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From Snippets of Code, a Series of Apps Lets Users Produce Millions of Sounds and Visuals

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Kenneth Kirschner and Joshue Ott, ‘Variant: Flare’ (image courtesy the artists)

You’re probably reading this article on your phone. What if, instead, you were taking part in an art exhibit, or a concert, or both? Not just taking in, but taking part in — and all while sitting around at home, or killing time during your commute. You could perform an instrumental role in the creation of a wholly new sort of audio-visual experience, and you could still be on your phone. As far as apps go, it’s a whole lot more exciting than Facebook.

We live in an age teeming with potential for user-responsive creations. So what happens when art and music are combined in an arena that allows both forms to directly interact? That’s a question experimental electronic composer Kenneth Kirschner and visual artist and software designer Joshue Ott hope to answer.

Kirschner and Ott are the brains behind Variant, a family of apps developed for iOS by Ott’s Interval Studios and produced under the auspices of Brooklyn non-profit artist colony and R&D lab Eyebeam, where the duo is wrapping up a stint as artists-in-residence. Each app in Variant is a distinct “generative audiovisual artwork” combining Kirschner’s music with Ott’s visuals. User interaction determines how each piece plays out visually and sonically, resulting in a different experience with each use.

Kirschner has been composing experimental music for some time, and Ott previously stepped into the ring of generative audiovisual apps with Thicket, an “audiovisual playground” co-developed with composer Morgan Packard. Kirschner and Ott have been friends for years, and are part of a small circle of Clinton Hill-based creatives that collaborate with each other on a variety of projects, including the visually-oriented improvisational music group 00rtcloud. And both think the popular understanding of what art and music are — and what they can do — is in need of a serious overhaul.

“Our ideas of recordings come from these pieces of plastic that had the sound scratched into them, and that you couldn’t change,” says Kirschner. “And we haven’t noticed that our recordings have become something else — data. And data is malleable. Data is code.”

Eyebeam exhibition 1 - courtesy Christine Butler
Kenneth Kirschner and Joshue Ott’s “Variant” in ‘Inside/Out’ at Eyebeam (all images courtesy Christine Butler unless otherwise noted)

“It’s the album that doesn’t stop,” says Kirschner. And, at the same time, it’s an ever-fluctuating artistic playground.

By that argument, Kirschner says, there’s no reason why a recording has to stay the same each time you hear it. It can be intelligent, adaptive, interactive. And the four Variant apps currently available — Blue, Flare, SONiC, and Cascade — are the first in an expanding series intended to prove just that.

Each app has a singular set of visuals generated by Ott’s “glorified line-drawing program,” superDraw, and a unique score made up of indeterminate music — a composition that plays the same set of notes and sounds at random with each listen — written by Kirschner. Imagine if every album you owned had a maker’s mark on it to distinguish it from others, and yet there were millions of these things, each unique, out in the world. That’s Variant — every app operates as a visualized, randomized record single. Users download the apps onto their iPhone or iPad, and particular patterns of touch produce different visuals or sounds, all linked to a specific snippet of code. The art and music are Kirschner’s and Ott’s, but the way each bit plays each time is, for the most part, up to the user’s fingers.

While all the Variants are powered by the same visual engine, the graphics are still radically different from app to app, and the music follows suit. Blue’s haunting, quiet harmonics nicely complement subtle trichromatic visuals, while the ever-shifting variegated swirl of Flare reflects the Reichian pulses of a score filled with marimba, chimes, and bells.

“Each one is its own little world,” Ott notes. “It has its own rules and its own kingdom and its own rulers.”

Take SONiC, for instance. Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and augmented for an Eyebeam exhibition at a shared space in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, SONiC is perhaps the best example of what Kirschner and Ott hope to achieve with the Variant series. The duration and motion of each touch affects the resulting visuals: drag your thumb across the screen and the black background is washed with jagged waves of white and amber static or jagged webs of slate and ochre, all following your movements. Meanwhile, a timpani bellows, a violin keens, or a trombone blares flatly. While the instruments are recognizable, Kirschner says the recordings have been altered significantly — “ripped apart, granulated, stretched out.” But unlike Blue, Flare, or Cascade, these are snippets of sound rather than long and complex passages, allowing the indeterminate nature of the piece to really stand out.

“I can’t try to impose the interactivity on the music,” says Kirschner. “I need to think through the whole process and say, ‘How is this thing going to be built as a composition from the very molecular level, thinking that interactivity into it?’ And that’s what SONiC became about.”

The process isn’t always seamless, however.

Kenneth Kirschner (left) and Joshue Ott (right)

“The interesting part of all of this is that I’ll fuck it up,” Ott laughs. “That happens all the time. As a coder, I fail — I don’t do what the artist in me demands — and the artist’s like, ‘WAIT, WAIT, WAIT! THAT’S REALLY GOOD!’ And the coder’s like, ‘What? I fucked it up, though.’ And the artist’s like, ‘NO, THAT’S IT! THAT’S SO MUCH BETTER THAN WHAT I WANTED! DO IT!’ And then you go from there and you develop these brand new things that you weren’t expecting.”

Kirschner agrees — a good portion of the music he wrote for each Variant came in pieces from aborted projects — adding that part of the beauty in working with apps is that they can always be changed. Code can be re-worked, music re-recorded and updated. The apps are intended to be interactive for the users, but, in a way, they’re equally interactive for the creators. Just because the painting is on the canvas doesn’t mean it’s finished. They can always go back.

But instead, Kirschner and Ott are looking forward, toward the next Variant. They’ve toyed with creating an app with a gaming aspect, or adding a feature that allows the app to react even more to user interaction.

“I think we’re responding to the pros and cons of digital distribution,” says Kirschner. “The wonderful thing about digital data is, I give you a copy, and I still have it. And I’m still excited about that. But what you end up with is a huge number of identical digital objects. And I think there’s an excitement that follows that, where you say, ‘How can we have these objects begin to respond to their environment and become differentiated?’ And we’re just starting to do that.”

But there’s a concern there, too, of turning artworks into tools. In Ott’s mind, however, this is far from the point.

“You get to this point when you make interactive software where there’s a line distinguishing where it’s a tool and where it’s an art experience,” says Ott. “And the more customizability we add to this thing, the more it becomes a tool and the more it becomes the product of the person using it and not the product of us as the creators.”

But full customizability and its attendant challenges remain a little ways off. In the meantime, the non-profit and art worlds are starting to catch on. Kirschner and Ott recently presented Variant at the Museum of Modern Art, and were named artists-in-residence for fall and winter at Times Square Arts — where they’re expecting to tackle a whole new project based on Times Square itself.

“Times Square, to me, is total audiovisual chaos,” says Kirschner. “It’s Blade Runner. It’s sensory overload, just lights and sounds and craziness. And that became the concept — to make an app, or apps, or something that takes all of this chaos of Times Square as an input and outputs a work of abstract digital art.”

Ott has his own idea for the app. It’’ll take out everything in the camera that’s moving, so you only see everything that isn’t moving or changing: no people, no cars, no flashing lights or signs; just the stillness beneath the insanity. But he’s not married to the concept.

“Because we’ll fail.” He smiles. “And I’m really looking forward to failing.”

Inside/Out continues at Eyebeam at South Street Seaport (117 Beekman Street, South Street Seaport, Manhattan) through December 20, and features an installation of Kenneth Kirschner and Joshue Ott’s variant:SONiC.

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