On November 8, within the Pandemic Media Space project, media artist and musician Georgiy Potopalskiy (alias Ujif_notfound) will hold a master class “Application of algorithms in media art”. In this conversation, the co-founder of “Phonius Studio” and the first school of new media art “Black box” shares his view on media art and the connection between artistic and technical in it, experience with Nova Opera participants, talks about chaotic “fogs” of images and roller-coasters, tells “several abstract pseudo-philosophical thoughts” as the self-mocking artist said.
We are talking the day after the third day of the premiere of “Chornobyldorf”, so it is interesting to firstly ask about the opera, how did it go?
This is my sixth project with the participants of “Nova Opera” and, in principle, I’m used to the “mayhem” that happens, they are all creative. It is necessary to understand that this opera is a living organism, emotions run high, everything is always from plus to minus, but it gives an interesting result. The last opera “Chornobyldorf” is the first project in which composers Roma and Ilya acted as directors, screenwriters, and set designers. It freed them up so much, they stopped listening to someone and started doing 100% the way they feel.
In this opera, you performed as a media artist or musician?
Both. In principle, a media artist includes a musician. The guys trust me with the electronic part of the opera, but there’s no such thing as them telling me, “Here’s your score, here you do this, that and that”. Some images are born sometimes in the last days before the premieres. This is the constant creation of something up to a second before the start of the performance. I always take the role of processing instruments, vocals to create a more emotional atmosphere of the opera. This is one of my parts. And the second part is to write something like techno (in “Wozzeck” I wrote a jungle). Roma likes to insert some such style at the end of an opera — it is their thing already. And my third part of this opera was a media work. I included there my piece of 2011 which is called “Practice of strings”.
Then I developed a patch in Max/MSP that uses a regular webcam to turn an image into a musical instrument. When I came to them for the opera, they showed me a “Rhea-player” (Winfried Ritch’s mechanism that presses the piano keys — L. S.), and I connected to it. “Rhea-player” can’t do anything by itself, it needs a program that will send commands. I started trying different things and remembered that I had this work with the camera. Then I decided that it would be interesting if we sort the entire range of the camera horizontally on the entire keyboard, you can play by movements. I was sitting, having fun, Roma and Ilya came and said: “Oh, it’s interesting. Let’s do a performance”.
Is this where the ballerina was?
Yep. We thought about how to do it because it didn’t work out. It was not very clear how to interact so that it was not a stupid show where the girl moves and the piano plays. It was necessary to find some artistic solution, how to turn technology into a logical work.
What was the solution?
Roma said: “If there is a pulse imposed on her connection of movements with the chaotic piano playing, there will already be some structure”. We came up with the idea that firstly one sound would play a pulse, then would be a second, a third. After that, we made a small move between them to give integrity. Then there was a growth, everything turned into a smooth electronic pulse, under which she climbed up, and the guys said: “And in the end, we will put on Bach”. I didn’t quite understand why, but they are directors, OK (smiling).
In one of your interviews, you avoided the question of what is an art and what is not. Now you said that there is a technology, but you also need an “artistic solution”. So the question about art also becomes for those composers who write music in algorithmic ways?
Well, of course. I don’t even know which of them is more important. I would always want (this is probably my complex) technology to be a tool. And no matter how incredible it is or knocking your socks off, I don’t like when people see technology, and the meaning of work is secondary, when the main thing is the “wow effect”. Since the work in media art is about continuous learning, the first pieces are nothing more than a passing stage, a by-product of the learning process (works are more revolve around the technology). When I did “Practice of Strings” in 2011, I didn’t come up with an idea and then look for technology to embody it. I just studied the program, its abilities, went through some stages of training, and came to some in-depth method. By the way, I will talk about it in the lecture. It will be even more like a master class: I will share the technology I have been using for a long time and show how you can easily build it yourself. And this work is a product of learning.
But you say that there must be meaning first.
I would like that to be. In my practice.
In your personal practice, what meanings have already been technically embodied?
Recent work, for example. Last year I did a “Car-beat”, there was an idea, although the technology was used the same. This work is a déjà vu in the past. At the time when I was working on “Practice of Strings”, I looked at the city and saw in it analogies with the methods of creating algorithmic music (with such a concept as a sequencer). Watching the road, I divided it into lanes and imagined that it was a music sequencer, and the cars that were driving were events. I thought it would be logical to apply the technology of detecting the speed of machines, colour, volume, and “tie”, to interpret this data by music. So I did the “Car-beat” on the Pedestrian Bridge. I have already noticed that all my works are a constant game of interpretation, a bit ironic.
Does the interpretation have a specific technical meaning or a general humanitarian one?
Both, but rather humanitarian. Interpretation is the finding of common features in seemingly unrelated objects. In general, we all interpret something all day long, the whole world around us, literally everything. We watch the news feed — we interpret it, we communicate with people — we interpret people. We are an infinite chain of interpretations. And human from the beginning is an interpretation.
Interpretation of what?
Interpretation of the previous person.
Who then is the first person that became an object for interpretation?
I don’t know. I can say… let it be a squirrel. A squirrel was the first.
Perfect, that’s fine. What is interesting. There is a system in everything: in all movements, visual series. How often do you notice this in the world around you?
I don’t just notice it, I’m constantly in this field — it’s brain pumping. You need to learn how to notice it if it’s interesting to you. This is what Hesse wrote about in “The Glass Bead Game”. When I read this book, I understood it very well, because at that time I was just starting doing algorithmic composition and analyse the world in terms of algorithms. When you go deeper into technology, it’s like you’re reflashing your brain. I understand why programmers are sometimes such strange people. You communicate with them, and they have cycles, backward linkages in the conversation. Programming is the reflashing of the brain and, consequently, thinking. I reflashed myself for a long time when it became difficult to even communicate, formulate phrases, speak.
I’m not a 100% tech guy, I relate myself more to creativity and therefore I am constantly in a balance between imaginative thinking and technical definition of images as if you float in a chaotic field of images. Some artists have absolutely no technical staff, think very figuratively. They simply snatch objects in this fog and place them in terms of inner feeling. I snatch objects that are interesting to me in the logic of technology that I have outlined. That is, I have some kind of technological structure, so I grab objects from this fog if they fit into this structure, and connections appear between them. That’s the game.
You foresaw one of my questions. The algorithmic method of creating a composition is more rational than irrational, in contrast to the compositional, where it is more intuitive. What is the advantage of the algorithmic method?
I will not say at all that there is any advantage over one another. This is the author’s desire, his game, the satisfaction of his inner ambitions. If we talk about the options for commercial purposes, we can deal with the algorithmic composition for some mercantile interests.
Why? How algorithms can enrich you?
It’s elementary. Now we are moving towards the technologies of corporations that create the tools and, in fact, most of the software products on the market. They are anyway made by the method of algorithmic analysis. If you do this, you will be able to dig up a bunch of firmware that already calculates something for you. You can sell it and make money. At some point in the development of media art, there were “standard” moves, such as the principle of using cameras as a trigger for something. But to delve into it, you need to know this technology. People who have learned it can release an application very quickly, and you no longer need to understand how it works. Most enjoy it.
But you are not?
I am not, for two reasons. The first is because I started doing it a long time ago, and then there were no such decisions yet. I had to invent them myself. My pool of communication was the software developer forum. There were people who write code and create the Max/MSP program, they were communicating, giving tips. It’s been almost 15 years since I started doing this, and now there are just a huge number of people, a lot of things have already been done. And I fell out of that field, so to speak.
And the second reason? Logically, it should be associated with creativity…
But I’m illogical (smiling).
How then do you work with algorithms?
You see, algorithms are logical, but my figurative, imaginative thinking is absolutely chaotic. That’s why I can’t, by the way, become an executor programmer. I feel like I’m getting lost now. If before I tried to learn the technology, to comprehend it completely, to further put myself in the tools, now I come up and think “oh, no”. Probably, I will be able to understand it, but it will take a lot of time today, so I give up and prefer ready-made solutions. But only if I understand… It’s such a purely personal thing. I see some technology that makes an interpretation, and say “wow”. Come up with anything: you are moving your eyes, and the object appears in the air.
I think, “Wow, the technology is cool, I can use it for my purposes”. But if I don’t understand how it is built, for some reason I have a block, I won’t take it. If I understand that there is a detector, a chip, there is a written program, it works with such libraries — theoretically, I could make such a thing myself. Cool, then I’ll allow myself to use it. Only, of course, in such work, where the sense of the work will not be the “wow effect” of technology. I see a lot of pieces all over the world when some people make technology, show it, and other people take it and stupidly put it as it is, with a primitive connection. If this is, again, a technology where you are moving your eyes and an object appears, then, for example, a child and a gun — just a child “conjures” a gun.
It is important for you to create technology by yourself and this is probably also an art?
As far as I know, the “old masters” made their tools.
And if you do not understand how it works, you feel like you are not worthy of it?..
Yes, something like that. I’m just uncomfortable, I feel ashamed inside.
So, you will talk about your author’s technology at the lecture. What can this master class give composers, will they be able to do it on their own?
The technology is quite common, I did not invent anything in it. All the technology is assembled from small solutions, which already exists like the alphabet, and I put them into a general structure. This tool is also used in commercial solutions, Microsoft in particular. When I created it, there was no money to buy programs. From poverty, you start making your constructions.
I was in 2010 at a residence in the Dnipro. There came guys from Germany and brought their technology. There were an infrared camera and a software product, this thing worked with the dancer movements. The residence essence for Ukrainian media artists was to create music by using this program. It was very banal and simple, I was then… bored, to be honest. We all would do the same thing: a person waved his hands, and this thing made sounds.
So I wrote my firmware. Zhenya Vashchenko and I worked together: he made the sound, and I made the visual technology. But in those days I did it quite playfully, I didn’t take these things seriously at all. For me, it was a DIY–way for artists from poor Ukraine to make something, and that’s cool. I was very pleased that the Germans were surprised, they could not understand how this was even possible. In their understanding, it should be a serious institutional process: to take money, to hire programmers, and they are just artists. And it so happens that some strange dudes come: “Take away your technology, we will make ours”. It seems to me that for them we looked like Soviet a bit messed-up geeks who could assemble a tank from stool and iron. At this master class, I want to tell you how to create such a thing. I will tell about the image of the Max/MSP program, how to work with it.
There is a myth that a composer can’t be engaged in complex technologies because of a very high barrier to entry. I would like to dispel it. I take courses at KAMA (Kyiv Academy of Media Arts — L. S.) and fight with myself and everyone to show that it’s really easy. You need to be a bit disciplined and want a little. The main thing is to want, it is 90% of success.
If the lecture will be listened to by non-musicians, will you explain how to work with Max/MSP?
I’m sure so. There is one very important point. There should be a personal “pusher” inside you. I can’t be a pusher, I can’t force you. A person has to want it. Time is very limited, I can’t read, tell, teach, like in school, for 10 years. But I can basically show the image of this world, inside which there are different materials, such as bricks, concrete blocks, double-glazed windows. And I have to tell the main thing that it is impossible to install a concrete block on a double-glazed window — it will burst. Then a person will need to build his own house. There are visual languages, they are colossal: how graphics are formed inside a computer, how sound physics, sound synthesis work… I won’t be able to spend time explaining this. If a person wants to do this, he will need to get into it on his own. So you have to want.
And the musical material for the work must be recorded or you can use generative sound?
I work with generative, but only because I’m not a composer. I envy composers, their training in musical literacy. They can take technology and apply their knowledge.
When you listen to algorithmic music, what is more important: the sound or understanding the algorithm, how music unfolds?
Sum. First I listen to the algorithm, the structure, the system, and a little less, in the background — the character, the sound.
That is, the main task of this music is to create a more sophisticated algorithm? And this is the highest skill in algorithmic music?
This is a difficult concept for me, the concept of algorithmic music. I talked about this at the lecture with Hrabovskyi. The technology was evolving, and at first, a composer had to come to an engineer and say to him: “I want to make a work in which there will be this and that, — some crazy things, — can you do this?”. The engineer replied, “Yes, let’s try” and made him this instrument using the composer’s idea. When technology evolved into our realities, since the 2000s, there was a shift. Technology had become so advanced that new musicians had unwittingly become slaves to the products of these technologies. They needed to take the time to understand how the system works. And this generation began to use ready-made solutions to algorithmic products. If we now go to the Ableton Live program and look at the set of tools — there is already ready and even configured so that you can just click on one button to make beauty. And in this, I think, lies the hyper-danger because it is difficult to invent something on your own when you have everything ready and beckoning to make new music. In my opinion, this is associated with the departure from computers. Many composers reject, stop working with computers, want to go to “alive” because you feel like a tool to ready-made solutions.
But making algorithms is also a kind of creative work. The more interesting you can make them, the cooler your work. Am I right?
Not really. I am not leaning towards the dry curiosity of the algorithm, but rather the artistic image, the use of the algorithm as an artistic solution. This is a glass beads game. To mix the social relationships of people with vegetables in the garden and the algorithm, the generation of some numbers — for me this is the interest of work, interpretation.
Can you describe what “art” is here?
There is a game that I play all my life. It is the endless interpretation of triggers that were formed during my life. These are pretty ironic triggers. Therefore, for me, the beauty of the artwork is the ease of finding the associative series. The work has to give the experience like you are riding a roller coaster, fall into a hole and feel “wow!”. Do you know?
You look at work and… “wow”. If it impresses me as if I get on the roller-coaster, I am ironically funny, but at the same time they have sophisticated technical, visual solutions, an interesting sound solution, I will like this work.
What new associative series, meanings will the Pandemic Media Space project give? For composers, will this be a way out into something new?
I don’t think it’s something new. This is a logical and understandable move, a curtsey to the present. This is just another interpretation from many different ones. Being in this pandemic, I feel like in a theater of the absurd.
Because of such an image. Because when I go to the subway and see how everyone sits in masks, also buried in the phones, in absolute distance from each other… It was always, and now just the same, but in masks. When I see in the subway, all the same women with huge dirty mops clean the platform, and people jump away, but then continue looking at the phones, looking nowhere… For me, this is a play of absurdity, which does not end. And it is given new paints in the form of these masks and endless liquids, which supposedly destroy viruses. Since we work with data, I thought it would be ironic to put it together, let the musicians have fun, let them write the music.
Did you create a new tool to do it?
In the information field, I have not met such interpreters who create music from data on mortality, morbidity, tests of patients, and those who have recovered.
Is there any cynicism?
No. For the religious world — maybe so. But if my parents died of Covid-19, and I would write a work where they would be part of the statistics of the dead, it would be normal for me personally. I would use this data knowing that the two notes in the work are my parents. It would affect me emotionally, yes, but I do not find it cynical at all. This is the same part of life. I am further and further getting used to the equality of birth and death. Because we always have this: birth=happiness, death=sadness. We seem to go from joy to sorrow constantly.
Yes, and it seems strange to me. We condemn ourselves to joy and condemn ourselves to sorrow. I would equal it a bit.
Yuval Noah Harari, the historical, writes that meaningful art can be created by a computer. It analyzed Bach’s thinking algorithm, for example, and could write music in the same way. If so, why artists are needed, why you are needed?
Why am I needed? We are mediators. Of course, artificial intelligence and machine learning kill composers, on the one hand. On the other hand, this is not the case, because the criteria for judging an art work depends on a human factor. It is not the machine that decides what a person is interested in, but the person. And there goes my remark that many people moving away from computers come to completely different areas. For example, Japanese noise music. It is more about art than music. It is connected with political, social aspects first, with performance. Roughly speaking, Japanese noisers do not care how advanced technology is in Japan. A 5-year-old child there can create very high-quality music. This is completely different. It exists and does not lose over the years, maybe now rather gains. Anyway, the image prevails.
Everything is changing fast, a new generation of young people rapidly move away from technological traps. I constantly observe, watch, listen to what is now “in trend”, and judge it from where I am standing. I am not a skeptic, but for the most part, I understand why it hooks the young generation (primitive things that at first glance seem outright stupid). Even this whole new American wave of rappers (Lil Pip and the company)… I understand very well why it triggers in young people, how it is made. And technology… they donʼt care that a computer can write music.
It seems to me that we are experiencing cycling denial waves of structuring the world. In America, hippies appeared in the 1960s when the system of government began to dictate, narrow the road, the ways. With the chaotic movement of humanity, we are being pushed more and more on the path giving a mythical goal that we are supposed to want and strive for it ourselves. But a young generation that is always born immediately wipes this story up. They will not care about all these technologies, they will trample them instantly with their interest in completely different things.
Do you manage to keep technical and anti-technical in balance?
I have a whole other story. It doesn’t matter. I try not to think about it, move more intuitively giving my skills and technical development to the sub-level of the unconscious. This thought has been in my head for several years, but I can’t make it clear…
There is a famous Schnittke’s saying: “a scale that went into the subconscious”.
Yeah, exactly. You stop concentrating on the technical side, seeing it. It must become an ephemeral subconscious inside you. As soon as you turn around and start looking — the magic disappears immediately. It should be like an invisible foundation that pushes you, to which you go constantly. You throw your skills into it, you endlessly enhance it.