The ARC, which stands for Audience Reactive Composition, looks like an instrumental installation you'd see at a Daft Punk concert fifteen years from now, with Tron-like neon lights and all manner of rotating spheres and illuminating touch-sensitive cylinders. It effectively lets anyone play music by interacting with any one of its five unique "instruments," all of which influence the sound coming out of a ring of glowing speakers encircling the disc-shaped base station. You're not playing an instrument so much as you're gently nudging a series of modulating sounds in a general direction. Still, the ARC is a crazy-looking fixture that's almost as fun to interact with as it is to look at.
It's a marketing vehicle, to be sure. Ad agency Deloitte Digital invested in the costly-looking mechanism for SXSW 2016 in collaboration with RAC, the electronic outfit of André Allen Anjos. RAC provided the music while multimedia artists Gabe Liberti and Dave Rife designed the installation alongside artist Beau Burrows, who oversaw visual design and crafted the light animations for the ARC. Deloitte's effort is part of a greater brand strategy at Austin's annual meeting of music, film, and technology trying to build unique bridges between those industries' divides.
Brand activations aside, the ARC also turns out to be a subtle commentary about the state of music production. With ever more powerful software that is increasingly free or low-cost, it's never been easier to make multi-instrumental art on your own. Yet for many, the perceived barrier of formal training or technical knowledge can dissuade someone from picking up an instrument. So Rife and Liberti tried to strike a balance. They wanted the ARC to be accessible to anyone with hands, but they also wanted it to feel collaborative in a way reminiscent of playing traditional instruments.
Rife says that a problem with many music-making apps today is the limitations in audio and visual feedback. "But if we put a bunch of keyboards on the table, nobody would play them," he says. That's not a problem for the ARC. I'm watching a number of people sit in a circle, all facing one another and playing what are — to most non-musicians — instruments in their own right. (More so to everyday people than the Garage Band app for the iPad at least.)
"There's a lot of presumptions about who is and isn't a musician."
With the ARC, participants are able to feel like they're producing electronic music without knowing the ins and outs of the software it requires, and in a way that feels like a drum circle of sorts. "There's a lot of presumptions about who is and isn't a musician," Liberti says. The ARC isn't breaking down that idea, but it's bringing attention to it and giving us a glimpse of what could be.