On September 9, 2011, I conducted an online interview with Lucas Werthein. He is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he is currently living in New York. He holds a BA in International Politics from PUC-RIO University and an MPS from the ITP program at the New York University (2010). Werthein is interested in creative programming, physical interaction and electronics. He is the the co-creator of EletroAxé – an interactive wearable suit custom made for Carlinhos Brown, a famous Brazilian musician. He also co-created Boom Shakalaka, an electronic Rube Goldberg machine that requires physical pieces for viewers to play.
Werthein’s work –in particular the SambaSurdo project– is relevant to my own research because it deals with similar aspects and concerns: collaboration, music synthesis, the use of space and physical installation. Furthermore, I’m interested on his vision and experience tackling the process of making a thesis project.
II. Anticipated questions – Intended areas of conversation
This is the list of intended areas of conversation prepared prior to the interview:
Can you explain how your thesis idea evolved during the thesis year?
How different it ended up being from your what you first imagined?
What kind of experience where you envisioning for the participants?
Who was your main target? What kind of people?
How did people react when confronted to the installation? Was it how you expected? Any surprises?
How did you deal with different skills and levels of engagement?
What would be the perfect setting for the installation? Why?
Now after some time, how do you evaluate your project? Any improvements you would perform?
Why do you think that making a sound installation is meaningful?
The thesis process
Werthein stated that although at the beginning he had no clue what direction he wanted to follow, he was clear about what the components of his project would be: exhibition work, programming and interactivity.
On the meantime of starting his thesis process he was working in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based artist Kyle MacDonald developing a project for Carlinhos Brown, a very popular Brazilian percussionist and singer. His performances are well known for being entertaining and for very large audiences. He has performed several times at the yearly Brazilian Carnaval.
They created an electronic percussion suit for Brown. The suit was equipped with pressure sensors that when hit they would act as percussion instruments, so his own body becomes an instrument when hit. Werthein evaluates this project as very successful as Carlinhos Brown was so pleased with the suit that he even used it in one of his performances at the Carnaval in front of thousands of spectators.
This project was relevant to his thesis project because it confirmed his interest in the cross of music and interactivity. Being faithful to his roots, he decided to work with Samba, the most popular music genre in Brazil, and how it could be re-interpreted through the use of technology.
Inspired by the work of Janet Cardiff –a sound installation artist– he proposed using a set of eight speakers placed in a circular configuration in a room where users could walk inside of the circle and hear a Samba composition. Each one of the speakers had assigned one of the eight tracks (eight instruments) used for the main composition. As users walked closer to a particular speaker (away from the center) all the other instruments would fade out, so they could hear the approached speaker-instrument in solo mode, as a way of understanding the building blocks of Samba.
“As you walk around the room, you really became the instructor or master of percussion…The sounds of Samba are so interesting and very rich, so as you listen to each individual instrument of Samba you realize how really complex it is”
Installation and user experience
According to Werthein, by putting this installation in New York, the reactions were a lot different from what he would get in Rio. Despite New York is a multicultural city, Samba and Brazil are still perceived as something exotic or uncommon, so it was in part a way of breaking the stereotypes associated to his country.
He didn’t think too much about how people would react to the installation before building it, he considers this iteration as a first prototype, a test that allowed him to see how people behaved.
When confronted to the installation, people had many different reactions, some people were interested in understanding the interactivity and how it worked, others were more interested in exploring each sound in more detail. He highlights an interesting phenomenon: “the speakers were hanging from the ceiling, and what happened is that everyone was looking up, looking at where the sound was coming from”.
What he observed here makes him wonder what would happen if the speakers were hidden and people had no visual feedback. He thinks that, as we are a very visual species, this would be very interesting to explore.
Werthein states that when watching people enjoy the installation he feels that he achieved his original intent. For instance, a lot of children interacted with it, and for him it was very interesting to see how kids that grow around technology were totally thrilled: “… for them it was almost like a magic show, they ran around like crazy and they controlled the sound and that was something novel for them. And it is cool to see these kids having this experience because, you know, these kids are already fully surrounded with iPads and technology from the consumer market, but when you put something in front of them that hides the technology and really brings out something they can do with their bodies, and augment the experience with their bodies, they usually go crazy about it”
In terms of scale, he believes that collaboration is very difficult to achieve in a public space, especially if people don’t know each other. In this sense he considers that the experience works much better when there’s a single person exploring it because they are more keen to explore the individual sounds.
When prompted to think about the perfect space for his installation, he states that a museum would be a very interesting place to put it. This would allow to work with better technology and to build a more customized environment to have more control over the physical qualities of sound like echo.
Werthein thinks that that SambaSurdo was meaningful because it was a way to take reinterpret a music genre that was created many years ago. Although he didn’t had the direct experience, he is really curious about what the masters of Samba would think if they walked into an installation like this. The main objective was to use these new tools and try to create a different way to experience this wonderful music. He believes it is meaningful because of what it brings: music and cultural richness.
Interviewing Lucas Werthein was a great experience because I could get a completely different perspective from my own and from my previous interviewees about the process of making a thesis.
I was really intrigued when he stated that collaboration is almost impossible to achieve in the context of a public installation. Having this view from someone that has already tested it empirically sets up new goals for my own exploration and I realize that probably this is one of the main challenges for my project: providing an experience that operates, in some cases, around the boundaries of cultural and social rules.
Goins, Waine E. Emotional Response to Music: Pat Metheny’s Secret Story, (New york : The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), 67-69.
Tisch ITP, < http://itp.nyu.edu/itp/ > Accessed October 20, 2011.
Lucas Werthein’s website < http://www.lucaswerthein.com/ > Accessed October 20, 2011.
Kyle McDonald’s website < http://kylemcdonald.net/ > Accessed October 20, 2011.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s website. < http://www.cardiffmiller.com/ > Accessed October 20, 2011.