Roundtable: THE RASA PROJECT on John Cage, Artificial Intelligence, and the Climate Crisis

Featuring Landon Wilson, Alexandra He, Srujanee Mishra, Yuie Wang, Yejia Sun, and Peng Guan

Friday, October 6, 2023

On a rainy afternoon in September, in between technical rehearsals at the historic International House NY in Morningside Heights, I sat down with my fellow collaborators––artist Alexandra He, playwright Srujanee Mishra, software engineer Yuie Wang, dramaturg Yejia Sun, and co-creative producer Peng Guan––to discuss the upcoming world premiere of THE RASA PROJECT, a cross-disciplinary, multimedia reaction to the climate crisis and A.I. anxiety. 

LW: It's been an incredible process working on this project together. In the earliest days, it was (more or less) a performance with Peng Guan and me playing Cage in front of some random projections from YouTube. Now, we're both producing a sort of thought experiment, asking other people in our cohort to respond to the time we're living in. I'm wondering: How have your respective backgrounds helped shape the project to its current form?

PG: It really began as wanting to create an innovative approach with our friends at the Manhattan School of Music, Yale, and Columbia. I remember feeling so tired of seeing "traditional" performances with futile themes and messages. There's nothing really moving about watching another classical concert in the age of something as serious as the climate crisis. We discovered Refik Anadol and gravitated toward his idea of building an interdisciplinary lab of engineers and artists, filmmakers and architects. Then, wanting to think on our own terms, we first invited Yuie to use her expertise in software engineering and musical background to break open the Sonatas and Interludes.

YW: Yeah, I was so intrigued by the possibility of fusing digital art and music in THE RASA PROJECT. I've been working on incorporating interactive visualization through music and human neural networks at Columbia. With THE RASA PROJECT, we're taking it further by implementing this data in TouchDesigner. 

LW: And I suppose that's a great introduction to Alexandra, who has been instrumental in realizing these visuals! What has this project meant to you?

AH: Haha, thanks! Well, it's been a bit sentimental for me. Growing up in Beijing, my childhood was saturated with Daoist ideas. When you first approached me about working on this, I was fascinated by how much John Cage used these philosophies from different cultures as compositional material. It almost feels utopic when different cultures come together to create art. Working with indeterminate and reactive visual software, we've recontextualized Cage’s fascination with aleatory, which, I think, is our way of reclaiming his fetishization of Eastern cultures. 

SM: Certainly. As the playwright, I've been stitching together the narrative, considering the bits and pieces of what makes each of these disciplines so special. Being familiar with rasa aesthetics has helped me connect to Cage's score and think about responding to it in a modern, authentic way. The marriage of the narrative, music, and visual elements creates a real sense of urgency about the climate, especially given that our generation has such limited time to sort out the damage already done.

PG: And you've incorporated––so brilliantly––a protagonist who will usher along the plot!

SM: That has been a fun challenge. I know we've talked a lot about how audiences might see themselves in THE RASA PROJECT, and I think inviting a physicalization of the narrative gives viewers their own entry point into work.

LW: That “point of entry” is what has fascinated me about building this performance. Peng and I began by asking what the climate crisis means to each of you, how you reflect on it, and most importantly, if there's a way we can respond to it, somehow uniting those ideas together. THE RASA PROJECT isn't just about John Cage or climate change or existential uncertainty; it's about making space for our generation––the one responsible for solving this issue––to reflect and react to what's at hand.

YS: I've found as we've worked together, we've had to ground this in the immediate present and foreseeable future. It hasn't been easy transforming these conceptual ideas [a few of us laugh], but through distilling the core message, we want to lead the audience to discover their own connections with each other around this issue. 

LW: I just wanted to add that making something like THE RASA PROJECT is so interesting amid an A.I. "creative panic," which has recently become an important talking point. Everyone has something to say about artificial intelligence. I'm not sure this was such a pressing ethical question for us initially, but it has grown into one we're interested in exploring as a team.

YS: The question of working with A.I. artistically is, I think, one of the more urgent needs in the larger creative field right now. 

SM: Yeah, there has been a lot of discussion outside the theater and online, but interestingly, there have been few performance works reflecting on the issue. I don't think we're trying to find an answer to solving the "creative panic" but turn the debate into specific artistic questions, such as ones reflecting on climate change.

YS: I agree. I don't think these questions have a "yes or no" answer. It's more of a "yes and no." Acknowledging that A.I. is based on pre-existing language patterns, we've questioned to what extent our own creativity is actually derived from pre-existing knowledge. And, if sentient-leaning A.I. knows the most logical path forward, can we have the courage to look beyond it? How will we, as a generation, imagine the future for ourselves and the next generation?

SM: We've been thinking about how to give A.I. its own voice, artistic language, and malleability within a theatrical context. It's not easy, and I don't know if we've done it, but we hope audiences will resonate with a larger message about the climate. I'm excited to try this out!

YW: It's been so fun collaborating with Alexandra and Rachel [a neuroscientist working on the project] to find a way to make our ideas coexist and speak together.

AH: This project really champions mindfulness and a focused intentionality when speaking about the climate. There will be a lot going on, but the performance is ultimately a celebration of the era in which we live. We reflect on the advancements of our generation, integrating technology with new compositions, and think about the future with pragmatic optimism.

LW: Exactly! There are so many musical gems in this program. I'm particularly excited for the New York premiere of inti figgis-vizueta's 2020 cello piece INBHIR (Many Waters), which will usher in––quite dramatically––the end of the world as we know it. The work is counteracted by Varsha वर्षा, a humble prayer beckoning rain and asking for renewal. 

PG: There's something so poetic about these pieces!

LW: Reena [Esmail] and inti are two unmistakably American voices that I've been eager to work with for a long time, and I'm thrilled that we're going to include their unique work with Cage in an interdisciplinary context. 

YS: It's going to be such a cool experience - for us and the audience. I can't wait to bring this to Sawdust! 

LW: We've all been collaborating intensively to bring this vision to life. I'm so grateful for each of you working as part of this endlessly innovative team!

THE RASA PROJECT premieres at National Sawdust on October 21.