Micro-commission: Andrew Woodhead


We caught up with Andrew Woodhead about his micro-commission for Lancaster Jazz Festival: i am not a robot.

In this piece, Andrew has taken the familiar experience of proving you are not a robot by completing a Captcha and elevated it into something creative and thought-provoking. You can play with this piece, creating your own compositions which you can then save and share with others (a very human thing to do).

Check out i am not a robot over on Andrew’s website and keep reading for our interview with Andrew.

Hi Andrew, how are you? What have you been up to since playing at Lancaster Jazz Festival with Home/Lands?

I’m good thanks! I’ve been juggling lots of things since then, including a week of touring with the wonderful life-affirming humans in Extended Family Band to launch our new album, and speaking about my kinetic sculpture/sound installation Waves at this year’s JPN Conference.

Your microcommission i am not a robot is such an interesting idea, and the Lancaster Jazz Festival team have been having fun proving we’re humans with it! Can you tell us where this idea came from and how you approached this microcommission?

My generation grew up with the internet, and its current form feels a universe away from the version that I grew up with in 90’s and early 00’s. I have a nostalgia for the weirdness and clunkiness of the early web, how us teenagers would teach ourselves how to code HTML to make our Myspace pages glow, flash and autoplay terrible music, or how tiny blogs would exist to unite oddballs who were obsessed with one niche or another.

I wanted to create something of an homage to the flash games that me and my friends wasted hours of our youth playing, and give a sly salute to the “old internet”, something un-sleek and un-shiny which prods at the question of what can be done with the modern digital experience, how you could play with the format and put the power back into the hands of the audience and break out of the boxiness of the screen…

As well as playing with ideas of what makes us human, your microcommission also lets us interact with the piece and build up soundscapes of our own. How did you get the idea to bring this extra dimension into the reCaptcha format that we’re all so familiar with?

As a bit of a gamer growing up, one of my favourite things was finding “Easter Eggs” in games, little prizes, puzzles and messages left by the developers for those who strayed from the scripted pathways of the game.

I also love art which subverts the everyday and plays with our collective cultural associations. Birmingham’s own Foka Wolf is a great example of this and is someone whose work I really admire. This sense of mischief, of things not being what they seem at face value and the idea of artworks which reward those who look more closely at things is what led me to co-opt the reCaptcha as a vehicle for a sound piece.

For a bit of timely wider context for geeks like me, there was a particularly interesting episode of The Digital Human a couple of weeks ago about the origins of “culture jamming” and “subvertisements”, as well as a glimpse into how techniques created initially by artists are being put to more sinister uses today.

How did you create the sounds and images you’ve used in this piece?

The sounds and images were based on photos and field recordings from around Lancaster taken by the lovely Dave Shooter, which were then manipulated in tandem by myself and an AI image generator.

I’ve always been interested in the edges where technology starts to break, where the glitches and gremlins are to be found. At the time of making the piece, lots of very slick AI-generated images were grabbing headlines (and awards!) and sparking doom-laden debates about the role of artists in our brave new world.

I wanted to try to break the software, to push it away from making shiny pastiche-type images and see if I could trick it into showing a bit of itself to us. I erased huge chunks of each image, then asked the AI to fill in what was missing, using deliberately vague or emotional prompts to try and short-circuit the machine in some way, asking it to imagine its own version of Lancaster from the fragments it was given.

The sound loops were made by me in a process that tried to invert or mirror the process done to the images by the AI, chopping, splicing and re-imagining elements of the long-form audio recordings captured by Dave into short loops which can interact, complement and contradict each other.

Once the images and sounds were created, I worked with guitarist and coding wizard Ben Lee to create the online framework for the piece, which we beta tested, then tweaked the images, sounds, UI, layout and behaviours until it was exactly what we wanted.

It’s nice that we can share what we’ve created in this piece, and interesting too as it’s adding a sense of permanence to an experience that’s normally very fleeting. What made you include this functionality in the piece?

One aspect of my favourite old flash games was the ability to save your progress via copy-and-paste URLs which you would keep in a treasured word doc, or cheat codes you would share with your friends to unlock hidden features of the games.

I wanted to rekindle this kind of treasure-hunting social activity in this piece, allowing users to share their loops with friends or simply save them for their own enjoyment via copyable URLs, outside of the algorithmic grip of social media platforms.

Finally, tell us what’s going on in your creative life? Any shows or new music we should know about?

At the moment I’m gearing up for an album launch and tour with my band Swing You Sinners in April next year – subscribers to my mailing list will get all the info before anyone else, plus a discount on pre-orders…

What are you listening to right now? Any music recommendations for us?

I’ve been playing this beautiful new album “B” from concertina player Cormac Begley on repeat…

Plus I’ve been really enjoying the (relatively) new podcast from the Association for Cultural Equity called Been All Around This World. Each episode is a short guided tour through part of Alan Lomax’s vast archive of traditional music from all over the world, guided by the archive’s curator Nathan Salsburg.

And, we have to ask, are you a robot? And are we?

Beep Boop. </interview>

Lancaster Jazz Festival is made possible by