Category Archives: community arts

community arts design research software teaching

What I do these days

Many people have asked me what I do these day. To respond to a request from my home department at UVa, I wrote a blurb about my job earlier today. I’m sharing it more broadly to show how I’m utilizing my graduate training in music studies (ethnomusicology!) and digital humanities and give visibility to postdoctoral careers outside of the conventional academic path.

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Me at work, photo by Sonia Hsu

As an ACLS Public Fellow, I work with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). I use the phrase “research & design” to encapsulate my role here at DCA. The goal of my fellowship is to help the department augment its digital relevance by developing information systems and resources to increase public engagement and transparency. I hope to contribute to the early efforts of establishing the department as a public cultural broker in the information age, shifting the role of government away from a regulator to an enabler and educator.

At work, I ask prickly questions about the intersection among the arts experience, civic participation, and technology. Combining my training in ethnomusicology and digital humanities, I spend my days making sense of data culture at the city and understanding large amounts of arts and cultural data from various departmental programs. I research innovative forms of information technologies across sectors, keeping abreast of academic and public discourse about the ethics and civil rights concerning information culture. My research produces recommendations for data and information system redesign. I help implement some solutions by generating prototypes for arts data mapping and impact data storytelling, for instance. I also engage in staff education through teaching new methods of research, analysis, and communication including geospatial information system (GIS), digital photo story, and data visualization. My recommendations often speak to social issues related to culture and technology touching on topics such as big data, public-private partnerships, gentrification, and neoliberalism. I strive to make effective procedural and occasionally programmatic recommendations based on my observations and participation of municipal work, as the city government transitions into a new information era.

Within DCA’s divisional structure, I work closely with the Marketing and Development Division. Currently, I’m co-leading the departmental website project with our Assistant General Manager and Communication Director with the goal to design a suite of digital services. To help increase transparency and build trust among our constituents and related stakeholders, I manage social media (@culture_LA) and develop digital communication guidelines, articulating the department’s mission and impact to the public.

Additionally, I serve as the department’s liaison with the Mayor’s Office, consulting and developing inter-departmental projects including the Open Data initiative and the Great Streets program. I interpret Mayor’s requests for data-driven approaches to quantify arts and cultural programming and design possible implementations that are sensitive to the richness and sometimes immeasurability of cultural experiences.

Aside from my work with DCA, I continue to publish my research and lead digital and public scholarship projects including Movable Parts, a socially engaged maker project; and Paperphone, a scholarly audio app funded by Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute. I also write songs and perform in Bitter Party, a band that reanimates my research findings related to Asian American melancholia and postcolonial wartime musics.

community arts design research

Nakashi: making sound and place, from Taipei to Los Angeles

Cross-posting from the MovableParts blog — I’m writing to introduce a new series that explores the intersection between my research on nakashi street music-culture and contribution to the concept design for Movable Parts.

I revisited our project concept as I was preparing for our talk in the Arts and Electronics for Designers class at UCLA Extension. The latest version of my vision for Movable Parts is: to deploy a sound/place-making paradigm transplanted from Taiwan in order to spark bustling experiences in Los Angeles. In this post, I will elaborate on the meaning and practice of the nakashi (那卡西) street music-culture and connect to it our current creative engagement in and with Los Angeles. This is an attempt to bridge my research on Taiwanese and more broadly global practices and platforms of mobile performance with the Movable Parts design and build project.

What is Nakashi?

Nakashi is an itinerant performance practice in Taiwan. Brought over from Japan during the Japanese Occupation Era, Nakashi in its original Japanese is “Nagashi” (流し), meaning “flow.” Flow refers to a flexible mode of performance that has spatial and social connotations. Nakashi musicians use sounding objects such as instruments and loudspeakers to create ad hoc, mobile stages. Traditionally, using acoustic guitar and accordion, Nakashi musicians traveled on foot to perform popular songs of their time in tea parlors and hot springs resorts. Over time, nakashi performers innovate their practices by constructing stages on pickup trucks and farm tools to set up performances in the streets and public areas such as temple plazas. Equipping these mobile stages with loudspeakers, they turn toward the streets and public spaces as their stage  and spontaneously attract audiences. The photo below is an example of a performance troupe that traveled on a truck bed while disseminating sounds of their performance in the streets. Notice the loudspeaker that’s mounted on top of the mobile mini shrine.

“Sound truck for a temple god in Yngge” – CC-licensed photo by Joel Haas

The sound truck is a pervasive model in the nakashi street culture in Taiwan. It has become a platform for vendors to generate mobile and spatially flexible audiences and clientele.  The practice of mounting speakers on a moving vehicle is common among street vendors (ex. “dirt-roasted chicken” 土窯雞, freelance recyclers, and campaign trucks). These moving sound trucks make up a distinctively Taiwanese soundscape. Representing the voice of a migrating urban underclass, sound trucks constitute the gritty sound of the loudspeaker culture that is increasingly disciplined by informal and formal noise control in urban Taiwan.

On my last field trip in Taipei, I encountered a sound truck that in many ways represents the Nakashi performance platform and sensibility. Parked across from Lungshan Temple, the largest temple in Taipei in Mejia (Monga) district, the Exhortation Touring Tricycle is a mobile sounding platform that functions as a store that sells religious and folk recordings to passersby. The multi-colored LEDs, calligraphy writings, and custom-built shelving add to the down-home, ostentatious sensibility of nakashi. Encased within hand-built cabinets that are mounted in the back of the truck, the speakers broadcast popular Taiwanese tunes mixed with didactic music that teaches taoist morality and buddhist cosmology. Mobility serves as a dissemination tool. Sounds of exhortation move while extending its messages through the streets.

"Exhortation Tricycle", Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu
“Exhortation Tricycle”, Taipei, photo by Wendy Hsu

On sound trucks or in stationary performances, amplification is a critical element in nakashi performances. Stationary nakashi performances typically take place in public spaces such as parks and metro stations. They are all unabashedly powered by diesel generators.

On my trip, I stumbled upon a performance in a park across the street from Lungshan Temple. Sound of amplification becomes aestheticized and is often heightened in a nakashi performance. In addition to its utility, the generator becomes an invisible sonic constituent that underlies all of these performances. In the video below, listen to the sound of the generator that powers the sound amplification. An overdriven amplified sound results a distorted, gritty, and lo-fi timbre. With an added effect of reverberation (in the vocals usually), nakashi amplification make up a uniquely textured sound-space.

What nakashi provides us is a mobile performance paradigm that intersects sound and place making through the use of low-resource technology. The constituents of both sound and place are inseparable. They make up the utilitarian and aesthetic core of the nakashi culture. Sound constitutes the social experience of a place; and vice versa. Sound plays a central role in creating not just any kind of space, but a bustling place where people congregate and form transient but meaningful micro-communities.

Sound/Place-Making for a Bustling LA

So how does this streetside practice in Taiwan relate to Movable Parts, a project based in Los Angeles? LA has an unusual history as a metropolis without distinctive sites of urban density. A city built for highways and suburbs, its decentralized structure makes location-based vibrancy a scarcity. At my day job where I work as an Arts Manager with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, we routinely come up against the city’s geography as physical and social barriers when we administer arts and cultural resources.

To mitigate the geographical and social fracturing that marks the LA experience, we at Movable Parts thought to make human-scale creative systems. Developing systems that generate a creative friction against the urban sprawl, coupled with event design and community collaboration, we spark place-based social interactions.

As a sound ethnographer of Taiwan, I’m interested in recreating a particular notion of bustling — renal 熱鬧. Re means “heat” (often used to describe the heated, hyper state of human presence) and nao means “loud.” Together, with an abundance of human and sonic energy, renao represents a specific kind of vibrancy that is lacking in LA. I’d like to think that what we’re doing is to create a platform to ignite an abundance of energy in a city that lacks these elements of social life, particularly in the public; or otherwise, to amplify the less legible social energy in an a city with compartmentalized and hard-to-access publics.

In the video, LISTEN to the embeddedness of conversations, scooter sounds, and lo-fi music blasting from the Exhortation Tricycle’s homemade speaker cabinets. Pay attention to the dynamic between sound and place-making in this scenario. This immersive multilayered sound environment is culturally desirable in Taiwan. A sonic and spatial experience at once, this recording comes close to embody the meaning of renao, a place-based abundance of social energy.

On a slow sound walk through the Menjia Night Market, I captured layers of nightlife cacophony saturating the bustling “Old Taipei.” Sound sources in this location recording include pervasive pinball arcade, children’s bantering over games, passing scooters, and pre-recorded techno music and sales messages piped in through lo-fi loudspeakers mounted discreetly in the semi-outdoor vendor’s booths. I love how one could identify the human, mediated, and (analog) machine elements of these sound sources in the recording. This variegated texture signifies social multiplicity and technological vicissitudes as, I would argue, key meanings of renao.

Provoking a Bustling Downtown at CicLAvia

For the first iteration of our project, we designed and built a pedal-powered generator that provides electricity for a set of PA speakers. Each piece of the system — the battery and the hub motors — could be transported via bicycles. By bringing people together to pedal in order to generate electricity (I blogged about the social meaning of power generation earlier), we create a Movable Party. Resonating with the classic nakashi model of generator-powered performances, the Movable Party is an outcome of our engagement with sound and place making through a combination of low-tech and high-tech modes of practices.

I captured this video at our performance at Ciclavia last October. Teaming up with a group called DanceLAvia, we set up our bicycle generator in front of Grand Park in downtown LA to encourage CicLAvia participants to slow down for a dismount point. There we spontaneously recruited passersby as participants including the young participants shown in the video. On that day, we made progress toward our goal of making a bustling micro-community in LA.

Does this embody the Taiwanese notion of bustling — renao? Who could we mobilize individuals to participate in the making of bustling in LA? What would renao in Los Angeles sound and feel like? Does it depend on the neighborhood and other social and geographical factors? I hope that by asking these questions, we will continue to productively experiment with this wild transpacific sound and place-making paradigm.

community arts fieldnotes research

A DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio

Archive of my guest DJ’ed set on Taiwan’s street music on KChung Radio: nakashi, niange/唸歌 (folktale songs), light music/輕音樂, field recordings

community arts research teaching

Sounds of Learning: a collaborative sound ethnography

I’m happy to present the Sounds of Learning project, featuring the fruits of our creative labor — of students from my MUSIC112 Digital Music-Cultures course and a group of sixth graders from Annandale Elementary School in Highland Park.

Liner notes:

The Sounds of Learning CD is the culmination of a 6-week collaboration between sixth graders from Annandale Elementary School and students of Occidental College enrolled in MUSIC 112 Digital Music-Cultures. What began as an idea modeled afterRadio Diaries, a citizen radio documentary project, the Sounds of Learning project transformed into a multifaceted engagement during which students from both groups learned through the close listening of sounds and spaces in their everyday life. Learning was reciprocal: on one hand, the sixth graders acquired the technical skills to record audio materials and engaged in creative modes of self-expression; the college students, on the other hand, gained hands-on experiences of ethnographic research (study of social interactions and cultural meaning) and mentorship.

At the first encounter, in Annandale’s auditorium, the Occidental students introduced themselves, taught their sixth grade partners how to use an audio recording device, and gave suggestions as to what to record. From here, the sixth graders individually took the equipment into contexts of their choosing to record sounds and dialogues they thought were meaningful to their learning and identity, while applying their newly acquired skills. Once the recording equipment returned to Oxy, the Occidental students listened to the sounds and prepared interview questions related to the recordings. When the Annandale students visited Oxy, the two groups collaborated once again to review the recordings and brainstorm ideas; production was underway. After a few weeks of editing, arranging, and composing, the Occidental students revisited Annandale to premiere their final works to their partners.

The sonic outcome of this creative partnership is presented here on this CD. The pieces are stylistically diverse, ranging from soundwalk to remix, from hip hop beat to audio documentary. They articulate the life and culture of a sixth grader in Northeast Los Angeles. They walk us through the youth’s school life, pop culture, and life at home. More than just a music project, these tracks tell stories of identity, heritage, transformation, and empowerment. We hope that you enjoy this compelling collection of “Sounds of Learning.”

— CJ Cruz, class of 2014; Professor Wendy Hsu

Credits HERE

 

community arts design performance

Movable Party: Redirecting the Flow of Power

I recently started a community arts project working with a group of students and student volunteers at Occidental alongside community artists and technologists to build a bike-powered interactive generator. My role within the project is to manage and help conceptualize all the moving parts, from materials to individuals. I began blogging at MovableParts.org and my first post, also a cross-post here, is about the social implications of the project.

How many times have you gone to a charge station at an airport only to find that all the plugs are being used? Have many conversations not mediated by a cell phone or other mobile computing devices have you witnessed in public spaces lately? It’s true that people don’t engage with one another in an embodied, face-to-face anymore. But sometimes people come into physical proximity when they need something – electricity. They crowd around charge stations or sit awkwardly in spaces around electrical outlets in order to gain access to electricity.

Charging station in waiting lounge, image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by ariffjamili

A group of students – Judy Toretti, Jacob Brancasi, Maria Lamadrid, and Cory Bloor – at Art Center College of Design recognized this social pattern and took it to heart in their design of an interactive media system for a homeless youth organization called Jovenes in east LA. Working with the youth participants, the student designers came up with Conversation Space, an interactive cellphone charging booth that requires at least two individuals to step on a foot pedal in order to activate electrical current. The design calls for a coordinated effort on the part of the users. To achieve the common goal of charging cell phones (and other handheld devices critical to the lifeline of homeless youth), users must engage in a face-to-face social interaction. It could be as much as a conversation, as little as a nod, an eye contact, or a chin-up.

Conversation Space @ Jovenes , design by Judy Toretti & Jacob Brancasi
Conversation Space @ Jovenes

The design of Movable Party is meant to accomplish something similar. Like the foot pedal charging booth, our system attempts to transform people’s interactions by redirecting the flow of electricity. We don’t mean this in a strictly physical sense [don’t ask me explain the physics behind the flow of electrons, ask Joe.] What I’m referring to is a design that yields particular desirable social sequences. This design challenges power consumption, a behavioral norm in most public and urban spaces in this country, and shifts our normative relationship to electrical power from consumptive to generative.

Our efforts aim at creating opportunities to generate, instead of compulsively consuming, power. Pedaling is an exciting, eco-friendly, and embodied practice. At an advocacy event like Ciclavia, collective cycling can instantiate the power of human-scale transportation. Moreoever, pedaling comes with a direct consequence of powering a musical performance within our system. This is a participatory event that involves lots of agents including the cyclists on the generator, DJs who will be spinning records, and bystanders and passersby who may be dancing to the music. The embedded sensors and Arduino microcontrollers will interface the system to fine-tune the interactivity among all the participants.

Through a system that re-routes the flow of energy, we hope to articulate the generative impact of pedaling, a goal that involves the translation of the significance of electricity from the physical into the social and symbolic domain. We want people to congregate in a public space. We want them to realize that the outcome of the event – a musical performance – is contingent upon a collaborative process of generating power.

We can’t take electricity for granted. Electricity is not just a physical resource; it is also a kind of social resource that can be harnessed to bring people together. Electricity can be used to power communication that happens in mediated platforms. But we know that already. We hope on at the Ciclavia event on April 21, we will start to see how electrical power plays a critical role in igniting positive and communal social interactions.

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Incidentally, at the airport before my flight took off from LAX, I went looking for an electrical outlet to charge my laptop.

I shared an electrical outlet in the airport terminal with a lady who struck up a friendly conversation with me. “Is that plug available?”

I said, “of course!”

She and I exchanged stories about the overwhelming presence of mediated communication in our society today. She told me that she just saw a mother and her young son of eight or nine years of age dining somewhere. The mother was on the phone the entire time. The son was left to entertain himself.

“Isn’t that ridiculous that we are so dependent on these devices? What did people use to do before cell phones? I guess they talked to people around them,” she remarked.

I said, “It’s funny that we’re talking about this. I’m working on a project that involves the building of a bike generator to power a music event.” I told her the rest of the project.

A few minutes later, with my laptop charged at 84 percent, I disengaged from the electrical outlet and packed up my gear.

Before I scurried off to board my flight, she smiled and said, “good luck with your project!”

Thank you, lady, whoever you are, for your kind reinforcement of the meaning of our project.