Today we speak to Filipino artist Tad, whose work with user-activated solenoid beaters on gamelan instruments is part of the main juried exhibition here at ISEA2008 in Singapore. Popping in on Tad while hard at work in his studio laboratory at I2R, we see a myriad of enginnering tools at his disposal, and him making full use of his rather fortunate position amongst these machines.

Installing solenoids onto the bonang, the saron, the kenong, and the gendang, Taddeus presents interactive systems as musical conduits through which the enterprise of the participant serenades, allowing users to interact with the system, as well as each other in orchestral unity. We speak to Tad today about the impetus for the project as well as his thoughts on the developmental process.

<portions of the interview have been excluded due to constraints>

Q: What got you started on this project?

A: Well i always liked the gamelan. When i first heard Balinese gamelans – differ from Javanese in that they are really fast and orchestral, i really liked the sound of them, the drums are a brilliant mixture of gongs and thunder. And of course, it kind of pains me to admit this, but there is some part of it that has to do with trying to digest or integrate some sense of being South East Asian. I hate that, Filipino or South-East Asian art that tries to be emblem mongering – to do stuff about rice, stuff about gongs, generally waving the third world flag. . . i guess i understand the impulse to do it, but i think basically why i like it is just cos i like the way it sounds and thunders.

Q: Would you consider this a particularly musical piece as compared to the other works you’ve done?

A: Well i guess, cos most of the other stuff i do, i don’t actually bother to make it sound like music, whereas in this case i m actually trying to make it … gamelan like. Its going to be basically so – the xylophone will play lead guitar, the other instruments would fill in rhythm guitar and so on, almost modeled after rock band. I think thats also why i like the gamelan so much, most of it is in 4/4, so there’s a lot in it thats accessible to any body who likes, grew up on rock. Especially Balinese gamelan that is noisy like thunder where there are parts where everyone hits everything. I like the violence.

But that being said, the Javanese gamelan set that i am working on does not hamper the project basically because my requirements are so untraditional. For example, i’m going to play the drum – the gendang but i’m not going to play it to sound like a the way it is played in the Javanese gamelan ensemble. As well as that, there is normally a strictly monophonic melody on xylophone where you have to mute a note as you play the next, but im not going to bother doing that. It’s going to be a really noisy resonant gamelan played improperly.

Q: About the project now, how much emphasis does ‘Quartet’ as an interactive piece place on the audience as participant?

A: I usually like removing the person from the equation. What i like about the gamelan is that it is classical, not romantic in the sense that it’s not about somebody’s feelings about the rain, or feelings about his mother. It is basically about patterns – i like that coldness. In my project, you’ve got an AI controlling the interactivity and algorithms controlling the patterns of music experienced. But yet it’s supposed to be interactive with people in the audience conducting. I guess the project just involves making artificial intelligences play instruments and having them come out physically into the world.

I was just thinking the other day that i want to give logical body. Usually media art is so gossamer, you manipulate pixels and you manipulate logic. More and more im going towards heavy s***, make it heavy, make it matter, make it in matter – flesh of the world, bones of the world.

The good thing about residencies is that i am discovering resemblances, like a secret genealogy where you realize you’re a branch of the tree you never knew you were part of. Theres Trimpin, Ajay Kapoor who was recently in NUS. So for me, this is not really a spin on Trimpin’s works, though it is related to his pioneering work with media and computers interfaces that control physical instruments.

Basically i was just thinking the whole thing is scratching the itch i have of making the image physical. In the Philippines, artists are always putting stuff next to TV monitors and video loops, playing with the idea of real and the virtual. For instance, there’s this guy who put a fan next to to a video of a flickering candle. It was just all about timing, so after ten minutes it would get out of phase. I wanted to make such a virtual image enter the real world by making it perform work, so i put a sensor on the screen and basically found a video of a guy lifting the sandbag. I like the idea of a ghost that works really really hard to life something really really light, so i connected the sensor to a little crank, and every time he lifted the sandbag, the crank rolled up a bit of the red thread. At the end of the work, people see it as a school of red thread being wound by an image. I like that the whole idea of making an image enter the real world – instead of vice versa which we have all the time like the mouse.

Q: So a little more about the installation setup now? What can we expect?

A: There will be 4 screens and under each screen will be one of these gamelan instruments. The interactor will stand on a square and he’ll conduct, with things like claps – and it will start playing. You can make it go faster and slower, or we could have moments where everybody stops except for one guy. In that sense it’s having some robots you’re conducting, and the point is that you’re communicating with something which has a kind of type of intelligence – a shadow of life, and not only are they responding to you like any game avatar, or any non-player intelligent character in a game responds, but its also hitting stuff in the real world.

Basically the videos will just be torsos. . . i don’t know why but it seems important not to show his face (laughs).

For the tracking system, I2R has a processing group and they do a bunch of computer vision gestural tracking tools, so they’re coming over here to use it. This is one of the more ambitious projects iv done in terms of all the stuff i have to built. The last time i tried to deal with images coming into the world i had just had one sensor, this time i have 15 sensors and 4 instruments – kind of a sudden jump. But I want to do it so that when it changes not all of them change at the same time and there is some variation in the way the music is played.

Q: Where do you position yourself in the sound art fraternity?

A: I’m not sure mainly because I’m not really conscious of my place in a sound art fraternity. This has got to be a work of sound art, but it’s not about making music, because at the very most i am innovating at 2 levels – not muting the keys or, playing it badly, and using triplets in the gamelan, putting something like an African vibe in there.

In that sense its a lot more about Alien intelligence in machines. Up until recently, i could describe myself basically as a video artist – now i describe myself as a media artist. I’m not conscious about using sound as my medium, its just something that comes out usually just because of the fact that i like sound.

One of the things that i wind up doing, is trying to create more bridges of meaning that can be but are not necessarily tactile, allowing the audience to perceive more order in the sense of a particular sound being connected to something else. One thing i did was i got this timer from a washing machine- there were switches opening and closing, sort of like a music box. I thought it looked like a hardware sequencer so i attached the switches to a keyboard that i had stripped and taken out the circuits. Every key had electrodes so you could switch on and off a key by opening and closing a circuit. I just exposed the electrodes and attached the washing machine timer to the keyboard and basically had it play music. Of course i added a little piezo electric microphone to it as well so you could hear the mechanical sounds and then hear the electronic sounds that it was conducting.

So even conceptually, there is a connection between what you’re hearing on stage, that something has to be happening. You have to be percieving information together with the sound, and that’s my problematic – what other information can you give the audience! The perception of order produces pleasure.

Tad Ermitano’s work Quartet will be exhibited in the National Museum as part of the ISEA2008 main-juried exhibition. Come experience the interactive gamelan orchestra from the 25th July to the 3rd August 2008.

More information about the process can be found at the artist’s Blog site at http://cavemanifesto.blogspot.com/

For more information about the artist and project please visit the ISEA2008 main site. Keep checking this site for latest updates and developments in the buildup to the exhibition.