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The Emergence of The Uncanny in Contemporary Art

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I have named this piece Lyrebird after the Australian bird which is known for its ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds incredibly well, plus the AI software also named after the Lyrebird (Lyrebird.ai, 2019), which I have used in this piece.This piece is specifically created to be listened to using noise canceling headphones.

Lyrebird is a sound piece created using binaural recordings of my own voice, sounds of the environment whilst walking and on public transport, and an AI produced imitation of my own voice. I have attempted to create a soundscape where an audience can experience my personal stream of consciousness in an immersive aural space which will hopefully provoke an eerie, uncanny sensation. In this piece I create two contrasting characters; human side of my identity shown through the manipulation of my voice recordings and my online identity represented by the digitally produced, AI mimicking of my voice which narrates my highly curated social media captions. Talking about her song, O Superhuman, Laurie Anderson (Anderson, 1982) explains, “the lyrics are a one-sided conversation, like a prayer to God.” (Simpson, 2019) I have taken inspiration from this attitude in the way I have created my piece. Having this conversation with myself in the making of Lyrebird became a method of self reflection where I gave myself the opportunity to reflect on the animalistic, human side to my existence.

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Throughout my piece, the notion of self-reflection is a conflicted by the character of my digital self. Whilst recording my own voice I allowed what I said to be honest, stream of consciousness thought, something the character of my online identity would never represent without filtration. Although I want this contrast to be obvious, I have blurred the boundaries of what I define as myself through giving my voice technological qualities and the Lyrebird voice human qualities. I demonstrate this liminal space though the use of a simple repeated interruption in a white noise type sound in the background of my piece which acts as a heartbeat or breath to the piece, referencing the live nature of the digital identity. This may be compared to the looped “ha ha ha ha” in Anderson’s O Superman which also acts as a timekeeper to the piece. This provokes the question, are we ever able to create clear boundaries between ourselves and other? I feel this conflict creates an uncanny dilemma.

A large part of the body of Lyrebird is created using drone sounds which create a soundscape with a clear, imagined sense of space. These recordings began as recordings of personal journeys I had made by foot and on public transport which I then edited to create a less recognisable set of sounds using the Paulstretch effect. I believe the sense of space comes from the fact I recorded these sounds using binaural microphones which helps metaphorically place the listener within my head in order to produce a sensation that they are a part of my experience. The narrative of the imagined space and inner world of my consciousness is metaphorical but feels immersive through the use of moving sound.

My intentions when producing Lyrebird was to create a representation of a contemporary, posthuman existence where technology is often arguably synonymous with human identity in a way we can’t seem to separate ourselves from our online presence. By doing this I am developing my question; “is the emergence of the uncanny in contemporary art a product of a traumatised sense of self in posthuman times?” So, is the uncanny effect produced by an unclear boundary between human and other, a reflection of the fact we don’t like this liminal space and our increasingly unfulfilled desire to understand the world around us which is increasingly technological. By reading into the uncanny using the medium of sound, I wanted to understand how the human voice can be manipulated using digital techniques to show a sense of self which is not easily differentiated from a technological identity.

The topic of the uncanny in sound has been previously explored using sound by Jonathan Zorn in his piece, And Perforation (Zorn, 2014). Zorn uses a Doepfer modular vocoder to record himself reading sections of text from Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny (Freud, 1919) after passing them through Google Translate to distort them and create passages which may not necessarily make sense (Ableton.com, 2019). You can observe a fallibility of the human voice in this piece where he will sometimes stutter. There is also an acknowledgement of a technological element in the use of a synthesizer on his voice which consequently creates a blurred boundary between technology and the abilities of the human voice which may be considered uncanny.

I chose to make the voice a key component in Lyrebird as a way of representing humanity after understanding Trevor Wishart’s Globalalia (Wishart, 2008). Wishart’s desire to progress his music before the technology was created meant he was limited to recording using analog, however, as a result he found, “my voice was the most powerful technology I had because with the voice you can imitate almost everything” (YouTube, 2018). In Globalalia, which was his first attempt recording with speech, he uses just syllables to compose his piece rather than full words, explaining how this element of speech is something we all share even when there are different language barriers. I understood this, therefore, as a common and universally recognised quality in all of humanity. I wanted to use this idea to show a common identity through my own voice and tell a story that an audience can relate to and understand. Using recognisable syllable sounds in a piece means that a voice can be recognised even after abstraction. I also noted this recognition of sound in abstracted language in the screenplay Skwerl by Karl Eccleston and Brian Fairbairn (Brianandkarl.com, 2019) where the script uses certain sounds and phonotactics to mimic what English sounds like without using the English language. And so, with an aim to create an uncanny effect to represent a state of posthuman confusion, I captured a conversation I had with myself before distorting it to a point where it is recognisable but could not certainly be defined as a human voice. And so, although both the human voice and the digital narratives are both disturbed and never seemingly complete, there appears a clear divide between each character whilst simultaneously, and perhaps contradictory, a liminal space in between my physical and digital identity. This therefore poses the question, where do my definitions as a human lay; is it a spectrum of posthuman identity?

Lyrebird was created using a variety of recording techniques and then editing using Audacity (Crook, 2019).

To record a piece using binaurals where I wanted to capture my own voice, I built an artificial head to create an accurate recording using styrofoam in the shape of a human head, covered in latex.to further soundproof and stop sounds travelling through the head and increase the accuracy of the experience. The use of binaurals were a conscious decision to make an immersive and personal experience where the listener becomes a part of my consciousness. This was also the perfect opportunity for me to begin working with ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response which is a low-grade euphoric experience, characterised by a tingling sensation on the skin, often triggered by sound (Everything After Z by Dictionary.com, 2019). An example of this can be seen on the Youtube channel Suzevi ASMR (YouTube, 2019). I wanted to experiment with these techniques when recording my own voice and so explored movement and whispering whilst using the binaural recorders. This creates a more intimate and possibly intrusive experience. At 00:23 a barely audible voice whispers “you are not alone.” This plays on the horror of auditory hallucination and is intended to give the listener a sense that someone has entered their consciousness. I also interrupt myself during my dialogue whilst performing to show a personal inner conflict;- “you are…” “what?” “You are not alone.”

I wanted to manipulate my voice in unnatural, technological ways through the editing process to blur the definition of the abilities of the human voice. The piece is introduced by one of my social media captions discussing empowering women which I thought was appropriate to open with as a quality which is core to both my physical and digital identity. I initially used a fade in beginning to build sound but found that when I placed the AI voice on top of it it formed a strong introductory statement.

The development of my human voice was much more edited and manipulated than the Lyrebird voice in order to build an obvious contrast. By manipulating my natural voice in Audacity, once familiar words and phrases become purely tone and melody, almost like the product of a musical instrument. In the piece, O Superhuman, Laurie Anderson makes use of her voice as an instrument. By layering and recording instrumental sounds using her voice she creates a whole piece that comes directly from her; she becomes the instrument. This could be understood as a crossover of human and technology or a blurring of the boundaries of what is human and what are the limitations and boundaries of human ability. In places I used the rectifier distortion effect to make my voice bitty and not familiar as a human voice. Inverting my sounds, repeating vocals and using the echo and reverb effects makes it sound like a conversation from one dialogue. Paulstretch could be considered dream-like and creates a mood of mystery and at 00:07 there is a high pitched sound which may have connotations of a mystical, feminine fairy like character., In contrast, the low register voices which are barely recognisable as human and seem to act as the building blocks of the piece. Similar effects are seen the the almost magical piece, I Am Sitting in a Room by Alvin Lucier (Alvin, 1969) where he uses the natural feedback of an empty room to manipulate the human voice. Morphing of the human voice can also be observed in Trevor Wishart’s Vox 5 (Wishart, 1986). Wishart sings a subharmonic tone which he then edits lower to then morph into the sound of bees. Rather than directly morphing like that I have kept clear differences between characters and the drone sounds.

Whilst editing the sounds of my journeys, I wanted to imply that there is a filter over natural perception and therefore a lack of reality even in recognisable sounds by using only subtle changes and editing.The stretched repeated effect at 00:19 creates the idea of an electrical pulse even though this sound originates from my natural voice. Audrey Chen uses what might be considered as faults of the voice, such as clicks and breath. In her piece Beam Splitter (Chen and Munkeby Nørstebø, 2016) with Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø, she creates an atmosphere which, to me, sounds like a living atmosphere or a living space. Its animalistic and raw and natural but also still like a soundscape with a sense of aural space. I relate this to my uncanny ideal of creating an aural soundscape which appears to be both alive and digital. The lack of rhythm in Lyrebird shows a disjointed liminal space which may be unsettling and not necessarily easy to listen to, similar to the work of Audrey Chen who works instinctively rather than rythmicly.

At 00:23 we are faded from uncertainty into almost recognisable sounds using fade in/out effects. This is a technique used in classic Hollywood film and can be seen in this clip from Citizen Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941), https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=19&v=DTPctDhOCzE. The sound of rain, cars and footsteps are all seemingly recognisable, luring the listener into a false sense of security in recognition until the intensity of sound increases to an almost unbearable level. This effect is then disrupted by a loud, non-human appearing voice which shouts shouting “Ruth,” from a personal journey I was on. At this point in the piece it is almost impossible to differentiate between what is a distorted human voice and what is not. At 01:25 there is a noise which seems to bring a moment of clarity which may be recognised as human but, almost like it’s playing tricks with you, it is cutshort, which could be likened to a game of peekaboo in a blacked out cave.

From 02:16- 03:15 you are overwhelmed by multiple voices coming from all angles, this time from the character of the Lyrebird voice. What’s ironic about this section is that, with it possibly being the first definitive and recognisable voice, this does not originate from a human and it is in fact the opposite. The overwhelming sound could sew an emotional state of digital representation. As a result of the second and more intense experience of the AI voice, my own voice appears to be more easily understood and recognised as human, as though the digital one has offered a comparison for reality.

This piece shows offers a contrast between a glitching, fragmented voice of a human and the clarity of an AI generated voice in an attempt to portray a spectrum and blurred boundary between where our human identity lies. It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that we, as humans, can no longer be clearly understood and defined in a posthuman world. We become our own digital Lyrebird.

Bibliography

  1. Lyrebird.ai. (2019). Lyrebird • Ultra-Realistic Voice Cloning and Text-to-Speech. [online] Available at: https://lyrebird.ai/ [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
  2. Anderson, L. (1982). O Superhuman. [CD] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vkfpi2H8tOE: Nonesuch Records. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vkfpi2H8tOE [Accessed 13 Mar. 2019].
  3. Simpson, D. (2019). How we made Laurie Anderson’s O Superman. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/apr/19/how-we-made-laurie-anderson-o-superman [Accessed 20 Mar. 2019].
  4. Zorn, J. (2014). And Perforation. [Online] Available at: https://jonathanzorn.bandcamp.com/album/and-perforation [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].
  5. Freud, S. (1919).The Uncanny
  6. Ableton.com. (2019). Jonathan Zorn on Google Translate Poetry, The Vocoder, and Max for Live. [online] Available at: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/jonathan-zorn-electro-acoustic-vocoder-granulator/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2019].
  7. Wishart, T. (2008). Globalalia. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWkxPP6Ndng [Accessed 8 Mar. 2019].
  8. YouTube. (2018). Trevor Wishart – Composing the real. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyixalrH7xo [Accessed 23 Feb. 2019].
  9. Brianandkarl.com. (2019). SKWERL – Brian and Karl. [online] Available at: https://www.brianandkarl.com/SKWERL [Accessed 18 Mar. 2019].
  10. Everything After Z by Dictionary.com. (2019). ASMR – What Does ASMR Mean? | Slang by Dictionary.com. [online] Available at: https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/asmr/ [Accessed 24 Mar. 2019].
  11. YouTube. (2019). Suzevi ASMR. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_FPZVB4NDds9JUEOjmI5cQ [Accessed 24 Mar. 2019].
  12. Crook, J. (2019). Audacity.
  13. Alvin, L. (1969). I Am Sitting In A Room. [Tape] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jK29EArK3w [Accessed 23 Mar. 2019].
  14. Wishart, T. (1986). Vox 5. [Tape] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y23kobWHs8M [Accessed 9 Mar. 2019].
  15. Chen, A. and Munkeby Nørstebø, H. (2016). Beam Splitter. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkB20l3w5-c [Accessed 17 Feb. 2019].
  16. Citizen Kane. (1941). [DVD] Directed by O. Welles. RKO Pictures, Mercury Productions.

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