Algorithmic GazeJasmine Guffond

Algorithmic Gaze

I first came across Jasmine Guffond’s work at what felt like the perfect time. Already gorging on minimal drone to soundtrack Autumnal bus journeys, I stumbled across her album Yellow Bell. Yellow Bell is both an abstract work of electronic experimentalism, and a folk album, with Guffond’s melancholic croons filtering through at delightful intervals. At times, there is little but a small, meditative hum, like the sound of a computer on standby. Occasionally, however, her cries come through pure and distilled, such as on the brilliant ‘Elephant’.

The concept of ‘Yellow Bell’ derives from an ancient Chinese tradition that Guffond came across while researching ideas and mythologies connecting sound to systems of universal harmony and structure. “The general idea of a fundamental tone that relates to society’s place in the cosmic order and the idea that this tone should be adjusted from time to time is present throughout” she explains.

She cites influences as diverse as Eliane Radigue and György Ligeti except, she notes, his operas… Guffond has also worked extensively on other semi-musical projects, including an app that generates sound from nearby mobile and internet activity. In light of her latest album, and her ongoing projects this year, we decided to catch up with Guffond to talk CCTV, Sonification and ‘Sound Selfies’.

So how has 2015 been for you since the release of ‘Yellow Bell’? What kind of response have you had to the record?

It’s been great - I appreciate the overall response as very positive with nice reviews and the label selling out of the vinyl; certainly in part due to the beautiful handmade covers!

Can you expand a little on the mythological background of the title?

One account of the legend of The Yellow Bell begins in the third millennium B.C.E. The Emperor of China, Huang-Di, sent his mathematician Ling-Lun to the western mountains near India and instructed him to cut bamboo pipes from which the fundamentals of music could be derived. The bamboo tube upon which all other pitches and measurements were based was called the Yellow Bell. This foundation tone was considered to be an exact pitch representing a divine principle in harmony with the forces of the universe. From that time on, each successive dynasty with its new emperor was compelled to recalcaulate the length of the Yellow Bell. This new tone would redefine the entire system so as to have the best spiritual and mathematical foundation possible, thereby bringing the new dynasty in tune with the natural order of the universe.

What is your interest in ‘interventions’? How do you use sound to intervene with a space/venue or situation?

Through projects over the last couple of years I realized that I’m more interested in working outside of gallery contexts, intervening in everyday situations and public space. For example, a recent work – ‘Anywhere, All the Time, A Permanent Soundtrack to Your Life’ is an android application that sonifies Wi-Fi and GPS networks. It is intended to be used while walking with headphones connected to a portable smart device – usually a phone. When walking with the app, one intercepts Wi-Fi and GPS infrastructure and their sonification creates a compositional mapping within our everyday environments. As a mobile composition I became interested in walking as a critical way of engaging with urban and everyday reality and by providing an audible presence for Wi-Fi and GPS networks, I wanted to provide a platform through which to explore the intertwining of physical territory and the immaterial information networks that define our urban environments.

What do you mean by “sonification” here? I understand that you have “sonified” facial recognition algorithms too right?

I produced a few projects last year that sonified facial recognition technology. One was during a ‘Protest and Technology’ conference at the Technical University in Berlin. I provided participants with the opportunity to make a ‘Sound Selfie’. People sat before the inbuilt camera on my computer and facial recognition algorithms detected and analysed their faces. The individual facial data was then translated into sound, producing sonic imprints of individual faces. Following the usual chain of events for a ‘Selfie’, the ‘Sound Selfies’ were instantly uploaded and archived to a Facebook page. I was interested in contemporary modes of participatory surveillance that are often based on the intentional disclosure of personal information by users of social media, mobile apps and online platforms. The identity of participants was abstracted into sound via a basic form of FM synthesis. I wanted to emphasise the reductive process of digitally encoding the face into a few basic measurements. I’m curious about what this means when our identities, choices, and personalities are transformed into streams of data under the algorithmic gaze. What is the intersection of the online data profile and the offline person? I see it as a shift towards a post-human culture. Life has a UI and we have a data self.

We’re based in London — CCTV capital of the world — but how do you see the major differences between Sydney and Berlin in terms of Government surveillance and data mining? What do you think is the most important point of action for musicians and artists in resisting these Government strategies?

Australia has recently passed a meta data retention law enforcing telephone & Internet providers to keep the meta data of all Australian citizens for two years. I guess comparatively Australia is looking worse in terms of government surveillance than Germany however since the Snowden leaks there has been plenty of evidence that the BND (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) has collaborated with the NSA and the GCHQ in mass surveillance of its own citizens and the NSA’s largest data collection centre in Europe is located in Germany in Griesheim.

Many artists are critiquing and dissecting contemporary surveillance, sometimes via the co-option of surveillance technology itself or perhaps by visualizing or sonifying modes of surveillance. It’s a resistance against surveillance that aims to produce a visibility (or audibility) as discussion in the public sphere and however momentarily or playfully, destabilize the imbalance of power and control inherent to surveillance states. So, although there are to my knowledge no mass surveillance programs using smart phone technology, the technology is available and is definitely being used by the NSA, for example, to target individuals. By creating an app that sonifes the networks through which we could be surveyed I wanted to provide the option to listen back and reflect upon how it feels to live in a culture where our public space is mediated by technological infrastructure that is empowering in terms of communication as well as compromising in terms of the potential of surveillance.

Other forms of resistance available to everyone are encryption tools such as the Tor Browser (anonymous browsing) Privacy Badger (plug-in for your browser that blocks trackers), Startpage (private search engine, same as using Google but your computer IP address is anonymous) and so much more!! For a comprehensive list including links:

As someone interested in data and audio technologies, what are your thoughts on music piracy in general? Do you think we should reject or embrace it as a new method of music distribution? Do you think it has opened up potentially problematic issues with information privacy, security, etc.?

I think we need to rethink conventional paradigms for music distribution. This is happening anyway of its own accord, via digital technology and - as you suggest - music piracy both providing a challenge to a dominant power structure: the mainstream entertainment industry. How this usually plays out is with large entertainment corporations suing individuals for downloading audio files. Although file sharing can be good for the industry, suing contemporary cultural exchange seems to have developed into a new line of revenue for major music business. I’m not anti copyright, when people buy my music, or films pay to use it I earn money from doing something I feel passionate about and that’s great, but I am against copyright when its used as a control mechanism by corporations that sit on swathes of rights and may not even be acting in the interest of the artists whose rights they own. One case of a peer-to-peer file-sharing platform, The Pirate Bay, being convicted of contributory copyright infringement is a revealing example of mechanisms of power extending from the entertainment industry to the legal system and government. The U.S. warned Sweden that if they didn’t get rid of the site, they would impose trade sanctions and Pirate Bay co-founders were sentenced to jail for copyright infringement. It’s simply getting harder to encapsulate information into discrete units and sell it so the entertainment industry pushes through various acts such as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), etc. in an attempt to police the Internet. Just recently in Australia a new site blocking act was passed – the Copyright Amendment, Online Infringement Bill - enabling copyright holders to block piracy related websites via the Australian judicial system. In effect any website that doesn’t comply with Australian copyright law or ‘facilitates copyright infringement’ could be blocked via a Federal Court order. It was rushed through in 3 months with little opposition - probably due to the fact that Village Roadshow had contributed between $227,500 and $329,919 to the two major Australian political parties in the last financial year. But in answer to your question, let’s embrace contemporary modes of file sharing, preferably via a VPN!

I get the impression that you are more involved in the world of sound art and installations these days than music per se. Do you feel as though there are different creative freedoms that can be afforded by each medium, or are they fundamentally aiming at the same target?

I find music and art to be different processes (though not entirely) engaging different (though not exclusively) parts of myself. Across both I feel completely creatively free, limitations are usually imposed from outside structures, technological limitations and of course especially for art projects, budget. In respect to budget I really am totally free with music as I create and produce it all myself at home – though I do need new monitors! In terms of audience reception or environment the ‘target’ is different. Music has a clearly established audience / artist dynamic and is still very much oriented toward the spectacle. I’ve reached a personal threshold where I can no longer play behind the sound system, listening and mixing my music through half decent monitors and it can be surprisingly difficult to convince a promoter that I don’t want to perform from the stage, but rather in front of the sound system. I work with a visual artist, Ilan Katin, who maps extremely minimal (and beautiful), hypnotic video projections during my live show, however I provide almost no visually performative element so it really doesn’t seem necessary for me to be on stage. In some ways the music industry is way more limiting in terms of conventions of expression and still very connected to the idea of entertainment. In that sense art can be conceptually more open and is often more directly connected to discourse.

Finally, what else have you got planned for the rest of the year? Any exciting projects you can tell us about?

A couple of things - a split vinyl release with the Turkish artist Biblo - ‘Change / Future Present’ - is due to come out on the C Sides label in autumn. And I’m excited about going to Australia this year to present & conduct Listening Walks for Anywhere, All the Time, A Permanent Soundtrack to Your Life as well as live shows for the Liquid Architecture Festival.

Music: Jasmine Guffond - Somnabulant | Visuals: ilan Katin |

2nd camera: Francesco Scarpa

  • Published
  • Aug 01, 2015
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