Light & Sound Synthesis: In Conversation with Amay Kataria

In a world constantly adjusting and adapting to new methods of communication and connection expedited by rapid technological advancements, artist Amay Kataria explores what it means to be human. His latest work, Supersynthesis, which was shown from March 11, 2022 to April 1, 2022 at MuGallery in Chicago, furthers this exploration through offering a new form of connection. Breathing life into an otherwise static room, Supersynthesis utilizes light and sound to fill the space with an entrance-like pulse. It’s an interactive installation whose appearance and behavior is determined by the participation of those viewing it. Through a custom program designed by Kataria, viewers are able to make edits to the light and sound pattern the work displays. All edits are made anonymously and happen in real time, resulting in the work being in a constant state of evolution as it learns and responds to the environment around it. This intricate relationship between tangible interactivity, and technologically advanced programming is at the heart of Kataria’s work. The program is designed to be accessed from anywhere and at any time – edits are able to be made to the work long after the viewer has left the physical space it resides in, leaving the lingering questions: What is the permanence of our interactions, of our thoughts? How do we influence the environments we are in even after we have left them? Kataria discusses his practice, Supersynthesis, and the intricacies of the human condition below.  

Supersynthesis, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

With Supersynthesis, you mainly utilize the mediums of light and sound. What led you to these mediums, are they a new exploration for you?

As mediums of expression, I’ve never used light and sound collectively before to craft an experience. However, as these deeply intertwined sensory phenomenons, they go back as far as I can remember. It’s important to reflect upon its symbolic meanings that have been fed into my subconscious mind since I was very young. I was raised in a traditional Indian spiritual household, where my parents alluded to their inner meditative experiences with the allegories of light and sound. These symbols were repeatedly brought up to express guidance, clarity, and direction in their own inner journeys of spiritual practice. These conversations became the initial catalyst to draw me close to these mediums in a philosophical way. However, until Supersynthesis, I never really used them cohesively in my practice. 

While researching on this project, I began with the subject matter of waves. I wanted to create an immersive experience that could give a non-archetypical form to the architecture of the gallery space. For this I needed a medium that could spread, move, affect and be affected by the objects it befalls upon in the space. Naturally, light presented itself as a way to craft such a mobile form. Eventually, as the work developed, it moved in the direction of an instrument that demanded a sonic output. The design of the piece, which was composed of 24 light sources arranged in the form of a synthesizer led to a collection of 24 pitches that would be triggered with each light source turning on and off. 

In a more objective way, light and sound are these sensory phenomenons that are fundamentally rooted in their scientific behavior as a wave. In fact, the word Super in the title of the work borrows from this phenomenon of Superposition in Quantum Physics, where light acts like a particle and a wave implicitly wrapped into each other until it’s measured using an instrument. On the other hand, Synthesis borrows from a sound phenomenon called Additive Synthesis, which defines every single type of sound in the universe as a whole composed of tiny little parts of sine tones. Together these phenomenons of light and sound makeup Supersynthesis.

Parametric Architecture, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

The way light and sound fill the room and wash over the viewers feels quite organic, and your inspiration coming from waves is also rooted in nature. When thinking of light, I picture the sun, and when viewing Supersynthesis, I am reminded of other works such as Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003), which also created a communal experience through the use of light. How do you feel the language and behavior of light realize the message of your work and extend to the notion of community?

When creating Supersynthesis, I wanted to work with a medium that has a tendency to exert its presence on a large amount of space. With its fundamental nature of a wave, Light became my first choice to work with. Light creates an image of the world around us in our minds. It acts like a bridge between the external and the internal world. Whereas, language gives meaning to that image. Therefore, I began exploring a language of light that I could use to give form to a space.

Also, the presence of light alludes to its absence, which is darkness. Just how good brings evil and democracy brings tyranny, light also brings darkness with it. This inherent duality is how our mind perceives the world. But in reality, one cannot exist without the other. It moves as a whole. The limitation of our instrument of perception fragments the unitary movement of light into its contradictory parts. Therefore, the aesthetic theme of black and white in the installation and the digital interface, along with moments of darkness that are present in Supersynthesis are highly intentional.

The Weather Project is a great example of a communal experience, where the light envelopes the audience to create a connection. Along with this, I wanted to empower the participants to modify the current state of the installation at any time they wanted. This allowed me to break away from the piece as the author and give exclusive control to the audience to collectively operate it with their own volition. Since every light was associated with a unique musical note, this created new sonic scores with every user interaction as well. Every device that had the website open, mirrored the state of the physical installation by syncing itself to a sequencer running in the cloud. Thus, whenever anybody made changes to it, it was perpetuated to all the devices collectively. This led to a phenomenon that I call “communal computing”, where multiple individuals are collectively interacting with a shared piece of computing but collaboratively affecting a system. 

Opening performance by Sal Moreno, Tim Kwasny, and Amay Kataria, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

What does community mean to you?

In my opinion, community is a network effect of individuals imposing themselves on their environment and vice-versa. It’s a moving and a living thing rather than something that is static or dead. It’s present but not visible. It’s a fact, not a conclusion. Eventually, a community is a reflection of the self and the self is a reflection of the community.

I see the work as having almost two separate identities, a physical and a digital, that work together to create the experience of Supersythesis; the digital however is able to exist independently whereas the physical is co-dependent on its digital counterpart. Does the message of the work change depending on how you view it? Is the digital identity of Supersynthesis intended to be viewed as its own, more permanent work?

That’s right. The current presentation of the work blurs the boundary between the physical and the digital spheres. It’s not that the physical installation cannot exist without its digital counterpart. The work is designed in such a way that it can exist independently in an auto-poetic way, where predefined patterns may execute on it without the interaction of the participants. However, it’s not my intention to present the work like that. The digital counterpart is meant to breathe life into the physical body of the work.

The reason behind designing the project with its own physical and digital identity was to also give a more permanent, long-lasting life to the work beyond its documentation on my personal website. Even though the work is not installed in a gallery or in a show, one can experience part of this project through its own website (http://supersynthesis.art). There, the experience is obviously reduced; led lights are represented by pixel bars on the screen and the sound may be coming from your device’s speakers as compared to a multi-channel surround sound system in the physical space. Therefore, it’s an experience that is packaged differently.

Along with the message, it also changes the entire collective experience that one may experience with others in a physical space. However, its online presence in the form of an independent net art project fulfills another purpose, which is to continue collecting the interaction data from the audience and create an archive of the work’s existence.

Interactive Website (https://supersynthesis.art), courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

I am drawn to the anonymity aspect of the work and the way it removes individualism from the editing process, allowing it to feel more interconnected. Our inner thoughts become actions that immediately have the power to alter the experience for the entire community viewing the work. How do you feel your work speaks to the role of an individual whose actions play a larger role in a collective?

I believe as individuals, we are so busy in the quarries of our needs, desires, and will that we take so many things for granted. There is a simple philosophical quote, “Everything affects everything.” Every time we force our will on our surroundings, something gets affected due to that. The effect might not be immediate, but it gets accumulated over time. Supersynthesis simplifies this cause and effect relationship by using the medium of waves. Every time a user interacts with the piece, they exert a poetic modification of light and sound in the space; thus, effecting the collective presence around it. Moreover, there is a sense of negotiation between participants as one overrides the inputs of another and modifies the space according to their will. The anonymity in that interaction and its widespread effect on others in the space implies a common ground for every individual to reflect upon their actions and undertake a responsibility for the state of the collective that they are creating through themselves.

You’ve spoken previously about Supersynthesis’ connection to the human condition and the way it mirrors the process of how we form thoughts. Could you elaborate on your exploration of the human condition in your work?

The process of information collection (through interaction) in this work mirrors the way in which our thoughts are collected from this world. RW Emerson said, “our minds are like the inlets into the ocean of the universal mind.” Thought is a memory process; however, the content of our thought is the product of the information we collect from our surroundings. It is universal and is perhaps outside us rather than inside us. Our mind acts like that creative mechanism that processes this content, molds it, and expresses it. In fact, the highest form of human activity that sets us apart from other living species is self-expression.

The digital interface of Supersynthesis gathers the internal thoughts and choices of the participants interacting with it, stores them, and translates them using its own creative mechanism; only to express it in the form of light and sound. Its memory is a database that collects all these user inputs over time to create its own hive-mind. And using its own volition, which is crafted with a set of algorithmic rules and procedures, it eventually expresses itself. Physically, the aesthetics of the installation with wires originating from the computation system of a raspberry pi and three relays, abstracted underneath a box, visually represents the brain with nerve endings to its kinesthetic organs. Therefore, this machine’s cybernetic operation and flow of information loosely imitates the psychological functioning of the human brain.

Installation, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

When speaking about your work, the notion of a hive-mind has come up repeatedly. Is understanding a hive-mind integral to the interpretation of your work?

We live in a highly evolved society filled with apps, services, products that all have a technological edge to them. To really simplify this picture, on one end are humans and on the other is a hyperobject called technology; both in a conversation with each other. In exchange of content in the form of personal information supplied to this hyperobject, we receive comfort, pleasure, and bursts of satisfaction. This hyperobject exerts itself on us by reflecting the hive-mind of humanity that it has created by collecting all this information and getting trained on it to serve us better. This feedback loop is an objective fact. Before looking at it through the lens of morality, one needs to be aware of it as a daily movement in action.

With sustained interaction, Supersynthesis is also creating a hive-mind that is collecting all the information from the audience that is interacting with this project. It’s accruing this data anonymously in the context of art and will someday project it back to the society, who are contributing to the formation of this dataset. Fundamentally, it attempts to point out this feedback loop through its own operation in an artistic way.

Interactive Interface, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

Supersynthesis shows quite well the way in which our interactions with technology become permanent through the storing of data, regardless of how quickly these interactions change. I would love to hear your thoughts on what the idea of permanence means to your work in general and what role it plays in your intent as an artist working with technology?

The idea of permanence goes back to investigating the relationship between the audience and an artwork. Could the work somehow store the viewer’s attention in the form of a memory of its own existence to assert its permanence in the world? New-Media art is not like a painting. It’s fluid and breaks apart right after its presentation is complete. Its permanence lies in the memory of its audience, who interacted with it and later, as a retrospective documentation of that experience. 

In the case of Supersynthesis, the permanence of the work stems from repurposing a tangible human asset in today’s world, that is attention. Every time the audience parts with their attention to interact with the work, it reinforces the presence of the work. It captures a human asset that has actual value in the world. Perhaps, in the future, the permanence of the work may not be associated with the experience that it provided to the audience but the data that it collected as part of constructing its own personal memory. 

My intent as an artist working with technology is to not only create highly immersive experiences that create a sense of pleasure in its audience, but to also draw our attention to these hidden nuances of technologies that we interact with every day. It’s imperative that we must be aware about what systems are gathering our attention and how they utilize it for fulfilling their own purposes. Attention is a limited human resource and must be directed with caution and sensibility.

Installation, courtesy of Amay Kataria, 2022

About the authors:

Amay Kataria is a new-media artist exploring the idea of “communal computing” through interactive interventions, installations, and communication systems. Kataria crafts cohesive systems integrated with the internet, which translate collective gestures into poetic movements. He holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was previously a new-media resident at Art Center Nabi and Mana Contemporary. He has exhibited at Vector Festival, Hyde Park Art Center, Ars Electronica, Electromuseum, amongst others.

Regan Dockery is a Chicago-based curator and writer interested in the intersections between technology, art, and political power structures. She is a graduate of the University of the Arts London, Central Saint Martins with a degree in Culture, Criticism and Curation. Her curatorial practice explores the intricacies of existing in a rapidly changing technological environment. She has previously worked with Futures. Studio and Archaeology of the Final Decade. 


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