Interview: Unravel (FOUND, Aidan Moffat, Simon Kirby)

This article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on Friday April 20 2012, under the heading STORIES FOR THE RECORD: Nicola Meighan unravels the strange tale of the interactive robot band…

Did you hear the one about the arts collective, the professor and the polymath?

A new “interactive sound installation” by the aforesaid motley triad – respectively FOUND, Simon Kirby and Aidan Moffat – is set to underscore the ways in which memories and tales can change, depending on the weather, time, audience, and narrator’s mood. It will open at Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.

Entitled Unravel, and taking the form of a supercool, storytelling robot band, the ingenious mechanism encourages visitors to play a seven-inch single from a ten-strong collection – it may be The Ronettes; it might be Tom Waits; hell, it may be Chris De Burgh – at which point they’ll be treated to the dulcet tones of former Arab Strap vocalist Moffat recounting a yarn to a musical backdrop by experimental pop troupe FOUND. But callers are counselled to listen sharp: it’s unlikely they’ll hear the same version twice.

Unravel’s nuanced chronicles and backing tunes are affected by four variables – Time (there are pre-and post-watershed variations), Pressure (the weather – they’ve optimistically given it a sunshine option), Opinion (what people are saying about #unravel on Twitter) and Audience (how busy or quiet the gallery is). “There are a lot of different factors that shape the way you tell a story,” offers FOUND bassist and synth wizard Tommy Perman. “But we honed in on those four, because they’re factors people understand – plus it offers two that you can have an influence over, and two that you can’t. One person can directly influence how the installation will behave [by tweeting something positive or negative about it] and that really pleases me.”

Moffat was sold on FOUND’s outlandish master-plan (which was supported by Creative Scotland’s Vital Spark initiative and New Media Scotland’s Alt-w fund) from the off. “Ziggy [Campbell, FOUND singer-songwriter] phoned me, and I wasn’t sure I was grasping the idea to be honest with you, but I understood that I had to write stories, and write different versions, and that nobody would really hear the same one twice. I’d been reading a lot of experimental and avant-garde literature at the time [Moffat name-checks cult genius BS Johnson] so when Ziggy phoned I was absolutely into it right away.”

Did Moffat employ a particular writing method to generate myriad slight variations on a theme, according to watershed, weather, confidence and crowd size? “Not really,” he says. “I wrote the truthful versions first – well, my version of the truth,” he remedies, “and then I went back and fiddled with them.”

Given Unravel’s aim of casting light, and doubt, on memory and truth, did Moffat have any diaries against which he gauged the verity of these fickle tales about (spurned) love, (failed) sex, betrayal, carrots, and the empyrean qualities of Castlemilk? “No – just sweet, sweet memories,” he laughs. “But in all the stories, all the narrators, they’re all valid elements of my personality, and that was fun.” (Incidentally, if you’re an Arab Strap fan, you’ll enjoy further unravelling Moffat’s autobiography: a couple of the stories touch on incidents in early Arab Strap songs, one involving a diary; one involving the cops).

FOUND’s soundtracks, says Moffat, provide an engaging framework for his chronicles. “I recorded the stories first and then they built the music around them,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting the music to be so jolly, because the stories are quite dark, quite serious, so it really took me by surprise. And it really fits. It doesn’t lighten the stories, but it makes it fun. It makes it more approachable.”

FOUND are no strangers to accessible, brilliant inventions. Along with long-term collaborator Professor Simon Kirby from Edinburgh University’s Language Evolution and Computation Science Unit, their fantastical creations include a Scottish BAFTA-winning (over-) emotional musical wardrobe called Cybraphon (it reacted to its popularity online and on social networking sites), and Three Pieces, an interactive composition for plants, Chinese dulcimer, bamboo robot and robotic chimes that was located in the Victorian Palm House at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. (It responded to humans, but its mood was determined by nearby flora).

What relationship does Unravel bear to their previous kaleidoscopic brainchildren?

“Almost by accident rather than by design, our projects are starting to build together into coherent idea,” offers Kirby after an Unravel preview at Edinburgh’s InSpace laboratory. “The funny thing for me is that I came into this treating it as a creative outlet on the side, but more and more I’m starting to see that the kind of themes we’re exploring connect to the science that I’m doing. And I never thought there would be any possible connection.”

Such as? “Well, what I study in my scientific life is how humans work as a species, and why we’re different from other animals, and a lot of that is to do with the way each of us networks and connects in various ways – to other people, to people who’ve lived in the past – so we share ideas, we communicate, we have a social life, and that’s been true for as long as we’ve been on the planet.”

Kirby continues: “But it seems to me now, with the rise of the internet, with computer programs that are building social networks for us, with vast stores of everything we’ve ever done online, that none of us really knows what it means to be a human in this new world.”

And then he finds himself making art installations that are connected and sentient; that make us think about how we network, how we interact with machines and what we share online? “Exactly,” he smiles. “In a way they’re talking about the same things, but not in a way that’s pushing it down your throat.”

It has to be said that for all the concepts that are explored and illuminated by Unravel – the unreliability of the narrator and memory; the (mis)perception of recorded music as a permanent object; the decline of physical music formats; the ways in which environment and emotion can affect a recital – it is entertainment that beats at the heart of Unravel. To walk in and see a robot band, to watch its wired-up organ, drum-kit and chimes perform, to indulge one’s ego and influence a work of art: that is all you need.

Plus, it looks amazing.

“A lot of that’s down to Ziggy’s craftsmanship,” offers Perman. “Simon and I get involved as well, and I learned a lot about building stuff on this project, but Ziggy’s got a really strong background – he studied sculpture, he’s very 3D minded, he knows how to use power tools –”

“He knows not to let me touch any of the power tools,” Kirby rejoinders.

“Haha, yeah he does,” nods Perman. “But that’s the nature of the collaboration – I think that’s why it’s so successful, because hopefully each of us has skills that we bring to it.”

“I’d say with Unravel, in terms of the actual physical build, it’s a step up from what we’ve done before,” Kirby offers. “There’s very little in the way of pre-existing objects that we’ve modified, most of it is built from raw materials: from metal and wood and paperclips.”

This ultramodern innovation hinges on cheap office stationery? Kirby gives a professorial nod. “There’s a lot of them too. Unravel must be pushing fifty paperclips.”

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, August 15 2012, with FOUND, Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells and loads more goodness, see www.unravelproject.com and here for details.

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