Musician meets machine: The digital artistry of alumnus Ben Grosser

Right brain. Left brain. No such division exists in the mind of Ben Grosser, a musician and artist whose mastery of pitch and palette fuels an extraordinary exploration of robotics, software and the digital realm.

In his artwork, Grosser (IAC 87) asks the kind of questions that have become central to a society growing ever more dependent on software, operating systems and artificial intelligence.

After devoting the first part of his career to technology and science, Grosser returned to his artistic roots, based early on in music. “I realized I could put all of my interests together—machines, visual art, sound,” he said.

Since then, he has devoted himself to making technology-based art that has been featured in galleries, exhibitions and festivals around the world, including New York, London, Venice, Riga, Cologne and Sao Paolo. It has been highlighted, too, in media as diverse as Wired, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and Slate, which called his work “creative civil disobedience in the digital age.”

The journey began with Grosser’s early interest in trumpet and jazz, leading him to Interlochen in the summer of 1987 for eight weeks of camp. “It was fantastic—this opportunity to have such a focused period of time to work on playing and to be among all the other people who were there to play,” he said. “It was more intensive than music school would be later. It was music all the time.”

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Grosser majored in music composition. “Jazz was my foundation in terms of music,” he said. “My interest as a composer was in the generation of sound not reproducible by instrument. I wanted to make sounds that we hadn’t heard before. That’s what got me into generating code and algorithms to create sound.”

He later earned a master of music degree in composition as well as a master of fine arts degree in new media from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he serves today as an assistant professor.

It was as a graduate student that Grosser began delving deep into the fusion of art, sound and technology. This led to pieces such as his Interactive Robotic Painting Machine. “This was a robot that made paintings using oil on canvas,” Grosser said. “It listened to its environment and took those sounds into consideration as it painted.”

In a gallery space, this meant the machine could respond to visitors speaking directly into a microphone or it could listen to nearby conversations. The sounds affected what the robot painted.

Another project, funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, involved the creation of a jazz improvisation system called MUSICA, which stands for Musical Improvising Collaborative Agent. “There are plenty of examples of systems that can play along with you, but we wanted to produce a system that could listen to a human jazz musician and interact in a way that is heard as aesthetic communication,” Grosser said.

Beyond the artistic manifestations born from this creation, DARPA was interested in the system as an example of human/computer interactions. “As we all know from talking to Siri on our iPhones, it’s just not there yet,” Grosser said. “We proposed jazz improvisation as a novel alternative because it is a non-linguistic form of communication.”

The evolutionary endpoint of work like this could be the ability to have instant, full understanding and interaction between humans and artificial intelligence systems.

In a similar vein, his work titled Computers Watching Movies showed what a computational system sees when it watches films, specifically iconic works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix and Annie Hall.

According to Grosser’s description, the “software uses computer vision algorithms and artificial intelligence routines to give the system some degree of agency, allowing it to decide what it watches and what it does not.” The machine responds to those stimuli by drawing and sketching, pushing the questions of how does an artificial intelligence view art versus a human mind that can evaluate those films based on a lifetime of contexts.  

Most recently, as software continues to evolve, Grosser has looked more closely at its effect on human behavior. A more recent work, called Facebook Demetricator removes all quantifications from Facebook posts. Users no longer know how many comments their posts have received. Grosser wanted to see how that would change what they wrote or shared.

“Those numbers drive a lot of the interactions on Facebook,” he says. “If you post a cat video and it gets 30 likes and then you post something emotional about your life and it gets one like, what’s the next thing you’re going to post?”

He also has looked at the way software listens. His current project, Music Obfuscator, will modify the signal of any music track so that it cannot be “seen” by music detection software. In other words, it renders ineffective the types of digital tools that corporations such as YouTube use to track down possible copyright infringement.

“I’m not doing this to facilitate evasion of copyright,” Grosser said. “I’m interested in what happens in a world where software is always listening and where there is no accommodation for fair use.”

As technology, software and artificial intelligence continue their rapid, intertwined growth, Grosser will continue to examine their influence on humanity, society and politics, bridging the disparate elements of art and science into thoughtful, powerful pieces of beauty.
—Elizabeth Lent