Artist Conrad Shawcross on his innovative 'Ada Project' installation at The Peninsula

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For two weeks the iconic lobby of The Peninsula Hotel is set to play host to one of the most innovative and intriguing installations to hit Hong Kong in some time. Hannah Hodson talks robots, music and computers with Conrad Shawcross

Take one of the city’s most historic hotel lobbies, pop a gigantic robotic installation inside and voila! You have one of the most magnificent juxtapositions on show during arts month. Artist Conrad Shawcross, who arguably should add the titles scientist and engineer to his CV, is the brains behind The Ada Project, the fourth edition of Love Art at The Peninsula. The installation effortlessly intertwines the seemingly disparate worlds of maths, science, music and art, which, as Shawcross explains, weren’t all that separate a century or so ago.

When did you start The Ada project?

The Ada Project was first exhibited at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in 2013. The technology was actually borne out of a commission at the National Gallery and Royal Opera House in London in 2012, called Metamorphosis.  

How did the idea evolve and what was the technical process like?

The Ada Project is an ongoing series of musical commissions between myself and leading contemporary composers. Each piece of music was developed using a bespoke choreographic light robot developed in my studio in London. The machine’s movements are programmed into choreographic sequences, with the illuminated tip of the machine drawing paths in the air known more technically as splines. The series attempts to create a new form of musical commissioning, putting the musicians inside a unique set of creative constraints – conceptual, historical, visual and temporal.  We have four commissions so far with more planned this year.

Maths and physics aren’t generally two subjects that go with art, yet a lot of your pieces draw inspiration from these disciplines. Do you have a background in these subjects?

I studied them at school but not beyond this. I studied art at university where I was surrounded by other subjects, which I took inspiration from. Before the Enlightenment, the arts and sciences were perceived as much more intertwined, and if you look back at the history of painting, artists were like scientists searching for special chemicals and mixing different quantities together rather like a chemist. Essentially, artists then were seen more as scientists and their studios were seen as laboratories. One challenge of the contemporary artist or scientist is to visually describe or represent the invisible things beyond our perceptive envelope. Both disciplines share a rich history of trying to deploy and develop abstract ideas.  

What is it about Ada Lovelace’s work that inspired The Ada Project?
Ada Lovelace worked alongside Charles Babbage, the man credited with inventing the first mechanical computer. She saw the potential of his machine and predicted that Babbage’s counting machine could one day ‘compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’. Inspired by this moment in history, I took an industrial robot, stripped it down and reprogrammed it using bespoke software. I also used key numbers and ratios extracted from the many immaculate plans and drawings made by Babbage’s hypothetical machine. These extracted gear ratios formed the constraint for the movement of the robot’s arm and proboscis in the four separate routines, for which four leading female contemporary composers were then asked to create music, each responding to the physicality, tempo and mood of the robot’s silent choreography. The Ada Project therefore turns the traditional commissioning process on its  head by using pre-set dance movements as the catalyst for the creation of music. Each musician therefore needed to interpret the movement of the machine and extract the mathematics to create harmony. The project is not a homage to Ada Lovelace but uses her story and achievements along with the extraordinary time she lived in as a creative springboard.

It’s clearly a very technical piece. Were there any frustrating moments where the piece simply wouldn’t work?
The project has been a huge learning curve and at first it was very frustrating and slow. We have entered the murky, sometimes dangerous world of second-hand robot dealers and have now built up a great network of ‘roboteers’.  We meet in car parks in the pouring rain exchanging cash for rare components – it is strangely Blade Runner.  

Is this your first time showing in Hong Kong?
Yes, and the context in which we’re showing The Ada Project is going to be amazing. We’ve had it in lots of different locations. It has been in the industrial basement at the Palais de Tokyo, it has been in MONA, it has been in an abandoned car park in Soho, London – a wonderful series of stages. Now it’s going to this colonial lobby, this famous landmark in Hong Kong! With its very high ceiling, it should create amazing shadows, and with its Victorian setting, with lots of brass and beautiful fittings, this industrial machine will be in startling contrast to the context, especially as many will arrive to come and have an English cup of tea and find this moon-like, sensual machine to greet them. I’m actually very excited to see The Ada Project in The Peninsula Hong Kong.  

The Ada Project The Peninsula Mar 22-Apr 6;
peninsula.com

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