The new analog: a two part conversation with Damon Krukowski & friends #MW2019
Recorded at Museums and the Web 2019, Boston. April 5, 2019. Adapted from original live captioning provided by CaptionFamily.
Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, interviews Damon Krukowski, musician in Damon & Naomi and formerly Galaxie 500, creator of Ways of Hearing (book and podcast) and The New Analog, and moderates a panel discussion about what is lost, and what is gained, as we move across media. How do digital translations and transmedia experiences challenge the borders and definitions of the media we use today, and what “meaningful signals” might we unwittingly sacrifice as “noise” in our search for “fidelity”? Joining the panel discussion are leading practitioners in a range of media: Halsey Burgund, sound artist and creator of the Roundware platform; Diane Borger, executive producer at ART and of the immersive theatre blockbuster Sleep No More; Sharna Jackson, artistic director of SITE Gallery, Sheffield and Kellian Adams Pletcher, founder and CEO of Green Door Labs’ mobile and location-based learning experiences.
Part one: Damon Krukowski & Seb Chan
Sebastian Chan: Damon Krukowski and I have known each other for a couple of years now, and Damon used to work in publishing at the Peabody Essex Museum when I was working at Cooper Hewitt (2011–2015). And Damon has made an amazing podcast and a second book now. We thought this was an interesting moment to talk about analog at a time when it feels like we are moving out of a digital space into a kind of post-digital space, where the ‘magic’ of digital is gone.
It feels like the magical moments have passed. And people are finding new magic in analog themes. What does that mean? And how might museums and experience creators and people like us make sense of that?
I’m just going to play you a minute of the first episode of Damon’s Ways of Hearing podcast, and we’ll get going.
Damon Krukowski (from the podcast): In that analog studio, there was a feeling when the tape started rolling, this was the moment we would capture. The feeling of time, moving both more slowly and more quickly than usual.
Like when you are in an accident, each split second is suddenly so palpable, as if you are living in slow motion. Yet what do we say when it’s over? ‘It all happened in an instant’.
Analog recording is like an accident in other ways. On tape, there was no undo. You could try again if you had the time and the money, but you couldn’t move backwards. What is done is done. For better and worse.
Today, life as a musician is very different. In the digital studio. and I’m using one now, everything you do is provisional. That is, being be redone, reshaped, rebuilt. There’s no commitment because each element of a recording can be endlessly changed. It can even be conjured from digital scratch, as it were, and entered into a computer directly as data without anyone performing at all.
This means there’s no moment from lived experience that is captured forever and unalterably so in the digital studio.
Which is why it’s more than nostalgia that makes me remember the analog studio as different than what we know today. Because the digital era has not just altered our tools for working in sound or image or moving images. It is changing our relationship to time itself.
Sebastian Chan: So, Damon, museums and time.
Damon Krukowski: Yes, well, I always felt that museums are going back in time. Materiality leaves these traces and I grew up in New York City and the metropolitan museum was free, as I think it still should be. And I just went as a kid to get out of the rain there a lot, you know, or because I had nothing to do. So I feel like I grew up with access to all of this past time. It was filled with mystery and magic and confusion and strangeness, and this was preblockbuster shows. There were very few wall labels that were directed at me. So I just wandered around a lot.
There’s a wonderful children’s book called From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler and it’s about having the run of the museum. I identified with it. And so the museum to me was always this sort of place where I could just wander around but I felt lost in the past, I guess, it was really magical.
And then time. Digital time is so different because it doesn’t leave material traces. So, we can’t get to the past of our digital era very easily. We have all of this trouble with digital archiving, dealing with that all the time. How do you maintain even a sense of the past with our digital tools, our digital information, because it’s constantly sloughing off whatever was there and leaving no material trace, even when we want it to.
So it seems like that’s a quandary for museum. How do you deal with that?
Sebastian Chan: I think we thought that the digital would open up access and remove those barriers. If you didn’t live in New York, this was amazing. You could get access from the other side of the world in Sydney — where I was growing up.
I think back to when you and I have spoken about music and how this has occurred with music, that the opening up of musical archives has been amazing and we can put Spotify apps on our phone to unearth and provide access to a vast archive of material, both contemporary and historical.
But the rituals of access have been lost in that.
And whilst access has opened up, ritual is important. I think that there’s been a flattening — a sort of flattening of time and a flattening of privilege.
Some of the rituals from record shopping — dealing with the annoying clerk who won’t serve you because you are wearing the wrong t-shirts. Those are the things we want to get rid of. But also the real emergence of vinyl again as the ritual of ‘putting on the record’. Talk to me about that.
Damon Krukowski: I love this phrase “rituals of access.” Music has as many or more rituals than what it did. But it’s a shift from rituals created by many, many individuals to rituals that are set by corporations and programmed into our experience. And that to me is the worrisome thing. So, of course, there are lots of rituals now for access to music but it has to do with signing up and surrendering your privacy to a certain agree and agreeing to terms and conditions, et cetera, possibly paying subscription fee, possibly not.
So we have a lot of rituals of access, but instead of those determined by innumerable clerks at record stores and this culture that emerges out of mysterious connections and behaviors, we have them set by board meetings and bullet points and plans.
Sebastian Chan: And a sense of design as well. The optimization of that experience as a totalizing, globalized singular user experience.
Damon Krukowski: Right, but on the other hand, you know what I worry about in music specifically is that — and maybe this relates to what goes on in the museums too — the user experience, instead of being perfected for the user, is really being perfected for the company. And Spotify, take an example that is on musicians’ minds now, is accounting for 75% of the music industry, this one company.
They are moving the user experience wherever they want it to go. And they are not allowing it to be organic or determined by the users at all. The emphasis on the playlist on Spotify, instead of album, for example, is something that nobody in the music industry can do anything about, except Spotify. No user can resist it. No label, nobody else, because when you go on the site as a user, the playlist is foregrounded. If you use it for free you can’t play an album all the way through, it only plays certain parts. And it removes the control from the artist and the user.
And so this is a strange thing that’s happening with user experiences being used for corporate purposes and ultimately, we don’t know what those purposes are about. They might not know so well either, I suspect. We tend to read in a lot of preplanning into these corporate moves but I think they are much more ad hoc than we might assume. Certainly these moves are not necessarily with our interests in mind.
Music is going through this enormous crisis. How do any of us survive as musicians off of our material work because everything is poured into Apple and Spotify?
And they are not paying —and they don’t really need any one of us. It’s not like a big corporate major label when they would have a band and have to pin everything on them. Apple, Spotify, they don’t have any bands. We are all replaceable, even the biggest bands are replaceable.
Does that relate to what is happening in the museum?
Sebastian Chan: Yes, there’s a growing gap between the very large tourist museum brands, that do define the expected behavior that first time museumgoers then carry to other museums that are much smaller. Certainly in Australia and North America , the vast numerical majority of museums have zero to 5 paid staff and few tourists, whilst the very big international tourist brands that operate [set the expectation of experience]. And in some ways, as we move out of [this topic] and into this notion of surface noise, that the polishing of those brands and the polishing of experiences mirrors the polishing of the digital world. And it’s a grit that’s lost in there.
And I guess, you know, when you’ve spoken about analog, I think many of us quite resistant to the notion of the vinyl fetishists who sees vinyl as a ‘better sound’. It’s really a different sound, a gritty sound. And it’s the grit, not the shine.
Damon Krukowski: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s necessarily better in every situation, because as you say, things like access are values that we need to hold on to. You know, the idea that digital can remove barriers is beautiful and idealistic and we have to hold on to that, even as we see the problems as we polish away all the grit and maybe the ritual. Are the rituals of access part of the grit?
Sebastian Chan: I think the rituals of access are gritty. That’s one of the nice things that it creates communities, communities that share rituals and also share borders too beyond those rituals.
I think we will address it in the second part of this talk when we are joined by others. Because you think immersive theater and other things that require those rituals, those shared ‘temporary ethics’ so that you don’t smash up everything on the set are very similar to, perhaps, some of the more fragile artist editions, versus the science museum, which will design out every possible rough corner because there’s an imagined future where the kid can break everything.
We often, in museums, design for the worst of human behaviour.
Damon Krukowski: Right. Right.
Sebastian Chan: So there is that sense also that analog needs you to be manually involved in things — it forces human interaction but also forces care.
Damon Krukowski: It also does allow the worst of behavior. That’s really true. To think back to the record store, just the typical environment, I have a great friend who ran a record store for years, and he said one day in exasperation, he says “I’m a sitting duck for the worst people to come in the room and make me miserable”. There’s nothing he could do.
But he kept the record store because there were all of these wonderful things that would happen. The temporary ethics does have to include dealing with people, and that is part of the grit that gets in too. That’s an important ritual in a way to allow for that.
The more interactive you go, the more you have to account for bad behavior, right, because if your exhibit is roped off and you have guards there saying step back or beepers beeping, you have to worry a lot less than when people are physically touching things.
Sebastian Chan: That reminds me of the conservators who joked, that ‘the museum would be better if this weren’t any visitors’.
Damon Krukowski: That’s like a CD. The whole idea of a CD is that nothing touches it. It’s just a beam of light and the CD never ages and that was the myth about it. The problem is my own CD collection is falling to pieces.
Sebastian Chan: When the recordings are digitized and moved to cloud services, they become even more fragile.
Damon Krukowski: Right.
Sebastian Chan: The cost of maintaining those, contemporary film, television, games, they are very fragile.
Damon Krukowski: Yes.
Sebastian Chan: When we digitize those rolls [of film] into data it makes them a lot more fragile and harder to preserve and carry forward.
Let’s move on to economics.
What is interesting with your own work of late, you have been going to a ‘pay what you wish’ model.
Damon Krukowski: Yes.
Sebastian Chan: And with Bandcamp versus the stream. You have written a lot about the politics of Spotify and the economics of Spotify. You have spoken, on one hand, about the minuscule pay that Spotify brings in and sharing details of the your income from them alongside what you’ve earned from the ‘pay what you wish’ platforms.
Damon Krukowski: Right. So Bandcamp is a much more DIY streaming platform, where everyone who participates in it, the artists or the label, can upload their work and choose how to share it and whether to charge for it and how much. Whereas Spotify or Apple Music — we have no say as the creators.
And also you have no say as a user on those platforms — but on Bandcamp, you can opt to have the user choose to determine the value of your work. And this is an ongoing experiment.
I have two active accounts on Spotify and Bandcamp, one of my first band which is a defunct band, Galaxie 500, so this is a legacy act, a museum act. And then my current duo with my wife, Damon and Naomi. Because it’s just the two of us, we are very free to make any business decisions we choose.
So we lifted all the charges on Bandcamp, you can have all of our music for free. If you want to pay, you can. Galaxie 500, it’s a standard reasonable fee charged on Bandcamp and here’s the result. Galaxie 500 is a much more popular band, and has much more demand, the old work, than the new work, this is the nature of being in a musician. But what happens on Bandcamp is we make the same amount of money from these two projects.
One has much greater demand now but has a fixed price. So only a small portion of people actually pay for a download there, because they can get it for free on Spotify or Apple Music or bootleg, if they choose. And then our duo which has much lower demand and is offered for download for free, not just stream, but people volunteer the same amount of money in the end that we charge for Galaxie 500. We come out — net — the same.
The big difference is we have more downloads for Damon and Naomi than we do for Galaxie 500 on Bandcamp. There are a number of people taking it for free off of Bandcamp. That’s the value — we get to share our music more. It’s not a bad thing that all of these people are coming in and taking it for free and enough of them are paying voluntarily that we make the identical amount of money.
So it’s a very idealistic kind of result. It’s essentially saying that if you do lift the financial barrier entirely (of course, there are other barriers like you need all of this equipment and computers )— you might end up just simply sharing more, and maybe earning the same.
Sebastian Chan: And building a community around your music.
Damon Krukowski: Absolutely. So the voluntary aspect of it is so different, of course, than charging a price. And that is an economic gesture which then becomes a communicative gesture.
It’s still financial, but I feel like it carries a whole lot of non-financial information and meaning between the listener and us that would otherwise be missing from the transaction. Instead of it being truly transactional, in other words, it’s allows for other parts of communication to come in.
It’s a very simple idea but not a very popular idea with the music industry — give everything away for free. They have been fighting for years in the courts and against ‘pirates’ all over the world to stop it, but the truth is, at the same time, they are giving it away. They are giving away the store to giant corporations that they can’t retrieve it from. My feeling is they should give it all away.
I’m not sure how that relates to you.
How much do you charge and how many people are you trying to get in the door?
Sebastian Chan: I think there’s a lot of debate whether more accessible pricing actually changes who comes to museums.
If you don’t also remove other barriers to people wanting to go to the museums — their calendar of other activities that they feel that they are welcomed at and other things they might do.
It’s always struck me that music, as a musician and DJ, is that I’m quite utopian about the power of music to change how people feel about things.
I ran a club for a decade and did public radio and other things that were creating about an environment, a spatial environment, that would put people in a state of mind to open themselves up to other experiences. So the notion that music can, in the right circumstance, in the right acoustics, and the right setting, (and I think you will see this in the theater productions too and also experiential art), that those experiences can be gateway drugs to other things.
Damon Krukowski: Mmhmm.
Sebastian Chan: And it’s about having the dispensary stacked with all the really exciting things.
That’s where making museums accessible sits.
But can the museums build community? If they are not building community, it just becomes …
Damon Krukowski: Right. I think if I were to take one lesson away from that experience with the economics of streaming for myself, it’s that you do not build community through Spotify or Apple Music. It’s the opposite.
We are losing access to our individual fans and our circles. Whereas music to me has always been this series of circles that are interlocking and nesting and flowing around between each other. It’s always been the great thing about it as you are describing.
But at the same time, I think you can use digital to do that, because you have this enormous reach. We can reach people all over the world because of digital, which we couldn’t do. And we don’t have to work with large corporations anymore to physically distribute our music to do that. But then there’s a horrible barrier where we can’t even connect to our fans in the same city where we live because they are all using this universal single user platform.
Sebastian Chan: We talk about aggregators run by global corporations with museum archive content too and we also talk about ones we build ourselves. I think there’s a potential interesting parallel between ‘who are the Spotify museum collection aggregators?’ and where are the ones like Bandcamp. And how do we address those things with our content, our collections, and move out to other platforms. When they move out are they just as objects for consumption or are they beginnings of relationships?
Damon Krukowski: Right. To me, it always comes down to how much context can you attach to the content?
What Spotify does and Apple Music and all of these corporations that compete with them is take our content, it’s identical, but they remove all the context. They strip it away and they replace it with their context. We have no ability to re-attach ours.
And what we can do on Bandcamp, for example, or on our own websites back when we hosted individual websites, which, again is disappearing, is that you could build so much context. That was the excitement for me of the web at one point, was all this context that you could frame everything with, which made for more sharing and greater sense of community.
And now we lose that.
Metadata is very difficult issue in music because there’s no profit in attaching the metadata to content. The streaming platforms are defining the content, the music, without any of the credits.
People mistake cover songs. You know, even the concept of cover songs. You see someone else’s song and people mistake the songs that we have sung by others for our own because there’s no songwriters listed anymore on the platforms that people use. So they come to our concerts and think that we wrote these tunes. When our whole gesture of covering a song was a tribute to another artist, of reinterpretation, of knowing winks, of pointing to other records or pointing to other periods of time. All of that is stripped away and you just get the song.
And there’s no way for us to invest that song with more. That context was indications for our community — Go listen to this other record. Go listen to this other band. Go check out this period of music.
Sebastian Chan: So you did mention web 1.0, which dates both you and I as old people now. So let’s talk about hearing loss.
I was thinking about this during the lunch break that it’s interesting that the frequencies that you lose as you age — if you have been gigs and parties and had a fun life — the hearing that you lose, the frequencies you lose are the informational ones and the navigational ones. The high frequencies that allow you to discern information and direction, but you still feel the bass. Bass is such an emotional thing.
The emotion of sound and the emotion of the analog.
Damon Krukowski: I love that. That’s such a great concept and positive about our hearing loss. But, to me, a lot of my written work about sound has focused on this idea of signal and noise.
And for engineering and, I’m sure for many of you in your daily work, you use the same concept of signal as whatever you are trying to communicate. Noise is everything else.
So our instinct, when we are communicators, is to strip away the noise. As you are saying with hearing loss, maybe inadvertently we end up stripping away the information and we keep only the noise. People complain about too much noise and noisy environments. But there’s a lot of information in noise.
Noise is as communicative as signal.
And that’s what I worry about with our digital tools and digital environment above all, is that we forsake the noise, we ignore the noise. In fact, if we pay attention, we pay attention just to get rid of it — you know, what is getting in the way of our efficient communication here?
But the noise carries information.
It may be hard to control the information. The bass is getting through, you can’t put the lyrics in the bass, right? But you can put all of this feeling in it. When you pull the bass out, you are missing something. I think anyone who loves music knows that.
At the same time, when you analyze music, where is the information coming from? It’s not going to be the most common answer saying it’s coming from the bass. And that gets back to the grit you were talking about too.
Part two: Damon Krukowski, Seb Chan, Sharna Jackson, Kellian Adams Pletcher, Diane Borger & Halsey Bergund.
Sebastian Chan: Damon, you were writing about a sound art exhibit and you were writing in that sound art is incredibly difficult to put in a music gallery, but this sound art exhibit occurred in a coworking space.
Damon Krukowski: So not far from here is John Hancock Tower which is a completely smooth glassed tower by Copley Square. One floor is coworking spaces — gig economy, rent the desks, open floor plan.
Anyway, this coworking space donated space for a temporary sound art exhibition, to a very experimental group, nonprofit group here in Boston for a fundraiser and the group invited a whole lot of artists to put sound in the spaces. And what was remarkable was that it worked.
This was a group sound art show in a coworking space, not in a gallery or not in an art institution. And my experience of sound art in art institutions has been problematic because you can’t control the sound. It bleeds past the walls. It bleeds all over the place. And if you have multiple pieces, they knock into each other and make it very hard to communicate and interact within a given piece.
The coworking space was like a physical space designed for a group sound art show, that’s what I found being there. It was very, very comfortable. And that’s a little distressing because, of course, the gig economy has a lot of problems with it as a model, an economic model and the idea that, like, we could find an art institutional model in this gig economy business is a bit odd to say the least.
But it did make me think back to the origin of the ‘white cube gallery’ and its relationship to modernist office design which was all about isolated sounding and keeping typewriters and telephones muted so you could have this clean office space with just the information that you wanted going on. And so shut everything else out, get rid of the noise. That’s largely what the white cube inherited from modernist design principles and here’s this disruptive economic model of the coworking space, jettisoning the white cubicle. But maybe also offering an interesting alternative to the white cube.
But you all have much more experience in actually installing sound and dealing with sound in galleries and art spaces.
Sharna Jackson: Yes, I’m the artistic director at SITE gallery which is a contemporary art space in Sheffield, the North of England. We focus on new media and performance. I became the director there around ten months ago, and our second show is called ‘Recollections’. It was three women artists who worked for SITE in the past, and we played a part in their journeys.
And so these three pieces of work, moving image works, needed separate rooms, absolutely. And as a contemporary art space we don’t work with collections. We are working very closely with artists who were very clear on the requirements for their work.
And we have tight budgets for our exhibitions. I used to be at Tate. We are very much not the Tate. And so I guess a budget for our show would be, say, $50,000. And I can say that $49,000 of that went for the rooms for the works.
Damon Krukowski: Amazing.
Sharna Jackson: Yes, I was thinking about that in relationship to what you were saying about ‘free’ and what happens when things become free, and for me, it’s about wrapping the ‘free’ in experience.
Of course, anybody could go on YouTube, on Vimeo to watch these artists’ videos for free. We have the obligation to create the experience around the films not just for the artists but for the audience appreciation.
A lot of what you were saying parallels a book that you probably don’t know. It’s a book called The Curve by Nicholas Lovell. He’s a game designer, a game business designer, he was talking about the AppStore and the race for everything becoming free and how a developer might make money in the AppStore. It was about wrapping experience around the content that you are actually trying to sell. Obviously there’s the core product but then there’s this other layer that just makes it more interesting and more engaging and that deeper meaning. I find it interesting.
Damon Krukowski: Completely. It’s striking how inefficient it is. You had to spend $49,000 of a $50,000 budget to wrap it.
Sharna Jackson: Is it inefficient? No. For museums in England, we are all struggling for attention. We are struggling not for attention from each other but from phones and life. And so is that a waste of money? No. The rooms needed to be perfect.
And I wanted people to feel something.
Damon Krukowski: Yeah. Up the inefficiency! I think in a way, that’s the answer that maybe a lot of us have to give to the digital environment which is just to increase the inefficiency or lean on the inefficiencies.
Sharna Jackson: Yes.
Kellian Adams Pletcher: Can I talk briefly about inefficiency? My name is Kellian and I’m a game planner. I work with folks who are digital and I have friends who are designers. Live action role play (LARP) and making people cry, and people are building these really beautiful interactive stories that have no environment.
And I have started working a lot more with these LARP directors and saying, okay what if we take this beautiful story, we take this gorgeous interactive thing that we built and what if we put it in this mansion in Mass and then what happens to it? And the initial thought, that’s completely inefficient but the magic that it creates is magic. Because we are a game designer and we have to survive off of it. We find that people are willing to spend more because we have shown that we value this wrapper. You know, we have spent the inefficiency to build it and people say, wow, that’s special. That’s magic. I’m willing to also value that and spend money for it.
Sharna Jackson: I’m wondering if that creates super fans. When you were talking about the difference in the payment structure between your bands I wonder if also that the fact that it is free makes people want to contribute more.
We have tried that in the gallery, for some of our participatory works, or workshops, because access to the gallery is free for everybody. Most people pay nothing but then you do have the benevolent and the people who can afford it.
Damon Krukowski: Absolutely.
Sharna Jackson: So it’s interesting to see that model.
Damon Krukowski: And also I find that the people who would pay tend to pay just a little bit. It’s not that a few people have paid a whole lot. Nobody has stepped in to be a big benefactor but there’s an interesting thing — just paying a little — does represent a different kind of engagement and also sends us a message and people clearly feel that it’s a message. I think that’s the reward, both ways.
Which is really great.
Sebastian Chan: So Diane, you have been running ‘Sleep No More’ in New York for many years now. And I guess you are very much doing a scarcity product, but also one that’s become. there are so many super fans of that. They come back multiple times. How has that changed across the run? And at what point does superfans become like the science museum visitors?
Diane Borger: My name is Diane Borger. I’m the executive producer at ART in Cambridge. ‘Sleep No More’ ran for a year here, before it went to New York and its been there for seven or eight years.
It’s one of those funny things.
Many of you have seen it, especially early on, there was an interest from the museum world in that kind of immersive theater practice and what it was about. Here [in Boston], the first few days, nobody, well 100 people were there. But by the third or the fourth day, it was completely sold out. And it famously never advertises. It’s the holy grail of word of mouth and [as an audience member] thinking that you are discovering something.
One of the reasons to this day that it doesn’t advertise in New York is there’s a desire that people go and say, ‘I never heard of this’! Or ‘my friend told me’. So it is purposefully kept that mystery — it’s maybe a little subversive or transgressive to go to this experience.
Superfans are odd to me in any art form. So I don’t know. Maybe science museums have superfans. I don’t know.
I would love that, but I don’t know. I did very conventionally, I told Seb that I should be old ‘the old analog’.
[I’ll talk about another show], Alanis Morissette gave us the rights to her album, and that generated visitors from 26 countries, all 50 states and people sleeping outside the theater in order to get this standing room tickets and although many of our shows are successful and do well, that kind of behavior had never happened before. So I really knew that that was a crossover from music industry, rather than theater behavior.
And also, we never sell any merch. I mean theaters don’t do that, maybe Broadway Theaters do. So we made a T-shirt and sweatshirt and sold literally thousands and thousands of dollars of it. So much that my board said, we should do merch on every show. I said, ‘no, no’.
I’m so conscious of how different my world is because that cliche about theater — it’s people in a room telling stories — hasn’t really changed. And whilst we use modern technology, we are a little behind, I think, always in theater. I don’t think we are very imaginative that way.
And I was struck when you were talking about access.One of our fantasies at work is once an eighth grader from Idaho wrote us a letter saying how much he loved the ART, and he had never been there, but he ‘looked at our work online and that there were podcasts or photographs, blah, blah, blah and he hoped someday to visit’.
We remembered how it was before Spotify, where you fell in love with a band and you put the poster on the wall and maybe once in your life you saved up to see them if you were from Idaho and people toured less then because you had to go buy their album.
So I’m sort of thinking so much about how much do I want to impact the live experience of theater, the unique selling point in terms of access, and for me one of the great joys of my industry is that it’s ephemeral. So do I want a record of it? Maybe, but, I don’t know, it’s a big question for me.
Sebastian Chan: The rituals around theater are very, very engaged. That’s what makes it special along with a live performance in music. It’s interesting that you needed to make merch for that show because it was crossing into the rituals of another field.
Diane Borger: Exactly.
Damon Krukowski: And then there’s the surprise that you don’t want to remove from theater. This happens to musicians now too. We used to be able to tour and you could count on the next night the audience not knowing anything about what happened the night before. And then once YouTube hit, that stopped being the case.
And so now people see whatever you are doing before they get there, which, of course, changes the whole ritual of what a live show is too. And now we have to be aware of that. I mean, if you are going to tell the same joke night after night and make it seem casual, you are not really going to get away with that anymore — unless you are really good at it.
But, now that surprise is removed. Which has had the unexpected result that people are disappointed now if they don’t get what they have seen on YouTube. And that’s sort of the pernicious side, the lack of surprise, where people are not as willing to go into the unexpected environment as they were before. You couldn’t know exactly what you were getting. You had to take that chance.
And now people are much more careful, and they want to buy the ticket for what they know they are going to get. There has been a huge rise in the ‘festival’ — which is the most predictable live environment of all. You can see all the bands exactly the way you expect to see them, because you can watch them from another festival, and you can see exactly what that festival was like last year and it will be exactly the same this year.
Sebastian Chan: Which is that aesthetic that comes through. And SetlistFM is a site that fans share set lists. And it’s fascinating to be at a show and see those set lists being uploaded to the site in real time, and trying to find the person who is doing that. I kind of want to speak to that person [and say] ‘I know you want to create metadata, but can’t you just be in the moment?’
Damon Krukowski: Yes. Yes.
Diane Borger: I always think about this. Hamlet dies. Oh, God, spoiler alert. I think about that in terms of how it’s easier for me to sell a revival show than a new play.
But then I always think that that’s my job is to try to figure out how to get people to come to things that they don’t know about, and which gets them out of their comfort zone.
Sebastian Chan: [In art museums] It’s the Impressionists.
Halsey Burgund: I am Halsey Burgund. I have lots of things to talk about, but first I just want to say, regarding the sound art thing, as a sound artist, I’m a sound artist technology and researcher at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. I had countless sound openings.
Having a sound art show is often like having a photography opening and then just turning the lights off. I mean everybody is in there. Everybody is chatting, which is great, but, you know, the sound art itself is nonexistent, essentially. It’s very frustrating.
Damon Krukowski: The sound art opening is an oxymoron.
Halsey Burgund: It really is. But I wanted to talk about the surface noise discussion that you were having earlier, which I found really fascinating.
My work is contributory in the sense that I build sort of audio AR pieces that exist in the real world, and create these immersive environments where people can wander around and listen to music and have that music change, based on how they choose to walk and how they choose to contribute by making their own recordings and sticking those recordings into this environment in a cumulative way for future listeners who wander by the same location where they were when they were speaking.
And this, of course, is very nerve wracking in the sense that when a piece opens, it doesn’t have any of those contributed pieces. It’s kind of ‘naked’ to a certain extent. I think allowing these people into my work, allowing listeners into the work, is an introduction of surface noise.
I create this thing. I’m sitting in my studio by myself, creating music and then I throw it out there. And with the intent of people coming and not just listening, but, putting their own thing into it too.
And even if they don’t put their own thing into it, they walk in a certain path. They walk the way maybe they want to walk. Maybe they walk in a ritualistic way. Maybe they are walking through an area that they have walked a hundred thousand times before. But they have this new context.
It’s provided by me, and it’s this inability on my part to know how each individual is going to experience the piece — it’s like you don’t know where the scratch on the record is going to be when somebody takes it out [of its sleeve] and puts it on [a turntable]. It’s this balance between nerve wracking terror and inspiration.
It’s these people who give a little bit of themselves, again, whether it be walking in a certain path or whether it be expressing a response to the environment, or what they have been hearing, or to a question that’s been asked, and having that feedback into the piece. And then the next person comes along and maybe hears what that person said, and it’s folding back on itself over and over and it really does feel like, to me, a similar sort of analogy to the surface noise idea.
Damon Krukowski: Yeah, that’s a beautiful way to allow the community, literally, into the piece, clearly. But it’s amazing because you are also surrendering your control as an artist, and allowing this accident to enter into literally with your audience, which is heroic.
Halsey Burgund: And when you get 4 year olds in there, it’s really great.
Damon Krukowski: It goes back to the thing, do you prepare for the worst case scenario of your work?
Halsey Burgund: I do. I don’t know if I prepare for it. I’m certainly aware it might happen.
Halsey Burgund: I do what is called postmoderation. I let the commentary go in immediately. And then I listen to it later and I take it out if it’s horrible. I have had very few cases where that’s the case that I need to take something out. I have a pretty high tolerance for things.
But you always have that fear that somebody is going to do something really destructive. I haven’t had too much of that. I try to make a context in which people want to be constructive or respectful.
That’s hard to do across the board. Of course doing it in art museum context, you have a self-selected audience. I have done pieces in urban areas just on the streets and that’s a little harder to control. I don’t want to control it but I also don’t want the experience to be ruined for other people because of that kind of disrespect.
But it’s nerve wracking. I’m constantly checking.
Damon Krukowski: It’s a level of trust but I think that cuts to a lot of what we are saying about allowing our communities to have these inefficiencies, and therefore, hold on to one another as a community.
And that’s an amazing gesture.
It reminds me of strategies pursued by John Cage and his associates who wrote various indeterminate scores that so that a work would be different every time it was performed. I had an interview with [artist] Christian Wolff who is one of Cage’s circle and he wrote a piece called ‘Rock Music’ that was made with stones. He just had to rule out anything that would be destructive. So the score said, ‘don’t break anything’. That was one of the few instructions.
It’s a written score, but it offers something to fold back into our digital technologies right now — that idea of a score with indeterminate outcomes and the score is putting a bracket around all the possibilities without determining them — but still allowing yourself to rule out, say, destructive behavior or abusive behavior, for example.
Sebastian Chan: So an ethical framework around design systems?
Damon Krukowski: Exactly. Exactly.
Halsey Burgund: And this is so missing — it’s so missing in Spotify.
Damon Krukowski: It is. Because I think they are not going to be willing to take the risk to allow any of us to push an indeterminate outcome. It’s too difficult for a profit-driven business.
Halsey Burgund: There may be other obligations too.
Damon Krukowski: I don’t know. I feel like the level of control is there because the control is, again, about efficiency.
Sharna Jackson: It’s interesting about what you do — and risk. Earlier you were talking a little bit about sound vs noise, signal v. noise and I think whenever we communicate, whether as artists or as teachers or as interpreters, there’s a sense of the ‘intended next’ — what we intend for people to hear. And then there’s the un-intendedness because we are communicating a wealth of information, that we are unaware that we are actually sending out to the world.
Digital information is very controlled. It’s [only] the intended message.
Whereas I feel like analog information is a little more free — sometimes you get things that are very unintended, right? Like, there are a lot of surprises when you do things that are analog.
I feel like Halsey’s work walks the line between intended and unintended communication methods.
Halsey Burgund: Which is part of the institution of sound. Sound is very difficult to control. We are having to control the feedback in this room right now. And it’s really not containable. It’s not material. I wonder how that relates to are both of you with performance and interactive work.
Sharna Jackson: In ‘Recollections’ we built rooms that were sound booths, but there was leakage.
It built upon the themes of the show, the layers of our history and when we had our artists come down and install their work they got it and liked it. So whilst it was unintentional, it added more to our exhibition.
I was happy with that. If the artist is happy, then I’m happy especially if my audience understands it and gets it.
Damon Krukowski: Right. Yeah.
Diane Borger: I think about sound slightly differently.
It’s a really expensive item in my budget, and I think that we are trying to make it loud enough so that it sounds exactly like it’s not mic-ed at all — so that everybody can hear it and you are pretending that there’s nobody using a microphone. It’s a different challenge.
Damon Krukowski: To make the technology disappear.
I remember the last renovation of MoMA, an architect said to the board, ‘if you give me enough money, I will make the technology disappear. I will make the HVAC disappear. I will make everything disappear’ — as opposed to the old idea of ‘form follows function’ where we see everything that’s happening.
Diane Borger: Yeah.
Damon Krukowski: But sound is very hard to make disappear — even the technology of it, just to make it seem natural, right?
Diane Borger: Yeah. There are some people better at it than others.
Damon Krukowski: On the other hand, it’s the easiest thing in the world not to have a microphone.
Kellian Adams Pletcher: You were talking about music and production. I am involved in traditional jazz. I was in a circle of performers that were creating music that was never intended to be produced, or mic-ed, or mixed and they were able to run, thanks to your incredible theater.
We have an eightpiece swing band and they redo the ‘Nutcracker’ every year. It is mic-ed, because it’s an AP swing band. And everything that happens live And it’s popular, I think because people are un-accustomed to this art form that happened 100 years ago. I mean, 100 years ago it was pretty common to not have to worry about mics and that’s why they had bands that had 30 and 40 people in them and I think people are rediscovering that.
Sebastian Chan: I think it’s a yearning for that community again. It’s something that has risk, something that has edges and something that has noise.
Kellian Adams Pletcher:Right.
Sebastian Chan: Something that is not digital, and plain, and processed.
Halsey Burgund: And sound is so physical. It’s moving. I’m moving air molecules here. They are vibrating and they are going here. I’m actually touching your ear somehow. Sorry if that sounds creepy.
That’s how I think about it and therefore, the space, the architecture, it’s so dependent on where it is and where it’s coming from at least in the real world. In the virtual world it’s very different.
Light is waves as well but there’s something about the physicality of sound. Architecture has to be designed to handle sound. I fear now with all of these, sound systems that make up for the architect not having designed the space to not have to have a sound system — the Boston Symphony Hall has amazing acoustical spaces.
Damon Krukowski: In my podcast that we started with there’s one of the episodes in which I go to Radio City Music Hall with this wonderful scholar Emily Thompson who wrote a landmark book about acoustics called The Soundscape of Modernity’.
She wrote a long piece about Radio City — which was built for amplification.It presumed microphones and speakers. And if you go into Radio City when nothing is turned on, it’s silent. It sounds like a tiny little recording studio. And it’s completely dead. There’s no echo at all. And that’s because they knew they were building a space for 5,000 people but no one had to hear what was actually physically going on on the stage. In fact, it was better if they didn’t. So there’s no reverberation. And yet when you are physically in the space, it’s a magnificently huge space.
That visual sense and our aural sense of it begins there in the early 20th Century with modernist design and continues into office building and Emily Thompson does an amazing job of explaining that as well.
Dampening of sound is about control. And it’s about control for profit within these bigger and bigger office buildings that have rows and rows of workers making too much noise for anybody else to do anything — you have to control all the sound.
In the podcast I was interviewing Emily in Radio City and pressing her, did people object? It’s still the biggest interior hall in New York City for theater, as far as I know, 5,000 seats. You went into this hall and you had no echo. Weren’t people upset by that? And she said no. She’s been through all the contemporary reviews, architectural reviews, popular reviews.
I said ‘why do you think this was the case’? Because it was the age of radio and movies and people were primed for sound from a speaker. That was the latest thing. And you could hear the speakers really well in Radio City.
The fact that it was very the first place that did that registered no shock with the audience. They just jettisoned a thousand years of acoustic theater design instantly. And people complained that they couldn’t see the stage clearly because it was too big. They were too far away. It was actually why it became a movie theater but it was built as a live house. People were too small on the stage but they sounded great. No one objected.
It made me think about our moment now, where we have these sea changes in our communication because of digital media and no one complains.
But maybe that’s just a very human thing that we have with technology, we are just ready to throw away aeons of practice for some reason. At least in certain instances but it’s something I think we have to be guarded a little bit against.
It wasn’t so great that Radio City has no connection between sight and sound.
Halsey Burgund: I always think about how the space changes the more people you get in it. People absorb sound and there’s something really exciting about the same performance being done with different numbers of people and different orientations and different groupings. It’s the architecture that is changed by that type of participation — it’s a passive participation but nonetheless a participation of our bodies.
Damon Krukowski: Let’s leave you with one of the great cliches of live sound performance which is “it will sound better when people are here”. That’s what the sound person says, or “we will fix it in the mix”.
Halsey Burgund: It’s all sound production.
Sebastian Chan: Thank you, everybody.