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Sónar+D Hong Kong: from AI robot Sophia to Leafcutter John, preview of creative tech programme

The upcoming Sónar festival at the Hong Kong Science Park is not all about music. Here are some of the highlights of the Sónar+D programme, including creative AI applications, experimental VR music shows and much more

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2018, 8:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2018, 8:33am

Sónar is the only music festival you can spend all day at even if you don’t like music. That’s because of its accompanying Sónar+D programme: a collection of performances, talks, workshops, interactive art installations and virtual-reality presentations, plus a forum for companies to showcase their products.

All this will take place at Sónar Hong Kong 2018 at the Hong Kong Science Park on March 17. Here are some of the highlights you can enjoy.

Sophia

Fittingly for an event about the intersection of technology and culture, the star of the show this year isn’t even human – it’s the robot Sophia, created by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics.

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A sort of humanoid AI chatbot, Sophia is a regular on the TV interview circuit. In addition to having famously been made a citizen of Saudi Arabia, she was also recently named the United Nations Development Programme’s first “Innovation Champion”.

Sophia is learning so much that the nature of her appearance at Sónar remains undecided. “She’s evolving so fast,” says Jay Forster, curator for Sónar+D Hong Kong. “I’ve asked them to show off her latest capabilities.”

Das Fremde

The implications of artificial intelligence are questioned in Das Fremde, an installation starring a group of AI robots who invent their own language and culture in real time.

The audience can interact with them, affecting their culture as they imitate humans. The installation implicitly questions the primacy of our own culture and our relationship with artificial intelligence, and by extension what it means to be human.

“It’s like walking into an aviary,” Forster says. “There’s some kind of connection between you and the robots, but you don’t really understand it.”

Leafcutter John

As an experimental musician, artist and inventor, Leafcutter John pretty much personifies the Sónar+D ethos. “He’s been working at the intersection of music and art for 20 years,” Forster says.

The Briton, whose real name is John Burton, will visit Hong Kong for the first time accompanied by one of his many inventions: the Light Controlled Musical Interface.

Burton manipulates the interface – which resembles a large mutant circuit board – by shining lights on it, causing it to emit a variety of mostly field-recorded sounds to create atmospheric soundscapes. Or as Forster puts it, he will be “flailing around on stage with some torches”.

ReAlity?

Music is also generated from an unusual source in ReAlity?, the work of Hong Kong-based artist collective ReOrientate. It is led by scientist and musician De Kai, another one who fits the Sónar+D Renaissance Man mould.

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The performers create music by interacting with abstract objects in virtual reality (VR). A flamenco guitarist and dancer react in real time to the virtual sounds, which then feeds back into the VR performance.

“It’s interesting to see how VR can be used as a generative tool for producing audio,” Forster says.

Open Reel Ensemble

Japanese retro-futurist innovators Open Reel Ensemble make music that veers from Kraftwerk-like robotic minimalism to a sort of poppy electronic jazz-funk using giant reel-to-reel tape decks connected to computer controllers. They add to the musique concrète sound collage with a variety of electrical appliances, sampled crowd noises that are manipulated live, and even the odd live instrument.

“I was just drawn to them,” Forster says. “It’s part of a desire to present wonky performances that sit within the Sónar template.”

Tree

The star of this year’s VR programme is Tree, a multi-sensory experience created by the US-based New Reality Company that involves everything from fans to heat lamps to smells.

“You become a tree,” Forster says. “You start off as a seedling and grow through the forest canopy.”

Other VR experiences on offer during the +D programme include a drone journey to an unknown asteroid by Germany’s Scope Virtual; the groundbreaking VR music video for The Chemical Brothers’ Under Neon Lights; and Hovering, a tale of an organism’s over-proliferation, extinction and rebirth on a dying planet.

Tapping

No festival would be complete without a field full of wind chimes. Fittingly, Sónar+D has a hi-tech version.

One of the few +D exhibits to be located outdoors, Tapping is an electronic wind instrument vaguely resembling a field of stylised metallic flowers. The work of Science Park-based creative technology company IOIO, it generates sound according to the speed of the wind.

It is also potentially interactive. “It reacts to wind, but if a stray finger were to delicately prod one of the nodes, it would have the same effect,” Forster says.

Workshops

The workshops at last year’s festival were all booked out before it began, Forster says. “We weren’t sure if people would be receptive to it. It was brilliant to see people getting involved with circuit boards, coding and all that stuff.”

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This year’s workshop programme includes an introduction to Arduino microcontroller technology, in which participants learn how to make their own drum sequencer; and the Collaborative Nodal Synthesiser Workshop, hosted by Leafcutter John, which involves making synthesisers from light-controlled oscillators.