Don Ritter: Sound-art and Interactivity

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.

Reactions to 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 my installations.

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 in it?

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 minutes.

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 elephants?

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.