Brite Winter 2015 Artist Spotlight: Ed Morra/Mike Render

Interview by Emily Appelbaum

Ed Morra has worked with his partner Mike Render for more than thirty years, but not in the jobs they currently hold. They were first collaborators as members of the popular eighties band Joy Circuit. Their later career paths took them into more technical fields… but they still like to play, in more ways than one! We caught up with Ed, so he could tell us about holding down a heavy-duty real world job, all while finding the time to make music, tinker and, above all, create.

You work as a biomechanical engineer by day. How does this work inform the work you do as an artist and vice versa?

My work has allowed me to learn the details of how people move and the many ways to record their movements in three dimensions. I also create a variety of physics simulations on a computer that allow you to match these recorded 3D motions to the movement of a virtual person or avatar, then predict the muscle activity that the person needed to use to move their body through the motion. 

Predicting how the body works on the inside, just by watching the movement on the outside, is a neat trick that helps researchers figure out how best to perform corrective surgeries for people who may need a joint replacement or may have trouble walking correctly. 

You and Mike have been working together for a long time, first as musicians, now as artists and makers. Can you describe how the team is built?

Mike is a software design engineer and is expert at manipulating streams of data, so he is able to make sense out of the motion data we capture and turn it into a fun game. 

We can build customized interactive spaces that respond to the movement of people casually passing in and out, like at Brite Winter. Their movements are captured and then passed into a custom-made computer program that animates a snowy avatar to match their movements. Projecting a life size version of the avatar on the wall makes it feel like a mirror in a winter world. If the person does a little dance, the avatar dances the same way. If you hold certain poses by yourself or with a friend, fun things happen in the world. 

This sounds a little Simon Says meets the Hokey Pokey – what’s it like watching people do all kinds of crazy things in order to manipulate the game?

It is very fun for us to watch people interact with the display. They come up with the coolest unexpected ideas to make their avatar interact with the virtual world they find themselves in. There are no rules to the game, you just have fun exploring the snowy world. Add a friend and it compounds the effect of your actions.  

You played in an eighties band you described as “kind of a big deal” back in the day. Now you guys still get together, but you’ve diversified a bit: you still make music, but you also tinker, create set pieces, work in electronics and act as a mini production company. Can you talk about the transition from a band with a more serious music focus to this jacks-of-all trades type of practice?

Joy Circuit was a pretty popular New Wave act based out of the Cleveland, Kent and Akron music scene back in the early eighties. We used to tour, record and make videos back when we were younger and did not have the families that we do now. We recently reformed for a hunger benefit and were humbled by a standing ovation from a very large crowd at the Kent stage. 

We were invited to audition for the TV show America’s Got Talent last year and blew the producers minds when we showed up in full costume with a “mobile performance platform” that looked kind of like a compact robotic stage show crossed with a hoverboard. I think we would have made for interesting television, but the network contract was unsignable. 

We are only able to do larger theatrical shows once a year or so with our schedules, so we make sure they are visually interesting with several custom lighting and electro-mechanical stage props that we have geeked out building ourselves. We just like to make things, whether it is music or lighting props or motorized gadgets. The band is a great outlet for all of that. 

Find old and new videos of Joy Circuit on YouTube by finding their record label, Sinister Bop!