Professor at the University of North Texas
College of Music and College of Visual Art and Design (joint appointment)
Coordinator of the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA)
We live in a time of accelerated hybridization – this can be seen in everything from the increasingly “tricked out” cars we drive to the development of new synthetic nano-materials, to the strategic consolidation of corporations and the techno-cultural apotheosis, which Turing refers to as “the universal machine,” something I imagine every one of us is carrying here today in its populist guise as a cell phone.  Our technologies, beginning with the tongue we speak, have grown around us and are “coevolving,” to invoke the words of Douglas Englebart, the inveterate visionary inventor, former radar systems technician and father of the computer mouse.  The mouse, originally known as the “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System,” is the mythic culmination of a rumored Cartesian epiphany. It goes like this: While home sick in bed, Descartes was entranced by the behavior of a common house fly, darting as it would in sharp right angles to dramatically articulate the XY coordinate plane that now bears Descartes’ name.  The mouse can be seen as a hybrid tool grounded quite literally in the actions of our mark-making forbearers as they mapped perimeters, pathways and remote destinations using a drawing stick in the dirt for the utilitarian purpose of hunting, gathering, exploration, warfare and defense. The accumulation of knowledge aggregated through time and amplified by military imperatives has lead, perhaps inevitably, to Englebart’s “aha moment” giving us the means to navigate virtual space with immediate pinpoint accuracy. On the one hand, the laser-mouse can be imagined as a powerful augmentation of super-human proportions, and on the other, as a banal, omni-present and shopworn technology hardly worth a mention. However we look at it, the mouse, the Internet, and the panoply of creative tools and techniques in use today can trace their development for purposes of security and defense.
I am a transdisciplinary artist working at the fuzzy boundary blurring nexus of visual art, music and interactive cinema. My work is hybridized, both solitary and social, often involving close collaboration with performers, programmers, designers and scientists. Among this far-flung group of 21st century practitioners is my closest collaborator, artist-programmer Cory Metcalf. Cory and I began our creative conversation in New Mexico in 2003 and launched our group at the International Festival d’Art Video in Casablanca, Morocco in the spring of 2006. We premiered our first evening length work under our collective identity as NoiseFold. NoiseFold, in a word, amalgamates adjective, noun, and verb. The name can conjure an immediate reference to noise music with its loud, near unbearable volumes, radical explorations of extreme frequencies, disjunctive ruptures, glitches and wall of sound dynamics. We do not discount these memes; however, our interests are larger. We exist as a fold or group, and we perform folding processes that reference both virtual origami and the three dimensional realization of protein molecules, aka protein folding. We acknowledge noise as the field of all possibilities. Noise is the prima materia – an alchemical concept sometimes attributed to Aristotle, prima materia can be thought of as an elemental formless state.  In our work noise exists simultaneously as both a concept and a tangible material. Noise is manifest in various mediums, as a dynamic visual state, as a sonic field, as a data stream, as a collective cultural expression, as particle bombardment and as a condition of life. In the initial explorations of the material aspects of visual noise I utilized complex digital signal processing to create visual-music performances, installations, and films. The NoiseFold project, in turn, has built on these ideas, applying the general nature of semi-autonomous video networks to the potential of artificial life as an artistic field of play. Utilizing our own custom designed real-time performance software we are able to generate novel 3D visual forms through hybrid processes, bending geometric coordinates and folding multiple data streams back on themselves. As a live interactive practice, we search for resonant chaotic fields and perform as actors to distill form, transforming image into sound and sound into image as a matter of course. We are among a growing group of artists exploring rich and divergent approaches to generative digital systems.
At the moment we are watching one of the several video streams that comprise a larger multi-channel installation titled Shadow Box Attractions.
It would seem accurate to suggest that this animation falls within the aesthetic domain we tend to think of relative to generative art in that it appears preoccupied with formal expression. This, while not totally inaccurate, would only be an initial surface reading, as the conceptual implications reside within the design and interaction of the software itself.
Shadow Box Attractions shares an “imaginative corollary” to historic research in contemporary particle physics, while being an artwork that seeks to dramatize the dynamic interplay of elemental forces. The system can best be thought of as a drawing instrument that provides the artist with the opportunity to interact in real-time to control the animated behavior of autonomous particles utilizing reconfigurable “force fields.” Particle animation is a digital graphic technique that appears frequently in feature film and television production. This project bears little resemblance to the general application of CGI (computer graphic imagery) in commercial entertainment media. Instead, the instrument functions to produce artistic outcomes in the form of prints, animated films, and live interactive installations. These graphic artifacts are the result of many months of trial and error testing or “tuning” the system to reveal animated behavior that shares profound aesthetic similarities to dynamic pattern formations in the natural world.
Scientists in the field of particle physics undertook a number of important experiments within the development of specialized containment chambers such as the Bubble Chamber and Cloud Chamber, where the behavior of sub-atomic particles could be amplified, controlled and observed.  Our project is best thought of as a virtual chamber that facilitates the perturbation and observation of semi-autonomous particle interactions.
This live simulation allows the artist to place positive or negatively charged nodes at various locations within a virtual chamber to create complex force fields. These multiple interpenetrating fields interact to yield intricate states of attraction and repulsion. The resulting visual behaviors are rich and varied, from very slow accumulations of atmospheric clouds to swiftly multiplying branches or tree-like structures. In some scenarios the placement, positioning and scaling of the charged nodes give rise to self-perpetuating feedback phenomenon in the form of classic strange attractors. At other times, isolated particles perform graceful arcs and swirls or vibrate in stuttering bursts between magnetic poles. Just as often, the results can look more like clumps of dust that accumulate in the corners of a neglected room. No matter the outcome, at its core the project serves a poetic impulse to render unseen forces of rare and intricate power. It should not be lost on the viewer that this project mines direct references to now historic weapons research. Particle observation chambers were utilized in the acquisition of technical means to control subatomic particle behavior in nuclear weapons. This quest continues on today with renewed efforts to design effective particle beam weapons for missile shield defense scenarios. Inasmuch as the work invokes Cold War era preoccupations, it simultaneously veers away from a “video-look” to suggest something more akin to a graphite drawing on paper. This work unconsciously seems to reflect the adage that “the latest thing in New Media is Old Media.”
The re-appropriation of military technology for artistic purposes is long and storied. Recent examples include seminal abstract filmmakers John and James Whitney’s reconfiguration of M-5 and M-7 anti-aircraft targeting devices to create a groundbreaking automated animation controller, or Woody Vasulka’s more contemporary robotic cinema installation, The Brotherhood, built from military surplus jettisoned by the Los Alamos labs. In the first example, Whitney repurposed military hardware for the production of abstract kinetic forms requiring finely honed spatial accuracy – in essence “beating swords into ploughshares.”  In the second example, the artist repurposed military hardware but didn’t hide the technologies from view. The work foregrounds its technological prowess in a poetic cross-examination of the progenitors of warfare or “the Brotherhood” as Woody chooses to call them.  NoiseFold, while not solely preoccupied with issues of surveillance and defense, have utilized both of the previous methods. We acknowledge the fact that many contemporary techniques have had or still have a place in military research. Often this acknowledgement is hidden from view as it is not central to our aesthetic queries. At other times we directly confront or layer this content within a given work.
I would like to reintroduce Cory or at least his image, which I will do using a piece of encryption software Cory has designed for noise-cloaking.
Here I am performing an operation that is the direct inverse of everything I have described previously in relationship to our use of noise, in that Cory has randomized or scrambled this image into a pure field of visual noise – transforming a coherent form into a field of random pixels. I can now utilize a key (a numerical sequence) to decode this noise field back into an image of Cory. This is equally effective with either a still image or a video clip, although the latter will take a longer time to encrypt and de-encrypt. I will leave it to each of you to imagine how an artist-made noise-cloaking device might be deployed?
Here is another example of real-time processing, where I utilize the luminance values of a short algorithmic noise movie to extrude a flat plane to create a convincing topology.
This footage is taken from a current project we are developing in the form of a panoramic audio-visual installation. You may be more familiar with the photographic version of this very-same technique.
Here we have created another portrait of Cory using luminance values to reinterpret the volume of his face. This technique, explored dramatically in 70’s era video art utilizing the Rutt-Etra scan processor, was actually perfected previously by military intelligence operatives. 2D satellite or aircraft surveillance imagery could be reprocessed utilizing analog luminance extrusion techniques to create a relatively accurate 3D topological landscape or elevate the architecture of a city – highly useful for bombing runs or reconnaissance missions.  In this example titled Babel, gallery-goers interact with our scanning station to create a 3D portrait that reassembles itself into a larger visual structure comprised of many individual 3D portraits, in the form of a floating virtual ziggurat.
Babel is a biometric profiling device that wears its dystopian aura proudly. Each individual is reduced to a drab monochromatic data point within a tirelessly replicating superstructure waiting to be culled from the herd at any time for reexamination. In a similar vein, though a much more vibrant color space, we built El Umbral.
El Umbral is derived from the Latin umbra, which means shadow and also “threshold” in Spanish. In this sculptural installation, two ten-foot video towers are placed in close proximity to form a portal or gateway. This structure, conceived as a union of opposites, is at once a nexus between the masculine and feminine, past and future, fear and its absolution. Shrouded atmospheric formations, architectural remnants and shattered structures caught in a perpetual exploding decay exist together in a continuous oscillating state of veiling and revealing. Disembodied eyes flock through the debris, dart furtively or rise and fall like mechanistic clockwork observing any and everyone who passes. El Umbral pays homage to twentieth century surrealism, and exists as a psychological anti-monument to the deepening surveillance state, invoking the shadows of events past that cloud our way forward. The layered visual vocabulary, combining both photographic figurative elements and a variety of synthetic digital imaging techniques, draws freely from both Eastern and Western traditions. The work utilizes a networked digital system to generate image elements in real-time. This enables museum-goers to influence the structuring and behavior of the visual composition as they pass to and fro between the monitor towers or “gate-posts.” In this utilitarian interaction design, it is the pedestrian-participants passing by the installation who are the least engaged yet whose movements generate dramatic change, whereas the more contemplative viewers stand as witnesses.
Performance is central to NoiseFold’s artistic activities. Our hybrid works merge live cinema, animation, performance art, and instrumental music into a synthetic whole.
In recent performances we have begun a series of collaborations with classically trained improvisers. A complex audio-visual software system designed by the artists facilitates the work by generating or breeding a seemingly infinite array of virtual agents. These synthetic audio-visual forms result from the live mixing of a growing database of dynamic equations, folded and recombined through a multi-threaded data feedback structure. The resulting sound is not a separate aural accompaniment, but rather the direct sonification of the visual data itself. Thus the performers interact with autonomous visual forms to grow and sculpt the sonic content of the performance. Here is an example drawn from our recent premiere of EMANATIONS, featuring cellist, Frances-Marie Uitti. The opening movement is distilled from an earlier work, NoiseFold 2.0, a rumination on fear that explored the idea of “Weaponized Abstraction.”
While we might consider the ultimate aim of abstraction to take us beyond all narrative allusions, in this work semi-autonomous co-creative sound and image combine in an intentionally ferocious manner. This intended weaponization of abstraction is not literal and might be read in various ways, but its visceral engagement is hard to escape.
In closing I would like to reflect on the idea that as artists and citizens we are living within an increasingly complex connective network that enables tracking of our actions at every scale, from mouse click to purchase point, from border crossing to traffic light. I have yet to see the new data-tracking center rising up in the Nevada desert but somehow I imagine it as uniquely North American, nefarious and banal, something equal to the new family-friendly RFID tags being readied to track you and your children at Disneyland. Surveillance is mainstream and pervasive if not perverse. I will leave you with one last image:
This image has been percolating in a viral state on the equally useful and insidious social networks, the play-mobile airport security checkpoint.  As a media performer I travel regularly with bags chock full of laptops, sensors and arcane control devices. Recently on my way through the Dallas checkpoint I was asked if I was a DJ – not missing a beat I said yes and was whisked through the usually challenging deconstruction of my meticulously packed luggage. From there to China and back I was sure to tell them in advance, “I am a DJ.” It seems everyone knows a DJ or two these days, especially in China and you might be surprised to know that there are even TSA employees spinning on the weekends. I am not sure how much longer this will work, but for the time being it has softened the edges just a little.
1. Jon Agar, Turing and the Universal Machine (Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd., 2001)
2. Engelbart’s Groundbreaking Demo on the Stanford University’s official MouseSite, accessed January 24, 2013, http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite/1968Demo.html
3. Rene Descartes, The Geometry of René Descartes, trans. David Eugene Smith and Marcia L. Lantham (New York: Dover Publications, 1954). Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald Cress, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 4 edition, June 1, 1999)
4. Dennis William Hauck, “Materia Prima: The Nature of the First Matter in the Esoteric and Scientific Traditions,” in The Rose+Croix Journal – Vol 8, 2011, 72–88.
5. Historic reference to Fermilab Bubble Chamber on the Fermilab History Website accessed February 5, 2013, http://history.fnal.gov/neutrino.html
6. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1970) 207–239
7. Woody Vasulka’s The Brotherhood (1990-98) on the Daniel Langlois Foundation Website accessed February 5, 2013, http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=464
8. Explanation of the Rutt-Etra scan processor on the official Experimental Television Center Website, accessed February 5, 2013, http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/scan-processors
9. Amazon online offering of PlayMobile Security Check-Point toy accessed February 2, 2013, http://www.amazon.com/PLAYMOBIL®-36138-PlaymobilSecurityCheck/dp/B0002CYTL2/ref=cm_cmu_pg__header
David Stout is a visual artist, composer, and performer. He holds an inter-arts MFA (1985) from Cal-Arts where he studied with Ed Emshwiller, Jim Pomeroy, Gene Youngblood, and Bill Viola. His hybrid works examine interactive relationships between sonic, visual, and live media. Since 2002 he has worked with Cory Metcalf to explore generative systems and A-life networks. The pair, who began their seminal collaboration in Santa Fe, NM, are founding members of acclaimed interactive media ensemble, NoiseFold. Their performances include the Festival Internationale d’Art Video in Casablanca, Morocco, UNESCO Creative Cities Summit, the NYC Electronic Arts Festival, REDCAT, Los Angeles and “Chinati Weekend” in Marfa, Texas. Stout previously founded the MOV-iN Gallery and the Installation, Performance, & Interactivity project (IPI) at the College of Santa Fe. He currently directs the Initiative for Advance Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA) at the University of North Texas in the Dallas metroplex.