A few days ago, i was on video skype for an interview with Tatiana Bazzichelli and her irresistible Italian accent.
I had long wanted to sit down properly and have a chat with Tatiana. The reasons for that are many. First of all, Tatiana is one of the few people who knows the world of art but also the hacking community from the inside. Besides, she has a strong academic and curatorial background.
Bazzichelli is a curator and researcher, author of the books Networked Disruption. Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking (2013), Networking. The Net as Artwork (2008), and co-editor of the book Disrupting Business. Art & Activism in Times of Financial Crisis (highly recommended, like all her book this one is available as paperback but also as a free download). She is director of the Disruption Network Lab, an experimental curatorial project on art, hacktivism, and disruption, based in Berlin. We'll talk during the interview about the upcoming activities of the lab but do not miss its opening event this month, it's called Drones and it examines drone warfare through the perspectives of a former U.S. drone operator, an artist, a criminal law researcher, investigative journalists, activists, filmmakers and a series of international experts.
Previous to that, Tatiana was programme curator at the transmediale festival, initiating the year-round reSource transmedial culture project, and was a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University of Lüneburg.
The second reason why i wanted to steal a moment from Tatiana Bazzichelli's life is Networked Disruption, an exhibition and a series of events she has curated. If you're in Ljubljana (lucky you!) you have until Friday to check out the show at the Škuc Gallery. Right after that, the exhibition will move to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Future events in other European cities are on the agenda.
Centered on the concept of "Networked Disruption" (a concept which is analyzed in depth in her book of the same name), the exhibition highlights the mutual interferences between business, art and disruption. Because it brings together the heterogeneous practices of hackers, artists, networkers, whistleblowers, activists and entrepreneurs, the show is dense in reflections, provocations and references to contemporary society.
The increasing commercialisation of sharing and networking contexts since the middle of 2000s is transforming the meaning of art and that of business. What were once marginal practices of networking in underground hacker and artistic contexts have in recent years become a core business for many information technology companies and social media enterprises. In Bazzichelli's analysis, art intertwines with disruption beyond dialectical oppositions, leading to a discovery of subliminal and distributed strategies, which emerge from within the capitalistic systems, or act within it.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Hi Tatiana! What was the catalyst of your research into the ways artists and hackers can disrupt the system from within? How and why did it start?
In 2008, I moved to Denmark to do a PhD. The research came from very personal reflections. When you and i first met a few years ago, i was interested in questions of sexuality and practices of queer culture. At the same time, i was also speaking about practices of hacking as a form of openness and DIY in connection with political activity.
However, around 2004-2005, I think that there was a moment of change because we started to get into a more mainstream social media framework. This for me modified the perspective because i think many people, who were part of our underground political culture, started to use tools that were becoming common at the time. I noticed that many people -and that includes the net art culture- started to be on Facebook and many of the conversations were happening there. It was a real surprise for me. I could not understand how it was possible that people like us, who used to be really critical, started to shift the field of conversation and action to Facebook.
For example, before Facebook, many people were using MySpace and here in Berlin it was the platform that was popular among the club scene. From MySpace people later migrated to Facebook. Many of these people came from the queer culture and were always speaking of the pleasure as coming from your own understanding of the body but also as a political mean. But when you are just clicking "Like" all the time on Facebook, you transfer your pleasure into a commodified value. "Like" means 'it gives me pleasure' but it also translates into a way for corporations to make money through advertisement. So i was at the time a bit upset.
Then in 2004 i went to this conference in Berlin. It was organized by Tim O'Reilly. It was the time when they were really launching this concept of Web 2. 0, both as a theme and as a business model.
What surprised me at the conference is that they were using the idea of hacking, DIY and many characteristics of the hacker culture to present their products. And i remember Tim O'Reilley at that conference saying that data is the next 'Intel Inside'. I found it a bit strange that the ideas of DIY, openness, sharing, participation were becoming a business model. Even if we always say that business and art are totally intertwined, i was surprised to hear that this could also apply to hacker culture because i was coming from a more politically-oriented hacking.
When i started my PhD in 2008, i wanted to investigate this process: how hacking, business and art started to be so intertwined and what were the consequences for our community of net artists, hackers and so on. As we know that Web 2.0 started as a concept in the Silicon Valley, i travelled to San Francisco and California during my PhD and i started to interview a lot of people. I summarized these experiences in the book.
In the book i started talking about the idea of disruption. That was in 2008 when not many people were using the concept of disruption. Now it is a total buzz word in many contexts, including political, artistic or hacker practices. Disruption is a term coming from business. If we want to define the term disruption, it means to introduce a product, a technology or an innovation that the market doesn't expect. This is usually a definition used by many start-ups to define the way they create disruptive innovation. The idea is that you introduce into the market an innovation that is often cheaper than the other products already available and in this way you create a disruption because you shift the public and the consumers into using the new product. This component of being unexpected is important. But what is equally important is that the discourse of disruption comes from inside this system.
In my previous experiences, i used to think that sometimes it was good to create opposition in order to trigger a change. It was the time right after the anti globalization movement, when we had to reflect on tactics that were often characterized by a component of opposition. Many people started to think that we needed to invent new forms of criticism. And that's why i was so interested in the queer community because they were usually adopting tactics that were playful and not merely oppositional of the system as many people were doing for example during the G8 manifestations when disobedience was applying a very frontal opposition. After the massacre of the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, we could see that the movement had to rethink its strategies. So i started to investigate different forms of practices that were working from within or adopting viral and playful strategies. Initially, I looked into queer culture but then after web 2.0, i moved into business because i could see that it was a second step that needed to be analyzed.
After the PhD, i i started to write about disruption and i saw that it could be applied to the art field. Just like the business is speaking about disruptive innovation, i thought maybe we should apply this concept to the art field and start to imagine practices that are actually coming from within the system and are also using this unpredictability as a form of tactical strategy, just like businesses do.
Of course it's not something new. The avant-garde for example created an artistic shock and used the idea of the unpredictability of practices. Following these lines and somehow transforming it into the present condition of net culture, i thought disruption could then be applied as an artistic practice and also analyze its loop.
In my book, this loop brings together art, business and disruption.
If you understand how i conceptualize this model, then you can see how artists, activists, hackers, entrepreneurs, networkers are all inside this loop because they act from within the system. The mutual interferences and the mutual feedback loop happen between business, art and disruption. In my model, art is disrupting business by creating interferences, perturbations and virality inside the business field. I use the word business because it's a word that artists and activists despise. Business is directly connected to managerial thinking, to company rhetoric, etc. If you read artistic texts, you will find that they talk about market, not business. And that's why i decided to use the word. I think we have to start appropriating an imaginary and words that have never been parts of certain fields, like art and hacking. Or that used to be if we go back in time. The critical fields of artists and hackers however hate that word. So i thought we should start to appropriate the word business, just like the word hacking has been appropriated by web 2.0.
You curated an exhibition that is currently on view at the Škuc gallery in Ljubljana. Could you take us through some of the works you are showing there and tell us how they fit into the "disruptive feedback loop", how they embody this idea of networked disruption?
The idea for this exhibition was to refer to the book because the people who are part of the exhibition are also featured in the book but i also wanted to bring it to the present. That was a bit complicated because when you write a Phd you don't necessarily start to think about how to translate it into an exhibition.
I also wanted to try and reflect on the modality of curating, of presenting networks of networks that are all dealing with disruption and at the same time i wanted to have the opportunity to reflect on what disruption means as a strategy that is interfering with from within the systems. At that point i'm going to mention another reflection i made in the book about whistleblowing. Whistleblowers are people who are not only acting inside the system (they work for corporations, secret services, governmental agencies, etc.) but to me, they are also creating détournements of perspective because they facilitate an important moment of change. And there is also this idea of unpredictability. A person who was regularly working for a corporation or an agency is suddenly turning out to be somebody who's revealing the misconducts of the corporation or entity they work for.
I think that whistleblowers are actually artists because if we think about the history of art, going back to the Avant-garde and reflecting on this moment of détournement, shock, change and unpredictability, then it is exactly what whistleblowers are doing. They create shock and change And it's interesting because this applies also outside the metaphysical aspects of art. I mean it's not just civil disobedience, it's something that is having consequences on their daily life. There is no way back for them.
In that sense, it is also a very important act. Everyone could be a whistleblower. Every person who works into this closed system could wake up and say "I don't want to do this anymore" and they could start revealing secrets. It's also really interesting for me because it happens in the context of everyday life. We could say that the avant-garde was still really working into the art field. The idea was to bring life in to art... You know the usual sentence! But the perspective changed after the end of the seventies, even with punk culture or the idea of hacker cultures and many of the practices exhibited in the show, such as Luther Blissett and Neoism. These people had the idea of bringing art into life. It's thus something different. And that's what i'm interested in. I'm interested in the moments when art goes out of the usual structures and constraints and becomes something that everybody could apply into their own life. From this point of view, a whistleblower is an artist because he or she totally follows a perspective in which you create détournement of a point of view. That's the reason why i included some whistleblower projects and some practices connected to whistleblowing in the exhibition.
In the first room of the show, you can see the work of Julian Oliver, Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglen. Then we look at the roots of practices that come from subcultural groups that were active in the 80s and 90s (Luther Blisset, the Neoism movement, The Cacophony Society, the Billboard Liberation Front, etc.
And of course mail art because mail art has a connection with art, and also because mail artists spoke about how art does not necessarily have to be connected with the gallery system. Everybody can be an artist, everybody can do mail art. Besides, in some situations, people used mail art to circumvent surveillance. In the DDR for example.
These lines of inquiry reach the discourse of Anonymous, a practice that is totally in line with the discourse of anonymity and also with the disruption of identity and the discourse of dismantling a single truth. These aspects were already important in Luther Blissett and Neoism, they were playing with the idea of the truth of the media, of the identity, of the art field and they even played with their own practices. Many Neoists were indeed claiming they were not Neoists or they were coming up with different definitions of Neoism. I think that Anonymous is directly connected to that. Not only because the group is made of people whose identity you don't know but also because they are bringing together this aspect of political engagement but without the political mandate and they are having fun in the process, 'doing things for the Lulz' as they say.
Nowadays the moment of criticism is changing, especially for the hacker culture. Today if you want to look for enemies, these enemies are so powerful that you know you will never win the battle. This is the era of Big Data so tell me "Who is the enemy?" Since Snowden, we know about surveillance, we know that the enemy is totally pervasive. So if you want to be critical, then your strategy, your practice also need to be pervasive. I think that this is exactly what Anonymous is doing. Even if their operations identify the so-called 'enemy', they are so distributed that you know there is not one single mission. There is a plural aspect of dealing with anonymity. So i found it to be a very important strategy and one directly connected with whistleblowing because we know that one of the last operations was involving AntiSec and Jeremy Hammond. He leaked to wikileaks private data and sensitive information from the Stratfor corporation. That was an act of whistleblowing. And indeed Hammond got 10 years in jail for it.
What i'm trying to do in this exhibition is to draw these connections but at the same time i didn't want to be just the curator in a hierarchical way. I decided that i wouldn't be the only person taking the decisions. I worked with an internal individual from each group. We decided together to exhibit certain aspects of the entity or group and we were totally conscious that we were not doing a historical exhibition because that would have been impossible. Instead, the show analyzes some specific aspects of each group that we think are important in relation to disruption and then the show connects these aspects together. The idea was then to create a network of networks in relation to networked disruption. The title is thus networkED disruption as in "disruption among networks" and also inside of them. It is also connected to the idea of the disruptive loop because the loop is creating a network for disruption in which different agents participate to a feedback loop.
I was watching the video of the talk you gave at re:public last year. At some point, you were explaining that hacking cannot be disconnected from business in the U.S. You gave Burning Man as an example. Could you expand on this connection?
When i was at Stanford during a visiting scholarship during the PhD research, i met Fred Turner and we had interesting conversations. He wrote this book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. He was claiming that, at least in California, the development of hacker culture was always intertwined with business. He doesn't like to speak about co-optation but about layering, with things that don't just co-exist but are intertwined. i was inspired by this idea of layering and i tried to recreate it by analyzing artistic practices. In layering, there is a coexistence of opposition. And they are not oppositions from the outside, the oppositions are all living inside this loop. In my first scenario, i analyzed this practices by referring to Walter Benjamin, especially the idea of dialectical image that is the moment in which oppositions coexist. Business, disruption, art and hacking all together at the same time create something which in Germany they call Denkbilder ('thinking image'.)
Going back to the exhibition, you could say that it is the coexistence of oppositions because these groups were active at the same time but were never necessarily in contact.
The show also looks into the idea of business disruption with projects that are directly related to web 2.0 and social media. They are the most recent one such as Anna Adamolo and the collective Les Liens Invisbles. They are analyzing the Facebook system and other social media and creating disruption from within it by really understanding how the system of virality works.
After long discussions with Janez (Janez being one of the producers of the show), we also decided to have a Janez Janša work. We are showing the letter in which the three artists communicate to the Prime Minister Janez Janša that they are becoming Janez Janša. Again, this was a moment of change that interfered with their private life (just like what happened with the whistleblowers). it is also a strong act of creating an unpredictable change in their life and also as artists.
Are you planning to show Networked Disruption anywhere else?
Yes, we are about to move the exhibition to Croatia. The opening is on the 23rd of April and the show will be up until the 14th of May. It's at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rijeka. The idea is then to move it to move it to the UK in 2016 as part of the AND Festival. I'm also trying to bring it back to Berlin. So it's going to be a traveling show.
How did the public react to the show? Did it echo with their own life?
The feedback we got in Slovenia is very positive, including among young people. I don't want to sound like a grumpy old lady but it is sometimes difficult these days to make young people understand that social networking is a practice that has a history, that Facebook hasn't invented everything from scratch. The show wants to highlight that social practices can be imagined in a different way, that if you understand a system, you can play with it. And play from the inside.
You are the director of the Disruption Network Lab in Berlin. I noticed the very promising title of an upcoming event on the homepage. It's called Launch Event: Drones. What have you programmed for the event?
Last year, i applied to the Hauptstadtkulturfonds, the culture fund of Berlin and i got a grant to develop a one year program (hopefully we will manage to go beyond one year.) My idea was to build upon the PhD research and the practice-based experience i had with Transmediale with the reSource program. So i decided to develop a platform of events and research that will take place at the Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
There will be 6 main events. One every 6 weeks. They are scheduled in April, May, August, September, October and December. Each event focuses on a different topic but all are aligned with the discourse of disruption as a concept which means 'to interfere with the system from within.'
Each specific thematic will be analyzed from different points of view. They will also together people who approach the subject from different perspectives. Hackers, artists, whistleblowers, activists, investigative journalists, researchers, critical thinkers, etc.
The first event is called Drones. Eyes from a Distance and we'll be analyzing the politics and strategies within and behind the drone usage. Somehow, drones are these invisible weapons that you know are used during conflict. They also have some kind of mystical aura. Mystical and horrifying. You know drones can kill people and they do it in a massive way. They are operated at a distance so they are part of the discourse of deterritorialization of conflict. At the same time, drones are becoming widespread in society. Amazon is using them to deliver parcels. Journalists are using them for filming from above. Makers and hackers are using them in their DIY experiments.
So this topic obviously opens up a lot of discussions.
This event will last 2 days. The model of the Disruption Network Lab events is a series of panels, discussions, keynotes and workshops sometimes. We also try to connect with other spaces in Berlin.
For the launch event, we will have a drone operator coming from the US. He used to work in the army there until he decided to become a whistleblower by discussing in public what it means to be a drone operator and how the work interfered with everyday life. There will be a panel with an investigative journalist, a criminal lawyer working specifically on Palestine questions, and activists from Gaza (if we manage to get them here as it's tricky to get all the permissions).
The following day, we have a second panel with another investigative journalist, an artist working on the mapping of strikes, and then a Norwegian film maker. His film, DRONE, will also be screened at the event.
We will also document the event and upload all the videos online.
Networked Disruption, an exhibition and a series of events produced by Aksioma and Drugo more in collaboration with several partners. The show is up until April 3 at Škuc Gallery, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Do check also the PDF guide of the show.
A few days ago, i was at Parsons Paris for reFrag: glitch, a series of workshops, talks and performances that address the multifold ways in which glitches manifest and/or are mobilized artistically in our lives. Participants talked about flash crashes in the financial market (more about that one soon), wacky operating system from the early nineties, Spinoza glitches, archaeology of bugs, etc. It was good, brain-stimulating and intense. We even watched the documentary of a fist fucking performance. Here's the project page if you're into that kind of entertainment.
I'll probably write an incomplete but enthusiastic post about the event in the coming days but for now, i'm going to kick out the reports with Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke's presentation of the 3D Additivist Manifesto + Cookbook. Rourke was in Paris. Allahyari spoke to us via skype.
Allahyari and Rourke's 3D Additivist Manifesto is an invitation to artists, researchers, activists and critical engineers to submit ideas, thoughts, and designs for the future of 3D printing. The submissions should reflect on the current state of additive manufacturing, identify the potential encoded into the most challenging 3D printed objects and push the technology to its most speculative, revolutionary and radical limits. Once collected, these submissions will form The 3D Additivist Cokbook.
The project started germinating in the artists' minds when Rourke interviewed Allahyari for her project Dark Matter, a series of 3D printed sculptures that combined objects, beings and concepts forbidden by the Iranian government. Most of these objects look pretty harmless to us. However, in her native country, a dildo, a dog, a satellite dish, a Barbie, or a neck tie (??) are frown-upon and in some case strictly forbidden. The work is both an archive of vetoed objects and an encouragement to those who live under oppressions and dictatorship to use the printer as a tool for resistance.
Allahyari and Rourke have recently teamed up for the 3D Additivist Manifesto + Cookbook, a works that brings together art, engineering, scifi and digital aesthetics under a mind-blowing and slightly weird umbrella.
The cookbook is inspired by William Powell's Anarchist Cookbook. Written in 1971, the manual brought together various readily available sources of knowledge and offered instructions on how to build bombs, make drugs, hack arcade machines, etc.
Other sources of inspiration for the 3D Additivist Manifesto include recent 3D printing projects such as the 3D printed gun, Julien Maire's (amazing) 3D animation that uses 3D printed objects instead of film and F.A.T.'s Free Universal Construction Kit.
One last major source of inspiration is Donna Haraway. Because the scholar is the author of the Cyborg Manifesto of course. But also because she believes that the Anthropocene is not a radical enough way to describe our era. Human beings are putting themselves in a situation similar to the one that the cyanobacteria experienced at the beginning the Earth history. They made life breathable for other other organisms by converting CO2 into oxygen, and they almost killed themselves in the process. Haraway suggests that we call our era the Cthulhucene.
reFrag:glitch, a collaboration between Parsons Paris and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Film, Video, New Media & Animation Department, is an international Glitch Art event that ran from the 19th to the 23rd of March 2015.
A quick post to let you know about the really REALLY nice book i received the other day. I can't stop playing with it. The publication celebrates Staalplaat Soundsystem's brilliant work.
You probably know them already. Geert-Jan Hobijn started Staalplaat as a record label in the 1980s. He then expanded his label with a radio programme, a record shop, a magazine and, around the year 2000, he founded Staalplaat Soundsystem, the artistic branch of Staalplaat. I've always been a big fan of their noise-making machines and performances that use all kinds of toys, tools, natural or urban settings and electronic junk. Think car horn concert, compositions for vacuum cleaners or washing machines, machines for the 'spirit of dead computers', toy cars driving over vinyl grooves, etc.
The book/turntable/music gadget was published after Hobijn won the Witteveen+Bos Art+Technology Award which goes every year to a visual artist whose work unites the disciplines of art and technology in an exceptional manner and for whom engineering is far more than a means to an end.
In typical Staalplaat fashion, the publication only serves as a pretext for letting people have fun with sound. It comes with a nifty paper turntable, a music instrument you activate by plugging in a small battery and i even got a pencil to play with the turntable. There's also a book, by the way.
Geert-Jan Hobijn, Composed Nature, part of the exhibition Om, 2014. Video Witteveen+Bos
The publication and the Art+Technology Award were accompanied by an exhibition featuring an indoor version of Staalplaat's Composed Nature inside the Bergkerk Church as part of the exhibition 'Om'.
Seventy trees were placed in the centre of the church. Visitors of the show could dial a phone number and select one of three compositions. Vintage kitchen mixers attached to the tree trunks were then activated and made the tree rustle according to the chosen composition.
Photo on the homepage: AV festival.
DIYsect is s documentary series 'about the DIY Biology & Biology-Art intersection' and it is rather good.
In Summer 2013, filmmaker Benjamin Welmond and artist-biologist Mary Maggic Tsang traveled across the U.S. and Canada to meet the biohackers, artists, synthetic biologists, writers and curators and talk with them about the possibilities, challenges and dilemmas brought forward by biotechnology. The result is a portrait of DIY biotech hack and biotech art by the very people who are directly involved in it.
The authors of the series write:
I only discovered the existence of the episodes a few days ago (thanks Adam Zaretsky!) The films are short and sharp. They are released as soon as they have been edited. For free. On vimeo. Let's go!
The first episode of the web-series, Learning in Public is of course the introductory one. The directors interview members of the DIY biology movement as well as artists such as Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, Claire Pentecost, and subRosa.
Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror gets political. It starts with the FBI bioterrorism case against Steve Kurtz and then goes on to reflect the FBI's change of tactics. Realizing its errors, the FBI is now reaching out to the DIY BIO community 'for mutual education.'
DIYSECT Episode 2: Bioterror & Bioerror
Things are gettng tricky with episode 3. Fear of the Unknown which should be out on vimeo today!
The episode delves into the discussions surrounding synthetic biology. On the one hand, a project like the Kickstarter-funded Glowing Plant is creating controversy by bringing synthetic biology to the consumer market in the form of a plant that glows in the dark. Its developers' rhetoric is fairly unconvincing (at least as far as i am concerned.) On the other hand, the technology watchdog group ETC. Its members fear the lack of regulation (the plant doesn't require any form of approval in the U.S. since it is not food) and the potentially damaging impact that the release of the plant might have on the environment. Somewhere in the middle is artist Adam Zaretsky who has long used his provocative performances to try and raise a broader debate about what is ethical or not in the field of synthetic biology. There's this great moment in the film when he explains that we don't really know what we are doing and that we need to stop and think before we 'fuck up our world' beyond human control.
On a side note, i believe we need to see more of Zaretsky's provocations and reflections here in Europe, so let's help him fund his next trip to the old continent.
Image on the homepage: Critical Art Ensemble in Halle/Saale, Germany performing "Radiation Burn: A Temporary Monument to Public Safety", October 15th 2010.
Adam Basanta, The sound of empty space
If you happen to be in Montreal this week, drop by the Galerie B-312 where composer and sound artist Adam Basanta has installed a series of works that play with self-generating microphone feedback. Each of the 3 works in the gallery examines, in its own witty and transparent way, the idea of sound as a mutable product of interdependent networks of physical, cultural and economic relations.
Amplifying and aestheticizing the acoustic inactivity between technological "inputs" and "outputs" - stand-ins for their corporeal correlates, the ear and mouth - the notion of a causal sound producing object is challenged, and questions are posed as to the status of the ʻamplifiedʼ. By building flawed technological systems and nullifying their intended potential for communication, the ear is turned towards the empty space between components; to the unique configurations of each amplifying assemblage.
In The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly, a feedback loop between microphone, PA system amplifier, and speaker cone is enclosed within a soundproof aquarium. The sound level within the enclosure reaches an ear-damaging 120dB, approximately the loudness of a car horn at close distance.
Pirouette further explores the notion of amplification systems as self-generating sound producers. A microphone rotates slowly and triggers a tuned feedback melody as it comes nearer to one of the seven speaker cones. It takes nine full rotations of the microphone to reveal a skeletal version of the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet.
In the third work in the series, Vessel, the naturally resonant acoustic properties of a large glass jar are amplified, creating a feedback monody by varying the distance between speaker and microphone.
How could i resist the temptation to interview an artist who can not only turn the usually unpleasant microphone feedback into beautiful artifacts but whose past projects also include a performance in which he played Music for Lamps.
Hi Adam! Could you give more details about Pirouette? How does it work exactly?
In Pirouette, a microphone standing on a raised platform spins slowly, hovering over 7 suspended speaker cones. As the microphone hovers over each speaker, it enables a feedback loop: the microphone "hears" the speaker amplifying the microphone, and on and on until we hear microphone feedback or Larsen tones.
Usually, this type of feedback would be very loud. But in Pirouette, the feedback is tuned and controlled by computer algorithms to create a slowly evolving feedback melody. A custom made software is inserted between the microphone and speakers, filtering out all but a very narrow range of audible frequencies. The frequencies which are allowed to "pass through" the filter are the ones that end up feeding back. In this way, I was able to create a very precise sequence of tonal pitches - the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet - using feedback.
As well, the computer algorithms control the overall volume and amplitude envelope of each feedback note. As the microphone hovers over a particular speaker, the gain of the channel is adjusted based on how loud the particular feedback note is: if it gets too loud, the computer brings down the gain while if it is too quiet, the computer will compensate the gain and make it a little louder.
The description of The Sound of Empty Space talks about 'building flawed technological systems'. Can you talk about these flaws? What makes them interesting and how did you exploit their potential?
Well, the flaws are found in the ways I use or rearrange elements of commercial sound technologies. Pointing a microphone directly at a speaker is a basic error, the first thing you learn to avoid if you are working with amplified sound in whatever context. It is a flawed use of the equipment, in the sense that normally you would want the system to amplify something "worthwhile" (a musician, a speech etc). When feedback occurs, it makes the entire sound reinforecement system useless, because it is at its very basis a method to communicate information, and feedback nullifies this potential; it 'jams' the system, it is noise, it doesn't allow "sanctioned" sounds to be amplified.
So why do this in the first place? Well, I've been involved in making music in different contexts since I was about 12. As much as this is a fun thing to be involved in, I've come to realize that it is a huge industry - I like to call it the industry of 'self expression' - complete with industry magazines, blogs, and allegiances to this company or the other and whichever 'lifestyle' they are selling. I really dislike "gear-culture", but at the same time these are still very much my artistic tools, both personally and culturally: just like a folk singer has a guitar, I have microphones and amplifiers and speakers.
So in a way, arranging these elements in a flawed way - in a way that goes against the original commercial intent of the object - is my way of remaining creative with tools that are in many ways designed in a way which often limits creativity. I try to do this in a very non-antagonistic way: I'm not really interested in a grand rebellious gesture, but more in a gentler form of perversion. I am trying to make something beautiful, something that people can get lost listening to, out of this flaw or error.
At the same time, the more I think about feedback and the more I work with it as sonic material, the more I find it fascinating conceptually. It is an emergent phenomena, in that it relies on the configuration of microphone, speaker and acoustic environment. It reveals aural dimensions of architecture to which we don't have easy (visual) access to. There is no real "causal" element in the feedback chain - all the components are "passive" sort to speak - you can't really say that the speaker is producing the sound more than the microphone is. And in a sense, this is a really beautiful and powerful metaphor for listening in general: perceiving the sound of a guitar or a bird or your lover's voice has as much to do with one's own physiological or psychophysical attributes (for instance, the length of the auditory canal), one's intention (am I hearing or listening?), and the general context in which the sound is produced.
You are a composer and sound artist. Yet, your installation have obvious aesthetically qualities. Could you talk to us about the visual aspect of your work? Is it important to you? Does it complement the sound work?
Although my training is in sound and music, and I was never really involved in visual art, the visual aspect of these works is critical for me. As opposed to sound, which evolves in time, visual impressions are immediate, so it is really the way to get people curious about the work. With that in mind, I try to use a visual vocabulary that creates a mix of transparency and mystery. Transparency in the sense that I present my materials - microphones, speakers, amplifiers, cables - in a very matter of fact way: here they are, here is how they are connected together. At the same time, some elements are hidden - often, this involves the computer - and so even though we see these recognizable materials there is a sense of mystery or surprise with regard to the qualities of the sounds, or exactly how they are being produced.
With this exhibition in particular, I've been very interested in combining visual and sonic materials in a way that creates an intertwined web of references, and in this way create richer listening situation. The use of microphones, speakers and public address amplifiers - objects that embody communication and sound reproduction technologies - are obvious examples of this. Subtler references include Vessel's resemblance to an "impossible bottle / ship in a bottle", as well as Pirouette's visual reference to a rotating music-box ballerina coupled with the aural reference to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Even small details, such as the use of 7 speakers in Pirouette, reference the 7 tone scale in Western harmony.
Of course, not all of these will be picked up by visitors, and the works can be enjoyed on a "purely aural" level (if that even exists). But to me this is the biggest impetus to create sound art (as a separate practice from concert music): the potential to combine visual references, conceptual ideas, and sonic material (in all its richness and wordless intoxication) in order to create some sort of hybrid listening experience.
We live in a very visual society. And sound art is often reduced to just music. I also often find that art journalists, bloggers and critics (apart from those who specialize in sound art of course) are a bit at loss when it comes to writing about sound art.
Do you feel that sound artists have a disadvantage compared to visual artists?
I suppose so. It certainly is a more marginal practice in terms of number of practitioners and institutions, and general 'visibility'. Of course, it also has less commercial potential because it tends to subvert the idea of an art object in favour of an in-situ experience. At the same time, I feel people respond strongly to sound art for precisely these reasons, so I suppose there are two sides to the coin.
Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us?
At the moment, I am hard at work writing some new chamber music pieces for instruments and live electronics, to be performed by Montreal-based ensembles Magnitude6 and Architek Percussion. In terms of sound art installations, I'm continuing to develop some of the threads evident in The sound of empty space, although with some subtle variations. In June, I will create a site-specific feedback installation for the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM, which will explore ideas of feedback as indicator of physical acoustic space in a very large spatial setting. This fall I will be in residency at Titanik Gallery in Turku, Finland, where I will work towards a new exhibition at the Gallery in the end of October 2015, which will examine relationships between instruments of mass communication, the materiality of communication signals, and subjectivities of listening.