In Development Interview: Thomas Marcusson and DJ moss — Experimenta

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In order to get to know our commissioned artists for Experimenta Life Forms a little better we are publishing a series of interviews about their works. This week we spoke to Thomas Marcusson who discusses A.I’s affect on the music scene and proposing moss as an active DJ.

Experimenta: What inspired the concept behind DJ Moss?

Thomas: If people 50 years ago would be able to look into the future and discover the DJ phenomenon, most would probably think of it as a very odd thing. No instruments, no singing, just someone hitting play and getting the applause.

But if we look beyond the DJ concept we discover our need for human influence, especially during live performances, where the rapport between artist and audience is almost as important as the music itself. In an era of electronic and artificial music, this rapport seems to have expressed itself in the form of the DJ. It’s this impulse to associate creativity with life that has formed the inspiration for this artwork.

Experimenta: Can you talk about your view on A.I.’s impact on the music scene? Why have you chosen to address this in your work?

Thomas: There are some areas where A.I. is influencing music more than we probably think. Machine learning is used to generate new song suggestions in streaming services such as Spotify. The algorithm which decides what new artists we are exposed to is taking on the same gate-keeping power that the record companies once held.  

The more direct and obvious way A.I. is influencing music is to let a computer create actual compositions, often for an artist to then expand upon. There have been a few examples where an entire piece of music is written entirely by a machine, but so far the idea of a computer making music is probably more interesting than the actual music itself since it begs the question of whether computers are actually capable of creating art, or if it is a purely human endeavour. But what if an animal was able to create music. Would that qualify as art?…Then what about moss?

Experimenta: Tell us how you came to collaborate with ‘moss’? What’s it like collaborating with such a life form?

Thomas: All plants contain some kind of communication system and moss is no different. We can measure its subtle chemical flux and interpret these internal changes as signals. So if we look closely even something as primitive as moss hides an interior abuzz with activity. 

I like to work with moss because it has a certain bio mass like quality to it, like an ever-expanding sporophytic green brain. The moss I am currently collaborating with is collected from just outside Hobart since the wet climate down there is excellent for growing things thick and lush. In other words – Tasmanian moss rock .

Experimenta: Can you talk about how the computer program you are using interacts with ‘moss’? How is the progression of your past works?

Thomas: I’m using a sensor/microchip called Floranium, which was developed specifically for measuring signals in plants. It works by inducing a weak electric current and measures any sudden changes in resistance, often due to minor shifts in the chemical balance, which is a plant’s way of expressing itself. Using this setup gives the moss control of various DJ tools. I’ve hacked two vertical turntables and made them able to turn in either direction, which allows the moss to ‘scratch’ the vinyls back and forth. 

 The software on the laptop connecting everything is called MAX MSP and it’s the first time I will use it. It has a very cool interface and the code is graphically represented. Seeing it run live on the computer screen actually makes it quite an intriguing part of the artwork.

Experimenta: There’s an element of humour in this work. Can you talk about this? 

Thomas: I like using humour, especially when it reflects the absurdities we normally take for granted. We love adoring and worshipping the DJ, their blinking booths and decks almost become shrines from which they command the dance floor. I like the idea of elevating a simple moss to that same divine status. It has a certain irony to it.

Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art

Exploring how biological and artificial life are challenging human-centric thinking, Experimenta Life Forms will be Experimenta’s 8th national touring exhibition. It premieres in 2021 and will tour nationally until 2023. 

‘DJ Moss’ by Thomas Marcusson is an Experimenta commission.