BMO Lab Director David Rokeby joins multimedia pioneer Laurie Anderson on stage at Koerner Hall

April 4, 2024 by Tara Maher and David Rokeby

BMO Lab for Creative Research in the Arts, Performance, Emerging Technologies and AI Director David Rokeby has been invited to join multimedia performance and installation artist Laurie Anderson to present one of the lab’s research projects as part of her sold-out show on Friday, April 5, 2024, at Koerner Hall in the Royal Conservatory of Music. Anderson has been engaged with innovative technologies throughout her career and became fascinated by BMO Lab’s Voice Scroll during informal Zoom sessions hosted by BMO Lab with mutual friend and current lab artist-in-residence American poet Nick Flynn.  

The Voice Scroll project is an AI system that transforms spoken voice into a continually evolving visual panorama in real time. It is a product of BMO Lab’s continuing exploration of AI in the context of live performance. 

According to Rokeby, Anderson has been thinking about and working in AI-related spheres for many years, which makes her a great collaborator. “She comes from a position of decades of knowledge and experience in this space, but also with a really generous curiosity,” says Rokeby. “It's been wonderful to wander through the crazy set of possibilities and strangenesses of what these AI systems can do with her.”  

After a recent exploratory zoom session, Anderson surprised Rokeby by suggesting she feature Voice Scroll in her upcoming Koerner Hall concert. Details of what exactly will transpire with Voice Scroll during the concert are still being worked out, but Rokeby imagines that it will reflect the approach that he and Flynn will be using at an event scheduled on April 12th at the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Flynn will be reading his poems through the Voice Scroll system, but also improvising with and exploring it in the spirit of an experimental process rather than a fixed performance. He suspects that Anderson, who often directly engages her audience as part of her performances, will invite some audience members to interact with Voice Scroll as part of the presentation. 

For Rokeby’s part, he is keen to frame the technology in a way that fits into the show, but also allows people to better understand it.  

“Conventionally one might think of Voice Scroll as a system that illustrates the words that you speak,” says Rokeby. “But really, I think it's more helpful and honest to think of it in these terms: Through its training, the AI model has constructed a world... something called the ‘latent space’... a world of possibilities linking words and images, and we can use our spoken words as a means of navigating this remarkable, and remarkably strange, landscape.” 

Rokeby describes the process of working with Flynn as similar to discovering a new frontier. 

"We're in the sailing ship of his poems traveling through this strange space that sometimes very directly reflects what he is saying, and sometimes yields something more distant and peculiarly evocative.” 

Although many of the audience members will be from the University of Toronto community, the concert presents a high-profile opportunity for the lab to showcase its work and ongoing research to a broader public. Given that we are all affected by AI technology, sharing of insights into these technologies beyond the bounds of academia is an important part of BMO Lab’s mandate. 

Anderson will be working with the lab as an artist-in-residence in the near future. Rokeby is very excited about this prospect as he believes that working with Anderson, with her creativity, her depth of experience and her curiosity, will lead to some very interesting new directions and possibilities for the lab’s research.  

Learn more about the BMO Lab for Creative Research in the Arts, Performance, Emerging Technologies and AI at the Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies.  

Collage of images from AI Voice Scroll system

Photo credit: David Rokeby