Exurb Makes Impressive Debut With Input/Output

Museums are so boring, right? Standing around, looking at art on walls and pedestals is so passé. Ok, perhaps we're exercising a bit of hyperbole - after all, Art Attack loves a good museum experience. There's always something special about experiential pieces, though - these works force us to redefine the roles of viewer and artist. That's why we're particularly excited about Input/Output, which opens this Friday at Tha Joanna.

The debut work of Exurb, a new art collective consisting of Eric Todd, Patrick Renner, Johnny DiBlasi, Stephen Kraig and Sam Singh, Input/Output is arguably one of the largest and most interactive installations outside of our local Children's Museum. It is a sprawling work of electronics, sound, and video that occupies three rooms of Tha Joanna's house-turned-gallery at 1401 Branard, just across the street from the Rothko Chapel. In a sense, the work is not bound by the space so much as it creates an entirely new place, within which the viewer-cum-participant simply must explore.


"The way that the media works, and the way that we're all sort of this giant mirror for each other all the time - we wanted something that people could participate in," explains Eric Todd. The immersive experience of Input/Output features two "soundgates" boasting a combined 12 theremins, three video screens, surveillance cameras and a computer running some custom software.

"It actually displays sound in a way that people can visualize the entire spectrum, and actually get a sense of a visual interpretation of what they're hearing," Sam Singh informs us. Singh is a software engineer in the oil and gas industry who coded the software being used in the installation. Input is received from viewer interaction with the theremin gateways, then output both sonically and visually, passing through Singh's programming - hence the exhibition's name.

Attendees of the recent Free Press Summer Fest may have caught a sneak peak of one of the theremin doorways - the plexiglass construction was on display during the weekend and caught quite a bit of attention. A bit of a beta-test for the collective, the two "legs" of the gateway each operated as a single theremin, altering in pitch based upon festival-goer interaction.

"We can only hope that it reaches the level that it did at Summer Fest," Renner says. "There was a dude that rode his bike through it about 12 times."

"We had another kid who wouldn't let anybody else use it for literally at least 45 minutes to an hour," Kraig adds. "His friends left him and came back twice. He's emailed me since then."

"He was trying to play the national anthem," Renner explains.

The best news for Exurb, though, is that they hadn't explained the device's function to the kid. "He just started going, and he figured everything out on his own," according to Kraig.

For Tha Joanna exhibition, Exurb has built an additional gateway. Each leg features three theremins, wired separately to receive and translate input into various outputs. Don't expect to see the typical stage variation of a theremin seen in concert, however - these aren't recognizable simply by their name.

"We wanted it to be integrated into the doorways as much as possible, but still be recognizable as 'this is the theremin' - not necessarily something where you look at the doorway you know everything about it, but given some time and some playing around you can go, 'ok - this is this, et cetera,'" Kraig explains.

"You can make a theremin out of anything; you could make a theremin out of your car if you want. We can just hook up this shit to your car right now and make a theremin out of it," adds Todd.

Coupled with the sonic output, the video screens will feature an array of images ranging from surveillance camera feeds to visual representations of the sound - including a three-dimensional representation of the sound, provided by Singh's software.

"For me, it's about how our subjectivities construct our concept of a place or an idea," says Johnny DiBlasi. "For the viewer, how they interact will change the concept of the space."

DiBlasi is also responsible for the collective's name, which he defines as "basically a suburb, but it's a community beyond the suburb. So it's even more on the edge, past the already sprawling area. It's this goal of mine as an artist to occupy this edge of society."

Drawing on that idea of periphery was one of the factors in choosing Tha Joanna as the location for the installation, according to Patrick. "These guys (Tha Joanna) are doing stuff more on the fringe than anybody," he explains. Eric chimes in, adding "we feel like people (that visit the Joanna) will be much more receptive to the idea of interacting, and we want people to really get in there and get involved with it as much as possible."

For Patrick, the piece has an otherworldly quality to it. "The irony of the hands-on approach is that with the theremins, you don't actually touch them," he says. "There's this almost magical thing that happens in the space between the viewer and the person who's manipulating the image... it will be complex and challenging enough that people will be wondering 'what's going on, exactly?' Then hopefully they can gain an understanding of how their input effects the output."

Input/Output will be on display at Tha Joanna June 17 through July 15, with an opening reception Friday, June 17 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tha Joanna is located at 1401 Branard, and is open by appointment only.

Exurb is currently open for application from other potential members.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marc Brubaker
Contact: Marc Brubaker