Mind, Body, Machines And Sound

Erin Gee deploys diverse disciplines to connect thoughts and feelings

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Erin Gee: To The Sooe
MacKenzie Art Gallery
Opens Thursday 23

When I was winding up my interview with Montreal-based, Regina-born artist Erin Gee about her upcoming exhibition To The Sooe at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, she said, “It will be a show for people who like ASMR, robots, technology and emotions.”

ASMR, for those who don’t know, stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It’s something that’s been evolving on the Internet for around 10 years, says Gee. It features influencer-style videos where performers use intimate whispers, sounds and gestures to provoke a nervous system response in the viewer/listener.

“I don’t think there’s a gender to it, but when people think of ASMR the first thing they think about is a beautiful girl on the screen with amazing nails,” says Gee.

“I’ve been really interested in ASMR because it has millions of viewers,” she adds. “But it’s been vilified in the sound art and music communities. I think it’s because it’s a girl thing, and it’s about emotions. People have a real femme fatale anxiety about it.

“But I like that. I like being the evil technology femme fatale.”

Creative Journey

Gee’s artistic background makes her uniquely suited for the type of work she does. She began her University of Regina career studying music, but she was also interested in visual art.

“I decided on music initially, with an art minor,” she says. “In the latter classes, I was exposed to artists in the Intermedia program who were doing really different things. Like most people, I’d thought art was paintings, drawing and sculpture. Then I was introduced to this wild world of electronic art and electro-acoustic music.”

To pursue her interest, Gee established an organization devoted to sound art (still running in Regina today as Holophon Audio Arts). Other important early influences were a workshop series on electronic art at Neutral Ground, and private classes with sound artist Charlie Fox at the University of Regina.

“I realized that through art I could make music that was experimental, and that involved bodies and technologies in a way that I found really attractive and fruitful,” says Gee. “Later, I went to Montreal to study robotics with Bill Vorn. Now, I’m actually in a doctorate of music composition program at Université de Montréal. So I’ve always been back and forth.”

Music and art aren’t the only disciplines Gee straddles. She also has a foot in the arts and science/tech communities.

Going back several centuries, there’s been a fair bit of antagonism and distrust between those groups. But Gee says attitudes are changing.

“I’ve been part of art and science conversations for over 10 years, and I’ve seen them evolve,” she says. “When you think of the disruption industry, and what’s going on in the start-up field, everyone is like a digital creative so blending engineering and creativity is the norm at this point.”

Tech these days, at least in the consumer realm, often seems geared to enhancing or eclipsing the human body. With her work, though, Gee typically puts the body front and centre.

But she doesn’t think about her art in human-tech terms, she says. “I think of it more as a mind and body problem than a technology and body problem.

“Modernity and the Age of Reason kind of championed the brain as this really important thing that defined us as human,” she adds. “I’m interested in recent scientific studies that [show] it’s not all about the brain. Our thinking process actually happens in concert with our body beyond the brain. What I’m interested in is using technology to create a culture of the body.”

Gee’s original degree was in vocal performance. But when she describes the body’s ability to communicate, she uses the word “voices”. That reflects the idea that our capacity to think and emote is impacted by different physiological processes that have biomarkers that can be measured.

Gee works with markers including pulse rate, respiration and sweat.

“Emotions aren’t just these floaty things in our head, they’re reflected in our body and can be picked up by sensors,” she says. “I’m interested in making a conversation about technology that doesn’t centre on intelligence but on emotion. If emotions show up on these bio-sensors, then I can play the body like an instrument.”

Look Ahead

One highlight of Gee’s exhibition will be Swarming Emotional Pianos. For that work, she attached biosensors to Montreal actress Laurence Dauphinais and filmed her as she “method-acted” her way through a series of emotions. Gee then took this bio-data and “sonified” it to produce a score for a swarm of robotic pianos.

Swarming Emotional Pianos (photo: Caitlin Sutherland)

When Gee was programming the music, she resisted making stereotypical links between mood and music.

“I didn’t want ‘Okay, it’s happy mode. So she’s going to be happy. Then she’s going to be sad, so let’s doctor up the sonfication so it sounds sad,’” she says.

“Laurence was incredible. She can play her body like a musical instrument for real. And the robots become this extension of her body.”

Another work, Pinch and Soothe, consists of a station where two people can hook themselves up to separate sets of sensors on their fingertips and faces and listen to sonified versions of their and the other person’s biodata.

“They’re very easy to follow,” says Gee. “A heartbeat sounds like a heart, when you have a burst of sweat a sound will appear, and the same with your breathing. It’s a sculpture, but in making it you have to imagine the bodies of the participants. That’s something I think about with my work.”

Recently, Gee has been moving into artificial intelligence. Building off her understanding of the body’s role in generating emotion and thought, she’s interested in using biodata to inform a machine learning algorithm in the same way that the human brain is informed by the broader nervous system.

This latest development in Gee’s practice, along with her interest in ASMR, are highlighted in two works: To the Sooe and Machine Unlearning.

“I collaborated with Sofian Audry, who is one of the more interesting artists in Canada working with machine learning,” Gee says. “He’s been working with his own algorithms, so I’m not using some commercial device.”

The core premise of the project involves using an English-language novel to teach an A.I. English. “The first book we analyzed was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë,” says Gee.

“We analyzed other books, but we kept going back to Wuthering Heights because it’s got this fluttery, weird, dark emotional language that keeps talking about fathers and daughters and bitterness. I felt there was something almost comical about the outputs from other novels, and this just sounded better.”

To the Sooe consists of an audio station where Gee reads a transcript of the algorithm’s halting efforts to puzzle out English, progressing from disconnected sounds to words, and finally, sentences. Then, in Machine Unlearning, Gee does an ASMR-style video performance of the transcript.

To The Sooe (photo: Alexandre Saunier)
Machine Unlearning (photo: Leif Norman)

Summing up the exhibition, which is curated by the MacKenzie Gallery’s Tak Pham, Gee says people shouldn’t be daunted by its tech-heavy nature.

“It comes from an intellectual space but it’s not that hard to get,” she says. “I’m just creating space for you to experience your body in a different way and put the body at the forefront of technological experience.

“Other than that, the things that you feel, the things that you think, it’s all up to you.”