12 November 2010

Interview with Miso Susanowa: Sound Visionary

I interviewed Miso Susanowa for the new issue of Scruplz Magazine, which I've reproduced below.  Below it I've added a part of the conversation which I had to cut for length.

Miso Susanowa’s art can easily mislead a visitor. One can stop by her shop and gallery, closely view her pieces, and go. But to experience and understand her work, first you have to open your . . . ears. For Miso is unusual among Second Life artists, because of the importance she gives to music and sound. Turn up the volume, touch the works around you, and listen.
Miso’s fascination with music and sounds began when she was a child, and she started working with computer-mediated communication from the very beginnings of the Internet. In an interview, we discussed the way she combines sound and sculpture within Second Life.
Dividni Shostakovich: Do you have particular ways of connecting your sound work to visual elements?

Miso Susanowa: Well, not really. Sometimes I will start with a sound, but often it is shapes that I begin with. I am less a builder here than a sculptor. I made the decision early on not to go around and see too much artwork, and to let the world and the tools speak to me. I spend a lot of time here staring at the ocean or a shape or the build tab. One thing I know from my online history is that you can get caught up in this kind of ticking clock thing, like you should be doing something. But that isn’t really how you do things in the atom world. You take rests, you sit and relax. I built the Garden of Sound because LA was being very intense for me, sound/noisewise and density wise. So the Garden was actually my escape, my peace, my slow-down spot, my meditation place.

So I’d sit and I’d play with shapes and scripts. My flowers were some of my first. And I thought, well, I could put sound in them. That led me to think about the stuff I liked—Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Brian Eno—especially because of the sound limitations in SL. I had done loop-music, “ambient” music a long time. SL made me rethink that in terms of 10-second loops and how I could spatialized them, make the same kind of music, the long-wave music I did in RL, in SL.

The Flowers became a series where I was working with spatializing sound, trying to make the loops not sound so repetitive but still be Riley-esque. I would keep each Flower that I did on a master track. Then the next Flower was tuned to that one, so that they would harmonize. Most of the Flowers work together as a composition.

DS: So a person can select some Flowers, and create a personal composition simply from those choices.

MS: Yes, that is the other main and integral thing I am working with here, with my gaming and VRML [Virtual Reality Modeling Language] background, where you explore everything. You don’t know what is a clue, like in Myst or Under a Killing Moon or Blade Runner, so you examine everything. It’s very interactive. So I make many of my multiple-sound pieces as touch-start instead of sensor. Then people can compose, or remix or whatever you want to call it—get involved, adjust, play with. That is one of the things about these worlds that is not like the web: you are interactive. It’s still hard! I see people never touch or explore things here. Many people don’t realize my work has sound. I could use sensors, but that is a rather passive, television-like thing. I demonstrate my “Solar Symphony” for people and then let them play with it. It’s really cool to watch them actually focus in and try different things and listen and be part of the process.

DS: One of your recent works, “code dreams,” was at the Art Breakers show at the Pop Art Lab. It might be described as a meditation on the dangers, pleasures and possibilities of human-computer interaction, centered around the concept of identity. How did you develop the ideas for its structure and contents?

MS: Well, many of the pieces in “code dreams” have come from the Garden. Really, it is the same theme I have been working with, but hasn’t been focused in one place yet. When Binary Quandry approached me about the show, I was very excited because it was a focus on sound, the whole show, which is unusual here. There’s a lot more graphics than sound in SL. And I’d had a previous piece which dealt with something I have studied a long time online, that of self image and projection. This is an issue as an artist I have dealt with a long time: who am I? Am I all the labels my parents, my teachers, my friends put on me? The existential question, right? So, at first I put up some Flowers, some small pieces. I realized I could expand my Garden and actually all my single piece works into a thematic statement of this question, who am I? And there’s a lot of bloggery about this now, and with Caerleon doing the Identity series: “is SL real?”

This is a stupid question to me, after all the communities I have been involved in. A voice on the telephone is “not real” in that it isn’t even an analog movement of air now. It’s all digital now. But that person is real, of course, as is a letter writer, or the electrons you see on TV that are people. I wanted to engage that question and take it further, with my experience with Jungian analysis and quantum physics. Quantum mechanics also says we are not real; we are at best whirling atomic particles . . . or waves . . . they aren’t sure :)

Einstein engaged this question, as did the Copenhagen Interpretation and Heisenberg. Yet we are real to us, and a solid oak table will hurt my foot if I kick it. Einstein, and Jung, and Sufis and the rest all agree: this is both real and not-real. It is an observer phenomenon. We participate. Jungian analysis will show you that most people are not a truly defined “I.” We are a collection of personas that are stronger or weaker in situations. So I see no difference between the “persona” of an avatar and the “persona” of a person who is one way at work, another with a lover, a third with children. They are all real in some way, parts of a human’s being.

That became the entire theme: what is real, what is definition, and who decides. People were talking about SL and computer code. I realized I could show my other background by taking the same issue into biology. After all, at base we are 90-something percent water. A handful of chemicals. A few simple amino acids. And some electricity.

But to say a woman or man or animal is just that is silly. It is sophomoric. Chemicals do not explain the Sistine Chapel. Or philosophy. Or Beethoven. Or why such things connect with us and move us no matter what nationality or race or sex we are.

DS: It’s reductive.

MS: Yes, and this is a great modern problem, reductionism, a poison from the Industrial Revolution. We are sadly hurting for generalists now. It’s affecting progress, it is discussed in many academic places. Many techs discuss it frequently. Innovation is falling. It’s worrisome. So, in “code dreams” I tried to bring out all these reductionist things. The AGCT amino acids of biology, the 1 and 0 of computers. I show that to think of such things in such a way is both stupid and ultimately denigrating yourself, computers, anything.

In “code dreams” I brought together my music, and tried to show people how my world is for me, awash in sound, like a painting but in the ear. And I used symbols of my life—the girl’s bed, the mirror, the plants. The toys I made of such concepts as identity and time and biology. How those facts enrich my life, my understanding. But yet . . . all a dream. We are all dreaming here, as both psychologists and shamans will tell us. So to me, SL is a magic mirror. People show me parts of themselves through avatar, dress, work they do. That is no less real than what they show me in atom life.

DS: By the time this interview comes out, Burn2 will have passed, but the readers may have seen “House of Cards,” which you created with Xenophile Neurocam. Can you tell me a little about it?

MS: “House of Cards” began as a silly idea, part haunted house and part disgruntled reaction to some of the business decisions Linden Labs is making. Especially with my history of watching worlds and communities like Geocities fold, and There.com, and the like. The structure of the haunted house gradually evolved through meditating about these issues, and the architecture was influenced by the theme of Burn2, the film Metropolis.

House of Cards” is a theatre of memory for the evolution of communities on the Net. The bottom floor is the Iron Age—the hardware stuff, TCP/IP, kermit, BBSes—so it is all rusted iron, “heavy metal” as we used to call the big mainframes. The second floor is the Steam Age: a cathedral of stained glass, the laying down of the railroad tracks of the Web. It features textures of all my old worlds, the mothers of SL: Alphaworld, Cybertown, etc. The top floor is the Industrial Age, where we are now, and features most of the existing grid worlds. But all the walls are thin and have playing card backing textures. Nothing is precisely aligned either, as when you make a real house of cards. The figure on top represents both The Avatar and Maria of Metropolis. She has scaled this tenuous House of Cards in her search for the future, for the new worlds, the hypergrid, the dream we all have here. The soundtrack’s base is made entirely of computer and telephone sounds. As you rise, you hear other sounds and music. Building up to the top floor, where you hear the Great Music. And you will hear other things, notably Phillip Linden speaking about SL. :D

But under all of it you will still hear the telephone and the computers, the basis of this world here and others. Along the way are fallen pages, or cards, of worlds past or gone or backwatered. Also, ghosts of Lindens gone—Blue, Robin, Pathfinder—good people. All as playing cards.

From far back the lower building appears as a being, as the M-machine, Moloch, in Metropolis. I worry about the good people being left, or the worlds, in this quest for . . . monetization? I watched the worlds come apart before from this. It set the web back ten years. Imagine what SL would be now if that development hadn’t stopped. That is my anxiety about SL, because of course I love it. As Bryn Oh helped me do, I was able to articulate not just my fears and disappointments but what I come here for—the wonder, the creativity, the people, the hope.

Metropolis also has these themes. And it is an old theme. How much of our cities are we to sacrifice for? When does a city become a trap and not a joy? These issues are very old in the atom world and they are becoming important in the digital. “House of Cards” is not only a warning but a memory of the beauty and magic that came before SL and led to it, and my own personal feeling that expanding the grids outside LL is the best thing to do. Propagate the worlds, so they can’t all fall at once and break someone else’s heart.

I am very pleased with “House of Cards.” And Xenophile was a wonderful partner. He remembers all this too, the progression, so he got it right away.

Miso Susanowa’s Garden of Sound is at secondlife://Craigavon/48/223/67.

Here are some additional portions of our interview, preceding the discussion of "House of Cards":
DS: There’s an interesting contrast in your work that I’d like to discuss. Your larger pieces include what might be described as “New Age” pieces such as Shinden no Kagetsu (Temple of the Radiant Moon), and political installations such as “State of Mind.” Some people might see those as a strange combination. How do you see them?

MS: My work all comes from my passion and involvement in life. No human being is polarized. I spent many years exploring meditation and spiritual working, to help balance myself, to find some personal peace. “State” came about from my knowledge of the net’s very beginnings and what it has gone through, and what is happening now: a struggle for control of this medium. But this medium is my home, more than any physical place. So my passion for “State” came from my home being threatened. There’s been a struggle for control of the Net since Microsoft started with its code pollution. People forget that television was originally spoken of in the same way the Net is now: as a tool for community, for artists and moms and communication. It was taken over and subsumed to corporate interests. And it’s been being assaulted by those same forces for 20 years now. So I am very passionate about that. “State” was an ugly piece to do. I knew quite a lot because I follow such things closely, but I put in solid 8-hour days for two months for “State.” It was quite depressing. “State” was a piece I had to do as an exorcism, to manifest my fears and frustration. At first I didn’t plan to show it at all.

“Code dreams” can be seen as the other side of that, or perhaps as one other side of Miso. Parts of my life: both “State” and code dreams. I hate politics. I wrote a political blog [in the mid 1990s]. That was another thing that burnt me out in 1999. So I try to avoid them now. But the Net is my home, and I will fight for my home. “State” is me fighting; “code dreams” is me being Miso, the flower girl—dreaming, playing. Puppies and kittens :D

DS: And the Temple as well, as a place for peace and tranquillity.

MS: Yes! Actually I had a house there to begin with. And I made the Earth Sphere as a relaxation meditative sound to block out the Los Angeles cacophony. Then the Temple just talked to me—the idea of a place to work with the sound work I had been pursuing with ancient systems of music and healing. I follow a doctor at UCLA who is the authority on sonic healing, she knits bones with sound. And I had studied ancient musics, mode and frequency. Some organ keys in the great cathedrals are separated from the pedals, you cannot play them, because certain notes at certain frequencies have undesirable physical effects. One of which I know, is that one will make you fart! Which isn’t good in church. But most everyone has seen films of a bridge tearing apart under soldier’s feet from resonance, and this is why they are ordered to walk out of step crossing such structures. Tesla also did fascinating work in this.

So, the Temple became a place to make pure sine waves and pursue this research. Pauline Oliveros did a lot of work in this field. The sines for the Temple were very hard. Because of the wave shapes, making the cuts to make them looped was awful. It took days for each wave, to get rid of click artifacts that would happen if the wave was not cut precisely on a curve. And to then mix in binaural beat patterns, which are well-known. Very, very difficult, I almost gave it up. The higher frequencies were murder. Easy enough to generate at home but in SL ... ugh. But I finally got the last two to work.

DS: The SL environment must present a lot of different technical challenges.

MS: Yes, especially because sound seems to take a back seat here. Yes, you can stream, but native inworld sound is very primitive, although the FMOD [sound] engine used in the browser is well-known and used for much more complex things. It’s a sore point with sound people. A real world’s sound informs you a lot more than people pay attention to: depth, time, space, relational geometry—ask a deaf person. But most people don’t consider it much. How much the sense of hearing is integral. It’s just intuitive. Many people know at least rudimentary color theory. But many less know rudimentary sound theory. Not music theory. But it is critical to engineering, for example, sonic stress on tension cables and so on. Standing waves, resonant frequencies. Engineers must know these things or face dire consequences in, say, a high wind. or with 1000 people walking across a floor.

So the Temple is a great experiment, especially because the computer can accurately reproduce the sines. And with headphones, where you get the binaural effects. Binaurals wont work in speakers. They do not make the phantom synergistic beat in the middle of the brain. You must always use headphones for such sound. You hear overtones which aren’t really there. They are the sum of the sides, and it only happens in your head. When it does, it entrains the two halves of the brain to synchronize. Your brain hears, say an A=440 in one side of the headphones. In the other it hears a D=880. Your own brain will make the harmonic sum of 660, which will pulse because it’s being affected by both other frequencies. That pulsing is interior to the brain, it is the halves of the brain trying to sync up the sound. It’s the same way some visual effects strobing, moire patterns, yantras, can work on the optic nerves. In fact the walls of the Temple are a particular shade of violet that is known to stimulate the pineal through the optic nerve. As are the colors of the spheres, they are the sine waves only raised by powers to the visual. Because of course it is all waves. Sound becomes light. Light becomes rock if carried low enough. All harmonics of the fundamental frequencies. Which wraps us back to physics.
Miso and I talked of much else, including her activity in the early days of the Internet and her escapades in the punk music scene.  If you ever meet her, ask.


  1. Ah Divi, big hugs. Thank you for publishing this; some of my less-techincally-litereate friends had difficulty with the Intellibook format of the Scruplez rendition (although I must thank Nickee Ninetails again for suck beautiful photos).

    Ty for all your hard work and your attention to the more serious side of my work.

  2. ps - it's a good thing my friends aren't TYPO-illiterate *hides face in shame)