Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

An interview with Sam Cusumano, by guest blogger Deborah Krieger

Guest blogger Deborah Krieger interviewed Samuel Cusumano, whose interactive electronic projects will be on view at the PAA from March 20th through April 27th, about his current exhibition, practice, and fascination with sound and systems. Deborah blogs about the Philadelphia art scene and beyond at I On the Arts. Deborah Krieger is a Swarthmore College Art History student and emerging art writer and curator.

I On the Arts: Can you describe your projects, in general and for the PAA show?

Samuel Cusumano: I am an Engineer for the Arts.

Electricity for Progress is my direct action educational interactive electronics initiative through which I work with media artists, youth organizations, producers, and curators to build interactive electronic installations. I focus on the theme “understand how your tools work.” I believe that through examination and analysis, we can understand the simple and complex electronic devices surrounding us every day. I work with consumer electronics, children’s toys, electronic musical effects, and analog synthesizers, both to repair and to modify the devices in order to produce a wide array of sounds, rhythms, and textures…

At the PAA I will be showing four primary exhibitions:

The first will be Biodata Sonification, where I present two tropical plants fitted with custom electronics, which produce a changing stream of music based on fluctuating galvanic conductance across each plant’s leaf. Along with the plants, a theremin will be featured, which is a musical instrument that is played by moving your hand near an antenna. Without touching the antenna, the theremin functions by radio field interactions and is presented along with the tropical plants that also react to human presence.

Theremin

The second exhibit will be Modification, where a variety of modified children’s toys and musical instruments will be presented both on display and for interaction. Guests will be invited to play with and explore the devices and will be encouraged to play together and create novel compositions. On display will be Barbie Karaoke machines, the Speak and Spell, Casio SK-1 and SK-5, and an array of custom circuits.

karaoke-low-res

The third exhibit is a presentation of the Apple Interface, where guests are invited to sit at a table, don headphones, and touch two apples, which will produce a series of musical notes in reaction to the user’s grip. This exciting interface is augmented with subwoofer seats from SubPac and beautiful soundscapes from Data Garden.

apples

The fourth exhibit will be Room of Sounds. Samples, performances, demonstrations, explorations, and archives will be played back for listeners and guests…At times beautiful and melodic, and at times harsh and gritty, guests are invited to listen and find their own patterns in the noise.

IOtA: Has sound always been your medium?

SC: I have acted as a sound engineer and recording artist for the past 15 years, providing a modest PA setup to local psychfolk [sic] and traveling artists in cozy bookstores and churches. Musically, I have produced a powerful album Sequence of Prophets with Niagara Falls, which features circuit bent SK5 keyboard as a variety of waves, winds, washes, hot leads, and deep bass. I have performed regionally as Electricity for Progress, where I present and explain different modified devices and perform a, sometimes noisy, demonstration (with commentary). I also work with the media organization Data Garden, where we work with Biodata Sonification systems, presenting artists and biologists with streaming data from plants. Our MIDI Sprout project places electrodes onto the leaves of plants and graphs changes in galvanic conductance across the surface of the leaf as MIDI notes that can be played on a computer or synthesizer.

IOtA: What is the most satisfying part of your practice?

SC: It has been amazing working with plants and presenting my Biodata Sonification systems to the public. Through powerful daytime outdoor exhibitions, we have been able to show, explain, and entertain hundreds of passers-by through sounds and questions.

IOtA: What is the most frustrating part of your practice?

SC: In the Biodata installations, people often walk up to the plants with the desire to touch them. This always frustrates me, as the most amazing aspect of the Biodata installation lies in the way that plants and humans interact without touching. For patient guests who linger and listen as others come and go, some of the subtle dynamics of the sonification process can be heard, and the listener can begin to decode some of the complex information presented.

IOtA: What is your artistic background? What about your musical and scientific background?

SC: When I was a child, I always wanted to understand how machines and systems worked. I would build and dismantle anything that I could take a screwdriver to. I began working with simple electronics and computers, which became a huge asset for repairing and rescuing aging machines. From working with musicians, I began repairing guitar effects and old analog synthesizers. I was introduced to circuit bending and modifying toys and small keyboards, which opened my mind to a whole array of modular synthesizer and DIY electronics organizations.

My devices begin with opportunity and inspiration. Conversation and crazy ideas can sometimes lead to amazing systems. For example, earlier last year I worked with Little Baby’s Ice Cream on a device that allows users to play music while they eat an ice cream cone. Music for Ice Cream presented a duet where friends eating ice cream cones fitted with my interactive “cone-troller” could produce generative music.

IOtA: What do you hope people will take away from your craft?

SC: My goal is to inspire creative questioning. By presenting modified, noisy devices to the public, I create an atmosphere of free play and allow users to explore and interact with the modified devices and with each other. I love discussing my devices and machines with guests, understanding their perceptions, and discussing questions.

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