Somerset House Studios

Re:cognition Podcast | Nick Ryan

17 Sep 2019

Artist Nick Ryan presents an ontological adventure into voice recognition, language, semiotics, sensory experience, immersive sound and imagination for the latest podcast series for Somerset House Studios.

The series documents and delves into the research being undertaken by Nick Ryan and his collaborators for RE:COGNITION, an interdisciplinary project exploring the connection between the sound of spoken language) and meanings manifest in the physical world as sound or concepts otherwise capable of being represented sonically.

Conversations about language.

Don Hoffman: the red apple

Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, puts forward the radical proposal that everything we perceive as reality, in fact bears little relation to the ‘real’ world in which we live. His work is based on evolution and rigorous modelling, and reflects on Nick’s mission to build a machine that translates spoken language into the audible sensation of its meaning. Don is an author of over 100 scientific papers and three books, including Visual Intelligence, and his new book, The Case Against Reality. 

Angela Terrill: The sea facing limb

Angela Terrill is a Linguist and is known for her comprehensive study of Lavukaleve, a Papuan Language spoken on the Russell Islands in the Central Province of the Solomon Islands. Lavukaleve is described as an ‘isolate’ language, bearing little relation even to other languages in the Solomon Islands, despite having existed for many thousands of years. Through her knowledge of studying this unique language, Angela is able to share much about how a spoken language is formed, used and develops over time. The conversation has interesting implications for Nick in the creation of his Machine as Angela shares fascinating examples of both the cultural specificities of Lavukaleve and some qualities and functions of language that may be universal.

Neil Bennun: the lion and the wine-dark sea

Neil Bennun is a BAFTA winning author, actor and experimental theatre maker who has written extensively for video games and interactive and digital narrative projects. In his book, “The Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People” (published by Penguin in 2005) Neil uncovered the stories of the first people of South Africa from the brink of extinction - a world of sorcerers, hunters and artists with vivid stories to tell. Nick and Neil discuss evolution, the origins of language and symbol, hacking and why Homer referred to the Sea as ‘wine-dark’, as Nick delves deeper in his mission to build a machine in which a human communication can be translated into a universal representation in non-verbal sound.

Jerome Lewis: predators and polyphony

In this bumper final episode of the series, Nick Ryan continues his search into the meaning of language with Anthropologist Dr Jerome Lewis, asking why and where language began. A Reader in Social Anthropology at University College London, Jerome has 25 years of research experience working with The Bayaka hunter-gatherers in the Congo Basin researching child socialisation, play and religion; egalitarian politics and gender relations; and language, music and dance. Jerome takes Nick on Journey into the forest, tracing the origins of language, as he explains ‘radical egalitarianism’, polyphonic singing, survival from predators, ‘costly signalling’ and how to call fish with your voice underwater.

In connection to this Nick Ryan presents The Gulf of Understanding (Re:cognition) as part of BONDS until 05 Jan 2020 at Gallery 31, Somerset House Studios’ new permanent exhibition space. The Gulf of Understanding (Re:cognition) taps into the magic of making sense, exploring the sound of spoken language and its relationship to sensation and matter. Inviting visitors to speak a word into a microphone, the installation uses machine learning and natural language processing to automatically represent these words as sounds. Simultaneously, a visualisation displays the words and their semantic relationships to related vocabulary. 

Nick Ryan is a multi-disciplinary artist and composer exploring auditory representations of information, language, physical materiality and space through the creation of sound and multisensory installations, bespoke instruments and generative audio experiences. 

Re:cognition is commissioned by CASE Foundation and currently is in the R&D phase. 

Podcast produced by Nick Ryan and Jo Barratt for Somerset House Studios.