Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alison Kotin [16]

Alison Kotin
Arlington, MA, USA

Arm Instrument: a touch-sensitive human musical interface.


Arm Instrument is a touch-sensitive, wearable, digital instrument. Piezoelectric sensors are attached to a skintight spandex “shooter sleeve” worn by a performer. Signals from the piezo sensors are transmitted wirelessly to a computer and speakers. Players touch, tap, or stroke the wearer’s arm to elicit sound: my wife humming a pentatonic scale. Arm Instrument is an opportunity to explore the nuances of relationships between bodies in physical space, the experience of touch between strangers, and the slippage between “interface” and “performer” when interaction requires contact between bodies. Is this touch empowering? Objectifying? Comforting or uncomfortable? By using the human voice as my sound material I hope to magnify the impression of body-as-interface, and create an environment of closeness, sensuality, and unexpected recontextualization of human responses.

Arm Instrument represents my most direct (and, for me, most uncomfortable) experiment with the body’s potential to take on the characteristics of interface. Having once made a decision about the unique sound of this “instrument,” I leave other participants with the responsibility of creating music, interacting physically with my body, and making their own meanings from the exchange.

Arm Instrument is an exploration of my emotional and physical boundaries in social and public situations, and an experiment with my audience’s notions of what it means “to interact” and “to relate” to a person versus an interface.

The potentially dehumanizing aspects of digitally-mediated experience have been well-rehearsed in texts by Sherry Turkle (1), Nicholas Carr (2), and many others. It may be a truism that digital interfaces and mediatized experience have changed our relationships with people and our environment, but still the long-term nature and impact of these changes can’t be predicted. Without preconceptions, I want to discover what occurs when the modern tendency bemoaned by many to conflate the digital and the physical is made literal. Does a layer of digital data superimposed on the experience of touch make tactile interaction between strangers more or less intimate? More or less comfortable? In GoogleChat I explored the issues that arise from the notion that our relationship to digital interfaces embodies them with their own personae. With Arm Instrument my body itself becomes the interface and to interact means to enter into a relationship (however brief) with me.

When interacting with Arm Instrument, audience members are given the choice to acknowledge my presence inside the instrument, or to mentally erase our physical relationship from their manipulation of sound material. As a performer inside the piece, I am faced with a similar choice: do I remain a passive conduit for another’s experience, or do I let my own responses and physical existence become an unignorable part of the process of interaction?

As an introverted person who is uncomfortable with the physical proximity of strangers, I find I need to adopt an unfamiliar persona in order to make myself a successful “frame” for Arm Instrument. My wife Jen’s voice in the piece adds both an additional layer of intimacy and yet another uncomfortable source of personal exposure. As audience members make music with my piece, I can’t help feeling that the details of my intimate relationships, sexual orientation, and personal identity are on display for manipulation by others. Will this ultimately be a liberating, painful, or desensitizing experience, or something quite different?

Turkle S. Simulation and Its Discontents. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
Carr N. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010.

Theme: Cyberart

Unfortunately Alison Kotin will not be able to make the runway show due to a family situation.


Alison is currently an MFA student at MassArt’s Dynamic Media Institute. Her work focuses on the creative potential of digital interaction, exploring the nexus of performance, play, and electronic media through experiments with sound and touch. Alison is a graphic designer and design educator. She is co-founder of the Urbano Project in Jamaica Plain, a non-profit, artist-run studio and gallery dedicated to fostering public art partnerships between urban teens and professional artists.

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