Charlie Todd Talks about Audiogram
I noticed that Improv Everywhere had an announcement on their site today, regarding a new project. I asked Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere's ringleader, for a little interview.
Rob Cockerham: Hey! Charlie Todd!
Obviously I am a fan of/jealous of your success with Improv Everywhere and I saw today that you have a new thing coming up next weekend in New York.
Charlie Todd: Hey Rob! I've been following your experiments with beer with great interest the past few weeks. Yes, I've got a big project with the Guggenheim coming up on October 13 and 14 in NYC. It's very similar to our Mp3 Experiment series of projects. Large groups of participants will all be listening to the same mp3 file simultaneously on their mobile devices and following the (often ridiculous) instructions of a narrator. The project is called Audiogram, and it's framed as an "interactive hearing test." We've actually worked with a real ear doctor on this one, so some of the experience is based in fact, though quite a bit is just fun and absurd.
RC: Thanks! See what happens when I get a new measuring instrument? Coincidentally, I recently bought a sound pressure meter app for my phone, but it maxes out at 92 dB, so it looks like I'll end up investing in the real thing.
Ok, so it is participatory, like the Mp3 Experiments. Audiogram is a project with the Guggenheim, what else distinguishes it from one of IE's classic Mp3 Experiments?
CT: One of the biggest differences is that rather than having one massive event with thousands of people, we're doing the project 10 times over the course of the weekend. Each time will have a maximum of 200 people, and most will probably have less. This enables us to do some things that we can't do with massive crowds. I remember back in 2009 we did a big Mp3 Experiment on Roosevelt Island where a man in a wolf costume had a big entrance for the finale. There were over 1,500 people there and only a small fraction were in the right spot to be able to see the actor. So with more manageable crowds we are able to mix in several surprises that we know the whole group will get to experience.
Stylistically Audiogram is also more thematic than an Mp3 Experiment. Under the guise of this ridiculous hearing test, we're focusing in on urban noise and experimenting with the noises of everyday life in a crowded city. Much of the mp3 contains ambient audio we recorded in the same location as it is taking place, a great park in the Bronx. So the participants will have the trippy experience of hearing two layers of the park-- one happening now, and one that happened weeks earlier. So the whole thing should be very disorienting, in a fun way. Wait, did a huge bus just go by or was that just in my headphones?
RC: Awesome! Wow. That will be great! You have basically designed an acid trip.
I want to know all the secrets right now. Is there a wolf? You have to tell me.
CT: Sadly there are no wolves. I've already said too much!
RC: You are extraordinarily skilled at setting up "experience" events that don't involve rock-climbing and trust-exercises. It is clear that you are keeping quiet on the details of this adventure, but can you tell me anything that you discarded because it was too obvious or dangerous?
CT: We do actually put lots of thought into safety when we plan these types of projects. Our 2010 Mp3 Experiment saw about 3,000 people in Times Square crossing various streets with their headphones on. Despite the narrators repeated instructions to walk slowly and only cross with the lights, some people got a little excited. Fortunately no one was hurt, but I definitely learned a little bit more about crowds. There's actually a bit of street crossing in this one as well, as the part of the experience is a walk from point A to point B, but with small crowds I don't think it's going to be an issue.
RC: Were there any sounds that you wanted to include, but that you couldn't locate or wouldn't work in the experience?
CT: Sound wise, I think we got all that we needed. My collaborator, Tyler Walker, is a fantastic composer and he can pretty much create anything we need. Overall we just worked to make sure this new project was pushing what we've been doing with the Mp3 Experiments in a new direction. I want to surprise participants in new ways each time.
RC: In your opinion, is Audiogram a good experience for a couple on a first date?
CT: I think so, yeah. In general I think these types of events that involve active participation are good date ideas. You won't have to make conversation for a full hour and then when it's over you'll have something to talk about! Audiogram is designed to be more of a solitary experience than the Mp3 Experiment. There's a little less explicit group interaction, but at the same time you could stick together the whole time.
RC: I believe this is the first time you've sold tickets to an event. What took you so long? Don't you like money?
CT: Well, charging admission was not our choice. Yeah, we've never charged before and don't plan to start doing so for our normal events. But this is how the Guggenheim works. Their exhibitions are ticketed. They have to pay for their staff. The ticket revenue is paying for the budget of the project but it's not going in our pockets. I definitely do like money, but I also really like keeping our events free. The ticket price for this is really low, but I do know it's a barrier for some. I think everyone will get their money's worth for sure.
RC: I can't make it. Flights to NYC are surprisingly cheap right now but I'm already going to Texas that weekend. Are you going to film this one, give a written description, or is it closed?
CT: We are definitely going to film it. I'm hoping that it translates to video and doesn't end up being a "you had to be there" experience. It's tough though-- so much of what is cool about it is the fact that you can't tell what sounds are in your headphones and what sounds are in the real world. It will be tough to recreate that in a situation where you're hearing it 100% through computer speakers. Hopefully we'll figure something out. I've been surprised at how well the Mp3 Experiment videos have translated.
Have fun in Texas! Pull some pranks down there!
Thanks for taking time to answer these questions about Audiogram. It sounds great and I can't wait to get the de-briefing. I'm sure it will be a hit.
Audiogram, October 13th and 14th.
The MP3 Experiments.