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In Writing

Emily Bick visits AlgoMech Festival in Sheffield

December 2017

Algoraves, homemade instruments, mechanical art and horned helmets: AlgoMech celebrates unmaking and experiments with music and technology

Algorave may or may not be the future of dance music, as pondered in The Guardian – at least, this is something the @Algorave twitter account denies – but over its five day run, Sheffield’s second AlgoMech Festival of Algorithmic and Mechanical movement celebrates another, sceptical future that is not just about using new technologies to make music, but to unmake it. It’s all about getting into the guts of how music is made, showing code running in real time, taking machines and systems apart to show their workings, and opening up technologies to alternative uses. In these times of increased automation, domination of musical distribution by a few online platforms, and opacity surrounding data use, it's a worldview that produces some exciting and frankly bonkers sounds in the meantime.

I arrived in Sheffield for the third day of the festival, and the third chaotically loud, floor-shaking concert by 65daysofstatic based around generative compositional elements interspersed with live coded noise. These were illuminated by primary coloured visuals projected on the wall behind, and rotating text statements about decay and replaceability such as “you the negative animal square machine... you demand the future capital... blunt machine decomposes itself...”. These streamed out in an onslaught of brutal, sans-serif text, too fast to make sense of. The performance was unsettling, full of bass pulses that were gut-churningly visceral, but the music’s generated loops and triggered visuals hinted at an automated future, where the physical presence of the performers (and the audience?) is made redundant. Mostly, the question "how does this work” hung in the air. On the way out, I overheard a couple of guys who may have been students having an animated conversation about how the group could have used TidalCycles (the live coding language devised by AlgoMech festival founder Alex McLean, profiled in The Wire 385) to generate the combinations of words that flashed across the screen, what kind of datasets would need to be pulled from, and how these connected to the music. These same guys were bobbing their heads, tranced out to the music, only ten minutes earlier.

65daysofstatic. Photo by James Vanderhoven

The next day’s symposium on the subject of unmaking was more focused on encoding and decoding meaning, in both material and code. Several of the presentations had to do with Penelope, a European research project based at Deutsches Museum, Munich, exploring weaving as part of the history of science and digital technology. Woven textiles contain the instructions for their reproduction in their patterns; they can be unwoven, and their patterns mapped and analysed, like source code. In a way, weaving is the original model for open source technology, and studying how techniques were passed on over time can lead to alternative models of how contemporary technologies can be designed and shared – there’s a lot of overlap with the ideals behind the maker and live coding movements.

If 65daysofstatic’s bombastic performance delivered a feeling of abject powerlessness in the face of the machines, most of the other contributors at AlgoMech Festival were more concerned with revealing their methods and demystifying their work, presenting the machines as tools to be broken down and rebuilt in a conversational framework. Researcher Dave Griffiths explained unmaking as “technology through the lens of collapse” – easily replicable and understandable technologies, made with durable, locally-sourced components that could survive a structural breakdown, as opposed to technology based on an assumption of abundance and unbroken global supply chains, with obsolescence built in, and the workings obscured. He gave the example of Apple’s notorious blacked-out circuit boards that hide the traces of all their connections, so they are impossible to alter or repair. Queues were thick to have a go on Griffiths's Pattern Matrix, a machine that used an interface of rotating wooden disks and magnets to simulate the output from a loom, projecting the patterns onto a wall.

Weaver and musician Amanda Ross, visiting from the US, had taken the metaphor of loom as encoding device literally and built a miked-up loom that worked as a drum machine, each run of the shuttle and shift of the woof and weft triggering rhythmic patterns. A video of her performance recalled Matmos’ compositions for washing machines, though the cloth woven by the loom as musical instrument could, at least in theory, be unwoven and the sounds that its creation generated be forensically reconstructed as a score of sorts.

Sarah Kenchington’s mechanical orchestra (left) and Peter K Rollings's robotic drummer, part of his Experimental Sonic Machines. Photo by James Vanderhoven

One undercurrent of the discussion series was how technology that was obscurantist about its workings was frustrating and possibly authoritarian. Writer and artist Emma Cocker praised unmaking as an aesthetic of resistance to fixed ideas about what technology is for, and how it is to be used. She argued that taking technological artefacts apart to rework them is a celebration of “the not yet complete”, describing unmaking as “the wilful refusal or subversion of what might be regarded as a definite goal” or even a playful, exploratory activity for its own sake. Then later, in a freeform talk with no visual accompaniment, the instrument maker Sarah Kenchington perhaps put it best, explaining why she modifies and mechanises traditional instruments rather than composing on a laptop: “Musicians are doing this twiddly-twiddly thing and they look like they’re doing their emails. Everything’s going on inside a box and you can’t see what’s happened.” Claiming she’s less interested in practicing an instrument than exploring its possibilities, she adapts them so that they can be mechanically manipulated to maximise their potential for making sound, cutting out the hours of practice needed to cultivate a skilled player's muscle memory, and opening them up to everyone.

Ralf Schreiber with his spring-loaded percussion. Photo by James Vanderhoven

Saturday's evening concert was a marathon algorave, with sets from some of the scene's most active practitioners. Live coded electronic music, like anything else, isn’t all great – there were moments where some of the performers clearly really liked a particular loop or passage, and were geeking out on the repetition – but that’s no different from watching improvisors playing guitar against themselves and a loop pedal for endless cycles of a phrase. In this showcase of nearly a dozen performers, if one act was a bit dull, there was always something else on the horizon. At least everyone showed their work, projecting their code onto their backdrop; during the slower bits it was possible to pick out what sections led to which sounds – even without fluency, the odd jolt of pattern recognition was gratifying, like recognising one of the few words you know in a foreign language in an advert. Learning the rules seemed possible. And some of the performances could have gone on all night: the chiptune musician goto80 and a robot programmed by Jacob Remin wreaking havoc on two Commodore 64 screens, or on a more analogue tip, Ralf Schreiber and Christian Faubel with their clockwork motor and spring-triggered sounds, all arranged on an old school overhead projector like microscopic organisms, so everyone could see every flagellar twang. Watching the Pattern Matrix machine in action, here rechristened the Acid Loom and creating sonic patterns based on the movements of yarn shuttling back and forth, was quite something, as a video display augmented with animated arrows showed how each shift of the loom's patterning knobs changed the sonic output. It was too quick to process entirely, but the animations clarified the mechanism and its workflows. A high point was Tich Offmenut and hellocatfood's gleeful, hyperactive arpeggiation with its rushing, rainbow geometric visuals and streams of bright code that broke through any audience reserve like the Kool-Aid man storming walls in old US TV adverts. Far from stuck in solipsistic loops, this set was all mania and bounce. When the set started, the glow sticks came out, and that was that.

On the Sunday, there were afternoon workshops on live coding, making electronic textiles with sensor inputs to create music, and one led by Schreiber and Faubel where the curious could build their own robotic percussion kits for about the price of a Sheffield cinema ticket or a London pint. A few streets away at Access Space, a community maker lab, Ryoko Akama and Anne-F Jacques had cleared the front room for their installation Failed Experiments, a menagerie of homely robots from stuff you’d find in a garden shed – old cutlery, dangling lightbulbs, a paint stirrer/doorstop hanging from a motorised piece of twine to clap against a circus-coloured plastic laundry tub – all of which were taped and clamped together like an electrified Blue Peter special. For their performance, the two artists walked through the area, turning their creations on and off – it was oddly soothing, like watching gardeners gently tend to plants, or feed small, awkward animals (a fan with wings of craft paper taped to it flapped around like a weedy dinosaur, or an umbrella scuttling around in a gutter after losing a battle with a storm). The chaotic gear scritchings and clanks and paper scrunchings rumbled on with a pleasing independence, and it was hard to not anthropomorphise and feel affection for the little bots, even when it was clear how they worked.

Anne-F Jacques performing in the Failed Experiments installation. Photo by James Vanderhoven

The festival’s final concert was a collaboration of makers and their instruments. Some had a coding element, others were purely mechanical, but everyone was keen to not just perform, but show how they built whatever they were playing. Sarah Kenchington's one-woman orchestra, powered by foot treadles and hydraulic pumps, was a masterpiece of engineering. Watching her play was like watching a Victorian eccentric inventor in action: just before the end of her set, she poured water from a watering can into her tuba. Leafcutter John opened with a set of tracks triggered from the movements of an optical scanner over discs that were 3D printed with elevation maps of North York Moors and Kabul, and a Yorkshire groundstone. These items were passed around the audience for everyone to feel, and afterwards, people clustered around his light table and work surface – an optical synth tablet that he shone light cubes and disco balls on – prodding and poking at things, before Kenchington returned to her post for a duet with him.

Camilla Barratt-Due (left) and Alexandra Cardenas live coding with accordions. Photo by James Vanderhoven

Alexandra Cardenas, from Mexico, live coded a script to control the mechanics of a system of fans and eight accordions (all given name labels – one appeared to be a tribute to Pauline Oliveros), while the Danish accordionist Camilla Barratt-Due crawled around on the floor manipulating airflows with bits of cardboard. The room smelled of dust and motors warming up, full of gentle mechanical hums and drones that layered and beat with each other. This was followed by turntablist Naomi Kashiwagi riffing on Peggy Lee’s “Fever” with disintegrating shellac recordings and acetate slices placed over the 78s to deform sound, and the wonderful Peter K Rollings and his Experimental Sonic Machines – including his drumming anthropoid robot friend, synths controlled by light sensors and discs marked with graphite to control resistance (I am still not entirely sure how all this worked, but it sounded great in an early 80s, Mute Records minimal way). Dressed in a series of capes and mystical horned helmets recalling Moondog and The Space Lady, his set of simple songs about dream worlds and other futures, in this context, were full of hope and possibility, built out of imagination and whatever scraps are lying around, ready to be unmade and rebuilt again.

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