To fully understand Tristan Shone's artwork, you need to read the explainer that accompanies a piece he created for the group show SouthwestNET: Techno at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. “Aphanisis” consists of a precision drill press, built by Shone, with a syringe in place of the drill bit—a sort of sci-fi automated drug-implanting device—enclosed in a glass box.
“The life of the high tech cleanroom research and development engineer is one of constant restraint,” Shone writes. “The extent of physical exertion involves tweezers, microscopes, mouse clicking and constant meticulous calibration. Your hands become dainty and weak from the latex gloves, your skin turns a Victorian white, your muscles slowly atrophy. Working on the micro-scale, unable to use any real bodily force, you lose touch with your primal desires; your sexuality shrinks down to the scale of your work.”
“Aphanisis”—the title is a psychoanalytic term meaning “the fear of losing one's sexuality”—was the first piece of artwork Shone created, in 2005, as a master's student at UC San Diego. Prior to that, he was a frustrated mechanical engineer, working in a lab for a start-up in Boston, playing in a metal band at night and trying to come up with a way to combine his engineering skills, longtime interest in music and artistic inclination. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned his bachelor's degree, he'd studied under Chris Csikszentmihalyi, now a professor at MIT's media lab (and author the engaging edgyproduct.org blog).
“He was highly technical, but he was an artist,” Shone says. Csikszentmihalyi's master's in fine arts came from UCSD, so he suggested that Shone get out of the lab and spend some time creating art.
Fast-forward four years. It's a Thursday night in late July and Shone's in a Little Italy warehouse, trying to put finishing touches on pieces that he'll be taking to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the File Festival, an international electronic-arts gathering. Right now they're just sculptures that he's spent months designing and building. Within a week, Shone needs to turn them into sculptures that make sounds for two 20-minutes sets he'll be performing in Sao Paolo on July 31. He's been up until 4 a.m. for the past week, fine-tuning his work—he's exhausted and way behind schedule.
“I was supposed to be done with these by July 1 so I could practice the whole month,” he says.
In music-technology-speak, Shone creates midi controllers—pieces of hardware wired to send a message to an interface, or brain, that interprets the controllers' movements into sound. One piece (pictured, below), which resembles a post-modern two-tiered organ, has six ebony keys that slide along metal bars. When he gets it working, it'll produce sounds ranging from a ghostly drone to visceral rumbling, depending on where Shone positions the keys.
Technologically inclined musicians building their own instruments isn't a new thing; what sets Shone's work apart is the fact that he puts as much emphasis on how each piece looks and moves as on the sounds it produces. Many of his designs draw on mechanical engineering's best practices (his day job, currently, is at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UCSD). He'll be working with a piece of optical equipment, for instance, and he'll fixate on the design and mechanics of a tiny lens positioner. He'll then take that concept and use it as the basis for building one of his sound machines.
“When you build this stuff, you geek-out on little features,” he said.
If the piece Shone created for the Scottsdale exhibit was about a lab worker's fear of stasis and atrophy, his sound machines are what happens when the lab worker pushes back. Each machine requires some measure of physical activity beyond what you might assume if you only heard the sounds on record. “Rotary Encoder,” for instance, one of the pieces in Shone's “drone machines” series, is, basically, a large metal cylinder that produces a different sound depending on the direction and velocity of its spin. Once Shone gets it spinning, the cylinder will resist his attempts to change its direction—but in its resistance, the machine not only produces new sounds, but also becomes more visually appealing as Shone's hands polish its metal surface.
“It's man and machine working together, rather than one wearing the other down” is how he put it in an interview with Ground Control magazine.
Shone, who performs under the name Author and Punisher, has played and exhibited his instruments at events like Make magazine's annual Maker Faire and San Diego's Spring Reverb festival and was part of the San Diego Art Prize's 2008 New Contemporaries exhibit showcasing emerging artists. He'll perform at Kava Lounge on Sunday, Aug. 16. Though the music he plays can be dark, heavy and dissonant, he's finding that the sound machines' visual appeal broadens audience interest; he refers to the Kava Lounge show, which also features experimental musicians Braden Diotte, R. Jencks, Clew of Theseus and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as more of a “curated sound event.”
“People aren't going to go, ‘Oh, a doom-metal show, let's check it out,'” he said. “I think people like the heavier music because I'm doing it a different way. If we were a bunch of dudes with long hair and tattoos playing the same exact sounds, they would just walk right by us. But, otherwise, they're, like, ‘Oh yeah, I like this.'”