In Tandem with Max Mathews, Aaron Koblin, and Daniel Massey

Last Friday I attended a talk featuring Max Matthews and a new conceptual work by local artists as the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA). GAFFTA is an intriguing new organization and space for the intersection art, design, sound, and technology. They are “dedicated to building social consciousness through digital culture.”

Max Mathews. Photo by Vlad Spears

I had last seen Max Mathews, considered by many to be the “father” of computer music, at an 80th birthday tribute at the Computer History Museum in 2007, and before that delivering the keynote address at ICMC 2006. It is great to see him still going strong and engaged with technology and supporting others’ creative work. His talk primarily focused on his work at Bell Labs, and in particular the history and technologies surrounding his 1962 computer rendition of the song “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”). It was an early example of physical modeling synthesis, where sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His version of the song was popularized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Mathews revealed that the version Kubrick used in the film was not his recording. He also presented another famous example of computer-generated vocals, a performance of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This piece used formant synthesis in which focus on recreating spectral characteristics of the sounds (i.e., the formants that characterize vowel sounds) without necessarily modeling the physical processes that allow humans to create those sounds. The voice is quite compelling (if a bit dated), and demonstrates that the most realistic sounds are not necessarily those generated from physical models.

[Mathews, Koblin and Massey.  Photo by Vlad Spears.]

Mathews’ presentation of “Daisy Bell” served as an introduction for a new project “Bicycle Built for 2000” by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey. Koblin has been working on a series of conceptual pieces that utilize the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a framework for harnessing human intelligence to solve large problems. There are some things that humans are quite efficient at and computers are very poor at, such as recognizing distorted text (think of the CAPCHA codes that we all deal with on websites, including here at CatSynth). The Amazon Mechanical Turk, which derives its name from an 19th century hoax where a supposedly mechanical chess-playing machine turned out to be a human hidden inside a box, provides a framework and API for defining tasks to be solved by humans, recruiting people to work on them, and then compensating them for their efforts according to a fixed budget. One of Koblin’s pieces provides the instruction to “draw a sheep” for a few cents. He then collected the resulting drawings of various sheep (and non-sheep) from around the world and compiled them into a larger mosaic work, The Sheep Market. You can see the overall mosaic as well as click on individual sheep and even see an animation of how they were drawn by the individual contributors.

[Screenshot of Bicycle Built for 2000, by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey.  Click to enlarge.]

For “Bicycle Build for 2000”, Koblin collaborated with Daniel Massey on a work that focused on sound and music. The Max Matthews rendition of Daisy Bell was decomposed in a sound segments no longer than one syllable, and for each segment an Amazon Mechanical Turk task was created for someone to sing back the sound. Koblin and Massey then reassembled the sounds to re-create the song as sung by the participants. The initial version, in which only one singer was used for each component, was almost unrecognizable, though quite interesting. A larger version which included a chorus of voices on each segment better represented the original qualities of the song, and clearly recognizable. You can hear the full version at the project website, along with an interesting visualization of the assembled recordings. The fact that the larger ensemble produced a more recognizable result, essentially averaging out the various sung renditions, is perhaps an example of the oft touted “wisdom of crowds”.

There is also a slightly more ominous set of questions from these works concerning exploitation of individuals who don’t know the overall purpose of their tasks, or about hive mentality and such, but I still find it quite interesting and am inspired to try out the Mechanical Turk for a future art project.

On Kawara, MAR. 16, 1993

Today, we consider a work from the Today series by conceptual artist On Kawara. Since 1966, he has created many paintings in this long series, each consisting of the date the painting was created in simple white lettering set against a black background.

By coincidence, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has in their collection MAR. 16, 1993 from On Kawara’s series:

[On Kawara, MAR. 16, 1993 from the Today series.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,]

I have seen it several times in the past, but when I wandered though the museum’s 75th anniversary exhibition a couple of weekends ago, there it was again. And there is no way I would pass up mentioning it today.

2009 APAture Festival: Opening and Gallery Exhibition

The two-week APAture festival began last Wednesday with a kick-off event at Goforaloop Gallery. The APAture (Asian Pacific American) festival showcases the work of Asian American artists and is produced by the Kearny Street Workshop, who also co-produced the Present Tense Biennial exhibit, and runs from September 16 through September 26. This article focuses on the visual-art exhibition at the gallery. (You can read about the festival’s music night in a separate article.)

There was no single theme or thread that connected all the works, except for the connection to Asian-Pacific American culture either through authorship or influence. However, it was possible to piece together trends such as identity (or various forms of Asian identity) and the relationship of art and technology.

[Heroes, Martyrs, Legends by Taraneh Hemami. Click image to enlarge.]

Heroes, martyrs, legends by featured artist Taraneh Hemami presented images of students and activists who were executed before, during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The images were created in beads from photos on Internet sites. The beads give these portraits a very grainy quality, which mirrors the pixels found in low-resolution online images. This piece is simultaneously a document of historical people and events, a tribute to activism, and a representation of a technological phenomenon with traditional materials.

Jacqueline Gordon’s Black Matters was interesting as a set abstract objects with a sonic element. The piece consisted of two large black surfaces composed of fabric, and whose shapes were inspired by mandalas. From Gordon’s website, I learned that the speakers are “inked through amplifiers to sine wave oscillators and play a composition of binaural tones.” It was, however, difficult to hear the sounds during the opening reception, with the noises from conversations, the karaoke booth, and such. Fortunately, when I revisited the gallery I was able to get the full experience. There were multiple sine wave oscillators which produced chords that gradually changed over time. Pitches and amplitudes shifted, faded in and out, and when the frequencies got close enough one could hear the beating effects. The oscillators were generally quite stable, but did exhibit minor variations which I found quite interesting.

[Black Matters by Jacqueline Gordon. Click image to enlarge.]

Nearby was Natives and invaders! a large mix-media piece placed directly on the walls of the gallery by artists Natalia Nakazawa and Stephanie Mansolf:

[Natives and invaders! by Natalia Nakazawa
and Stephanie Mansolf. Click image to enlarge.

Raised elements of wood, string and other materials pop out from the painted wall in a variety of both geometric and natural shapes. This was one of the more abstract works in the show, and one that I would consider “modernist.” I particular liked its placement next to Black Matters, as the shapes and textures seemed to fit together.

Another work that fused art and technology was a pair of graceful and delicate constructions by Joanne Hashitani made of wires, sticks, LEDs and other natural and artificial materials. They occupied very little space, both in terms of their overall extent and the thinness of the elements, but they nonetheless caught my attention and were among of favorite pieces in the show.

[Untitled by Joanne Hashitani. Click image to enlarge.]

The abstract shapes, which were very linear, but not particularly “angular” seem very natural and ethereal, but at the same time the LEDs and wires make it very modern and technological. They could blend subtly into the wall, which is perhaps the direction that modern technology is taking. From Hashitani’s artist’s statement:

The effects of light alternately make pieces appear and disappear, while moments later they might create a web of shadows. Air currents cause pieces to sway back and forth. Together with the ambiguity of the space and the shifts in scale, I hope this allows the work to reveal itself slowly.

Warren Jee takes a less subtle look at technology with Bug Robot, a life-size humanoid robot with a very “boxy” 1960s/1970s appearance. In the middle of its torso is another, smaller, humanoid robot. This was not an infinite regress, just two levels of “robot inside robot”.

[Bug Robot by Warren Jee. Click image to enlarge.]

Jee’s biography for the exhibition discusses how popular culture recognizes robots as or lacking emotion and other ‘human’ qualities”. Yet in this robots one recognizes all the basic signs of humanity that one recognizes in representations of humans in primitive art. I personally have a soft spot for robots, and the imagined future with humanoid robots that never happened.

The combination of technology and Asian identity was explored in Hui-Ying Tsai’s video and mixed-media installation Who R U. Two video screens, decorated with flowers a large stuffed rabbit, depicted the artist presenting her body in various, poses, motions and frames of reference, with a particular focus on hair (her own and a wig with exaggerated straight black hair). From her statement: “Through repetitive self-deconstruction and re-construction in this video, the contradiction of fitting myself in the stereotype beauty, and at the same time, resisting become the fetishistic object creates a dialogue between my objectized self and my self-awareness.”

Charlene Tan’s Eat Me, I’m Asian was a very playful and very literal take on Asian identity. Like her Cornucopia from the Present Tense Biennial, it featured photocopied replicas of commercial food packaging, this time arranged as a shelf in a grocery store, perhaps from the aisle that carries Asian or other “ethnic foods.” Among the items were various Happy Panda products, and a box of soup base with a cartoon fish (yes, I like cartoon fish).

Sandra Ono’s conceptual works combined seemingly natural and surreal elements. She presents a surface that is at once completely artificial made of fabricated cells, but seems so much like wine grapes or other natural (and edible) objects that one wants to reach out and touch it. Indeed, it seemed to be one of the more popular pieces in the show, with groups gathering around it. Ono’s other work Leak could easily be missed if one did not look down at the solidified puddle of black tar that seemed to be seeping out from under one of the walls.

The Kearny Street Workshop blog has a behind the scenes article that includes additional background and some images of the artists installing their works.

A few additional pieces that caught my attention: Raymond Wong presented a pair of photo-realistic paintings entitled 40:22 based on still images captured motion pictures. Lordy Rodriguez presents a fictionalized map of Wyoming with territories out of place and marked by varying types of ownership (part of his States of America series). Thalia When’s meticulously created You can’t have my soul but everything else is free features an array of hand-drawn faces and stories for each.

The opening night of course featured drinks and music. While the main musical attraction for many attendees was the karaoke booth, I was more drawn to the occasional tracks of long-forgotten 1970s Asian pop being played by DJ Victor Chu. I wish I could find some of these albums myself.

The APAture festival continues this coming Wednesday (September 23). Visit the official website for program details.

Art and music notes from the past week

During one of my long walks this weekend, I stopped in at Crown Point Press and found in the hallway several prints from Changes and Disappearances by the composer John Cage, a hero of ours here at CatSynth. My first impression was that these were graphical scores (i.e., scores where the performers interpret visual images), but they are in fact intended as independent works of visual art. However, many of the same compositional techniques can be found in both Cage’s music and visual art, as described in this essay by Ray Kass:

It occurred to me that his etchings had an extraordinary correspondence to the methods he utilized in composing his music – and that they were visual counterparts of sorts, related in a manner that one might not have expected…But the connection between Cage’s use of “chance” methodology in his various kinds of work (composing, writing, installation & performance art, & now printmaking) made sense in a way that awakened me to the great scope of his work.

I don’t think this was a special exhibition per se, as Cage had a longstanding relationship with Crown Point Press and they have displayed his work on several occasions. The main exhibition was a series of works by Tom Marioni.

Both Marioni and Cage were featured in The Art of Participation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Among the works in the exhibition were Marioni’s Free Beer (sadly, no free beer was being dispensed at the time, even though it was “Superbowl Sunday”), and John Cage’s most famous piece 4′ 33″. The full score was posted on a wall, and it was also displayed on a grand piano in its original form. I can’t say this was presented as a “participatory work”, however. Simply looking at the piano and listening to the museum commotion for the alloted time does not constitute a proper performance of the piece.

There were, however, plenty of other interactive pieces in the exhibition to explore, such as Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos (Dialogue, Goggles):

Last week, I attended an evening of electronic-music performances at the Climate Theatre, part of the regular Music Box Series. This series usually does not feature electronic music, but this time they darkened the room and presented “electronic soundspaces.”

Christopher Fleeger opened the evening with lively performance featuring a touch screen, percussion controller and laptop. The music mixed synthesized and other familiar electronic sounds with some odd and amusing recordings, such as a rap extolling the virtues of Tallahassee, Florida as a center for faiths of all kinds, and a very memorable piece of “stand-up tragedy” about one man’s experience with “the store” – in the poem, every line ended with “the store” and often included other references.

The second performance was by James Goode and featured a mixture of acoustic sources (percussion, toys, etc.) with sampling and looping, and reminded me a bit of my own performances at the Santa Cruz Looping Festival and other venues (it reminds me that I haven’t written about that). It can sometimes be a challenge to sustain full energy for an entire solo set of this nature, but Goode made this seem easy.

Goode and Fleeger closed with an extended duet improvisation. At least one balloon went flying into the audience.

I also attended the Saturday performance of the 2009 San Francisco Tape Music Festival, which I will discuss in a separate article.

Gilbert and George, and the End of the Heatwave

Two weekends ago, I had the opportunity to the Gilbert and George retrospective at the de Young Museum here in San Francisco. They started out as performance artists, including themselves in their work as “living sculptures,” usually well groomed and well dressed in business suits. In addition to their live performances, they also made films such as Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (basically, the pair getting drunk on Gordon’s gin).

Their most well-known works are their photo-montages, and these made up most of the exhibition. These are large scale works (measured in meters), with photos and graphics. It seems they always include themselves somewhere within the piece, along with both Christian and sexual symbolism. Some more basic, with black-and-white photos or subtle colors, such as England, 1980, while others, such as Death, from Death Hope Life Fear, are quite garish in their colors and graphics. You can see some examples here.

Although in most of the photo-montages it is easy to pick out the pair, in a couple it was more subtle, and one can play a kind of “Where’s Waldo” game. Indeed, one of my favorites was a wall of London street names, I could not find them anywhere in it, but I know they must be there somewhere.

I actually heard about Gilbert and George first in 2004. I had begun a collaborative art project and my partner gave be a book to read about artistic collaborations, focusing on conceptual art and performance art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was an era and style of art I often overlooked, and since then I’ve been more open to conceptual art, especially those based on words and text, but also in those that focus on the body. Needless to say, that collaborative art project never came to fruition.

The building in which the de Young Museum resides is itself a work of art. I have several pictures from past visits that will be subject of future “Wordless Wednesdays.” The architecture is characterized by grids of holes in the walls, some of which one can see through. There is also a tower with an observation deck, offering views of Golden Gate Park and the city. On this particular visit, one could see the fog rolling in from the west over the park and the outer districts:

The fog represented the end to the heatwave we experienced two weeks ago in San Francisco.