’s exactly the point of multimedia art after all.