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Solar Radio is an automated radio station that is powered by the sun. It is a small artificial intelligence mechanism that wakes up at sunrise, mixes and broadcasts sound during the day, fades into the sunset, and goes back to sleep during the night. It watches the world through radio-based and bio-electric sensors - observing the state of the natural world and the sun in its immediate vicinity.
The AI tries to recreate the sounds of life in its immediate environment - imitating the sounds of insects, birds, frogs, magnetic phenomena, the wind moving through the trees, rain falling, and waves on the ocean.
.. Looking for the Solar Radio somewhere out there in the ether ..
The piece imagines itself to be an elaborate fusion of electronics and ancient life - a self-aware electronic lichen. Lichen is a multi-faceted organism, a symbiotic system made up of alga and fungi. Lichens grow in harsh environments - the sides of cliffs, bare rock, sand, dead wood, bark, plastic, rusty metal, and animal bones. They are able to shut down during periods of extreme heat or cold and can even survive in orbit for short periods of time. Solar Radio is a man-made organism designed to exist and grow in a world of evolving climate change and a post- anthropocene / post-human era. The AI imagines itself as a many-facetted system where each part lives in symbiosis with the others, trading available bits of energy, knowledge, and sound in order to adapt to its environment and thrive.
The piece proposes a different way of thinking about and relating to electrical power and small scale computational systems. It moves away from the idea of power being instant and ubiquitous. Technologically it embraces the rhythms of nature and the sun, rather then combatting them.
As a solar powered artwork, the AI is keenly aware of the state of its energy source - is it dark, is it cloudy, is there a bird or a bear or a person blocking the light, is it bright and overwhelming? The piece uses all of the energy that is available from a solar panel, not just the part that is easy to pull out in full sunlight. The electronics know when the solar panel is in the shade, or blocked by clouds. The device can change its behaviour. It can use less power. It can switch its circuitry to draw out the power in different ways.
The AI monitors the amount of energy available to it and chooses an appropriate type and complexity of sound. The audio reflects the mood of the AI and the sense that it has of the outside world (gathered through its ELF and bio-electric sensors). Low energy waking-up audio consists of tones or tone-poems made of combinations of simple waveforms. As more energy becomes available, the AI can watch the ups and downs of its available energy and add more complicated computed sounds into the mix. It works with odd atmospheric noises based on computed analog synthesizer emulation. When the energy levels are high enough and stable, the piece starts layering the sounds in more and more complicated ways.
Solar Radio tries to emulate sounds that it has heard in its environment - sounds of insects, birds, frogs, rain, wind, water, and the noises that it receives through it's ELF and bio-electric sensors. It has a hazy memory. Sometimes the sounds are recognizable (easy to associate with the creature or phenomenon that inspired them), and sometimes the sounds are abstract.
One of the inspirations behind this piece is to imagine a methodology for a sustainable and environmentally friendly media-arts practice. What type of works can be created in the electronic and recorded-media realm that don't rely on hydro-electric dams, diesel generators, and other forms of industrial energy production? Can a sound-creature be self-sufficient and live on its own for a long period of time? Greg Egan - a science-fiction writer from Australia - postulates a future where AI programs live in small, solar powered virtual communities. These communities outlast the human race and are able to run as self-contained worlds that communicate with each other using radio waves. Solar Radio is self-sufficient to the point where it could easily outlast its creator. As a sound instrument it is set in motion by the artist and then it continues to explore and generate sound on its own, in perpetuity.
Solar Radio collaborated with Absolute Value of Noise and Anna Friz in the making of Embodied Radio Devices a stream for Art's Birthday January 17, 2019. It has been heard on Radiophrenia in Glasgow in May 2019.