Performance Group Blends Video Art, Public Service

Three MIT grads have devised a way to "remix" the presidential debates — live. Friday night in Boston, they used custom computer software to analyze the candidates' movements and speech patterns in real time, with a nightclub vibe.

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SEABROOK: The presidential debate got a radical makeover last night in Boston, complete with drinks, dancing, DJs. The performance group So So Limited performed a live remix of the debate. Some 250 people crammed into the Institute of Contemporary Art to witness an event dubbed Reconstitution 2008. Reporter Arun Rath joined them.

ARUN RATH: Just a few minutes before the debate begins, the guys from So So Limited take to the stage. Actually, it's a desk in front of a giant TV screen. The three men are dressed smartly in news anchor style suits, but their dark glasses give them a certain, "Men In Black" mystique. Before the show Eric Gunther (ph), one of the the mix masters, describe their mission.

Mr. ERIC GUNTHER (So So Limited Member): I think people looked at the television broadcast as this final, polished product. It arrives in your TV, and it's done. You can't do anything to it. You could change the channel. You can turn off the volume, turn it down.

But we're showing people that it's not the end. You know, with 2,000 bucks and three guys who know how to, you know, make computers do fancy tricks, we could take this thing apart and put it back together in a way that no big broadcast station is going to think about doing.

RATH: They designed software that instantly processes the video from the debate and the text from the close captioning feed. As soon as the debate begins, new images begin to wedge themselves into the screen, next to or on top of the live video from CNN. Almost immediately, the candidate's words start to appear alongside them. For the remainder of the debate, they will be counted, grouped, and organized visually in various ways.

(Soundbite of excerpts from the Presidential debate)

Mr. GUNTHER: We're doing things like keeping track of every sentence they say and showing it visually on screen, and then every time they say a keyword, every single sentence that they use that word in the entire debate, vvviipp(ph), flies forward and lines up in front of you. So, you get this really fast view of a lot of different things, when they use the word, what sentence, what context they used the word in, how many times they use it.

RATH: At times, the words appear on the screen like stats and graphics during a live sports event, and the brain seems to handle the information the same way. You know, McCain said spending 25 times without being distracted from the actual flow of the game or the debate.

Mr. GUNTHER: There is other things we're doing that are way more visceral. Some of them involve removing things, and that's a very powerful idea to us is that, you know, TV nowadays is all about just adding more and more graphics, more slicker animations, like charts, like MSNBC, like tickers, and so part of what we're doing is selectively removing pieces of the broadcast in the hopes that you will see something that you wouldn't have seen before.

RATH: Gradually, all inflection, any variation in tone is eliminated, reducing the voice to a pure computer monotone. Individual cadence and style is transformed into sterile information, and it becomes difficult to tell one senator from the other.

(Soundbite of Presidential debate)

RATH: The technology can make the candidates look hideous or ridiculous. Another of the mix masters, John Rothburger(ph), says it's important they approach the debate objectively with the aid of their computer.

Mr. JOHN ROTHBURGER (So So Limited Member): That's how we stay nonpartisan is because both candidates are subject to the same algorithms. The only editorializing we do is through the writing of software to look for specific things. And, in the debate, we know what topics and what words they are going to talk about, so we can really highlight those themes. So we kind of like set the mouse trap, and the candidates kind of walk into it.

RATH: The audience had mix reactions. A handful left early, but most were positive, with a dash of ambivalence, like Caroline Ellis(ph).

Ms. CAROLINE ELLIS: I enjoyed the fact that it brought out kind of almost a multidimensional analysis, and I think, in some ways, it deepened the way that you thought about the debate, and in another ways, there were times when I found it distracting almost because there are times when you really just want to sit down with yourself and really think about what you've heard.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: But as the drinks continued to flow, and the DJs kept playing well past Wolf Blitzer's bedtime. It seemed that, however people felt about the debate, they were making the best of it. For NPR News, I'm Arun Rath in Boston.

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