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Tonight: RPI Students Present Sensory Experience On Lake George

Students view footage from The Wave installation at EMPAC on the RPI campus
Lucas Willard
Students view footage from The Wave installation at EMPAC on the RPI campus

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers at Lake George have been collecting data on the Adirondack lake as part of the Jefferson Project, a collaboration between RPI, IBM, and the FUND for Lake George.

As part of a special exhibit tonight at RPI’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, students have taken data and transformed it into a sensory experience that includes visual and audio field recordings, as well as data visualization and sonification to explore the data in a unique way.

Students made final preparations on the installation Tuesday evening.

Called The Wave: An Immersive Sensory Exchange, the installation being presented tonight at EMPAC on the RPI campus is described as a “hybrid experience” to tell a new kind of story for Lake George.

Inside a black box theater, visitors will notice three large screens on one wall displaying projections of reflecting water, high elevation drone video footage of Lake George, and peculiar geometric patterns.

Madeline MacDonald, a third-year architecture student at RPI, was one of the students who traveled to Lake George and helped develop the visual component of the installation.

“So it’s kind of a combination of both direct capture of our experience at Lake George and also the data that we’ve extracted from the sheets that the Jefferson Project has been giving us. So we’re kind of giving an experience that brings you elevation in the air all the way down to the land into the water. Intermixed with that is the actual pulling of data into a visualization so that begins to layer with the images and the videos that we’ve collected while we were up there,” said MacDonald.

You’ll also notice three models that together represent the 32-mile lake and surrounding topography.

Fifth-year School of Architecture students Jennifer Gentile and Kristen Anderson helped develop the models.

Gentile, who speaks first, called the model an actor in itself — part of the performance.

“The model that you see now will be filled with water. And when these lights are shone down on them, the water kind of creates movement creates reflections on the ceiling and everything. So it’s its own kind of physical object working along with the digital aspect of the video as well as the digital aspect of the audio,” said Jessica Gentile.

“And in addition to that we thought it was important to have a physical model because it relates to another sense which would be touch. And our installation is a sensory exchange for both sound, visual, and physical data,” added Anderson.

What you’ll hear is a combination of field recordings, interviews, and data that has been turned into sound.

Assistant Professor Rob Hamilton says patterns observed in a variety of data are assigned tones through a computer.

“The simplest example would be a sine wave. As the temperature of the lake increases, we would increase the frequency of the sine oscillator. We would all hear that very clearly as the pitch of the note rising. As we get deeper and deeper into this, we can tie in multiple parameters at the same time. We can take the temperature of the lake, have that drive the frequency of the note. We can have the wind speed drive the volume of that note, the amplitude. We can have the pattern of how often notes play or how many notes play, based on a different variable. And on and on and on,” said Hamilton.

Different tones can illustrate different events affecting the lake. Mallory Morgan, a second-year Ph.D. student in RPI’s architectural acoustics program, described how a “salt storm” might be heard through data sonification.

“So you might have a very low chloride level in the water. Maybe you’ll hear that as a low rumbling sound. And the pitch will increase to a much higher level to indicate that the salt is rising. And so that might correlate to when its winter time and we’re salting the roads and then a storm comes and it all washes into the lake,” said Morgan.

Invited artist Andrea Polli, who assisted students on the installation, uses art and science to explore environmental issues. Polli said it was “amazing” that the students have created something with both coherence and power.

“It’s been a real struggle. It’s been really a challenge because Lake George is so massive and there’s so much material there with the Jefferson Project. So I think it’s incredible that they were able to hone things down to this one hour,” said Polli.

The Wave: An Immersive Sensory Exchange will be presented tonight at 7 p.m. in the Goodman Studio at EMPAC. The event is free and open to the public.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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