Halloween Transmissions: Machine Listening from the Diary of Anaïs Nin
A machine listening based media installation that explores a mode of experimental reading and engagement with text.
“My head was inside of a birdcage. From within the cage, through the open gate, I pulled out an endless roll of paper on which I had written lines from my books. The ticker tape of the unconscious. I unwound this and handed everyone a strip with a message.” — Anaïs Nin on her costume at the ‘Come as Your Madness’ Halloweeen party.
The installation featured text excerpts from the Diary of Anaïs Nin that were encoded into sound, embedded into the soundtrack of a film and decoded back to text in realtime by the Listening Machine — to engage the audience with a machine listening based interface for experimental reading.
The one of its kind, School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas annually celebrates Halloween ever since its inaugural Dean Anne Balsamo encouraged it’s community to don costumes as well as showcase work featuring emerging media practices, to engage & delight the passerby. Computational artist and machine listening researcher Sharath Chandra Ram (Chandra) devised a plan to spruce up the occasion by proposing the idea of an emerging media installation to astrophysicist and avid proponent of trans-disciplinary art & science , Roger F Malina. The proposal was accepted upon an agreement that the installation be documented with NASA inspired agenda-driven meetings to re-iterate the intent and objective of the proposed activity under the auspices of ‘Art as Research’.
The following is a report on the research and design that accompanied the resulting media art installation, ‘Halloween Transmissions: Machine Listening from the Diary of Anaïs Nin’. The installation showcased techniques in machine listening that are part of the ongoing doctoral research of Sharath Chandra Ram. Primary contributors included designer Catalina Alzate, and all credits as well as acknowledgements are mentioned at the end of this report.
Context and Research:
What then could be a befitting media art & cultural reference to the eeriness and occult that looms over Halloween?
The closest occult connection to the ArtSci Lab at UT Dallas was one of the reportedly occult founding members of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jack Parsons — the co-inventor of the rocket along with his collaborator at Caltech, Frank Malina. Ridley Scott’s CBS Television drama ‘Strange Angel’ as well as this absolutely fantastic song by Sean Lennon of the Claypool Lennon Delirium chronicles the travails of Parsons, the mysterious innovator. Some more research into his associations with celebrity occultists of the time like Aleister Crowley, led us to an interview of filmmaker Kenneth Anger in this recent article that amidst all the details on witchery refers to the widely acclaimed cult film directed by Kenneth Anger titled ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ (1954). Incidentally the film was based on a real-life Halloween party that happened in California called ‘Come as your Madness’!
Amongst the various attendees at this Halloween party was novelist and essayist Anaïs Nin who was introduced to Anger and other occultists present at the gathering. Anaïs Nin who stars prominently in the film with a Halloween costume featuring a bird cage around her head became a far more interesting figure to centre the context of this media installation.
Anaïs Nin and her bird cage costume:
(An inspiration for experimental reading interfaces using machine listening)
Anaïs Nin wrote of her Halloween costume in the ‘Come as Your Madness’ party —
“My head was inside of a birdcage. From within the cage, through the open gate, I pulled out an endless roll of paper on which I had written lines from my books. The ticker tape of the unconscious. I unwound this and handed everyone a strip with a message.”
The installation envisioned a way to re-create this mode of information transmission by replacing ‘strips of papers’ with ‘audible strips’ of digitally encoded text represented as sound.
Selected text excerpts from the ‘Diary of Anaïs Nin’ were encoded and converted into a sonic representation using techniques used in old analog modems for information transmission. These ‘intermittent transmitted strips’ of machine encoded tones were embedded into the soundtrack of the film ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)’. The encoded sounds, each representing a text excerpt, were also emailed to visitors as a sound file attachment that could be downloaded onto their mobile phones. The idea was to engage visitors into a mode of interaction that encouraged them to read and assimilate text based information in an unconventional way, by using sound as a trigger.
The film and its soundtrack embedded with the sonic representation of selected text excerpts from the diaries of Anaïs Nin, was split into 3 sequences of relatively equal length. Incidentally, Kenneth Anger envisioned sequences of the film to be simultaneously projected on 3 screens and this multiple sequence version was screened only once in the Brussels World Fair in 1958. We used multiple projection surfaces to display sequences of the film using customized C++ based projection mapping tools.
The soundtrack of the film embedded with encoded sonic transmissions played through a wireless speaker located in the centre of the venue. Close to the speaker was a microphone installed alongside a mannequin’s head — the listening machine.
As the soundtrack embedded with the text encodings sounded through the speakers, the listening machine detected these sonic transmissions and used signal processing algorithms to decode them in real-time, back into the original text that was made to appear on a screen. Additionally visitors received ‘Halloween misfortune cookies’ — sound files encoding the diary entries as an email attachment that they could download and feed into the listening machine using the speakers of their mobile phones. Audience engagement was observed to evaluate if the interface enabled visitors to engage with and read text, and was found to be successful. Perhaps the performative interaction of a sound triggered reading that unravelled the encoded text as a scrolling display presented a delightful mode of reading.
Copyright 2019 CC-BY-NC-SA
Machine Listening and Computational Artist: Sharath Chandra Ram (Twitter: @AgentSpock)
Interaction Design: Catalina Alzate
The School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication, University of Texas at Dallas.
Venue, Facilities and Equipment: Roger F Malina
Minutes of Meeting: Cristobal Kubli