Bit-makers - with Trami Nguyen

Bit-makers vol.2 is the second serie of interviews of artists about artistic research. The title of the series is a wordplay with "beat-makers", for pulsed music producers. Most of the artists develop their own creative tools, in the form of computer programs producing "bits".




Can you introduce yourself in a few sentences?

How could one define me? First of all I am a musician, with a classical education and I am very interested in contemporary music. Then I branched out! I was exposed to the fields of performance and video art, especially experimental art. I needed to browse and explore different mediums of creation. This could take the form of interactive, participatory concerts, or installations, be they fixed, performance-type or hybrid.

Do you define yourself as a composer-researcher?

Temporarily, yes. It's within the frameworks I've just described, i.e. installations or performances, that I've been forced to compose.

I felt it was necessary to include at least one sound illustration, complementary to an immersive or interactive component.

As far as research is concerned, I am currently working with Vincent Isnard, a researcher in cognitive neurosciences, on a project called "Perceptive Strangeness in Virtual Reality".

When you say "I had to compose" do you mean that music was not strictly speaking the object of these installations or performances?

Indeed, the core of the projects was not necessarily musical but involved several mediums. And since I was immersed in sound environments, by my training and by my profession, it seemed obvious to me that I had to add a sound component.

It would be wrong to say that I had to, but I felt it was obvious, like a call. Without therefore being the heart of the problem of what these events were supposed to say or evoke. It was there, by accident. Or it wasn't! If I had been deprived of it, or if I had been part of something else, it would have been almost like cutting off my arm in spite of myself.

What was the heart of it, the main component?

As a general rule, the projects of this content in which I took part were collaborations. Each one had its own distinctive quality, so that the different artistic components were distributed among the team members.

For example, my last collaboration involved the chef Sugio Yamaguchi and the author Rioko Sekiguchi. I brought the sound and image component, complementary and intertwined with the other disciplines: culinary tasting and the literary creation of poetic texts.

Can you give us other significant examples of collaboration?

I really enjoy working in the field of dance. I like it very much and it has led me to collaborations since 2014, including recently a performance in collaboration with Luca Balenai and François Chaigneau. I really enjoy working with Piersten Leirom who is the actor-dancer I hired for my research on perceptive strangeness with Vincent Isnard.

You are attracted to video, which you have trained yourself to make a component of your profession as an artist. For you, is video related to music or does it remain an independent, separate field?

Difficult question! I think that everything is deeply connected, perhaps even on a metaphysical level. In these fields, I don't have the feeling of feeling a border, neither between arts, nor between disciplines, nor between mediums. It is only in practice that one has contingencies about the time one can dedicate to such and such an event, such and such a person, such and such a technique...

It would be like talking about inspiration: I don't really feel a boundary between what may have touched me at the age of ten and what I can discover today: a contemporary opera, a science fiction film, the results of research published by Nature... or a new lecture by Elon Musk! None of this is compartmentalizable for me.

My training as a musician has led me to focus on the stage and, in fact, a certain relationship with the public that has made interactivity and immersion necessary for me. So the most reasonable way to touch others in a synesthetic way is to be able to deploy different art forms.

In fact, my music alone is not enough, video alone is not enough, theatrical, verbal, sensory interaction is not enough. So, for a long time now, I have been interested in all the different types of art, all the different types of communication... And I hope in the future for new forms.

Still, could you be satisfied with a piece of music alone?  Or would it give you a feeling of lack?

Having to compose, perform or interpret a work of music that stands alone is not a problem for me, it is even a necessity I hope! But in the relationship to the stage, to living art and to the deployment of technologies that go in this direction, it is not what attracts me the most. It's not what allows me to really reach the audience's senses.

A wonderful characteristic of music is its immateriality. Moreover, it touches on a kind of eternity in the present; it's something you can't take away from this art.

So you would say that it is important for you to touch people in a deeper way than traditional mediums such as concerts or exhibitions can do.

Synaesthesia is an area that interests me in artistic practice, but that doesn't mean that traditional mediums should not be maintained.

In this case, when I witness creations myself, it is the multisensory experiences that touch me the most. I'm not talking about deployments of incredible technological mechanisms, but I'm really getting to the heart of it.

It's certainly a very interesting area of exploration. It takes you into ever-changing areas of sensitivity. Interesting, surprising, vast... Perhaps also frightening in certain aspects, we'll see in the future. At least that's what attracts me the most at the moment.

What could be frightening in the future?

I can imagine forms of art that would for example be directly connected to the neo-cortex; millions of calculations that would lead to works made by artificial intelligences and that would not depend on our own biology. Which would lead to a kind of sensory vertigo, indescribable for the moment, which could lead us to redefine ourselves completely.

It's also frightening in the sense that this field is so vast that we can't grasp it. We could call it "hyper-object" but that would only be to put it in a category... Yes, these areas are scary, terrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Is it the sensory part or the computational part—where artificial intelligences would take over from composers—that seems the most astounding to you?

If all of humanity were to begin a hybridization with artificial intelligences, it would lead us to rethink not only all areas of practical life, but also the cultural and artistic fields. It would call them into question, in the way we apprehend them, see them being constructed, and receive them.

The applications could then become even more subversive. Today, art is already being hijacked, so what will become of these future artistic fields? The question arises all the more since this future is very close, about ten, twenty years according to some. In any case, it is a field which, for the moment, attracts me more than it frightens me!

You talk a lot about reception, do you focus your work on the effect your works have on the audience?

I would say that, in my case, the creative act is done in a way that is totally independent of a destination. But in reality, there are always conditions or constraints that I have to take into account: the place, the format, the type of event and above all the people I work with. These are the constraints that allow projects to succeed.

So each time I had to think about this audience, this format or this layout. Which is very welcome, because isn't it better to create within constraints?

So even if I feel the creative act is detached from these questions, they are still integrated into it, as founding elements. We're not going to compose the same play if it's going to be performed in an intimate way in ten square meters or if it's going to make two thousand people interact with each other who have to move, sing, or use a smartphone. So, yes, adapting, being flexible in relation to your audience is necessary.

What are you trying to create as an emotion, as a sensation in the audience?

It wouldn't be a goal in itself to trigger an emotion in a person. But as it is one of the fundamental components of the way I approach the works I encounter myself, it could underlie the fact of creating.

I think that the motor of creation itself is so intrinsic to the condition of being, intertwined with existence itself, or with the real, that I find it difficult to answer this question.

There is not only emotion in what one can receive from a work, even when one rejects it or is not sensitive to it. We can have a relationship with it other than emotion, which can be just as rewarding.

Without talking about emotion then, do you want to provoke a particular reaction? Is there some kind of "hidden message" in your works or installations?

One of the components that interests me is to be able to juggle between the material and the immaterial.

I was talking about contingencies earlier: everything that will be physical is real, everything that will be used as an object is real. I will then try to establish totally immaterial correlations with this real; that is to say, to touch for example our relationship to time, to our spirit (or even to our soul?), our relationship to ourselves...

It would be like making a possible extraction of what everyone can be. The ideal would be to be able to create a breach, to get out of the contingencies of reality to bring something immaterial.

I don't necessarily mean deep or metaphysical: simply displaced in relation to the real.

Perhaps at the simple stage of a shared experience. For example, these days, I often put virtual reality helmets on friends and relatives who have not necessarily had this experience. Giving them a different way of using this tool, in an artistic context, gives me a lot of satisfaction. It was a revelation to discover that I could have new forms of sensations and emotions through this medium.

Do you have creative habits, a pattern, a way of starting a piece?

From one project to another, I feel like I have to renew this process. Entirely. To have to re-ritualize my work differently each time, and especially according to the people I work with.

However, I do see certain constants. For example, it's very important for me to work with people I love very much. The affect has to be absolutely correlated to the work. A big anxiety for me would be having to work with strangers, not being able to rely on that trust from the start.

Couldn't you say, for example, "I'm starting to work with this sound bank" or with this method?

Probably not. What doesn't change, however, is that I go through a lot of paper. I like to put things down on paper, I've always done that. It's more my approach than opening a file and taking notes. I really enjoy the contact with paper, and it unfolds afterwards by taking different forms.

You said you were going to look for inspiration in all fields, beyond your working medium; do you have any elements of predilection, things that come back?

No, once again, it's quite vast. It changes from one project to another. But perhaps there are things that come back; I would have to take the time to go back over them to try to have a little perspective on this question of inspiration.

There's my interest in the body, in movement, in dance. And also to experimentation with images and performance, which have a very strong link with the body. I'm attracted to work that sets up an interaction with the spectator, that creates situations that allow us to be in a more direct dialogue and with a certain "physicality".

Does it take a lot of energy to constantly renew your way of doing things?

A little (laughs). The most difficult thing is not reinventing the work process, on the contrary, that's quite exciting.

It's about finding a pragmatic way to fit into a time frame; you have a certain number of hours in the day to divide up into what you have to do. And deadlines, to create, that you have to fit into - or no deadline, and it's the same thing, you have to manage time.

Are the constraints more beneficial or stressful?

A little bit of both. Fear can be used as stage fright, as something constructive and motivating to get out of oneself, to have more strength and energy to move forward. Especially when you're under a lot of stress. But when that's the case, you have to be on the right side of the wave, not drowning when it comes and dive at the right time.

On your website we can hear this very interesting piece called Adio al corpo. Is it representative of your work?

In this piece, the music is not mine! I made the slideshow of photographs, and the music by my companion, Laurent Durupt, who also went through IRCAM, and who composed a piece called Studio sulla notte.

Do you recognize yourself in this music?

Yes, this piece is quite complex and yet sounds like something simple, it inspired me a lot. It talks about the night and the part of mystery and secret it contains, and it resonated with the photographic series I was working on. The dense rhythm, the regular pulse, all this went quite well with what I wanted to talk about in these photographs, which therefore evoke a farewell to the body.

Do you have a way of describing your music? Does it have important or indispensable elements?

I'm more attracted by pulsating, rather techno materials... and also by acoustic mixes. I have a predilection for working on the prepared piano.

I like to degrade the materials a lot, which can be borrowed online in particular. I like to start from recordings, whatever they are, and then have fun manipulating them until they are unrecognizable. Or, if they are, to divert them from their original content.

But again, it depends on the projects, it's not the central engine. I often don't define myself as a composer, even though I'm considered as such in certain circles, especially in the visual arts.

Is it complicated to mix all these components, sampling, misuse, with the rest of your writing work, especially on paper?

When I was talking about writing earlier, I wanted to talk about the work of conceptualisation. It's not about composition as such, it's about projects other than musical writing.

Apart from graphic scores, sometimes purely drawn, which I had the opportunity to write in certain circumstances, my musical compositions are only electronic objects.

On the other hand, I have a whole suitcase of Moleskine notebooks on which I've always worked... comprehensive projects.

Do you ever go back to that? What do you find there then?

It happens to me, but seldom, I open new notebooks rather than dive into the old ones! Sometimes I need to look for this or that element, but it is always trivial. But I keep everything! Well, for now...

Could you choose a few adjectives to define or qualify your art?

It's very difficult! So... Maybe multi-mode - in the multi-sensory sense. And... interactive? At least that's what I'm looking for.

Can you present the object of your work at Ircam at the moment? What are you looking for?

It sounds sophisticated, but the objectives and processes are relatively simple. The object of our work with Vincent Isnard has a double aspect. I could describe him as a two-headed animal; a first face that would be of the order of scientific research with a perceptual test that deals in particular with voice recognition, and a second aspect that would be an experimental work, in this case an anticipation short film that would use the scientific data collected and the sound resources resulting from this study.

We could have started by setting up a scientific test, which would have provided sound results that we would then have used. Instead, we preferred to work in parallel on both sides. In this way, the virtual reality perceptual test and the work in question were developed from the same materials, making the object a hybrid between pure artistic production and pure scientific testing.

What complicates the matter is that the scientific test incorporates an artistic fallacy, which is Turing's reverse test. It includes questions that I invented and which serve as material for the short film, which is also in virtual reality.

What is your level of involvement in this project?

When we were looking for what our project was going to be about, I had this idea of a dialogue with an artificial intelligence in an immersive context. And at the time— two years ago already— virtual reality seemed to us to be the perfect tool, including from a scientific point of view. We wanted to work on the familiarity of the voice, confronting it with a new space of perception.

Vincent worked on the pure scientific protocol, with the support of his thesis supervisor Isabelle Viaud-Delmon from the ESM team. For my part, I'm in charge of writing and producing the virtual reality content, i.e. images, shooting, producing effects correlated to sound modifications. I also bring my ears to the transformations that we are going to make together on the audiovisual material, so there is an area in which we can both intervene in this double test.

Is it difficult to tune your violins? How do you manage to balance your work so that it remains valid in both areas?

We both took part in the production process. We each developed our own territory, but the meeting point was quite broad and without conflict. Well, maybe he won't say the same thing who knows (laughs), but I don't think so!

The constraints we had were quite simple and clear. This set of constraints created a framework that made it easy to reach agreement. Everyone's area of freedom was always amply present and respected. Isabelle also played the role of referee, which was scientifically valid.

Do you feel that you are equipped with knowledge and tools that can be useful to you later on? Will this experience transform your approach to creation?

Yes, totally. The tools concerning virtual reality are so rich and promising that I feel, in spite of myself, that this is a field in which I will continue to work in the years to come.

Virtual reality is an old field. We started talking about thirty years ago, but it has only developed quite recently and, obviously, at a high speed. Do you feel, with your work, that you are at the forefront of a more general transformation in the way a work of art is approached - both for the public and for the creator?

Virtual reality is indeed booming. With Vincent, we are rather in a current movement of this phenomenon. The scientific protocol itself is totally innovative, it acts in relation to research in the field of perception in virtual reality situations. It is not unique however, and Vincent could talk more about it.

The same goes for the artistic aspect. What's interesting is to see what we can convey with that, and how we're going to question writing in this medium. And above all, how the spectator becomes central to the work: he is an integral part of it, he is in a way an obligatory participant in the work. For the moment he is individual, but if he becomes multiple, this will undoubtedly increase tenfold the capacity for interaction with the work of art, and with this still indescribable zone of sensitivity or sensory experience, terrifying or fascinating as we were saying earlier.

All this is innovative, without being new; this field is exploding and we are right in the middle of it.

Propos recueillis par François Vey.