David Rokeby : Predicting
(published in MUSICWORKS 33: Starting All Observations From Scratch, Winter 1985/6)
("VERY NERVOUS SYSTEM": Three cameras observe the movements of people in a room. They relay their images to a computer. The computer analyses these images and translates the results into sound using a digital synthesizer.)
Whenever the weatherman makes a mistake we feel betrayed. It is his job to predict the weather, and he fails over an
I am always being asked if the response of my sound installations is predictable. "Will a specific movement always create the same sound?"
(I remember huddling in a tent in the pouring rain during the tail end of a hurricane on Prince Edward Island and being informed by the local radio station that the skies were clear and the sun shining.)
The source of our anger and sense of betrayal runs deeper than damage to shoes due to unexpected rain. We seem to feel the same resentment towards accidental death. We have learned to expect a life deprived of surprises. Such things shouldn't happen in a properly organized, rational society. We write letters to our government representatives...
(I used to get a bit defensive, quickly explaining that it is next to impossible to repeat a movement exactly...)
It's as though a sacred trust is broken or an inviolable right infringed every time events elude our understanding and control.
...Imagine an uncharted planet... the atmosphere is more intimate than earth's and we personally affect the weather. (Some people run through my installation as though they were afraid of getting wet.)
We seem to be victims of a sort of intellectual materialism. Just as we (as a society) have come to accept the financial yardstick as the measure of value, we have accepted logical proof (ergo predictability) as the only yardstick for measuring truth.
The computer program which interprets motion and translates it into sound makes perfect 'sense' at the foundation level. That level of sense is, however, not completely accessible through the experience of the piece. It is obscured by its own complexity. Any attempt to solely rationally understand the work is automatically doomed to failure.
Money and logic are removed from subjective reality, and therefore can serve as incorruptible media of translation and communication. We reduce our lives to functions of lowest common denominators and in the process, lose contact with both subjective reality of the individual, and integrated reality of the whole. The active ingredients of life slips through our fingers. All we have left are facts, and a basic mistrust of anything we can't pin down.
(It seems that the more intent one is on controlling my installation, the less predictable the response becomes...)
This 'noise' of information becomes nonsense; the surprises and accidents multiply... Dazzled and dispirited by the impossibility of absolute understanding, we begin to behave irresponsibly, paying little attention to the results of our actions. Still the mind is tantalized by apparitions of order. One gets no sleep...
(How can I be expected to act responsibly if I don't know what is going to happen?)
With my computers, cameras, and synthesizers, I present a synthetic reality which can be physically explored. The phenomena through which the underlying principles of this 'reality' are articulated are the sound events. The phenomena are instigated by and related to various aspects of the dynamics of the movements of the 'explorer'.
Or else we condemn, then ignore reality as a sloppy manifestation of eternal and unchanging laws... doubting the weather instead of the weatherman... ("The Soviets are controlling our weather")
Though the behaviour of this installation is complex enough to resist absolute analytical comprehension, it is integrated enough to create a strong though veiled and overall impression of orderedness and relatedness.
Absolute prediction and control of very complex situations is not possible, and partial control often disastrous. (The universe chooses its own ways of returning to equilibrium. ) We must learn to accept this fact without abdicating from the responsibility for the results of our actions. Refining awareness of the ways in which we affect our physical and metaphysical environments is the only way to avoid increasing the apparently chaotic and cataclysmic behaviour of the universe. (Weather is becoming interactive... (acid rain)).
(Imagine exploring the body of a new lover...)
A certain flexibility is required... an ability to move with grace back and forth between informed intelligence and naive perception.
The question of unpredictability, and the sense of chaotic confusion seem to disappear simultaneously at the point at which one suspends one's disbelief and begins 'exploring to discover' rather than 'exploring to confirm'.
How does one best function within a situation one cannot hope to entirely understand???
Copyright 1996 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 3/7/96