Transcription: 0346 - Cecilia Suhr

Released: January 2, 2021

Darwin: Okay. Today, I have the great opportunity to speak to somebody that was introduced to me by one of our listeners. Her name is Dr. Cecilia Suhr. She is an academic, she is a performing artist, a recording artist, a painter - practically any kind of a thing you can imagine in terms of media artwork, she's there. It's really amazing to see the variety of things that she's been involved in. When I saw her CV and the body of work, I was really anxious to get her on the podcast. With no further ado, let's say hello to Cecilia. Hey, how are you?

Cecilia Suhr: Hi, how are you?

Darwin: I'm great. Thanks for taking the time to have a chat this evening. I really appreciate it.

Cecilia: Sure. Thank you so much.

Darwin: Why don't we start off by having you talk a little bit about what you're currently working on or what you've done recently as well?

Cecilia: Currently, I'm working on this project called "Humanity from Dystopia to Utopia". Which is an interactive multimedia performance that also has a gaming aspect, interactive game, inviting an audience to participate in survival game. It also is pretty much depicting how dystopia looks like sonically, visually and transition into a utopia, what that would look like also sonically. I ask audience members to come up to camera station and their face is going to be projected onto the screen. I'm going to ask them to speak positive words as a way to save someone spiritually or sometimes, or blow air to the microphone as a way to give CPR to somebody.

I'm working with those interactive measures in the first part of this work, when they really get to see themselves projected on their faces, get to projected on the screen. And if they don't say anything, they're not going to survive. That means they won't stay on the screen, their face won't stay on the screen. So yeah, in the first part of that interaction, I really want them to work together as if like they're in a real situation of crisis and try to help each other out. And what would you say, what are some of the things that you would say to another person to uplift their spirit if they're down?

And in the second part, it transitioned into audio visual performance where I might be on cello or violin, and I'm going to perform, my sound is going to affect the visuals in 3D sculpture, it's going to start moving. And then in the third act, I'm going to play violin and I'm going to depict utopia. And I mean, everybody has their own definition of what dystopia might look like and utopia might look like sonically, visually, and also socially speaking and theoretically speaking. But it's just my understanding of how that might transition from dystopia to utopia.

And in between the second act I want us to have a healing moment. So that would be more, a second act is about collective healing. So that's the work that I'm working on, but because it's COVID so I don't expect to show this work anytime soon. I really need actual audience members in order to execute this kind of work. Right now I hired a programmer, Martin Ritter, who's working on the programming aspects and we're just fine tuning a lot of technical aspects at the moment. And I'm not really sure when I'm going to get to show this, but that's the work I'm doing right now. And as an alternative, there's other kinds of work that, if I can't show this right now, I have other work that's more of a installation, interactive textile installation work, that I'm currently working on. A Sonic installation.

Darwin: As you describe it, it actually seems like it's building off of some of your recent work, like the piece "I, You, We" or "Subliminal Envy", where you invite people up to a camera spot and you involve them in that. But this game, this gamification or this game-like quality - that sounds like something new for you.

Cecilia: That is something new. You're exactly right, I'm building off of that same format in this piece in terms of using their faces. But this time I wanted to go further in terms of really playing the game, pushing one step further. I don't know how it's going to go because it's in a way it's a social experiment too. Some people might not want to say anything in front of a microphone in front of the whole audience. And that's why there's alternative, if you don't want to say anything, you can just blow air as a way to give CPR.

Darwin: Yeah. That's really interesting that it also seems... One of the things I noticed, and it was interesting as I were, I'm going to refer the listeners to please go to ceciliasuhr.com and check out some of the work. And particularly I was fascinated by the segment called "Intermediate Works", which is where it is a live performance along with live video processing, but also predisposition to do a certain kind of thing. It was, it's really quite amazing and engaging just on video. I can imagine it's quite stunning in person. But I was curious, because it seems like already something like "I, You, We"; that project had an awful lot of moving pieces and it seemed like a real complex thing to have to put on. And now it's almost like the next thing is going to be even more.

Cecilia: That's exactly right. I mean "I, You, We", to me, I thought it was, I thought in my mind it was a simple concept, but once I put it together and start performing. I mean, it was very, if light was working fine, sometimes sound is not working right. If is working well, or the video is not working, there's so many elements that's involved in this work that I'm actually a little anxious to get to this new piece, because it's way more complicated. So that's why I call it experiment because you never know what's going to happen.

Darwin: Sure. In addition to doing these live performance pieces, you also do do installation pieces. You do musical recordings and releases and you even do, you do painting, right? Where do you find time to do all these things?

Cecilia: Well, I mean, when I moved to Ohio in 2010 for my job, to me it was a drastic change. Prior to that I guess I lived briefly in Pennsylvania, but before that I was in New York and New Jersey and that are more metropolitan area. And so for me it was like, I call it my exile period, where creatively I did a lot of work because I was lonely and it was town, and it was like night and day. Not that I was that active in New York, but still a lot more opportunity to get out and mingle as an artist than at least for me at the time in Ohio, that I felt more secluded. So I was productive during those times.

Darwin: So you dug into the work, right? Yeah, it's interesting my friend, Jean Rigler, she found herself in Colorado Springs, Colorado and had a very similar experience of finding it an opportunity to dive into new work because of the sense of isolation in comparison to New York. So one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about where they're coming from and in your case, I'm really curious about your background because you clearly have a vision for multimedia work and spectacle. You're an accomplished musician on a number of instruments. Just in the things I had watched and listened to, I was prepared to talk to you about violin. And then all of a sudden I saw you doing a live improvisation on a cello. And then I heard work that you were doing on the piano and I was like, man I can't even pigeonhole you into a class of instruments. You seem to have your hands in it all. So I'm kind of curious about your background. How did you come to, first of all, be comfortable in all these musical things? To find a place as a painter, but also to end up in this technologically rich area of multimedia and intermedia work? What background brought you here?

Cecilia: Well, officially, I guess my musical journey started when I went to grad school at NYU, in New York City. And during those times I was doing, I first started interning with independent labels and then I started interning at Columbia Records, where I was an ANR agent, like you recruit artists. And then we would have a listening meeting every week. And then I would start interning at Motown Record and I had a brief, little bit of incidence of maybe being able to work as a musician at that time, but it didn't happen. And I joined a band and I was in a band, I'd play keys and violins in a band. Prior to that, during high school, I was in an orchestra and in college I was in orchestra for half a semester, but orchestra was never my thing. I didn't really enjoy orchestra.

So I joined a band. It was a rock band, but I mean, I only joined for few months and we did well where we did have a showcase and we almost got signed but my band member leader was having a breakdown and it just didn't get anywhere. And then I joined another band and that was during my doctoral year at Rutgers. I guess I was joining bands and collaborating with other artists in the city, because at that time I wasn't really doing my own music. I mean, I did record a lot of piano improvisation, but that was about it. I didn't try to, because I realized that it was weird because my music is nothing pop, but I was working, I mean, I was having exposure at this music in this industry.

And I thought for some reason, if I bring this piano improvisation to these executives that they're going to be, they're going to take notice and be interested. I mean, there was an ANR guy who heard me and he wanted me to work, but then at that time I was shy, I wasn't being so aggressive. I just, last day of my internship I just gave him my piano improvisation album and that was it. And at that time he was like, why didn't you come before? So that opportunity didn't go anywhere. I mean, he was initially very interested in having me work in a studio, but I guess that was my mistake thinking that my music doesn't belong in music industry, but I was exposed in those area. And that's why I joined a band thinking that I'm going to do other people's music, fill in as a musician. And I guess...

Darwin: That would get you in the door.

Cecilia: Yeah, that will get me the door and once they get signed and I, we make money as a musician maybe I could do my own music and break away. It was more like a stepping stone. And that also didn't happen because I quit the band because I was ultimately not happy, not doing my own music. And then I became a music researcher. I got my doctorate, I became a music, writing about music. And writing about music wasn't really, I wasn't, it's not creative basically. I mean, it is, I want it to be more creative. So I wasn't too excited about that time period in my life, but at the time I was still doing music for soundtracks and media. That was in Ohio, where a friend in California, animation director, he would invite me to collaborate with him on various soundtrack projects.

So that's how I got into more recording and soundtracks and I did a lot of recording back in the days. And then art happened suddenly because I started creating digital art online. I mean not online, digital art on this software and then I started, I submitted to this contest and it won. And I mean, it was nothing, but it really was interesting because I was just having fun and I thought it was fun to create art. And I went from digital art to painting, to mixed media paintings, to video art, to ultimately going into augmented reality art. And during those times I wanted to actually pursue a degree, but I couldn't go anywhere because I was full-time faculty. And I looked into a program, MFA program called Experience Design at our school and I took one class and decided not to pursue it. But I was really thirsty for more immersive embodied experience.

I didn't know what that was at that time, because I was searching, searching different programs, this and that. What is it that I can do to make my vision come true? Because during those times I was just doing augmented reality art and I could start to combine it with music performance, but then I wanted more instant interactions that in real time and really audience to be more involved in my work. And then I heard about Max/MSP and that was a missing piece. And I was blown away with the possibility the software can do. That's when I hired programmers and start learning a little bit about it and also asking, come up with my prototypes and my designs and start to work with them on my various projects that are more recent ones right now. So that was journey.

I mean, the visual art was kind of an interesting twist in the middle, but I did train when I was sixth grade back in Korea to go to some prestigious middle school for fine artists. And I didn't get in, so I did have some, I guess, short but intense training. At the time the training was more, very technical, nothing creative. So once I didn't get into that school, I lost interest and I didn't really paint or draw or anything until early 2012 or '11, whatever. During those times I, accidentally, I fell in love with visual art again, because I learned that visual art can be as free and creative as music.

Darwin: Right. Well, what a story and what an interesting mix of stuff. Let me though just jump to the early bits. Where did you get your facility with musical instruments? You said that you were in orchestra in high school, but didn't really dig it that much and stuff. I mean, were you a person who was taking violin and/or cello and/or piano the whole time that you were a child?

Cecilia: No. Piano was something - I was trained in piano early, but I hated the lessons. Ironic because later I loved playing piano and it was something that I went back to every time I wanted to express myself. So piano improvisation actually came before, even when I was being active on violin and violin was something that I knew I needed to play this instrument. So I was late in the game, but I begged my parents that I need to take lessons and I really need to take this instrument, because I heard there were a lot of classical albums, CDs and whatnot laying around in my house and I instantly reacted to it.

So I took some lessons and then cello was more recent. But I think if you play violin, I think you can play, I mean, you can still play string instruments. It's not too, I wouldn't say it's too far away. So that, and then I also did voice lessons. Actually I took voice lesson more than violin lesson if I think about it. But in classical tradition as well as more contemporary here and there, but it was never constant, constant, but on and off on and off.

Darwin: Sure. Now a lot of that explains to me - and I hope you'll pardon the phrase - but that explains to me where the consonant music that you make comes from. But certainly when I see you play in your live performances and things like the installation pieces or the intermediate pieces, you are not doing traditional consonant music. You're being very, you are very experimental. You're very improvisatorial, you'll use whatever technique it takes to express yourself. A lot of times when I talk to people who have that as part of their repertoire, there's something particular that helped them embrace that, especially if they come from a more traditional musical background. There's something that opens their ears. Is there anything for you specifically that you recall that was a time when your ears, or your mind was open to a different way of expressing music?

Cecilia: I don't know. It was, I guess I always improvised, I never really liked playing. And at some point, I mean, after doing more performance recently with electro-acoustic settings, that freed me more actually, in terms of how do I approach music, because before I didn't know that kind of wonderful community existed. It's quite a shame because if I knew, then I would have been more daring, but I think part of me in the past was still trying to be a bit more, how can I say, like cinema music-ish, more sound. Not as daring as I would now be, but back in the days, I'm I was more, "Oh okay music is supposed to please people and move people." And still believe in that but not as experimental as I am now.

Darwin: Right. That makes sense. Now, getting back to some of your visual artwork, you mentioned the augmented reality thing, and I did notice the pieces on augmented reality. What drew you into that? That seems brave, just from a technology standpoint. Even for myself, I can't imagine getting into that just because of the, it's all technology. I don't even know where it's coming from.

Cecilia: Right. I mean, I didn't program this code. Actually, there is, at that time, there is a augmented reality application that anyone can use. If you buy that code - what is it, that symbols you're supposed to scan from your phone or iPad.

Darwin: The QR code thing?

Cecilia: Yeah, QR code exactly. So I have QR code from I think zapworks.com. I don't know now if they're doing that, I heard that they're not anymore, but back in the days they were doing that. And what I had to do is create a fixed media for video and sound and so in a painting, I wanted people to see a painting, transforming into different movements and figure and move with the sound. So that's what I did with my augmented reality art. All I had to do was to create the fixed media for video and sound, and then embed that into that code.

Darwin: I see. Now you mentioned, you said that you didn't do code, but you are active. It's interesting to me because I look at your work, first of all, you collaborate with a lot of people, people that I've interviewed in the past and some that I should. I was going through some of your collaborators and I was like, oh yeah, I got to talk to Frederico and some of these other people, right. But you also get in there and hack the code yourself, right?

Cecilia: No, no, no. I don't consider myself a programmer. What I did was I actually hire them for my projects all of them. They're individually hired for my project. So I tell them what my vision is and I almost sometimes in real time, I'm on their I'm on Zoom and I asked them to create step-by-step what it, can you do this? Can you that?

Darwin: Oh okay. Well, that's interesting because I'm curious what the design process looks like. I think a lot of people, especially people who have a Max/MSP thing in their head, they'll only work by themselves and they'll only do stuff that they can figure out how to do themselves, right? And so it's a tortured process because you end up getting slurped into this highly technical effort, just in order to try and accomplish a design. It sounds to me like what you do is you come up with design concepts and try and work with these people in order to see what is possible or what is likely to be possible with the technology available, right?

Cecilia: Right, right. In the beginning it was a big challenge because I didn't know what was possible within Max/MSP. So I was asking a lot of questions like is this possible, is that possible? And then I also took workshops and I got to that there are a lot of preexisting codes available, like color tracking, face tracking, whatever it is. And once I learned the language of Max/MSP and understood general possibilities within Max/MSP, it was easier for me to direct them what it is that I'm after. Sometimes I would have preset it and then just ask them to help me out with linking things and whatnot. And it's very complicated. I mean, I'm usually good at teaching myself a lot of things, but Max/MSP has a, I guess...

Darwin: It's a learning curve. Yeah, it does. So that's pretty true. Believe me, I face it every day, so it's interesting. But it's really interesting to me. Do you do much in terms of mock-ups or drawings or that kind of stuff in preparation? Or does the beginning parts of these projects actually, does it end up being more like Q and A? I mean, you mentioned you're on Zoom calls with people or something. Is it a lot of back and forth? What about this? What about that? I'm trying to visualize what it looks like as you're piecing together something as complicated as, for example, the "Subliminal Envy" piece or the "I, You, We" piece. I'm wondering what is your vision when you're going into that, and then how much do you have to change your vision in order to just deal with the technological reality of it?

Cecilia: That's a good question. I mean, these pieces are really stressful actually, but "I, You, We" I went through thousands of emails throughout the whole year because it's hard to fix a bug over email. But in the beginning I would have an idea of what I want and now it's better because now I took a workshop and now I know where to pull all the features together. Here's a color tracking pad or here's 3D whatever it is and I piece them together. It's easier for me to direct them now because I basically have everything.

Darwin: You have a baseline understanding of what's going on, yeah, right.

Cecilia: Yeah. Because then previously, when I didn't know much about how it works, I would just ask a lot of questions and then I would tell them in the beginning, this is the kind of, I kind of focus on interaction. I usually want to always have interaction between performer and audience in most of my pieces. Except during COVID I stopped doing those types. But previously that was a big part of my vision. I always want to figure out a way to interact with audience and performer. And I also wanted have audience, the visuals to interact with my real time violin based on pitch. Can you do pitch tracking or volumes to interact with the lighting or movements? Or can my movement actually erase parts of the screen? So most recent work, that "Humanity" work that I'm working on, I actually create a prototype towards the middle of a project so that I can take photos of the kind of visual that I want. Step-by-step, and we go back and forth between asking questions and he would show me example, is this okay. And then I would approve or not approve. So that's how we pretty much work.

Darwin: That's pretty interesting. Now the, this is going to seem like a left turn, but please bear with me. One of the things that I noticed when I was looking at your writing, a lot of your writing talks about internet culture, and social media culture and artists interacting in social media, but your work tends to have, it does not have the internet as an intermediary at all. In fact, it's people, you talk about the two identifiers for your work is audience interaction and your ability to influence the visuals with either your playing or your movement or whatever. And so it's a real visceral in a very in-person experience. And I'm wondering, did your research in a way drive you in that direction, just because you saw that as more interesting? Or have you just always been a performer, and this is a way to glue all the pieces of your art together?

Cecilia: I think it's more latter. My academic research was how musicians are gaining popularity and credentialing on digital environments like social media. And I realized that there's room as far as how you build your argument, and I was looking for more alternative format to voice what I want to say without having to build from pre-existing literature - to be more free. I don't know if this makes any sense, but also in terms of medium, I mean, if the kind of work that I do now I get to write about it a little bit, but I also get to express it in multiple levels. The other work was a little bit confining for me in terms of research. So it was kind of a natural evolution in a way going from, yeah. I wanted to talk about direct impact of how emerging technology can impact the way in which we interact with audience and performer or impact our work rather than the other type of work, writing I was doing.

Darwin: Right, got it. Sure. Coming back around to your performance work, you do a lot of the performances that I saw involve you playing the violin. Is there something about the violin that is particularly useful in these kinds of performances? It seems like I have known a lot of people who are doing intermediate multimedia works. Violin is a very popular instrument. And I'm just wondering is, do you feel like it just happens to have a fluidity or a vocal nature that lends itself in some particular way? Is it just physically convenient to use? Is it a particularly good to improvise on? What for you makes a violin a good tool for that kind of work?

Cecilia: A little bit of what you said, I mean, both. I love cello too, but it's impossible to travel with.

I go for violin, but I don't think it's necessarily it fits better in that context. It's just that I guess I'm most comfortable with it. I mean, I don't use violin because violin has to be there necessarily, but it just happens to be that in a certain piece, it's easier to drive the main melody with violin. Some pieces are better with voice or cello or I'm even thinking about not even doing any instruments. Maybe, I don't know. I'm thinking about that too, but that might not as interesting as - I don't know. We'll see how that goes, but yeah.

Darwin: Right. Well, I would think that if you didn't have to be in the room it's something that maybe at least could be an installation that would allow it to run when you're not there. But then it's a different kind of piece, isn't it?

Cecilia: There are times where I wished that I didn't play instruments because it just seemed out of context and because my work can be shown in an art and technology based type of exhibition, as well as music...

Darwin: Gallery space, right.

Cecilia: If it's more a visual art oriented space, I feel a little odd to bring all these classical instruments because they don't, we don't get the sound check that electro-acoustic environments they would be very good at it. We would have rehearsal, they make sure our sound is correct and there's a lot of care given to a performer in terms of musical performance. But in alternative spaces, there is rarely any kind of support for just for violin and it just seemed like, yeah... That's why sometimes I wish that maybe I don't play and then I don't know, maybe they'll, can the work survive without it. I don't know.

Darwin: I wonder, especially now, when you get involved in some of the things like the new work that you were talking about, where there's this orientation around games and a game concept. It would strike me that, that is a longer timeframe interaction with the individuals. And one that would probably, it would probably be more comfortable for them if they weren't, if they felt like they were able to engage it without having the artists sitting there, watching what they're doing and waiting for them to respond in some way. Right?

I liked the idea, I liked the way that you're positing this as sort of an experiment, because it seems like there's a hell of an experiment to give a try to here.

Cecilia: Right. I mean, I need to also find a right environment to showcase this kind of work, because I don't even know how to define my work at this point.

Darwin: So teaching at Miami University Regional, which puts you in Ohio. My question is, for doing this kind of work, do you take advantage of the people and the contacts you have in New York to try and show it there? Do you try and do it local in Ohio and in the supportive environment of the university? Are there other places that tend to show your work? Or where do you go to take work like this and perform it?

Cecilia: I usually apply for conferences in intermedia or festivals of electro-acoustics or ... Conferences and festivals are typical route that I choose to go. I wish I can show more in Ohio, but unfortunately I don't get to choose where the conference is going to be held or whatever.

Darwin: Sure. So what are you doing then given our current isolation world? That's got to put a, all the conferences are virtual at this point and the kind of work you do, especially since you're really driven by this audio interaction thing. I mean, every picture I see of recent work has people moving towards a camera or moving in part of the performance environment. It's a real critical part of you doing your work. So it's not something you can easily do a Zoom call in in order to pull it off. How are you imagining or how are you dealing with this? Or are you just treading water until we get through this mess?

Cecilia: I mean, yeah, I had a couple of shows with the "I, You, We" and they changed to alternative format, like online format. And I told them, I can't show this online because I can't have an audience, I don't have audience. So I submitted just other types. That's why I start creating other types of work as some more simpler, just audio-visual interaction, where I just videotape myself performing with the projectors on me so that it shows the visual interaction. But yeah, I have to, they're asking for alternate, a lot of them are either being canceled or going online. And I just have to replace it with different types of work, more like a fixed media or video type of work. That's why I'm working on different work that can be shown on an online platform until this COVID is over.

Darwin: What do you have on your laboratory bench right now in that area that you're working on?

Cecilia: Right now, I am working on this installation, textile installation. So this is a piece that it can be showcased as an installation, but I am going to do a interactive installation. I get to press a button and it's going to trigger sounds or play the sound. And I'm in the middle of a large canvas installation and I'm part of the work. And so I'm thinking about adding performance art aspects to it and maybe play instruments or not. That's why I was saying maybe in some cases I won't do instruments, but just do just to electronic music. Or singing bowls or play something like that.

Darwin: Yeah. That makes sense, that makes sense. We talked around it, but we haven't actually talked very much about your academic position. You teach at Miami University. What is it that you teach? What are example classes of what you teach?

Cecilia: I teach Media Aesthetics and Media Representation, Social Media Cultures. And I'm thinking about, I propose to offer some courses in either intermediate art or sonic art, sound art. So we do have this emerging program called Community Arts. And I'm thinking about contributing new courses that are more related to what I do now in the future, if opportunity arises.

Darwin: Great. Well, unfortunately our time is up. I will again, point people towards your website, which is ceciliasuhr.com. There'll be links for it on the show notes and in the social media posts. Is there anything else that you would like to point people at regarding your work?

Cecilia: No. Just my website, I try to limit my presence on social media nowadays.

Darwin: Yeah. You are well studied about why they do that for certain. I get it. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to have this chat. It was, for the listeners, this is in the evening on a Saturday, so I am definitely impinging upon Cecilia's time, but I appreciate you taking the time to have this chat. It's really, really informative and interesting.

Cecilia: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

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