Christina McPhee


How do you define "soundtoys" ?

As one's brain is jammed and is jamming with multiple 'lines' of music that, in effect, are in a constant state of recombination, so that it seems that the neural structures that generate memory of musical threads aren't borne of a linear process at all, but rather, of a quasi-visual live feed that continually reconfigures itself playfully. Sound toys are like that: they are like made up memories, stolen from a live bank of transpersonal desires. Sound toys are modes of musical thought that do not rely on progressive development and fixed architecture, and are distinct from improvisation. Sound toys require recombinant, playful random access pathways in place of essential structures. The mark of a sound toy is in its vague boundary conditions; if it should keep breaking out of zones, 'sound' might materializes as 'music' just as often as the reverse. It's like a really delicious memory salad, tossed around. Not jazz, because jazz relies on harmonics, even in the most extreme reaches; indeed it's not even really music. I am interested in how a sound toy might be like a trigger to memory, to a neurological and emotional kinesthesia. Strangely, since the net is such a visual medium, and I come from a visual practice as painter, I find that the subliminality and insistent presence of sound fragments in the context of the net create a kind of seduction past the visual into an auditory interactive hallucination. That's the quality of a sound toy.

On a personal level, why do you make this work?
The pathways into sound for me came totally through the medium of digital transformation of analog material and memories of sounds in childhood at the piano. I was messing around a lot with an old (circa 1995) Yamaha clavinova and finding that the musical ideas of my childhood experience came flooding back into consciousness. It was as if a lost part of my mind and soul had come back to me. As soon as I realized there were no digital rules, no performance agenda, no audience, I started to play improvisations that flowed out of a thousand memory fragments of Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, the doric mode, perhaps, set to move up and through lines of Kansas City blues. The acoustic pleasures of improvisation led directly into digital files that became fodder for editing and montaging into stranger and shorter passages until there were only intense distillations of electronic electroacoustical distortions left like ruins touched here and there by lines of architectural melody. So for me this work is like mining the gold of the intense sense of the present cached within the past I remember from childhood at the piano. Sound art is a mode of super awareness as if one is singing in the interstitial spaces between one present moment and the next present moment: a hyper now.

What is you project and your work about?

I think that the imaginative transformation of image into sound is the most shocking quality of the net context and the thresholds between what's behind the screen and what is physically live, between virtual and so called real. Shocking, because it breaks out of post traumatic stress, it awakens desire; it hears the material of dreams of the underground and reports the sound in an awakened, live state. My live digital and net art wants to imagine a sublime cyborg: the voice whose face is hidden, the sound manipulation that might, or might not, develop into some kind of message or memory. In the arena of virtual topographies the cyborg, whoever she is, projects her presence via the soundart, or to put it another way, her interior thoughts are adumbrated as felt landscapes, poorly seen, barely remembered, acoustically driven triggers to traumatic and erotic memory. And because she is, after all, the presence of the Other, she is transpersonal, just like digital interactivity itself, she is a cross- boundary: the thresholds between becoming and staying hidden are constantly violated. It's that play between memory and no memory that creates the space of the soundtoy.

How long have you been working in this area?.

For about two years I have been composing longer structures digitally via keyboard and voice layering of spoken text. Slipstreamandromeda (2000) (<> was a first shot at layering multilingual voices from Kafka, Hopkins and Julien Green against a strange little cha-cha piece. The invitation to create some electroacoustical sound (called 'skin') for the festival EN RED O: The Sound Thing for the Orchestre de Caos in Barcelona (2001) was a very modest project but it stimulated a serious push into making looped soundthreads of increasing density and elaboration, away from formal structures, and towards the mode of fragmented layerings that are driven by user interaction. This clarified the sound elements of 47REDS, a net art elegy on the urban ruin. Sound file fragments from the larger suite NAXSMASH were matched to image files and panoramic vr quicktimes; I wanted to match the mood of each section to a text fragment from Italo Calvino?s Invisible Cities. In 47REDS, the loops of sound are trancelike and passive. The sound functions as if to move through an emotional archaeology like the deserted streets of de Chirico. The sense of the cyborg moving through the darkness of the city, evading death, seeking escape. Then, I really wanted to make sound loops shatter and reconfigure like waves of signals from the underground world, and from this desire came sonicpersephone, made with interactive Flash movies. Persephone became another metaphor for the cyborg, this time as an imprisoned one, looking out at you from behind the screen so that the sounds project out at you. Your only way to communicate with and reach her is to move the mouse around. Still, her ambient world remains fluid and inscrutable, and untouchable. The sound wants to suggest the tumultuous passages inside her mind. Because it loops in endless interactive combinations there is no real possibility for connecting behind the prison wall of the screen. Aphasia, a live/3D virtual reality installation imagines the condition of the cyborg's brain as if it has had a stroke, and Piranesia, an interactive vrml online work, combines soundfiles and image in a dynamic inspired by Piranesi's Carcieri, the spatially irrational prisons. In this most recent form the sound clearly develops as a toy medium. Users can drag and drop soundfiles (.wav and .mpeg) onto virtual forms inside the prison. The collision of new random material and the digital music fragments from NAXSMASH make a hybrid fluid sound structure, constantly changing. At this point I lose artistic control over the compositional ambience. The cyborg ?other? --really, everybody who plays within Piranesia- becomes identical to this neural 3d landscape. Sound becomes a kind of fugue/brain architecture of memory and no memory.

Were you an artist/ musician first who got into using computers/the net, or did you respond to the net as a medium in an artistic way?
Certainly it was both. I found I could integrate the passions and themes of painting and drawing -- landscape as layers of time, the inscaped world -- inside contexts of sound art, thus propelling several elements of my imaginative experience into a focussed stream. The digital arena is oxygenated. From the first, it has offered free air and energy to move about and indulge an obsession for multimedia within the context of an untouchable, possibly anonymous, voyeuristic topography of Online Land. The space of net art is being scouted out by artists rather than institutions, at least at this early stage. That means we are at that intoxicating moment when a new art is born. There is an incomparable freedom in the digital zone that arises from its fundamental characteristics of anonymity, motility, layering, and shape-shifting.

What/ who has influenced you in your work? (themes, other artists etc)

Two years ago Chairetmetal/metalandflesh, the online bilingual journal of net aesthetics, invited a new work of net art related to my site, The scaleless interior architectural potential of the net offered a chance to explore violence and desire in a transient, impersonal zone. Cyberspace seduced, like Alice, down the rabbit hole. Wonderland was a landscape of trauma. Following Mendieta's blood-prints, through Piranesi's prisons, into the passages of Louise Bourgeois, gestures of elegy influenced slipstreamandromeda. An invisible Andromeda?s voicestreams laced texts Kafka, Julien Green and Hopkins like a lattice: as interactive thought-place for the contemplation of desire and entrapment. Then, like a direct feed to the amygdala, Michael Ondaatje?s ?Anil?s Ghost? affected my mind as if to untie the ?almond knot?. His Sri Lankan novel of terror and memory made me want to remember. It happened at ?Ancient Faces: Late Roman Mummy Portraits" in February, 2000 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The gaze of young faces on sarcophagi was a shockwave transport to the childhood basement of claustrophobia and loss. This experience led to an interest in net art as a place of 'dreams of the underground'. A recursive series of gestures, as if you could slipstream the pieces of a Christian Boltanski installation into real time, seems suited to the form and flux of soundart online.

Are there any other artists covering the same field as you?

I collaborate with two, Shane Carroll in 3d vrml and Michael Cole in Flash. I am interested in Melinda Rackham's 3d interactive works, Valery Grancher's meditations of memory, and Olliver Dyen's subtle vrml sound/image suspensions in <>

Do you see this work as art?

Of course.

With regard to 'soundtoys' especially, why do you think the audio visual form is so key to the net?
The net offers an environment sine qua non for multimedia staging, as in opera. But I will go further. It is a place that valorizes the unseen. How can we sense what is meaningful if the virtual real is ephemeral and saturated with image? If as primates we are biased towards the visual, and further, towards a kind of scanning of the savannah landscape--looking for danger, checking out the signs, mapping the code--then in virtual land we create a landscape of emotional projections, or a subliminally charged topography whose signals of meaning have to be teased out of the glut of visual information. Orally based cultures, as is well known, use sound mapping to visualize meanings. The print revolution in the West took culture to a nearly exclusive elision of textuality to visualization. Now we have gone past that gridlock, that nexus, into a new zone, open, chaotic, cacophonic, anechoic. The interesting moment has arrived, in which visualization becomes a landscape for layering of memory: and in this regard interactive music becomes a premier form-making and form-sensing tool. As if we have come to a new level of neurosensorial integration as primates at the very moment that we leave the purely human realm of meaning and connect with the cyborg's realm. I think we want to hear her.

>What defines the aesthetics of new interactive art.?
The thing is, the space of net art is simultaneous, and further, it is the paradox of multiple events dissolving into one another as soon as the simultaneity is noticed, like play, like paradoxes of fictions (Borges). You can never get at one place, into one time: its the intertextuality of all the components, languages looping, you can never find your way to the end of the thread to the end of the trail, you can never say, "meanwhile, back at the ranch," because "back at the ranch" something else simultaneously is dissolving: so, instead there is a logic of play at the heart of interactive art. Net art is a paradox since it has to do with the interaction of events and is emergent in that interaction as a third, forth or nth integer event (to paraphrase Susan Stewart). What I meant by digital sublime is not by any means something cold or beautiful or pretty or or sterile. Rather it is the zero ground, the absolute zero, the event horizon. Every html or vrml display is a threshold (see Baudelaire) towards a undisclosed, simultaneously dissolving and reforming zone. Entropy recurs, as we try to set and reset the boundaries of things, fix things, set coordinates, or sail to the island of the day before (Umberto Eco). And as for this island, we can approach it but will never reach it, this place of ultimate epistemologic clarity. It's the place/time we can't go to because of the time and space dissolve of net art. It's the giant baby in the white room (Kubrick, 2001). Imagine 'sublime' is 'utopian', because the world of artistic production in the net is without, or outside, a fixed time context: it can only be experienced and reconstituted through the creation of multiple domains. Sublimity is just the unseen, the unknowable, the repressed memory content, the 'awful' precisely because it is 'hors de combat', out of the running, back of beyond, an unrealizable possibility. Is it possible to define perameters, to navigate precise coordinates for exactly what MEZ's hypertextual layering 'means' any more than what Finnegans Wake 'means'? Naturally not. for the intertextualities are themselves the body. They are not representations of some transcendent order beyond themselves. They are just, gloriously, themselves, live. Incarnation: Nabokov's Ada and Van are their own texts. Here's where the intertextuality of the net both thwarts and enriches epistemology. It's not that we can engineer a kind of knowing like scientific 'truth' via the technologies of the net. The kinds of meaning constructs capable of flourishing in this simultaneous noplace-land are creations of our own play. The technobody presence of a netart work is a delicious double memory package. Anna Livia Plurabelle cries as she slipstreams into the Liffey at the end/beginning of the Wake: mememorme! is this "me me more me"; or is this "(re)member me!". Luckily it is both/and: bidimensionality of text. So it is that digital media become performances: plays. Like Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, the net artistic identity is both a self and a non-self, dissolved in the river of media. She calls "mememoremee" -- is it both "me me more me" and "(re)memory" ? - a sybilline call to soundart, whose prime characteristic is a verb: dissolve and shift.

How important is the visual aspect in the 'new' relationship I suspect that we are ready to give primacy to sound because music is the transformation of time into memory. It seems to precede and predict visualizations. In the studio, when you enjoy the physicality of digitally mediated canvasses, their simultaneous presences and absences, perhaps you might realize you are engaged in series of fugue like transformations between the place of 'physical' and the time of 'memory'. Things dissolve: the visuals blur in a playground of performance whose boundaries are arbitrary relative to what is enclosed within them, yet definitive and examinable at each instance of performance. Each moment of each html. Each breath of a pixel. The visual aspect is just one of a sequence of n events contextualized by layering and random or intentional input.

Does the net promote visual awareness that is unique to it?
The net sensitizes us to the invisible. It suggests a neural topography, e. g. the cyborg?s vision is the net itself. So, how do we see inside the net? Into the phenomenology of virtual space behind the screen? Philip Guston used to talk about the moment in painting when it looks back at you. It becomes something beyond the projection of the self. It takes on a strange familiarity and alien presence simultaneously. She is Other, the beautiful stranger. If the cyborg landscape can be imagined as a subset of the real world, as a live extension of our mentality, then we might visualize the world of the Other as a neural prison or labyrinth. How is the stranger an inhabitant of this Other terrain, whose perameters and sequences are nodes of information-transition? It is at once familiar, since we manipulate the topography from outside the black box, from this side of the screen; and alien, like a repressed memory content, barely recalled, seen in the briefest of flashes. Is the digital reproduction, no longer ?mechanical? as in Benjamin, no longer a multiple, more like a pandemic virus, both beloved and infected, necessary and contaminating, causing transformation in ourselves, and in our transpersonal condition?

How novel do you feel generative music and interactivity is?
Electronic media generate a space wherein sensors and sensualities attempt to visualize, to hear, and to perform a series of transitions through thresholds between cyborg and human. Imagine cyberspace as music, an abstract architectonics.

Do you think there is a history to audio visual work?
I have learned from Lewis Kachur's Displaying the Marvelous (MIT Press, 2001), about surrealism and display including Duchamp, Dali et al. Multimedia is colored by the childhood memory of the liturgy in the traditional mass, opera, and especially by the early modernist ballets of Stravinsky and Balanchine. I find constant interest in the history of Charles and Ray Eames's multimedia experiments.

Would you describe yourself as a multimedia artist, a net.artist,
programmer, or none of the above?

Usually I resort to the awkward phrase ?new media artist? for lack of a better description.

What software do you use most and why?

Flash, photoshop, vrml, soundedit, protools. .. I use whatever I can, as soon as I can learn it, as much as I can.

Can you recommend three urls to soundtoys?

Christina McPhee <>

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