An opera and creative technology project exploring the intersections of disability and artificial intelligence. Co-produced by VIA and Beth Morrison Projects.
SENSORIUM is a multi-modal arts project exploring fundamental questions of what it means to have voice, and the nature of voice beyond language.
The project is centered around the opera, Sensorium Ex by composer Paola Prestini and librettist/poet Brenda Shaughnessy and co-directed by choreographer Jerron Herman– it is a multi-sensory narrative woven together at the intersections of disability and artificial intelligence. The Sensorium Ex Opera, commissioned by VisionIntoArt and Beth Morrison Projects, and supported by the Ford Foundation, is centered on the nature of voice beyond language, and how to creatively explore and express forms of non-speaking or non-typical patterns of speech and voice in opera. Artificial intelligence plays a role in expanding the possibilities for voice and expression in this dystopian tale.
A mother’s love, science/tech ethics, romance, corporate greed, a mystical escape, and a robot named Sophia come together in this story about what it means to be human... An evil Corporation (CORP) devises a program to create the “perfect human” and conscripts Mem and Mycelia, two scientists, to develop the final piece of a breakthrough Artificial Intelligence algorithm named Sophia, the amalgamation of all you will see. She is you. Mem is the lead researcher, and is the mother of Kitsune, a child with a disability. She soon realizes the CORP has targeted her child’s genetic material to use for their program.Are these scientists the researchers or the experiment? And is there any escape? Holding the answers is a child who doesn’t speak but whose disabilities manifest an otherworldly realm.
See a trailer from a Sensorium Ex music workshop in May 2023. More details on the project beneath the trailer...
The SENSORIUM project is committed to pioneering new approaches to art and social impact, centered around a few key aspects of the work:
EQUITY THROUGH ARTISTIC INNOVATION: Pioneering emerging artistic practices which are rooted in the belief that equity is one of the most powerful engines of artistic innovation and serves as a foundation for building lasting community and generative human connection through art.
KNOWLEDGE & DOCUMENTATION: We creatively document and codify the practices and methods that emerge from VIA projects, in order to scale and share with artists and institutions and collectively advance equity and innovation
ECOSYSTEM BUILDING: We build robust institutional partnerships (arts venues, universities, etc) to co-produce work and scale knowledge. We aim to scale and expand ways of creating and collaborating across venues, partners and artistic ecosystems.
**In order to facilitate these efforts, the Sensorium Advisory Board has been established - a group of disabled, artists, activists and leaders providing insights and support to the project team. Learn more about the Sensorium Advisory Board here.
One of the key components of these art + impact approaches in action, is through the co-creation of key characters in the opera.
Kitsune is a young boy with a disability who is non-speaking - and much of the Opera centers around his relationship with his mother Mem, as they seek to explore their own forms of expression, listening and exchange beyond the conventions of spoken language.
Kitsune’s role will be co-created with the person cast to play the role in collaboration with our choreographer in terms of movement. In a culminating scene of the opera called “the escape”- traditional notation will be replaced by medieval chant notation-neumes and a mixture of sound and language and direction and color. Like Benedectine monks, the ensemble will improvise on a series of calls and responses within which Mem and Kitsune are held. Improvisation can mean that there is an embodied and shared sense of space and purpose. In this instance, like the monks, there is a devotional and safe and healing space created for this decision where Kitsune’s agency is made clear.
Sophia is the robot narrator of the story, an amalgamation of the memories and lived experiences of many of the opera’s main characters. Her musical voice will be developed through a co-creative process which seeks to build new, inclusive AI datasets around non-normative patterns of voice and speech.
Sensorium AI is an international research, arts and technology project, with the overall aim of democratizing the development of voice-recognition AI and expanding possibilities for creative expression of voice. The project has a specific focus on strengthening the experience of voice for people with voice-related disabilities, speech impairments and atypical speech patterns - beginning with the Cerebral Palsy community and expanding outward from there. Sensorium AI will place an emphasis on both physical voice and expression, as well as voice in terms of social and democratic participation. The process will lead to a variety of outcomes including an interactive art installation and the development of creative voice technologies for artists with disability, which will be integrated into the Sensorium Ex opera. The Sensorium AI project will be developed through a deep collaboration with the NYU Ability program and Arup.
See below for a selection of photographs from a Sensorium Ex development workshop held in Cape Town, South Africa at the Artscape Theater in 2022. Photographs by Jeromeo Le Cordeur.
90 minutes / Opera for soloists, choir, chamber orchestra and electronics
Paola Prestini | Composer; Brenda Shaughnessy | Poet & Librettist; Jerron Herman | Choreographer and Co-Director; NYU Ability Project & NYU Tandon School of Engineering - University Partner; VisionIntoArt | Commissioner and Co-Producer; Beth Morrison Projects | Commissioner and Co-Producer
Ford Foundation, Alphadyne Foundation, and The Nordic Culture Fund
Creatives are increasingly using digital tools and technology, not as accompaniments, but as central components of creative work, from the artificial intelligence opera Sensorium Ex
I am so excited to be part of an opera that provides a nuanced look at disability. As an artist with a disability, I’ve looked before at programming music that features disability… and time and time again, outdated and two-dimensional portrayals of what it means to have a disability have sent me back to the drawing board. With Sensorium, the explorations of disability and accessibility are so rich and nuanced… and ultimately point to the truth that disabled people are whole and beautiful just as we are, without the need to appear ever more able, or to fit into a world that demands we be so. Sensorium asks the world to change its perception of disability, instead of asking disabled people to change. This is a message I cannot wait to sing and share!
I was introduced to the Sensorium initiative last year, and was thrilled to learn of an operatic work that gives voice to disability, inclusion, and access. When I heard the music and met the team, my excitement grew tenfold. After watching so many of the pieces come together this past year, I am truly excited to be a part of a musical union of sorts that brings together so many of the pieces.