Agency of Chaos, Unmoved (theorised)

Newsletter on 19 May 2023
A bare wooden weed grows out of the crack between the sidewalk and a brick wall.
A bare wooden weed grows out of the crack between the sidewalk and a brick wall.

On Tuesday I’m giving a sound performance at the Cafe SAT in Montreal to close the (de)Stabilizing Diffusions exhibition. Usually when I’m working with performance, either I’m playing with others or creating an interactive system and directing others to perform with it. This will be my first solo sound performance in seven years. I’ve been a tad nervous.

My piece will be concluding an exhibition of artists exploring AI. Appropriately enough, I’m performing with live AI audio generation. So there is still some dilution of responsibility. There will be glitch. And fun.

Agency of chaos, unmoved

An open-ended performance with real-time AI-generated audio. The computer music pioneer Joel Chadabe described performing with a non-deterministic system as like sailing a boat through stormy seas. A storm has its own agency of chaos, unmoved by whatever intentions I may have in harnessing its forces. In moments of desperation, it’s tempting to think that the storm is aware of our plight as it ushers or torments us.

I’m using an AI model called RAVE, created by Antoine Caillon. RAVE does live style transfer. Train it on a violin, and then whatever sound you feed in, it will make it sound like someone doing their best to play that sound on the violin. It’s popular because it not only sounds lifelike but does so fast enough to be used live. However, its style transfer can be so obediently responsive that it feels like a regular audio effect. I don’t get that feeling that it has a mind of its own. I’m performing alone once more.

But RAVE has an alternative generative mode where it endlessly invents new sounds, trying to imitate what it remembers of the sounds I trained it on. In this mode, I get just one dial of control to influence how random it gets. This gives me the opposite problem: I get next to no control, and my role is little more than turning the machine on.

These two extremes capture the ends of a spectrum of how much agency we have when we work with AI. What I want is something in the middle: to release enough control to be surprised but not so much as to be reduced to a cog in someone (or something) else’s journey. My own little AI alignment problem.

The conundrum is familiar to me. It’s pretty much to what my PhD was about: the balance in creative control between a system’s designer and its participant. But with an unsupervised AI model like RAVE, there’s not the same duality between designer and user. It’s like a flashback to a nostalgic 90s when technology was frustrating because nobody knew how to make it not frustrating, rather than because corporations discovered that frustrating us can be rather profitable. Here, the balance is between me and a chaotic system that’s been tweaked a three million times by an algorithm trying to make it a little less chaotic (what we call ‘training’).

Last week I called up Maurice, the curator, and said the performance wasn’t going to work. Maurice has also been working with RAVE. He heard me out, with the great empathy of someone who’s also been working with RAVE, and persuaded me to continue. The exhibition is about how artists are approaching AI. To expose the challenges of finding a voice with an all-or-nothing AI model is a message that will resonate.

Experimentalism is perhaps another way to free oneself from the self-defeating mindset of trying to please an audience.

So I’ve persisted, looking in the cracks and glitches. I’ve trained versions of the model on different collections of sounds and have been blending them together. It takes me about 10 days to train a model so each one is a gamble. But I do now have something I’m happy with, a middle ground between the blank canvas and a CD player with a singular play button. I’m excited to share it.

If you’re in Montreal, please join us at Cafe SAT on Tuesday 23 May. Doors at 6pm, Artist talks at 7pm, I’m performing at 8pm. It’s free but RSVP required.

Montreal, 19 May 2023

PS - I had hoped to rope in Adriana but she’s heading to Glasgow for her citizenship ceremony (somewhat awkwardly timed as we’re returning in July). For those in Glasgow, on Thursday she’s performing on Thursday as part of GLEAM festival: “An alternative citizenship ceremony in which the contradictions and imprecisions of national identity can be teased out through sound. Expect no pomp, full circumstance.” I’m gutted to miss it, but so it goes.