Interview: Alice Emily Baird
May 24, 2016
by Nicole Kaack, Columbia University
Alice Emily Baird is a UK artist and recent graduate of the MFA Sound Art program at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center. She is now working as a Research Assistant for the Chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at Passau University, Germany. Baird understands “identity” in relation to an intellectual awareness and interprets “body“ as synonymous with human presence. This presence is extended by the vast technological advances made over the past twenty years. Baird has stated:
Often I aim for the creation of an immersive space that also allows individuals to have a unique experience. I think that, at this still-early stage in the information age, technology allows us to create “otherworldly” spaces that can appropriate these ideas. I see digital media as tools; I try where possible to make these technologies visually absent so as to leave more to the imagination and thereby attempt to give more power to the creator…
Baird’s recent collaborative project play_algorithm demonstrates the encounter of the embodied human presence with the digital. For this work, Baird created a sonic landscape in a dark, acousmatic room with the intent of exploring “how a person might react to this space. Darkness was initially a priority but the project developed into more of an exploration of digital and acoustic space.”
In music, electronic instruments—which can exist exclusively as computer files until played for aural experience—blur the barrier between the physical and the digital. Baird engages this tension with play_algorithm by incorporating the presence of a performer who plays a percussive arrangement (composed by Chatori Shimizu), aurally disrupting the flow of the environment to “create unrest” in a potentially internal, homogenous space. play_algorithm has been performed in New York, London, and Karuizawa; the duration and composition changes with every iteration. Baird’s work, continuous throughout these variations, is in the real-time tracking and analysis of her space and subjects.
If play_algorithm constitutes one manner in which the human presence may encounter digital media, A Sincere Apology demonstrates how individuals are mechanized and thereby absorbed by a technological apparatus. The latter project is particularly relevant to the question of how humanity is digitally manifested in the way it samples and, consequently, reduces emotion to points on a spectrum; A Sincere Apology mobilizes art as a mode of research with the purpose of collecting data and amassing some form of an archive. Ludwig Wittgenstein wondered, “Which shade is the ‘sample in my mind’ of the color green—the sample of what is common to all shades of green?”1 In A Sincere Apology, Baird instead asks which vocal inflections communicate sincerity. The artist answered a few questions regarding the purposes and intents of this particular project in an interview with JAC’s Nicole Kaack.
Nicole Kaack: What were the origins of this project and why are you interested in the information being collected?
Alice Emily Baird: The project emerged out of my interest in perception, which was strengthened by the cultural barrier that I faced when confronting my own nationality on arrival to the US. I came realize that my voice was a device that was constantly being misunderstood. I have always analyzed aspects of human nature closely; focusing on the analysis of the voice was a natural progression for my work to take. I also have a desire to always be learning, so the only way I see my artwork progressing is with some kind of research goal in mind.
I was not directing [project participants] on emotion, mostly just on tone and visual aesthetics. I was using actors as tools; I wanted them as individuals to approach the task. They projected each apology in four styles that I defined as “monophonic,” “large-inflection,” “slow,” and “fast.” That way I could analyze which aspects of their projection came across as more or less sincere and how they perceived those styles.
This particular project was completed in two phases. A Sincere Analysis used the results of the first phase, A Sincere Apology annotations, to create a “sincerity-analysis” system, which in real-time scored the level of sincerity in the voice. Post-graduation I do plan to continue working in this way, although most likely with a different theme.
NK: Did you have a hypothesis for the results of A Sincere Apology?
AEB: I kind of did. For example, if the person were speaking quickly that could perhaps indicate that the person was being insincere… Other ideas are included in the journal I wrote, which accompanied the final thesis of A Sincere Analysis. I’m thinking about putting snippets of code throughout [the journal] as well, as a kind of road block which might stop people from wanting to read on… I don’t want people to easily read it… I want people to be questioning my sincerity, and my relationship to [the work].
NK: What were the challenges of realizing this project (in terms of directing vocalists, expressing the appropriate emotion, etc.)?
AEB: The design of the interface was somewhat of a challenge, mostly in terms of how to explain the task in as few words as possible. The program for A Sincere Analysis was really acting as a listener rather than producing a definitive result. I think a lot of the time people thought they understood what I was looking for but actually had it kinda wrong.
NK: In both play_algorithm and A Sincere Apology, your art takes on the form of a social and psychological experiment. These projects express interest in the activation of an audience such that the responses to your art and its presentation become part of the work itself. Are these embodied, performative, and responsive elements important to your work?
AEB: Yes, it is very important to me that each person who engages with the work is left with an individual experience. I want to call attention to aspects of humanity that we perhaps do not think about all the time. However, I do not want to impose any feelings or ideas onto a participant. If they leave A Sincere Apology / Analysis feeling like they might try to say something in a different way, that’s great; however, it’s just as successful if they reflect on themselves and instead think about how they may have interpreted those apologies.
Alice Emily Baird’s work is available for viewing here.
1 Connelly, James. Wittgenstein and Early Analytic Semantics: Toward a Phenomenology of Truth. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015. 178. Print.