Final: Smoky Silence

Smoky Silence ScreenshotArtist: Kathy Huynh
Completion Date: March 16, 2015
Place of Creation: Home
Style: New Media Art
Technique: Computer Process
Material: Processing with sound input

Click here to try the program!

Our lungs are fractals that expand and contract with every breath we take and every word we say. As our world becomes more industrialized and we create more air pollution, what are we really breathing in?

Smoky Silence is an interactive display created with Processing, a program that creates graphics using code. It features abstracted lungs composed of Ford Model T cars, with smoke-like particles diffusing in from the trachea. It analyzes sound input for the gain levels, which then determine the branching angle. The piece resolves when the sound input reaches maximum gain, prompting the participants to breathe once the smoke is cleared. Smoky Silence uses data to determine the functioning of a biological system composed of industrial parts, with the goal of environmental activism.

Aesthetic Design

The overarching aesthetic concept is simplicity. Instead of using a more realistic image, I drew a highly simplified representation of the Ford Model T. Without any unnecessary details or volume for the viewer to latch onto, the viewer is more likely to consider the system as a whole, without focusing on any singular element. The smoky circles billowing down were an aesthetic afterthought, but it actually solidifies the main concept by communicating to the viewer that the lungs are not independent and sterile, but filling with smoke. The visuals are achromatic largely for aesthetic simplicity, but by avoiding the use of color, which can evoke specific feelings, it invites participants to impose their own interpretations upon it.

Movement by Sound Input

Digital mediums are an optimal choice for responsive art pieces. The loudness of participants is quantified as numerical data, which then determines the movement of the system. Lungs expand during inhalation, and contract during exhalation. When people speak, they are usually exhaling to create noise, and louder noise needs more exhalation. The movement of the Ford lungs mimics exhalation. Sound input from participants is analyzed for its gain levels, a measurement of volume. The higher the gain, the smaller the branching angles of the fractal, thus the more the Ford lungs contract. The Ford lungs most resemble biological lungs at normal speaking level, because the low gain levels cause subtler contractions. When participants are encouraged to be loud, the lungs contract more and the smoke is denied entry. I also tried to correlate the opacity of the smoke to the gain so that the smoke would fade if the gain was higher, but my method caused the computer to go to sleep when the gain reached maximum.

The Ford Model T: The Beginning of the End

https://i1.wp.com/www.autoconcept-reviews.com/cars_reviews/ford/ford-model-t-1908-1925/wallpaper/1914%20model%20Ttouring%20copy.jpgThe Ford Model T was specifically chosen to serve as the bronchi and bronchioles for its iconic value. While the Model T was not the first car to be produced on an assembly line, Fordism revolutionized the assembly line to make the Model T the first widely available automobile. Cars were originally a privilege of the wealthy, but by streamlining production, Ford made cars accessible to the middle class. His developments in mass production promoted mass consumerism, and thus the Model T serves as an icon for the beginning of the end. I considered using a variety of several vehicles, and even a historical progression of vehicles from the base to the tips. But I chose to remain with the singular Model T for aesthetic simplicity, preservation of the fractal purity, and for its monumental historical significance. The moment Americans charged into mass consumerism was the moment air pollution drastically increased. The Model T is not only the product of a system but a system in itself, taking input to produce output. By inserting this industrial system within a biological system, the viewer feels an invasion of their intimacy. The belief that our bodies belong to us alone is disturbed by this commercial and industrial presence, sprawling throughout our lungs and bringing its waste in with it—the smoke.

Artificial Life

The system almost gives the illusion of artificial life not only because of its resemblance to biological forms but because of its responsiveness. At normal speaking levels, the lungs seem to shiver and tremble at the sound of a voice. When I presented to the class, they seemed to quickly understand that the system was responding to my voice, because the amount of movement was directly affected by how loud I was. When the class gathered around the laptop to decide what to chant, someone even said, “It likes it when we laugh.” The intimacy of the interaction suggests that the system is alive and understands.

Influences

Firstly, conceptualization began when I remembered Ron Eglash’s TED talk on African fractals. According to Eglash, when fractals were first discovered, many mathematicians dismissed them as useless. But “they were breathing those words with fractal lungs”—the irony of the situation was striking. My longstanding concern for environmental welfare pushed me to expand the idea by asking whether our fractal lungs are still breathing air or just smoke.

The piece also brings to mind new media artist Amy Alexander’s Scream, a software application which “disturbs your Windows interface” “when it detects a scream”[3]. They are similar in that these programs encourage loud noises to produce highly responsive visual effects. However, Scream is intended as cathartic therapy, while Smoky Silence is intended as environmental activism.

Smoky Silence as Environmental Activism

The name of the piece hints at its goal of environmental activism, primarily addressing the issue of air pollution. If participants remain silent, the lungs spread at their widest to allow massive amounts of smoke in. Only when they collectively cry out do the lungs contract and deny the smoke entry. The branching of the lungs resembles a tree, further connecting to the environment; trees also breathe the air we polluted. Smoky Silence serves as a tool to encourage active awareness. Many people are aware of the sad state of the environment, but lack the desire for action, pushing the issue to the back of their mind. Smoky Silence demonstrates that while a single person can greatly affect a system, it takes a crowd of determined participants to change it entirely—and the same idea applies to the environment.

I have considered lowering the maximum gain threshold, but I think keeping it as is reinforces the message that the environment is in great danger and that a monumental amount of effort and cooperation is needed to reverse the damage we have done.

If I exhibited my work outside of the academic context, I would like to eliminate the audience by encouraging everyone to participate. Ideally, it would be displayed on a massive screen above a busy street or in a crowded public space, serving as the opening event for an environmental rally in a heavily polluted city. The size of the screen promotes visibility and significance of the issue. Those who feel awkward, out of place, or unsure would be welcomed into the unified crowd, but those who are already emotionally invested in the environment would feel the power of the effect increase at least twofold with their determination.

The piece could also be inverted to spread awareness about noise pollution, which is the most unfamiliar and neglected form of pollution. It would be displayed in a busy city intersection or around a freeway, acting as a meter for noise pollution. The visual would be turned upside down so that it resembles a tree rather than lungs. The use of sound input would also be inverted so that greater volume causes the tree to contract, instead of expanding in all its natural glory. However, because the goal in this case is to encourage people to expand the tree, perhaps a different image should be used in place of the Model T, which was specifically designed for the original piece not to be attractive or impressive. With a more intricate and attractive display, people may be more likely to quiet down so that they can admire the display in its entirety.

In its ideal context, Smoky Silence would serve as an effective rallying tool for environmental activism. It teaches participants not only the power of a single voice, but of a unified crowd. By promoting unity and participation, people would become more aware of the dire situation of the environment.

Rally the voices, and battle the smoke.

-Kathy Huynh

Week 9/10: The Sorry State of Art in Education

When Dr. Adam Burgasser instructed the class by using gestural exercises and pipe cleaner crafts to teach about physics, I started to wonder whether he usually taught children rather than college students (who, admittedly, can sometimes be a lot like children). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the activities as much as anyone else! It was a refreshing break from all the serious lectures that we’re usually subjected to. But most importantly, the exercises could effectively convey basic physics concepts without the boring humdrum of a textbook reading. So I was thoroughly delighted when I read that Dr. Burgasser collaborated with Dianna Cowern, creator of the award-winning Physics Girl Youtube channel, to develop a physics curriculum for middle schoolers.

https://i2.wp.com/ih1.redbubble.net/image.3860682.4526/flat,550x550,075,f.jpgAs practitioners of the arts, most of us have had firsthand experience with the stigma associated with pursuing  a profession in the arts, and have struggled in some way to get to where we are today. There’s something incredibly hypocritical in the way people praise artists for their incredible talent for creating beauty, and then turn around and joke about how, as artists, we’re going to have to eat instant ramen for the rest of our lives. The reality is hardly a joke—I once interviewed Sue Dawe, the famous “unicorn painter” of the 1980s, and she admitted that her diet at the beginning of her career indeed consisted mainly of “instant noodles, powdered onion soup mix, and peanut butter sandwiches”. After a few years, she rocketed to fame, but some of her colleagues weren’t nearly as fortunate. But such stigma often prompts artists to put their creative dreams on hold in favor of a more “practical” career.

Aside from art being valuable in-and-of-itself, it is an incredibly valuable component of a wholesome education. In 1999 the College Board found that there was “a 100 point gap in SAT scores between students who had music introduction during their early elementary school years and students who did not”, and there are numerous other studies in other years proving the same thing (Vaughn and Winner 77). However, arts and music are still typically the first programs to be cut from school curricula in times of financial strain. This is partly because of the misconception school officials have about the difficulty of teaching art, but also because of corporate influence in education, which for a long time has demanded an emphasis in STEM education because of the technological surge. But this attitude is actually highly detrimental to STEM education.

Vaughn and Winner 83
Vaughn and Winner 83

A study in 2000 reveals that students who have received some form of education in the arts are likely to perform far better on the SATs, with significant improvements in math scores particularly. Another graph in the study also illustrates that, the more years of arts education a student has had, the higher their SAT scores. An absence of the arts in education doesn’t just mean students won’t appreciate the value of art, it also means they won’t understand other subjects as well as if they had a background in the arts. That’s why the Rhode Island School of Design is leading a national initiative to change STEM to STEAM.

Dr. Burgasser stated at the end of his lecture that, more and more often, those in the sciences are collaborating with those with an arts background in order to look at science from a different perspective, facilitating new discoveries. This is a concept that we often address in this course, and which I have also written about before. Beach Physics, the collaboration between Dr. Burgasser and Dianna Cowern, is the result of the combination of their creative minds in order to teach children about education. While they might not identify firstly as artists, their creativity enables them to connect physics to the beach to provide a refreshing and engaging take on physics education.

The efforts of Dr. Burgasser and many others may lead us to think that art is regaining its foothold in education, but the battle is far from over. In 2014, a survey conducted in Los Angeles found that “87 percent of elementary schools were on track to violate California law for failing to offer comprehensive access to arts instruction” (Plummer). I’m glad that the ICAM program for VisArts has such loose requirements, allowing us to apply our artistic background to a vast range of other disciplines, but I wish this structure would be applied to other disciplines, so that all students can receive the best out of their education.

-Kathy Huynh

Week 8: Why Do We get Attached to Robots?

There are at least two sides to this question, so let’s start with the first: Who is more likely to get attached to a robot? First and foremost, attachment to an object is usually caused by anthropomorphizing the object. We ascribe human emotion to it, and so reciprocate with our own feelings. While these factors may apply to objects in general, they are still helpful in the robot realm.

1. Autism

https://plazalondon.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/objectum-sexuality-600x394.jpg?w=300&h=197For the purposes of our discussion, this factor is very limited. Still, there’s a valuable point in why autistic people (especially those with Asperger’s syndrome) are more likely in particular. Autistic people find it difficult to connect with others, because they are unable to express emotions in the same way. That doesn’t mean they are devoid of emotion, as they can become extremely attached to specific people, and even to objects. They understand how social conventions work, but often cannot apply them in social settings. With an object, however, they are free to impose whatever characteristics they choose upon the object, and can readily react to these imagined personalities (Marty). This leads us to the second factor.

2. Loneliness

https://i2.wp.com/www.aramanstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/aramanstudio-advertising-photography-production-dubai-036.jpg“When someone suffers from ‘social deficits’ (i.e., loneliness), he’s more likely to grow attached to possessions” (Tuttle). When we’re deprived of human companionship, we attribute human characteristics to objects, and then associate with the object instead of actual people. Also, the temporal and monetary investment in caring for the robot can eventually transfer to emotional investment.

3. A Desire to be in Control

https://i2.wp.com/media.boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/MIS_13.8h1.jpg
Mr. Universe and his robot wife (Serenity)

“Because material objects are not sentient beings, without consciousness and free will, such objects offer consumers relatively predictable and controllable—albeit one-sided—relationships. Therefore, those exhibiting this trait seem more susceptible to possession love” (Tuttle). Robots are usually designed to assist people, so we may think of them as subservient. As a reward for their hard work, we’ll be nice to them.

4. We understand humans better than anything else

https://i1.wp.com/www.blastr.com/sites/blastr/files/wall-e-and-eve.jpg

Because we are only human, it’s naturally difficult to try to imagine how other beings might feel, especially objects. “When dealing with something unpredictable — a computer on the fritz, a sour economy — we might feel totally disconnected. ‘One way to make sense of it is to treat it like something familiar, which is the human form'” (Pappas). What sort of emotions or intelligence might a robot have? We don’t know, so we assume it would have human emotions and intelligence, if anything. And when robots behave in a way that we might not understand, we attempt to explain it from a human perspective (Epley, Waytz, and Cacioppo 866).


The second side to this question is: What kind of robots are we more likely to get attached to?

1. Anthropomorphic Robots

A group of programmable humanoid Nao robots, developed by a French company Aldebaran Robotics, perform dance inside the France Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo

When we don’t know how to describe the behavior of a robot, we resort to human terms to define it. But what if the robot already looks very much like a human? Or what if it acts like a human? Or what if it sounds like a human? All the better for us, isn’t it? The more a robot is like a human, the more we treat it like a human (and the more we expect from it too)(Nauert).

2. Robots who seem to have agency

https://i1.wp.com/matthewlombard.com/presenceproducts/myRoomBud.jpg
A company dedicated to dressing up your Roomba!

What about the robots that are less on the anthropomorphic scale? We’ve got love for them too! There’s a well-known study about Roombas, the robot vacuum that moves on its own.

A Georgia Tech researcher has found that many Roomba owners name, dress up and genuinely worry about their Roombas, as if they were living pets…Others in the study were found to rearrange their homes to be more accommodating to the robots, while others pre-clean their homes before putting the machine to work and buy new rugs that don’t tie up the Roomba on its programmed march around the house. One subject even introduced his Roomba to his parents. —Dillow

While the intensity of attachment varied from person to person, two-thirds of the participants at least named and gave their Roomba a gender.

A robot killed in the line of duty, now housed in a robot museum.

Another study found that soldiers also became attached to the robots they worked with on the training field, even expressing sadness (and sometimes holding funerals) if their robot was destroyed. Researchers are worried that this might affect soldiers’ judgment on the battlefield; they might hesitate to send their robot on a fatal mission (Armstrong).

The interesting part in both these cases is that people expressed the most emotion when their robots were hindered or unable to function. For robots that appear to have a sense of agency, it is when they are stopped that we care most. The study about the Roombas suggested that “their reliability as robots is less important than their presence and companionship” (Dillow). (Even the phones and laptops and tablets we currently own, we’re only really concerned for them when they break down.) Perhaps this reaction comes from our ancient instinct to help others in the community in order to survive, because we need their presence.


Technicity and Robotics

Last week, Professor Cartwright suggested that “To understand being in the world, we should look to technology in its operative functioning with humans-nature.” What can we learn from all these characteristics? Basically, humans have a need for social interaction, even those (especially those, in fact) who seem to be the most secluded. And when we can’t participate in human interaction, we’ll project human characteristics onto objects in order to get the interaction we crave. The current trend in robots is to make them more anthropomorphic, suggesting that we will identify technology even less as a medium and more as an entity in its own, or a companion.

-Kathy Huynh

Week 7: Blinded by Perception

During the Renaissance, those who were well-educated were simultaneously involved in the arts as well as the sciences. Harmony between rationalization and creativity was celebrated. But with the Industrial Revolution came a divide between art and science, separating them as two cultures. In a famous 1959 essay, British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow argues that it is this divide which most prevents us from solving the problems that plague the world.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, “scientists increasingly worked with theories that specified entities that could not be seen or directly sensed, for example, atomic structure and genetics” (Wilson 297). At the same time, remote sensing technology was expanding, particularly for surveillance purposes. So began the invasion of worlds we could not see, of the microscopic as well as the macroscopic yet remote. We looked within ourselves while expanding what we could see beyond ourselves, essentially becoming omnipercipient.

And yet, we remained shockingly blind, because of our perception.

Stills from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War"
Photo over Auschwitz concentration camp, taken en route to Farben chemical plant

The film we watched after lecture, Images of the World and the Inscription of History by Harun Farocki, examines how our perception influences our interpretation of history. It focuses on the aerial reconnaissance photos accidentally taken of Auschwitz during World War II, revealing the location of the concentration camp but also revealing nothing, because the military was not looking for the camp. They had other priorities.

Stills from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War"
Closeup of Auschwitz concentration camp in photo

In our attempts to search for something particular, we often overlook the most important things right before our eyes. Consider this well-known smuggling legend:

There was a man who had worked at a factory for twenty years. Every night when he left the plant, he would push a wheelbarrow full of straw to the guard at the gate. The guard would look through the straw, and find nothing and pass the man through.

On the day of his retirement the man came to the guard as usual but without the wheelbarrow. Having become friends over the years, the guard asked him, “Charlie, I’ve seen you walk out of here every night for twenty years. I know you’ve been stealing something. Now that you’re retired, tell me what it is. It’s driving me crazy.”

Charlie simply smiled and replied, “Okay, wheelbarrows!”

Snopes.com

Moral of the story: what you are searching for may often be hiding in plain sight. Numerous camouflaging techniques were employed by both sides during the war, yet one of the most critical sites of destruction was laid out without disguise, and completely overlooked.

Now more than ever, people are attempting to bridge the gap between art and science. Simon Penny, a robotics artist, “illustrates a major trend in technology/science-based art in which artists work to become knowledgeable about an area of technology or science and then engage in cultural critique, revealing narratives and concepts that might be invisible to regular practitioners of the field” (Wilson 307-308). In this class, the idea that art serves to make visible the invisible is often repeated.  Art historian Rachel Haidu suggests that “part of the reason why no one ‘saw’ Auschwitz in the 1944 photographs…was a failure of the imagination”.

Could a lesson in Cubist-style geometry have improved the Americans’ ability to ‘see’ in 1944?

Had the images contained the gestural expressionism that is conventionally considered suited to depictions of atrocity, would they have been more useful?

Does the severe geometry of those photos in fact relate to the project of mass extermination—or even to related productivist ideals of efficiency and the superhuman?

—Haidu 201

If scientists and the military had been collaborating with artists in the twentieth century, would further tragedy have been prevented? Speculation serves limited purpose. If we wish to make amends for the tragedies caused by our ignorance, we must continue closing the gap between art and science not only for sci-artists but for the general public. With the omnipercipience afforded by remote sensing, we can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse for overlooking the tragedies happening around us.

Kathy Huynh

Further Reading: Our desire to expand our perception in reality is now being mirrored in the virtual world. Check out this article about The Anxieties of Big Data: “The bigger the data gets, the more small things can be overlooked.”

Midterm: Submergence

Aquarium

Aquarium FilledTitle: Submergence
Artist: Kathy Huynh
Completion Date: Feb. 17, 2015
Place of Creation: Home
Style: Sculptural collage, narrative
Technique: Sculpture
Material: Paper
Documentation: https://vimeo.com/119915082/

This sculptural collage was created largely through an assembly of tissue paper constructions of certain sea creatures. The tissue paper sculptures were suspended in an aquarium using thin string. While they are the focal inhabitants of the tank, there is also a plant cut from cardstock, and a plastic coral replica. The thin, fragile material used to construct the sea creatures represents their brief lives. Because flora is generally more resilient and long-lived than fauna, the material for the plant is thicker, but it is still vulnerable to water. The coral, of all the inhabitants, is the most enduring by far. Ideally, the coral would be a product of 3D printing, because additive manufacturing closely resembles the way in which coral grows.

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The piece engages in a dialogue with the films of Jean Painlevé, as a response to his poetic, almost surreal biocinema; the creatures I sculpted were specifically selected from a few of his films. While Painlevé’s films may serve to celebrate the beauty of aquatic life, my piece serves as a reminder of their mortality. Their ghostly, almost abstracted paper bodies are but a shell of their living counterparts, without any of the vivacity displayed in Painlevé’s films. Water is essential to maintaining the lives of these sea creatures, but in the end, it is also the solvent in which their corpses will eventually dissolve.

Technological progress has long served to extend the quality and duration of human life. While some attempts have been made at improving the lives of other species, humanity is almost solely responsible for bringing destruction upon their environments in the first place. My narrative also strives to make visible the struggle of aquatic life against human interference. The confinement of sea creatures to aquariums is an attempt to control the precarity of life, but it also limits their freedom. Water is brought into the aquarium by human hands, and it is because of this interference that the creatures perish. As the tank begins to fill with water, some of the creatures remain afloat, fighting to remain above the water. But by the time the tank is full, the paper sculptures have long since succumbed to the overwhelming power of the water.

Week 5: The Flow of Water

Turtle watching raindrops As a child, one of my favorite things to do in the car on a rainy day was to watch the raindrops race each other down the window. I’m sure I’m not the only one; there are at least 4 Facebook pages dedicated to this activity. I’d pick one raindrop and cheer it on, excitedly watching as it collided with other drops, snowballing into a super-drop that barreled down the window. Sometimes I won, most times I didn’t. But why is this simple activity so captivating?

 

Michael Brown’s Meanderings

Michael Brown, a sculptor, designer and installation artist based in San Francisco, asks this question in his own piece, Meandering. He is a prime example of an artist working at the intersection of art and technology, often working with “museums to design exhibits that focus on inspiring greater interaction with the visitors through the use of innovative and engaging exhibition techniques” (Michael Brown). His art moves people to explore natural phenomenon, such as flowing water.

Meandering  is an interactive sculptural piece that first displayed in the exhibition on Environmental Art at The Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1993, then again in 1997 at the Sensitive Chaos show, which explored physical-world phenomena. The ICC website describes it so:

Water flows down a tilting sheet of glass. The resistance of the surface of the glass and the cohesive nature of the water cause the water to meander like the currents of a river. Visitors can adjust the tilt of the glass. The currents of water act as lenses refracting the light source, giving rise to optical effects.

Little information can be found on Meandering; it is only briefly mentioned by Wilson (240), and that is the single online description of it. But I was drawn to this piece because of the nostalgic familiarity. Maybe the raindrop race was so fascinating as a child because of the unpredictability: sometimes you could guess where your raindrop would run next, but often not. You’d like to think you could predict its path, but it’s far more difficult than it seems on the surface. Jim Crutchfield, a dynamic systems scientist, offers an explanation:

Things that are seemingly structureless are uninteresting. At the other end of the spectrum, a completely straightforward, obvious statement of fact is not engaging…human interest increases—as you increase the ambiguity. Things in the world that are really intriguing draw you in. (Wilson 256)

Raindrop races and Meandering lie within that perfect balance of simplicity and ambiguity.

The Universal Implications

How does water flow? It’s a delicate interplay of gravity and the topography of the land, driven by kinetic energy. But the key point is, it has to flow downhill. By allowing visitors to tilt the glass sheet, people can affect how the water flows in Meanderings. They can see how the angle of the surface affects how the drops move, and the motions may remind them of a slow, winding river that crawls all over the land.

I think it’s fascinating that the movement of something as large as a river is reflected in one of its smallest components—water drops. It’s a reminder that even though everything is made of infinitely smaller parts, there’s a universal connection between the whole and the parts, the massive and the microscopic, and the idea of the whole is embodied in all its parts.

Structure of brain cell vs. universe

One of the most profound examples of this idea is the structure of brain cells and the universe. They’re eerily similar. Even though a large part of this week focuses on the atomic and subatomic, it’s also important not to lose sight of the larger ideas as we delve in the fractions of the universe.

-Kathy Huynh

Week 4: Julien Beau — Les Poupées de Népenthès

The Artist

Julien Beau is somewhat of a mysterious artist to me. Partly because he doesn’t seem to be too well known and also because most of the information about his art is in French, which I can’t read.

Julien Beau in his studio

Beau is an experimental composer and sound artist, combining both composition and improvisation of acoustic and electronic sources “for a chaotic mixture of sonic and textural elements” (Julien Beau: About). As a practitioner of Musique Concerete, he explores the use of musical instruments, everyday objects, and electronic sounds.  His albums were published by music label Aposiopèse, which is an interesting, artsy term in itself: a sentence which is left to the reader to complete. He works closely with SCRIME and INA-GRM, organizations dedicated to musical creation and research (Aposiopèse).

The video we watched in lecture appears to be a demonstration of his piece Les Poupées de Népenthès. It was performed  on October 13, 2014, in Studio 116 of Radio France, which is primarily used by INA-GRM, a division of the National Audiovisual Institute of France. For over 60 years, the studio has “[fostered] and [encouraged] the development of electronic music (Furious).

The Process

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Les Poupées de Népenthès, or The Dolls of Nepenthes, is performed using prepared piano, which is “a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings”. The technique which dates back to the 1940s, when the use of the instrument was pioneered by the famous avant-garde composer John Cage.

Looking closely at the video, you can find a wide assortment of items scattered across the piano strings: a clothes hanger,  beaded necklaces, screws, spoons, a call bell, statuettes, and so on. In addition to pressing the keys, he also uses a rod to brush the handles of the spoons, creating resonating, bell-like gongs. In the recorded version, he combines these organic noises with electronic sounds to create a very eerie, suspenseful track. It’s a combination of the acoustic with electronic, like a modern take on John Cage’s work.

The Implications

According to Beau’s blog post on the piece (if you understand French, a translation would be super cool—Google Translate is awful), it’s a short poetic piece composed to sound like a music box, with themes of “dreams and loneliness, play and ritual, the hope of the day and a trap in the night”.

It raises questions about fear and desire, on the strength of determination, and the inescapable straitjacket of nature. — Julien Beau

But is the straitjacket of nature really inescapable? The modification of the piano to create such unfamiliar sounds parallels the modification of the human body to no longer resemble itself.

Where do our boundaries lie?

Much of the art we’ve looked at so far seeks to stretch our natural bounds. However, despite incredible advances in biology and medicine, our limits have only been stretcheddeath is still far from inevitable. At the same time, is our virtual presence a form of escape from death? We may be physically dead, but a fragment of ourselves remains online.

Is a prepared piano still a piano, or does it become an entirely different instrument of its own? How different does it have to be to be considered different? One might say, it’s just a piano with things thrown in it! But a viola is just a larger violin with thicker strings, after all. How large does a violin have to be before it is considered a viola? How much modification does a human have to go through before they have surpassed the idea of a “human”? Exactly how many ears would Stelarc have to implant on himself before he is considered an abomination?

What is natural?

Why do prepared piano pieces often sound eerie or unsettling? Part of it may have to do with how they’re played. It’s like a horror movie condensed into music. The unique sounds and unpredictable pauses between each note create a sense of suspense—you never know what’s coming next.

It might also be because these are unnatural sounds for a piano. The unfamiliar often creates fear. Why might a person with more than 2 ears be considered an abomination? Because it’s unnatural? The uncanny valley might also apply to sounds. A piano shouldn’t sound like this. It sounds very close to a piano, but it’s not. Is it broken? Is it sick? If a piano can sound sick, can it also be hurt?

On this video of a prepared piano piece by John Cage, a commenter shows concern for the piano being “hurt”. If pain is a social construct (Wilson 149), can inanimate things also feel pain? We’ve recently discovered that trees can feel pain. Can a piano? Whether or not it can, why would we associate pain with an inanimate object in the first place? Our sentimental value for an object may create an illusion that the object has feelings too, which also raises concern for our tendency to anthropomorphize things.

In the end, even though a prepared piano is just an animate object and incapable of acting on its own, it shares many of the concerns usually reserved for humans.

Kathy Huynh

P.S. See Mia Maguire’s post for more on Musique Concrete.