Nancy Baker Cahill: Harry, we both combine different backgrounds in our artistic practice. That’s what we have in common. I have always had a bit of a twin practice. My focus was always on drawing and video. Drawing was my first language. Inevitably it wasn’t enough. I was missing something, another component. In 2011, I started making videos again. I wanted to try to create immersive experiences. Looking back, I was trying to create VR experiences without even understanding that I was trying to do VR. And now I make work in VR and AR, but it wasn’t until the NFT explosion that I was compelled to try and fuse these practices.
Harry Yeff: The ways in which we meander in what is the function of tech in expression and practice, that’s something I wrestled with for a very long time. With my vocal practice, I wanted to be a machine from a very young age. I wanted to serve sound like a machine. My teachers have been machines. This idea of trying to push my very human tool, my voice, to a place of mechanical control has been a part of my journey. What is the absolute potential of the human voice in terms of speed, technique, and tone? I became obsessed with answering this question.
I have traveled and learnt from human beings what is possible. What one finds is an uncharted territory which is very strange simply because the voice as part of our body is so present. I became interested in reembodying and visualizing the voice. What is the role of machine learning and AI in terms of testing one’s practice? What is a synthetic voice? What is an augmented voice? I use the voice as a medium to explore our relationship with technology. In doing that, I realized that the more I had machines either challenge or serve me, the more I became aware of my human potential to express. I learnt new techniques and phrases, I was able to perform at new speed, I started to compose and write in new ways. This idea of visualizing voice with technology, trying to transpose what is my vocal ability into sculpture, has taken many forms over a ten-year career. I believe that the wonderful thing about blockchain technology and the digital space is that I am able to take that ten-year journey that was originally centered around me and use those lessons to visualize the world’s voices.
NBC: To encourage people to imagine AI as a partner and collaborator, rather than a tool of domination, is a hopeful approach to increase our capacity as humans. What is post-human? Are we cyborgs? I for one often wish I had this extra hard drive and graphics card in my brain.
HY: I don’t think human beings deal very well with the concept of something being finite. Technology offers a mystic infiniteness that was previously felt geographically. You would look over an ocean and wonder what’s on the other side of that. Today, everything is physically tracked and noted. What the metaverse, technology, and AI offer us in terms of skills and expertise is a new infinite realm of possibility. Human beings thrive of that.
As an artist, my role is not so much claiming that land but being someone who hopefully uncovers a new question or a new space. I use my voice and voice-centered practice as a way of opening these doors of inquiry. Technology offers us a new space. What gets in the way of us embracing this opportunity is something that challenges me. What can we add to us as human beings? Would it make us more like machines? Or would we actually be able to be more in tune with what being a human means?
NBC: One of the considerations whenever you create any kind of immersive experience is that you have to think about embodied cognition. What are the ways in which you engage the senses? The architect Juhani Pallasmaa wrote a book titled THE EYES OF THE SKIN. He rails against the hegemony of the visual and implores architects to think about haptics and sound. He talks about how sound is our most ancient sense. Artistically that is exciting. But it also matters in another way: by engaging a sense that has been somewhat neglected in recent history, sound becomes a means of expanding consciousness.
HY: You expand space and consciousness in your work. With this comes a big responsibility because much of the world is still traditionally minded. To make these things tangible through narrative in a gallery setting is a challenge. When we think about the NFT space and the potential of digital works there are so many more questions as to how we define the role of the metaverse and consciousness. What are your thoughts about the digital becoming more and more tangible and real?
NBC: At the same time, the digital is also becoming more ephemeral. We want to concretize things, we want to embed them, we want them to be permanent but there is this ultimate impermanence in the digital age. Through our work we can challenge the status quo. What we do is imagining new shared spaces and human connections: online and in metaverses. Again, this is about expanding versus contracting.
Let’s speak about technology a bit. When I discovered that my AR artworks could be programmed to cast digital shadows according to the position of the sun at any given time of day, I nearly lost my mind. That one feature gives it this sense of an object that actually occupies space. Of course, it is just a layer, but a 3-dimensional layer, animated with sound.
This was true with my LIBERTY BELL project which was an AR public artwork commissioned by Art Production Fund, which we launched on July 4th, 2020—that is, on Independence Day in an election year. It appeared in six historic and culturally charged locations along the Eastern Seaboard. Because the project was intended to question this ‘founding’ concept of liberty in the US, particularly given the genocidal origins of the country, its history of slavery, voter suppression, ongoing radical inequities (economic, racial, gendered, etc.), misinformation, autocratic stirrings, and growing divisions—not to mention the pandemic—we wanted it to spark feeling and prompt viewers to consider what liberty meant for them as individuals and as citizens. In other words, given our past, current, and future challenges, we wanted to pose the question what liberty even means and to whom it applies.
LIBERTY BELL appeared as an AR sculpture of an abstracted, cleft ‘bell’ made of red, white and blue threads – intermingled and yet struggling against each other. It swung in the air (for example in Selma, AL, site of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and over the reflecting pool in Washington DC facing the National Monument), casting shadows on the water and tolling an increasingly dissonant and arhythmic soundscape (a collaboration with artist Anna Luisa Petrisko). The sound added an additional sensory layer that hopefully augmented and deepened, not just the visual experience, but also the conceptual intentions of the work.
Once you’ve experienced a work in AR that hopefully had an impact on you in a specific space, every time you return to that space, there is an echo of it in your head. It becomes something bigger than a throw-away experience on a phone. It hopefully becomes something that triggers thought, imagination, memory, and feeling. We haven’t even begun to tap the potential of AR. It’s an extremely powerful, whimsical, and fun medium. It’s delightfully subversive. The poetics of AR is what I am concerned with. How can it feel real or almost real?
What is real, Harry?
HY: Perhaps I can answer your question in this way: another dimension on top of what you’ve mentioned is the contribution of action and intention of data from viewers. I am interested in how a generative system can in itself be as desirable as the unique expression or painting of an artist. I create systems that allow collectors, individuals, young and old people to contribute to an original work. I am interested in the ceremony of technology and the idea that someone can contribute something that is so viscerally human. That ceremonial dimension make the digital more real.
What are other moments or expressions connected to technology that artists can use to make people consider their own humanity, Nancy?
NBC: In your Bermuda TED X talk HOW BATTLING AI UNLOCKED THE POWER OF MY VOICE you describe a shy child who could see data visualized and felt the liberating potential of technology. I’ve seen that with VR, too. When people put on a VR headset, the minute they release themselves from what other people are looking at and how they are being perceived, they experience the immersive potential of that other world.
HY: There is a certain discomfort and the feeling of being challenged by technology.
NBC: NFTs are an opportunity to make digital art accessible and technology understandable. Your VOICE GEMS, Harry, embody this opportunity. I think about how I can push NFTs conceptually. I’ve been thinking a lot about NFTs and the ways they embed and engage questions of accountability (this is also why they have been and continue to be intoxicating to many artists).
One recent work, CONTRACT KILLERS, a collaboration between me, my art lawyer Sarah Odenkirk, and Hesse McGraw, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houson, used this interest as a point of departure. CONTRACT KILLERS was a site-specific AR series of dissolving handshakes, which used the contractual vocabulary of blockchain technology to highlight broken social contracts of all kinds and to offer a ‘smarter’ contract which empowered artists and collectors by creating a system of rewards and consequences. It looked at the promise of this technology and acknowledged the remaining work to be done to ensure that we don’t repeat, reproduce, or mirror the status quo.
The CONTRACT KILLER handshakes appeared in three locations (I later added a de-contextualized pink ‘social’ handshake to cover social contracts in general). In these contexts, contracts are contested and dematerialized – rendered as ephemeral as the AR drawings that momentarily represent them. Each AR handshake was recorded in front of a selected environment and represented a realm of obligation and agreement where trust evaporates since stated contracts continue to fail individuals and communities. I chose City Hall to underscore the dissolution of policies that force us to recognize that we belong to each other; the Hall of Justice to address the profiteering and injustices of the prison industrial complex; and fiat cash to point to the gross inequities of late-stage capitalism in the US. Because of our concern with environmental impact, Snarkart partnered with us to mint on the eco-conscious Tezos blockchain.
Your background is music and voice. How do you approach creating NFTs?
HY: My background, as you said, is music, composition, and voice. Through the use of sound and voice, I explore myself and the function of voice. When it comes to NFTs, this new space offers a medium of permanence that I value. The VOICE GEMS project will continue until the day I die. I have been making voice sculptures for five or six years now. VOICE GEMS is a project of preservation. What are those messages that should be kept? We have people’s last words, a newborn child, and moments of intimacy between two lovers. I crystallize and archive hundreds and hundreds of vocal expressions to stay for a 100 and more years.
Nancy, what is your prediction for the future of NFTs?
NBC: I don’t have any predictions, but I do have hopes. And my hope is that in becoming collective architects of the decentralized metaverse, we can fulfil the original promise of Web 3.0. I hope that we can embrace disintermediation and interoperability as means of mutual support, collaboration and empowerment, and do not instead recreate systems that privilege the few over the many. Our global challenges are too big, and the technology too powerful, for us not to work together in building something extraordinary and sustainable.
Nancy Baker Cahill
Nancy Baker Cahill is a new media artist who examines power, selfhood, and embodied consciousness through drawing and shared immersive space. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of 4th Wall, a free Augmented Reality (AR) art platform exploring resistance and inclusive creative expression. Her recent AR public art project, LIBERTY BELL, commissioned by Art Production Fund, earned features in the New York Times, frieze Magazine, Artnet, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Washington Post, among many other publications. The project, on view through 2021, spans six historic and culturally significant sites along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and appeared in Artnews’ list, The Defining Public Artworks of 2020. Baker Cahill was also included in ARTnews’ list of 2021 Deciders.
Her 2018 TED talk, Augmented Reality (AR) as an Artist’s Tool for Equity and Access, launched her international public speaking practice. She has since delivered keynotes at the 2019 Games For Change, 2020 A.W.E. (Augmented World Expo) and has spoken at the Hirshhorn Museum and numerous academic institutions and conferences. Baker Cahill is an artist scholar in the Berggruen Institute’s Transformations of the Human Fellowship, and is an artist resident at Oxy Arts' Encoding Futures Residency, focused on AR monuments. She is the Art and Creative Technologies Advisor for the XRSI Safety Initiative, and is a member of the Guild of Future Architects. In 2021, she was awarded the Williams College Bicentennial Medal of Honor. Her recent clean NFT art collaboration, CONTRACT KILLERS, is currently exhibited in the historic PROOF OF ART exhibition at the Francisco Carolinum Museum in Linz, Austria.
Harry Yeff (Reeps100) is an ARS Electronica nominated artist and musician based in London, utilizing an almost inhuman vocal range to drive his performative digital and physical artworks.
His multidisciplinary new-media spectacles and theory have established artist in residence roles at The Experiments in Art and Technology Program Bell Labs, Harvard University, ARS Electronica, Factory Berlin and Sonar Barcelona.
He has exhibited internationally, from the Museum of Art and Design in New York to the Tate Britain in London, as well as Milan, London and Tokyo Design weeks, SXSW, Miami Art Basel, Davos 2020, United Nations Geneva and Sundance film festival.
Yeff’s eclectic work exploring expertise and meaning in vocal expression has generated a global following, rendering over 100 million views online, and recognition as a new-wave pioneer of experimental vocalism and technological experimentation. Yeff has become a guiding lateral thinker in the world of voice and technology with articles and mentions in Wired, The Guardian, The Economist and more.
Reeps100 (Harry Yeff), VOCAL VIBRATION IN WATER, 2017
Reeps100 (Harry Yeff) x Philip Clemo, MILITARY THERMAL IMAGING, 2020, Vocal Performance
Nancy Baker Cahill, LIBERTY BELL, 2020, animated AR drawing with sound, Washington DC., photo: BFA/ Joy Asico, courtesy of Art Production Fund
Reeps100 (Harry Yeff) and Trung Bao, THE MOTHER Voice Gem #1030, 2021
SOCIAL (CONTRACT KILLERS), 2021, animated AR drawing, courtesy of Nancy Baker Cahill