To The Sooe is the perfect Valentine’s Day art exhibition, Erin Gee joked after describing some of her artworks installed at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.
Take the title piece: Two people can share a seat and listen from headphones. They’ll hear Gee’s voice reading Wuthering Heights, a classic romance by Emily Bronte — but they won’t recognize the words.
Gee used a computer algorithm to interpret the novel. “To the sooe” is one of the phrases the artificial intelligence gleaned from the text. It began with “a whole bunch of consonants.”
Then — “I love this section,” Gee said, pointing to the characters etched into a mirrored surface. “This is when it processes all the space between words … And then slowly it comes to the vowels and you can see it like slowly turn into language.”
Inspired by autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which uses sounds to stimulate bodily reactions, Gee began whispering the garbled language to evoke a sensation.
Gee’s interest in sound and robotics both date back to her time at the University of Regina, where she studied music performance and visual arts.
In class, she saw a film about Australian artist Stelarc, who “was kind of cruising around in a robot, like an exoskeleton, in an art gallery.” She was immediately captivated.
When Gee moved to Montreal for graduate school, she met Stelarc, which led to doing a residency with him at the MARCS science lab at Western Sydney University. There, she made a “small robot opera.”
“Erin’s work is very, very immersive. It’s really bringing the reaction, the chemistry, the biology within your body and really bringing it outwards and put(ting) it on display,” said Tak Pham, who curated this exhibition at the MacKenzie.
“In our technological culture, I think that there’s a lot of emphasis on the brain and like, ‘Wow, technology is making us smarter, faster, more efficient,’” said Gee.
“I create work that really honours the body and has us reconsider the mechanics of the body and think of the body itself as a really sophisticated machine, not just the brain. The brain doesn’t have to steal the show. Our emotions can do it too.”
Another of Gee’s creations demonstrates that in real time. Pinch and Soothe lets two people plug into biofeedback devices, which create music based on physiological responses.
A heart sensor attaches to an index finger. Two other fingers touch two pieces of metal, which measure sweat and send tiny electric currents back and forth.
Attached to headphones, there’s a part that resembles a headset microphone; it’s a temperature sensor that registers hot or cold breath.
Through these tools, biology translates to sounds in the headphones.
“The tones are very pleasing; it’s like very simple, Brian Eno-ey vibe,” said Gee.
It’s called Pinch and Soothe because Gee suggests “social interaction” of pinching the person next to you, to change the rhythms of the music.
Gee took a similar approach to Swarming Emotional Pianos, in which method actors Laurence Dauphinais and Matt Keyes wore biosensors to create sounds as they tapped into different emotions. Again, the sounds change depending on heart rate, sweat levels and breathing.
“Whenever there’s a burst of sweat, there’s like a lot of kind of confused clangy different notes,” said Gee.
The actors’ faces are projected on a screen, while six “robots” form a half circle to play the music.
“This is really an exhibit about little things in the body and little things that automatically happen that we don’t think about a lot,” said Gee. “So there is biosensors and robots and ASMR, but it’s mostly all an attempt to get us to focus on our body.
“I think it’s nice to put a body at the forefront and not just a glowing screen.”
Pham says this exhibition shows how varied art can be.
“You don’t have to know how to paint or sculpt or make ceramics to become an artist. You can know how to do circuitry and then really geeky and nerdy things and can still turn it into an artistic experience.”
To The Sooe is on at the MacKenzie Art Gallery through April 19. Admission is $10 for non-members, although the next Rawlco free admission day is Feb. 1.