A condensed, edited version of my Skype conversation with Gordon Monahan. He is the co-creator of Dollhouse, at #OE16 on May 31.
What do you think about our relationship to technology now?
Obviously, technology is more and more part of everyone’s life right now than it used to be. Although throughout the 20th century, so-called ‘media’ has become more a part of our lives long before computers came along. Recording technology, film, photography, television, radio... most of that media has been around for over a hundred years, so our lives have been increasingly mediated over the last four, five or six generations. But right now, with computers, it’s gone into overdrive, which is a good and a bad thing. It’s much easier for people to communicate, for people to use technology to produce work, particularly in the arts. So that’s all good, but the attention-grabbing aspect of technology is maybe partly bad. I was reading an article yesterday or the day before about how in American culture, the ‘cult of stupidity’ is dominating... there’s an anti-knowledge crusade in American culture. Which is obvious in politics right now. It is taking place in Canada to some extent, although probably not quite as bad as in the U.S. Part of that has to do with technology because technology is creating this false sense of promoting the individual and the individual’s ego, sort of over-riding traditional knowledge. You can use your computer to find things out, find answers to questions immediately, you don’t have to read any books anymore. It’s taking so much of our attention away that it’s actually taking our time away from reading books, or from studying more in-depth subjects of any kind. And so technology in that regard is creating or reinforcing this cult of stupidity. Which is ultimately really dangerous, right?
I’ve been in conversations with people where the person doesn’t believe what I said was true, and then ten seconds later they say to me, hey, you’re right, and I say, what do you mean? And they say, well I just googled what you said and yeah it’s true, that did happen. Well, why can’t we just have a normal conversation? (chuckles) If you don’t believe me, then tell me you don’t believe me, and then maybe I’ll have to find a way to prove what I said was correct or not. Or maybe, I wasn’t correct and maybe you can correct me, whatever, you know, but you’re going to ignore what I said and google what I said to see if I was correct? Why don’t you spend more time educating yourself instead?
You know, people don’t need to learn math anymore. I was reading about how kids in high school now don’t care about learning trigonometry or geometry or calculus. Everything can just be figured out on your Iphone. What happens if your phone breaks? You won’t be able to multiply eleven times twelve! You won’t know how to solve that without your phone, and all that knowledge can disappear because your battery dies (we chuckle).
People are posting things about themselves constantly. Like pictures of their food. Ok, great. That looks good, but it’s too much information. That’s what people are using technology for - posting useless pieces of information in public that’s somehow about them. It’s self-indulgent. I mean, everyone’s guilty of it, I’m guilty too, but it’s reinforced far beyond what it ever was before.
Do you think about any of this when you’re making work with technology? (Understanding media and technology are different things...)
Well, generally my work doesn’t involve a lot of personality, per se. I don’t think my work is about me, it’s about phenomenon, phenomenology or the intersection of cultural issues with technology, with phenomenology and situations. Not very often do I involve personality. You know, I was thinking about this - it’s almost unique to sound art and sound installation that the persona is reduced. The importance of persona is reduced with regards to other forms of music. So, when you look at pop music, personality is super important. It’s all about the performer, it’s all about that artist. Whereas, in sound art and installation, particularly object-oriented installation, it doesn’t have a performer in the context of the piece. The persona is no longer there, it’s been extracted from the work. We all know sound art is an opposing polarity to pop music, not only through the materials of the sound that’s being used and the approach to organizing that, but also to the point that the personality isn’t there either. So, a lot of my work doesn’t have that ‘personality’ aspect to it, so I’m not dealing with these issues of the ego. You read about John Cage and his whole philosophy of trying to get rid of the individual ego, extract that out of the music. When I was younger and learning about John Cage, I didn’t really completely understand what that meant, but as I’ve gotten older (chuckling) it’s gotten way more clear. And not that ego and persona are bad, it’s just that it’s interesting to find ways to get rid of it.
[Cage’s] approach was using chance operations to determine all the different aspects of musical composition and performance. But, you know, he was still there doing it, so he found that he couldn’t actually completely extract his ego. He was able to find ways to reduce the impact of the ego on his work. So yeah, the same thing in my work, I’m saying I’ve extracted the persona out of the piece but it’s not completely gone because obviously, you make choices. And the choices I make are generally not done through random processes, it’s done very deliberately. Although, in a lot of my work, if I’m using a computer for instance, and running a Max/MSP program, then I’ll often use random processes in the Max/MSP patch to decide what’s going to happen at a particular time. Or, have a library of sequences available in the program, and then have the program randomly choose from that library. It’s pretty simple but, if you have a large enough library, you get a fairly large, indeterminate sequence of choices. So, there is that in some of the pieces that I do. But, not all the pieces that I do use computers.
Where do you draw the line between a random choice and a choice that reflects personality or ego?
Well, it depends on what the piece is. Generally, I guess I come to that point based on the necessities of the piece itself. I’m doing a new installation right now where I have 180 sound samples of a cymbal being hit - sped up, slowed down, reversed... I processed all these cymbal sounds to get this library of 180, and then, rather than sequence those in a fixed sequence, I’m using a Max/MSP patch to call those up, randomly chosen from that library of 180 sounds. As I was working through the piece, and figuring out how it was going to work, I got to the point where I had to decide how the choices were going to be made, so I did it the simplest way possible, which was randomly. So that was dictated by how the structure of the piece developed.
And then there are other pieces I do that are wind-based pieces. That’s completely random because you can’t control the wind, so it’s completely out of my hands which is interesting because you set yourself up to success or failure at any given time because when you want the wind to be there, it’s not going to be there. You can’t say, “it’s going to be windy at 2 o’clock today”. But that’s liberating, because you just throw up your hands and say whatever happens, happens. So the silence is part of the piece as well. The failure is part of the piece.
And speaking of wind, how do you think we relate to nature now?
Well, the way I think about it is not so much how we as human beings relate to nature because some people are into nature and some people aren’t. Some are completely disconnected from it, don’t spend any time in natural surroundings to the point where you take someone from the city who’s probably never spent anytime in the country, and you put them out there and... hey, it gets dark at night! Well yeah, it’s dark every night. Or on the flip side, there are people who hate living in the city. So, everyone’s different.
The way that I look at it in my work, is trying to find ways to integrate natural processes into particular pieces. So I’ve worked with wind and water, predominately. And then I’ve done installations in natural environments. I always like to say that often times you get the opportunity to make an installation in an amazing landscape area and it’s so dramatic in itself without your piece even being there. You have to find ways to not push that away, to not overdo it. You want to just use the drama that’s already there and find a way to integrate your piece subtly into that. The way I approach it is fairly simple.
You learn to do a few different things and you keep finding different ways to keep doing those same things over and over again.
And how has your creative process changed over time, if it has?
Yeah, it has, particularly with technology. The good parts of technology are that it has become available, and that it is way more affordable than ever before. When I started out in the late 70’s, you didn’t have computers. And if you wanted to use technology, you had to learn electronics. Things were not really available in the marketplace, so you had to learn to make things yourself or find people who could help you figure things out, so it was a very slow and laborious process in those days. In fact, with regards to electronic music, not even media art technology, but specifically the medium and genre of electronic music - it was very difficult to do in those days. You had to find an institution that had the equipment available, then get permission to use that equipment. There were a lot of blocks in the way of being able to do electronic music.
Even though mass marketed synthesizers were available, they were really expensive to buy. I couldn’t even buy a mixer for instance, it was just too expensive. So in spite of that, I did do some electronic-based work, but I do remember thinking, in the future we’ll be able to use computers to do these things. Computers were beginning to come in the early 80’s, but what they could do then was nothing compared to what you can do now, and it was also very expensive and the results were not particularly interesting. The quality of the electronic synthesized sounds being produced at that time sounded really cheap. Like if you listen to early 80’s electronic music, it sounds really dated.
So even at that time, you knew it wasn’t good.
Oh yeah, like, this really sounds crappy (we laugh), I’m going to wait until the technology improves. So I was particularly interested at that time in doing piano music so you didn’t need technology. Ok, I was doing the piece Speaker Swinging, but that used a really basic kind of technology that didn’t require any computers or modern technology. I like to think of that piece as a piece that uses 1950’s technology. So although I started doing that in the early 80’s, it was actually a piece that could have been done in the 50’s. You’re using sine tone oscillators, amplifiers and speakers. That technology was already around for a long time. That was not particularly expensive to produce at that time.
I started learning how to make electronics from other people, and then back to computers. I started work with computers in 1989/90. At that time they were getting a lot better. And now I always use computers, not for everything, but like 90% of what I do is computer-based.
Now you have Arduinos which are great. It’s an electronic circuit that’s really inexpensive and you can program it to do many different things. It’s a computer system that can be applied to control robotic processes. All the information is online. I never really learned how to program code, and you have to do that for an Arduino, but you can go online and grab samples of code that people put out there, and figure things out. So, that’s solved a lot of problems. You don’t have to design your own electronic circuits anymore.
Could you talk about working with dancers and Dollhouse? Since Speaker Swinging, there doesn’t seem to be much work with humans.
No, not really. Although I’ve done a little bit of work with dance, primarily with the Coleman Lemieux Dance Company. Bill Coleman is the person I’m collaborating with on this new piece. The first project I did with Bill was in 2004, I did the music for a production. I’ve done music for 3 or 4 productions with [Coleman Lemieux] since then. And some choreographers have used my work for performances but I didn’t compose those pieces for that, they asked and I gave them permission to use it. This is the first time we changed the whole approach. This piece has been in development for the last 18 months, on and off. Altogether, we haven’t spent more than 4 or 5 weeks of work during that period. The year before that it was Bill Coleman’s initiative. He wanted to do this new piece and asked me to do it with him. He had general ideas of what he wanted it to be, and we started collaborating on it. We realized pretty soon on that I shouldn’t just be doing the music as a background element, but that we should make the sounds and the music and the actions that create the sounds, integral to the performance of the piece. So I would become a performer with him on stage and it would become all about interacting with the stage elements that initiate sound processes. So the sound becomes one of the main focuses of the piece. The production of the movements and gestures that create those sounds become the main element. That was an interesting way of approaching it, and it’s been really satisfying to see that it’s working. This will only be the second performance of the piece. We did it once in April in Peterborough.
And how was that first performance for you?
It was great, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked (laughs). I’m always a little skeptical. Unless I know it’s for sure, definitely, going to work... sometimes you’re doing something new and you don’t get the chance to run through it until the day before the actual performance, so you’re kind of wondering, I don’t know if it’s going to pull together. It actually did work really, really well. That was a really positive experience.
As someone who has run an underground club in Berlin and currently runs the Electric Eclectic Festival in Meaford, Ontario, how do you engage audiences?
I collaborate on the festival with my wife Laura Kikauka, who I also did the projects in Berlin with, and also Chris Worden, a younger generation musician who does a lot of the curating. So, it’s a three-way collaboration. I would say the whole thing of engaging an audience is to not compromise the integrity of the quality of what you’re trying to do. Like, the whole idea of a doing experimental music on a farm 200km from Toronto or Kitchener, sounds like it’s not going to work (chuckles). Or it’ll work, but you’re not going to get very many people. And it has been challenging to grow the audience over the years. You just have to be patient. We’ve actually been fairly consistent in expanding the audience at about 10-15% a year, so over eleven years, that really does add up. We have expanded the scope of the genres of music that we’re presenting because we realize that over a three day festival, you don’t want it to be completely experimental. Even I would be bored by that (we laugh), even though I love experimental music, I’m not going to spend three solid days listening to that. I want to hear something else too once in a while. So, adding DJs, having a late-night, party-type experience. But even then, a lot of the DJs that we have are pretty experimental. I’m quite impressed that in the last two years we’ve had five DJs all playing at the same time. I wasn’t quite sure how they had organized that, because I was just watching as an audience member. It was truly an experimental DJ set-up. It’s not always like that, it’s often just one DJ doing their set, but you can get experimental with that too.
And coming back to ... I think a lot of time, presenters try to find things they think people are going to like.
Right, as in, “accessibility?”
... exactly, yeah. Whereas, we don’t think that way. We just want to curate really good quality stuff and let people come to it. And then the word spreads and people know what’s going to happen at the festival, so they’re going to come and see stuff they might not see somewhere else, and that becomes an attraction. Rather than trying to become accessible, you are creating accessibility by the integrity of the quality of your program.
It’s true with any festival. Open Ears - same thing.
For more information on Dollhouse on May 31, or to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE.