Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit’s Digital Soundscape Adds to AI-Debate

By Alexandra Israel Alexandra Israel has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on March 7, 2024

On a Friday evening in February, I found myself sitting on the floor of a gallery space on the Bowery in New York City, considering the relationship between body and language, coded and spoken and body and the technologized world. At Helena Anrather Gallery, watching “Warmer Layers,” thoughts on how the technological elements have been added to our lives from the industrial revolution (body and machine) to the cybernetic revolution (computer technologies) to our present day (marked by the volcanic explosion of all things AI in the mainstream) floated by as I experienced familiar notification sounds, AI musings, video and sound art as part of a live coding set by the artists Tianyi Sun and Fiel Guhit. While entrepreneurs are masters of innovation, pitching, and ideating better worlds, artists can really make you think—ouf!

The space was animated by an ASRock Taichi Carrera with AMD Ryzen and two MSI Suprim Geforce’s hooked up to fluorescent tube light shifting in the neon colors of the rainbow. The two artists walked about the space with determination as they moved flood lights around—and, at one point, Sun installed a wide cassette player in the middle of the floor. In his 1947 book, “Vision and Motion,” the artist and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy describes that the role of the artist was to “search the new dimensions of the industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.” In their performances, Sun and Guhit hack the regular interfaces by creating sound and music, and Sun reads AI-generated journal entries and poetic object descriptions. Embodying the relationship between the hardware, software, and humans they are working with, they elicit new kinds of, as requested by Moholy-Nagy, emotional responses from their audience. 

Fiel Guhit
Fiel Guhit performing “Warmer Layers” at Helena Anrather Gallery on February 23, 2024. Courtesy of Tianyi Sun.

While the cyborg is a monster in Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), Sun and Guhit’s version of the cyborg, the meeting between body and technology, feels closer to a cheeky sprite. Oscillating between incoherent, intelligent, and a nuisance. Technophiles, people with a keen interest in and who derive pleasure from technology, the artists bring their perspectives to the audience with generosity and a degree of humor. At several points in the performance, I wondered how the moving parts came together and which were human and not. These points I later debated with other audience members—inquiries that felt intentionally planted by the artists. 

About halfway through the performance, two polite late-comers entered and sat down—a mother and a toddler. The toddler quickly started chattering softly, mesmerized and visibly enjoying the embodiment of the digital landscape. Although it is useful to raise alarm of the negative aspects of too much screen time or social media use among children, it is important to realize that technology consists of so much more and that most children grow up embedded within its auditory and sensory fabric. Breaking my train of thought, I heard Sun’s voice- “Going up, going down,” over the speaker. Followed by the sound of water. She also loosely narrated some events in the room, a couple of minutes shy of them occurring, at 8:07: “February 23rd, eight pm. Saved.” As expected with AI-generated observations, a little factual and a little gibberish.

Although Sun and Guhit attempt to make transparent relationships between hard and software while visualizing and narrating code, their work keeps a sense of poetry in its moments of illegibility, when it is not completely tangible. Why is this interesting for entrepreneurs? Through eco, bio, and AI-technological advancement, the boundaries between human and non-human continue to blur at an accelerated rate (such as robotics, reproductive technologies, body fitness, pharmacology, agriculture, but also within media) and our attempts to conquer and control these processes artists who shed new perspectives on these relationships are important additions to the debate. 

Tianyi Sun
Tianyi Sun performing “Warmer Layers” at Helena Anrather Gallery on February 23, 2024. Courtesy of Tianyi Sun.

At one point, the text-to-speech model trained on Sun’s voice, in accent in between British and American, describes a bra: “keeps my breasts in place…supports and holds me up…enhances my natural beauty.” It is funny and explains the research from cybernetic to analog technology. The first US patent for a brasserie was issued to Mary Phelps Jacob on 3 November 1914. This technological invention would shape the bodies, and thereby the lives, of women worldwide. As with the advancement of public and legislative policy attempting to create equity for women across the world the advancement of technological policy, I am thinking of AI specifically, often falls out of step with IRL development and is not always led by specialists and therefore riddled with fear, uncertainty, and ignorance. After the performance, I found out that the description was not intentional, during the show’s opening, the artists installed a recording system that captured single words and phrases. The artists then fed the words and phrases through an autoregressive language model to create a narrative fragment—one happened to be about a bra.

Aki Onda
Aki Onda photographed by Bozzo. Courtesy of Blank Forms.

Later that night, in Brooklyn, my journey in sound art shedding new light into technology continued at the Japanese artist Aki Onda’s performance at Blank Forms. For years, he has recorded sounds on cassette tapes, some of which he played during the performance—whistling, and street sounds—from a handheld cassette player. Part of the performance was entirely analog, culminating in a fanfare of recorded, digital, and instrumental crescendo of sounds

Bells and whistles, I thought I was clever. But, when I asked Onda about the whistling he instead asked if I heard the other ambient sounds in the recording or the sound spill from the street. Focusing on the mundane, every day, Sun and Guhit and Onda ask their viewers to look beyond the obvious. Instead, their performances bring attention to our body’s complete immersion in technology and its sounds, highlighting how our brain skips, ignores, or compartmentalizes certain experiences, instead ushering us to actively try to listen in on them all. 

Tianyi Sun is currently an artist in residence at the NARS Foundation, see more of her work on Instagram. Fiel Guhit is currently faculty at Parsons School of Design, The New School. 

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By Alexandra Israel Alexandra Israel has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Alexandra Israel is a contributor to Grit Daily, a freelance arts writer and publicist. A museum aficionado since her introduction to Jean Dominque Ingres' portraits as a small child, she enjoys spending her free time at museums and finding off-the-beaten-track gallery shows. She is a regular contributor to the art publication Cultbytes. With her finger on the pulse, Alexandra has been working in PR for over seven years, primarily within book publishing and in the art world. She has held positions at Penguin Book Group, Aperture Foundation, and Third Eye. Alexandra graduated from Bates College in 2010.

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