Articles

Upgrading a Traditional Javanese Instrument to Run on an Algorithm

Chip Flynn, supervising 'Slendotron' at Public Pool (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Chip Flynn, supervising ‘Slendotron’ at Public Pool (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — We are a technology-obsessed culture. As futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote in his essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns”: “An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” In other words, if Kurzweil is to be believed, technology is going to match roughly 40% of the progress we’ve made in 50,000 years of modern human history, in the span of 100 years. One cannot help but wonder if our biological nature can adapt quickly enough to support such innovation, or if the only improvement we’ve made on the dinosaurs is to design the comet that will destroy us.

Artists are often prone to adopting new technologies in their efforts to explore and expand the boundaries of their expressive media of choice. It is tempting to draw distinctions between classic disciplines and their more contemporary counterparts, but even oil painting has seen radical innovations, such as standardized, pre-mixed pigments. At one time, a crucial part of an apprenticeship was learning to mix the very colors that form the raw materials of the painting. Some artists still mix their own paints, but very few gather, dry, and grind the substances that make up the base pigments. That still pales in comparison to the closed loop slowly being formed within, say, video art; you cannot get more future-is-now than this story about a machine learning thesis project by Terence Broad. “Autoencoding Video Frames” taught AI to watch and reconstruct video frames—using, appropriately, Blade Runner, the seminal film based on a Philip K. Dick novel about machines that impersonate humans. In a sense, Broad has produced the first non-human video artist.

Campbell's algorithm at work
Campbell’s algorithm at work (click to enlarge)

All this and more went through my mind while observing Slendotron, an installation by the electromechanical art and sound collective Apetechnology, which opened at Public Pool last month. The core of Slendotron is a mechanized Gamelan orchestra; the exhibition’s title refers to slendro, a pentatonic scale — one of the two essential scales within the traditional Javanese musical form (the other is pelog/pelag). At the center of the Slendotron array is a large gong, with metal-frame wings unfurling to either side, which are hung with smaller gongs (seven to the left and three to the right). Directly before the gong is a kind of deconstructed circular xylophone, hiding behind an inverted kendang, or large wooden drum. Two timpani-style drums flank the kendang on either side; all instruments are equipped with small padded drumsticks or mallets (the word “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word “gamel,” which suggests a mallet or striking — it is a percussive discipline). These mallets are wired through a circuit board, the intricacies of which I am frankly ill equipped to explain, and into a laptop, which is running the whole orchestra via randomized algorithm. The effect is entrancing, meditative, and truly transcendent.

'Slendotron' installation view
‘Slendotron’ installation view

This creation is the collective effort of Apetechnology, whose current iteration consists of primary members Chip Flynn, Brad Ballard, and Leith Campbell. Loosely speaking, Flynn was the machinist, fabricating the physical structure, and Campbell was responsible for the programming (though part of the collective, Ballard is not listed as a contributor on this particular project), but it’s clear that members of Apetechnology collaborate closely on their works. Past projects have included “MechanoShards,” a large installation piece for DLECTRICITY 2014, computer controlled with sound, mechanical movement, and LED pixel lighting; InflatoAngels 2014, a traveling show of 20-foot-tall inflated, LED-lit, teleoperated robots that performed at Pyrptopia in Pittsburgh, among other venues; and Vision in a Cornfield (2012), an astonishing multimedia installation at MOCA Detroit.

Some of Apetechnology's visual reference material; "There is no connection to 'Planet of the Apes,'" said Campbell.
Some of Apetechnology’s visual reference material; “There is no connection to ‘Planet of the Apes,'” said Campbell. (click to enlarge)

“The structure of Gamelan is colotomic, meaning there is no one performer who carries the melody, but instead it is distributed across the whole ensemble, which is a really neat trick when you’ve got 30 people playing,” Campbell told Hyperallergic via email. “This sort of structure fits very well in the machine world, as the 30 performers are all controlled by one centralized mind. The other reason we chose the Gamelan is its connection with the Ramayana, which is a Hindu Religious Epic that has the character Hanuman, a warrior monkey god, which plays into one of the governing themes of our group, the Ape.”

There is inherent tension in the meeting of an ancient art form with a young technology, but Apetechnology makes a strong case for the benefits of incorporating machines into an art practice. “The algorithm is a process of taking multiple layers of randomly generated numbers and using them to influence each other until they have self-constrained into a usable set of commands for the machine,” said Campbell. “The numbers are stored in tables, which then influence other tables. For instance, the basic notes are random numbers stored in a table whose length is randomly generated, all of the notes in that table will be repeated a certain number of times based on the randomly generated numbers in another table, the notes will play a certain rhythmic subdivision of the main beat based on yet another table full of random numbers, etc.” Campbell’s first attempt at the program produced music that was, in Flynn’s view, too much like free jazz.

'Slendotron' detail view
‘Slendotron’ detail view

“I dug around and found someone’s thesis about the music theory of the Gamelan,” Flynn said while he baby-sat Slendotron during Public Pool’s open hours one Saturday. “I gave that to Leith [Campbell], and he used it to make rules that governed the music differently.” Whether or not the finished product would pass as authentic gamelan to the trained ear is perhaps debatable, but sight unseen, you would never imagine it was being generated mechanically.

The surrounding walls of the gallery are covered in an odd mélange of concept sketches, ape clip art, and disturbingly distressed ape masks. This visual component to the main attraction neither enhances nor detracts from its effect, other than to cement the tone firmly within the garage-hacker aesthetic. A colorful cross-section of the Detroit-Hamtramck art and hackerspace communities turned up at the opening, but during my second visit, there were numerous visitors walking in off the street (including one confused father with two kids in bathing suits, inquiring about the location of the pool).

Some of Apetechnology's visual reference material; "There is no connection to 'Planet of the Apes,'" said Campbell.
Some of Apetechnology’s visual reference material; “There is no connection to ‘Planet of the Apes,'” said Campbell. (click to enlarge)

Apetechnology seems to be making no dramatic political statement about the nature of human-machine relationships, however a notable shift has taken place since the group’s inception. Founded by Flynn in San Francisco, the collective originally bore the name PeopleHater. When he moved to Detroit and re-founded the group in the early 2000s, Flynn redubbed it Destroy Apetechnology. Now, reduced to Apetechnology, it seems that over the course of working with machines to create interactive art experiences, Flynn, at least, has gone from anti-human, to anti-human-tech, to a full-circle embrace of humanity’s role in the advancement of and very probable betrayal by our machine creations.

Apetechnology’s Slendrotron continues at Public Pool (3309 Caniff Street, Hamtramck, Michigan) through June 18.

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