Behind the Screens: Jonathan Reus
An interview with Jonathan Reus, an artist who combines performance, sound art and fundamental research.
Jonathan Reus is an artist who combines performance, sound art and fundamental research in his artistic works — mainly taking music-making as a starting point and trying to expand upon the possibilities offered by music into other realms.
In this interview we’d like to talk about his practices and tools, as well as work in the community and the way he copes with the radical and drastic changes in his practice resulting from the corona crisis.
What is your first encounter with live coding and what are sources of inspiration?
It’s hard to be sure, but I think my first encounter with a live coding performance was at STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, red.) maybe 8 years ago. I remember finding it intriguing, but also kind of impenetrable.
For me the inspiration for my live coding performances is varied, but almost invariably these are exploratory gestures, there’s a sense of play and a hope that I’m taking the audience along with me for an experiment. The inspiration depends a lot on the concepts behind the exploration. For example, I might be interested in exploring voice — then I might take inspiration from certain vocal practices in folk music, or I might try to work exclusively with synthesized voice or speech recognition systems, or story-telling algorithms. I usually want to at least create some kind of authentic human connection with the audience, so I get really excited when I see live coding performances that manage to do that. I think in our own community, I’ve been really inspired by some of Joana Chicau and Marije Baalman’s performances.
I think a lot of my artistic work now is still in some way the result of my encounter with the folk and punk music worlds of North Florida. I was there studying computer science while also doing a course in electronic music at the Florida Electroacoustic Music Studio, and meanwhile learning old-time roots music from various local and migrating musicians while hanging out on porches and dropping in on jam sessions. That combination pushed me into the world of instrument making. One of my composition teachers, James Sain, pointed me to the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam, where a lot of really groundbreaking work has been done in the field of electronic instrument making, and so I stubbornly set my head on traveling there some day.
Then I think the second major inspiration for a lot of my work comes from that first year or two encountering the wider European arts scene for the first time. I immediately gravitated to the squatting scene in Amsterdam, where a lot of really amazing underground improvised music was happening and which had a really strong community focus similar to what I had experienced in Florida. And of course also at STEIM, where there was a constant influx of truly incredible international artists and connections to the wider European community of media arts. These years are when I cut my teeth on more improvisational approaches to music, and also when I started encountering a more critical flavor of digital art that really didn’t exist at all in Florida.
A lot of my artwork still has this kind of folk craft and punk sensibility, even when I intend for it to be super polished or presented in a “high art” venue like the Muziekgebouw or the Stedelijk Museum. I think I’ve always had a desire to bond with my medium and to share the happening of the work transparently with my audience. A lot like saying, “hey, I’m not above you, let’s share this wonder together”. My creative process is often improvised and intuitive. This goes for all aspects of the creative process, which includes the engineering involved in creating a new platform or apparatus. I generally treat engineering as a creative act — that might explain why I was never able to survive the efficiency of being a software engineer.
Which platform do you use and why?
I started using SuperCollider about six years ago when Marije Baalman first came to STEIM and together we started a music/programming meetup group. SuperCollider is a general purpose music programming language that’s totally open source. Marije was at the time a major contributor to the SuperCollider codebase and her presence made a pretty compelling case to start using it. Before that I had been using platforms like Max/MSP, CSound and PureData for my music work, together with more traditional production DAWs like Cubase. But since I had worked as a software engineer for a number of years there was something immediately appealing about making music with a programming language interface. I quickly found SuperCollider to be a more expressive and immediate way to express ideas in sound.
I don’t think I would recommend SuperCollider to someone who wants to get started live coding beats. There are much better, more streamlined platforms for that. SuperCollider is more like a hardcore sonic experimentation toolkit. The main interface to SuperCollider just happens to be an interpreted programming language. I never started using SuperCollider to do live coding. It’s more that the act of making anything in SuperCollider involves live coding in some sense — be it an installation, a piece of music, or a light-control GUI for a theater production. You evaluate bits of code as you go, you do little experiments and work iteratively, just like a live coding performance.
It’s also important to mention that SuperCollider is open source and is driven by a vibrant and generous community of artists and developers. So, besides being a tool for making new tools, SuperCollider itself is fundamentally changeable.
How has live coding influenced your way of making things?
I am still in the process of understanding what the attraction to live coding is for me and how it fits into my broader artistic practice. I think the approach is exciting. It’s one of the few digital art forms (and perhaps more so, communities) that carries a lot of the vibes of folklore. The community is extremely egalitarian and DIY. And, despite some initial feelings people might have that coding is hard, some of the more accessible languages like Tidal or Hydra are actually pretty easy to get started with, or at least as easy to approach as any other creative software. The process of live coding is dynamic. Feedback is immediate and your ideas grow quickly and organically. It’s not at all like writing an app, it’s exciting to see self-confessed “non coders” discover that.
Live coding has had a strong influence on the way I think about the presentation of a performance. In essence a live coding performance presents a piece of software that is in process, there’s a great potential for creating an artistic relationship to an audience that foregrounds vulnerability and demands trust. It’s the performer’s decision to embrace this potential or not, you always have the freedom to stake out positions like that of the star performer who is out to put on a spectacular show, or the composer who is aiming to present something whole and complete like a musical work.
In these times of lockdown, what can we learn from the live coding community in terms of their way of organisation?
I’m honestly a bit ambivalent about looking to the live coding community as an exemplar in this moment. It’s really tempting! This is a creative community that has been live streaming multi-day festivals (for lack of a better word) for years. It’s also a community that prides itself on its resourcefulness and connectedness, where practitioners are dispersed widely across geographical regions. There’s even threads in the live coding world promoting slow living, mindfulness and self-care, climate crisis mitigation through reduced travel and low-resource computing.
With all the great things that live coding does, and does well, in a moment like now, it’s important also to be conscious of what we need culturally and how we will start reopening public spaces in the future. Cultural institutions like theaters and galleries were already under a lot of financial pressure before the pandemic. And more likely than not we’re going to start seeing some people claim that all the move to online cultural infrastructures and the successes of low-resource, software arts practices like live coding is justification for further cultural downscaling and dematerialization.
Did the isolation force you to make adjustments to your current practice, and can you elaborate on how these changes impact your work?
A lot of my big projects have ground to a halt… it sucks, but I can’t complain too much because I’m still financially solvent, and I have enough food. I’m using this time to work smaller and slower. I’m investing in foundations. Revisiting sound design and compositional ideas that I never was able to develop fully, and my sound world is getting richer as a result. I’m teaching myself to play the banjo again, but this time in a more nuanced way that involves deep-diving into the history and context of the instrument itself. It’s an interesting moment to be confronted with how much my thinking has changed in the ten years since I last seriously played this instrument. I do wish I had a better PC because I’d love to do more experiments with deep learning on large audio datasets. Model training seems like a good quarantine past time to me.
I’m also staying busy with some curatorial projects. This year I’m organizing a series of live coding concerts hosted by iii in The Hague. The series is intended as a kind of field survey of live coding performance practices, with three guest curators from the NL_CL community each with a very strong artistic perspective. It’s been an interesting project trying to transform these into online events. I’m also a guest curator for the first DA Z festival in Zurich, which is also now partially going online. It’s inspiring to see the attention being given to the global live coding community now that everyone is getting their culture online, I’m trying to keep track of all the new formats popping up.
Find more of Jonathan Reus his work:
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This article is part of the 10 Minute Livecoding Challenge by Creative Coding Utrecht and Netherlands Coding Live — a series of events where digital artists and live coders create a piece in ten minutes.
The 10 Minute Live Coding Challenge is sponsored by Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie.