Few academics would be willing to examine the link between economics and Fudgee-Os, or artificial intelligence and Bob Dylan. But for Dr. Henry Adam Svec, UNB’s current Media Artist-in-Residence, the missing links in popular culture are his speciality.
Originally hailing from Southwestern Ontario, Svec’s work has been featured in publications ranging from The Globe and Mail to VICE’s music imprint, Noisey.
While as an academic his work primarily focuses on folk music, utopianism and digital culture, his performance projects are studies in the juxtaposition between analog and digital. His most recent project, Artificially Intelligent Folk Songs of Canada, is a performance of an imaginary AI database capable of synthesizing Canadian folk music on the fly. Svec claims that he is not against technology, however, and sees digital media as not a problem of ubiquity but of trust.
With a digital recording, “you could just sit down and type zeroes and ones, and if you had enough monkeys writing at their computers you could conceivably come up with the actual recording of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for instance,” he said. “So, trying to rethink authenticity in a digital moment has been really interesting for me.”
While his performance projects hinge on deception of the audience, Svec sees it as a light-hearted way to deepen their suspension of disbelief.
“By the end of a performance, I want everyone to be vaguely on the same page and know what’s true and what’s not, but also to think a bit about how the impossible might also be true in some ways,” he said.
“With Artificially Intelligent Folk Songs, the fact that people are believing that story, I think, tells us something about the faith we put in technology. But it’s a fun and playful gesture, and I hope the journalists whose feelings I’ve hurt in the past aren’t still angry,” he said with a laugh.
Erin Morton, an associate professor in the history department, has been a colleague of Svec for several years and sees him as someone thinking far outside the box of traditional academia.
“Everything to him is a performance – no, really, everything,” she explained. “Svec has always rejected the notion that performance art was dead by bringing it into the realm of the everyday.” Extending his folklorist view beyond music and technology, Morton said that Svec has taken to the study of cuisine, including a maritime favourite, the donair.
“He also has an interest in developing Candy Studies as a legitimate academic field, and has promised to expand our current ideas about political economy by using Fudgee-Os as an innovative teaching tool in his classes,” she said. “I left Svec’s studio in 2011 feeling really excited about his work, and I am still excited about it.”
While he may have wrapped up his latest performance last Thursday, Svec has big plans for the remainder of his residency at UNB. His next project will be a touring workshop entitled The New Brunswick Laboratory of Imaginary Media Design.
“I like the idea that anything is possible,” he said. “Sci-fi is full of impossible and imaginary technologies. The Terminator for instance, or the holodeck from Star Trek. I’m going to do these workshops where the group will collectively try to come up with technologies that are actually impossible to build, and maybe will always be impossible. I really don’t know what to expect, but I’m looking forward to the process.”
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