Catalogue Essay: aaajiao – Between the Machine and the Human

[English text below]

机器与人之间 —— aaajiao个展《屏幕一代:前传》

2013.11.02 – 12.01

文:李蔼德

aaajiao "The Screen Generation"

aaajiao在《屏幕一代:前传》中呈现的作品有一种自我展示的特点——就是科技在自我利用,在它自身的存在中呈现自己。“自我展示”这一个词隐喻着一个呈现自己(或其中某些方面)给观看者的机器,虽然对于在aaajiao过往的个展中的作品来说,“自我展示”所代表的正是如此,但是在这一次的呈现中,它并不再是这种从机器向外的、不管观看者在场与不在场的、单方向的操作。这一次的操作在于与人类感官和理解的互相作用。基本来说,这些作品并不存在于它们自身之中,而在一个人接收作品所传达的感觉信息和在他从中理解到一些东西之间的互动之中。这些“东西”并不只是一种对作品的深入认识,而是深入的认知本身。

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Hands-on v. Hands-off

The distinction Rex Lawson made in the previous post between Pianolas and Recording Pianos is an interesting one, in terms of how they fit (or don’t fit) into the project which been hinting at recently.

This project is provisionally organised along a division between what I am characterising as hand-crafted or hands-on and hands-off material. I’ve been explaining it as follows:

Hands-on: those people producing material using primarily hands-on methods. I’m thinking here of things like live-coding, circuit-bending, etc.

Hands-off: those producing material with self-running systems with only minimal human intervention beyond the initial setting up of the system.

I see this as the work being split into two types, one for “knob twiddlers,” and the other for the more minimally-inclined worker. In both cases a particular focus could be generative software like Supercollider, which allows for both types of activity.

Hands-on/hands-off is obviously something of an artificial distinction – people don’t really restrict themselves to one or the other, but this event is designed to investigate the various options around these different types of work, and to see what kind of productive exchanges you can get when you focus on and contrast these particular aspects of production.

I’m also trying to avoid any forcing of the material into categories like music, noise, sound, visual art, architecture, etc. The principles being dealt with here cross over many disciplines and forms, so I want to leave this as open as possible and let the artists create the distinction with their work.

Returning to the Player Pianos, and Rex’s distinction that the rolls for Pianolas are edited versions of the original musical scores, while rolls for Recording Pianos are created by a machine translating the key presses of a particular pianist into slots on the paper. So, in former case, you have this abstraction which is the musical score, being translated into a new medium of the roll, but essentially they are unchanged in their content. From thence the Pianolist (the player of the Pianola) interprets the playing of the roll using the various means available on the Pianola (speed, tone, strength, etc.). In the latter case, you have the reality of the player’s movements being the players’ realisation of the abstraction of the score, translated into slots on the roll, the idea being that these rolls are then played as-is, without intervention on the part of a Pianolist. In this case at the time of performance you have what aims to be a reproduction, whereas in the former you have an entirely original performance.

In terms of my project, I want to pay attention to this interesting slippage through the roll of the human hand in the process, and more importantly at what stage in the process the hand enters and leaves. For the hands-on work the hand is ever-present to a greater extent, by definition; for the hands-off work, the hand has done it’s work beforehand (as it were) in the preparation, which then almost has a life of its own once it is performed (or performs itself, you could say I suppose).

thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from:
    http://www.intermorphic.com/ [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://noiseforairports.com/post/426858290/old-media-interactivity-and-mechanical-music [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael (michael.yuen@internode.on.net) (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (cpupro.art@gmail.com).

the “auto-” in creativity

Following on from the last post, I wanted to try and clarify my use of the prefix “auto-” to describe the types of sound that came up in the Subjam concert at UCCA. At the same time this will help put some meat on the bones of a project that I’m working on right now, a project whose subjects, and the arguments that I’m touching on in this post, cross over from the sonic arts to the visual.

By using “auto-” I was trying to suggest that the sounds had some kind of automatic, or non-human activity in its formation (although it would be a mistake to think that’s all I was interested in, but I’ll get to that later). In this case I mentioned “Auto-Generative” and “Auto-Destructive” sound, and although I used these terms in the title, I didn’t make it explicit in the text what they were referring to other than a vague idea of additive versus subtractive compositions (where I was tentatively linking the former to Zhang Jian and Wu Na, and the latter to William Basinski).

My use of the term Auto-Destructive is inspired by the work of Gustav Metzger (born US, but now stateless) and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Metzger popularised the term in 1959 with his First manifesto of auto-destructive art,1 as a general principle and a way to describe his performance works using nylon and acid, a lethal combination which resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the material of the works. In a similar vein, Jean Tinguely is well known for his elaborate machines which progressively destroy and undo themselves. Both artists were working towards a dematerialisation of the artwork, a throwing into question of assumptions of the object-status of the artwork at that time. This (non- or negative-)thing that results was also one of the focii of Conceptual art, Metzger and TInguely in this case having quite an influence on their thinking. In their work Metzger and Tinguely presented the process of dematerialisation as being an end in itself, literally performing the critique of the object in front of the audience.

From “Auto-Destructive” the antithesis I set up was “Auto-Generative.” In this case the word “generative” comes from its use as a form of musical composition, usually associated with computer music. I have been thinking recently in this regard specifically of the composers Conlan Nancarrow (US) and Edgard Varèse (France, US), whose work involved investigation of systems which, although of course “man-made” in their inspiration or initiation, in execution relied on the working through of a set of rules by mechanical means.

For generative work human intervention can simply be a starting point, from which systems can work themselves out, the “human touch” can be removed entirely from the actual act of music/noise making. The extent to which the human needs to be involved in the act of music/noise making is a very divisive issue. For some the human touch is pre-eminent, for others a hands-off approach is the interesting means and I think it is this subject that can be usefully pursued, an which my project is working from.

It’s an important part of the project, too, that there should be no restriction for this to sonic investigations, it can equally be applied to visual and other forms. Metzger’s words, for example, apply across the board:

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction… Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.2

I have to admit, setting up these polarities of “auto-generative” and “auto-destructive” is a deliberate straw-man tactic, to create a discursive environment for the project. They serve as ideals around which to drawing out the arguments involved in various artists’ methods. As such, I doubt any artist would commit themselves to one or the other exclusively, certainly not over their whole oeuvre (or even within a single piece of work). However what the use of these terms does do is to set up a field of argument, around which the various participants can set up their camps, like a set of Venn diagrams of creativity, covering more or less of each of the meanings in their practice and theory.

It’s early days yet, but as the project progresses, more information will get posted here.

  1. Metzger, Gustav (1959). Auto-Destructive Art [first manifesto of auto-destructive art; 4 November 1959]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].
  2. Metzger, Gustav (1960). Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art [second manifesto of auto-destructive art; 10 March 1960]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart3.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].

New iPhone apps for China

Explore Beijing Subway map ($0.99/£0.59)

This is the latest release in exploremetro’s series of iPhone apps, complementing their online interactive maps, and Beijing’s turn follows the already released app for Shanghai (Guangzhou and Hong Kong versions are also due).

As with most of subway apps I’ve seen, the entry view is the overall plan of the routes. At first I was a little confused as there was no icon strip on the screen – all the other maps I had used relied on a menu bar to guide the user to the various functions. However this difference shows the creativity that has gone into this app, so much functionality has been incorporated into the map itself simplifying the interface as much as possible.

On the map you can find the important information you’ll need when taking these routes through Beijing, including bi-lingual subway names (plus audio recordings of the Chinese name to save any embarrassing pronunciation faux-pas); first and last train times in each direction and for each line the station serves; and an intuitive route planner with journey times and fares.

Some things which would be nice to see in an update would be information about entrances to the stations; the presentation of the routes could be a little clearer than just the orange dots as it is at the moment; and the ability to double-tap on the map to zoom in (a strange omission).

Overall, if I was a first-time traveller in Beijing, this would make travelling on the subway much less of the daunting experience it could be. And as a (relatively) seasoned traveller here, I’ll also be keeping this app on my iPhone as its ease of use beats the other Beijing subway apps I’ve tried. Recommended.

The Financial TImes Little Book of Business Travel (free)

In these straitened times, China is obviously still a business destination with potential, as evidenced by the fact that the Financial Times has entered the travel guide marketplace with their Little Book of Business Travel (LBBT) for China.

This simple app includes a fair amount of information and data about the cities of Beijing, Hong Kong/Macao and Shanghai as well as providing well presented background about various aspects of business life in China in general. Although not extensive, the level of the information is appropriately pitched at the requirements of the high end business traveller.

LBBT includes a series of articles by experts, including members of the FT team past and present, and various guest writers for added depth in some of the subjects. The app starts with background information about the country – covering the politics & economy, business etiquette, a China constitutional guide (facts and figures), a sheet of economic data and a map of the country. One criticism I have is that these last two are rather tricky to use – the data is presented on a single page which can’t be zoomed into, making reading difficult.

The app then covers the cities in more detail, addressing the essentials of transport, business info, sleeping and eating. These are essentially small directories of the better quality restaurants, hotels, and business services organisations, with a short review and basic data for each one. The “Activities” sections gives introductions to the various extra-curricular sides to the cities, from shopping, sightseeing, spas and culture, with some fair recommendations to start the visitor off.

Given my background I was interested to see how art faired within the FT’s scheme of things. Given the limited space available, art actually fairs pretty well, at least it is not completely excised – there is obviously hope for the future of this sector! In the section for Beijing, I noticed that 798 Art District gets it’s own small entry within the “Shopping” section, recommending that the “financial crash” makes it a “great time to look around and buy” there. It’s evident that 798 has found its niche as a shopping district rather than one of Culture (which forms another section dealing mainly with the performing arts and museums) for the app’s potential audience – which does lead to the anomaly that in the Hong Kong section you will find the Asia Art Archives also listed under Shopping – AAA being a library and archive which has no commercial side.

To begin with I was skeptical about this app. Its focus seemed very superficial, but the more I investigated its content the more I appreciated the solution FT had come up with for the mountain of data from which they had to choose. This app does not trying to rival the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides for example, the motives of its audience are quite different. Aside from my quibble about classifications, for the business person who still has enough cash after the crash, and not enough time to go in depth, this app will serve as a useful starting point.

quick notes about: time not things

I’m (still) thinking about this whole issue of putting things into the world:

  1. Technology has meant that we are creating more, apparently ephemeral things, which take up less physical space, but more of our time (by their quantity).
  2. Things always take up time – but it was time with a particular purpose. For example, we would make time to go to galleries, which would then be dedicated to experiencing art, art-time for art.
  3. (Maybe we got frustrated if the art makes demands from outside of art. Somehow cheating us of our time).1
  4. These thoughts arose from time spent browsing through my blog reader, and not having enough time in general, but this general tendency towards less physical things and experiences is a good thing, maybe one day we will end up with no trace outside of some digital signature, and THAT reminds me of Flusser:

… to write is structurally the gesture of a historical and scientific being-in-the-world. Should this gesture fall into disuse, (and there are many symptoms at present which would seem to suggest this), the universe of history and science will fall into oblivion, or at least it will cease to be the universe we live in. Because that universe is a “fiction”, (the result of the technique of writing), and materializes only in the form of surfaces covered by letters. Thus if the art of writing is lost, it will not be missed by future generations. But for us, who are programmed by it and for it, not to be able to write means that life is not worth living.2

  1. [I ended up with too many “quoted” words which I converted to italics for a change. I always think words need further clarification, and putting them in quotes suffices to indicate this, and I somehow think this is then enough explanation.]
  2. Flusser, Vilém, The Gesture of Writing. Retrieved 16 June, 2009, from http://www.flusserstudies.net/pag/08/the-gesture-of-writing.pdf

Laoban Mixing Event report

I just posted a short video to youtube of highlights from last night’s Laoban Mixing event at the Gallery. Unfortunately youtube in it’s wisdom has reduced the quality of the video to “very poor” in the process of compressing the file, so the following is the original (still not great, but better):

It was a good night overall, I had a great time (even though I had to keep reminding myself that I was there to look after the space, and not to enjoy myself). Many people came and seemed to respond well to the performers. As you can see from the video above and the photographs there were some very good sounds and visuals. My thanks go to Jon for organising so much at such short notice, with the help of Matt and Lu, and all their friends who pitched in to help out. I think this shows that an exciting idea can get people energised, even on such a cold night.

Looking ahead, I hope there will more variety in the material in future events, last night was very focused on DJs and VJs. Films and short talks were promised, which would have given more of a conceptual structure to the proceedings and will help prevent it becoming just another club night.

I hope, too, that more women will present their work. Last night the performers were without exception all men – it seemed to be the cliché of boys with their toys (I don’t know maybe this is perhaps a feature of the scene rather than a bug, as they say to excuse some oddity in software). I can’t believe there are no women making material and this would make a valuable contribution to the event.

But this was the first version of the event, and was very much about investigating a format for the future, so I want to see how it develops. The original spec for the night I thought was very exciting and something which had the potential for development into something very strong – and this was one of the reasons why I agreed to go with it. I hope that more of what was originally announced becomes incorporated into future events, as they have the possibility to a) bring together some of the creative communities here in Beijing and China in general which hover round each other but which don’t really get to cross-fertilise so often, and b) make links out from the local to the international creative scenes which all have their representatives here in BJ.