Don Ritter: Sound-art
Interview by Jozef Cseres
Published in English and Slovakian, January 2004
JC: Jozef Cseres
DR: Don Ritter
JC: Don, why do you call your installations ”unencumbered”?
DR: An unencumbered installation is one in which the viewers do not have
a physical input device attached to their bodies, such as a mouse or helmet.
The human sensing system in an unencumbered installation is invisible
to the viewers, usually involving ultrasonic or infrared waves. I prefer
to create unencumbered installations which enable viewers to be free from
the mechanical operation of input devices. I want them to interact with
the installations as if they are interacting with the natural environment.
JC: The gestures of artists were always important part of the performance,
not only in theatre but also in music where the sound aspects dominate.
To ”see” the music seems to be very important. Tape electronic
music radically excluded the gestures from the performance, so the visitor
suddenly could not see what was happening on the stage during the generating
of the sounds.
this segregation are known: empty concert halls, minimal music emphasizing
the live and transparent processuality in music-making, live electronics,
interactive art. Does your ”physical aesthetics” concern also
the gestural components of performance? Are they important in your interactive
performances with musicians?
DR: I would consider that live performers – such as musicians, dancers,
and actors – are having experiences that the performers themselves
could judge as being physically aesthetic. From the perspective of the
audience who watches the performers actions, I would consider their experiences
to be only visual. Physical aesthetics considers the self making physical
motions, and the aesthetic judgements of those gestures. In my interactive
performances, there is no attempt to create works which provide physically
aesthetic experiences to audiences, that characteristic is only used in
JC: How do you see the current tendency in electronic arts to generate
fake failures, errors, irregularities of perfect media? I mean phenomena
like cracks and hums in digital sound, imitated skipping of the phono
records, patinated photographs, scratchiness in films etc. I feel some
kind of nostalgia after the age of unperfect technologies and fallible
artists in these activities. Some people speak about postdigital era and
arts, aesthetics of failure, etc. What do you think about it?
DR: This is a phenomenon which seems to occur in most media: when a new
tool is created which provides significant technical enhancements, it
is initially used in the same manner as the older tool. The ”Simulated
Stitching on the Plastic Steering Wheel Phenomenon” can be seen
in the manufacturing of plastic steering wheels for automobiles in the
mid-1900’s. The previous technology for the steering wheel had used
leather that was wrapped and stitched around the steering wheel. When
plastic replaced the leather, the designers molded the physical form of
stitching into the plastic.
While working in field of telephone design, our team had designed a new,
very lightweight handset with improved sound quality. When people used
the phone, they said it didn’t ”sound” very good, although
technically the sound quality was an improvement from older telephones.
We found that by placing a weight inside of the lightweight handset, people
felt that it sounded better. At that time, during the mid-1980’s,
people may have equated a heavy telephone handset with quality sound.
These situations are probably caused by technology providing enhancements
at a rate that is faster than the human can conceptually accommodate.
I expect that the audio noise associated with older audio technologies
is an important aesthetic element for some people, especially if they
have been listening to it for many years.. Music that is too ”clean”
may be lacking in the aesthetic element of ”noise” which some
people like or expect, so they put it back in.
JC: Digital cleanness of sound really disturbs and “digital silence”
is terrific as well because it lacks the natural and civilizational dimension
Cage was trying to give it. All this is, of course, related to the human
perception. The semantics of some of your installations seems to be based
on the process of perception itself. How do you see this perceptual formalism?
DR: Although I am interested in human perception from an artistic perspective,
it also interests me from a psychological perspective. When I last worked
in engineering in 1986, I was employed as a human interface designer for
telecommunications manufacturer. That professional experience and my psychology
studies in perception exposed me to perceptual concepts that have been
incorporated into some installations. One characteristic is that viewers
are provided with no instructions on the use of the installation, the
works themselves contain perceptual elements which indicate how they should
be experienced, such as Fit, TV Guides, or Intersection. From a cognitive
perspective, the meaning of a work can be portrayed through the perceptual
experience itself, rather than through symbolism. In TV Guides, viewers
actually perceive themselves being controlled by television, rather than
having the concept ‘controlled by television' being presented symbolically
to them. In that work, a television playing live television programs will
turn off in response to a viewer’s movements. In order to watch
the program, viewers must remain perfectly motionless, forcing then to
experience ‘being controlled’ by the television. I call this
technique conceptual interactivity.
JC: Do you think the interactivity could be a suitable tool for the articulation
of plurality of our postmodern situation?
DR: Until recently, it was very difficult to create interactive art, art
which permits participation and transformation by viewers. My interest
in using electronic and computer technology within installations and performances
is that these tools permit the creation of interactive or responsive art.
Unlike art from previous times, interactive art considers the viewer’s
body as an integral component of the experience; the quality of this experience
is measured by the term physical aesthetics, being the pleasantness or
unpleasantness of the physical experience involved with the control of
an interactive experience. The involvement of a viewer in an artwork could
be viewed as being more democratic than the autocratic experiences presented
by older art forms.
JC: Shifting and combining different media is not only exciting but it
seems to be quite natural in the age of fast technological progress and
postmodern aesthetics. You also started to create the sound installations
without any musical background and from video-artist you shifted to sound-artist.
By the way, what do you think about this label that became very fashionable
between visual artists during last decade?
DR: The sound art label could simply be a term to justify artists who
have no background in music, but I think it is also appropriate because
sound art is often not music. Many of my sound works are definitely not
music, such as Intersection which is a room filled with the sounds of
cars. In my recent performances where I compose and play the sounds, such
as Badlands and Digestion, I attempt to create a sound track which is
related to the movement of the visuals, as if the imagery is producing
the sound. Although I do not call this music, I do use music composition
techniques, such as having instruments from different pitch ranges playing
simultaneously. One of the advantages of recent music technologies is
that the complex finger or mouth control that was required for acoustic
instruments – such as for piano, guitar, or trumpet – are
no longer required. As a result, many visual artists and also non-artists
are now making music using these technologies.
JC: Yes, but many times these people are solving the problems, I mean
from aesthetical or poetical point of view, that have been solved by people
like John Cage or Alvin Lucier many years ago. They missed the historical
context. Current state of technological development offers them the accessible
commercial tools thanks to which they are capable to create the audio-visual
works without help from musicians. On the one hand the dreams dreamed
once by John Cage or Allan Kaprow became real, on the other the sound
work created without musical skills and outside of the actual musical
context, just because of technological possibilities, seems to me very
limited, not to speak about the results that are many times not very convincing.
DR: It is true, however, that many of these people have minimal or no
background in composition. Also, the advancement of digital video and
computer graphic technology have also led to the creation of videos and
computer animation by musicians who have little or no background in visual
composition. Many people are labeling this situation as 'convergence'
because different media and types of practioners – musicians, video
artists, and composers – are being merged. I think new terminology
is required, however, it is probably too early as we are still at an early
stage of all electronic media, musical or visual.
JC: How did you start your collaboration with George Lewis?
DR: I met George in 1988 when I was a graduate student at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. George was an invited artist in this class, along
with musicians Gordon Gotleib, Robert Dick and Richard Teitelbaum. The
goal of this class at the MIT Media Lab was to have students create interactive
music systems which were to be used in a live performance by the guest
musicians. Because I am not a musician and have no formal musical training,
I created an interactive video system which presented video sequence in
response to music, or specifically Lewis’s trombone playing. The
performance was well received by the public and George and I then continued
working together for the next 3 years, presenting approximately 40 performances
in Canada, USA and Italy.
JC: George speaks in connection with his ”Voyager” computer
system about ”animism”. He refuses the prosthetic conceptions
of computer music and speaks about ”emotional transduction”.
In case of Voyager the interactivity does not lie in the technology but
in the exchanging and transforming the emotions. The sounds are only medium
and virtuosity is meaningless. Do you think the attitude George uses to
reflect his philosophy of computer music interaction can be apply also
to your media?
DR: If George uses animism to mean the system is alive, I would agree
with him. Interactive art can be more accurately described as responsive
art, art which responds to a viewer in a manner similar to a living human
responding to another living human. Non-interactive art is dead because
it is unable to change its form in response to a viewer. The term dead
is used not as a derogatory term, but as a descriptive one.
JC: How did you work with the text in your video poetry? Who is the author
of the text in Oh toi qui vis la-bas! and how does interactivity function
DR: The poetry was created by Genevieve Letarte who was also the singer
in that performance. Her text was transformed into video sequences which
contained animated sequences of the text, such as vibrating letters or
words sliding on the screen. The tempo used in the presentation of the
text was determined and controlled by Genevieve’s improvised singing.
After every fourth note sung, the next phrase of the poetry was presented
until she eventually went through the entire text in approximately 10
JC: Do you have today some key according which you choose musical collaborators?
DR: My ideal criteria for working with a musician would, firstly, be that
the musician’s music would fit with the aesthetics of my imagery,
and if the musician was able to work within the specific procedures for
creating an interactive video. Because interactive video technology is
relatively new, it is not as fluid as working with a musical instrument.
The process of making an interactive video which is controlled by music
is a start-and-stop process, which can be frustrating for some musicians.
I have found that some musicians can work this way and some cannot. Also,
I prefer collaborating with someone who is enjoyable to work with. My
most successful collaborations were with trombonist George Lewis, percussionist
Trevor Tureski, and trombonist Tom Walsh, although Tom played a sampling
keyboard for our collaboration.
JC: And how did strike you an idea to built the musical instrument for
DR: The idea of creating instruments for elephants was started by David
Soldier. I was invited to participate on the project by him. He was involved
in the design of the acoustic instruments and my contribution was the
design and construction of the only electronic instrument, the elephant
keyboard. The third ”instrument builder” was Ken Butler who
was also involved with the acoustic instrument design.
Don Ritter was interviewed by Jozef Cseres.