Michael Trigilio and Messages to the Future

A screen still from Michael Trigilio's "T2ERU - 4K Shoot DRAFT" video.

Picture the Voyager Golden Records, those phonographs tucked into the Voyager spacecraft that launched in the late 70s, as they quietly drift through space. It's an epic and hugely important gesture to encapsulate the whole of human experience in a message intended for extraterrestrial life or far-away-future human existence, and Carl Sagan and friends chose golden records as the medium.

Artist Michael Trigilio can't help but giggle a little at the notion.

"It's sweet, but silly," says the multimedia artist. "I wanted to capture the folly of that."

With one of his newest projects, T2ERU: Tell Them Everything/Remember Us, Trigilio touches on the preciousness and romanticism of the idea of sending messages to the future by making eclectic pieces on the subject and leading student workshops, asking collaborators to think about what part of human existence they might want to preserve.

"Do we want to remember Coca-Cola and Starbucks?" he asks. "Or do we want to remember falling in love or going to a funeral? We have such a range of experiences. I can't tell what's more important; that I order coffee every day or that I try not to flirt with a barista while I order that same coffee every day? That kind of question becomes the thrust of the whole project."

Trigilio has crafted a video intended for a version of our future selves. It's intense and awkward and, Trigilio says, meant to communicate the feeling of what it's like to make new friends. You stare, share, then, if you start to care deeply enough for one another, you can start to feel completely overwhelmed.

"It's a wild visualization," he explains. "It's about something that is a neurotic, anxious experience of life done in an extreme way."

Video is far from Trigilio's only medium for communicating his messages to the future. A visual arts lecturer at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), he has access to the bleeding-edge technology tucked away in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), so 3D and even 4D virtual reality environments are at his fingertips ready to be experimented with and used as high-tech time capsules meant to capture humanity's most important traits and further explore the question, "What about our lives is worth remembering 4,000 years from now?"

Image created for T2ERU by Adriana Feketeova. | Photo courtesy of <a href='http://t2eru.tumblr.com/post/49973689168/two-views-of-a-t2eru-image-by-adriana-feketeova'>T2ERU</a>.
Image created for T2ERU by Adriana Feketeova. | Photo courtesy of T2ERU.

All of Trigilio's varied mediums -- everything from his analog electronics to collaborative performances, films and installations -- will possibly be tapped into throughout the duration of the T2ERU project, which received grant funding in October of last year, kicked off in December and could end this fall or, Trigilio half jokes, "maybe in 90 years."

"I'll just keep going until I run out of steam," he says, his voice filled with the sort of wild energy that comes with hitting upon an idea that has seemingly endless possibilities.

Another of Trigilio's imaginative projects, Speculative Religious Electronics, was recently featured in CORPUS, a group exhibition at the Structural and Materials Engineering Visual Arts Gallery on the UCSD campus. A fictional character from Trigilio's 2010 film "Bodhisattva, Superstar," inspired the interesting body of work. In the film, the character invents an object that can scan the radio frequencies and eventually disrupt any frequency, play a pure tone then quickly vanish. He imagined the invention as a subtle break in the noise -- an attempt to insert a quiet meditative sound into people's daily dose of commercial radio. It didn't take long before he started thinking about other instruments that put a voice or sound to various religious and spiritual experiences.

"I started thinking, what would a Sarah Palin priest synthesizer sound like? Let's make that," he says. "What about a Saint Thomas Aquinas fuzz pedal?"

Trigilio made several of his imagined instruments work in the real world for the show Zentheiszer, made in collaboration with Lee Montgomery, was designed to "sonically locate the ephemeral nature of awareness in Buddhist meditation." The Zenthesizer really can broadcasts a tone across all FM frequencies, from 87.7FM up to 107.7FM and back again, which means you could be listening to your local NPR affiliate, and hear a sudden burst of the Zenthesizer that would disappear as suddenly as it appeared.

His "Congregation Engine" instrument was designed as an interactive piece that invited viewers to touch two separate copper plates on the wall. When the viewers completed the connection between the two plates by grasping hands, they'd hear a loud synthetic sound. Trigilio describes the piece as human contact amplified.

"The touch is sung aloud as if it were a living instrument or an alarm," he says.

Trigilio's interactive 'Congregation Engine' at the CORPUS Exhibition. | Photo courtesy of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Trigilio's interactive 'Congregation Engine' at the CORPUS Exhibition. | Photo courtesy of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

A formerly ordained Buddhist priest who turned in his membership card to pursue more radical ideas, Trigilio is as well known locally for his electronic music (he once covered a Taylor Swift song by turning it into a death-metal ballad) and sound art as he is for his films and Neighborhood Public Radio, an art project he worked on from 2004 to 2011 in collaboration with Montgomery and Jon Brumit that started by exploring truly public, independent, accessible and neighborhood-based radio and eventually involved into a project that treated transmission as a medium. On any given week, his work, which has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, takes him from experiments with electronics and 3D modeling to leading public workshops teaching attendees how to turn a pack of cigarettes or empty Starbucks cup into a functioning synthesizer. Yet, thematically, all of his projects do have a recognizable, conceptual thread. The artist purposely dances around three central, interlacing topics: narcissism, humor and religion. Often all three come into play, informing the work in ways that have become Trigilio's recognizable stamp. His cheeky, somewhat off-kilter sense of humor meshes with his obsession with analyzing and demystifying religion and the human experience and his ongoing quest to conquer narcissism everywhere he encounters the loathsome trait, especially when he recognizes it in himself.

"At least I'm in therapy for it," Trigilio laughs, explaining that his art is one method of facing cultural and individual narcissism head on. "I'm trying to undo it."

Multimedia artist Michael Trigilio. | Photo by Monica Nouwens.
Multimedia artist Michael Trigilio. | Photo by Monica Nouwens.

As an educator, Trigilio enjoys connecting with his students, whether it's in the classroom or in one of his public workshops, which he treats as art projects in and of themselves. Trigilio teaches a class in sound at UCSD and he likes to remind his students that simple gestures, like making normal conversational tone a littler louder, or quieting it down to a whisper, can create a totally different experience, even if the dialogue is as simple and mundane as describing your day. His teaching abilities are being noticed and recognized -- on May 30, Trigilio took home the Distinguished Teaching Award for Academic Senate Members.

Testing high-resolution images for the T2ERU project. | Photo courtesy of T2ERU.
Photo courtesy of T2ERU.
Photo courtesy of T2ERU.

For now, Trigilio's main focus will be on teaching and T2ERU. He expects the project to take him to his usual places of exploration. For example, what types of religious rituals and worship traditions might one want to record for future generations? Or what about the incredible narcissism required of someone to think they're important and significant enough to be remembered far into the future? And he'll delve into it all with a healthy dose of dark and somewhat depressing humor.

"I always want to stay away from being too preachy," he says. "So, I bring in humor, but It's not the jazz-hands, clown-makeup type; it's 'I-hate-myself' kind of humor. Basically, wherever humor can be a mirror or an echo or a richer, more meaningful experience; that's what I'm interested in."

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