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EMP Interactions: Dark Arts
Amy Kirtay speaks with Toni Hall, Arya Hawker and Steve Bjørnson, Victoria’s keepers of the light.
On Saturday June 18th, EMP Interactions will be at the helm of something unlike anything Victoria has ever seen. They’ll be responsible for an immersive visual performance inside Crag X Climbing Centre, an immense, modernist state-of-the-art structure in the heart of downtown Victoria that opened last November.
The towering triangular climbing panels of the gym will be animated by an array of material produced by the collective, some of which is based on content supplied by the musicians.
Those musicians, Vancouver’s Souns and Magneticring, will be performing live, original ambient music, fleshing out a unique evening of programming that embodies the spirit at the heart of Victoria’s newest festival, Pretty Good Not Bad. Tickets are available online.
Who is EMP Interactions?
Steve Bjørnson: My name is Steve Bjørnson and I’m a problem solver, a technician and I like to make things. I live in Victoria and I’m part of a radical crew of people that are trying to turn this place into something really beautiful.
Toni Hall: I’m Toni Hall. I’m a fake Fine Arts graduate and I’ve always been interested in building an artistic community. It wasn’t really provided to me growing up so I’ve always been looking for a community where other people put their artistic medium to use. I enjoy making connections with people, working with environmental aesthetics and creating certain spaces for people to have creative thoughts in. I studied sound and light in school and I’m affiliated with sub|division, Urban Therapy and EMP Interactions.
Arya Hawker: I’m Arya Hawker. I’m a visual artist and multimedia designer. I’m interested in the way that people interact with what they see and I explore that interest in as many mediums as I can. I think of myself as working in psychology but through visual mediums. As a kid I loved illusions and magic, which translated into anything that visually struck me. And that kinda applied to other senses as well. Currently it’s interactive design and video and engaging visual sciences.
Can you tell me how you all connected and came to form EMP interactions. What drew you all together?
TH: I met Steve about four years ago and as a result, met a bunch of creative people through him. Steve and I started throwing events at warehouses and we began to explore projection mapping and environmental design as a whole. We met Arya through another collective, but at the time, we didn’t have any opportunity to work together.

AH: We never got to work together in a collaborative way. It was even difficult for us to communicate with one another.

TH: We just talked about joining forces and having the ability to create with more like minded people.

AH: “Hey you clearly like to do things that I like to do, and we are both going to do them. Do you want to not be competitors and steal each other’s business?”

Telling people to bring pillows, we’re letting them know: be prepared to relax a little bit and open your mind. You won’t be forced to move a certain way or think a certain thing, it’s very much an artistic experience.

Do you think that you guys work so well because everyone has their own space within the creative process?

TH: That’s a key component. If we were all strictly motion graphic designers or programmers, there would be a lot more conflict. But there isn’t; we can all have different perspectives on the same thing and improve the work.

SB: Our skill sets do cross over but because of that, it’s a bit more synthetic; we are able to support each other through the particular lenses that we apply.

What would you say the vision for EMP interactions is?

SB: I want to make a life out of my creative passions and not have to worry so much. So by teaming up and working with these two, we better our chances, as it’s very tiring to do all this work by yourself. Our creative vision is to build something to sustain the lifestyle that we want, which involves building a community, being creative, having a good time and making sure that everyone else is having a good time. It’s about construction and not destruction.
AH: I would second that.
If we’re doing our job right, the whole experience becomes singular. It’s like you can’t tell where the projections end, what is sound responsive and what is automated.
EMP Interactions is currently the creative directors for Urban Therapy but can you describe to me your role and the creative direction there?
TH: A crucial part of Urban Therapy is the use of visuals to create different environments for people that they normally wouldn’t encounter; a space to open the imagination.
AH: Toni started Urban Therapy and it began with her doing all the visual elements in a group that was otherwise mostly musicians. Since then, we’ve all been involved in more event design, whether its on a rooftop or a club or in the middle of nowhere, we end up doing the decor. But it’s more than just decor, cause its interactive decor. It’s so closely aligned to the work that we do together as EMP, that sometimes the lines blur for us.
Where did the name EMP come from?
AH: UV Light is made from electromagnetic interactions. A lot of our creative casually uses elements of electromagnetic interactions so we thought that the visual of a pulse, mixed with the kind of science of all the technology we use, that EMP was too appropriate.
SB: An Electromagnetic Pulse is actually also a phenomenon that happens after a nuclear explosion, it is a shock wave of electromagnetic irrigation that knocks out everything — all electronics that have a transistor get nerfed.
EMP will be performing at Pretty Good Not Bad. Tell me about how you each got involved with the project and what pushed you to get involved?
AH: Chris Long (PGNB Music Programmer) made sure we had work at the beginning when EMP got going; otherwise it would have been months without work.TH: He gave us the opportunity to test EMP out at sub|division. Chris and I had all been talking about doing and event like Pretty Good Not Bad for a long time. Dan Godlovitch as well. People that they know, people like us [Steve, Arya], we’ve all been talking about having this kind of opportunity in Victoria. We’re so excited to make it happen.

The Crag X visual performance is listed as: “spatial augmented reality, motion capture, midi and audio reactivity”— can you explain to me what that means?
TH: It should be “motion capture spatial augmented reality with some midi and audio reactivity.” It’s a bit of an inside joke for us as it’s really hard to explain what we do when we are describing our work to people. You only really get it if you see it. Sometimes we opt for the most supremely technical description of the thing that’s already tough to wrap your head around.
AH: Actually none of those words are false or improperly used. Spatial augmented reality is just another word for projection mapping, AR is augmented reality, VR is virtual reality. Virtual reality is when you’re looking into another world, augmented reality is when this world that you’re in right now gets enhanced. Projection mapping is about enhancing the world around you so technically, its spatial augmented reality. We’re using a Xbox/Microsoft Kinect v2, that is one of those add-ons for an Xbox; that’s the motion capture. So instead of just using knobs to control the visuals, we’re going to be using our hands and bodies.
Through the movement of our hands, the content will get darker or lighter; particles will follow our hands around. That’s what makes this more of a performance. Typically, we were always just “the tech guys.” We were always just asked “where can we put you?” Usually we’d end up behind the curtain or in the sound booth.
SB: Or we’ll be at the side and people will come and request songs from us. People will assume that we’re DJs!
It’s as though people just think of the music, but don’t get how all the elements are coming together to make this space.
TH: … yeah, when everything in life is so visual as well as auditory!
SB: Most of the time, if we’re doing our job right, the whole experience becomes singular. It’s like you can’t tell where the projections end, what is sound responsive and what is automated. With this PGNB show, it’s nice that we get to be a little bit more “showey offey” — we’re even on the poster!
AH: I think the fact that people don’t get that we have a direct connection to the visuals that are surrounding them can actually be good sometimes because it puts us in a position where we can see how people react.
It’s somewhat similar to science; you come up with a theory and then you test the theory, then you have observations and next time you do it a bit differently. I think the scientific process is similar; we’re all working on it together, like in a make-shift lab.
What was the creative vision for the Crag X performance?
AH: It’s the largest structure we’ve projected onto. We are usually responsible for creating structures ourselves, but at Crag X, the climbing walls are immersive and wrap around the room. So we’re choosing how to paint the room with light very carefully.
Was there a specific reason that Crag X was picked as a location?
TH: A big part of PGNB’s aim is to reclaim urban environments; augmenting spaces, nurturing creative hubs and enabling experimentation. Anyone who has every stepped foot in Crag X will understand why it’s an obvious choice for this manner of event.
How are you collaborating with the musicians that are performing?
TH: We’re working with Michael Red, who will be performing under his Souns moniker and Magneticring; they’ve sent us their input and assets.
AH: Collaborators are giving us more creative freedom. Usually the emails are something like “here are all the things I have been using but, I wouldn’t mind a few cherries and whipped cream on top.” We pride ourselves on fitting into anybody’s vision — all you have to do is tell us what that vision is. But I think this is a unique opportunity to go a little nuts.
I noticed that you’ve recommended that people bring pillows. Is this going to be like a giant interactive lounge party?
All: Yes!
TH: [I’m inspired by] Olafur Eliasson’s giant sun installation; he had a reflective ceiling that he made look like the sun by reflecting this glowing light onto hanging material in an old train station. We’re aiming for a similar kind of thing; a very reflective and social environment.
AH: There is something therapeutic about ambient music in that it often forgoes the percussive element. The percussive element is in the textures but [traditional dance elements] are antithetical in ambient music because they’re too much a reminder of a clock, of measurements or finite expression.
There is something therapeutic about ambient music in that it often forgoes the percussive element. The percussive element is in the textures but [traditional dance elements] are antithetical in ambient music because they’re too much a reminder of a clock, of measurements or finite expression.
And so ambient music, and indeed ambient visuals, are parallel to the idea of immersive media. To really appreciate ambient music, you have to meditate. You have to breath, use your ears and not be in a rush. Telling people to bring pillows, we’re letting them know: be prepared to relax a little bit and open your mind. You won’t be forced to move a certain way or think a certain thing, it’s very much an artistic experience.
SB: It promotes that inclusive thing too. Everyone knows what a pillow means, it means we’re going to chill. And if you don’t know what ambient music is, it might come across a little scary. But when you see “bring a pillow,” and you bring one, it becomes kinda fun. Seeing a room full of people just laying around — wow! Hopefully people are just able to chill the ‘eff out.