Driving through the streets of Vienna on a borrowed bicycle and wondering how to frame the principle of feedback in a general context beyond the domain of audio signals, it was only when I stopped at a red light, I found the answer right under my nose. At this moment, I realised that the front wheel of my bicycle was offset at an angle from the handlebar, meaning that, had there been no adaptive tools available to my sensorimotor system, I would have found myself going in circles at my point of departure, at best. Instead, by offsetting my steering by a factor equal to the discrepancy between intended and actual direction, a sensorimotor feedback loop working below the threshold of conscious cognition, was responsible for guiding me on a straight path. In the 1940s and 50s such simple feedback mechanisms were the subject of much research within the field of cybernetics and later constituted one of the guiding principles of Rodney Brook’s robots. These robots succeeded where GOFAI (Good Old-Fashioned AI had failed), namely in making a robot move about a room without hitting obstacles, their design eventually informing the construction of the Mars Rover robots.
The subject of the third volume of the Echo journal is feedback. While the 11 articles and 4 artist statements only cover a fraction of practices currently employing feedback, the breadth of the submissions suggests that the practice of sending an output back into its own input affords a vast potential for artistic exploration and theoretical development, and at the same time allows for a critical analysis of identity and performance. While audio feedback dominates, Øyvind Brandtsegg and Nicolas Collins’ contributions are concerned with vibro-tactile and electromagnetic feedback, respectively, whereas Thanos Polymeneas-Liontiris and Eugenia Demeglio discuss feedback as it manifests in social dynamics between performers, audience and technology. Dario Sanfilippo, Ricardo Thomasi and Agostino Di Scipio contribute valuable and theoretically informed insights into emergence, self-organisation and the creation of complex adaptive systems. Marcus Whale’s contribution, apart from documenting one of the very few occasions of feedback being successfully (if at all) applied in opera, is significant in discussing properties of feedback from the perspective of queer theory and identity, making a case for the subversive and radical potentials of the feedback phenomenon, at a time when it has become an established and accepted artistic and academic practice.
Contributing to the notion that feedback is a field of interest and development, The Feedback Musicianship Network—an initiative by Chris Kiefer and Dan Overholt—in December 2021 hosted a symposium in Copenhagen, featuring workshops, presentations, concerts, and a keynote by ECHO editor and contributor Nicolas Collins. Nicolas, in addition to being a former student of Alvin Lucier, for years worked as his assistant, contributing to the realisation of such seminal feedback works as I am sitting in a Room and Bird and Person Dyning. As we later learned, during Nicolas’ keynote on December 1st, Lucier had passed away, aged 90. We at the ECHO journal would like to dedicate this issue to the memory of Alvin Lucier, one of the most significant artists of the 19th and 20th century and an inspiration to generations.
With the memory of a pioneer of feedback hovering over the meeting, it only seemed fitting that it would feature an extended discussion about the future of the field. Questions such as: ‘Where are the feedback etudes?’, ‘Should a feedback instrument facilitate the performance of Mozart?’ and ‘Who are the practitioners?’, proposed that the practice of feedback is ripe for the development of theoretical, critical and aesthetic frameworks that can both reflect on, as well as inform, the field. The scope of references cited in this issue suggest that such an undertaking may be under way: through readings of complexity scientist Ilya Prigogine, post-humanist thinker Donna Haraway, queer theorists Sarah Ahmed and Jack Halberstam, as well as philosopher of science Gilbert Simondon, emerging epistemologies and ontologies are proposed and investigated. One such example is Agostino Di Scipio, who employs decades of experience with his Audible EcoSystemics project to discusses a relational ontology of feedback, thereby paving the way for ‘a more materialistic and post-computational understanding of multi-agent musical systems’. From this reader’s perspective, Marcus Whale’s discussion of loss of control and an aesthetics of failure additionally highlights the need for an ongoing discussion of performative control and virtuosity, at a point in time where human extravagance and dominance has put the global climate at risk, coincidentally by provoking multiple runaway ecosystemic feedback loops to emerge.
But let’s return to the question of who the practitioners are. Feedback is not exclusive to audio culture and can be performed anywhere an electrical socket can be found—from underground DIY venues to blue chip intermedia festivals. Yet even though it has a history of accompanying creative and subversive responses to societal and cultural homogeneity and normativity, the narratives we are presented with in the Global North, with important exceptions, often reflect aspects of privilege rather than diversity. I acknowledge that the current ECHO issue is not above the systemic problem of under-representation and lack of diversity within academia and artistic research. In addition to the wonderful contributions you are about to discover in this issue, many more go undocumented, while unequal distribution of resources and knowledge compromise both potential as well as actual practitioners. The ECHO journal, being open-access and entirely online, affords the possibility that unintentional omissions and new articles may be added past the publication date, and I would additionally encourage anyone actively engaging with feedback practices to make contact to the Feedback Musicianship Network (see link below).
As I have hinted at throughout this introduction, feedback is not exclusive to audio practices, and the possible couplings across fields and disciplines remains a fascinating subject for further exploration. Gordon Pask’s ingenious and revolutionary audio-visual installation Colloquy of Mobiles from the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968 was revived under the lead of Paul Pangaro in 2018, fascinating spectators with the seemingly social behaviour of the interacting mobiles—behaviour that arises from fairly simple feedback couplings between lights, mirrors and photo sensors1. On an even grander scale: could we imagine sound and media artists collaborating with the environmental sciences to sonically and visually illustrate the precarious and non-linear nature of the ecological, social and economic feedback mechanisms our growth-oriented economies are feeding, fostering what Alice Eldridge has recently called Complexity Literacy (Eldridge 2022)?
Whatever the future holds for the field of feedback, the current ECHO issue suggests that practitioners are unlikely to run out of material any time soon. On the contrary, it feels as if the deeper you get into the deceptively simple practice of feeding an output into its own input, the weirder and more complex the world gets. We at ECHO hope that the creative and theoretical contributions of articles and artist statements herein can serve as inspiration for future explorations of the feedback phenomenon, and that the ontological, epistemological, aesthetical and ethical considerations arising from these practices may afford and provoke conversation.
I wish to thank the authors for their inspiring contributions as well as the reviewers for their thorough suggestions.
Adam Pultz Melbye – Guest editor
The Feedback Musicianship Network: https://feedback-musicianship.pubpub.org
Eldridge, Alice. 2022. Computer Musicking as Onto-epistemic Playground: On the Joy of Developing Complexity Literacy and Learning to Let Others Be (Keynote Address at the First Conference for AI Music) -- Journal of Creative Music Systems (in press)