We, robots

Adam Jasper

Eric Singer, GuitarBot

Eric Singer, GuitarBot

Electrofringe, the new media arts component of the This Is Not Art festival, has grown to the point where no single review can be comprehensive. There were 95 events over 5 days including panels, workshops, showcases and screenings. Over 80 contributors competed for the attention of an audience of artists, students, musicians and experimentalists.

One of the traditions of Electrofringe that allies it with academic conferences is the importation of an international luminary to cast an air of dignity over the proceedings. Eric Singer (ericsinger.com), a quietly spoken American, is one of the founders of LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, www.lemurbots.org), a collective specialising in the design and construction of robotic instruments. Since its establishment, LEMUR has been responsible for a whole range of semi-autonomous noise-making machines, including the enigmatic TibetBot, a robot that plays Tibetan Buddhist bells like a demented carillon.

Singer was in Newcastle specifically to show off GuitarBot, an instrument that consists of 4 single string slide guitars complete with robotically controlled picks and servo-controlled moving bridges. Because the units resonate independently, each string can be played at a different rhythm and a different pitch, allowing for an uncanny range of tonalities. The GuitarBot then receives instructions from a controller unit which might feed it a prewritten score, or instructions generated in real time in response to a live stimulus. That stimulus can come in the form of a musician, as when GuitarBot played a live duet with the Japanese violinist Mari Kimura in New York. Each unit is approximately 3 feet in length. When on a stand, GuitarBot is at least 7 feet high and jerks and bobs on its suspension as the heavy bridges race up and down their tracks. In performance, it towers over its humanoid collaborator like a monstrous venus flytrap.

CeLL

In keeping with the theme of this year’s Electrofringe, GuitarBot was not the only musical robot in attendance. Also present was CeLL (www.cell.org.au), a creation of Nick Wishart (an original member of Toy Death) and Miles Van Dorrsen, having already made appearances at the Big Day Out and Bondi’s Livebait festival. CeLL is a shipping container fitted out with pneumatic rams that beat against the sides and frame turning the entire structure into a giant percussion instrument. The sound of the container being repeatedly punched by pistons is accompanied by giant xylophones and klaxons, all controlled via MIDI. The resultant cacophony has to be heard to be believed. CeLL sounds like an orchestrated shipping yard. Except louder.

If Eric Singer played the role of international star at this year’s festival, George Poonkhin Khut was a surprise local hero. His presentation represented the eclecticism and professionalism of Electrofringe at its best. Khut kept a small disorderly audience enraptured for over an hour in what was essentially a highly technical presentation. He works with biofeedback technologies to generate multimedia environments. In lay terms, he takes the pulse and measures the respiration of a volunteer. This information is then converted into MIDI signals (a stream of integers no different from those produced by a keyboard synthesiser) which are used to drive video and sound installations through the interpretive device of a Max patch. Max is a visual programming language that can receive and give information in multiple formats, allowing programmers to develop virtual devices, known as Max patches, to control their robots or steer video installations.

The participant in Khut’s work hears a shifting sequence of tones, depending on their heart rate, and sees a delicate pattern of concentric circles that expand and contract, the old annuli slowly collapsing into themselves to produce the impression of a 3-dimensional tunnel-of-breath. To see the patterns generated was mesmerising, but to participate was downright astonishing. Strapped into a chest-expansion measurement belt with a pulse reader attached to my wrist, I found myself steering the generation of an eerie landscape of which I had only partial conscious control. It had never before occurred to me that my pulse rate and inhalation were directly connected. A long, deep exhalation immediately lowers the heart rate. I experienced this as a deepening tone as the tunnel before my eyes contracted, and an ascending tone as it expanded. It was akin to the sort of discovery one might make after many arduous weeks of meditation in Zen boot camp, but without any of the exertion.

The discovery of the ability to influence our autonomic physical processes gave biofeedback technology its name. The technology itself dates back to the 1960s and has been studied in psychology departments and experimented with by self help gurus ever since. There is even a product on the market called CEO that allows you to see your own brainwaves for the putative purposes of self improvement. What makes Khut’s work so significant is that it brings this technology into an entirely new context. He transforms an esoteric science into an artform, fulfilling the Electrofringe promise of cross-fertilisation. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and one that can easily degenerate into a pretentious exchange of overheated metaphors. Khut’s ability to act as midwife for his mutant project is facilitated by his excellent bedside manner—although his job title is ‘artist’, his air is of a reserved and observant scientist.

Finally, at this transitional zone of science and art, mention of Matt Gardiner’s Oribotics (www.oribotics.net) must be made. The Oribots are robotically driven origami, a group of which were exhibited at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery for the duration of Electrofringe. The Oribots began as small, compact units, and then, to the whirring of servo motors, unfolded themselves into full bloom. Lit from above by kaleidoscopic lights, the delicate paper structures seemed animated by a desire to be flowers, whose form they closely resembled. Some, and I should stress I saw them late in the festival, had so eagerly tried to become flowers that they had animated themselves out of existence. Unfolded to the point of disconnecting from the fine wires that held them in form, the dead Oribots twisted helplessly on their motorised supports.

The message at Electrofringe this year was one of inclusion: we’re all behind the Wizard’s curtain here. Anyone can be an artist, anyone can get involved. This attitude is a political one. By building robots out of everyday objects, by appropriating pop music to make mash-ups, by wiring your computer to your heart, you are fighting the overwhelming media stream. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you co-opt, disassemble and invent. Or as the directors of this year’s festival put it: replicate, automate, infiltrate.

Electrofringe, directors Gail Priest, Wade Marynowsky, Emma Stewart, various venues, Newcastle, Sept 30-Oct 4, www.electrofringe.net

Volunteers play an important role in Electrofringe. To keep yourself informed or to participate, sign up to the mailing group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/electrofringe/

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 9

© Adam Jasper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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