蛣聽器 (2021)
Sound installation with Ambisonics field recordings, directional speakers, servo motors, lasers and computer

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bug considers machine listening as a sound installation, presenting it in a three-dimensional audio environment. Beams of sound from urban locations in Hong Kong are made audible in the exhibition space using rotating directional speakers. Partial soundscapes and lasers are projected and shifted along the walls, the ceiling and the floor, transporting visitors to the former British colony and Special Administrative Region and allowing them to listen in together with a neural network as it navigates through field recordings in Ambisonics, a spherical audio format.

The title in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect used in Hong Kong, alludes to different meanings of the word “bug:” the work is a bug (a covert listening device) listening for bugs (insects). Species of insects such as cockroaches are sometimes used to describe troublemakers, and the neural network meanders through the soundscapes, following the direction with the highest likelihood score for the label “insect” in its vicinity. As one of the most densely populated areas of the world, however, insects are seldom heard in many urban locations. (And can neural networks understand metaphors?)

bug references the ramifications of machine listening such as when its intended target may not be present (neither literally nor metaphorically) and when labels from training data for neural networks are inadequate for the task in hand. Sounds related to minority groups and traditional cultures may be heard from the field recordings including South-East Asian languages, Cantonese dialects, Asian music and exotic birds which the bug may or may not be following. It is unclear if they are being picked out for merely being the most prominent sound source, or if the incessant search has led to false positives. After a while, several aspects of the work itself begin to appear insect-like such as the whirring servo motors, the jittery trail of the laser and the tinny frequency of the parametric arrays. Has the bug found a bug?

Exhibited at NIME2023, Sanatorium of Sound Festival, Osage Gallery and Constructing Contexts/Art Machines 2.

Thanks to András Blazsek, Ho Tsz Yeung Jacklam and Longman Luk.