Digital Tender

French artist Jordane Saunal is optimistic about technology’s relationship with nature. We caught up with her to talk assembly line robots, Bjork, and Makey Makey.

See Jordane's film Cross Product.

So.. technology, music, art, and nature: a heady mix!
I grew up in rural France, in a place called Aurillac -- which is basically countryside lost in the middle of the mountains -- so I put a lot of importance on taking care of nature.

As a student of art and music, inspiration comes from my surroundings, and I’ve always been interested in science, outer space, and new technologies -- especially the relationship between humans and machines.

Ah! The age old question: can people and machines live in harmony?
Technology and machines are subjects of both fascination and fear. Many movies play on these fears; depicting the image of robots dominating humanity. But I believe the future of technology is in our hands, and we have the power to make the story a positive one.

I trust in a technology which can help human beings look after the planet, and I wanted to reflect this optimism in my work: the hope of a better future. So I imagined a scenario in which technology and mankind work together for a common goal -- to look after nature.

And the result was your piece, Cross Product... tell us more!
Cross Product explores what lies at the intersection of humanity, nature, and technology. It aims to find common ground between them: a new harmony -- through music.

William Jay, a friend of mine describes it very well in a review he wrote:

"The artist sets herself an actual spaceship dashboard, made of a modern assembling robot, sound controllers and raw vegetation to offer the spectator a live performance. A singing one, where the organic resonance of the machine is made visible.”

Basically, I’m singing and playing an omnichord, whilst an assembly line robot tends a small garden filled with plants. Different sound samples play as it goes about its task.

By touching the plants, the robot is effectively ‘playing’ sounds.

How does it work?
The music is all played live, but the movements of the robot were pre-programmed into different cycles of movements, and I switch between these cycles using pedals.

In this project I'm using a Makey Makey to make the plant/robot connection. Essentially, the Makey Makey’s connected to the robot and the plants contain metal strips; which are activated when the robot touches them.

This is made possible by connecting the "earth" part of the Makey Makey to the conductive tip of the robot. When this point makes contact with the little metal strips, the electric contact is made and it sends a Midi signal to my Ableton Live session.

Had you used Makey Makey before? What made you use it for this project?
I tried it before during a workshop, and I saw a lot of amazing videos on the internet. I decided to use Makey Makey because it’s really fun and easy to use, it was perfect for what I wanted to do. It’s really intuitive. I had so much fun to setting up all the cables and sound samples (and I’m really noob at programming :D).

But you managed to build a robot??
I didn’t build the robot -- I borrowed it from Pôle Formation des Industries Technologiques in Reims It’s the kind that’s used in a factory. I only had it for a week! That just about gave me enough time to create the scenography, the music composition, and program in all of the robot’s movements… with the help of two engineers.

How many people have seen Cross Product in performance?
The first live performance was in June 2015. It could only be performed in front of a small audience (30 people) as I wanted to create the feeling of intimacy and comfort.

But the entire performance was filmed and was screened this summer at the Festival du Diamant Vert (a ‘green’ festival concerned with music, art, and nature). It was fantastic to have it shown between some trees, next to a small lake. It was also shown in September at the Le Cellier art center in Reims. And it won a prize!

Great stuff! Who would you say are you biggest artistic influences?
I love the work of artists like Laurie Anderson, Alvin Lucier, and Aurélien Borie. Icelandic singer, Bjork, is also a big influence -- particularly her album Biophilia and the music video for her song All is Full of Love.

What’s next for you?
I already have some projects in progress for the next few months. I will also certainly do artists’ residencies, exhibitions and carry on with this work about technology, actuality and future… and have fun!

Merci beaucoup Jordane!

Jordane Saunal is an artist and sound designer from Auvergne, France.


A previous version of this article included this short version of Cross Product and did not link to Jordane's website.