Onyx Ashanti is a musician, programmer, 3D print-designer, writer, performer, inventor…a self described child of the internet, and disciple of the open source philosophy. He is the creator of a new way to combine improvisation, dance and sound design with his invention “Beatjazz”, which merges between art and science, representing the intersection of hardware, software and concept.
As a raver in the ’90s, Onyx Ashanti felt very strongly about the synergistic power of electronically generated music and psychedelic compounds for constructing new realities, and so he set out to design new realities. “The goal is that this completely interfaces with data and social reality so that they merge into something that evolves.”
The Beatjazz Controller is a wearable, wireless, 3-node network interface for a complete live performance architecture designed to enable completely immersive live electronic performance. I interviewed Onyx Ashanti to find out more about where the idea came from and how it has evolved.
Who is Onyx Ashanti?
There are multiple answers to that question. Onyx Ashanti is the name that came to me in a dream after the verdict of acquittal for the officers involved in the Rodney King police-terrorist attack, back in 1992, as the beginning of a journey to comprehend myself anew. But also, Onyx Ashanti is a guy I dreamed up as a child. Someone who was who I wanted to be when I grow up. And still again, Onyx Ashanti is a transitional myth to get me to the next iterative stage of self design. The name allows me to paint reality and design my self.
You can do what you do because of this interface you have created. Can you briefly describe why you began the process of developing this system?
That depends on your definition of what I do. The interface is in a constant transitional state. I think of it as a kind of coherent boredom modulator. The interface is the artifact at the end of the process trajectory. The real game is in the design and programming of something that can interact with the idea matrix to produce such an artifact. I’ve had grand ideas for ages but only recently has computing power been sufficiently powerful and cheap to allow for those ideas to be interacted with in realtime at such high quality. I feel that if I can create something that can modulate boredom, then it will have other cognitive benefits as well. That helps move it out of the zone of entertainment and into the realms of reality design, based on the idea of reality as a projection. This would make the “music” it produces a psycho-cymatic, sono-synaptic reconfigurator…THAT has definitely modulated my boredom, as a musician of 35 years, and will have beautifully unpredictable results. So I guess interactive unpredictability is an easy way to say why I do what I do and what made me start.
Your work is starting to link into cybernetics with the addition of a neural transmitter added into your interface. How is that coming along? (as you nearly caught on fire before one of your TED talk events). Is it making progress in terms of how you want it to interact with your interface and can you give us a short idea of what it does?
Hahahaha, yeah, I solved the fire problem :-). Now I call what I do, sonocybernetics. It is the transduction of data into sound. The purpose of this sonic transduction is to make use of the brains ability to adapt to any form of coherent data input, in this case, sound. Humans have very sophisticated sound computational mental architecture, baked in. So currently I have been working on refining ways of understanding sound in a computational sense, like typing, mouse control, navigation and ronbotic control, but also for neuromodulation i.e. entertaining the wave dynamics of the brain. I needed to get the system stable before I moved on to the next step which is to read realtime EEG (brain waves) signals into the system to guide my neuromodulation protocols more precisely. I feel strongly that there is a communication that can be had within oneself that will result in unpredictable “non-bored” states. And since the system has so much room for evolution (I am currently only using 8 parameters out of a possible 255), it will evolve exponentially beyond a certain point….theoretically.
Each new parameter added doubles the complexity of the output. The primary synth is called “complexity” as it is for playing with complex modifications to the sound, in real time. There is also a keyboard and mouse replacement with sonic feedback called Func. This is what makes it an interface instead of just a musical instrument. The music trains the brain as well as provides feedback for all the functions of the system. This constant feedback and expression is where the cybernetics aspect expresses itself.
Do you have any prior history/knowledge with the study of cyborgology and post-humanism?
My previous interactions were all mediated through pop culture but in the last 7-8 years, I have voraciously read research papers and subscribed to various blogs and authors who have more grounded ideas regarding what is doable and what is possibly responsible. My issue with cyborgology from a pop-cultural stand point is that they are always a project of some sort of skunkworks…they, the cyborg, never just iterate themselves. The cybernetics are always impressed from outside of their own control. That aspect of cyborg mythology is irritating. Norbert Wiener, the creator of cybernetics, thought so to and even wrote a book about the issue called “The Human Use of Human Beings” on the topic, and post humanism is a sort of dressed-up self hate, in my mind. How can we be post-human when we haven’t mastered being human yet. Or even really have a reasonable grasp as to what this state of being actually is. Let’s focus on being optimal-human and from there emerge into whatever state that creates. Post-human and trans-human both leave me cold in regards to a ‘why’. That question became a much more interesting one, when asked after the emergence of open source technology like arduino, reprap 3D printers, linux, pure data…new questions with much more interesting new answers. Trans/post humanism must be re-assessed now and perpetually as a self iterated form. But the emphasis and trajectory should be on optimal humanism first, which will intuitively move toward transhumanism. Post-humanism, to my mind, is a question for someone else other than myself. The other two I just mentioned are keeping me fully engaged.
How do you think our relationship with technology is changing?
I think of technology as a noun and a verb. In my mind, technology is the natural expression of human beings. It is the hard coding of ideas into time. “Our” depends on whether you are predominately creating technology or consuming it. For those that create and modify technology, the ability to go from idea space to time space in 1-3 steps is creating a new dimension of possibility. We can evolve ourselves now. We can be our technology. New questions have to be asked and new answers must be comprehended usefully. For those that do comprehend, it is important for them to create a bridge to those that do not. A way for anyone to be able to program their reality as well. When we all realize that technology is what we do as a species, we can design the entire construct to be more communal and participatory. Open source technology moved in this direction strongly.
How do you think cybernetics will transform design, art and fashion in the up and coming years?
Well, cybernetics at its most simple would be the ability to constantly interact with the data and information used for the process one is involved with so things are increasingly able to emerge more and more quickly from idea space. Instead of 2-3 years to get to a point, things can be sorted in weeks or months. Core ideas in hours or days. Also creativity can bloom without the necessity of large sums of money, which will and already has enabled a cross pollination of disciplines. I see this trend becoming much more fractal if only just in my own work.
When this fully integrates itself into fashion, which to me is purely body worn symbology, it will mutate every single preconceived notion of what people wear on their bodies. Self-iterated personalized fashion will have a profound effect on society because how one dresses projects affiliation with resonant ideas. So I feel strongly that every dominant fashion expression that currently exists will form the primordial basis for much and many mutations which will cross pollinate endlessly as it becomes the “norm“, whatever normal means anymore.
I’ve been wearing 3D printed footwear only, for the last 2 years and I had no idea how much people look at each others feet. But add to that that my “exo-feet” have also made my feet vastly stronger than they were before I started wearing them and can see very clearly now how to take those benefits and build on them going into the future(s), with evolving techniques that emerge as I learn more about myself while wearing them.
With technology advancing at such a rapid rate, you seem to be creating new enhancements for your interface at a rapid pace. It is helping with your progression?
Learning how to learn iteratively, has been the greatest asset gained from the last decade, for me. Having an interface that will, say, eventually allow me to interact with CRISPR technology (gene editing), means that I can funnel everything I learn through a cybernetic prosthesis that enhances brain function and information interaction by converting it into sound forms. Everything is digital now which means that better digital interfacing will be immediately applicable to any form of information I want to study and use. My thoughts on the idea of the “singularity” are that the human brain/mind are natures quantum computer and nothing I have ever read in any research paper gives me the impression that there is any limit to what we can learn, process and use, if we interact with it constructively and intuitively. We could easily outpace computers intellectually because we can use the computers as prosthesis to do it.