Broken Tools

Re:port on Small Black Box #25


Small Black Box #25 Sunday 29 June 2003, 7-10PM 
Institute of Modern Art, Screening Room 
Brisbane Australia 

Donna Hewitt - Sydney (eMIC, laptop and video projection) 
Will Guthrie - Melbourne (junk percussion) 
Julian Knowles - Sydney (laptop) 


Donna Hewitt -- firstly, a live eMIC performance linked to laptop with PD software - for more info visit www.users.bigpond.net.au/donnahewitt/current.htm; secondly, a video work of sampled female speeches about pub abuse. 

…her delicious voice transformed before us into shimmering electronica… 
…the best sounding sounds to come out of the speakers at Small Black Box that I’ve heard in a long time; experimental music without experimental production… 
…the feminine acoustic voice ported through the electronic phallic microphone into a rich ambient stratosphere… 

Will Guthrie -- junk percussion with bought and home-made percussion, sticks, and vibrators acting as drone-agents. 

…tinkering around on a few lose ends of industrial detritus like an audio prospector, searching out new and nuanced musics…
...Guthrie is a strong member of the junk improvising percussion club that is scattered across Australia…
…an intimate expose of percussive attacks and vibrator drones…

Julian Knowles -- laptop with various applications running simultaneously. 

…rich sweeps and arcs of sound…
…Knowles induced a tantric audio experience, the walls vibrating behind us…
…the blue screen of death met head on with Knowles and I’m not sure who ended up the winner…


I was part of several conversations before, during and after this Small Black Box concerning the relationship between instrument-as-framework and sounds-as-content, and especially the relationship between who is the designer/author of the instrument and of the sounds. 

Donna Hewitt’s eMIC project shows off a current strength and weakness in current sound/digital/new media practice. Like other artists interested in designing her own interfaces (rather than using generic mass-produced tools such as a standard mic and effects unit) Hewitt has invested much time, money and emotional effort into creating a machine designed by and for her. New media and other arts funding find this a sexy proposition to support - which is good thing, as artists working in this way add a lot to our culture and to the tools we use to create culture. 

But… there is often so much time spend developing the new tool that often the content (in this case live electro-acoustic sound) has far less time, attention and energy put into it. And this often means an under-utilisation of the tool the artist designed to greater utilise their own ideas/skills. (Like the story of a Brisbane artist who spent 10mins recording something for a $10,000 and ten-month-in-the-making artist-designed speaker system…) 

In Hewitt’s case, this is was only the third time she performed with the eMIC, which is still in its prototype phase, so it will be interesting to see how far she takes it once her energy goes into performing and improvising with it (exploring its aesthetic capacities) rather than designing and building it (exploring its technical capabilities). And hopefully new media and other funding bodies realise this is just as important a step to fund. Though stuffing around with your instrument for 6 months seems at first less sexy and tangible than building the thing. Though it will more often than not produce a much better musical result in performance - that’s the tangible result. 

Will Guthrie is an example of a clear division between instrument designer and sound content maker. He either buys his percussion instruments (factory made) or gets a colleague to built items for him. In this way he is free to push the instrument into areas which even the instrument designer could not imagine it going. 

Artists who design their own instruments may not themselves be able to realise its full sonic/performance potential, because they may well be too close emotionally and cognitively to the object (of their desire!). I wonder what would happen if Hewitt let another experimental vocalist loose her eMIC? How much more would they be able to extract from the instrument since they aren’t emotionally attached to what it ‘should’ do? In any case, what is clear is that the mind-set of designing a tool is often very different from the mind-set of playing with the tool. 

Julian Knowles, like Guthrie, uses pre-made bought tools (in this case software applications). It becomes a bit blurred, however, it determining what is tool/software design and what is sound design in the digital world, as they can merge into the same moment within the creative process. But in general, we could say that the noise/digital sound practice of the last 10 years (at least!) has ridden on the back of trying to break, abuse or general misuse software and electronics, taking standard musical tools into areas its was never intended to go by the market-driven manufacturers. (Lots of drum machines and beat-based application soften get used by drone/ambient noise artists, even though they weren’t intentional designed to do that.) 

So perhaps tool design is about MAKING, and sound design (of a noise-based artist) is about BREAKING. 

And we can’t break something before we make something. So the relationship between tool and sound designers will always exist and evolve. There just might be richer and more rewarding ways of structuring these relationships, if we think about it long enough… and try and fail and try and fail… and make and break and make and break…… 

REP (archetypal performance indicators): 

Three archetypal modes of sound generation… 

a. acoustic (Guthrie) 
b. electro-acoustic (Hewitt) 
c. digital (Knowles) 

Three archetypal modes of instrument designer… 

a. custom-made instrument by artist (Hewitt’s eMIC) 
b. custom-made instrument by someone else (Guthrie’s metal collage drum) 
c. mass-made instrument which can be customised (Knowles’ laptop applications) 

Three archetypal modes of video content… 

a. video of compositional mechanics/score (Hewitt - she projected the PD program used in her laptop) 
b. arbitrary video (Guthrie - he said he didn’t know what video was playing behind him or who made it or chose it) 
c. found video (Knowles -he just had the default blue screen of the video on)