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A Sense of Discovery 

Altered audiovisual states at Euphor!um and the Audium

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
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When I was a small child, I stumbled on a simple game of sensory deception while carrying a mirror from one room to another. If I gazed only at the image of the ceiling reflected between my hands, the familiar floor of my living room took on a surreal quality: hanging plants rose out of smooth planes of white plaster with their leaves growing at exotic angles; light bulbs on long, delicate chains stood at attention between billows of cloth that defied gravity. At first, I stepped around these marvels, only to bark my shin on a nearby chair; then, after realizing I should not rely on my sense of sight, I began to feel my way through the known environment while enjoying the contradictory images my eyes offered to my newly developing brain. I learned larger mirrors were better. Staircases became interesting, their narrow, sloping grades lurching and swooning as the mirror jostled under my hesitant step. Open skies were riveting. On the sweet-smelling safety of lawns, I hopped from cloud to cloud, avoiding telephone wires and stomping on treetops. Even knowing what I did, crossing the vast expanses of open blue space caused my heart to race and, on one occasion, I recall a passing adult baffled by my large mirror and audible exclamations of "Whoa! Whoa! Just a little farther. Just a few more steps." I was a strange little kid.

Over that experimental year, I launched other investigations: I kept my eyes closed for long periods of time, going through breakfast and getting dressed by touch (no one seemed to notice a significant change in my fashion sense); I stuffed my ears with toilet paper and tried not to breathe through my nose; I looked at the sun and then pressed on my eyelids; I held my breath until the couch was covered in tiny flashing meteorites; I lay in the dark and listened to static and drew what I heard. While none of these latter experiments provoked me the way the mirror trick had, they carried me through until I discovered hallucinogens, which, for a time, reinvigorated my childish senses. Everything was completely new. Sight and sound overlapped and became nonsensical, mythic, and fascinating. It was during this time that I first read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." "Kubla Khan," as every junior high school student knows, was the result of no uncertain genius and a fair dose of laudanum. It is an epic and supremely sensual poem, which is what brought me to Euphor!um, the latest work by the technology-savvy Antenna Theater.

Pink floodlights draw me from the water's edge of the Presidio to a red portal door outlined in rose-colored light. Red light streams from inside the building, where people sit sipping water and wine at small crimson daises under a large Oriental archway. An ornate golden hookah stands on a long beautiful table where Managing Director Steven Leon answers his headset and takes reservations on a glowing laptop. Sitar music mingles with the smell of freshly cut orchids.

I step through a black curtain into large dark space with a single red dais under a single spotlight. I am given headphones and a magic pouch containing a sensor, and invited to step through the second curtain into utter darkness. A bust of Coleridge is illuminated as a voice explains the creation of "Kubla Khan." I am invited to sit on a large red chair and close my eyes. Hands touch my shoulder, gently guiding me off the chair and into unknown space. A large, square helmet is placed over my head, and my hand is led to a corrugated railing. In the headphones, birds sing and rivers flow as the first stanza of "Kubla Khan" carries me into the "fertile land," and I take my first hesitant steps forward, led only by my sense of touch. Outlandish flowers, butterflies, birds, and castle walls swirl before me, seemingly underfoot, but as with my childhood mirror trick, the images I see are hanging from the ceiling, illusive and untouchable. I understand that this is technology based on carnival attractions and a 19th-century parlor trick called "Peppers Ghost," but it doesn't matter. I feel my sense of equilibrium shift, and I grip the railing harder as I try to hurry through the scene, but the railing is snaky and meandering, requiring slow, deliberate pacing and careful foot placement as it curls back on itself. Voices wail; waning moons and red demon lovers rise out of the "savage place," glimmering before my eyes. I pass into the "sacred river" where ships sail through an eddy of liquid lights and Kubla Khan appears inches before my face with vicious arms and grimacing teeth. I am fully immersed now, my feet long forgotten. I follow the path, through the "ancestral voices prophesying war" where skeletons embrace beside murderous brutes with evil weapons of torture, into the calming blue of the "pleasure dome" where caves of ice sparkle and whirl. I am only vaguely conscious of the rippled banister under my hand; my awareness is now wholly confined to the helmet on my head. There is a sensation of floating as a copper-colored damsel with a dulcimer glides by, winning me with the symphony and song that flows between my ears. Then, Coleridge is there, with flashing eyes and floating hair, drunk on the milk of paradise. Slowly, the fiendish face evaporates and only the glowing eyes remain.

My helmet is removed and I am invited to recline in the decompression room before joining other patrons in the atrium, where I find them engaged in casual conversation about poetry, memory, drugs, and dreams.

"This is theater of the mind," explains Steven Leon. "The whole show happens between your ears, so it can stimulate some very interesting conversations. This is one of the few shows I've seen where people actually stay around afterwards to talk, and talk about poetry no less. It's pretty amazing."

At the invitation of Technical Director Sean Horton, I slip back through the curtain to watch other audience members make their journeys. The helmets, which cover both head and face, con- tain mirrors that reflect the ceiling and floor, creating a composite 3-D image for the viewer while obliterating all other scenery. Unaware of their real surroundings -- the maze of cloth, the crew that delicately manipulates lights and motion, the other customers who may be only a few feet away -- patrons walk slowly along the banister, completely immersed in their own sensory experiences.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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