Andrew Blanton: Sound in the Machine

May 9, 2019

Interview by Johnathon Win


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Andrew Blanton is a percussionist, media artist, and educator. Beginning as a classical percussionist, Andrew sought to extend his musical language through software development, firstly through live audio processing, and then later extended to the visual representation of audio data.[1] Subsequently, Andrew’s work is fundamentally transdisciplinary, combining classical percussion performance practice, new media art, and creative coding to create real-time sonic and visual instruments.[2] He is currently Assistant Professor of Art at San Jose State University (SJSU), where he coordinates the CADRE Laboratory for New Media and is also a researcher at the Centre for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at UC Berkeley. At the previous LAST Festival on March 23rd, 2018 Andrew presented his work Waveguide as part of his presentation ‘Sound in the Machine’.

Andrew’s work explores the depth by which we are engaged in computers and technology rather than simply vying to break new ground. Andrew thus approaches computers from a humanistic perspective, viewing them through their potentially reflective nature and their relationship to our socio-cultural zeitgeist. Central to his work is the comprehension of the social spaces surrounding artworks and why artists engage with such spaces in the first place. Since the previous LAST Festival Andrew’s research focus has been oriented towards environmentally sustainable practice through both art and technology, opting for comparatively simple works which require being ‘plugged in’ to function. As a result, Andrew has had an increased interest in the construction of standalone audio and visual synthesizers.

These explorations share a central awareness of materiality. Andrew believes and encourages others towards upholding an awareness as to ‘the life cycle of the materials we use’. He expands on this: ‘Where do those things come from? What will they be in 10 years? What will they be in 100 years? 10,000 years? This, coupled with this idea that computers act as an extension of humans, is fascinating to me. I have done a lot of work in the virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality (extended reality) space and that is what I teach most days, and am particularly aware of the software limitations that persist. I'm a bit more interested in thinking about ways that we can augment or transform our surroundings in ways that do not directly require a phone or phone technology. I think there is an interesting conceptual space to think about the transformation of surroundings and for what reason. What does extended reality mean when you don't need an i9 processor and a 2080 graphics card? How can those ideas translate beyond the computer?

All things considered, of great significance is the level of consciousness we may have as affected by our own material time-perspective: ‘on the one hand, we have the immediate, how are we augmenting our lives with computation? This can range from how we interact with our friends on social media, how we use app-based tools, to how we as artists augment reality for abstract purposes. On the other hand, how does that augmentation reach through time and what impact does/will it have? This includes ways that we can now understand and document the past as well as ways that our impact will be felt into the future. How is our planet going to look if we kill off 95% of all species and coat everything in plastic? How do we create a world where technology helps us to live more sustainably? I like the provocation by Newton Harrison where he says that we are in coevolution with our planet, we “are in a perpetual dance with nature", fundamentally, we need to do a better job at inhabiting this planet’.

Currently, Andrew is designing standalone hardware, (such as custom printed circuit boards), as opposed to software pieces. This is a natural development from past software-based works in Andrew’s oeuvre and also as presented in previous editions of LAST.

Recent collaborators of Andrew have been Claudia Hart and Edmund Campion who held a show together at Pioneer Works in December 2018, in Brooklyn. At this show Andrew was able to showcase his practice as a classical percussionist with utilization of visual synthesis. In this performance, real-time motion capture was employed in order to represent the dual percussionists (Andrew and another performer) in a 3D space (built by Hart with music composed by Campion). In this work, Alice Unchained (A Virtual Chamber for Chamber Music) by Hart, the performers were being captured in real time whilst playing log drums, virtual avatars would move based on the performers’ bodies (thus augmented into a virtual space). Hart’s work served to both establish an interdependence and also ‘break the separation’ between virtual and real space.

Forthcoming activities of Andrew’s include performances on the East Coast and also a book chapter which will tentatively be published in 2020. Much of Andrew’s forthcoming research and practice is guided by his aforementioned concerns to aesthetics and sustainability. ‘I think the challenge is how do you make a work that can even power on and run correctly in 15 years without 15 years of upkeep?’ This reflects the relationship Andrew encourages us to be conscious of when engaging with computation as a medium; this is also reflective of the desire to break from ‘routine innovation’, an example of such being the ‘necessary’ 18-month product cycle that computers are in. He continues: ‘I'm in the middle of doing research for a new body of work, so that's all really fun’.[3]

[1] Blanton, Andrew. n.d. About Andrew [accessed 30 April 2019]. Available at: http://andrewblanton.com/about.html
[2] Anon. 2014. Profile: Andrew Blanton [accessed 30 April 2019]. Available at: http://blogs.sjsu.edu/humanities-arts/2014/09/05/profile-andrew-blanton/
[3] Blanton, Andrew. 2019. Personal interview with the author, 8 May 9, 2019.