Peter Torpey is the director of the Live and Immersive Arts program, which includes a new interdisciplinary degree in the College of Fine Arts. The program is a collaboration among the schools within the College which seeks to produce a new generation of artists and designers who work across all visually interactive media and live experiences.
By creating digital technology, soundscapes, images, events and environments, these students create an immersive arts experience for all audiences. The degree focuses on training students to view design as a method of problem solving by working simultaneously within virtual and physical environments.
Joe Klug, the assistant director of experience for the University of Arizona, was the program’s first director, combining course offerings from the schools into an interdisciplinary effort, directed at the college level with a steering committee of faculty that provides insight on the school selections.
Torpey, who began in the fall of 2022, combines light, image, music, interactivity, and storytelling. He collaborates with theater-makers, orchestras, museums, festivals, companies, educational institutions, and other artists to create experiences that connect audiences and participants with stories and each other. Throughout his work, Torpey addresses the technological needs of complex performances and exhibitions, as well as the design of visual and experiential languages for each project.
His media, lighting, installation, virtual, and interactive works have appeared worldwide, including Boston Lyric Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Dallas Opera, Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Lucerne Festival, Enigma Chamber Opera, Toronto Symphony, Sleep No More, Curious Encounters Festival, FLUX Projects, Google, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Peter received his doctorate from the MIT Media Lab, where he collaborated with international and interdisciplinary teams in the design and implementation of groundbreaking works that focus on new modes of representing expression (Death and the Powers, 2010), massive collaborations (A Toronto Symphony, 2013), and new models of presence in live performance (Remote Theatrical Immersion: Sleep No More, 2012; Powers Live, 2014).
Q&A with Peter Torpey
How would you define live and immersive art? What makes art immersive?
Live and immersive arts is a couple of things to me. One is it’s necessarily interdisciplinary. If we think about the live art form — there are things like theater or music performance, dance — all of these things tend to rely on at least a little bit some other forms of art. Theater is a great example. Opera is a great example because in, in Wagner’s conception of opera as the total artwork, it is composed of music and story and movement and visual design of space. All of these things work together in live art forms.
And to be immersive then would be how do we take the audience and make them be a part of the artwork? How do they become a co-creator of the work through their experience of it, or by being exposed to it. And in traditional art forms, we do this anyway. We look at a static painting or sculpture or something, and we bring something of ourselves to it, but that’s our personal experience. We don’t contribute something as a spectator, as a visitor to the artwork. But in LIA, I think that we do, it’s about that dialogue between artist, performer, designer, and visitor participant.
What is the Live and Immersive Arts program at the University of Arizona?
The live and immersive arts program in the College of Fine Arts is a new program that we’re starting at the college level. We have a BA and a minor in the program. It’s to connect the dots among the different schools of the College of Fine Arts and invite students to create this kind of live and immersive work that doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional practice of the existing schools. How do we combine those? How do we draw on that? Our curriculum is comprised of courses from the different schools. Students will be exposed to different practices, but then be asked to synthesize that in a new way to create these kinds of new works. Really what I want the program to do is to explore what arts will become in 10, 20, 50 years.
There have been a lot of shifts in how we consume art and media and entertainment in just the past decade with network-based, streaming television and mobile devices. Where we engage with the arts and where we get our entertainment from is changing, but that also changes how we relate to each other about the arts. What iss the social function of the arts? How does that contribute to cultural discourse? How does that contribute to a sense of community or self-expression? We’re experiencing the democratization of artistic creation through technology as well. So how do all these things come together and what is that going look like in 20, 50 years when maybe the smartphone goes away?
I hope that students in the LIA program get to bring their experience of growing up at this kind of seismic turning point in media distribution and creation bring their ideas to help invent what the arts are going to be in the future.
What values motivate your work?
I’m a visual artist primarily, but I think a lot about music and I work in opera, and I work at this intersection, and I think that there’s something that is so essentially human about artistic creation. We have that sense of collective humanity or community through how we express ourselves to each other, especially non-verbally, not to dismiss verbal art forms at all, but the visual medium or the musical medium can touch us and say something to us that is very personal and yet shared communal. That really drives me.
You have this faith of communication, this understanding that I have something in my head, an idea, a feeling, and I can’t necessarily put it into words, but I can create something out in the world that then when you see it, you feel something very similar, and I can communicate that way. This universal platform for communication. I think that the potential for expression and creativity is limitless.
What’s the role of an audience? They see something, they absorb something, and then that makes them feel something that may make them think about their world or their life from a slightly different perspective.
What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
I did a project with the MIT Media Lab and the theater group Punchdrunk around their immersive show, “Sleep No More” in New York, where we came up with some ways of connecting remote audiences to the live show. And that to me was a fun project. It required the creation of some innovative technological interventions at the time. But it also really got me thinking about the role of time and co-presence in the live experience. We were really thinking about what is the role of distance and can you create a live experience across great distances? If you can do that with distance, why can’t you do that with time? Can you create a live experience that’s asynchronous where everybody experiences it at their own pace, but it still has that feeling of live and being together.
Sometimes great projects are the simplest projects too. I’ve done a series of installations with two other collaborators of mine in Atlanta. We build out an installation and we put it in a public space. You see how people in react to it as they just come upon it. You have to design it such that it’s intuitive, the installation has to convey how to experience it. What do you do? Very succinctly. And sometimes an engagement only lasts 30 seconds. But if you see that moment of delight on people’s faces or that smile that you’ve touched them or you’ve given them something, you’ve transformed their world, their day in a little bit. That’s also very rewarding.
How did you get into this initially?
I applied at MIT Media Lab and I thought I was going to go into human computer interaction, kind of in envisioning immersive spaces, but not necessarily for entertainment or arts – just like future of computer human interaction. Like what is the desktop going to be when we don’t have screens anymore? I ended up getting accepted into a research group called “Opera the Future,” which was the combination of music-driven storytelling with technology and how that can benefit health or how that can do outreach into communities? And how do you create crazy robotic operas?Everything I learned in film, everything I learned in computer science, everything I learned in my youth as in fine arts, I use all of that all the time in my work. And so that’s how I ended up doing what I do now.