It feels impossible, at times, to separate one’s self from the collective ennui and despair caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. People involved in the arts have spent the past year working towards a new normal to continue to provide entertainment during these challenging times as they did before the pandemic. Others have used their artistic skills to provide a brief and welcome respite from the madness by directly addressing the pandemic through new and innovative ways to help people cope with the plague of emotional malaise. Joshua-Michéle Ross' “The Adjacent Possible: An Evolving Communal Orchestra” fits into that latter camp. This latest project, currently hosted by Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, is an hour-long space of what feels like equal doses of guided meditation, creative collaboration and a space for introspection and relaxation. It’s an experience that seems sorely missed, given that its first four performances have already sold out, while more dates have been added to accommodate audience interest.
The project's name comes from the work of Stuart Kauffman, a doctor, theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher, who coined the phrase “adjacent possible” in 2002. His theory is based on his work in biological evolution and is concerned with how organisms and biological systems, which he also refers to as “autonomous agents,” evolve into larger, more complex systems/organisms by seeking out numerous possibilities within their environment. His theory has been adapted in other fields, including the arts.
For Ross, the theory describes “how human beings, as parts of a very creative universe, are always pushing at the boundaries of what's possible and how the aggregate choices that we make from that creates the kind of world we live in. It's kind of how the future gets made and the idea of how the small choices that we make and bring to things, despite constraints, how those choices add up the reality we live in.”
Ross brings this theory to life through a communal orchestra. Up to 20 people gather to perform at each event. Ross serves as the event guide and conductor, speaking slowly, softly and deliberately as he shifts everyone away from the Zoom call where everyone first gathers and onto a website designed specifically for the experience.
Participants then choose their instruments, which are a mix of ambient sounds recorded live or sounds produced in a studio. Each one is grouped into one of four elements and is named under different criteria, whether after the mood it evokes and how the instrument functions, such as providing a beat or a rhythm. Once everyone has become familiar with their instrument, the conductor begins the concert and lets the participants take over.
“Each musician in these orchestras has a very limited palette,” explains Ross. “They have one sound, but within those constraints, they can interact with all the other musicians to make something quite unique.”
It’s through this method of free creativity that Ross guides participants who are digitally adjacent to each other to come together as a communal orchestra and create an original work of music and art based on nothing more than their individual choices of when to trigger their instruments at the click of a mouse or press of a button.
There is one major catch: the entire show is done anonymously. Ross appears only as a disembodied voice known as “Conductor” in the few minutes of the performance that begins on Zoom before migrating to a website. None of the participants can see or hear each other throughout the performance.
This wasn’t always the case, however, as the phrase “evolving communal orchestra” connotes. The project began as a live orchestra where participants sat together in a circle and pressed a button to perform their instruments. Ross recorded two performances this way in 2019 but had to change things the following year once the pandemic hit.
“The mechanics were very different as you can imagine,” explains Ross. “People had wireless ways to trigger their instruments, and some of the things were the same, but as we moved into the pandemic, obviously, there was a need to reimagine this radically.”
Ross enlisted the aid of Adam Brick, actor and technologist, to handle the tech side of things and Adam Lucas, a graphic designer and educator at the Kansas City Art Institute, to design the online experience. Brick’s biggest challenge was keeping the performance running smoothly despite the latency inherent in livestreams and digital spaces. Any bit of latency could interrupt the participants' attention and take them out of the moment and disrupt the orchestra.
You feel that connection when you're in that space. I think that's the lovely part of it. Right now, we’re dying for human connection. We've all felt so isolated in our homes.John Spiak, Director and Chief Curator of Grand Central Art Center
“Because it's virtual, we've been in multiple countries, usually several countries at the same time, multiple continents at the same time,” explains Brick. “We need to make sure that we were building a system that could handle that, being that timing matters for music.”
Lucas’ role was to design the virtual space that Ross guides people away from the Zoom call. This online space provides an area for Ross to focus the participants’ attention away from their surroundings and directly onto their screens for their performance. The result was a series of rooms that mimic a venue, such as a green room and an instrument room.
The trio has consistently improved the experience as a standalone, third-space type of environment to draw the participants into the project. For starters, they decided to move away from Zoom because of its ubiquity during the pandemic. The rooms are minimalist in appearance and design to avoid overwhelming the participants. Ross guides the participants every step of the way, speaking in a timbre similar to the Headspace meditation app. He also avoids using words that emphasize computer-based metaphors. For example, Ross directs participants to tap their instruments rather than click a mouse and also taps a conductor’s baton at certain points. He also directs them to shut off their phones and isolate themselves from anything that may distract them from their performance, while Brick serves as a digital usher who locks the doors to the theater to prevent late stragglers from disrupting the performance.
“We really all loved the idea of…no distractions,” explains Brick. “If we allow the audience the place to use their imagination, the better for Josh to describe wooden panels rather than show wooden panels [of the instrument room].”
One aspect of the performance that hasn’t changed much is the use of the “End” button. Ross is the conductor, but he leaves the responsibility of ending the orchestra to the participants via this button. The live performances required one of the participants to walk into the center of the circular performance ring and press the End button to end the recording and shut off everyone’s instruments. The End button still exists in the virtual space and sits in the middle of the instruments on the screen, waiting for the brave soul who will call time on the communal project.
“In the first one, people just erupted in applause for the brave person looking around saying ‘I think it's time to get up and do this,’” recalls Ross. “What's fascinating about it now is you're anonymous, so no one knows, but I think there's still a sense of pressure on that because people felt a responsibility to a group, which is fascinating to observe that dynamic in a virtual space where it is theoretically anonymous, but because you're making something together, I think people take it more seriously than, say, an anonymous YouTube.”
“You feel that connection when you're in that space," adds John Spiak, Director and Chief Curator of Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. “I think that's the lovely part of it. Right now, we’re dying for human connection. We've all felt so isolated in our homes.”
“At Grand Central, that's so important because every first Saturday there's an art walk in downtown Santa Ana,” he continues. “It's a total community, and there's new people, and it's culturally diverse, and it's age-diverse, and every time we meet with the most amazing people, and we see all the people that we know. There's a continuous engagement, and we haven't had that for a year.”
Continuous engagement is, ultimately, at the heart of the “Adjacent Possible” project. It began with a community of visible strangers interacting directly with one another in person. The pandemic forced changes leading to a collaboration between invisible strangers interacting with one another through nothing more than a screen and a click. Over time, the experience has evolved from a fun social experiment between strangers to a form of anonymous, artistic group therapy for the too-long era of social distancing.
“This idea of holding onto possibility left the theoretical realm and became this real desire to bring people together and have this notion that holding onto possibility in hard times is a really powerful thing to remember to do,” explains Ross. “The ability to retain some space for joy, and the idea that you can still have possibilities as the way in which the future gets better than the past. It became more meaningful, for me at least, and more urgent.”
“It went from the joy of music-making, which isn’t physical,” he continues. “There’s a lot of sound, and there’s just lovely energy, but in this version, it’s become more deeper and profound. It feels like we're trying to carve out a space for a bit of renewal and a moment to kind of concentrate on being very present, but also allowing some sense of joy and possibility to pervade.”
The Grand Central Art Center will continue to host “The Adjacent Possible: An Evolving Communal Orchestra” through April. Registration information for this free event is at the project’s official website.