in Artists & Engineers

Keep Breaking Things: An Interview with Artist/Engineer Laetitia Sonami

Sound artist, performer, and researcher Laetitia Sonami is truly one of a kind. In an era where the average digital music performer’s idea of stage presence means staring at a laptop, Sonami uses technology to focus on presence and participation. Born in France, she moved to the United States in 1976 to pursue her interest in electronic music. Along the way, she taught herself how to use technology in her practice.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is Sonami’s lady’s glove, an elbow-length instrument fitted with sensors that responds to slight movements of her hand and body. Projects like this prompted The New York Times to describe her as “a human antenna searching the air for sounds, like a dancer focused on her hands, or like a deity summoning earth-shaking rumbles with a brusque gesture.”

We were lucky enough to get an interview with Sonami, to pick her brain about how she got where she is today, what she hopes the future will look like for tech, and advice she would give her teenaged-self.

Tell us about a project you’re excited about right now—yours or someone else’s.

I am excited right now about the instrument that I built, which is called the Spring Spyre. It’s using neural networks, so Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and a software [called Wekinator] designed by Rebecca Fiebrink. I’m just trying to keep on working on it and understand how to best use it.

It is based on A.I. but it’s very simple, using sensor signal pickup mics. I did some A.I. work in the 90’s, but at the time the computers were too slow so it was not very attractive at the time for me. Then, I was introduced to this woman researcher at Princeton and she introduced this software that she had been using. At the time, I was so impressed by how easy it was to use that I decided to build a whole new instrument based on her software.

 

What motivated you to be an artist who also practices engineering? Did the education system nurture that interest, or did you have to take matters into your own hands?

I think the in community at the time, in California (we’re talking about the early 80’s), there was this very amazing curiosity about how to use technology. It’s interesting, because in France there is a division between artists and engineers. The division of artists and engineers is very interesting because, in Europe at least, when the artist has an idea she gets an engineer to do it. So, the feedback between engineering and artistic creativity is not as dynamic as in the U.S., I think.

Meanwhile, here there is a tradition of DIY that has moved into the digital realms. At first, I would think of something and ask [an engineer], “Could you build this for me?” and they’d look at me like I was from another planet. They’d say, “No, you can build it yourself.” I’m like, “Build it myself?? I can’t do that!” I think that eventually it became clear that was the only way.

The community is what really allowed me to just go for it because there were other people doing it. Not that many women, but other people in general. There was this idea of, “Just do anything you want and break it and burn it if you need to, but just do it.”

 

How do you use technology in your work? How do you want to be using technology 10 years from now?

It’s part of the creative process. It’s a continuous feedback loop between building something, seeing what it can do, adapting my ideas to it, changing this thing that I made so that it adapts also to the ideas I was thinking of. I cannot dissociate technology from my creativity. “What can I do and what can I do with it?” is at the root of what i do.

To tell you the truth, I am hoping I will not use technology [in the future]. I think that it’s a very ambivalent position where part of me goes, “I don’t want to deal with technology.” That would mean we would build things that allow people to use things really quickly, but I don’t believe the industry can give us tools that are very creative, because I have seen how (through the years) the industry has been reducing/streamlining the uses of musical instruments. So, now you design an instrument to DO something and just THAT.

It’s difficult because if you make something easy, you also have the tendency sometimes to reduce its possibilities or its applications. If you make something complex, you might have a lot of choices, but then people get tired and go, “Gosh, I don’t want to have to go through all these different things to figure it out.”

With kids, making it simple but making it do something that has many different levels of adaptation is best. You can see it with those early technologies; people did amazing things with them because they found ways to hack. I think it’s nice to always have a back door to let people discover.

 

You get to have one conversation with your teenage self. What advice do you give her?

Keep breaking things! I did a workshop a couple of years ago with a lot of kids and I was telling the kids how they should take apart things to look at what’s inside. The parents would come up and say, “You don’t realize how expensive those things are! You can’t tell our kids to break things. This is terrible.” But don’t be scared to always look at how things are made and just don’t take everything at face value.

I think breaking technology is essential.

 

How important is collaboration to your work? Who have you collaborated with recently?

At the beginning, it would be that other people would know the software better than me. Right now, the most important collaboration that I have is with this engineer/artist Rebecca Fiebrink, who designed this software [that I use]. She adapted some of her ideas based on how I was using it.

Pretty much all of the artists that I know have some kind of building system in place, but now I think it is beginning to get so complex (especially with A.I.) to have someone I can collaborate with who really understands A.I. and is willing to have me use it in a way that it was not supposed to be used.

I collaborate with other artists for performance, too. Mainly other musicians and digital artists.

Laetitia Sonami lives in Oakland, California. She is a guest professor in the Music department at Mills College and the Milton Avery MFA program at Bard College. Her awards include the Alpert Award in the Arts (2002), FOundation for Contemporary Performance Arts Award (2000), the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship (2000), and more. To learn more about Laetitia’s instruments and performances, visit her website here.