Cycle is a series of technology-assisted performances, incorporating the use of robotics and sound. It was inspired by the interrelating concepts from Graphic Notation and East Asian Calligraphy/Ink Wash Paintings. In each unique recurrence, Cycle explores the theme of spontaneity and individuality transpired within a structured framework as the performers present their own interpretation of a set of instructions.
Each performance lasts approximately three minutes, give or take a minute; the performers end it at their own discretion. During the performance, a sole performer walks around the ‘Ink Stick Rotation Machine’ (ISRM) in a seemingly undefined way. The ISRM grinds an ink stick on an ink stone according to how the performer walks. Ambient sounds and vibrations generated from the constant moving contact of the ink stick and ink stone are amplified by speakers through a microphone located on the sides of the ink stone in real time.
In the performer’s interpretation from a set of rules constructed by the graphic score’s composer, control over the manner of performance is removed from the composer’s authority which alludes to a spontaneous creation of the performance by leaving it to ‘chance’. Unlike music represented in traditional notation, different performances of one graphic score do not have the same melody yet still articulate similar notions expressed in the score. In the cases of Ink Wash painting, the rules in posture, way of holding the brush, and practiced strokes, the results cannot be fully controlled by the painter and are still unpredictable due to human error and the nature of ink and water – their interaction take on a life of its own.
The audience sees and listens – nothing really comes out of watching the performance. Yet, even if the audience does not understand the concepts implicated in this work due to requiring some background knowledge about the act of grinding an ink stick, to experience Cycle, they merely have to practice being in a state of calmness and ambiguity. Just like when a painter or calligrapher prepares ink by manually grinding the ink stick, it is to ebb their flow of thoughts, momentarily forget about the things that are happening outside of the performance and just watch and listen. The performance would be both like a ‘performance’ and a non-religious ‘ritual’ at the same time. The feeling that one would sense is like when one is a non-Buddhist listening to the chants of Buddhist monks. Strangely calming, yet it could get annoying when one listens to an ununderstandable language for too long.
For the performers, I would hope that they would be in a world of their own without minding the presence of the audience and focus on their body walking in a circular path, yet I can imagine that they would perhaps be nervous in front of an audience, especially if they are performing for the first time. As a recurring theme in my work, ‘walking’ is a simple movement that can be of disinterest and a distraction all the same. It not only refers to the bodily action of moving your legs as a mode of transport but also signifies the act of repetition, which is structural, and the mundane. As the performer walks after a few times, the performer may build up a personal routine or choose to walk a different manner each time.
After my research on Graphic Notation and East Asian Ink Wash Paintings, I have drawn connections between these two distinctively different genres in art and show their overlapping characteristics in which my artwork attempts to embody conceptually. I likened graphic notation to instructions that were rather open-ended yet specific in certain ways, hence, I decided on creating a performance that Borrowing the motif of ink grinding, which is in itself the stage that happens before the actual painting is executed, and combining it with the imagined sound that graphic notation alludes to, I made the ISRM a framework for the performers. The performers actions are translated to 26 rotations speeds and merely two rotating directions on the ISRM. Within the structure of the ISRM itself, I also found it ironic to have a physically mechanical device replace the mechanical and repeated motions of ink stick grinding. I was unsure of the exact sound that would be produced at the beginning as the sound that is amplified would be quite different from the tiny scratching noise that I am familiar with when grinding ink.
Borrowing the motif of ink grinding, which is in itself the stage that happens before the actual painting is executed, and combining it with the imagined sound that graphic notation alludes to, I made the ISRM a framework for the performers. The performers actions are translated to 26 rotations speeds and merely two rotating directions on the ISRM. Within the structure of the ISRM itself, I also found it ironic to have a physically mechanical device replace the mechanical and repeated motions of ink stick grinding. I was unsure of the exact sound that would be produced at the beginning as the sound that is amplified would be quite different from the tiny scratching noise that I am familiar with when grinding ink. With the addition of the sound of the motor, I thought that the sound would be a nice hybrid between the organic and inorganic materials.
In the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, many prominent international avant-garde composers such as Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Mauricio Kagel, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as experimental composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff started to produce graphic scores that used new forms of notation and recorded them on sheets that were very divergent from traditional music notation in size, shape, and colour. This new way to convey ideas about music alters the relationship of music/sound to the composer and musician. “In contrast to scores with traditional notation, graphic notation emphasized concepts and actions to be carried out in the performance itself, resulting in unexpected sounds and unpredictable actions that may not even include the use of musical instruments.” (Kaneda, 2014)
Here, I focus on how graphical notation evolved from John Cage’s musical practice and then on Treatise, one of the greatest graphical scores, by Cornelius Cardew.
Influence of Zen Buddhism in Cage’s Work
In Cage’s manifesto on music, his connection with Zen becomes clear: “nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music; nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music; nothing is accomplished by playing a piece of music” (Cage, 1961).
This reads as if a quote from a Zen Master: “in the last resort nothing gained.” (Yu-lan, 1952). Cage studied Zen with Daisetz Suzuki when the Zen master was lecturing at Columbia University in New York. Zen teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is already an enlightened being (Department of Asian Art, 2000). Thus we see that Cage has consciously applied principles of Zen to his musical practice: he does not try to superimpose his will in the form of structure or predetermination in any form (Lieberman, 1997).
Cage created a method of composition from Zen aesthetics which was originally a synthetic method, deriving inspiration from elements of Zen art: the swift brush strokes of Sesshū Tōyō (a prominent Japanese master of ink and wash painting) and the Sumi-e (more on this in the next section) painters which leave happenstance ink blots and stray scratches in their wake, the unpredictable glaze patterns of the Japanese tea ceremony cups and the eternal quality of the rock gardens. Then, isolating the element of chance as vital to artistic creation which is to remain in harmony with the universe, he selected the oracular I Ching (Classic of Changes, an ancient Chinese book) as a means of providing random information which he translated into musical notations. (Lieberman, 1997)
Later, he moved away from the I Ching to more abstract methods of indeterminate composition: scores based on star maps, and scores entirely silent, or with long spaces of silence, which the only sounds are supplied by nature or by the uncomfortable audience in order to “let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions.” (Lieberman, 1997)
John Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis, 1961-62
Atlas Eclipticalis is for orchestra with more than eighty individual instrumental parts. In the 1950s, astronomers and physicists believed that the universe was random. Cage composed each part by overlaying transparent sheets of paper over the ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ star map and copied the stars, using them as a source of randomness to give him note heads. (Lucier, 2012)
In Atlas, the players watch the conductor simply to be appraised of the passage of time. Each part has arrows that correspond to 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 seconds on the clock face. Each part has four pages which have five systems each. Horizontal space equals time. Vertical space equals frequency (pitch). The players’ parts consist of notated pitches connected by lines. The sizes of note heads determine the loudness of the sound. All of the sounds are produced in a normal manner. There are certain rules about playing notes separately, not making intermittent sounds (since stars don’t occur in repetitive patterns), and making changes in sound quality.
Cornelius Cardew: Treatise, 1963-67
After working as Stockhausen’s assistant, Cornelius Cardew began work on a massive graphic score, which he titled Treatise; the piece consisting of 193 pages of highly abstract scores. Instead of trying to find a notation for sounds that he hears, Cardew expresses his ideas in this form of graphical notation, leaving their interpretation free, in confidence that his ideas have been accurately and concisely notated (Cardew, 1971). The scores were a guide which focused each individual’s creative instinct on a problem to be solved – how to interpret a particular system of notation using one’s own musical background and attitudes. (Tilbury, 2008)
As John Tilbury writes in Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished (2008), ” The instructions were a guide which focused each individual’s creative instinct on a problem to be solved – how to interpret a particular system of notation using one’s own musical background and attitudes.”
“A Composer who hears sounds will try to find a notation for sounds. One who has ideas will find one that expresses his ideas, leaving their interpretation free, in confidence that his ideas have been accurately and concisely notated.” – Cornelius Cardew
In the Treatise Handbook which guides the performer on the articulation of the score, Cardew writes that in Treatise, “a line or dot is certainly an immediate orientation as much as the thread in the fog” and for performers to “remember that space does not correspond literally to time.” (A Young Persons Guide to Treatise, 2009)
East Asian Ink Wash Painting
The Enso, or Zen circle, is one of the most appealing themes in Zen art. The Enso itself is a universal symbol of wholeness and completion, and the cyclical nature of existence, as well as a visual manifestation of the Heart Sutra, “form is void and void is form.” (Zen Circle of Illumination)
Despite there being many specific technicalities in Cage’s work, these are all qualitative instructions which are open-ended, ultimately leaving it up to the performer’s or conductor’s judgement on how they would play the piece as implied by Cardew’s ideas. In a sense, the individuality of each performance of the graphic score by different performers emerges. This is mirrored in appropriating the creation of the Enso in Cycle by the performer. Every painter draws a circle but every circle is different. Bodily and mindfully engaged in drawing the circle, the circle becomes an allegory of the individual.
The performer not only becomes both the painter and the medium in creating the circle, the performer is also a musician with the indirect control of the device that grinds ink – the instrument with a naturalistic sound created from the contact between the ink stick and the ink stone. To quote Cage’s approach to what defines music, it is the “the difference between noise and music is in the approach of the audience” (Lieberman, 1997).
The act of grinding the ink stick becomes the juxtaposition between the ritualistic and the improvised. Also, ink that is produced after each performance are of different quality each time as no two performances will last the exact same time nor will the performers be able to replicate their performance exactly.
Communication between the phone and the computer is through OSC. The ISRM is made up of an Arduino Uno, which controls a stepper motor, which is directly connected to the computer with a USB cable. The speed and direction of the performer would be measured by the built-in sensors in a phone on the performer. Data from the orientation sensor and accelerometer of the phone is computed in a C++ program on the computer which maps the speed and direction of the performer to that of the ISRM.
Controlling the Stepper Motor with C++
The Arduino part was pretty straightforward as there was the Firmata library for the Arduino that enabled serial communication with a C++ program. However, there was no stepper library in C++, so I translated the Arduino stepper library to C++. Working through the technical details of the stepper motor that I had with some trial and error, this was the circuit that I used to test controlling the stepper motor through a C++ program.
Here’s me testing the program out:
To hold the ink stone, ink stick, and the stepper into a single functional entity, I started off with a preliminary design of a 3D model in Blender, which eventually I was going to 3D print.
I got the idea of the rotation wheel and axis from the driving wheels of steam locomotives, but I was not satisfied with the motions of the rotating mechanism in the first prototype. It caused the ink stick to rotate in a rather awkward manner that did not keep the ink stick facing the same direction. I also removed the water tank as I felt that it was visually obstructive and had no better purpose than to provide the ink stick with water, which I did not manage to figure out a fail-safe method of channeling the water into the ink stone. I thought of using a wick to transfer water from the tank to the ink stone, but water transfer was too slow, or a small hole with a pipe dripping water to the ink stone, but the rate of dripping will change when the water in the tank decreases due to decrease in pressure. Also, it would damage the ink stick if I let it touch the water for too long periods of time, hence I scraped the water tank from then on and decided to manually add water before every performance.
There were many difficulties trying to get the holder for the ink stick to fit. I realised that it was never going to fit perfectly as the dimensions of the ink stick itself was not uniform; one end of the stick could be slightly larger than the other end, which made it either too loose or too tight when I tried to pass through the entire length of the stick through the holder. I resolved this by making the holder slightly larger and added sponge padding on the inside of the holder so that it would hold the ink stick firmly no matter the slight difference in widths. The ink stick was shaky when it rotated so I increased the height of the holder to make it more stable. I also added a ledge on each side of the holder for rubber bands such that the rubber bands could be used to push the ink stick downwards as it gets shorter during grinding.
Before arriving at the final design, there were just wheels that were only connected to each other through the rod. The rotation did not work like expected of a locomotive wheel and I realised that it was because the wheel not connected to the motor had no driving force that ensured it spun in the right direction. Therefore, I changed the wheels to gears.
The printed parts did not fit perfectly and that was not because of the wrong measurements as there was a factor of unpredictability in the quality of 3D printing. I tried using acetone vapour on the parts that need to move independently of each other to smooth the surface, but the acetone vapour also managed to increase the size of the plastic. The plastic became more malleable so I easily shaved them down with a penknife.
This process was too slow and I ended up using a brush to brush on the acetone directly to the plastic parts and waited for a few seconds for it to soften before using a penknife. Super glue was then used to hold parts that were not supposed to move together. The completed ISRM:
I used electret microphones that were connected to a mic amp breakout, then connected to a mixer for the performance. I got an electret microphone capsule to use with the Arduino but I did not know that the Arduino was not meant to be used for such purposes and the microphone was not meant for the Arduino.
So, I got another kind which could directly connect to output as I did not want to use the regular large microphone which would look quite ostentatious with the small ISRM.
Trying to amplify the sound of making ink (sound is very soft because I only had earphones at that time, and I was trying to get the phone to record sound from the earphones):
Sensor Data & Stepper Motor Controls
I initially thought of creating an android application to send data to the C++ program via Bluetooth, but there was the issue of bad Bluetooth connectivity, especially the range and speed of communication. Hence, I switched to using OSC to communicate the data. Before finally deciding on using an OSC app, oscHook, I made an HTML5 web application with Node.js to send sensor data. It worked well except for speed issues as there was a buffer between moving the phone and getting the corresponding data that made it rather not ‘real-time’, and it also sent NaN values quite often which would crash the program if there were no exception handlers.
For controlling the speed of the stepper motor, I mapped the average difference of the acceleration of the y-axis (up and down when the phone is perpendicular to the ground) within the last X values directly to the speed of the motor. Prior to this, I looked at various ways to get the speed and direction of walking, from pedometer apps to compass apps. As different people had different sensor values with the phone, I created a calibration system that adjusted the values of the mean acceleration when the performer is not moving and when the performer was moving at full speed. This ensured that the stepper will be able to run at all speeds for all performers.
Link to Git Repo.
Performance & Installation
Videos of performances were playing on the screen for the second day of Symbiosis. The TV was covered with white cloth on the first day. The ISRM was placed on a white paper table cover with the microphone next to it.
Instructions for Performers
Besides having to run a calibration before their performances, I requested the performers to wear “normal clothes in darker colours” to make a contrast with the white room walls. I decided not to specifically ask for black as it was too formal and intimidating. Although the performance exudes the sense of a ‘ritual’, it was not meant to be solemn or grievous, as was such cultural connotations of fully black clothes in a rather ritualistic setting.
During the performance, the performers were to heed these instructions:
- Walk around the room.
- When you stop, stop until you hear the sound indicates that the motor is at its lowest speed.
- End the performance when it is three minutes since the start.
Prior to completing the program that controls the stepper motor, I wanted to attach the phone to a belt and hide it under the clothes of the performers such that they would be walking hands-free. I realised that it was quite abrupt to merely end the performance with the performer standing still as there was no indication if the performer was pausing or stopping entirely to the audience. Hence, after realising that by placing the phone parallel to the ground caused the motor (and in turn the sound) to stop in an elegant manner, I decided that the performer would hold the phone (which I covered in white paper to remove the image a phone) in their hand and have them place it on the ground to signify the end of the performance.
There was a total of eight performances by three people, Yun Teng, Leah, and Haein. These are videos* of the performances by each of them on the Symbiosis opening night and their thoughts on their experience of performing:
*The lights in the room were off during the day, hence videos of the earlier performances look quite dark. If you do not hear any sound from the video, please turn up the volume.
“Being asked to perform for this piece was an interesting experience. For me, it was seeing how (even on a conceptual level, as it turned out) that my physical movement can be translated through electronics and code into the physical movement of the machine and the audio heard. Initially, although we were given simple instructions to follow and even, to some extent, encouraged to push these instructions, I was at a loss to how to interpret them, and just walked in a circular fashion. I tried to vary the pace, speed and rhythm of my walking in order to create variation, but ultimately fell back into similar rhythms of fast, slow, and fast again. It would have been interesting to perhaps push this even further if the machine was more sensitive to height changes, or arm movements – as a dancer who is used to choreography, this was a challenge for improvisation and exploration. In addition, due to the size of the room, the space was limited and hence the walking could only take place in certain patterns.” – Yun Teng
“At first, the walker was uncertain, distracted and anxious. She explored the link between sound and her unchoreographed strides and expected the connection to be instantaneous and obvious. However, it was not. There were delays and inconsistencies; the electronic and mechanic could not accurately reflect the organic. A slight panic arose from the dilemma of illustrating the artist’s concept to the audience and accepting its discrepancies as part of the performance. Slowly she started to play around with the delay, stopping suddenly to hear the spinning sound trailing on, still at high speed, and waited for it to slow down. Rather than a single-sided mechanical reaction to movement, the relationship between the walker and the machine becomes visible and reciprocal. Rather than just walking, now she also had to listen, to wait, and by doing so interact with the machine on a more complicated level. Through listening, she felt the shadow of her movements played back to her by the machine. The observation sparked contemplation on the walker’s organic presence versus the machine’s man-made existence and the latter’s distorted yet interesting reflection of the former.” – Leah
“The whole practice first was received as confusing and aimless as there was too much freedom for one to explore. It was challenging to perform the same act (walking/running) for more than two minutes. At first, I performed more than four minutes, unable to grasp the appropriate time, but it decreased as I repeated the practice. This repetitive performance was quite meditative and physically interactive with the work that caused me to wonder about the close relationship between myself and sound piece (which changes according to my walking speed). The most pleasant part of the performance was that I got to control the active aspect of the work and directly interact with it.” – Haein
The audience was very quiet, probably so that they could hear the sound that was very soft even at its loudest. When they first came in, they did not know what to do as there was no visible sitting area (so I directed them to sit at places that allowed the performer to roam most of the room). It was a huge contrast to the audience that interacted with my previous work as only the performer gets to have a direct interaction with the ISRM. Even then, the ISRM was visibly moving during the performances.
Just hours before the opening night, the ISRM broke at (fig. A & B). It was a mistake on my part as I was reapplying super glue (fig. B) to the base as it had somehow loosened from the previous application of super glue. In hindsight, I did not make extra parts (I did print extras of certain, not all, parts but they of no use when I did not bring them on site, nor were they ‘acetoned’ to fit together.), could not manage to salvage the parts, and I knew that I would not be able to reprint the parts in time. In the end, I slightly altered my work as the ISRM could no longer function as intended. Instead of having the microphones stuck to the sides of the ink stone, I stuck them to the stepper motor instead. Although the sound no longer had an organic element from the ink stick and ink stone, it was completely mechanical now.
After undertaking this project, I have learnt not to limit myself by my tools, but to explore different methods and tools before limiting myself in the creation of the work. I had a misconception that 3D printing was the most efficient way. In some ways, it was because it was the printer that was doing the hard work, not me and I did want to try 3D printing. Despite that, I should not have limited myself by my lack of consideration in using other materials to build the ISRM, such as the traditional way of putting together wood and gears. On the other hand, I do not regret my attempts to build an android app (which I quickly decided was not worth my time for the simple thing I was trying to accomplish) and a web application for sending the sensor data from the phone with Node.js as it is something new that I learnt even though I did not use it in my final work.
Fortunately, I managed to finish the design of the ISRM and print it out in time, but I felt that I should have focused more on the ISRM instead of coding in the earlier phase of the project timeline. 3D printing takes a lot of time, as I have experienced through this project, and any botched prints needed to be printed again as they are rarely salvageable even after being in print for hours. It is also tricky to get the settings right (i.e. infill) such that the printing time is minimised without compromising the quality.
Apart from the many technical things, I also learnt how to organise a performance art (this is my first performance art) and through making this artwork, there many more implications and questions that arise from what I created. For the performance, there were many things to keep track of, such as rehearsing with the performers beforehand, the attire of performers, the schedule of performances, getting the camera to film for documentation and managing the audience. In conclusion, despite being unable to carry out the performances as I have originally planned, I am glad that I have managed to still put together what is left of the entire work even when the ISRM failed to work correctly and the original intentions behind the artwork are still largely intact.
References & Bibliography
Works Cited in Background Research
A Young Persons Guide to Treatise. (12 December, 2009). Retrieved 2 November, 2015, from http://www.spiralcage.com/improvMeeting/treatise.html
Asian Brushpainter. (2012). Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Technique and Learning – The Main Aesthetic Concepts. Retrieved 2 November, 2015, from Asian Brushpainter: http://www.asianbrushpainter.com/blog/knowledgebase/the-aesthetics-of-ink-and-wash-painting/
Cage, J. (1961). Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Cardew, C. (1971). Treatise Handbook. Ed. Peters; Cop. Henrichsen Edition Limited.
Department of Asian Art. (2000). Zen Buddhism. Retrieved 11 December, 2015, from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zen/hd_zen.htm
Kaneda, M. (13 May, 2014). Graphic Scores: Tokyo, 1962. Retrieved 2 November, 2015, from Post: Notes on Modern & Contemporary Art Around the Globe: http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/452-graphic-scores-tokyo-1962
Lieberman, F. (24 June, 1997). Zen Buddhism And Its Relationship to Elements of Eastern And Western Arts. Retrieved 10 December, 2015, from UCSC: http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/lieberman/zen.html
Lucier, A. (2012). Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music. Wesleyan University Press.
Tilbury, J. (2008). Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): A Life Unfinished. Copula.
What Ink Stick Should You Choose For Japanese Calligraphy? (2015). Retrieved 3 December, 2015, from Japanese Calligraphy: Modern Japanese Calligraphy inspired in Buddhism and Zen: http://www.theartofcalligraphy.com/ink-stick
Williams, M. L. (1981). Chinese Painting – An Escape from the “Dusty” World. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Yu-lan, F. (1952). A History of Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.