Spring 2022, CMAC/ISS/VMS 290-S

Author: Cynthia France

Final Project: BEAT by Cynthia France

If you had told me just a few months ago that I would be enrolled in a VMS course this semester, I probably would have laughed in your face. To fall semester me, I was firmly cemented in the “tech” side of college, not to mention severely lacking in all forms of creativity. Yet looking through the course offerings one late night (or would it be considered early morning?), this course had repeatedly drawn my attention. From the description, it seemed like the perfect marriage of my interests: technology, with a bit of music and art involved. Although my talents never lied within the arts, I was keen on seeing and exploring the intersection between two very different fields of study—one of supposed structure and rigidity, and the other fully free-flowing.

Developing upon my initial interest in this class, I’d been particularly drawn towards McLuhan’s idea that “The Medium is the Message.” I had never really thought about the way in which a message was delivered before. Coming from a background in which the make-up of every product was essentially one and the same, it had never struck me as important the way in which the medium itself could be used to deliver the message. I liked how this expanded the ways in which a message can be delivered: mediums are not just a means to an end, they are, in a way, the end themselves. The medium is as much a tool as it is the final product.

In a similar fashion, I also found myself intrigued by the ideas in Reas and McWilliams’ “What is Code,” specifically when they talk about “thinking in code” and how the way in which you think changes with the medium you are working with. With code, one must approach solutions from the standpoint of using something (ie algorithms, procedures) to allow the machine to achieve your goal, whereas traditional mediums are approached from the angle of producing the result yourself.

It was my aim to embody these two ideas for my final project. The project itself was inspired by what many would call the “sophomore slump.” As the semester dragged on, I observed my friends and I slowly descending into a state of apathy with a constant undercurrent of anxiety mixed in. To us, it felt as if nothing was under our control, that we were stuck in an endless tide of school, work, sleep, repeat. To deal with this, we each began to develop our own habits: ways in which to overcome—beat—anxiety. Despite my harping earlier on, I do have some classical music training under my belt. As such, I’m naturally more drawn towards the applications of technology and music. However for this project, I wanted to do something a bit more unorthodox from the traditional melodies I was used to hearing.

The project in and of itself is not a complete art piece. Instead, it is a blank canvas waiting to be used. Using a different way of thinking, I approached the project not with the goal of producing a product, but a means in which products can be produced. In it, I play with the idea of sound augmentation, of utilizing sounds associated with anxiety to create a masterpiece. In this sense, the medium *is* the message, or perhaps the medium plus the process embodies the message: although we are dealt these unfortunate cards, we are ultimately the ones that take back control, using what is given to produce a piece that is entirely and wholly of my creation. Although the end result of the project is a piece of artwork/music, perhaps what is more important is the restoration of control, of defining a space for “us” in a world that is most certainly not.

original schematics

In terms of the project itself, I deviated quite a lot from my original plan. As can be seen in my original schematics, I had planned for a grid of rigidly planned out sounds, with each button serving as a unification/multiplication of two different anxiety-related sounds. The UI was meant to be quite bare-bones, structured, and straightforward. The goal of this was to further drive home the idea of taking back control, or re-establishing order in a chaotic world.

Starting Screen

Perhaps it is a reflection of how the semester went, or my mental health, but the end product is something much different. The only constant between the plan and final product was the control panel and the foundational idea of buttons. My final product features buttons that start off in a grid (carryover from the initial idea), but these buttons are circular and bounce around the screen randomly. Not only that, but the sounds associate with each button is randomly chosen from a preset list, and from it an associated color is generated. The user, everyday people like you and I, is able to play with the sounds associated with these buttons (SoundCookies), changing its volume and playback speed and “depositing/drawing” them (SoundBytes) onto the canvas. The visual representation of such augmented sounds relate to how they are changed: those with greater volume are more opaque, while clips that have been sped up are larger circles than those of slower playback speeds. When one of the original SoundCookies passes over a SoundByte, the augmented audio of the byte is played. As the user continues to draw, a visual and auditory piece is created. In addition to the preset audio files, users also have the option of uploading/using their own.

A possible project

In the end, I chose to go for this arguable more “artistic” representation of my project rather than my initial vision because I thought that although structure implies control, part of the reason we are suffering is because of the rigid academic structure set in place for us. By allowing the SoundCookies roam freely, and allowing SoundBytes to be created so randomly, we are rejecting the rigidity of society, choosing to show a unique and beautiful representation of ourselves.

Upload own audio

Beyond its unique interpretation of art and the unorthodox method of execution, my project explores the idea of critical making through freeform expression. It approaches art not from the standpoint that it is a one-and-done piece of work, but a constantly growing, adapting, and almost living body of art. Each user that comes by breathes their own life into this project, allowing it to take on the forms of each person it encounters. Using the medium of anxiety related sounds, the project critiques and ultimately rejects the rigidity and structure of society that has caused many to lose themselves, allowing us to instead reassert control and express ourselves in a way that is not defined by anything other than ourselves. However, I do think it’s quite ironic that the project, although supposed to represent a taking control of oneself, is created through technology, and once deleted cannot be retrieved nor recreated. While some might say this detracts from the message, I think it perfectly represents us as living beings: we are constantly adapting, learning, and evolving. The person we were yesterday is not the same person we are today, is not the same person as we will be tomorrow. Just like how the SoundCookies are constantly moving and changing and how each iteration of the project is different, we too are constantly evolving, changing, and growing.

My project does not challenge any ideas we’ve discussed thus far, instead building on them to create something that will be unique for each individual that comes across it.

Click here to see more pictures!

Cynthia France Midterm

Starts at around 42:00

Artificial Dreaming

For one week in fall 2018, passersby of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would’ve witnessed something quite peculiar—the blending of years upon years of media from the LA Philharmonic’s digital archives projected upon every surface of the concert hall. To the untrained eye, it would’ve looked like an odd compilation of music footage, but to its creator, both human and machine, it is much more. It is a dream, the creation of something new from old. It is living, changing, hallucinating.

Media artist Refik Anadol uses machine learning and intelligence to create art. By feeding a computer algorithm exorbitant amounts of data, Anadol can produce stunning visualizations. The machine transforms media–combining, morphing, and manipulating it to produce unique interpretations of the data it was given. In a way, the machine is dreaming. Similar to how humans dream by altering past memories, Anadol’s algorithm learns from its “memories”—the data it’s fed—and alters them in a similar fashion.

Machine learning, the use of algorithms and models to recognize patterns in data, is used to develop computer systems that can learn and adapt to new situations without explicit instruction from humans. Said algorithms are fed “training data,” countless examples of certain situations. By analyzing said data for relationships, similarities and differences, the machine draws connections between objects and concepts and attempts to apply its previous knowledge to new situations. Similar to a child growing and learning from observations, the machine learns from data and grows by analyzing new “experiences.”

The Walt Disney Concert Hall projection was a part of Anadol’s WDCH Dreams project, a collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in celebration of their centennial season. The visualization brings over 45 terabytes of data: 40,000 hours of audio from over 16,000 performances, the “memories” of LA Phil, to life. Combined with the fact that the WDCH is LA Phil’s home base, it is as if the building itself has come to life, sharing its memories and dreams of the symphony’s evolution throughout the years.

Anadol’s take on art—human creations from a non-human being—embodies critical making in every way. The use of “new” media: artificial intelligence, machine learning, and to a lesser degree the data “memories” to create unique and ever-changing art. Anadol’s art is constantly pushing the limits of media & technology, exploring and experimenting ways in which he can manipulate various real-world information to produce creative visualizations of data. Oftentimes, his work represents the concept of “the medium is the message.” With the WDCH project, the input, output, and message are all the same: the LA Philharmonic.

And yet, his products are not entirely composed of new media. Anadol oftentimes uses old media: arts, architecture, etc as an interface. But the effect goes both ways. Instead of viewing it as old media creating new media, his art can be thought of as a mutual supporting of two equally important aspects of media. While the old is an interface, or creates the new, the new is also augmenting the old. A building is no longer just a building, but an entirely unique piece of artwork itself.

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