Ben Houge is a composer and sound designer who, though trained in composition, has largely been employed in sound design for video games, for at least five years at the corporate Ubisoft (in addition to collaborations with Gearbox Software, Troika Games, Massive Entertainment, Escape Factory, Relic Entertainment and ArenaNet). In Shanghai, however, he is known as one of the few outsiders to truly penetrate local art and music cultures.

His major installations and performances have been included in the Shanghai eArts Festival, Waterland Kwanyin, 2Pi Festival, and Fat Art. Beyond his participation in many of the major new media art and music festivals that occur throughout China, he is increasingly known as one of the more theoretically-attuned members of this community. In a series of visits in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, we sat down to flesh out some of the major issues facing his work in China today, including interactivity, mapping, composition, and gaming. Houge is currently participating in an artist residency at the True Color Museum in Suzhou, where he will be organizing a series of concerts and events assessing the state of the experimental music landscape in eastern China.

Ben Houge has written copious amounts of traditional linear music, pop music, soundtracks, music for string quartets, choral music, and so on, and is currently working on a pop music album with a built n-ary algorithm, pursuing what he considers his mission: to explore nonlinear structures of the sound. In this sense, Houge enjoys recalling the development of several interesting solutions to the issue of non-linear sound in video games; his most recent work in that field, Tom Clancy’s EndWar, has an ingenious music system that combines linear sentences in random permutations and multiple layers.

In short, Ben Houge is a multifaceted characters, difficult to classify through the many applications of his vast sound and music creativity. The following text is an abridged version of a very long discussion that took place in person and by e-mail between September 2009 and April 2010.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 02

 Robin Peckham: I had the pleasure to hear your piece Radiospace at Dos Kolegas in Beijing during one of the regular Waterland Kwanyin nights curated by Yan Jun, and I’m listening to a recorded version now. I like the way you’re absorbing cultural information–the less-than-interesting material floating around Chinese F.M. airwaves–and then processing it in a way that seems relatively anti-humanist. What’s the relationship between material and algorithm for you? You’ve said that during the live version you act as the algorithm. To what extent do you mean that the algorithmic processing becomes humanized, and to what extent do you mean you function mechanically? How much randomness is involved in the live piece?

Ben Houge: I would say that of all my pieces, Radiospace is probably the one that gives me the most continued pleasure to listen to, and I think one reason is exactly what you touched on, the relationship between material and algorithm. Much of my work is focused on the algorithm, because that’s where I think there’s so much interesting work to be done. In this piece, the material is secondary (although I’ve noticed the input doesn’t vary as much as I originally supposed, as radio is actually pretty homogenous, usually mainstream popular music or people talking), and because of the constantly changing input and algorithmic behavior, it’s still capable of surprising and delighting me.

There’s a lot to this. I’ve certainly written plenty of traditional linear music, pop songs, soundtracks, music for string quartet, choral music, etc., and there’s of course so much you can do with the elements of traditional linear music, so I don’t want to say that I’m tired of melody or anything like that. I’m working on an album of pop songs now, in fact, with nary an algorithm in sight. But I guess this gets back to my aforementioned “mission”-I really do consider it that-to explore non-linear structures in sound. There have been a lot of interesting solutions to structuring non-linear sound in games, and I think the last game I did, Tom Clancy’s EndWar, has a pretty clever music system, which combined linear phrases in random permutations and multiple layers.

The first observation is that a loop is the least imaginative solution to a very interesting problem, which is how to make sound continue indefinitely. And here it’s not some abstract, avant-garde concern from the 1950s; it’s an absolutely practical necessity, since games are an inherently non-linear medium, and you never know how long a player will take to finish a certain level. The solution needs to be considered anew for each game in the same way that, in effect, every time you make a game (or at least a game engine, which indicates a set of preconceptions about what kind of game you’re making), it’s like inventing a new movie camera each time you want to shoot a movie.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 03

So I’ve scoured John Cage and Earle Brown and Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman, as well as Stockhausen and Lutoslawski, for techniques that can be reappropriated for videogame soundtracks, and I’m also interested in completing the loop (so to speak) by taking some of these ideas that have found practical application in games and turn them back into pure music. I’ve never tried to compile some kind compendium of non-linear precepts, but I think I am developing something of a personal vocabulary. I’ve come to think of linearity as a scale from non- to very, rather than a binary thing; it’s almost like meta data for traditional linear music.

Granularity might be a more appropriate term, defining the seams in the music, to decide when it can change and how. I wrote one piece a few years back with the goal of being completely non-linear (an acoustic piece for piano, soprano, flute, and cello), and having done that once, now I’m much more interested in finding the sweet spot between non-linear behaviors and linear behaviors, whatever that may mean for a given piece.

Some people seem to think an aleatory composer bows down to random numbers in some kind of blasphemous way, but it’s always a continuum; there are an infinitude of ways to make something out of random numbers (and actually randomness itself is already somewhat limiting; I’m more drawn to stochastic or statistical behaviors in a lot of cases, not true randomness, but it’s an easy catch-all term). The artist has to decide where the randomness goes, and how it’s configured.

So if you’re writing phrases of traditional linear music, and you’re searching for the best sequence, as John Cage said, “instead of choosing just one solution, we use them all!” I really think in terms of Calder mobiles (drawing the most from Earle Brown, who was also a big Calder fan), where the individual elements are fixed, but the configuration is constantly changing.

There are lots of aesthetic or even philosophical stances one can take on this point. For Cage, it was a Zen thing, this idea of non-intention, the idea of accepting whatever happens, and this is where I diverge from him, although of course he remains a huge influence. What I’m often trying to do is more deterministic: to create an environment in which the most fruitful results are most likely to occur. I consider composition to be the establishing of this domain, and my work encompasses all possibilities of the system. (This is really just as true of a traditional musical score; there are an infinitude of interpretations for a molto rubato expression marking or whatever, but it’s still considered to be the same piece. This gets back to the idea of a spectrum of non-linearity; all music is non-linear to some extent.)

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 04

 Robin Peckham: There is a certain unintelligible “background” sound to this piece Radiospace that seems somewhat removed from the radio material. Technically, where does this come from? Do you want to keep a distance from pure noise? Your work seems much less physically impressing than many other artists, including those you played with the night I saw in Beijing. Do you see this kind of work as functioning more cognitively?

Ben Houge: It’s actually all the same thing. There are two fundamental behaviors in the piece. One is the high level chunks that get repeated at irregular intervals. The idea is that it kind of takes something that might go ignored and insistently draw your attention to it, and then put it up against something unexpected. There’s a great little phrase that happens in the Hotel California section of that rendering, where the boring old chords of that song are suddenly jostled into a weird little progression; that’s the kind of thing I love. The other behavior is actually still the same thing, but with much smaller chunks of sound, a fairly basic implementation of a technique called granular synthesis (see Curtis Roads, Microsound).

Both behaviors are drawing from the same set of six 10-second buffers that are randomly replenished at regular intervals (allowing for a kind of mid-level referential coherence), but in the second behavior, little chunks are kind of sandblasted into the speakers with much greater density. I have a drunk/random walk reading through a bunch of tables to determine the position in the buffer, density, volume, all kinds of parameters, and the tables are hand-drawn, to give it a bit of human touch.

What I love about this is that it turns melody into harmony, kind of freeze-framing chunks of the original recording and turning them into these hovering clouds that still vaguely evoke the original source. A lot of these pieces are trying to get people to hear common or ordinary sounds in new ways through unexpected juxtapositions.

Pure noise as an end unto itself doesn’t really interest me that much, though as I said, that’s the crowd I’ve kind of fallen in with here in Shanghai. I view noise as an acoustic element like any other. And really pure noise just means a chaotic collection of pitches, like a string of random numbers in a computer system. Once you start to color the noise (even changing the sampling rate in a computer), attenuate it, structure it, you’re using the same tools that any other musician uses. Noise artists are really just musicians like anyone else, but with an aggressive veneer (but don’t tell them I said so).

I think a good piece should have some kind of visceral attraction as well as functioning cognitively, and I do try to make an effort to keep my shows from being just some dude behind a laptop who might as well be playing a 45-minute MP3. With a few pieces I try to tackle this by making it clear that all of the material for the piece is being recorded live on stage. That’s true of my pieces Psalmus and A Reading from _____, maybe less true of Radiospace, although I’m trying to make it clear that I’m tuning a radio on stage as part of the piece. But, yeah, lack of physicality can be a problem for laptop-based performance, and that’s one reason I’m getting into Jitter and graphics, to try to give folks something to watch.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 05

This is not only true of the performantive aspect of what I’m doing. A good piece should fire on all cylinders, cognitively, structurally, viscerally, philosophically, contextually. You should feel an attraction, and it should hold your attention as you dig deeper. But of course what constitutes “attraction” and “attention” can vary significantly from piece to piece. Some pieces are small, with modest aspirations, but they can do what they’re designed to do very effectively. Attraction is a function of the context people bring to your work, and as such it can’t be universal. Nothing happens in a vacuum, but these are the issues of audience that any artist deals with.

I always come back to the Brian Eno quote, that he’s after a music that is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” I’m not so interested in aggressively beating people over the head with stuff. One thing I learned from a friend of mine in Seattle with whom I collaborated on a bunch of projects, Korby Sears, was the importance of empathy; you’ve got to give people a reason to listen, since especially with the glut of media available these days, if they don’t care, they’ll just tune you out.

That said, non-aggression has its limits! After doing an ambient laptop set at the Creek Art Center in Shanghai in December 2009 for a very chatty crowd (during which some nitwit actually tried to do a little networking, asking if I’d like to be involved with some future project; if he demonstrates such blatant unawareness and disrespect for what I’m doing, I’m absolutely not interested), I’ve decided I’m done doing ambient sets in clubs. My last show at [storied indie rock venue] D-22 in Beijing suffered some of the same problems.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 06

Robin Peckham: In Radiospace and in several other pieces you’re using “found” sound, but it’s far from a field recording, partially because your found material is inaudible to human ears–without the mediation of the radio device. Is this a translation of some kind? Or more of a slippage between different registers of intelligibility?

Ben Houge: Yeah, I think, along the lines of your algorithm/material issue, the found sound itself, while sometimes quite beautiful in its untouched form, is often less interesting (to me) than what you do with it. I’m getting to be of the opinion that art lives in the transitions; it’s like the derivative of sound, or maybe the Rauschenberg idea of taking something and doing something to it and doing something to it again.  There’s definitely a translation going on. If I had to say in one word what digital art was about, I’d say mapping. You’ve always got inputs and outputs, and meaning comes from how you put things together.

If you’re not careful about what you’re doing, it’ll be the equivalent of playing a word document as a wave file, just garbage coming out; that kind of digital art’s very easy, and usually extremely blunt. Meaning is in the mapping. Or as with the Calder idea earlier, it’s in the hinges, how things are connected. And I think a lot of these mappings happen as a continuum, not a discrete thing, so there’s a spectrum of intelligibility, a spectrum of linearity, a spectrum of indeterminacy, a spectrum of interactivity.

Interactivity is another area where videogames seem way ahead of most installations I’ve seen. Most installations take the refrigerator door approach to interactivity: open the door and the light comes on. Once you figure it out, there’s no reason to keep engaging with the piece; there’s none of the ambiguity that keeps you coming back to a masterpiece for fresh perspectives.

Robin Peckham: You insist that artists working with a specific scene or medium should really explore the consequences and foundations of what they’re doing: an artist working with video games should know more about the design process rather than just the aesthetics, and so on. On the contrary, I’d argue that the artist must be a dilettante, because once he understands the mind of an engineer he’s no longer working critically with the medium. It seems to me that your artwork is so rich precisely because you come at it from composition and game design angles; it’s a question of diverse and critically situated voices.Your work is not art-historical in the dry way that I think your theory would call for.

Ben Houge: I’ve had this discussion with a lot of people in recent months. A good friend of mine and an artist from Seattle whom I respect a great deal, Mike Min, responded to my “you gotta known your materials” line by saying he didn’t agree at all, which has caused me to reconsider a bit. One of my touchstones on this topic is Ravel, not only a master composer, but a master orchestrator. There’s a bit in Bolero where he doubles a piccolo with, if memory serves, a horn at an interval of an octave or two plus a fifth.

It’s a really clever trick, showing an awareness of musical physics, since the piccolo reinforces the upper partials of the horn to change the timbre; it doesn’t sound like parallel fifths, but like a new, fused instrument. I think he arrived at this innovation because of his longstanding engagement with the orchestral medium, and he was able to apply his compositional insight to every parameter of the piece, including timbre (orchestration).

On the other hand, it’s common practice for film composers to outsource the orchestration of their scores to someone else. Of course there are practical reasons for this, the composer being almost the last stage in the film production pipeline with a tight deadline, but this nonetheless abdicates responsibility of an important compositional parameter. Ravel’s music wouldn’t be the same-he wouldn’t have made the breakthroughs in orchestration that he made-if he had hired someone else to do it.

I think the same thing is true of electronic music. You can write a piece and hire someone else to do the technical part, but in doing so, you miss a chance to integrate the electronic realization into the composition itself (as Stockhausen said, “In everything, I want to integrate more and more”).

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 07

So as precedent for my argument, I cite Ravel and early Stockhausen; you simply have to control everything to achieve that kind of integration, which leads to innovation.

But of course, there’s only one way to get to know your materials, and that’s to start from zero and learn them. An artist working in another medium may have a leg up on learning a new one, but she or he still has to do the work. I think a good example of this is John Cage; his visual pieces perfectly embody his aesthetic in a different medium (ok, I’ll admit that his guru-status kind of precludes him from wrongdoing in this regard).

As a bad example, I often come back to this horrendous Tan Dun installation I saw at Shanghai Gallery of Art a few years back. He had disassembled a bunch of pianos and made some very amateur videos and managed to fill up a room with this junk. It betrayed a kind of complacency that suggested he didn’t need to come to terms with a new medium, since he was a recognized master in another.

One key to this discussion comes from a conversation I had with a teacher while working on my master’s degree, Richard Karpen. I made some kind of comment (probably some kind of justification) about a piece being “experimental,” and he responded, “Ok, but what kind of experiment is it? Is it a junior high school science experiment that is done primarily for the benefit of the student, or is it something that actually contributes something of value to a greater community?”

I’ve been very conscious of this question as I’ve been branching out from sound into image-making and video. You save your early experiments for your own edification and build on them, and then only when you’ve done as much as you can on your own, you share with a wider audience, at which point you can benefit from the audience’s feedback.

The same professor pointed out that composition and programming were kind of the same thing. It’s not like you write the music, and then add the technical part. Programming, like composition, is about structure. Knowing programming allows you to explore new kinds of organizational (i.e., compositional) structures in a way that you can’t really do if you can’t code, if you’re a traditional composer working with a technical assistant.

I do have a tendency to want to do everything myself to ensure control over every aspect of a piece. But I do acknowledge the importance of creative collaboration, especially as pieces get big and complex. It has been said that the composer who writes his own libretto has a fool for a client, but that didn’t stop Wagner and others. I’ve had successful collaborations when working on complex systems in videogames. I know Max/MSP pretty well, but Max code can’t be directly incorporated into game code, which is typically written in C++.

So instead I would often develop prototypes in Max, to work out the problem as best I could on my own, and then present it in detail to a C++ programmer who can basically duplicate the behavior in the game engine, and then we work together to iterate on the behavior and tweak it to get it working right. So even in collaboration with other programmers, you need the ability to think programmatically, to understand what you’re asking them to do.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 08

I can see why someone might say that it’s better to come at a problem free from the burden of history, without someone telling you how to solve it. It’s possible you’ll be able to think of some fresh angle or insight that might evade others who are mired in the traditional dialectics associated with the problem. But I think that’s rare. More often you’re going to waste time learning for yourself the same things that others have learned, time that you might have saved by boning up a bit on the subject in advance.

I remember talking to a guy at a party in Shanghai a few years ago. He said he was starting a game company, and I asked him what his experience was, and he said that they actually didn’t have any experience, but they had two guys back in Canada who were learning C++ at that very moment, and that they thought their inexperience would allow them to think outside the box to come up with new, creative ideas, which is about the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard.

Learn from history or repeat its mistakes, as they say, and starting a game company is a particularly mistake-prone venture. I suppose the more complex a venture is, the greater the possibility of failure. Failing, or going through the process from scratch to arrive at a solution, working it out on your own, is of course a good way (the best way, probably) to learn; you’ve got to internalize the process, but that doesn’t preclude learning from the experience of others.

Another example, from the same party, in fact. Some girl asked me about my job, and I started saying why I think videogames are an interesting place to be, since the grammar is still being developed, the terrain is still being charted, how it’s less calcified than the filmmaking process, and so on. I brought up the most common challenge for sound, the problem of making something continue indefinitely, until some game state or user input necessitates a change; this is something you can’t know this in advance, as games are an inherently indeterminate medium.

Her response was, “Just loop it,” which is everyone’s first reaction when they don’t understand the medium. In a way, I’ve been fighting against that lowest common denominator, cocktail party response ever since. It’s the dumbest response to a very interesting question.

I think I’ve offended people in the past by stating this point too directly, which is not my intent. I don’t mean to suggest that an artist shouldn’t venture into a new medium; of course they should, and I’m doing exactly that with my recent video pieces. I think because I’ve been branching out into visual images, I’m particularly sensitive to this point. You’ve got to do your homework and know when you’re at a point where your work is ready for a wider audience.

As I’ve thought about this more recently, I think the prerequisite isn’t just a knowledge of a medium, but a mindset that allows an artist to apply expertise in one area to another medium or set of challenges. A good educational background allows you to learn from history while still being critical of it, which strikes me as the ideal stance. It’s about knowing how to tackle a new challenge and apply what’s relevant from past experience, learning how to learn. I mean, I guess that’s life, ideally, of which art is a microcosm.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 09

Robin Peckham: You say you come to art with “few prerequisites,” but imply that you do know your medium well. Tell me about your definitions here. To my mind, art is a constellation of practices, conceptual moves, and so on, with an inherited history and theory, that spans a range of media–i.e., painting (which includes watercolor, oil, etc.) or gaming (which might include machinima, serious games, digital stills, and so on…), but that would be differentiated from music (which includes classical and experimental composition, scoring, and so on) and video games per se. Do you see art as a medium, or do you see media as a component of art?

Ben Houge: Yes, I guess that sounds contradictory. What I mean is that I come to other peoples’ art with few prerequisites for what it should be, with few expectations, that I try to appreciate everything on its own terms, to try to judge it against what it set out to do. Shortly out of college, I had a colleague who was dumbfounded that I enjoyed listening to Pierre Boulez as well as Erasure, but I think that while what they’re trying to do is very different, they both succeed on their own terms.

I hope this doesn’t come off as some kind of cultural relativism. As Ted Hughes said about Sylvia Plath, if she couldn’t make a table out of something, at least she could make a sturdy stool. To me the measure of a good artwork is how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do.

So I try not to approach something new with a set of expectations about what it should be. For example, people often say things like “music is about emotion,” but I don’t think it has to be. I think the only thing music has to be about is expression of an idea, and it could be any idea (maybe not even a clearly articulated one). So I try not to get caught up in discussions of what’s music or what’s sound or what’s art. If you say it’s art, sure, why not? I’ll give it a go. Then what follows is the much more fruitful discussion of what’s good art and what’s bad art.

So anyway, I’d definitely say I see media as a component of art. Art is the idea, and the medium is the means by which it is transmitted. Art is about expressing an idea (maybe not even communicating, I suppose; this gets to the question of audience and context; it is possible to define an artwork whose only audience is the artist). For me, increasingly, my personal practice of art is about structure, and structure, more readily than any other parameter of music, can be media-independent.

And as I’ve been involved in non-linear structure, these questions have come to the fore, and I think it’s natural for me to try my ideas out in different media. (For example, see the Study for Insomnia video that I recently posted to my blog.)

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 10

Robin Peckham: I would give art labeled as new media a little more wiggle room here, because I believe this category should be about interrogating the medium itself–which is not to say that all artists working with electronic or digital media should fall under this rubric, but I believe that “new media” as a practice can only be a subcategory of this project. Artists should understand more than the “sheen” or “nostalgia,” but I have no problem with them starting from these points and moving more deeply into gaming cultures. Perfect example: Cory Arcangel’s clouds. This functions very well for me, the way he moves from a totally aesthetic in-joke to the notion of altering a physical computing system

Ben Houge: I use “new media” as a term of necessity. I used it when touring the last eArts exhibition at the Oriental Pearl Tower with a visiting French curator, and she started to take me to task for using it. When I use it as a term of convenience, I basically mean “we’ll think of a better word for this later,” since all media was new at some point.

Shouldn’t part of working in any medium be about interrogating the medium? It seems to me that should be an intrinsic part of working with any medium, seeing what you can say with it, finding out what it’s good for, and usually then staking out an area of it that’s well suited for the kinds of ideas you’re trying to express (and I acknowledge that I’ve staked out a relatively small subsection of the digital landscape to explore in depth).

Isn’t that happening with sculpture? I can’t say I have my finger on the pulse of sculpture, but when I see collections of recent sculptural work, it seems the medium is constantly being interrogated, as people are asking what is sculpture, what is its relevance today, and pushing the medium to expand to encompass increasingly large scale installation work (at least from some recent surveys I’ve seen).

But I suppose there’s maybe more of an emphasis on this in “new media,” as people are still coming to terms with the medium, and I guess that’s why I’m attracted to games, and digital art in general. It’s unstable in a way, more generally unknown. The grammar is still being figured out.

Your question seems to presuppose a certain relationship between art and culture, like artists are exploring “gaming culture” from the outside. I’m a little sensitive on this point, having heard lots of artist refer to “game art,” as though the artists were coming to games as the saviors who would elevate the medium to art, which strikes me as kind of condescending, especially when a lot of the people who like to talk about “game art” don’t seem interested in playing games (which I would consider the first step in interrogating the medium). To refer to “game art” suggests that games qua games are not capable of art. To me this is as silly as saying “film art” or “photography art.”

I think there’s a useful distinction to make between art that uses the gaming medium and art that is about the gaming subculture. I’m squarely interested in the former, and I think that’s of primary interest to anyone actually working in the medium (as a game developer or a “game artist”). That’s where these questions of non-linear structure, interactivity, etc., (the interesting questions, to me) are being explored, and these are the questions that differentiate games from other media.

Art about gaming culture (typically nostalgic, including the glut of 8 bit-inspired art) can be made in any medium. It could be a nice film or print or whatever, but it likely contributes little to our understanding of the inherent qualities of the gaming medium. It’s more of a sociological concern, just like art that explores S&M culture or whatever. It’s the distinction between medium and content.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 11

I see this same confusion being perpetrated from the other side in these ridiculous Video Games Live concerts, as recently featured in the “New York Times”. It’s celebrating the culture of games, but it’s doing nothing to cement their cultural standing. In fact, it’s keeping gaming culture in the cultural ghetto of people who dress up in elf costumes, skirting all the interesting issues of the medium. This gets back to interrogating the medium, which is something that I think I’ve been doing at significant depth for years. These concerts ignore the interesting structural questions that set the videogame medium apart from film, concert music, etc. in favor of smoke machines and orchestral transcriptions of the “Super Mario Bros.” theme.

Much more relevant would be the symphony project I have planned, in which the music is literally generated in real-time for acoustic musicians to deploy; don’t know when I’m going to get around to that, though. First step is my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game, which is a crude real time score for beer bottles, percussion, and audience that I need to find some time to revise one of these days.

In fact, for people working in games, the notion of 8 bit is more of an annoyance than anything, a memory of a frustrating technical limitation. (Although I suppose there may be some interesting math/puzzle solving that’s easier to grok in 8 bits, so it might retain some interest for that quality, the way you might do a crossword puzzle; I’ll grant that lower bit resolution makes information easier for humans to parse and play with). What would it be like… maybe talking to painters about the time before acrylic paint? That’s why I don’t really like most 8 bit art, including Cory Arcangel’s clouds. For artists like me who have been grappling with the medium for a long time, 8 bit is a frustrating, obsolete limitation.

I’ve talked to a lot of art-savvy folks who view gaming this way (often condescendingly or nostalgically), not realizing that they’re looking at only an early foretaste of what games are well on their way to becoming. People think of it as a cultural curiosity, like skateboarding or parcour or whatever. But in 20 years (probably much less) the idea of someone not playing games will be like talking to someone who doesn’t like films or listen to music. It’s not because these people are going to start liking complex joypads and elves and aliens or whatever; rather the medium will have grown to encompass the issues/genres/settings/dialectics that already interest them.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 12

Robin Peckham: I think it’s important to retain the vocabulary that keeps all these things distinct. Certainly games can be an art form, but I wouldn’t collapse that with either “art games” or “game art,” which both have their own traditions within the contemporary art scene. It is still a meaningful distinction to refer to “film art,” which is distinct from film in cinema, which is again distinct from the art film. And “photography art” remains different from what they still call “fine art photography.”

The use of a particular medium does not imply that same medium as a conceptual theme, and vice versa. Additionally, I’d like to point out that your critique of the fascination with 8 bit in art implies a certain linear progress with games, and I don’t think that necessarily holds. Similarly, early film still makes a fascinating reference point for both scholars and artists, evaluating a moment at which the development and use of the medium could have moved in a number of different directions.

New media art should never be about simply utilizing the latest and greatest technological marvels; at its best, it questions the cultural basis that informs this continued development, often through outdated technologies or media. But let’s move on to chat about the experimental musician and sound artist Zhou Risheng, just because I know he’s another point of disagreement.

You said previously any work should have a visceral element of attraction and a cognitive element. Tell me where you see Zhou failing here–and because I’m not totally familiar with the technical side, please be specific about how you see his process, and what makes it boring from your point of view.

Ben Houge: Let me first say that my observations here are based on a fading memory of the one time I’ve seen him perform, so I don’t want to come across as completely anti-Zhou Risheng; I’m sure he’s a great guy. But the performance I saw struck me as pretty weak. It’s hard for me to pinpoint all the issues, so I’ll have to talk around them a bit, I think.

I’d say that a piece has to work on at least one of those levels, cognitive or visceral. Some non-visceral stuff is worth digging for. Actually, if it’s visceral only, I’m not sure that’s enough. I think I usually try to evaluate pieces based on how well they accomplish what they set out to do. But this show I saw had no visceral attraction to me at all; it was a mass of undifferentiated broadband noise, loud, static, and ugly. None of those qualities are necessarily negative, but here they didn’t seem to have a reason.

If something is really loud and monolithic and unchanging noise, it could be working on a conceptual or symbolic level, or it could serve as a counterpoint in a larger sonic structure, or it could be focusing attention on minute, subtly shifting details…there are lots of reasons you might want to do this, but I couldn’t find one at this show.

The Shanghai noise band Torturing Nurse has done some stuff that could be described the same way, but their lo-fi approach means that their noise maintains a relationship to human gesture, that the phrasings are based (often) on the length of a human breath or the movement of hands on a guitar or the pounding of fists thwacking on sheet metal or whatever.

In general, their stuff maintains a gestural connection to physical activity, which imbues the sound with small fluctuations that maintain sonic interest, while at the same time keeping your attention with the kind of angsty vestiges of rock band performance practice. It’s probably true that I’m easier on Torturing Nurse than on Zhou Risheng, since I know them, I know what they’re doing, I respect their community building/concert promotion efforts, and I think they’re good guys.

I also have the benefit of a long term perspective on their stuff, and I see how they try out different materials and have gone through different phases, including personnel changes, so I can place things in a larger context. I think the biggest danger for them is when their stuff borders on the theatrical, and that expectation isn’t explored. They sometimes have the same kind of problem that affects Sulumi or iLoop, which is that sometimes the big sounds being produced don’t have visual corollary, so they compensate with exaggerated body movement, as if to prove they’re really emoting.

This also touches on the idea of sympathy; you’ve got to give people a reason to pay attention. Torturing Nurse accomplishes this in the short term with the energy and spectacle of their live shows, but also in the long term, through their concert promotion and community building.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 13

Anyway, back to Zhou Risheng. I actually managed to dig up the notebook into which I scribbled some observations during the show I caught, must have been October 2008, “Waterland Kwanyin” at Dos Kolegas. At the time I was rehearsing with Yan Jun and Bruce Gremo for our show at last year’s eArts Festival, and due to the nature of the piece we were doing (Christian Marclay‘s Screenplay), we were talking a lot about how to map images and sound. Zhou Risheng‘s performance was kind of doing something similar, but in a very unsophisticated and, I’d say, unsuccessful way.

His Jitter patch was projected on the wall of Dos Kolegas, so everyone could see what he was doing. It looked to me like had basically taken some Jitter demo patches (Max/MSP/Jitter comes with lots of excellent demo patches and tutorials) and minimally tweaked them to make a lot of noise. It seemed to be largely based on a Jitter demo patch called “jit.forbidden-planet” (the name was visible on the screen), and it seemed pretty clear that the tidy, well-organized bits of the patch were from the original file, with just a few messy bits to show his modifications.

I don’t remember very clearly, but I wrote down that he had 3 panes open, and he was drawing or writing in them, and the information from these windows was going to the output. I didn’t know Jitter as well then as I do now (which is still not that well), but my impression at the time was that he was taking something that was not designed as an audio signal and sending it to the audio output. In any event, there was no meaningful connection between what he was drawing and what was coming out of the speakers. It also seemed like even though he was projecting this on a wall, suggesting it to be worthy of the audience’s attention, he hadn’t done much to make it interesting to look at, and he was switching back and forth between screens, hiding what he was writing, and the menu bar was always visible. So it failed on a visual as well as aural level.

I guess you could say that this is just the spirit of hacking, but I think most hackers would take offense at this allegation. To me, the pride of a hacker is in taking something designed for one purpose, figuring it out, and then cleverly subverting it to do something else. It seemed to me that he hadn’t taken that first step of figuring out what the original system was doing, just doing a little copying and pasting to make a big, ugly noise for a long time.

He didn’t seem to have come to terms with the medium, either the nature of digital sound or the specific Max environment (he kept awkwardly switching back and forth between screens). Especially coming from working on this Christian Marclay piece (a video score, where the job of the performers is to represent images as sound), Zhou Risheng’s show struck me as an unsuccessful, poorly thought out attempt at mapping visual information to sound, like putting a wave header on a text file of, I dunno, War and Peace and playing it as a wave file.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 14

Robin Peckham: Interesting how these community dynamics break down. Last year at the Beijing experimental music festival Sally Can’t Dance some of the guys from the Torturing Nurse circle did a set and started verbally abusing and physically dragging around audience members, which made a lot of people uncomfortable–the scene there isn’t really used to that kind of participation.

At one point he tried to drag a musician onto the stage–I forget who now–and immediately got himself into a fistfight with a good portion of the Tongzhou noise scene. He disappeared in the middle of the set and never materialized again for the remainder of the weekend. The general attitude towards him in Beijing is not overwhelmingly positive. He’s included in the festivals, record stores, and so on, but there’s a distinct personal barrier.

I also think his music isn’t quite accepted into the same canon precisely for the reasons you prefer it over Zhou Risheng. Torturing Nurse is always physical, violent, very human, very embodied. Chinese experimental art, specifically in the Hangzhou and Beijing academic lineages, tends to be markedly anti-humanist, and I think that spills over into noise considerably.

This stems from the rejection of socialist realism and the political ethics it spawned after the 85 New Wave movement, and was largely a reaction against what was then perceived as a crude operation of biopower. Back to noise, there’s this idea that it should be cold, impersonal, clean, impenetrable–and although there are outliers like Yan Jun’s field recordings, much of the Beijing scene tends to be very mechanical. Think Hong Qile, Feng Hao, Wang Fan, and so on.

Ultimately Zhou Risheng fits within this rubric as well, but what interests me about his work is the interplay between machinic elements and human error. The anti-humanist element lies in the the use of a non-sound component turned into audio, but this aural noise comes from patterned human input.

Sometimes his visual input is simply his name, the date, or nonsense, but at other times he writes brief poems and draws images. Western culture generally privileges the visual (i.e., the Metaphysics), so we have this tension here of the visual as controller that emits harsh and irrational noise, but on the other hand, the visual input is Chinese characters, which adds another level to this diagram of the arbitrary sign. The noise here functions as excess, and overwhelms both its controller, erasing the primacy of the visual, and the language that emerges from the process of control.

The characters literally disappear from the screen as they are translated into noise. This may not require much skill in the use of the software, but I think the conceptual element really lines up with the physical experience of standing there and watching the visual patterns scratched out by mouse being sucked through the speakers. On to mapping, which you mentioned earlier: What kind of work have you seen/heard that uses this technique in the definition you gave before? What do you think of Frederic Jameson and “cognitive mapping”?

He was one of the big postmodern theorists, of course, but lately–especially amongst new media critics–there has been a backlash against this kind of work. The argument goes that cognitive mapping would involve the ultimate surrender of privacy, leading to a totalitarian transparency more dangerous than the hierarchical networks of power it supports. What role do concepts like the liminal, the hidden, the hacked, the parasitic mean to your conception of mapping? Do they fit within this figuration?

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 15

Ben Houge: What I mean by mapping is more practical, or should I say, mechanical, although I can see how it by extension or metaphor might also apply to some of the theoretical topics you’ve brought up. I’m not sure where I first encountered the term, perhaps in grad school, perhaps at an Xbox development conference, but generally people doing similar kinds of work to what I’m doing recognize it as an important component of what they’re doing as well. From chatting with an architect friend of mine recently, it seems the hip term for this (at least in architecture circles) is parametric design.

What I mean by mapping is basically defining a relationship between two different sets of values, or dimensions. For a simple example (which was probably my point of departure for thinking along these lines), think of a MIDI keyboard controller with a pitch bend wheel controlling a synthesizer. The pitch bend wheel sends out a range of MIDI values that the synthesizer can interpret to modify the pitch being played on the keys.

There’s no intrinsic relationship between these sets of data; it’s usually preset by the synthesizer manufacturer and modifiable by the synthesizer player. You could easily edit a menu to reconfigure it so that pushing the pitch wheel to the maximum value causes the pitch to rise by a major second or an octave (to cite the two most common cases), or it could be a minor second or a tritone or any other interval you might want.

Since there’s no intrinsic relationship between the value of the pitch wheel and the resultant pitch modification, it becomes a question for the artist to decide. Or with just a little more work, you could set the pitch bend wheel to adjust a filter cutoff, or some other synthesis parameter. These cases are obviously quite simple, but in more complex systems, the act of mapping between data types can become an artistic exercise in and of itself.

A more complicated case that arises frequently in digital installation art is connecting a camera to a computer. There’s a ton of information coming in from the camera, and you need to define a system for taking information from the camera and applying to whatever it’s meant to do, to use it for motion tracking, sound/video synthesis, or whatever. Whereas the pitch of the synthesizer and the values of the pitch bend wheel are pretty easy linear values to link up, the data from a camera is much more complex, comprising RGB components grouped into grids of pixels, presented frame by frame.

If you want it to be anything other than noise, you have to recognize the format of this data and which parts of the data are of most use for the tasks you’re trying to accomplish. Again, you can check out my simple “Study for Insomnia” video demo on my blog for an example: I’m using the value of the R, G, and B planes averaged across each frame to control the pitch offset of the filters I’m using on the sound.

Mapping visual information to sound is tricky because the data is so different, but it’s an interesting question with lots of possible solutions. So to restate (hopefully not overstate) my objection to Zhou Risheng’s performance, he ignored the question completely, or I would guess he didn’t understand the question in the first place.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 16

So there are all kinds of ways to connect two different sets of data, once you know the types of data you’re dealing with. It can be a whole sequence of conversions, filters, transpositions, etc., and they don’t have to be linear relationships, and they can draw on other data along the way, like a lookup table. One input can be mapped to multiple outputs, or the other way around. Defining these structures becomes an aesthetic exercise of its own. In fact this is the area where a lot of my art resides, and this is the kind of thing that I think really only happens in digital media, to get back to the question of interrogating the medium.

Another way to think of mapping is that it represents the point of convergence between two or more systems. You can think of any multimedia spectacle this way, not just digital media, but opera, ballet, film, etc. Sometimes the music and dance may go their separate ways, but sometimes they move together, and you can characterize different multimedia artworks by the frequency and nature of these points of convergence, the difference between Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, for example.

Perhaps this is an easy concept for classical musician like me to grok, having studied serial music of the mid-20th century, in which the parameters of music are often pulled apart and manipulated independently, particularly in total serial works such as those of Milton Babbitt.

This is an important issue in videogames, as well. The Microsoft Xbox audio creation tool exposes what they call (as I recall) “parametric sliders,” which you can use to connect some parameter coming from somewhere else in the game engine to some aspect of your sound data. Maybe a programmer uses this to tell you the health of your player, or the number of enemies attacking you, or the speed of your vehicle, or whatever, and then you as an audio designer can use this tool to define that this range of values should be linked to, say, a certain tempo range in your music soundtrack, or a certain pitch and volume range of your car engine sound. Mapping game parameters to audio parameters is an important part of the game audio designer’s job.

As far as the liminal, hidden, hacked… I’m not sure if it doesn’t figure in, or if that’s maybe all I’m talking about. These mapping operations I’m talking about happen at the borders of perceptual phenomena, windows from one into the other; it’s actually related to the hinges of the Calder mobile I mentioned elsewhere. Maybe you could call that hacking, but I guess it’s definitely hidden. But there’s probably a totally seperate question of transgression that is really not something I’m dealing with, copyright law, ownership, etc.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 17

Robin Peckham: I see we were using the term “mapping” in different sense, you in terms of creating analogical correspondences and I in terms of cartographic practices. However, I think this slippage could be interesting in and of itself. Where do the projects of representing a territory and building correspondences coincide? This could be an interesting area for further research, perhaps bringing the tradition of cartographic analysis in poststructuralist theory to bear on the specific practice you’re discussing here.

At the end of our first discussion you brought up interactivity, criticizing it as it is commonly used in big media art exhibitions. Can you provide a definition of “deep interactivity”? What kind of work would fit this rubric, and would it be any different from the participatory, or relational aesthetics? I’m curious especially about the role of duration, whether continued interactivity is automatically better than refrigerator door art. Or is it more a question of affect, about the nature of audience response?

Ben Houge: I think someone coming from a background in videogames has a particularly deep understanding of what interactivity can be, much deeper than what is commonly seen in interactive art installations. As one indicator, simply look at the interface mechanism for an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3: it’s a huge joypad covered with knobs and buttons and levers, quite intimidating to the uninitiated (which is why Nintendo was able to conquer new demographics by dramatically streamlining the Wii interface). The Wii and PlayStation 3 controllers, as well as the iPhone, also track gestural input, and camera interfaces are available for all of the current consoles, I believe.

In addition to simply having all of these avenues of input into the game system, game designers have a few decades of experience by this point of mapping all of this user input into meaningful actions or behaviors within the game system. At a basic level, this is how we define different game genres, whether the right trigger is mapped to an accelerator on a virtual car or a firing mechanism on a virtual gun, for example. To a large extent, this mapping of input to behavior is what defines a game, and this is something that is considered anew for each game, though of course there are genre conventions.

So I would say that a modern videogame represents about the richest interactive experience around. Now contrast this with what you typically see in an interactive art installation. Cameras or motion detectors that do something flashy when you wave your hand. A video path that leaves butterflies in your shadow as you walk on it. Plastic figures that make noise if you hit them. All of this stuff is so basic. There’s a one-to-one correspondence of input to output, with none of the sophisticated mapping techniques or creative system defining strategies that to me constitute the fascinating guts of digital art.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 18

If you wanted to quantify it, you could return to the “points of convergence” idea above; an Xbox controller provides multiple points of convergence between the behavior of a user sitting on a couch and a sophisticated game system, which means a closer link, which you could define as “deeper interactivity,” providing more control to the player over the experience.

I’ll illustrate my point with an example. I showed one self-styled media art broker my piece “Radiospace,” and her reaction was, “Hey, you know, you could make this interactive, with a motion detector to turn it on and off when people approach it!” And I had to really bite my tongue.

First of all, that’s hardly interactive at all. It’s flipping a switch. It’s not even a neat technological trick anymore, like it might have been in the 1980s when people started installing motion detecting lights on their garages. Interactivity isn’t a binary question (like linearity and all the things I listed in the previous discussion that got me thinking about interactivity in the first place); it’s a continuum, and pieces can be very interactive or hardly interactive or anywhere in between. Here there’s exactly one point of convergence between two totally independent systems (the viewer and the piece). By that definition, what isn’t interactive?

The other important issue to me, of course, is that Radiospace is an environment. I don’t want it to turn on and off, anymore than people can turn a mountain or a sunset on or off. That’s more a unique consideration for the kind of art I’m doing in particular. It was a bit frustrating to find such an immature understanding of interactive art even at that space claiming to be a leader in new media in China.

One reason you see so much junk in this arena is actually the flip side of a positive development, which is that the barrier to entry for interactive art has become pretty low. You can buy Max/MSP/Jitter for less than USD$500, and if you hook it up to a web cam, projector, and some speakers, you’re ready to go. I hope that this means soon more people will get over the “look what I can do” phase and start probing a little bit deeper. It would be great if these issues were to penetrate more deeply into popular consciousness. Time will tell. The continuing proliferation of videogames also bodes well.

Your question of duration gets to one of the big issues of digital art for me: ambiguity. This goes beyond simply the amount of time that someone stands in a room playing with an installation. Ambiguity allows a piece to function on the super long term, the way people can have a lifelong relationship with an artwork like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. If something is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, it engages the viewer/user more deeply, requiring him/her to complete the piece in his/her head, to take it with them and continue to think about it, and come back to it. This is why something like Mahler’s sixth symphony is so endlessly rewarding to revisit, because it yields new insights with each performance.

Ambiguity is an important factor in all art, but it’s extremely rare in digital art (think again of the extremely simple one-to-one mapping of the butterfly path example above; this is why these types of things are cropping up in escapist meccas like malls, where you’re not meant to be troubled with anything but shopping). And in this regard games aren’t much more sophisticated, still relying on extremely blunt realism and good guy/bad guy dialectics, although there are signs of progress.

numero55_Deep Ambiguity 19

I can’t say I’ve seen much in the way of real-time digital art installation that gives me this sense of wanting to come back and dig for fresh insights. The vast majority of the time, you play with a piece until you figure out how a it works, and then you forget it and move on. I’ve read about intriguing examples, works by pioneers like Char Davies and David Rokeby, but I haven’t experienced their interactive work live (though I saw a cool, non-interactive Rokeby piece at eArts last year). Olafur Eliasson’s also on the right track, although the digital aspect of his work is more behind the scenes.

In fact, I could probably say that I’ve made ambiguity the focus of much of my work. This is why I want to create virtual environments, places for people to come back to. A lot of people ask me what my installation pieces are specifically about (I think people are used to having a very clear, often blunt, message or idea), and of course I can’t say; they’re more about mood and atmosphere, I guess.

This is probably also why I’ve avoided the issue of interactivity in my non-game work to date. I don’t want to tackle it until I feel like I can do something significant with it; a lot of times one blunt, interactive feature can cheapen a piece.

There are all kinds of interesting ways to go. Most games involve some element of role-playing (usually a form of escapism, but doesn’t have to be). Or you can use an interactive game environment to implicate an audience in some event or situation; I saw this done in a very simple but effective way in a piece by Peterson Kamwathi at Kuona Trust, in a completely non-digital mini-golf game that had key phrases from recent government scandals inscribed on the golf balls.

Personally, I’m most interested in using interactivity to create more responsive environments, places that feel alive. Or you can use interactivity to provide an alternate window on a known phenomenon, some kind of sonification or visualization. It’s wide open, but so little of the interactive art I’ve seen is pushing the boundary in this direction.