Big Tent at Lotus will immerse festival-goers in 360-degree faculty, student work

Chris Forrester • Sept. 18, 2018

Susanne Schwibs’ new film engulfs the viewer in flames.

The 360-degree work created from Super 8 footage she shot at a piano burning performance last winter will span eight screens, moving its way around viewers like a dancing inferno.

“The idea is for people to wander in, and to be in this environment — an environment of flames and an environment of sounds,” said Schwibs, a Media School senior lecturer.

Media School senior lecturers Susanne Schwibs and Norbert Herber, and Jacobs School of Music student Cole Swany preview a display for the Big Tent at the Lotus Festival. (Ty Vinson | The Media School)

It’s one of several projects commissioned by Media School senior lecturer Norbert Herber for an immersive video presentation space at this year’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival Sept. 28 and 29. Big Tent, conceptualized and developed by IUPUI faculty members Robin Cox and Benjamin Smith, is a highly portable, 12-foot-tall octagonal array of viewing screens and speaker systems that use projectors to create an immersive viewing experience. Herber, Schwibs, senior lecturer Jim Krause and lecturer Rush Swope are all contributing work to the performance. Herber is leading content development for the project as artistic director.

The work of sophomores Sabra Binder and Cole Swany, senior John Kwon, graduate students Blake O’Brien and Felipe Tovar-Henao, and Ray Kim, BM’18, will also be a part of the Big Tent performance. All of the artists’ work is funded by grants from the College of Arts and Sciences Ostrom Program and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

Big Tent will be at Fourth and Washington streets. Unlike most of the festival’s performances, entry won’t require a ticket, making it free to everyone.

“It allows us to take a multimedia performance environment and put it in a public space,” Herber said.

When Lotus’ organizers approached Cox and Smith about bringing Big Tent to this year’s festival, their goal was for artists independent of the festival to create pieces for display.

“They wanted others to rise to the challenge of thinking about eight screens of real time, sounds, light, video,” Herber said. “There are a whole lot of things that are possible, but there aren’t a lot of precedents for a space like this.”

A circular view

Schwibs created her film, Fire Song, because she wanted to take advantage of the 360-degree setup to create something immersive.

At points in the film, bursts of flame envelop the viewer as they radiate out from a central point, swirling across the eight screens. The film itself has no clear beginning or end, and that’s by design. Schwibs said she wanted to create a freeform piece that could be experienced differently depending on when the viewer enters the space. To her that circularity is just another dimension of Big Tent’s singular presentation environment.

“It just creates another one of those special experiences, where what the film is, is completed by the act of viewing it,” she said. “It doesn’t work any other way but for a viewer to wander around and start making their own connections between the screens, and experience it in this sort of circular fashion.”

Schwibs shot the piano burning, a part of the Wounded Galaxies: 1968 festival, on 8 mm film to invoke the aesthetic sensibilities of the ’60s when Annea Lockwood first composed her now famous piece, Piano Burning. Schwibs said she wanted to create an experience that felt purely elemental, stripped down to the powerful visuals and sounds of flames and cracking wood.

“It’s not a relaxing experience,” she said. “It’s really an examination of the fundamental elements, of film, of fire and of sound. I think, even with the music, it evokes certain spaces and certain emotions that to me are a little bit nightmarish.”

Tovar-Henao, a composer and Jacobs School of Music doctoral student, worked with Schwibs on the project. His musical score, which accompanies the haunting visuals of Schwibs’ film, is an electroacoustic composition that incorporates a range of sounds created with a piano, Schwibs said.

Tovar-Henao said the presentation format of Big Tent provides an interesting opportunity for experimentation.

“One of the advantages of this resource for composers is to have control over the spatial dimensions of sound, and having a more or less accurate prediction as to how things are going to be experienced psycho-acoustically,” he said.

Part of the medium’s complexity, he said, is in the fact that viewers won’t experience the sounds or images from a fixed perspective. Rather, they’ll be free to walk around the space.

“For me this technology resembles more a sound installation, where the mindset for writing the music – and by extension, for putting the film together – needs to be more open-ended,” he said. “That is, taking into account the infinite amount of possibilities of experiencing the same work, depending on many other variables including the physical location of the listener.”

A digital canvas

Smith and Cox developed Big Tent out of a vision they shared. Coming from a musical background – both are violinists – they shared an affinity for experimental mixtures of acoustic and electronic sounds, as well as visual stimuli.

It was a platform they wanted to create for other artists to use, too.

“As soon as we started making it, we invited other artists and musicians to come and work in it,” Smith said. “It started changing quite a bit as they brought their ideas and their own aesthetic interests into it.”

He said he anticipated the platform to lend itself to visually bombastic presentations, ones that conjured tempests of visual stimuli from the multitude of screens. But as the development process went on, Smith and Cox discovered their eight-screen format to be innately involving, but also meditative and soothing.

“Immediately we started doing very peaceful things,” Smith said. “Robin started writing very peaceful music and it became very contemplative.”

Smith said he wants to experiment with presenting pre-existing films in the eight-screen format, and reimagining how they might expand beyond their original boundaries.

But above all else, he’s excited to see what other ideas artists dream up and bring to life with Big Tent.

“We’re excited to provide this as sort of a canvas,” he said.

A collaborative creation

Herber wanted to offer commissions to IU students to create new art specifically for Big Tent’s unique platform, so he applied for – and received – two grants to fund students’ work. The result is the creation of several new films, all with original scores, by Media School; School of Art, Architecture and Design; and Jacobs School of Music students.

Additionally, an immersive, 360-degree game and a Lotus Festival retrospective created specifically for viewing on the eight-screen format will debut at the festival.

Herber said Big Tent will provide Lotus attendees an interesting change of pace from the live music and dance settings of the other performance venues.

“This provides something that is completely different — it’s potentially meditative,” Herber said. “They’ll enter and they’ll feel like they’re moving into something that’s completely dislocated from the rest of the festival.”

But whatever their tone – be it contemplative, overwhelming or invigorating – the experiences will be completely singular, he said.

Works included

Soaring over Four

Rush Swope, artist

Take to the skies over four massive biomes and explore sweeping, panoramic landscapes. Take control of the Big Tent like never before and immerse yourself on all sides with natural beauty ranging from vast desert to frozen tundra.

Dear Everyone,

Blake O’Brien, filmmaker
Rachel Davison, actor
John Kwon, score
Andy Bullard, driver

Using the Big Tent screening format itself as an impetus for this project, Dear Everyone, investigates visual possibilities of a 360-degree viewing situation and what kinds of implications are inherent therein in relation to developing content for the images. A desire to create synchronicities and relationships between screens drown the viewer in saturated, colored light, and address the psychological implications of the container-ness of the space led to the decisions represented in the film.

Dear Everyone, was shot on Kodak color film with a Bolex Reflex camera, often with Kodak color filters. Some of the film was manipulated by chemical and painterly means. It was then edited digitally in Adobe Premiere. Spliced images were created manually with a matte box during the shooting process; the shots-within-shots were achieved digitally.

The Sound of Someone You Love Who's Going Away And It Matters

Blake O’Brien, filmmaker
John Kwon, modular synth
Kyle Quass, trumpet
Andy Bullard, driver
Menika Lue, hand actress
Jessica Westhafer, hand actress

Using the language revolving around the broad theme of containment/holding/having; what these kinds of words mean in the contexts of the moving image and human connection; and how these parallels relate to one another and the Big Tent screening format, this project is a somewhat lateral approach to excavating the contradictions and irony in love, e.g., the fear and myopicism that accompanies it.

In addition to being an investigation into words associated with both visual and emotional relationships within the content of the images and how they are composed, the screening format was also deliberately considered. In an effort to create a sensuous contrast between the world of the screens and the viewer’s world of containment within them, brightly saturated, monochromatic images are used to stimulate the viewer visually with color in its purest form: light, while the musical performers’ improvisations function as an anxiety-inducer. This creates a syntax between the real space of the event and the content of the film images, keeping the viewer in a kind of purgatory between mindfulness of the space he or she is in and the illusionistic world inside the screens.

The Sound Of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away And It Matters was shot on Kodak color film with a Bolex Reflex camera, often with Kodak color filters. It was edited digitally in Adobe Premiere. Spliced images were created manually with a matte box during the shooting process; the shots-within-shots were achieved digitally.


Sabra Binder, artist
Ray D. Kim, musician
Chloe Zumbrun, actor
Ben Zumbrun, actor

Inspired by Anne Carson’s Float, the film Candor is a study of emotions experienced in singularity. Contemplative over her position in a failing relationship, the small movements and actions of the body take the place of an obvious narrative, each motion indicative of the intricate emotional responses in the mind. Through this, Candor hints at a narrative without offering a concise explanation. We ask the viewers to contemplate why it is they’ve arrived at their own interpretation.

The score to Candor, Color Shift by Ray D. Kim, depicts a scenic sensation of color shift and phasing throughout the screens. The visual sensory motivations trigger the shifts of the musical color and its sound texture. Although the piece was written with a direction in mind, the multispeakers allow the audience to experience it in an omnidirectional fashion all the while experiencing the phases that the picture shows.


Sabra Binder, artist
Cole Swany, musician

In Reading, letters are assigned to moving images. These images are then rearranged across the screens to spell words out of the letters they were originally assigned to. If the audience allows its understanding of the alphabet to be redefined by these images, it will be able to interpret different patterns of these images as the words they spell out, essentially learning a new language through video.

Tallgrass: An Osage Reverie

Aaron Higgins, video and compositing
Norbert Herber, soundtrack

The prairie imagined in a reverie, these videos first appear natural, but are a facade, expanding a moment with highly composed moving image and generative sound. “Recreating” the landscape, or recreating an idealized version of the landscape, this body of work is presented in Big Tent as a collage of photos and video taken in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve of Osage County, Oklahoma. Dream-like composites of flora and fauna merge with a composed soundscape. This, like the Tallgrass Prairie itself, is a mediated environment, where reclamation and preservation of native species is an ongoing and deliberate act, carefully managed by conservation experts to recreate the prairie as it existed until the mid-1800s. The work includes icons of the region such as scissor-tailed flycatchers, Oklahoma’s state bird, and American bison, which once roamed the vast prairie in massive herds.

Fire Song

Susanne Schwibs, film
Felipe Tovar-Henao, music

Fifty years ago, New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood created her avant-garde score Piano Burning (1968). Only a  few years before, Kodak invented Super 8 film, a medium favored for home movies and avant-garde films alike.

In February of this year, Annea Lockwood came to Bloomington to participate in the Wounded Galaxies 1968 festival, which recreated the piano burning. Lockwood specifies an upright piano beyond repair and asks to “play whatever you can for as long as you can.” Fire Song was shot on Super 8 film and created for display in the round. The musical score takes advantage of the uncertainty of the listener’s location, and plays with how unnerving it can be to unsuccessfully predict where sounds and images are going to come from. Walk wherever you wish and listen “for as long as you can.”

Exquisite Corpse

Susanne Schwibs, film
Norbert Herber, sound design
Tony Brewer and Joan Hawkins, poetry
Joe Stone, digital videography

Exquisite Corpse is a game invented by the surrealists around 1920. Players write or draw on paper, fold it over and pass it on to the next players for their contribution. The hand-drawn and scratched images of this film were created similarly: We asked participants of an IU First Thursday event to draw whatever they wished on 12 frames of film. These were then cut up and combined with the contributions of other creative participants: The voices and poetry of Joan Hawkins and Tony Brewer, additional video by Joe Stone and the music piece Timeshift by Sue Singer from the commercial Music Library Killertracks. We hope you will find the resulting corpus to be exquisite.

Additional thanks go to Laura Ivins-Hulley for her enthusiastic instructions to the First Thursday passers-by and to Andy Uhrich, Dan Brown and Lauren Math for providing equipment and ephemeral movies.


Jim Krause, animator/photographer

Journey through 25 years of Lotus in this multimedia timeline. From humble beginnings, the Lotus Festival has grown in size and scope into one of the nation’s preeminent world music festivals. LotusTime distills images, music, artwork and facts into an immersive and informative festival experience.

Wishes + Fractured Vision

Sarah Edmands Martin, animation, design and soundtrack
Benjamin Sunderlin, voice of narrator

Wishes + Fractured Vision explores a kind of dark storytelling that eschews formulaic children’s narratives in order to promote self-efficacy, learning and participation. The medium of fairytale offers a safe space outside our normal expectations as an axiom where assumptions can be manipulated, ultimately prompting us to ask a different set of questions. I am interested in dispelling the “happily ever after” privilege and complacency that can occur in young readers who consume too many derivative regurgitations of narrative. This work seeks to reclaim the wondrous and inexplicable that becomes lost in cookie-cutter stories that are designed to sell and re-sell. This work navigates difficult themes such as identity, heritage, greed and failure, while also helping a viewer accept that bad things happen to everyone.

Windfall Dancers

Kay Olges, director

School of Art, Architecture + Design

Photography MFA students

Adam Cook
Kelly Lee Webeck
Victoria Q. Ridgway
Song Li
Nicole Wilson
Scott Whitworth
Kate Houliné
Morgan Stephenson
Kristoffer Johnson
Liliana Guzmań

Photography area faculty

Osamu James Nakagawa
Elizabeth Claffey

Plenoptic Photography Workshop Coordinator

Zach Norman, MFA’14

This collaborative video piece depicts the visual anomalies of the world as seen from a macro perspective. Presented on large-scale video monitors, this optical phenomenon brings to the forefront a “larger than life” world not generally recognized by the naked eye. These macro images engulf the viewer, placing them in the center of a universe much smaller than their own, allowing for complete observation as the scenes meditatively shift through various depths of field. This collaborative piece not only represents the macro world but will also enable the audience to experience a reality far different, yet closer, than their own.​

Lytro Illum cameras were provided by the Center for Integrative Photographic Studies.