-> May 2023
-> 1960s Rotary Dial Telephone, Arduino & electronics, Bespoke software
-> 7” x 9.8” x 4.5”

5537-0537 is a special sequence of numbers for me, the artist, but essentially it is a phone number, and the title of this work. Picking up the receiver, the audience can dial an arbitrary 8-digit number. Then, the functioning phone gradually guides the audience into a state of chaos, noise, and feedback within the lines. As a new number is dialed, the signal will be disrupted by noise, transitioning the soundscape into a distinct state that corresponds to the dialed number.

This piece was also presented with an Ambisonic 29-channel system in May, 2023, at the Spatial Audio Studio at Rhode Island School of Design. 

-> Listen to the reocrded soundtrack

The fascination with Cybernetics instills in us a belief that the world operates as a complex interconnection of nodes, and such a system is controlled through the exchange of information and feedback among the nodes. The telephone, as a primitive yet truly remarkable device, made the world become an intricate network operating within and between societies in which information is exchanged. Third-order cybernetics locates “both the observer and the system within complex, networked, adaptive, and coevolving environments through which information and data are pervasively flowing, a move catalyzed by the rapid development of ubiquitous technologies and mixed reality systems.” But 5537-0537 is not about control–rather, it’s about losing control. Cybernetics quantifies information content and therefore acknowledges the role of entropy, a measure of system disorder or randomness, in relation with the flow of information transmitted within and between systems. Regardless of the number the audience has dialed, the occurrence of noise–the very primitive shapes of sound–will flow in as turbulence, encompassing cycles, noises, utterances, and melodies.

The speech used in the piece was generated from an AI cloned voice of Jane Barbe, the "Time Lady" whose recordings for phone companies were listened to by millions of households over the past century. But the AI model also captured the textures of those recordings: bands, filters, subtle noises, and different phone qualities, resulting in non-exhaustive variations of one person’s voice. In this piece, Barbe’s voice is not just telling us emotionlessly that the number we’ve dialed is not available, but talking about discourses such as consciousness, artificial intelligence, technology, and freedom. Yet her words are broken and fragmented: the succeeding sentence seems loosely related to the preceding one, while sometimes it seems not; Are the relationships only in our heads? Is that so?

Noise is the product of a system with a great number of uncertain, possible states. Machine learning model training starts from a noisy initial state, and meaningful patterns or structures are captured, compressed, high-dimensional data represented in lower dimensions, in other words, a latent space. Any presence of random fluctuations in the system leads to a possible destination. From the noise we see an infinite number of parallel futures.

internal structure of a rotary dial telephone
with a custom-programmed arduino board

-> Special thanks to Griffin Smith, Shawn Greenlee, and Stephen Cooke for their generous help and feedback.