Sasha Pas: I see the future of technology as an extension of human possibilities. It will be fun!
The story of Playtronica, creative technology studio specializing in interactive experiences through sound and touch. An interview with Metal magazine, September 2019. Words by Words by Arnau Salvadó.
Playtronica is a studio and collective working to create interactive experiences through sound. And in a very special way: by playing fruits, vegetables, everyday objects and our own bodies. But how did it all start? What’s the genesis of the collective and how has it evolved and expanded throughout the years?
The project started in 2012 in Barcelona. I was studying in this beautiful city and was totally blown away by electronic music festival Sónar and an idea of a smaller, kid-friendly version Sónar Kids.
Together with my project group, we talked to its organizers — Astrid Rousse and Sergio Caballero –, interviewed kids and parents, and decided to create an educational project to teach kids electronic music. The focus was on a holistic, 360-degrees approach. That means we were going to combine music with different disciplines, like visual art, animation, dance and storytelling, and with cheap and affordable technologies and tools.
Technology is the core element of Playtronica’s universe, a board that can transform human touch into sound. A few years later, the educational startup did not succeed but the technology development opened up possibilities to a variety of different projects.
(Sónar Festival communication image)
Your work involves various disciplines and fields such as music, electronic and sound engineering, performance, research, art… What are some of your backgrounds? Is the team crossdisciplinary (some are musicians, others engineers, etc.), or is everyone involved a brilliant mind who can do it all?
Before Playtronica, I had a theatre production company and worked as a creative producer in site-specific immersive shows. Part of my job was to bring new expertise to theatre production work and find new technologies and specialists who had previously never worked on stage. I worked with cognitive psychologists, contemporary artists, role game developers, social workers, cinematographers and many more.
That’s why collaboration is at the heart of Playtronica’s projects. We are a collective of engineers, musicians, designers, educators, etc., but everyone follows a holistic approach, being curious for each aspect of creation and sharing knowledge within the group.
Lemons, carrots, apples, cucumbers, eggplants; everything has a sound, especially through gadgets like Touch Me and Playtron. Tell us more about how do these two tools work and how can they make a piece of wood or our own body make a sound.
Our tools are designed to work with organic materials — mostly everything that has water inside. The idea is to connect humans and objects in one electric chain and measure the intensity of human touch, which is technically a change of electric resistance.
Usually, we don’t think about it, but our bodies are batteries, using electricity to communicate the brain with other body parts. So why not use the same idea to interact with other organic materials using sound as a medium?
What is the oddest/most unusual thing you’ve ever made sound of ? And one that has surprised/shocked you after making it sound?
As part of the Art Biennale in San Paulo (Brazil), we connected Russo-Brazilian artist, curator, and theatre director, Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich to our controllers and let the audience touch his body to play sounds composed by Arto Lindsay.
That was a unique experience! People were exploring the artist’s naked body not as an anatomical or sexual object but as a musical instrument activated by the intensity of touch. As Fyodor said, “the very moment of that sensation overwhelms you — your visitors do care about you! Playing music on your body is a definite sign of love and attachment (or even attouchment).”
(Try me On I am Very You, Fyodor Pavlov Andreevich performance)
I discovered your work at the latest Issey Miyake Parfums presentation in Barcelona and fell head over heels with what you do. In what ways do you feel your work is related to that of the Japanese genius?
The idea of Playtronica is to inspire people with technology that makes uncommon sensorial experiences. To step away from linear, ordinary representations of reality is based solely on sight.
Thus, the idea of working with Issey Miyake’s universe resonated with our creative minds. We feel comfortable in minimalist aesthetics; it concentrates your mind and senses, keeps the attention focused. It helps to make the statement clear, especially when technology can lead you to an endless variety of options and solutions. Taking just one instrument and one particular sound is something that Issey Miyake inspired us to do.
(Playtronica Issey Miyake performance)
Miyake works at the intersection of fashion, art, performance, perfumery, design, architecture and more. Just like you, being a multidisciplinary artist has allowed him to expand his creativity and explore possibilities in every field. Since you’re in a constant process of research as well, what excites you the most right now? Is there any new discovery, concept, tool, invention, or line of work that is consuming your time and curiosity?
We are very focused on the meaning of ‘touch’ — biological, semantic, cultural and in an urban context. While touring, we observe how people from different cultural backgrounds explore touch and sound. We analyze the synaesthetic potential of different objects in our environment.
Synaesthesia is an unusual connection of feelings where the perception of certain things can elicit additional and unusual sensory experiences, such as colors, smells or haptics. Is it possible for sounds to be scratchy or wet? What do letters smell like? Or what sounds do colors have/make? For four percent of the world population, this is their everyday reality.
Let’s suppose that the interaction with the urban space could be on par with synaesthetic experiences. For example, streets that produced sounds through human touch, like an orchestra when musicians play their instruments. What kind of emotions would a passerby get from these experiences with surrounding objects like a green lawn, park furniture, urban navigation, sculptures or strangers? What changes would happen to a city dweller’s emotional attitude regarding real things and their sensory perception?
These were the questions of our latest workshop for the Moscow Urban Forum, where public touch was transformed into sounds, music or audio messages using Playtronica sensors. Participants could hear the synesthetic potential of urban environment objects and feel their impact on themselves and others.
(Sonic Bench project (Collaboration with Yauza collective)
There’s this never-ending debate between man vs machine. Since the dawn of times until now, there are many skeptics of technology and its possibilities — from George Orwell’s novel 1984 to Netflix’s Black Mirror series. In your case, man and machine are joint in a playful and fun way. How do you envision the future in regards to this? Will machines want to dominate and kill us or just play with us?
We use technology to prototype the future as we want or don’t want it to be. We build scenarios of our possible interactions with technology, and we are optimists. We speculate and advise everyone to do it in a playful, improvised, collective way, using sound as a communication tool between things and humans.
During our workshops, students are building prototypes of speculative sound devices, objects to communicate to Homo neanderthalensis (as soon as time-travel is available), help blind people to cook using sounds, or personalize private space with soundscapes.
I see the future of technology as an extension of human possibilities, amplification of the senses and process of design for new sensory modalities. It will be fun!
(Hyperreal, tactile illustrations of Wang & Söderström)
In Playtronica’s universe, everything should sound. We focus on the physical characteristics of organic objects and use conductivity and resistance to map their own voice. There is a term introduced by Roland Barthes, the ‘grain of the voice’, which is “a product of the collision of voice and music which communicates an authentic individuality, the expression and materiality of the body that produces it, beyond the bounds of rationalization and cultural forms.”
Barthes suggests that from the process of singing or playing, one can distinguish the form and shape of the body as being an instrument. The grain is audible when you can hear the micro sounds of the throat, teeth, lips and even tip of fingers while singing or playing.
That’s an interesting concept. How do you use it in your work?
With the development of conductive materials and smart textiles, we can bring the grain of the voice to objects like, for example, a dress. Imagine that touching, stretching and folding the dress can change the sound characteristics, thus proposing, as Barthes says, a “new hierarchy of values that is inevitably individual and a new relationship to the performer’s body”; a new system of emotional relationships between humans and objects.
This was an idea for our collaboration with Side Project for Paris Fashion Week at the Palais de Tokyo last year. One of the dresses was made conductive and the performer was playing sounds by stretching and modifying the shape of the dress.
The way you use technology also helps to connect people. In Issey Miyake’s presentation, I remember the connection I made with a girl after playing each other’s necks, hands, wrists and arms — she’s a dancer and choreographer, so she was even more bodily intelligent and sensitive to that. Is this connection one of your aims as well?
One of our long-term projects is a human orchestra. The concept is simple but the realization needs time and resources. We go to different cities, record local sounds and create urban soundscapes, and we later invite local people to participate in the orchestra. On the day of the performance, we connect people with our technology and assign to each of them the recorded sounds of their city.
The result is an orchestra where instruments and players are people living in one city, volunteers or passerby, playing with the city sounds. In this context, touch has several meanings. First, touching and playing sounds or rhythms; second, associating sound with places or events, and finally, touching a person, your neighbour, whom you probably never have the chance to touch again. In a time of massive digitalization and desocialization because of the Internet and social media, the sense of physical, real touch is extremely important.
Kids play an important role in your work. You take them into account and organize workshops and jams where they’re the main characters. Why do you feel it is important to educate children on electronics and technology, especially in an increasingly digital/technological society?
Remember when everything around was alive and magical? You were sure that all the toys came to life when you turned your head or fell asleep. You could create stories around a single odd sound at night in your bedroom. Now, our smartphone is our toy and the object that feels more alive than anything. Other things are not that interesting; old wooden chairs don’t tell you their stories anymore.
Smart homes are kind of dumb, and if you live in the city, you usually can’t listen to the sound of the trees for more than ten minutes and check Instagram instead. We empower children with the tools they need to bring their dreams to life and to be prepared for the future. If anyone can fix the imperfect world of ‘smart’ things, it’s digital natives who are both tech-savvy and full of dreams.
You’ve performed and exhibited worldwide, from innovation and technology-driven festivals like Sónar+D to artistic centers like the Pompidou in Paris or the Garage Museum in Moscow. What is next for you? Where else in the world can we see you in the next few months?
As being an artist in residency in Gaite Lyrique 2019–2020, we prepared a session of workshops about sound art and the history of electronic music. It includes workshops with synthesizers like Theremin and Buchla, and introduction to interactive sound art using, for example, Dadamachines musical robots and Playtronica Touch sensors. We plan to present two new devices developed in our Berlin studio. Stay tuned!
This is an extract from an interview to Metal magazine, September 2019.
Words by Words by Arnau Salvadó, https://metalmagazine.eu/en/post/interview/playtronica