RoboChorus: An Invitation to Play

An Essay by Michael Waterman










Image: Sound Jam and Workshop with Michael Waterman, Gallery Lambton, 2009

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of presenting my sound installation, RoboChorus, at Gallery Lambton as part of the show Interplay: Art, Technology, Man. In connection with that show I was also given the opportunity to lead several workshops on sound instrument creation and improvised audio performance, areas of my own practice that have fueled my interest in sound installation. With the distance of a little time, I am pleased to have the opportunity here to reflect on my experience of those presentations by providing some insight into the background and processes that contributed to them.

I have been making sound installations for almost the past ten years now.  My interest emerged from combining two separate streams of my artistic trajectory, as a visual artist interested in painting and collage and as an audio artist interested in collaborative, improvisational performance. From the mid-1980s when I graduated from art school in Winnipeg until 2002 when I had a large survey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, these two streams were distinct but gradually merging. My visual art practice, a solitary studio endeavor, had shifted from creating framed cerebral objects, viewed from a certain physical distance, to larger works and eventually dense, immersive environments in which the work wasn’t so much ‘viewed’ as ‘felt’ or absorbed through all of the senses.

My audio art practice, on the other hand, has always been concerned with real time, social and visceral experience. It is rooted in my long-running sound art collective, Männlicher Carcano, which has been collaborating continuously for 25 years. In our early years in Winnipeg, our output mostly took the form of Fluxus-style performance art events in which we layered sounds from a number of mechanical, recorded and acoustic instruments, often in a semi-autonomous manner. We presented ourselves as Dada-technicians tending a slightly unwieldy machine (often with costumes and sets), but by the early1990s, the three founding members had all moved to different cities. This forced us to develop other forms of collaboration. Most enduring has been a weekly multi-city improvised radio show, The Männlicher Carcano Radio Hour, which itself has been running continuously for 15 years and currently involves up to a dozen regular collaborators. Like our early performances, the radio shows usually consist of densely-layered and evolving sound collages (which incidentally provided much of the source audio for RoboChorus).

In addition to Männlicher Carcano, I have also participated in a number of other experimental sound art or noise band collaborations in the different cities in which I’ve lived. These collaborations have provided ongoing impetus to explore the rich world of sonic possibilities; this in turn has fostered an interest in making my own sound instruments, or modifying existing ones. They are mostly tenuous assemblages of thrift store, hardware store and home-made electronic components which evolve from one performance to the next. One such example is my ‘hinge guitar,’ which (currently) is an electrified broken acoustic guitar, the neck severed and reattached with a hinge, and strung with door springs and thick bass guitar strings (that won’t snap when stretched). It can be amplified with multiple guitar amps from multiple electric pickups, and I usually play it by hammering the ‘strings’ with drum sticks, and by stretching the pitches by bending back the guitar neck—all in a very sensitive way, of course.

RoboChorus (2003) was my first sound installation intended for gallery exhibition. It grew out of a desire to draw together my visual and audio art interests and to create something that wasn’t so much an object to be viewed as an immersive environment to be experienced. It was also influenced by my audio collage aesthetic and interest in fashioning homemade instruments from trailing-edge technologies.

RoboChorus also grew out of my interest in autonomous musical instruments. In particular, I was curious about aeolian harps because of the beautiful shifting sounds they produce.  Like wind chimes, aeolian harps are musical instruments that are ‘played’ by the wind. They date back at least as far as ancient Greek times; through the ages they have taken on many forms, but they all consist of resonating chambers housing a number of strings all tuned to the same note. They are placed outdoors or at an open window where the wind can flow through them and cause the strings to vibrate and ‘sing’. Variations of wind velocity and direction produce constantly shifting variations in volume and harmonics.

Without getting too technical, it is important to mention what harmonics in fact are, or more specifically, what the harmonic series is, because it is this aspect of aeolian harps which was a primary impetus for creating RoboChorus. The harmonic series is a naturally occurring acoustic phenomenon which is kind of like sound’s equivalent of the colour spectrum. Sounds are caused by the creation of oscillating waves that travel outwards from their source, similar to the way ripples travel outwards from the point where a stone is dropped into a pond. The length of the sound waves (the distance between each ripple) determines the pitch or note that is created. The longer the sound waves are, the lower the note will be. Conversely, the shorter the distance is between each sound wave, the higher the pitch will be. Due to the way sound waves are generated, each wave or note also contains a diminishing spectrum of harmonics or overtones. These are secondary and harder to hear pitches that are embedded within the dominant, fundamental note. What is most fascinating is that the harmonic series always follows the same pattern and is present in all naturally occurring sounds (although it is not always audible). The pattern is a simple yet infinite pattern of fractions. The first harmonic is half the length of the original sound wave (and, for people who know their music theory, is an octave higher than the fundamental). The second harmonic is a third the length of the original sound wave (and is a musical fifth above that). As the harmonic series continues, the fractions get successively smaller, the pitches get successively higher, and they become less and less audible.

Whether or not we consciously hear these harmonics, they are present in all but the most clinically synthesized sounds. They are embedded in our physical, psychological, instinctual connection with the world and are as familiar to us (on a visceral level) as the way light fractures into the colours of the rainbow. Western tonal harmony, for instance, is rooted in the principles of the harmonic series so that almost all music we listen to is influenced by this natural phenomenon. Depending on the particular conditions of how sounds are generated (vibrating vocal chords, vibrating membranes of drums or speakers, vibrating strings or channels of wind, etc.), we are more or less able to hear their resultant harmonics, but we have devised mechanisms for isolating and magnifying them.  Guitarists know that if you gently touch a string at certain points, you can isolate specific harmonic pitches and, as I mentioned above, aeolian harps are designed to accentuate the harmonics in a lush shifting cluster of harmonious tones.

In conceiving RoboChorus, I wanted to create a kind of indoor, mechanical aeolian harp where the visitors to the gallery would be the active agent. Like the wind, their movements would determine the variations of pitch and volume in a similar cluster of harmonious tones.

Equipped with only a rudimentary knowledge of electronics, I was nevertheless able to combine motion sensors, CD players (removed from their casings), other thrift store home stereo components, furniture legs and coloured lights to create a series of ‘robomorphic’ forms.

RoboChorus consists of eight robots which lurk in a darkened gallery waiting to light up and begin emitting sounds when visitors enter the space. They are each equipped with a motion sensor which, when triggered, will play for a minute or so before shutting off again unless it continues to sense motion. Each robot ‘sings’ a separate sound collage of many discrete audio samples, but each collage is built upon a single note or drone: the fundamental note and the first seven notes of its harmonic series. Depending on the audience’s trajectory through the gallery, different combinations of the harmonic series will be heard. Like the effect of the velocity of wind on an aeolian harp, the more people present in the gallery or the faster they travel though it, the more harmonics will be sounded at the same time. Employing the harmonic series has enabled me to incorporate the sometimes difficult sounds that come out of my audio collaborations into a context which is inherently accessible and which invites playful interaction.

Since its creation, RoboChorus has been presented extensively in galleries and sound art festivals across the country. It has been contextualized within critical discourse surrounding such issues as the role of technology in contemporary culture, the dominance of visuality and its theoretical and social implications, and questions of appropriation and authorial indeterminacy. Mostly, RoboChorus has been presented on its own in solo exhibitions, so it was interesting to experience it in the context of the group show Interplay: Art, Technology, Man at Gallery Lambton. While each of the three artists represented—myself, Jeremy Bailey, and Reva Stone—have been motivated by divergent concerns, the ‘interplay’ of common interests was clearly evident. Jeremy’s videos, Transhuman Dance Recital #1 and Video Terraform Dance Party, were the tangible results of real time performances, whereas RoboChorus, and also Reva’s Carnevele 3.0, offered unique mechanical performances each time visitors entered the gallery. Similarly, there was an interplay of common and divergent attitudes towards artificial intelligence. Carnevele 3.0 addressed the complex nature of human cognitive processes directly and presented the limitations of attempting to replicate those processes. Jeremy’s videos were implicit critiques of utopian virtual worlds. RoboChorus assumed a parodic, 1950’s era, “Popular Mechanics” notion of a robotic future which, in contrast to Carnevele 3.0, was quite primitive in its construction and interactivity.

It was, however, the ‘play’ aspect of Interplay that resonated most strongly with me. Fundamental to my conceptual and practical processes as an artist, free-spirited, spontaneous play invites pleasurable interaction with objects, sensations and ideas that can lead to transformative experience, a bridge to the discovery of new knowledge.  Playing with the parameters of my paintings and collages led me into the realm of immersive installations, and playing with sounds along with other like-minded artists has been the source and purpose of my audio art practice. The workshops I gave at Gallery Lambton were also invitations to play. In the workshops, participants were introduced to the sonic properties of everyday objects (hairdryers, rakes, PVC tubing, children’s toys, etc.) and then asked to play with those sonic properties by modifying the objects in some way (drilling holes into them, combining different components, introducing primitive amplification, etc.). The workshops concluded with free-for-all sound jams in which everyone played their newly fabricated instruments together in collaborative audio improvisations.

And play was not restricted solely to human activity during the exhibition of Interplay: Art, Technology, Man. By a simple, ingenious means of a low voltage electrical current running along the entrance to Carnevele 3.0, Reva’s intrepid robot was contained within her own space…mostly. One night, however, after Gallery Lambton had closed for the day and everyone had gone home, her electronic barrier malfunctioned and she managed to escape and play with the neighboring robots of RoboChorus. When gallery staff arrived the next morning they were having a raucous time, and presumably had been up all night, singing endlessly to their mechanical visitor in an interplay of art and technology—if not man. I guess it’s clear that robots also ‘just wanna have fun’.