Erin Gee

The voice in the machine
Exploring the relationship between humans and computers comes naturally to this audio artist

Portrait of Erin Gee with sketches of her work by Christie Vuong. Portrait of Erin Gee with sketches of her work by Christie Vuong.

The orange images on Erin Gee's black laptop screen look something like a pair of grinning Halloween jack-o'lanterns. They are, in fact, computer-generated images of larynxes. Gee has rigged a microphone so that when a person speaks - or sings or shouts - the larynxes respond in sync.

You can literally watch what you say.

It's a fitting summary of the work Gee is exploring as a second-year MFA in Studio Arts (Open Media) student: blending the human and the machine. More specifically, putting human voices in electronic bodies and electronic voices in human bodies.

Gee is a trained opera singer fascinated by the voice, both its biological structure and its role as a vehicle for expressing ourselves. And as someone who grew up loving video games, anime and machines, she's entranced by technology.

"A lot of who I am is based on my relationship with technology," says the Regina-born artist, who specializes in audio art, video, interactive sculptures and performance. "I feel that it is so important to critically and creatively explore technological interaction, because many people are spending increasing amounts of energy interacting through electronic devices."

Gee is intrigued by the contrasts: the sleek high-tech devices that look ever more futuristic versus the fleshiness of the larynx, the sensuality of materials such as hair and ostrich feathers.

She says something alchemical happens when opposites interact. Take, for example, her interactive audio installation Lucide (2010), which was shown at Regina's Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum, featuring a line of five oversized eyeballs. Triggered by a light sensor in its iris, each eyeball activated a different voice in a choir. By opening and closing the handcrafted eyeballs, gallery-goers could control the number of voices singing a century-old composition.

Gee is surprised by the reaction of some viewers to such work. "Some people find it creepy, but I feel my work is more than that. I aspire to create objects of beauty that are challenging and transformative."

Opportunities abound

Gee earned a bachelor's degree in Music Education and then in Fine Arts at the University of Regina, and is a founding member of the artist-run audio arts organization Holophon. As she approached her late 20s, she felt it necessary to explore further afield. She found what she was looking for in Montreal. The city has amazing electroacoustic, digital arts, contemporary dance and technology scenes, she says. Plus, she adds, Concordia's Fine Arts facilities and resources are incredible and its faculty and tech support outstanding.

Erin Gee. Orpheux Larynx: First Movement, 2011, performance at the opening of the MARCS Robotics Lab, University of Western Sydney. Photo by Erin Cvejic. Click to enlarge. Erin Gee. Orpheux Larynx: First Movement, 2011, performance at the opening of the MARCS Robotics Lab, University of Western Sydney. Photo by Erin Cvejic. Click to enlarge.

The opportunities aren't too shabby, either. In the summer after her first year, Gee worked with world-renowned media artist Stelarc in the MARCS Auditory Laboratories at the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

She'd met the artist when he came to Concordia in the fall of 2010 to give a lecture on his Ear on Arm project, for which he'd had an ear surgically constructed on his forearm. Gee gave Stelarc her 'elevator pitch', and he invited her come work on his Thinking Head project.

Gee was charged with giving voice to a computerized version of Stelarc's head. Working with research engineers Damith Herath and Zhenzhi Zhang, they created a performance piece entitled Orpheux Larynx presented in August 2011 at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Gee performed a miniature opera with a choir of robotic Stelarc agents who sang and moved about through modified robots.

The recipient of multiple awards and scholarships, Gee describes the key to her success: "Things started happening for me when I started doing things that came naturally to me. A lot of art-making is recognizing what you have and pushing it."

 


Orpheux Larynx is a research project supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and MARCS Auditory Labs at the University of Western Sydney. The Thinking Head project is funded by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council (#TS0669874). Erin Gee would like to thank these organizations for their support of artistic research.

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on January 25, 2012

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