In 2014, an Australian artist living in New York City named Angus Tarnawsky and a pianist living in Melbourne, Nathan Liow, staged three improvisational performances despite the distance between them. Liow played piano in Australia while Tarnawsky listened via Skype. Tarnawsky then took that Skype transmission, listened for imperfections in the data stream, then looped these back to Liow’s end via FaceTime, where the signal was broadcast live over speakers. The name they used to describe their performances, along with the lathe-cut record that emerged from those shows, was Artifacts—a reference to the digital warps and clips in the virtual call medium.
Tarnawsky caught up with me via Skype to share the story of this unusual release, while Liow weighed in via email. Though Tarnawsky is now living in Toronto, having recently completed his masters degree at the Ontario College of Art & Design, in 2014 he was living in New York City. It was an important place for him to grow artistically, though profoundly different from his upbringing. He grew up in Launceston, a small town on the island of Tasmania, then attended college in Melbourne, where he became engrossed in the improvised music scene. After several summers spent visiting New York and deriving inspiration from the city’s extensive arts scene, he moved there in 2010. Connections he had made with local improvisers helped soften the transition.
While living in New York, Tarnawsky stayed in touch with his friends back home using video chat platforms. As he stayed up late at night to accommodate the difference in time zones, he started to pay special attention to the digital aberrations in the signal he was getting. “In Australia, the internet is pretty unreliable, or at least it was at the time,” he tells me. “I would get such bizarre artifacts, bizarre glitches and sounds.”
He points out that, at the time, many Australian websites had their servers in North America, so even for an Australian to access a local website, their signal would have to cover an impressive distance. On top of this, the internet connection in Australia at the time was also relatively archaic. All this led to glitches in the data stream. “So I’m on these Skype calls, hearing lots of artifacts. I can understand from a technical reason it has to do with the packets of the signal. There’s a certain compression of the signal that is then transported from point A to point B. Occasionally that packet delivery has some issues with it it, where it might load faster or slower. The algorithms—which I don’t know much about—are doing their best to arrange the signal in a cohesive order, but it doesn’t always work.”
At the time, Tarnawsky saw this as an interesting phenomenon, but wasn’t sure what to do with it, “I just kind of put this aside as an interesting thing, a kooky phenomenon.”
One friend that Tarnawsky would Skype with was Nathan Liow, a fellow improviser living in Melbourne. In 2014, Liow mentioned to him that he wanted to put something together for the Melbourne Next Wave festival. Their mutual friend, Rosemary Willink, was one of the curators.
Liow, in touch with me via email, told me a bit about Willink’s concept. “She had been thinking about the idea of the internet and play – she called the exhibition ‘Can we please play the internet?’ Which reminds me of what I used to say as a kid when asking about Playstation, sport or whatever. It brings to mind the idea of the platform—be it a console or a soccer ball or the world wide web—being the fun thing in itself and not just a means for communication or an invisible tool we look over for the sake of our end goal.”
Tarnawsky recalls discussing the idea via internet call. “He said, do you have any ideas what this might mean? And I said, how about we take this artifact concept that is on my mind, and we try to use it as a core feature of a work?” He emphasizes the conceptual challenge of trying to figure out “a way to use the internet as an instrument.”
Liow remembers the details of that first fateful call. “I first Skyped Angus about the project while I was in transit at Tokyo airport so it’s fitting that we brainstormed the idea literally over the internet. Taking Rosemary’s theme of play, and also with both of us being musicians by trade (piano and Angus drum kit and programming) we were both certain that playing our instruments needed to be a central point in the work whilst being really fun and spontaneous with the internet. The internet was both the thing that facilitated the work, whilst being an obvious participant and an instrument involved in the art making itself.”
Stretching Out a Glitch
After they figured out that they wanted to pull off an in-vivo distance collaboration, the challenge was in execution. Their idea was to have Liow playing the piano live at the festival in Melbourne, with Tarnawsky listening in live via Skype, then sending the distorted signal back to Melbourne via FaceTime to be played over speakers, concurrent with Liow’s playing. Since the ‘artifacts’ were the key focus, they wanted to ensure there would reliably be enough of these digital distortions in the signal. They ran several experiments in which they tried to tax their internet connections. At one point, they ran multiple devices simultaneously in an attempt to eat up as much of the internet connection as possible, and even considered programming something to intentionally overload the system.
In the end, a simple arrangement proved best, since the calls were glitchy enough by nature, and didn’t require any sabotage. Tarnawsky recalls sitting in his apartment with his equipment assembled before him, often up at strange hours due to the time zones. “I would be on a FaceTime call with Nathan, and on a Skype call. The Skype call would be me hearing the sound of the piano coming in to New York.” That call was sent to Tarnawsky via an iPhone poked inside the piano itself, captured via the device’s built-in mic. This arrangement was chosen because they realized, after trying different set-ups involving professional microphones, that the audio compression involved in Skype calls rendered any audiophilic tendencies futile.
“I was using some software to grab moments when a glitch would happen, and maybe loop it or stretch it out. Doing on-the-fly sampling of what Nathan was doing, or maybe trying to eventually build some feedback…. Then that signal was going back to Nathan in the gallery [via FaceTime] and coming out of a speaker.”
Tarnawsky’s rig had multiple components. The Skype call was first filtered through his Roland 101, where he applied a space echo. That signal was then sent to his computer, where it was processed via Mio Console. Then, using a copy of Ableton Live linked with Max MSP, he would sample, alter, and loop the artifacts as they came through. This all had to happen live, since the signal was then sent back to Liow in Melbourne via FaceTime, where it was played live over loudspeakers. The time lag between made the results even more interesting.
Liow, the one charged with performing live in front of an audience, remembers the performances vividly. “The experience being on the piano in the gallery space was quite a disembodied feeling. We set up the audio feed to amplify through two large hi-fi speakers placed on either side of the piano. I was literally swimming in sound, and that provided great impetus for musical instigation and response—though I could not discern who I was playing with and what was deliberate or pure chance. I tried to clear my mind and just react and create in the moment, however it was hard to ignore the fact that a lot of what I was hearing was heavily imbued with what I had played moments prior, hidden amongst layers and layers of lossy audio and feedback loops. Serendipitously, the internet in Australia is so patchy that it really lent itself to surprises in every performance.”
Artifacts was staged as three live performances for the festival, and was also set up as an installation at a gallery, and released as a limited-edition lathe-cut record for In Context Music, the label run by Tarnawsky, which continues, in sporadic form, to this day.
Artifacts was the fourth release on ICM, and the first to involve Angus himself. The first three releases, which Tarnawsky conceptualized as a trilogy, were releases by other artists who were living in NYC with him at the time. He wanted to do something creative with them, but in lieu of the standard approach of pitching a jam session, he had something else in mind. “They were far more established than I was, and I wanted to know how I could instigate something but not a performance.”
Initially, the goal was to create a series of objects that the artists could use in their performances, for example wooden objects to be played by hand. “For various reasons, it didn’t quite pan out that way, and I discovered lathe-cut records. I figured lathe-cuts would be a way that music could be a way that music could be presented, with each artist needing to think about the medium as really affecting what gets put on the disc.”
The distinct sound qualities of lathe-cut records were intended to interact with the sound contained on the grooves. “I asked the artist to try to present music that would really accentuate that a lathe is a noisy object that almost sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt. You’ve played it five times and it already sounds like it’s been dragged through the dirt for a decade.
“It’s a really complicated medium. It doesn’t lend itself to clarity for every kind of project.” For Tarnawsky, the question became: “What could we work together to make that would be something that would seem strange, but would be beautiful in this weird lathe-cut world?”
He figures that Artifacts was perfectly suited to In Context Music’s ethic. “There was this kind of backwards-and-forwards, analogue-digital degradation conversation. We took this long-distance collaboration that was all about lo-fi charm, and we were able to put it onto this plastic disc that was a bizarre kind of degradation/compression/alteration of the sound.”
The audio for the record was two 5-minute parts that Tarnawsky felt were suited to the release—especially beautiful excerpts that most closely resembled the sound he and Liow had been striving for. Though he used his own lathe to make some of the ICM releases, he was too busy touring during Artifacts‘ production, so a friend made the 50 copies. He was satisfied with the final outcome and its distinctive, run-through-the-dirt lathe sound. “I felt immediately that it was the perfect medium for it,” he says. “It made Artifacts seem like it came out at the turn of the 20th century. No longer an artifact of the digital era, but an artifact of this way, way back time. Some kind of Berliner disc found in the thrift store racks.”
Today, Tarnawsky retains an enthusiasm for the project, though feels that he would tweak things on his end if were to try it again. He notes that the nature of their set-up could be a bit “out of control” at times, with the sounds he was feeding back to Liow sometimes veering into chaotic, shrill territory— “spiraling out of control,” as he puts it. With more time to practice he says he would try to run things “with more subtlety”—working around the aesthetic he captured in the vinyl release.
Meanwhile, Liow tells me that Artifacts still stands out to him as an achievement. “I’m still really proud of the project. The concept is so visceral and relevant years down the line. And it’s also remarkable how far the technology has come and yet still remains so unrefined. Mostly I’m just proud of the fact that it sounds really beautiful, and it was fun to ‘get together’ and collaborate with Angus on a project that has now found it’s place in multiple gallery spaces and playlists.”
Thanks to Angus Tarnawsky and Nathan Liow for the interviews. All images courtesy of Angus Tarnawsky unless otherwise specified. Today, Tarnawsky is planning to move to Montreal to complete his PhD in communications at Concordia University.