The performances — SimpleText and The MP3 Experiment — were part of a free, university-sponsored event called Handheld. A crowd of strangers giggled, danced and even hugged while they fooled with tools that are often blamed for keeping people apart.
Audience members embarked on the experiment unsure of what would happen throughout the evening, but they eagerly took control when allowed to determine the music, visuals and vivacity of the show.
SimpleText began first. Viewers were asked to send cell-phone or computer-text messages to a specific phone number or URL, while its organizers, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Duncan Murphy and Tim Redfern (collectively known as Family Filter) sat on a small stage controlling the performance.
Software randomly paired the messages with images found using Google’s image search. The image results were projected on a screen, then vocalized using speech-synthesizing software, which emitted a Speak & Spell-type voice. Accompanying electronic music changed in response to each missive, as words starting with letters near the end of the alphabet altered its key.
SimpleText started with a frenzy of dispatches, spouting such missives as “Tim Burton is great” (which triggered a photo of Pee Wee Herman) and “party at my place” (which brought up a picture of a car trunk filled with beer). Some phrases, like “I want mucho potatoes,” didn’t link to any images. A sad, red face and “No images found!” sign accompanied their computerized recitation.
A projected screen showed the messages as they were received opposite a photo paired with text. Giggling filled the room as people quickly realized the absurdity, randomness and — at times — soft-core porn content of images that popped up with text.
“It creates this random sense of community, and because of its anonymity it becomes extra playful,” said participant Kristin O’Friel.
The MP3 Experiment, which started soon after SimpleText, was technologically simpler, but it elicited the same reaction. Organizers asked the audience to listen and respond to an MP3 file that everyone heard concurrently on individual music players.,
Creator Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere came up with the idea about a year ago as a way for people to have a “pure, happy moment.”
“It’s almost more like a party,” he said.
I was initially skeptical of what seemed like an annoying amount of pre-planning. Participants had to download a 26-minute MP3 in advance, transfer it to a portable music player without listening to it and bring the player and headphones to the performance where everyone played the mystery file together.
The MP3 started with music reminiscent of Lost in Space and commands from a deep-voiced narrator named Steve to do things like stand up, walk to the room’s small stage and stretch. Listeners responded slowly at first, smiling nervously.
But when commands turned to things like dancing, blowing bubbles and taking a silent group photo, hesitation was replaced by grins and childish glee.
“It was really, really fun,” said NYU student Lisa Solimeo.
Maybe the enjoyment was sparked by tunes from The Monkees and The Cure, but perhaps there’s just something to be said for acting silly as a group, gadgets in hand.