The BASS Ship

Beama Visual Environments created an engineered art installation that is out of this world!

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Photo by Steve Seeley

Written by Laurel McLean

One of the greatest spectacles of Beakerhead 2016 was the BASS Ship, a massive, interactive audio-visual installation designed to ‘blast a transmission into outer space’ and stimulate ideas about civilization and communication.

The 30-foot-tall spaceship, which was located in the middle of Calgary’s East Village RiverWalk, intrigued and engaged many a passer-by with its hundreds of LED lights pulsing along to music.

Created and designed by Beama Visual Environments, an independent company that focuses on video production and stage design, the BASS Ship was the first project to emerge from Beakerhead’s Big Bang Residency. The residency is supported by Calgary Arts Development and the Calgary Hotel Associations’ Remarkable Experience Accelerator, and aims to facilitate the creation of multidisciplinary art and engineering teams to share knowledge, seek out mentorship, and foster new skills—all while creating a major work of engineered art to premiere at Beakerhead.

The idea for the BASS Ship was conceived in the minds of Leigh Powless, production designer at Beama, and Ben Leonard, lead animator at Beama, and stemmed from the duo’s desire to design a 360-degree stage.

“There was no central point on stage,” explains Powless. “[It was] not something that everyone just stood in front of, so it became something that was more participatory. Then we thought it’d be even cooler if the audience could take control of what was happening, which really blurred the line between who was the performer and who was the audience.”

The project grew and evolved as more people joined the BASS Ship production team. It eventually culminated in a structure that spanned 70 feet wide and 30 feet tall and featured lighting, video, and sound systems connected through custom programming. People were able to interact with the ship by using three touch-screen control stations, which controlled bass, melody and percussion, to create their own audio-visual show and try to unlock a musical sequence.

Photo by Trevor Lalonde

The artists responsible for creating the music for the BASS Ship each had to produce an alien-esque song, void of any discernable sounds from a human instrument, to represent a specific body in space, such as the Moon, Saturn, or the Helix Nebula.

“We tried to pick these planets to lead people on Earth out further and further into the universe towards the centre of it, which is a source of great mystery for scientists,” describes Powless.

If the participating audience members were able to sequence the sounds together in the way in which the artists intended, they would experience an audio-visual representation of a particular celestial body.

Beama provided some subtle guidelines on how to use the BASS Ship, but they hoped the lack of instruction would encourage participants to experiment and play with the Ship.

“We wanted it to be a challenge because space travel is a challenge,” says Powless.

The BASS Ship required the use of communication and collaboration amongst participants to unlock a specific sequence that would blast a transmission into outer space.

“What we really wanted to be the central theme is the idea that if we want to go and explore space and discover new life, it’s going to take more than just sitting by yourself—you have to work together,” explains Powless. “That was an interesting experiment because at first people are shy about talking to strangers, but eventually people were so excited about what they were trying to achieve that it pushed them past that barrier.”

Soon people were sharing their BASS Ship discoveries on social media and giving advice to people in the line. As participants became more open and played together, they were able to figure out the musical sequence.

Photo by Steve Seeley

Powless believes that by merging art and science and through creating engineered art installations like the BASS Ship, science and technology become more understandable, appealing, and engaging for the public.

“To me, [art and science] seem like natural partners because once we, as artists, get our hands on new technology, we get really creative and cool things come out of it,” reveals Powless. “When they first started developing lasers, it wasn’t for a laser show, but that’s what happens when you put technology into the hands of some artists.”

“Art is something where you’re thinking outside of the box. You’re thinking creatively [and] trying to express something in a different way just to see where it leads you. If you look at scientific experimentation, it’s very much the same. The big breakthroughs in science are often because people are just being a little weird or thinking about things creatively and so the same things that drive innovation and brilliance in art also do the same in science.”

Powless explains that Beama had previously been focused on making a spectacle, but often failed to include a narrative in their work; however, collaborating with Beakerhead helped them add a deeper meaning to their projects.

“By working with Beakerhead and the Banff Centre, we had some really good guidance from really talented people who had excellent insight for us to help develop our idea,” says Powless. “It really helped strengthen what we were doing and gave us the ‘why’ for why we were trying to achieve certain things and that helped shape what our animations were going to look like and what sounds we were going to use.”

“Even onto new projects, like animations that Ben has been working on, the work he is doing has a lot more narrative to it [and] a lot more depth. You can tell he’s thinking about things a little differently after having worked with Beakerhead and it’s influencing his work.”

Keep and eye out for the next Big Bang Residency team, who are busy creating a remarkable experience to launch this September!