Interviewer: Guy Harries
Date of interview: 28 July 2016
Location of interview: the artist’s home studio in Berlin
Q: How did the idea of developing music that's based on a connection with physicality and performative gesture start for you?
A: I started as a bass player, and then made music with computers just as a producer for a while. Then I started doing interactive stuff at university, the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, developing software that allowed me to interact with the bass. I had three years of going around with the same performance playing with bass and electronics. During these three years I realised people were much more interested in the pedals and the computers rather than what I was doing with the bass.
That was a little thing that really annoyed me for a long time, so I decided to put away the bass and start looking for some piece of technology that I could use on my body without it forcing all the attention of the audience on the technology itself. At that time I started a Master’s in sound design, and the research was on the Xth Sense interface that I use in my performances also now. Once I started using the Xth Sense, I started using my body for performance.
Q: And were there any particular influences in your approach to developing the body practice in performance? And was there any particular way that you trained yourself to become a body-centred performer?
A: There are many influences. The most obvious is Stelarc, right? Before that I've always been passionate about performance art, '60s, ‘70s performance art, even before I started doing anything like it. So I guess that's kind of something I always brought with me. Then I think a lot of influence was from the NIME community in one way or another, in both positive and negative aspects. That community is an incredibly rich pool of musical and performative ideas. You don't get that kind of approach anywhere else. There is a unique way to think about sound, music and interaction outside of the box. The negative side is that sometime people would completely undervalue the role of their body on stage. You can see that because a lot people are exclusively engineers, maybe they have amazing instruments but they can't really play them, because they would need additional skills that generally are reserved to performers.
And then more recently I started looking at this very specific area of dance, I don't think there's a name for this kind of practice but there are very interesting works, such as Maria Donata D'urso, who has been doing incredible work with body and movement.
Q: It seems like now sound, body and presentation are on equal footing in your work. What caused that shift? Or was it a gradual process?
A: Well I think it was about different elements evolving on their own and then getting together throughout my PhD. I used to work a lot with video, visual performance and eventually lighting.
If you watch the video of the first piece I did for the Xth sense, which is probably the piece that most people know, I just didn't care what was around me. Gradually I developed an approach that included the design of the whole performance environment.
Q: And when you were developing the Xth sense interface, what were the stages on the way and what informed the design?
A: At the beginning I was just looking for a very basic DIY solution, so I decided to use MMG, which is the signal I use with the Xth sense. I arrived at that by studying biomedical engineering on my own; it’s used for prosthetics control basically.
I had a microphone attached to one arm and it was going into a breadboard and then from the breadboard into the computer software. Then, with the help of my father who is good at electronics, I started thinking about something viable. In the beginning it was more about, ‘How do I make this thing work?’ Then, once I had the hardware ready, then my mother helped me with the wearable stuff.
Q: A family effort
A: Yes, absolutely. I started listening to the sound from the interface. Those were the very first sounds I recorded. I would just spend a lot of time doing movements, recording the MMG signal and listening to the recordings, trying to understand what the frequency range was, and what I could do with it. It was really sound design in that sense, and then from there I just started developing the software.
Q: What kind of information are you extracting from the signal? Is it spectrum based or is it...
A: It’s the actual sound
Q: Do you use the sound as it is? Or do you process it?
A: I process that sound. I get an audio signal from the microphone attached to my arm. The audio signal has a spectrum and you can also play with that. I started doing that already with my piece Corpus Nil. Then I would also extract information from the sound itself: dynamics, amplitude, time, and use those parameters to control the mapping of the live sampling.
Q: And the sampling is also of the same signal?
A: Yeah. You could also just use the information to control a synthesizer, but I always play with just the raw sound.
Q: How important to you is that there's a one to one connection between the gesture and the sound?
A: It’s never been too important.
Q: But it’s quite clear usually
A: It is, yes. There is always something that just comes out of it even in Corpus Nil, but then I actually started getting away from that more and more. Even in the piece Ominous it’s really clear what kind of interaction there is, and there are other moments when things just explode by themselves and that's on purpose. And then in the more recent piece Corpus Nil it’s driven to the extreme: you see there is something at work but that's not the focus.
Q: How important is narrative? I remember your piece Hypo Chrysos where there are heavy rocks that you pull with ropes within a very immersive and theatrical audiovisual environment. You can attach a lot of narratives to that. Whereas your piece Ominous seems more like a musical performance. Is there a trajectory in how you approach constructing performance to be less or more narrative-based, or is just each project in its own right?
A: I don't think there is a real trajectory. Whenever I start working on something new it just happens because I have some kind of vision at night or I see something in my head that I want to try and make.
Q: Do you find that the concept of resistance or working against something is an essential element in your work?
A: Yes, definitely. There is something confrontational that I try to produce during the experience of myself as the performer but also the audience more or less directly. In my piece Nigredo it’s very direct. In this work [Corpus Nil] it’s much looser; it gets very direct but that's not the main goal.
There are some fundamental assumptions that I have about how technology is used in artistic performance these days. I think there are a lot of nice renderings, beautiful bodies and beautiful technologies. Nothing bad about that, but what about all the shit that happens around us? It’s like eating your dinner with a knife that somebody just used to kill somebody else, metaphorically speaking.
And there is the ‘artivist’ approach. But that's just passes judgement, saying: this is good, this is bad and I am showing you. I completely respect this work, but can we actually try to think about alternatives? Can we actually give the audience an opportunity to think about what they're seeing? Even more so when you are using technology and the body explicitly in your work? I think that's very important and completely overlooked.
Q: You have your own company developing the Xth sense as a product. It is something that you actually are sharing, making it available to other musicians. What part of the design is your aesthetic and what part is open?
A: The DIY version that I also still use, it’s been out there for a while now. People still use it for very different things. Then again, my aesthetic is quite specific too, but I don't think it’s embedded too much in the instrument itself.
Q: Would you say the software is part of the instrument?
A: Oh yes, definitely. But I try to make the instrument as flexible as possible. We have a company, that's the other part of the story, which is a very difficult thing to do: being an entrepreneur and an artist at the same time. We have a lot of good ideas, but it’s proving extremely difficult to bring the Xth Sense to the market without it being extremely functional.
Q: And when other people use the Xth Sense, do you find that they develop similar gestures?
A: Actually no. As far as I know, there was just one case where somebody tried to imitate my gestures. But then everybody else is just using it in a different context and in very different ways. Also, I have to say the documentation of the instrument is very good, but I didn't keep up with a lot of other refinements in terms of diversifying or making more sophisticated what people can do with it because also I'm not developing it anymore. I develop my own piece of software, but the Xth Sense software in itself is finished. I'm not planning to add anything more to it.
Q: And do you find that you're changing much in terms of mapping parameters?
A: Oh yeah a lot. Actually from Music for Flesh through Ominous and Hypo Chrysos, there was quite a tight iteration combined with completely different stuff that I started working on, I took some pieces from there and put them there and make it sound different or specific things I was doing. But then yeah as usual I got bored of that stuff I was doing and then I made Nigredo, which just uses the software but doesn't have any of the mapping that was happening before and then this, and then Corpus Nil is completely different, its a stupidly complicated way of mapping stuff. Of course I love it, it works but it’s way too complex. So there I use just the real mapping as I was doing before; it’s very minimal in Corpus Nil, because then I work with the spectrum of the mass of sound.
Q: One of the concepts in the abstract of your PhD is ‘configuration’. Could you explain what this means in the context of performance?
A: Configuration in this context is a way to understand technological embodiment, where technological embodiment is any kind of relation between the body and a piece of technology. We use configuration to understand the relation between the human part and the technological part. The way you do that is to first get out of your head that you are the subject and the instrument is the object. You forget that, and you just enter this realm where you're both subject and object, so the instrument can affect you as much as you can affect the instrument. The other assumption is that the relation between the technology and the body is always performative. It’s not immediate; it happens through training and reaching certain physical, psychological thresholds and changes. The third assumption is that the configuration is fixed, so for instance I can play Corpus Nil in this way with the same sensor all the time. There is the same kind of process going on, but then it changes throughout the performance.