NOTE: This post is adapted from a paper that I submitted towards the completion my Master of Arts degree in August of 2016.
On May 13th 2016, I presented ReptileChoir, a youth-oriented interactive art exhibition, during Hamilton’s monthly Art Crawl at the Factory Media Centre. Participants were prompted to log in via their smartphones, to a control interface, linked with a personalized avatar turtle appearing on a collective projector. The turtle would ‘sing’ pitches in different vowels, and navigate a panning photograph, responding to encountered highlights and shadows with octave jumps. Turtles could “vote” to control the direction of image flow, by shifting their position on the screen.
Promo-Card Excerpt: Most turtles are great swimmers, but some turtles are also great singers. No vocal cords? No problem! A little technology and imagination go a long way. Join the reptile choir and navigate your way through acoustic landscapes and seascapes. Code a composition via iPad, or bring a smartphone to participate. Harmony is optional, but fun is guaranteed.
Like Sedimentary, ReptileChoir relied on the server infrastructure of Apert. The key difference was that there was no discernable performer, nor any fixed length of time for a performance. Interaction, like the looping image chosen for the work, was ongoing. During the installation I alternated between monitoring the system for technical stability, and interacting with the participants.
I employed a relatively simple set of musical parameters in ReptileChoir. Having recently encountered univocalic constraints in Canadian Poet Christian Bök’s bestselling Eunoia, I recorded each of the English vowels (A, E, I, O, U) in their long form across the twelve semitones of an octave, to build a base of 60 samples. Participants could select a ‘favourite’ vowel and hear it sung at a variable pitch: controlled by the position of their turtle along the vertical axis.
VIDEO: an overview of ReptileChoir at the Factory Media Centre.
While visual rhythm is a property of images generally, I’ve found the most unique patterns in the index, gesture, and mark-making of organic forces. To the degree that rippling streams, cascading trees, and scaly fish, afford playful, integrated, and satisfying continuities of texture, they may also afford a unique musical potential. Complexity in the ebb and flow of light, when transcoded through a keen interpretive lens, may yield just the sort of digital signal that can make for a potent acoustic gestalt. ReptileChoir features the Grindstone Marsh in Ontario’s Hendrie Valley. I have invited its watery shadows and highlights, surface reflections, and plant matter to shape the sound and texture of a reptilian avatar experience.
ReptileChoir was put to most interesting use by around 300 youth who attended the exhibit as part of HCA’s KIDS CRAWL. Their engagement with the work was exploratory, exhibiting a focus on identity construction and interaction, rather than the creation of music. Youth used the interface to dramatically differentiate their avatars, using their “name” to engage in chat-like behaviours. In some mobile device art, “communication between the audience members is a by product of active engagement” (Oh & Wang, 2011, p.3), but with ReptileChoir, many participants made communication the focus of their experience, rather than a by product.
Keeping the visuals on a large collective screen keeps our collective heads up, and our attention outward: I see this as a fitting counterpoint to the more inward posture of engagement with a smartphone. In ReptileChoir, the smartphone is a control interface, following the paradigm of buttons rather than of any other kind of immersive/panning environment.
VIDEO: a technical demonstration of the ReptileChoir platform, its behaviour, and logic.
The irony that reptiles lack vocal chords is not lost on the fact that this installation is neither choral nor performative, but primarily interactive and participatory. If the choral milieu is about ‘singing together’, Reptile choir has perhaps only kept the ‘together’. Since ReptileChoir presents only a thin masquerade of a choral setting, it cannot claim to enhance engagement for any choral audience. But by subverting the terms of the choral milieu — perhaps at the cost of offending choral purists — it incidentally approaches an equally vibrant sort of interaction: that of the LAN party.
— HWDSB SHSM (@HWDSB_SHSM) May 13, 2016
— Débora Jesus (@dbrjesus) May 14, 2016
I’m grateful to the Factory Media Centre for hosting the event, and for the general presence they have in the Hamilton arts community. I would encourage you all to make use of their services, and if it’s helpful to you, to gain a membership there. Finally I’d also like to thank Dr. David Ogborn for his support during this project, as well as my M.A. more broadly: he has been a stellar supervisor, and his energy, skill, and vision (also in the context of family, party-throwing, and culinary prowess) are really quite inspiring.
Oh, J., & Wang, G. (2011). Audience-participation techniques based on social mobile computing. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library.