How Do You Spell Holiday?

Sweet Emotion: in conversation with Erin Gee

Erin Gee is overflowing with enthusiasm.

The artist, electroacoustic musician, and academic has invited me around on a swelteringly steamy summer afternoon to her relatively shaded backyard to tell me over a cool beverage about her work, particularly a forthcoming performance, entitled Affect Flow, which Gee and collaborators — both real and robotic — will present at this year’s Mutek festival in August.

“I’m so full of things to talk about right now,” Gee exclaims, before quickly doubling back. “I’ll have to turn off the academia and turn up the passion.”

Immediately, Gee third-guesses herself: “Maybe they’re married sometimes.”

Gee speaks in a characteristically deliberate scholarly pitch, punctuated incongruously with folksy snort-laughs that betray her quirky intelligence and wit. Gee is currently finishing a doctorate in composition et création sonore at Université de Montréal’s Music department, having relocated from Saskatchewan years ago to complete an MFA at Concordia and steep herself in this city’s cultural scenes.

“I’ve been productive artistically, but in the meantime, I’m getting a doctorate,” Gee chuckles. “It’s something that has really spurred my creativity and got me going. I’m not much of a big city girl; I was just passionate about learning to work with robotics.”

Gee’s robotic passions were rewarded after a fortuitous meeting in Sydney, Australia, with the neurophysiologist Vaughan Macefield, a researcher who creates robotic biofeedback sensors that measure human factors like heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, blood pressure, and neural activity.

Gee recalls that Macefield “just kind of said, ‘I don’t know, I think my work is fascinating, and it would be cool to see what an artist could do with it.’” She then had “a flash, imagining a piano that you could play with these things,” and embarked upon a multiyear research creation project to design biosensing robots that behaved something like a distributed wind chime.

“It was in a diatonic scale,” Gee explains of that work, “and basically, little hammers would strike little bells, and the parameters from an emotional person would control musical parameters like speed, timbre, the mode that the sound was playing in, the density of the notes. So you would end up with this abstract interior portrait of people.”

Though the musical product was not as simple as, say, hearing saccharine strings coming from a sad subject, or mouth harps and slide whistles emitting from someone more cheerful.

“When I first started making this work,” Gee divulges, “I really thought I could have some Holy Grail of interior musical emotional being. What I instead learned was that everyone’s interior world is really different. Even if, to a certain degree, Hollywood has already imprinted upon us what happiness and sadness sound like, what it feels like is totally different inside all of us. Anger, fear, surprise — these manifest physiologically very differently in us depending on how we were raised. This plays into gender, class, trauma — all kinds of things. So I was a bit bummed out because it’s really common for us to expect technology to reveal nature’s secrets. And you open up the Black Box and discover it’s Black Boxes all the way down.”

Gee later transferred her robotic technology into portable synthesizers, called Biosynths, and began working with a choir of young kids to make music. “I told myself, you just made a fleet of robots, you can work with children,” she laughs.

Gee soon discovered that the aesthetics of the technology were equally important to functionality in shaping its user’s attitudes. “You almost have to think of it as a collaboration when you’re working with robotics as much as with humans,” Gee says. “It’s a very different game than just making the device and making it work. And so the kids, unfortunately, were probably my toughest critics, but also my first customers. I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned a lot from me.”

Affect Flow, Gee’s forthcoming Mutek performance, combines her user-friendly biosensing robotic technologies with the more avant-garde, and adult, practice of autonomous sensory meridian response — commonly abbreviated as ASMR — into something Gee calls ‘ASMRtronica.’

ASMR consists primarily of exceedingly sensuous and lushly recorded sounds like whispering, clicking, crunching, pouring liquids, and the like. Its objective is to produce the tingling sensation associated with pleasurable affective experience — if not pleasurable, then sensorially authentic.

And herein lies the paradoxical rub: its effects may decidedly be real, but ASMR is entirely synthetic: “ASMR is this hyper intimate, hyper personal, but really artificial practice of doing these gestures,” Gee explains.

“It’s closely related to hypnosis, but faux hypnosis. It combines hypnosis with social media feeds. It’s using these emotional hacks to push your body’s buttons. And I realized that this was the opposite of what I was trying to do: Instead of using emotions to push the mechanical buttons, now we are using emotions and gestures to push our physiological buttons. For me, ASMR became like this hinge. I had to get into it and understand it more, to inhabit this space in a way I knew I could as an artist.”

Under Gee’s direction, Affect Flow features an ensemble wearing biofeedback sensors corresponding to hardware synthesizers. “I’ll have ten people that make this ambient wash of sound,” she describes, “or there might be these brief moments when everybody is physiologically synced. So the audience can tune in or tune out of that perception of their bodies. People will experience at first a very polished ASMRtronica roleplay. And then,” Gee snorts, “it’s going to get a bit weird.”

“I’ll be leading everyone in emotional meditations that will mess with you a little. If you want. What I like about this is, you can choose. It’s all about consent. You can go on a journey with me, or just watch it. No one’s even going to know. The people in the biosensors — I call them ‘surrogates’ — because it’s through their bodies that you’ll get an overall portrait of the mood in the room.”

Again, Gee guffaws: “Our bodies are talking, you know?”◼︎

Erin Gee, photographed for NicheMTL with Pastel and Camélia, performs 24 August 2023 as part of Mutek’s Play 1 programme.