First-Hand:The Saga of "Astral Convertible"


Submitted by Per Biorn

It all began in June 1988, when out of the blue after close to two years of silence I received a call from Billy Kluver. Billy was the director of E.A.T. (Experiments of Art and Technology, started in 1967). He told me the Trisha Brown Dance Company in NY had received a grant from France. It called for a stage setting for a performance scheduled for Montpelier, in Southern France, in June 1989. The set had been conceived by Trisha and Bob Rauschenberg, who was on the board of directors of Trisha Brown Dance Company.

For Astral, Bob’s concept was eight freestanding, aluminum-clad towers that would have light and sound and would respond to the motion of the dancers on the stage. In addition Bob would design the costumes and Richard Landre would compose the music.

This sounded interesting and the time limit looked good, so I started to experiment with sensors and built the first layout of the towers. I received a sample of the proposed outside material from Hexel Corporation. It was a honeycombed, reinforced material of aluminum and very smooth and flat. Billy told me Bob was particularly interested in this flat form of surface. The sample was a half-inch thick and held promises of me mounting the inside parts from the covering sheets using pop rivets.

Initially I experimented with various infra red sensors but after months of work I decided to use LDR’s (light depending resistors.). The “towers”, as I called them, would be two feet by two feet square and two, four, six and eight feet tall. The original circuits were finished by August 1988 and had eight sensors for an eight foot tower.

However, the material I had received was NOT what Bob had in mind. Bob wanted to use sheets 90 mils thick and Billy sent me a sample of that. It was totally impossible to use the outside sheets for anything structural, so I had to design a superstructure inside the sheeting. Second, could I finish it by January 1, 1989, because Trisha had been invited to perform in Moscow, Russia, at the end of January?

So the race was on as usual. I should have known by simple experience that it always turns out this way (I have been working with artists since 1966.) As Billy often said: “The show must go on.”

The initial requirement was that the towers should be shipped flat, be easy to assemble and for shipping purposes in the smallest number of pieces. Maximum length was four feet and each tower had to be powered internally so no power cords would be needed. For power I chose 12 Volt automobile batteries. Trisha also wanted the towers to be movable during the performances if possible. Bob had a vision of a performance in a forest or a middle of a field. There were all kinds of interesting possibilities.

We met with Bob the first time in his house on Captiva (south of Fort Meyers on Florida’s West Coast) on October 1, 1988. I had built the two eight foot towers, each tower in eight sections that could be packed flat and all the electronics was housed in a wooden box at the bottom. I had looked in catalogs all over for lamps. The logical choice was 12-Volt, rectangular automobile head lamps. I put eight infrared sensors in the towers and mounted them in the corners where it would be easy to hide the holes. I imagined the light coming out of the towers at the top, a sort of illuminated “Stonehenge” effect. The whole layout made me think of Stonehenge from the beginning.

We drove from Jacksonville by 5 A.M and stopped in Gainesville to pickup our daughter Heidi and Janine (a young artist friend of hers who said she would gladly have traded her left arm for a chance to show her paintings to Bob.) We had provisions with us. The way I travel is with only the necessary stops for bathrooms and gas. We arrived on Captiva a little after noon. The island is beautiful and Bob owned a sizable bit of land, the last wilderness left on the island. His property reached clear across the island and had eight houses on it. His main house was on stilts and only 30 feet from the Mexican Gulf. His large studio was just across the road. His address is “Leika Lane”, named after his dog in NY and the first Russian dog in space.

Billy Kluver came down from New Jersey and we set the towers up in the driveway in short order. Then we all sat back and looked at them. By this time I was a little sad, because the aluminum structures I had designed made the towers simple and beautiful and I did not want them covered up. Bob also wanted the lights shining out of the sides at various heights, which meant cutting holes in the skins, 48 in all. Bob wanted more sensors and the ones in the towers that day did not work well at all, they were swamped by reflected infra-red light bouncing off the white sand. Bob agreed to leaving the towers uncovered.

Heidi, Janine and Jackie had a good time meeting everybody in those beautiful surroundings and Janine had a chance to show Bob a couple of her paintings and he criticized her with kindness. It was a fine time until I said:” Time to go”. Bob’s secretary Bradley had prepared a cabin for us to spend the night, but we didn’t know that and we were not prepared for it, dogs at home etc. In Bob’s house a television was turned on though nobody was watching it. I almost turned it off before I remembered that Bob always had a television turned on wherever he was. Bob gave Jackie a recently published book about himself. He was on a one-man crusade (ROCI) to use art as a means of getting people together in countries all over the world and had a show running in Moscow at that time.

On November 1 we all met in Trisha’s studio in New York. Both towers had pinspot lights and cassette player sound and sensors working, so Trisha could see them. I had redesigned the electronics and the bases again and built more sensors with better sensitivity and after one hectic month we shipped it all in a box looking suspiciously like a coffin. My wife, Jackie and my 84 years old, Danish mother, Vera worked every day assembling and soldering lamps. It became a true assembly line with me working at Bell South during the day, then cutting and drilling aluminum at night making pieces for next days assembly by my work crew.

The assembly went beautifully in NY, but the infra red sensors still did not work properly in Trisha’s studeo, there was too much ambient light. Bob told me “I want the same lights you had last time.” I liked that, because the rectangular automobile lights looked and felt “just right.”

The next deadline was December 1. I had to add more sensors and design fixtures for the auto lights. I finally realized that infrared sensors would not work. They are semiconductors with a junction that “breaks down” at a certain fixed level of light and I could not be certain what level of light we would have during performances. Many of the people in Trisha’s company are traditionally theater trained and we were braking new ground with Astral. I designed a lamp fixture that was almost invisible so the silvery lamps looked like they were free standing. The LDR’s (light dependent resistors) were much bigger than the infrared sensors and more difficult to mount. But along with this I had an idea: Connect the two sensors in series so they see the same amount of light, what ever the conditions are, and measure the center voltage between them by connecting them to a comparator. If one of the sensor’s area of vision turns darker (like if a person interrupts the light hitting it), the comparator will see a change and trigger the light change. The LDR’s were mounted inside aluminum tubing painted black on the inside and the two tubes were mounted side by side, two inches apart. Trisha also asked that the bases be made of acrylic, since they would now be visible. One advantage of not having skins on the towers was that you could see the dancers better, through the towers as well. New and larger bases were designed for the electronics and relays, but I did not have time to make the remote controlling possible yet.

All eight were sent to New York. The light control arrangement was simple. Sensor 1 turns on relay 1 and lamp 1 and sensor 2 turns off the first circuit and relay 2 and lamp 2 on. Sensors one and two act as a toggle switch for lamps one and two. Each base had twelve sensors and six relays to control twelve lamps, all easy to plug in.

During December we had to build 6 more towers, 40 new sensor pairs, 60 more lamp bases and 8 brand new circuit boards. Fortunately I had 4 weeks of vacation time left at work. On January 4 we shipped it all out in two crates and several boxes. I flew up January 7 and put the whole set together in a small room above Trisha’s administrative offices on Lower Broadway. Billy and Julie brought me from Newark airport and Ron Koenig, Trisha’s stage manager worked with us. We aimed the sensors and lights, so that there was only one light per sensor, a very tight arrangement, and it worked beautifully. Both lights and sound switched as intended. I had been afraid that it would be more of a fourth of July effect, so a 1.5 second delay circuit was added. The piece had a gentle feeling, all the relays worked when we walked around the floor. Trisha came and loved it, hugs and kisses to all. Trisha’s problem now was to choreograph the dance before going to Russia on January 25.

For the original design I had used Radio Shacks LDR’s at $1.50 a piece. I had bought 80 of them on a special order. In December I needed 60 more in a hurry, but they were now a discontinued item. I tried some smaller LDR’s from different mail order houses, but they did not work well. Ron Koenig bought all he could find in New York City and Billy’s son Christian bought them out in New Jersey’s “Radio Shacks” and we had 63 more. An order for 75 plugs for the lamps was lost at the local Jacksonville Radio Shack and had to be ordered again. They arrived on New Years evening and we worked until 9 P.M. before we went to a New Years Party.

I tested the last batch of LDR’s because some appeared discolored, and I found a great discrepancy in resistance values. Some were 500 Ohm in daylight and some 1400 Ohm. This caused the comparator circuit to be unbalanced, so the LDR’s had to be matched in pairs for the sensors. That checking took days to do plus a lot of removal and remounting.

During January Bob and Trisha worked with Astral and came up with more ideas. They needed remote control on all towers, separate controls for lights and sound. They also wanted twice the number of lamps, now 96 instead of 48. By making what the theater folks call “twofers”, a “Y” connection for two lamps into one outlet, all the lamps could be plugged in.

The dance was originally scheduled to be 10-15 minutes, but Trisha extended it to 35 minutes and with twice the number of lamps, the original batteries were exhausted too early, so bigger batteries were needed.

For the remote control, I chose dual circuit garage door openers. We needed 10 receivers set to the same code and three transmitters. I bought one unit for testing and when I was satisfied it would work and ordered the rest I was told it was an old design and not available any more. So onward with a new type, what a pain. We needed 16 tape players and again I could not get them locally, they were also a discontinued item. My local Radio Shack manager managed to get them shipped into Jacksonville from Radio Shack stores all over the southeastern states.

Astral went to Moscow on January 24, 1989 and was assembled successfully. Some troubles existed during the first two nights, but all worked well on the third night. Trisha and I both knew this exhibit was premature. However, the opportunity to be the first modern dance troupe since the 1917 Revolution to perform in Moscow was too good to miss. Four of the tape players were stolen from the towers one night, but the thief was kind enough to cut the wires in stead of unplugging the players. This enabled the crew to connect four new units they found somewhere. The show took place near an automobile battery factory so getting batteries was no problem. Bob told me some 10,000 people had lined up to see his exhibit, which accompanied Trisha’s troupe.

Trisha’s general manager had traveled to Moscow in mid-January to scout out the theater and there was some talk of me going along later. But I don’t really have the stomach for being present during a premature performance, I always fear something will go wrong and how could I fix anything there with no supplies available? Moscow in January is not my idea of a good vacation trip.

While they were performing over there I redesigned the bases to include more relays and the remote control circuits for installation later. My family did not know that work was still required and was apprehensive about having the house full of towers and parts again. During the building of Astral every room in our house had boxes of parts in them.

By now the Trisha Brown company had decided to ship the towers assembled in big boxes, which could be loaded into airplanes and laid down in the cargo section. It was just too much work to disassemble and reassemble each time. All that wasted time designing them to be taken apart and assembled easily, oh, well.

The next performance was in New York. I did not attend it, but heard from Billy that Bob was very disappointed in the performance of the towers. I was told Bob had tears in his eyes afterwards. They just did not seem to work right. The blame for this was directed at me and I could not understand why everything worked well in my house, in Trisha’s office when I first brought all 8 up and nowhere else? Shawn and Ron brought all the towers to our house in April and we worked on them for 10 days. In order to ship the towers laying down, all the parts and pieces, particularly in the bases, had to be fastened and bolted down better.

In late April we set the towers up at New Smyrna Beach Art Center for what they call a Masters Workshop. Trisha and Burt had one master’s house, Dickie Landry was in the next and since Bob would rather spend the night at the beach I had the last house to myself.

We set the stage in the open amphitheater and Bob came for the performance. The dance was beautiful, but afterwards Bob, Trisha and I came on stage to discuss the performance. Bob had brought some sound tapes of his own to mix with Landry’s, but Bob had not heard any of them play. The towers still did not switch properly. I promised Bob the performance next night would be better and Ron, Shawn and I worked until after midnight. I found the problem. When the company set up the lights they would point more than one light source towards a sensor thereby preventing the sensor from seeing a person pass between one of the lights and the sensor. The only way to make the sensor switch was to cover it with a hand just in front of it. Since the dancers were a foot or more away, it could not work. This had been the problem all along. Once we set it up and Ron and Shawn saw it work, it was as beautiful as it had been in my backyard in the moonlight.

A local newspaper correspondent had attended the performance and wrote an article about it. Her story concerned Trisha and Bob who had a great stage set, but then worked with Dickie Landry and myself, and we ruined it. Ouch! Trisha believed that the design was Bob’s, but of course Billy Kluver knew, that the idea was Bob’s, but the design execution was mine. As in any true collaboration the engineer suggests some solutions to the design and the artist selects the one he likes best. This way the engineer can also be creative and feel part of the creation rather than just doing labor working to spec. Billy had told me, that if I offered an idea, and Bob didn’t like it, then Bob would not respond. As always, Bob would be kind, never criticizing anybody..

The performance the second night was great, the towers switched as they were designed to do. Jackie and our daughter Heidi came for the performance and stayed the night in the master’s house with me. The house was designed around seven huge poles, off the ground and with lots of glass so you could see the jungle outside. Unfortunately, the show started a little earlier than intended so Bob only caught the last half. Burt Barr videotaped the performance. It was later edited into a 28 minute VHS tape called “Aeros” and shown on PBS and offered for sale to the public.

From New Smyrna the set went to the Spoleto festival in South Carolina and then to Montpelier in Southern France for the world Premiere in June. I went to Montpellier to make sure all was working correctly on the opening night. The performance was beautiful. After Montpellier Astral went on a world tour including China and I haven’t seen it since. In 2001 Trisha sold the performance rights to “Astral Converted” (a later version of the dance) to a French dance company in Montpellier and I was asked what it would cost to build another copy of the whole piece. Based on the cost of the original towers I was estimating about $40,000. This was too much for the dance company to invest. I believe Trisha loaned the original towers to the performing company.

What I found most interesting was that the towers appeared to be working after 15 years. Recently (2004) I brought out the 4-foot prototype I had stored in my shop. The wiring was discolored, but the electronic parts were still working. I refinished the aluminum structure and replaced all the wires and offered the unit to Bob Rauschenberg for his private collection. The cassette tape players were replaced by CD players and the tower looked beautiful again..

It is most pleasing for an engineer to see that his design will function for 15 years without repair.