Friday, November 01, 2013

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Invisible Cities: Masterpiece Mixed Reality Opera Creates a Shared Virtual World Within Los Angeles' Union Station

Invisible Cities mixed reality opera

Invisible Cities is a mixed reality opera playing in Los Angeles' Union Station, and if you can attend this weekend or next week (when the show ends its run) you absolutely should. It's easily the best live public art I've ever seen, and more key, suggests an entirely new medium of performance ideal for the smartphone era, a time when all of us feel constantly connected and simultaneously cut off from the world around us.

Based on Italo Calvino's classic book of the same name, in which Marco Polo tells Kubla Khan about the fantastic cities he's visited in his travels, the opera uses wireless earphones and mics to create a shared virtual world within Los Angeles' cavernous, art deco-inflected train station. The performers quietly sing through small headset mics as they move through the station, and their voices are mixed with the music from a live orchestra at the end of the hall; while this happens, dancers in costumes designed to evoke different eras and cultures also perform throughout the station, creating the sense that they are citizens in these cities that Marco Polo describes.

Watch this video below to better understand what I mean:

All of this happens while life in Union Station goes on -- passengers arriving or waiting to depart, conductors, custodians, and restaurant staff still working -- which makes them and the audience part of the show. However, since only the audience can hear the full opera on their headphones, everyone else just sees dozens of oddly dressed people singing to themselves (it seems) or randomly flailing around. (After the show, a guy asked me and my girlfriend, "What was all that dancing, some kind of voodoo?") The effect is a shared group experience that embraces the environment and the people within it too.

Invisible Cities Mixed Reality Opera experience

Unsurprisingly, Invisible Cities the book has also inspired a number of art projects in the virtual world of Second Life, such as this one, and this one by Cao Fei. I suspect (and hope) that Invisible Cities the opera inspires more performances which create virtual worlds layered above the world we all share.

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