Glowing umbrellas and art without authorship

There is a certain bubbly energy and excitement to improvisational art as opposed to a rehearsed performance. It's why some people might find an untamable solo by John Coltrane more intoxicating than the most flawlessly executed Mozart concerto.

That is the kind of energy that Pilobolus' Itamar Kubovy and the MIT robotics lab's Kyle Gilpin set out to capture with their stunningly beautiful Umbrella Project, conducted at PopTech 2012 in Camden. In addition to the spark of spontaneity, Kubovy and Gilpin wanted to add in group collaboration as an elixir. So the plan included 300 untrained volunteers. Plus a crane. Plus 300 glowing, LED-lit umbrellas. 

A video short exploring the UP project appears below: 

Pilobolus, the venerable performance art company, has been experimenting with unusual collaborations for years. But the UP project, as it is called, brought improvisation, cooperation and technology to a grand scale, and it resulted in a spectacular display. 

Kubovy said the idea was to practice art ownership without authorship. He described the project as functioning with "absolutely no sense of hierarchy other than the one that gets expressed through the well-lubricated functioning of a good group."

PopTech hosted the collaboration, in which Gilpin's robotics lab festooned 300 opaque umbrellas with manually controlled LED lights that could switch to glow with different colors. Around 300 volunteers gathered one evening in Camden's outdoor amphitheater. A crane hovered high above with a live camera that fed to a giant movie-size screen. The screen allowed the participants to see their movements from above and navigate around relative to everybody else: In a crowd of 300 umbrellas, all you can see are the people and umbrellas directly around you. 

Kubovy's colleague, Matt Kent, made suggestions over a loudspeaker, like, "Form into a star." But the directions were always vague, leaving the participants to figure out — collectively — how to navigate into shapes and designs, even spelling the word PopTech in colored umbrellas by looking up at the screen and cooperating. 

The whole experiment was performed at night and set to music, creating a psychedelic feeling. And the excitement of the group grew so much that they burst out into spontaneous cheers and applause when the volunteers succeeded in creating a cohesive shape. If it had been rehearsed, the UP project never would have bubbled with that kind of magic. 

Kubovy, Kent and Gilpin's PopTech 2012 explanation of the project appears below: 

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