8th July 2019: The Air of Turbulence – symposium as part of Future Sessions: Atmospheric Memory (Manchester International Festival 2019)

The morning began with an introduction to the themes and ideas behind Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s exhibition Atmospheric Memories by curator Jose Luis de Vicente, followed by the keynote from the artist. I had the opportunity to see the exhibition during the lunch break, so I will begin by noting the themes outlined by Lozano-Hemmer and de Vicente together with my reflection on the exhibition and then go on to talk about some other interesting ideas that came out of the symposium.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer create participatory interactive pieces, often on an architectural scale in public spaces. He designs systems in which humans are a part, data points in a larger, collaborative structure. He is interested in the poetics and aesthetics of biometrics, particularly voice and breath, relating this to the history of computing.

Before entering the exhibition, there is a display of part of Babbage’s Analytical Engine – the first programable mechanical computer. Babbage is the starting point for Atmospheric Memory. Babbage proposed that the atmosphere is a ‘vast library’ that records everything that has ever been said and it is this idea that form the core of the pieces in Atmospheric Memory.

What I was struck by, looking at the complex construction of interlocking brass cogs, was the sheer physicality of the machine. This is not a ‘black box’, shunting electrons around microscopic circuits at incomprehensible speeds. Each part of a complex mathematical problem is a movement, a click of a cog. It made me think about the materiality of the digital – which is in essence just mathematical calculations. The Analytical Engine is the conceptual (mathematical) made manifest. And it’s important to remember that modern computers are basically the same – just smaller and faster. I think this might be an important point to bear in mind during my own research, it is very easy to fall into the idea of the digital as ‘dematerialised’ or ephemeral. I was also struck by the analogy of making material the apparently ephemeral in the Analytical Engine and in Lozano-Hemmer’s pieces making physical breath and voice.

Analytical Engine Mill (1910), Henry Provost Babbage, Science Museum Group Collection (OBJ NO: 1896-58)

The entrance to the exhibition is through the first work Atmosphonia (2019). Based on earlier works of speaker arrays, Atmosphonia consists of over 3000 small speakers, each one playing a separate track (from bird songs to urban street sounds), in waves along the length of the corridor. The effect is very much like waves crashing onto a beach, with fleeting moments when you can hear a single sound, you could almost feel the air moving as the sounds came towards you – imagination I am sure as the speakers didn’t seem big enough to perceptibly move the air in a way you would notice or feel!

Atmosphonia (2019)

It is these immersive experiences that really stand out in Lozano-Hemmer’s work. The use of space was breath-taking – the exhibition space being purposely built (from shipping containers) to show the works, a large architectural canvas created to ‘frame the atmosphere’. Indeed, the large pieces projected over the space are described in the catalogue as ATMOSPHERES, making a clear delineation between them and the smaller works presented.

Exhibition Space
Airborne Projection (2013)
Text Stream (2019)

The smaller works displayed all had an interesting take on the materiality of voice and breath. Volute 1 (2016) is a 3D print capturing the air turbulence ejected as a sentence is spoken – in this case “Au clair de la lune”, the phrase spoken in the first recording of the human voice. It is an interesting idea, solidifying an utterance, and it does highlight how much the breath is involved in speaking. What struck me more was Lozano-Hemmer’s constant referencing to past technologies. There is something conceptually fascinating in referencing ‘old modern’ technology using one that is relatively recent. The invitation to touch is also interesting, as an expulsion of air (this is not a soundwave, but air expelled in the utterance) is something that can only be felt, and only briefly. Also, the object looks like the surface of the moon (or what I imagine it would look like), printed in steel – it is an oddly circular piece → the breath of a voice talking about the light of the moon made physical in a touchable sculpture that echoes the surface of a moon rock (I wonder what it smells like and if you would get told off for licking it??) What is also notable is that it is a physical digital object – I am seeing a lot of these around at the moment, though I do think there is a lot of hype around 3D printing!

Volute 1 (2016)

Weather Vanes (2019) I thought was a slightly more amusing take on the voice/breath idea – in this work, participants were invited to talk into a microphone and their voices were translated into an array of small fans that turned weather vanes. Here, instead of breath being recorded and translated into a solid form, the sound is translated into an artificial ‘breath’ that causes movement. Strangely, although this work is more abstracted than Volute 1, I found it more natural – and I enjoyed the playfulness of it!

Weather Vanes (2019)

The earliest of the works on display, Last Breath (2012), is mechanical pump designed to store and circulate the breath of a person perpetually, at the breathing rate of an average adult. This ‘biometric portrait’ raises questions about mortality and what gets left behind after a person draws their ‘last breath’. There is something in the choice of a brown paper bag that speaks to the fragility and mundaneness of breathing (what I wondered about was the ‘traces’ of what gets left, about the traces of action I see in the Blackwork…) This breath is a strange kind of portrait, not an identifiable image or likeness (indeed, I didn’t even note down whose breath it was), you wouldn’t know who it belonged to without being told, but it’s somehow more essential than that – closer than a likeness could ever be in a way, being of the body (much like embroidery being a trace of an action – I wonder if we could think about those objects as portraits of the maker in the traces??)

Last Breath (2012)

I noted two other interesting points during the artists keynote at the symposium. One was an overview of the piece Vicious Circular Breathing (2012) – not shown in Atmospheric Memory but linked to the Last Breath piece – a hermetically sealed chamber which invites the public to enter and breath only the air of the participants before them. It circulates the air using hanging bunches of brown paper bags inflating and deflating at the breathing rate of the average adult. This piece comes with a warning about asphyxiation, contagion and panic – participants are only allowed to stay inside the chamber for a maximum of 10 minutes and it can only be displayed for a few days before the air becomes toxic. What I found fascinating was that this is a work in which participation in a NEGATIVE thing – something which had never occurred to me before, I’d always assumed participation in artworks was positive and to be actively encouraged… but should it be? The second point was Lozano-Hemmer’s (admittedly friendly) criticism of some other immersive digital environments (his particular example was teamLAB) which he described as ‘synthetic. He argued that, while you wonder at these hyper-fantastical environments, what they are representing is a desire to ignore reality. A point worth considering.

Much of the rest of the symposium concerned AI, voice control and recognition, and the environmental and ethical issues with these technologies. I’m not going to outline them all in detail here, but I will note points I think might be relevant for my own research interests.

In the discussion titled Digital Heritage and Future Voices, artist-researcher Anna Ridler talked about the use of machine learning in her practice, in particular her creation of her own datasets. She pointed out that objects digitally rendered once existed in the real world and the hidden labour involved in categorising data and the particular problems of borderline cases.

In discussing artificial voices (what she described as “synthetic utterances”) she made the point that “in order to be realistic it cannot be perfect”, one of the other speakers noted that when a voice is too human (lifelike but without error) then trust rapidly drops – the uncanny valley.

I wonder if this could be a consideration in reconstruction? Purposely including flaws? What about the idea that you make the materiality of the digital obvious? The aim is not to make counterfeits – so perhaps some level of ‘artificiality’ might be worth thinking about?

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