Engineering and Music
"Human Supervision and Control in Engineering and Music"

Orchestra Concert
Ensemble Concert
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Nathaniel Tull Phillips

SOUND ART: Auditorelation

A public sound art work, with notes from a context of human supervision and control.

I will discuss a recent collaborative project, the result could be called "sound art."  This is to say, there is visual element as well as a sound element—it most closely falls into the category "installation."  However, this is my first foray into the realm of installation art.  My experience and disposition is that of "composer," who happens to be well versed in computer and electronic music. 

Also, this is a work in progress (the primary unsolved issue is what sounds to use, more about this latter). 

This work resulted from my collaboration with two visual artists, Nodoka Ui and Noriyuki Fujimura, who currently work in Tokyo, Japan.  The work was nearly totally collaborative in the sense that no part of the project was under the domain of one person, no one person had veto power and generally, decisions were made by consensus.  Concepts and ideas were jointly created; however, each of us took on different practical responsibilities as needed (for example, I resolved issues of computer control, Noriyuki made the chairs, Nodoka took on most administrative matters and provided leadership for our project).

We undertook the project through the auspices of Keio University, SFC.  Ui and Fujimura are both visiting researchers at Keio and I recently completed a 1 1/2 year stay as guest professor.   I would like to say a few words about Keio University…

This section contains a generalized description of the installation.  The next sections highlights design aspects and issues, elucidating points in the general description, relevant to the theme of human supervision and control .
Physical description of the Installation:
The installation is intended for a somewhat isolated, but publicly accessible space.  An ideal space would be partially enclosed, like a walled courtyard or atrium, but may also be in a large open air space, like a patio or park or in a fully enclosed space like a lobby or lounge.  Participants may not be immediately aware of the installation.

The installation consists of 8 chairs arranged in a circle.

The installation consists of 8 chairs arranged in a circle.

How it works:
Each chair has a pressure sensor that detects when a person sits down.  These sensors connect to a hidden iCube, a commercially available I/O device that converts sensor date to MIDI data for input to a computer.  An application developed in the MAX/MSP programming environment processes the MIDI data and then outputs sound information to hidden (or at least inconspicuous) speakers in close proximity to the chairs. 

At a later date, we will add sensors for monitoring light level and temperature (other environmental sensors are being considered). 

 The basic idea is that when people sit in the chairs sound is produced through the speakers.  The type of sound produced depends on the number of people sitting, and what pattern they are sitting in.  Other factors, such as how long they have been sitting, the time of date, and the condition of the environment (temperature and light), may also influence the sound. 


The Aesthetic Result:
These parameters form a matrix of possible sound situations.  The matrix is central to the aesthetic result of the installation.  In other words, the choice of what sounds to use and when to use them is central to how participants experience the installation.
Our intent is to provide a type of musical puzzle that provokes reflection and sometimes humor.  Possibly, making the participants more aware of their environment and more aware of themselves (as impacting the environment).
"We go out of our room and look around. We see the relationship with others, with acquaintances, close friends, or strangers.  When we face them, there exists the adjustable distance the suitable arrangement in a space.  We may have equipment around us that we can use to alter the distance and arrangement, like table sets in a café, lounge chairs, or office furniture.  We may say that we can chose what's suitable according to the situation consciously or unconsciously.  But in daily life, we are too used to these arrangements to be conscious of our action.

Notice how much distance you put between yourself and others and what arrangement you create with them.  Then you will find that there exists a relationship with them that you have ignored.

In this installation, the music follows the arrangement that we can see but ignore.  We use auditory information to reinforce metaphorical relationships for the arrangement of the audiences. We expect unexpected relationships will arise, and people may try to sit on other chairs to make a new arrangement of music." 
- Nodoka Ui

An important aspect of this project is making the installation available to other artists to create their own matrices of sound.  To this end, we have designed the software to be self-contained and user-friendly.  Working with other artists we hope to have many works "designed" for this installation (along with our own).

Pictures of Chairs from a presentation at IAMAS DSP Summer School.

Pictures of Chairs from a presentation at IAMAS DSP Summer School.

Design Aspects and Issues:
One aspect of the work is managing participant interaction.  On the one hand, we wish to not overtly show participants how to encounter the art, as surprise and a gradual uncovering of the work's nature are central aesthetic values.  On the other hand, highly esoteric or complex methods of interaction may leave participants frustrated or unconcerned.
The initial approach is critical.
Our idea was that the work be highly mobile and adaptable, that it could be shown in any country/culture, outdoors or indoors (although provisions for weather are necessary at this time, we hope to perhaps create a weather-proof version), in a high traffic public space or a small private gallery.

Auditorelation first showed in a rather lightly trafficked area next to a highly populated area.  People might walk by, but would have to go out of their way to view the work.  However, when someone was "playing" with the work, this interaction would sometimes draw the curious.  It was primarily the sound component that did this.  In fact, we deliberately constructed the work with this in mind.  When one person sits, a sound that is reminiscent of "calling" begins.  People are literally called forth to participate. 

One thing we did not suspect was that people would be reluctant to sit in the chairs (perhaps museum mores against touching art work produce timidity and hesitation).  We therefore decided to change the nature of our chairs, eliminating their backs.  Not only did this invite people to sit, but also it encouraged people to get up and move from chair to chair.

Continued Interaction:
Once seated, there are three possibilities for continued interaction: 1) another person can sit in the circle, thereby changing the sound; 2) one can get up and move to another chair, or 3) one can stay seated (the system keeps track of how long a person sits, the sound can change or transform in relation to duration). 

The sounds are now components of a feedback loop.  Although the participant ultimately controls the experience (they initiate changes and can break the feedback loop), each possibilities presents an avenue for manipulating participation.

Conclusions and thoughts on Supervisory Control
What is the appeal of "Supervisory Control?"  I do not mean "why this conference," rather I wish to address the existence of supervisory control, primarily in sound art/music, philosophically and ontologically. 

Aesthetically, world culture (but particularly industrialized, information based cultures such as Japan, Germany, and the USA) shows signs of moving away from hierarchical, centralized systems of control and subordination.  Control and supervision no longer need rely on old hierarchical models.  The model of the symphony orchestra, for example, is based on a 250 year old tradition essentially copying an even older structure—feudalism.  It is a compelling and powerful model, and it no longer represents our current state of growth as human beings.  I believe this is a factor for the restructuring of symphony orchestras (at least in the USA, I understand other countries are having similar experiences).   These changes include exchanging section leaders for rotating chair assignments, using more guest conductors or even using only guest conductors, performer controlled symphony orchestras, the trend of symphonies to expand their services, and even orchestras without conductors (interestingly, performance skill has risen to such an extent that for experienced orchestras, certain tasks, such as cueing and keeping time, do not require a conductor).  Control and supervision are not lost, but are being reinvented.  This reinvention effects the way we make music (or art) as well as how we create it. 

In a sense, we sought to create a decentralized system in Auditorelation.  We thought that by eliminating "human control" and putting it in the hands of an autonomous algorithmic system we essentially reified our art, the intention being that a reified art would "get out of the way" and serve merely as a stimulus for participants to discover themselves and each other.  Of course, this is false.  There is human intention underlying all aspects of our art, we never entirely "get out of the way."  One of the joys of this conference/paper has been realizing the true extent human supervision and control permeate Auditorelation in spite or because of our original intentions.

Supervision and control feeds a basic human way of being - all humans get some "charge" out of controlling or dominating (or being dominated by) another.  This also occurs with "things."  For example, controlling a computer, supervising an industrial process, manipulating an audience all give a sense of satisfaction.  This is not "wrong," as a matter of course we manipulate our environment and others all the time - for example, ordering a café is a manipulation of someone else to do something for us (even if they are rewarded).

I do not suggest to shy away from this activity.  I bring it up, because recognizing the underlying forces which cause us to "be" this way, to, on some level, enjoy dominating, provides access to other possibilities. 
In this recent work, "Auditorelation," we desire audiences to experiment and play with the installation.  We also did not want to mire audiences in directions or be overly explicit so as to force their actions inside the metaphorical enclosed box. 

For example, one aspect of enjoying the art is the satisfaction of figuring something out - what I realized was that providing this satisfaction required a balance: not being told explicitly, but also having a high degree of clarity and efficiency.  What I learned from this is that there are the forces at work underlying this balance: wanting to be in control, wanting to get it right.