HANOVER, New Hampshire — When Tristan Perich, creator of the “Microtonal Wall” for the Museum of Modern Art’s Soundings: A Contemporary Score exhibition, told me that understanding computer languages was now practically “a prerequisite for living,” two things came to mind. First, the possibility of my own obsolescence as someone relatively illiterate in coding. Second, that in order to comprehend his creative process, I would have to radically readjust my understanding of code as an unnatural and abstract interface.
For Perich, computation is a concrete process that binds abstract concepts to the physical world. The challenge for the viewer is to be able to discern this computational process from his otherwise minimalist works of art. I had a chance to speak with him last week, when the artist visited Dartmouth College to open an exhibition of his work that explores the boundary between data and its physical realization.
This is an area for which the languages of traditional media, including sculpture, drawing, music, and film can serve to create definitions that non-programmers can understand. In “1-Bit Symphony” (2009), an outgrowth of his earlier “1-Bit Music” (2005), Perich presents a self-playing audio circuit, set in a standard CD case with minimal silkscreened lettering on the front. It is described as follows:
“1-bit audio is the most basic digital representation of sound, its waveforms consisting only of 1s and 0s, the binary language of information. These 1s and 0s are represented physically in microprocessors by on and off signals of electricity, which when connected to an audio speaker moves its cone in and out, creating sound.”
Technically, the piece equates information with sound, since the programmed microchips directly control the “on” or “off” state of various tones. What the above description fails to communicate, however, is the incredible intensity of Perich’s triumphant arrangement of sounds. The stark simplicity of the CD and audio circuit’s appearance can hardly account for the vibrant plumes of noise which unfold, leaving the viewer with an uncanny awareness of vitality in an assemblage that has been practically stripped of anything but its electronic skeleton. Perhaps it was this uncanny quality that provoked a sense of guilt in me for not being able to completely visualize the electromagnetic process of creating immersive sound — of not understanding the calcium makeup of its digital bones, for lack of a better analogy.
I had a sense I wasn’t alone in my discomfort, since Perich had chosen to hang a framed print of black-and-white code immediately to the left of “1-Bit Symphony.” Filled with 1’s and 0’s, the print serves to bring “transparency” to his work and to his interface with binary codes, as he articulated to me in our interview this past weekend. It also has a stake in longstanding notions of music’s immersive potential – as either a distinct mode of thought or a means of transportation to another realm. By representing the process of coding, Perich aims to bridge this bifurcation.
“I really like music that I can potentially understand or create a model of in my mind. I think it has to do with growing up seeing a lot of minimalist art. I really loved understanding the process and then seeing it unfold in real time as a piece of music or as the work of art … As soon as you do that, you’re in a [creative] mental space, and that’s the kind of immersion I really love – when your mind starts thinking about the processes you’re perceiving,” Perich explains.
In fact, it is this concern for a balance between the abstract and its physical realization that initially discouraged Perich from exploring electronic music, whose source exists only in the virtual realm. Fortunately, coding provided a solution.
“The microchips that I use totally changed how I thought about computation in general and electronics and electronic sound… it made it something much more physical,” Perich said. “Because when you have to actually solder the digital output of a chip to something else in order for that chip to interact with the physical world, you’re suddenly much more aware of the fact that computation is taking place in physical space and that the computer is essentially a mechanical object.”
Perich expands this notion of coding as a concrete process in his installation piece, “Machine Drawing” (2005-present) — in which coding becomes the last vestige of the artist in a drawing otherwise enacted through telepresence. Strings tied to a Sharpie pen connect to a machine that Perich has programmed and built himself to carry out a live-action drawing on the wall to which they are attached. The structure relies on the force of gravity to move the strings. The contrast between the relative simplicity of the mechanics and the intricacy of the constellation of lines they produce can’t help but call attention to the precision, masterful fluidity, even artfulness, of his coding.
However, Perich relegates the mechanical aspect of this work to its periphery, off to the side by an electrical outlet. In so doing, he removes himself from the process, even while foregrounding the physicality of the drawing through the Sharpie’s constant movement along the wall. Where physical application of the pen to a surface once represented the hand of the artist, coding now serves as the humanizing factor in Perich’s work. I think I get it.
On the one hand, it’s easy to be impressed by the visually animate quality of the drawing — its long, cross-hatched lines are dynamic against the delicate, organic center. It’s more complex and even estranging, however, to try wrap your mind around all of the 1’s and 0’s of code that somehow add up to this creation. With consideration for the visual possibilities of math and science that drives this uncanny production and Perich’s work more widely, it is possible to appreciate the quality of randomness in its physical realization.
You become aware of the uneven texture of the walls beneath the ink, the dried-out quality of the exhausted pen’s lines, and the vibrations of the Sharpie as the strings move tenuously through the machine. Perich directs attention to the environment and laws of nature through which his work unfolds, wedding his digital process to the elements of our physical existence that we take for granted. You don’t have to be literate in C++, Java, HTML, or Python to understand this.
It’s precisely this element of the unknown, that mysterious space between numbers and electromagnetism, with which one finds solace when faced with the arbitrary nature of his artwork’s mechanized realization.
Soundings: A Contemporary Score continues at MoMA (11 W 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 3.