An Interview with Thorsten Sideboard


    Do you remember 2019?
    I do. In particular, I discovered that there was this amazing festival held in San Francisco - the Algorithmic Art Assembly. Unlike a lot of what was out there, it brought an astounding array of artists whose work fit under the general category of "algorithmic" together in one place for a collection of broad-ranging performances and talks and opportunities to hang out that I found really exciting. My colleague Tom Hall attended and brought back an on-site report that really whetted my appetite for more. In addition, my colleague Darwin Grosse's Art + Music + Technology podcast featured a chat with the Assembly's organizer Thorsten Sideboard. So I made a note in my calendar to spend some time daring to come up with work to submit or - at the very list - to be in the audience for the next one....
    And then, IT happened. Everything stopped and locked down, and I wondered if I'd ever have the chance to attend something that cool again.
    One of the things that folks in the algorithmic art and creative coding communities talk about is the idea of emergence. I once thought of that as an abstract term, but I increasingly find myself using the word in real life to describe what to do as things slowly return to the new "normal." I started looking for events starting up again, and was really stoked to hear that — after a two-year hiatus — the Algorithmic Art Assembly was back. As luck would have it, I'm not able to make the journey this time out, but I didn't want to pass up the chance to contact Thorsten and find out what's going on and coming up this time around. Thorsten was kind enough to sit down and clue me in on what was and what is to come. To my surprise and delight, it's going to be possible to buy tickets that provide streaming access for those of us who cannot make it! Gregory: Welcome back! I’m wondering how the re-emergence of the Algorithmic Art Assembly is going. You’ve faced two postponements in a row for ‘20 and ‘21. How is the upcoming Assembly different from what we might have seen had COVID never happened?
    Thorsten: Hi! A lot of the 2022 lineup is carried over from the postponed 2020 version, with some amendments. A few people couldn’t make it, but I brought in a few new exciting speakers and performers, plus 2 new remote collaborations that wouldn’t have happened without COVID. On top of the amazing lineup we had, such as Myriam Bleau, Richard Devine, Ellen Phan, I’ve been able to add Lauren Sarah Hayes, RM Francis and John Bischoff, all of whom I’m super excited for!
    Of the remote collaborations, one of them is a work by Mark Fell, Rian Treanor and James Bradbury, building upon work they did for the No Bounds festival last year. At the beginning of the pandemic Mark and Rian began playing with a Max/MSP patch for remote collaboration. They got some remote friends to try setting it up, and after fighting a little with remote troubleshooting issues, ensuring all components were installed and setup, they thought how much easier it would be for a web native setup. They got together with developer, James Bradbury, who helped them realize their Max patch in WebAudio. It works through a central hosted site, and several participants can go to the same virtual room and collaborate through a single interface. Each person sees and hears the others movements and changes, with the audio being output to all participants. For Algorithmic Art Assembly, they’re building upon the audio engine they built and unveiling a new patch they’ve built with it. Mark and Rian approached me about doing a commission based on that work. They’ll be talking about that on the Friday afternoon of the festival, doing a live Q&A from the UK hosted by Mark Weidenbaum, then they’ll be performing a live set using the patch.
    Somewhat similar, we’ll have a portion of Saturday afternoon broadcast live from Barcelona, hosted by Jack Armitage / Lil Data and Thor Magnusson of the Intelligent Instruments Lab. It’ll be an awesome extravaganza, our first international node, a collab with <deep breath> Hangar, TOPLAP Barcelona, Mutek ES, On-the-fly. They’ll take a feed from San Francisco to hear some of our Saturday morning speakers, and then they’ll host for a while, with Lil Data performing alongside local artists Eloi el bon noi, Alicia Champlin and QBRNTHSS. Mark and Rian will also present to Barcelona, so we’ll have this wonderful three-way connection through SF -> Sheffield -> Barcelona, tied together through Mark, Rian and James’ patch!
    We also have a new opening Thursday night, which will start with a local San Francisco feel - two opening talks by local internet artists, Rich DDT and d0n.xyz, then an evening of back-to-back algorave style performances, with local A/V Club crew and a number of visiting coders. Thursday will finish with a full AV show by William Fields. Here's an example of his last appearance at the Assembly in 2019:

    William Fields - Gray Area, San Francisco, March 23rd 2019

    Friday and Saturday have a similar schedule as previous AAA, with talks and presentations from noon till 5, then a break for evening soundcheck. Doors open in the evening again for the live music portion. Friday night will be SPACEFILLER with Mick Marchan \ {arsonist} \ Trash Panda QC \ Myriam Bleau, then Saturday evening will RM Francis \ Ellen Phan \ Tom Hall \ Ross CNDSD \ Kindohm \ Richard Devine.
    You can find full info and ticket information here.
    I'm wondering about the extent to which the lockdown has changed the way you feel about live performance above and beyond not being able to go to one. Is there a sense in which the discourse of the Algorithmic Art Assembly is inherently physical and inherently public?
    Yeah, Algorithmic Art Assembly was originally inspired by the energy and excitement around in-person gatherings, so I decided to wait until it felt safe again. There are a number of people already doing great online events, so I never really considered moving Algorithmic Art Assembly online.
    While streaming can be a fine way to hear things, even the best online mediated discussion don’t always provide a way for the accidental encounter with a serendipitous idea or another person that sets you off in a radically different direction. It strikes me that that's been one of the things about the Algorithmic Art Assembly that you've been really mindful of is providing those opportunities for attendees.
    Absolutely! One of the wonderful things from the 2019 event was walking around and just seeing the explosion of people chatting and meeting each other, getting to introduce people that I knew from different areas and seeing that spark between them as they start discussing arts and ideas.
    There were a lot of artists who came along who may not have been so computer-based or algorithmic but were engaged with what was there. The daytime format of the talks is a really nice entry point for artists of any ilk. A chance to hear people who come at it from an algorithmic or a process-based approach.
    One of the main themes behind Algorithmic Art Assembly is to celebrate and showcase that creative side of programming. In 2018, I made a trip to the UK for a Live Code conference, and was just so inspired, meeting a lot of people face to face who I previously only knew online. That in-person energy, that gathering of algorithmic practitioners was great! I wanted to bring that back to SF and to stick a stake in the ground and say "Here be the freak flag! Come all ye programmers and artists together, make the weirdest code art ever!“
    There’s been a rash of recent books on that idea - from Daniel Shiffman’s The Nature of Code to Golan Levin and Tega Brain’s Code as Creative Medium, and - of course - the Oxford Companion. Those are great resources, but it strikes me that your curatorial approach to providing ways in during the day and performances at night, it has a potentially more powerful effect….
    I hope so, yeah! You can enjoy the aesthetic properties of a work alone, of course. It's one thing to go out to a show and hear amazing music.. you might have a dance and chat with someone, have a great time, but it's usually still a form of consumption, a one way dialogue. However hearing someone talk about their work first is a much more engaging way in. I always find it so much more inviting to have that context beforehand, to hear how much work went into the ideas behind it, to hear the story behind the art. It puts you in a good place to fully appreciate the work.
    The AAA has got to be a pretty difficult amount of stuff to organize. How's juggling all this stuff going for you in terms of setting up the infrastructure for the festival?
    It’s going really well, and so much of that comes down to working with the amazing people at Gray Area, they take on so much of the heavy lifting. It’s very much a collaboration, they deal with a ton of the logistics - the ticket sales, sound system, lighting, live streaming, they have their own promotion channels and active website, and and.. I can’t thank them enough!
    In curatorial situations that bring a lot of diverse people together. It's really common for us to talk about the artists and to not have nearly as much to say about the enablers. If everything goes well they're kind of invisible, right? That's all we see. All we see is the artist and all we see or hear is the work rather than the effort that went into bringing it into existence. So thanks for calling that out at the beginning. That's really good of you.
    Having a good partner really changes things. A recent example - Myriam Bleau is headlining on Friday night with a massive laser-focused AV show. She mailed me to ask about a scrim for the front of the stage, for use through the smoke and lasers. Seabrook, the Production Director at Gray Area, he’s awesome. I can add Seabrook to the email thread, and he is super helpful, he finds out all the specs needed, and makes it happen. Super organized, like we have a shared spreadsheet with all the tech riders for all the artists, the timing and logistics for making sure load-in and soundchecks all run smoothly.
    One of the interesting new trends in the EMI/Software landscape is the appearance of algorithmic tools and machine learning into commercial music software. There are things that algorithmic composers used to do all the time that are now available in commercial software. Does that availability help to create a culture in which more people appreciate algorithmic approaches because they’re both producing and consuming the work?
    Yeah, I see a number of articles for generative tools that can be used for music production.
    …or that the arrival of that stuff in commercial software essentially shifts where the boundary is. The commercial world is chasing the algorithmic artist community at a discreet distance.
    It seems like a lot of algorithmic art involves cross-sensory modalities these days. It’s almost as if you have to have something to see and something to hear. I wonder about the extent to which now you think the discourse really tends to assume that an audio presentation must have the visual component and vice versa. How do you see that playing itself out these days?
    I’ve thought about that but don’t know that I have or that there is a good answer, I think you really just want a balance. Some artists are very much about the combined sensory experience, others want darkness to focus on the music. I like a nice contrast so you appreciate both.
    I also like to bring in other process arts, which don’t have to be so audio/visual based.
    In 2019 we had Windy Chien, who does amazing knot based art. She brought in 150 ropes so everyone in the audience could follow along with one of her knot algorithms. That was so visceral, and such a nice keepsake!

    Windy Chien - Algorithms, Aesthetics, and the Artist’s Hand.

    One example for 2022, is Ross Goodwin, he works with machine learning and natural language, including building an engine to generate screenplays, which he fed with hundreds of tv and movie scripts. He and filmmaker Oscar Sharp made an awesomely weird sci-fi short called Sunspring, with Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch
    I have one last question to ask. We know about you as the person who's basically organized and curated the Algorithmic Art Assembly. What’s less apparent is your own artistic practice. You're really working hard to foreground the work of other people and I really appreciate it. But what are you excited about right now? What gets you up in the morning and butters your toast and makes your coffee?
    I have my own live coding language called SoundBoard. I’ve been working on that for around 6 years now. It started from a basic sequencing and sample engine, which I’ve continued building upon - I’ve added several synthesis engines - subtractive, fm, granular; then I wrote and grafted a real programming language onto it (whereas prior to that it was a massive string matching while loop!) . I have an endless pile of ideas I want to learn and implement, so that totally keeps me excited.

    Thorsten Sideb0ard - REPL REPL ADC21 talk

    During January I participated in “Genuary”, making a piece of generative p5 art everyday. I hadn’t done so much programmatic visual work, which is interesting as I have a background as an illustrator. I’m definitely interested in getting deeper into the visual side and taking a good look at Unity.
    I do also enjoy my day job. I work on an embedded system media stack, and I’m currently implementing a lot of web audio features. So pretty much most of the time I get to work on interesting audio programming challenges!