A Rave-Inspired Art Project Is Breaking Down Gender at a North Carolina Music Festival

Body Scrub, Gender, an installation at Moogfest, shows that gender is not binary—it’s a floating point number.

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20 May 2016, 5:37pm


Photos by the author

In recent months, North Carolina has become the epicenter of a political battle over transgender rights, thanks to its highly controversial House Bill 2. The law, passed in a rush session by the state's legislature, strikes down local nondiscrimination ordinances and, most notably, requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate. Opposition to the law has been rampant, with condemnation coming from businesses like Apple and PayPal, as well as from political leaders, with Barack Obama recently issuing a request that the law be overturned and a subsequent mandate for every public school that says transgender students may use bathrooms and locker rooms in line with their gender identity. Members of the music community have been some of the most vocal and high-profile critics of the law: Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Ringo Starr have cancelled concerts in North Carolina in opposition to HB2, while others have used their shows to protest. Just this week, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, who is transgender, burned her birth certificate onstage at a show in Durham.

Joining the outcry has been the experimental and electronic music festival Moogfest, which is happening this weekend in Durham. In a recent statement, festival organizers condemned the law and promised to stand their ground, citing the legacy of Moog "godmother" and trans icon Wendy Carlos and Moog "godfather" Bob Moog as well as electronic music’s noted history of inclusivity. “We will use the podium, the stage, and the dancefloor to manifest a world of inclusivity and compassion,” the statement reads. “We will surface these ideas because they are essential ingredients for creativity, innovation and discovery.” Throughout Durham’s downtown, signs line the streets sharing their unsupportive sentiments of the legislation. Gender markers are masked on bathroom doors. Local businesses display signs in their windows welcoming any patrons to use whichever restroom they please. Festival porta-potties remain democratically gross. The law’s radicalism has ironically transformed Durham into one of the most gender-inclusive cities in the country.

In that same spirit, one of the coolest installations at the tech and innovation-focused festival is an interactive visual display called Body Scrub, Gender. Created by Kurosh ValaNejad, a research artist at the USC Game Innovation Lab in Los Angeles and 3D animation expert, the project transforms viewers' silhouettes on a screen into digital tableaus of symbols—in this case either female or male gender symbols—depending on how far the participant stands from the camera. Coincidentally, one of the first displays of the piece was by a bathroom during a yearly faculty gathering for the School of Cinematic Arts at USC.. A PhD student walked by the installation and had an eloquent thought, one that stayed with ValaNejad even now: “It shows that gender is not binary, it’s a floating point number,” he recalled.

ValaNejad’s Body Scrub, Gender is by the bathrooms at Moogfest, too, viewable on a television screen on the first floor of one of the main festival venues, the Carolina Theatre. Anyone who walks by or into the men's and women's restrooms on either side will see the outline of their body digitized in male or female gender symbols, morphing from one into the other as they get closer or farther from the Xbox Kinect receiver atop the screen.

“All I’ve done—it’s a generally new thing that’s happening, especially in the world of cinematic arts—is that I’ve simply associated depth with the frame of the animation by spacialized animation,” ValaNejad told me, giving a demonstration. “The input for this thing, the Body Scrub Device, is an animation that simply goes from the male symbol to the female symbol. As it rotates it changes color from blue, the male sign, to pink, the girl sign. That animation, which is 256 frames, is sitting in front of this camera. When I’m close it, it’s frame one—up to the 12-foot length, which is the Xbox’s range.”

First developed in 2013, for a grant-funded project for the School of Cinematic Arts "to create a rave-like experience," the Body Scrub Device was designed for pairing music and visuals. "All in all, the walls would be projections related directly to music," ValaNejad explained. "Music, in many cases, would be driving the visuals and vice versa." The project was open to USC faculty, staff, and students, and ValaNejad, with his background in interactive media and interest in animation, made a tool for animators that would combine the two.

"All they have to do is create an animation, shove it into this black box and they get some results," he said. "It’s been used 27 times so far as part of an installation: Ten students, one faculty member and the rest mine. The first one I made was Legos—as you stand in front of it, you’re different colors." The first usage of the gender sign filter was in 2014 for a project by student and interactive music video director Raghav Bashyal, who was planning a performing arts piece inspired by gender transition.

"It was really meeting his needs," ValaNejad told me. "His storyline is this transformation from male to female and how every step of the way—female identity 100 percent and male identity 100 percent—this is just my interpretation of it." Bashyal's piece was set to Janelle Monae’s “Cold War” (who coincidentally is also speaking at Moogfest), and ValaNejad said there will be a guerrilla-style performance of it during the festival. Musician Mamak Khadem will add additional vocals while a dancer will perform.

Other helping hands creating the project include Game Innovation Lab research associate Todd Furmanski, who wrote the code, USC Animation MFA candidate Nesli Erten, who created art assets, and Vangelis Lympouridis, a visiting scholar at the USC School of Cinematic Arts who provided technical guidance. ValaNejad’s brother, the CTO of Moogfest, saw his brother’s piece and thought the festival would be the ideal place to display it, given the recent political climate.

“It’s not a cause I went after,” he said. “When presented with these opportunities, you have to take the time. If my five minutes make a difference in this whole thing then I’m glad to be here to inform North Carolina residents of this range and perhaps the hate that is a result of this unfortunate law.”

Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.