For the last several months, Anthony Ferraro of Astronauts, etc. has been writing code, making algorithms for a new piece of music-generating software he's personally invented called Hypothetical Beats. In this time, the Oakland-based artist traveled the country working on this project with an outlandish crew he often has referred to as "hackers". Now, looking back, the journey he took to create it is just as interesting as the tool he designed.
Last summer, I met a collection of unusual and brilliant people who were just starting to call themselves Ruse Laboratories. They were headed up by two paradoxical individuals — a computer genius from West Virginia and a colorblind painter from Argentina. I was fascinated by them. They were galvanizers, catalyzers, people that hatched and executed eccentric schemes for the pure sake of doing so. They told me about the algorithm auction, then still an embryo of an idea.
The impetus behind the auction related to the way our society handles ideas. Commercial viability is criterion number one in determining whether or not an idea warrants any attention; actual worth and financial worth are commingled indiscriminately. There is no separation of bank and brain.
Their algorithm auction, which has now become a reality, seeks to reinstate an updated form of the patronage system, in which strange ideas are nurtured by affluent individuals not seeking merely to monetize. In other words, the primary goal of the algorithm auction is to position ideas as art — to define their worth based on aesthetic value as much as actual utility.
I had just finished my record and was looking for something outlandish to attach myself to. This overqualified by some order of magnitude. I said I’d love to be involved, that I could make something relating to music. They said they’d love to have me. I said I’d never programmed before. They said that was immaterial. This is the ethic of radical inclusion: the refusal to turn away anyone who is energized and curious.
So I became a part of Ruse Laboratories. Thoughtful patrons brought us to Miami, Hollywood, Malibu, and Ojai. The atmosphere in each place was that of an extended retreat, marked by family-style dinners, hikes, and meetings with exciting and bizarre people. Our cast of characters fluctuated, anchored by several core members, and the scene began to resemble a traveling, ad hoc reimagining of Gertrude Stein’s salon.
The auction is just one of the many ideas that incubated in the salon, and the salon lives on. There are plans for it to travel to Brazil, Thailand, Japan, etc., and to function as a place where anyone can go on retreat and make strange things, surrounded by other people doing the same.
I came out of the salon with Hypothetical Beats, a generative music algorithm that is now on auction at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. At the heart of the program is an engine that makes musical textures. Once generated, these textures can be shaped and sculpted, either intuitively by the user or by data fed into the program.
Hypothetical Beats is incomplete. I say this timidly as its price tag climbs into the thousands of dollars. But I mean that it’s incomplete in the sense that any good idea is incomplete. It can always be refined, or warped, or transmuted into something else. It’s a conversation whose goal is only to start new conversations.
The Algorithm Auction is the world’s first auction celebrating the art of code and is now up and running via The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, with all proceeds benefiting the museum. Bidding closes online on March 27, 2015 at 9:30 p.m. EST. Check it out here.
Anthony Ferraro's Hypothetical Beats can be viewed here.