Make, Do and Bend: Julia meets Andrew Hugill

The London Sinfonietta is partnering with arts development agency the hub to produce Make, Do and Bend, a project bringing together musicians, composers and creative technologists to explore how digital technology can open up new forms of interaction with audiences.

With just a few days to go, Julia Payne, director of the hub, caught up with Andrew Hugill – composer, musicologist, computer scientist, literary scholar, pataphysician and Director of the Centre for Creative Computing at Bath Spa University, and one of the folk who’s coming along to Make, Do and Bend – to find out why he’s coming and what keeps him awake at night (in terms of this area, not just generally!). Here’s what he had to say…

Circuit board 1416 x 460

Julia: Andrew, so the big question that I suppose is at the heart of what we’re looking to explore through Make, Do and Bend is how new and emerging technologies can continue to disrupt our thinking around composition and live performance? I wonder, can we start there….?

Andrew: Well, my first reaction would be ‘how can they not?’.

No, but seriously… the important thing is not so much what is technologically possible now, but what will be so in five years’ time. Technology changes that fast. But how do we know what that will be? We can make some educated guesses, and we can look at the Gartner hype-cycle and other similar projections. I’ll make a (risky) stab at some predictions…

  •  I predict neural control becoming mainstream quite soon. There are already basic neural controllers available quite cheaply (around £100), but the technology is not sophisticated enough yet to break through to a wide consumer market. But it’s on its way.
  • The web will transform itself thanks to semantic web and to Tim Berners-Lee’s call to re-decentralise. But what will it become? If present engineering has its way, it will be ruled by the forces of neatness. Artists need to get in there and shakes things up!
  •  Bio-technology and genetic sciences are sure bets. Environmental humanities are a growing area.
  •  The computers we use now will probably disappear, to be replaced by things much less binary and much more flexible (probably made of graphene). Consequently, “digital” as an idea will become as obsolete as “analog” is today.
  •  Current fads such as “big data” and “internet of things” will be superseded rapidly by super-intelligent computational entities that will operate in ways we cannot yet predict. We must negotiate our relationship with these, starting now. Co-operation is the only way forwards.
  •  Commercial interests will continue to hobble or progress in some areas and artificially accelerate others. Meanwhile, society as a whole will decelerate as the pace of change becomes wearisome.
  •  Something will have to be done about energy.
  •  The workplace will change yet more (see my 2013 article on “10 jobs of the future”) and we will overcome our objections to many ethical issues that affect human existence. These wider things will affect composition and performance as much as they affect anything else.

To stay on topic: I think the challenge for artists is, as always, to find ways to “creatively abuse” the technologies. This will continue to provide the most fertile and imaginative solutions. We must embrace the engineers (indeed, become engineers ourselves), but we must do so in ways which embed humanity in the systems. We must find a way to reconcile the subjective ambiguities of human beings with the objective precisions of computers.

Julia: There’s a lot there! Trying to keep us both on topic(!), how do you think new work can be developed to have a meaningful expression digitally and in a live context?

Andrew: I’m not at all sure what is meant by “meaningful expression”. It seems to me that any work developed in a digital and live context has “meaningful expression” somehow or to someone, if only to another computer. As for audiences, they will pick and choose as they have always done. But now, unusually, they will do more than just experience the work – they will make it too!

Julia: And what about the opportunities for digital artist/audience interaction to shape music creation? What do you see on the horizon there?

Andrew: I suspect there will be ever more dissolving of the distinction between the two. Performances will become more of a shared, pro-active, experience, like multi-player gaming. However, this does not remove the possibility of a collective appreciation of virtuosity, for example. Sometimes we like to be passive recipients, especially when one individual’s contribution stands out. So, more traditional modes of interaction will survive. But the hierarchical relationship which always places one person (or group) in the role of ‘genius’ performer and the rest in the role of grateful recipients is changing. Audiences reasonably expect to be able to shape their musical experience and today have a degree of control over that process that far exceeds anything imagined even a decade ago.

Julia: And finally – and this is a tough one to end on – what does digital ‘performance’ look like to you?

Andrew: Hopefully like nothing in particular or, rather, like anything it wants to look like. There is room for everything, from a conventional performance ritual with screens to an immersive interactive experience using augmented reality in a locative situation, and many, many other permutations. This is not to dodge the issue, however. What is ‘liveness’? How do we understand non-human agency? What’s our role as performer, or audience, or creator? And what will be the future role of, for example, an orchestra – is it inevitably a museum piece? All these questions are in the mix when contemplating digital performance, which will continually offer creative answers almost on a work-by- work basis. So, the exceptional is encountered more often than not. This is the sign of an active and flourishing area that has yet to settle into conservatism – and something I’m sure we’ll experience when we gather for Make, Do & Bend next week!

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