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Finding the rhythm in digital arts

Concordia graduate Erin Gee uses robots and music to capture human emotion
June 4, 2015
By Salim Valji

In her musical compositions with Swarming Emotional Pianos, Erin Gee, MFA 14, tackles the question of whether robots can express human emotion through music.

Erin Gee Digital artist Erin Gee, MA 14, wants to develop “a rich vocabulary of gestures and sounds” and continue exploring new media and tactics. | Credit: Christie Vuong

The musical featured a set of robots linked to actors who — through biofeedback like breathing, heart rate and blood pressure — controlled the behaviour of the robots. Gee and Australian neurophysiologist Vaughan Macefield then mapped the data into music that reflected the actors’ emotions.

It’s one of several such projects that Gee has worked on. Her specialty is robotics and the human emotional state.

Her passion was born at an early age. “When I was taking my first art classes in university, I remember seeing a documentary on new media artist Stelarc walking around in a hexapod exoskeletal suit, and I wondered how I could turn myself into a cyborg,” she says.

“Robotics is sometimes very exciting, like when you accidentally set something on fire, and sometimes very boring, like when you have a successful design and you need to recreate it 10 times.” 

Following an undergraduate degree in visual arts and open media at the University of Regina, Gee moved to Montreal in 2010, where she enrolled in Concordia’s MFA in studio arts program. During that time, she also took private lessons with renowned Canadian composer Brian Cherney.

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“I think my experience as an open media student in the MFA in studio arts program at Concordia gave me the time and space to embark on a lifelong path of learning, exploration and creation in digital arts, and I am very happy,” she says.

Gee’s robotics work has been featured around the world. 2009 saw her become the Composer-in-Residence at the Interactive Media and Performance Lab in Regina. In 2011, she was the Artist-in-Residence at the Marcs Institute in Sydney, Australia, and in 2014 Gee was showcased at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal.

She ranks one performance as extra special. “I performed at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in February, which was a new experience because of the kind of resources and setups that were available,” she says.

“It was thrilling to perform in front of the thousands that attended our internet-inspired new media art evening, called X+1.”

Gee has garnered a fair amount of publicity thanks to her work. Prior to the December 2014 debut of Swarming Emotional Pianos, the CBC, VICE magazine and Atwood Magazine all interviewed her.

Gee’s latest project has her extremely excited. “I am currently investigating a collaboration with a children’s choir to make a new work involving emotional synchronization” she says.

“I am absolutely ecstatic to have been given this opportunity.”

Gee recently joined Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies as an assistant professor, Media Production, Sound.

Swarming Emotional Pianos An image from Swarming Emotional Pianos, 2014. | Credit: Dayna Danger

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