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Currents is back, showcasing the evolution of technology

Currents New Media show artist Juri Hwang’s “Somatic Echo” allows people to experience sound through bone conduction, rather than through the ear canal.

SANTA FE, N.M. — When participants get hooked up to the “Somatic Echo,” they will experience the sense of hearing in a new way.

The installation created by Juri Hwang, a native of South Korea who is currently a media artist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Los Angeles, explores the transmitting of sound through bone conduction.

Via several vibrating transducers attached to the head, participants will experience a four-minute soundscape, which includes music, voices, and natural and abstract sounds. But instead of the sound going through the air and then the ear canal to the inner ear, the sound is transmitted straight to the cochlear from the person’s bones via the vibrations.

“Your body is the medium,” Hwang told the Journal.

“Somatic Echo” is one of several new media installations and/or performances that will be featured during the opening weekend of the 10th Currents New Media Festival in and around El Museo Cultural in the Railyard.

Only about 70 people, who must sign up for a time slot through a link on Currents’ website, will be able to experience Hwang’s “evocative” technology.

She noted that one’s own voice sounds different when it’s recorded.

“That’s because we listen to our voice partially through bone-conducted sound. Sound is resonated in our head, like the sinus and bones, and it is bypassing the air conducted one that it goes directly to the cochlear through the vibrations.”

Hwang said she wanted to explore how people’s spacial perceptions change when experiencing sound through their bodies. It may be an unusual sensory experience, she said, but bone-conducted sound goes back to the earliest life experience. In the womb, for example, it is how we hear our mother’s voices.

“It is unfamiliar, but at the same time you will find that kind of comfort and familiarity that’s embedded in our memories, as well,” Hwang said. “Very technologically mediated, but at the same time I’m exploring something that is very innate to us and emotionally appealing, as well.”

Toronto-based artist and researcher Raul Altosaar will have pop-up performances during Currents New Media’s opening weekend using his musical invention, in which virtual reality controllers can read sensors that he puts on inanimate objects. The sensors trigger sounds and he’s able to compose performances on the spot.

An estimated 10,000 visitors are expected to attend the three-week New Currents festival, a large fraction of which come during opening weekend, said founders Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster. About 95 international artists will be represented at Currents.

When Ragano and Amster started the festival in 2010, it was to bring the new media world to a smaller and more traditional city like Santa Fe, and showcase work from emerging or underappreciated digital artists. That first year, they said, somewhere between 1,000-2,000 visitors came to the festival, which showcased largely video and animation work.

Now, the technology, as well as artists’ ability to use it, has evolved to more complex work using virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and more.

Approaching the tenth festival, Ragano said he and Amster like to believe they’ve been a catalyst for the showcasing of more digital and new media art in the City Different.

“I think it’s part of our culture that this is unfolding as an expressive form,” said Amster.

‘Never felt anything like it before’

Along with “Somatic Echo,” opening weekend will include other installations and performances from local and outside artists that are exclusive to those first three days.

Outside of El Museo, Santa Fe-based artist and cinematographer Billie Mitchell – who has had work at Currents for the past five years – will be debuting his “Mobile Projection Platform.” The video experience takes place inside a stationary minivan.

In his film work, Mitchell often uses nine cameras to capture all sides of a moving car for driving scenes. Using footage from these jobs – which include major productions like Netflix’s “Glow” and CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” as well the recently shot local film “Santa Fake” – he plans to project film onto the windows of the minivan.

Nearly 30 different scenes take the viewers from Santa Fe to different locations around the continent, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Baltimore and Mexico City. Mitchell said the installation gives the optical illusion of riding in spots like the Brooklyn Bridge, the National Mall in D.C. or up the road to Ski Santa Fe.

“It kind of takes you there,” Mitchell said. “You feel like you’re looking through the car as if it was going across that bridge.”

Both in and outside of the venue, selected artists will be staging pop-up performances. One of them, Toronto-based creator and researcher Raul Altosaar, said the musical invention at the center of his performance is a difficult technology to define. His “Physically Colliding with Sound” uses what he calls the “Very Real Looper.” He attaches sensors made with a video game engine to inanimate objects, then uses virtual reality controllers to trigger certain sounds that come off the objects. He said he’s able to make compositions on the spot.

The performance does not include a headset or the virtual imagery usually associated with V.R. “This is almost like flipped inside out,” he said.

He said that his performance has a lot to do with a sense of place. In the Railyard, he will use objects found around Santa Fe. The sounds attached to the objects through the sensors include birds chirping, kickdrums and trains running on tracks.

Altosaar described the performance as highly physical and intense.

“I think its magical, and people feel that because they’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Altosaar. “And I’ve also never felt anything like it before.”

Opening weekend events are Friday from 6 p.m.-midnight, Saturday from noon-midnight, and Sunday from noon-7 p.m. For the first time, Currents will offer a free shuttle during opening weekend from El Museo to other gallery spaces showcasing digital art. Those location include Currents’ own, recently opened Currents 826, hosting a national show of artists who have interpreted new ways of weaving and stitching in the digital age. The others are Peters Projects, form & concept, GalleryFRITZ and Art House. The shuttle will run from noon-5 p.m., Fri.-Sun.

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