Some musical inspiration 19/07/18

Iván Paz
Visions of Space

Iván Paz is another artist who makes extensive use of live coding, yet the Mexican composer’s unsettling Visions of Space from May is also inspired by techniques employed in AI research. The album’s droning yet often harsh electronic soundscapes were put together using musical algorithms whose parameters Paz varies sequentially through time, in much the same way that the parameters controlling an artificial intelligence are altered by the process of learning. Yes, this is all too abstract to express sufficiently in a single paragraph, but the unnerving, sinister power of the dystopian title track alone is enough to prove it’s an effective method.

From this Bandcamp article – Meet the Artists Using Coding, AI, and Machine Language to Make Music


Research development workshop 18/07/18 – notes

Sun Ra - Space Is The Place record sleeve artwork
Sun Ra – Space Is The Place record sleeve artwork

Some notes from today’s research development workshop, helping to define and refine the research question for my final dissertation:

Abstract (describing my practice):
My practice explores the archeology of non-existent or imaginary worlds through interaction, immersion and communication using the universal languages of sound and light. The context to this work is to explore current human society and how we view our future through the imaginary worlds and narratives we create as projection or escape.

The research will focus on the science fiction genre, but also look the work of practitioners such as Forensic Architecture, who present immersive visual work in political and legal forums, truth commissions, courts, and human rights reports to give a real-world context.

What is the aim of the practice?

Explore current human society, and how we view our future, through imaginary worlds and narratives, using immersion and alternative ‘reality’. This will be achieved through a collection of hand-held interactive objects that generate sound and light signals and are networked to communicate both with each other, and with the viewer when handled or played with.

Key terms and definitions:
  • archeology
    the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.
  • immersive
    providing, involving, or characterized by deep absorption or immersion in something (such as an activity or a real or artificial environment)
  • communication
    the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.
  • narrative
    a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.
  • imaginary
    the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.
  • interaction (design)
    reciprocal action or influence.
    (Physics) a particular way in which matter, fields, and atomic and subatomic particles affect one another
  • science fiction
    fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.
  • Alien:
    a person who has been estranged or excluded.
    a creature from outer space.
  • Extraterrestrial
    of or from outside the earth or its atmosphere
    a hypothetical or fictional being from outer space.
  • Human
    of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or having the nature of people
    of or relating to the social aspect of people

This week’s (or month’s) research – 11/07/18

Not done one of these for a while, but thought it would be useful to round-up some of the research I have been carrying out over the past few weeks.

Firstly, am looking at the work of Forensic Architecture, exploring their use of design as a process of archeology.

Exploring the language of objects and existing archetypes, reading Don Norman’s Emotional Design. I am investigating techniques to undermine or subvert the communication of messages by objects.

On the tech front, I am now looking into using the XBee RSSI (Received signal strength indicator) to produce the interactions between the four Space Rocks, using the distance and relative strength of the signal to change the light (colour / intensity) and sound parameters as the objects’ proximity to each other changes. See also Reading XBee RSSI with Arduino. I also need to dig out my copy of Making Things Talk.

Also looking into the concepts of:

  • Pattern recognitionHumans Are the World’s Best Pattern-Recognition Machines, But for How Long?
  • The overview effect –  refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.
  • Bicameralism – the condition of being divided into “two-chambers” is a hypothesis in psychology that argues that the human mind once operated in a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be “speaking”, and a second part which listens and obeys — a bicameral mind.

Attended an interesting talk at Futurefest, Speaking with Aliens. Triggered some very interesting ideas around communicating with extra-terrestrial life away from Earth with Clara Sousa-Silva (a Quantum Astrochemist at MIT tasked with finding alien life on a molecular level) and Jill A. Stuart (Space Law expert and director at METI international, working on different scenarios for encounters with intelligent life). I was most interested in Clara Sousa-Silva’s mentions of trying to communicate with light, as this can be seen everywhere, and white light can be split into infinite colours via a prism (for example). She also mentioned maths as a communication tool, but this seems too tied to human communication to fit the concept of a universal language. She also mentioned studying inter-species communication on Earth to inform communications with aliens.  The panel also discussed the idea of the Dark Forest, suggesting that perhaps we should not try to communicate with aliens at all.

This has also led me to researching Danielle Wood, Director of Space Enabled and the idea of space that has not been colonised by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and business interests. This also reminded me of this article in the Guardian discussing attempts to map underground spaces,  which are generally less regulated than the space above ground.

Audio research

I am currently conducting  research into the audio content for my final project. If you wish to participate, listen to 10 different audio tracks on this Soundcloud playlist – and note your thoughts on each track on this Google form –

First attempt at mould-making with silicone and casting in Jesmonite

A small test, mould-making from the lumpy Space Rocks created using Meshmixer, plus the resulting Jesmonite cast.

Restricted vision goggles

Following on from discussion of presenting the objects in an environment that emphasises the sound over the visual, I revisited the snow goggles I had seen on one of my visits to the British Museum.

The Menil exhibit in Houston tries to re-create the limitless feeling of the Arctic where the horizon is hard to determine and it’s easy to get disoriented by the blinding snow. For centuries, different Inuit cultures have used “snow goggles” to help them see in such a bright white environment. The narrow slits constrict the wearer’s field of vision and reduce light to the optic nerve. Similar goggles are still used today.

Decoding the project – languages, code and ciphers

Below is a gallery of images collected during research into ideas around a ‘universal’ language and codes, partly inspired by my exposure to cuneiform at the British Museum, and research into the Aricebo Message.

Firstly, hobo signs, or the ‘hobo code’.

“Sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, poor men, typically those finding difficulty finding jobs, took to the rails. These migratory workers hopped onto trains, riding illegally (but for free) in freight cars, bouncing around the country looking for work. For reasons lost to history, these people became known as “hobos.” They developed a less than sterling reputation, disregarding the law and often running afoul of those who nonetheless offered them accommodation. Further, they often lived the life of loners — you stayed where you were until the work dried up, moving on and leaving any friends or fellow vagabonds behind.

But this life of solitude didn’t mean that you didn’t look out for your fellow hobo. In fact, these transient workers found a way to help each other out — a series of glyphs known as the “hobo code.

Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in “the brotherhood”. A symbol would indicate “turn right here”, “beware of hostile railroad police”, “dangerous dog”, “food available here”.”

The first image shows some common hobo signs.

Next I also looked again at cuneiform, and how it evolved from pictographs to more abstract representation of characters. This also made me think about how language is evolving again to a more visual, and therefore universal, way of communicating (via memes, emojis and video-based storytelling). Particularly interesting was this article – Emojis Are Just the Next Stage of Language Evolution – which among other things discusses the concept that emojis are ideograms, representing ideas or concepts that are independent of a specific human language. An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idéa “idea” and γράφω gráphō “to write”) is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language, and specific words or phrases. Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms. Although the article does also make the point that emojis aren’t completely universal, as different cultures interpret the same symbol differently. For example, “there’s also plenty of room for cultural interpretation, even in these little icons. Japanese emoji users have a preference for those that convey feelings with eyes, whilst Western cultures favour those expressing emotions with the mouth. So although the language-neutral emoji may seem to be an international cipher, there’s room for cultural nuances.”

Cuneiform script  is one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means “wedge shaped”.

During the  critical thinking group workshop, we discussed braille as a form of non-visual, tactile communication. This started me thinking about the surface of the Space Rock objects being created, and whether messages could be coded into them using this form of language.

[Braille] characters have rectangular blocks called cells that have tiny bumps called raised dots. The number and arrangement of these dots distinguish one character from another. Since the various braille alphabets originated as transcription codes for printed writing, the mappings (sets of character designations) vary from language to language, and even within one; in English Braille there are three levels of encoding: Grade 1 – a letter-by-letter transcription used for basic literacy; Grade 2 – an addition of abbreviations and contractions; and Grade 3 – various non-standardised personal stenography.

Braille cells are not the only thing to appear in braille text. There may be embossed illustrations and graphs, with the lines either solid or made of series of dots, arrows, bullets that are larger than braille dots, etc. A full Braille cell includes six raised dots arranged in two columns, each having three dots. The dot positions are identified by numbers from one to six. 64 solutions are possible using one or more dots. A cell can be used to represent a letter, number, punctuation mark, or even a word.

In the face of screen reader software, braille usage has declined. However, because it teaches spelling and punctuation, braille education remains important for developing reading skills among blind and visually impaired children, and braille literacy correlates with higher employment rates.

This also made me think about morse code, a form of communication simple to create, being a series of repetitive tones with different spacing (silences) between.

Morse code is a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be directly understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment.

And here’s the morse code sent into space with the Voyager Golden Record. For some reason combined with the sound of ship horns. The morse code message spells out Per aspera ad astra, a popular Latin phrase meaning “through hardship to the stars”.

I also looked at the Enigma machine, used by the German army for coded communications during the Second World War. During my research, I found a way to make my own paper model to crack Enigma codes. Visually, the Zygalski sheets used in initial Enigma code-breaking are intriguing.

The method of Zygalski sheets was a cryptologic technique used by the Polish Cipher Bureau before and during World War II, and during the war also by British cryptologists at Bletchley Park, to decrypt messages enciphered on German Enigma machines.

The Zygalski-sheet apparatus takes its name from Polish Cipher Bureau mathematician–cryptologist Henryk Zygalski, who invented it about October 1938. Zygalski’s device comprised a set of 26 perforated sheets for each of the, initially, six possible sequences for inserting the three rotors into the Enigma machine’s scrambler.[1] Each sheet related to the starting position of the left (slowest-moving) rotor.

The 26 × 26 matrix represented the 676 possible starting positions of the middle and right rotors and was duplicated horizontally and vertically: a–z, a–y. The sheets were punched with holes in the positions that would allow a “female” to occur.

The first set was completed in late December 1939. On 28 December part of the second set was delivered to the Polish cryptologists,[7] who had by then escaped from German-overrun Poland to PC Bruno outside Paris, France. The remaining sheets were completed on 7 January 1940,[8] and were couriered by Alan Turing to France shortly thereafter.[7] “With their help,” writes Rejewski, “we continued solving Enigma daily keys.”[3] The sheets were used by the Poles to make the first wartime decryption of an Enigma message, on 17 January 1940.

In May 1940, the Germans once again completely changed the procedure for enciphering message keys (with the exception of a Norwegian network). As a result, Zygalski’s sheets were of no use…

Research Workshop – Critical Thinking

A couple of sketches for the final ‘We Are Here’ presentation, with contributions from the Critical Thinking workshop group. The concept of presenting the objects in a dark space would help enhance the audio content.

Also useful for the final show piece is this Scientific American article about the brain compensating for the loss of one sense by enhancing others.

Super Powers for the Blind and Deaf.
The brain rewires itself to boost the remaining senses. If one sense is lost, the areas of the brain normally devoted to handling that sensory information do not go unused — they get rewired and put to work processing other senses. Brain imaging studies show the visual cortex in the blind is taken over by other senses, such as hearing or touch