When the Rubenstein Arts Center opened Feb. 3, 2018, one of its first exhibits was an installation titled “sound/play/space,” which invited children to play with a “Synthball.” This device, a silicon ball, produced different synth sounds as it was lifted, spun, dropped or moved in any direction. In a short video clip of the exhibit, the children are fascinated by the product, which is just one of several experiments from a speculative agency called “GOVERNANCE, Inc.”
You could call GOVERNANCE a band, a performance art duo or a “speculative cyber-performance and bio-memetic product design agency,” as its website brands itself. But essentially, the name is a catch-all for the common intellectual and artistic pursuits of students Rebecca Uliasz and Quran Karriem, the sole inaugural members of Duke’s Computational Media Arts and Culture PhD program. At a prospective student event, the two connected over audio and visual synthesizers; soon after they both made the PhD program, they formed an artistic collaboration. In the last three years, Uliasz and Karriem have developed products like Synthball, held a residency at the Rubenstein Arts Center and performed at venues across Durham.
Uliasz thinks she might have scared students away at her Duke Coffeehouse performance this past January. At the event, the duo was stationed behind their respective equipment — a live video processor for Uliasz and a modular synth for Karriem. Rotating, glitching prisms projected behind them while the blare of synth drones and irregular beats filled the room. The two PhD students realize that performances like these are not universally popular, but popularity is not their aim.
“Our goal is to create some sort of effective dimension, some sort of impression that is left without necessarily knowing exactly what it is,” Uliasz said. “We’re not trying to convince the audience of anything. ... I think it’s more interesting to think about how to create that resonance in a way that is significant to people.”
Karriem agreed: “[Our performance] scares some people away, yet some people ask questions like, ‘What were y’all thinking when you did this?’ or ‘What kind of gear were you using?’ Different people come at it from different perspectives, and I think that’s fine and to be expected.”
Still, Uliasz and Karriem try to articulate the complex theories surrounding their performances, even though they realize most of the audience doesn’t understand them. Much of this explanation is in writing — on the duo’s website and in their academic papers — but often, the language is nearly as challenging to process as their performances.
“The object of my writing is obscure or arcane,” Karriem said. “And I think I have a problem with that: the obscurity of technology or infrastructure or systems that affect people’s lives very profoundly.”
“It’s like, how do you write clearly about something that is intentionally opaque?” Uliasz added.
According to Karriem, a common thread across the work of GOVERNANCE is an exploration of “the politics of algorithms and machine learning systems.” At performances like the one at Duke Coffeehouse, Karriem claims to “think in terms of the systems [he] is creating.”
“I’m really trying to listen to the different analog and digital oscillators and filters,” Karriem said. “And listen to how the system is responding and think about how I’m able to get certain frequencies out. … I’m really trying to be in the moment of the sound as much as possible.”
For SOMA, a 2018 project of GOVERNANCE, Uliasz and Karriem synthesized live organisms on stage with the use of “custom electronic tools, signals, digital DNA, speculative philosophy and genome sequencing.” What started as simply an aesthetic impulse, however, developed a greater meaning for the duo.
Karriem explained the theory behind SOMA: “Science is already a performance, so how can we overtly draw attention to the performativity of objectivity? What are the postures and gestures of performing authority or subjectivity of knowledge? That’s where [SOMA] went. And that’s motivated a lot of our performances.”
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In the meantime, GOVERNANCE will be on a brief hiatus as Uliasz and Karriem prepare for their qualifying exams. Still, they expect to be playing shows over the next few months. Next time, Rebecca Uliasz hopes, undergraduates won’t be intimidated.
“Come to our show!” Uliasz said. “We aren’t going to bite.”