We are proud to present the work of Swiss-born artist-engineer Marc Böhlen, whose innovative use of custom-made information-processing technology sheds an unfamiliar light on everyday items, such as a cup of water or the accent of a computerized PA system.
Here, Mr. Böhlen presents two thought-provoking works, WaterBar and MakeLanguage – Synthetic Accents, which investigate the ever-evolving relationship between people and the automation systems that play central—but often unnoticed—roles in our everyday lives.
Without a doubt, computing has changed private and personal lives. But how has it, and how might it, change the public realm? WaterBar is an example of the ongoing initiative Public Computational Media, which is the investigation into the potential of information systems to reinvigorate the public realm.
The installation WaterBar is a public water well designed for the post-sustainability age when clean water is simply not good enough.
WaterBar geoengineers mineralized water. The process begins with a cleaning stage via an anthracite filter, which is followed by a remineralization stage through a filter bank with select chemical properties. Water in contact with these filters receives measurable traces of magnesium, iron, calcium, and other elements. But the filters also share, through origin and history, a connection to place. Water travels the world in endless cycles of evaporation and rainfall. A drop of water in Africa today may be a drop of water in Europe in the future. WaterBar accelerates the global flow of water through many regions of the planet and produces a drinkable water mix in the process.
WaterBar includes quartz-rich granite from Inada, south of Fukushima in Japan, home of the latest devastating high-tech catastrophe; sandstone from La Verna, Italy, where St. Francis cared for the poor; marble from Thassos, Greece, source of art and architecture, and the beginning and possible end of democracy; limestone from Jerusalem/Hebron, Israel, a place of seemingly eternal conflict and shared hopes; and basalt from Mount Merapi, Indonesia, an unpredictable active volcano.
An internet-scanning, text-processing control system continuously circulates water through these filters, exposing the water to trace elements of the minerals and rocks. An algorithm mixes this remineralized water in proportion to the intensity of related problems found in pertinent real-time news to create a daily mineralized water mix—the catch of the day. This is offered for public consumption and available only as long as limited supplies last.
MakeLanguage – Synthetic Accents
MakeLanguage is a trilogy on the arrival of synthetic spoken language produced from text by computers (text to speech, or TTS) in everyday life. The project began around 2004, as desktop dictation and navigation systems with computer-generated voices entered the global marketplace.
MakeLanguage – Synthetic Accents queries the altered position of identity introduced by synthetic speech in daily life with a speculative robotic intervention. The project enters this territory by reconfiguring the internal procedures of a high-end speech engine and bending them to produce spoken-language artifacts that the system was never designed to produce.
Digital signal processing can create arbitrary signals, most of which have no relationship to those human beings are capable of uttering. Despite the universality of the technical infrastructure, TTS systems are usually designed along national fault lines with localized voice fonts and linguistically identifiable entities; there are Sarahs for US English, Heathers for UK English, and Günthers for German. It comes as no surprise that commercial TTS systems do not offer speech products with ‘undesirable’ features such as slurred speech or strong accents. Synthetic voices are normalized, invoking through the proficiency of the machine an idealized human being.
Mixed language SAMPA (computer-readable phonetic alphabet) encoding used in the crafting of MakeLanguage - Synthetic Accents.
In humans, accents are an audible map of a life lived. In machines, accented speech creates the illusion of a human with a story. MakeLanguage – Synthetic Accents creates accented English (Frenglish, Genglish, and Spanglish accents in limited vocabularies) to speculate upon the imagined lives of these accents without origins. To me, these voices seem most appropriate for what French anthropologist Marc Augé called non-lieux, or non-places.
And what might the first word uttered by a machine that can perceive the world around it be?
About Marc Böhlen
Swiss-born artist-engineer Marc Böhlen, aka RealTechSupport (CH/US), designs and builds information-processing systems that critically reflect on information as a cultural value through speculative robotics interventions. His projects query the relationship between people and automation systems in fundamental ways, with a current focus on public computational media—the making of information for shared concerns in the public realm. His work has been shown in exhibits, museums, and galleries around the world, including VIDA/Art and Artificial Life, and Ars Electronica. His texts have been published with the Association of Computing Machinery, Springer, MIT Press, and the Architectural League of New York. Böhlen is an associate professor in the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo in New York.
For more information about Mark Böhlen and his work, please visit realtechsupport.org.