The Chaos Metronome keeps an irregular tempo based on the sounds that it hears around it. Unlike traditional metronomes that impose standardized tempos on their surroundings, my machine responds to its environment, visualizing noise and making unheard energy audible. The antenna that is embedded in the metronome’s pendulum reacts to electromagnetic fields and converts them to sound; the eerie static produced from the metronome’s speaker in turn influences the metronome’s own tempo. This self-influencing, irregular system challenges the rigid universalism of legalized time with the technologically produced chaos of specific contexts. 

Accompanying the device itself are a series of short films that depict the Chaos Metronome keeping tempo in a variety of settings and situations, from the streets of  Mérida, to Chichén Itza, to Times Square, to Mars. These scenes, some real and some speculated, explore how temporality changes with surroundings. By representing the sonic and electromagnetic environment as a simple, irregular tempo, the Metronome makes visible some of those things that affect our perception of time without us knowing it, like the din of traffic or the speed of a ceiling fan.

In Anthony Aveni’s book Empires of Time, he discusses the remarkable time keeping abilities of oysters. In the 1950’s, biologists sent a small collection of the tidal creatures from New Haven Harbor to Northwestern University for study. It had been previously known that at high tides, oysters would open their shells for a longer period of time (3 or 4 minutes per hour) to get a little more food. But the researchers found something they didn’t expect. Not only did the oysters continue their rhythmic cycle of opening and closing in time with the tides and the moon, but they adapted to a new time standard. The oysters, living in a tub of water inside a laboratory in Illinois, changed their tempo to match how tides would have behaved if an ocean existed in middle America.

This remarkable ability prompts many questions for me. I instinctively look for what distinct mechanism is causing this behavior: for example, are they really sensing the tiny changes in the gravitational pull of the Moon? More productive however, is to relate it to Gilbert Simondon’s poetic conception of electrical antennae on mountains, of which, strangely enough, we do understand the distinct mechanisms. “The view of the mountains and towers is beautiful in relation to this invisible, insensitive and real transmission, current, because the towers are located at the key points of the two mountains for the construction of the Herzian link.” I think the translation here from Spanish to English loses some meaning, but for me this quote is about the poetic importance of location within a landscape for the functioning of a device, the antenna, which we might otherwise think of as transitory, or as endless, identical satellite dishes on rooftops.

In this way, the Chaos Metronome moves around from location to location, but as it does so its behavior and function change, and are specific to its current context. In your home, the antenna-pendulum might listen to the energy of the television that you forgot to turn off. At Chichén Itzá it might listen to the clapping of tourists. In Times Square it might move a little faster in the famously fast-paced city, surrounded by so many electronics. On Mars it might not move at all, or it might keep a slow, steady tempo, listening to the movement of the stars and the satellites flying past.

The project was developed during a five-week field studio in Mérida, Yucatan. This format placed an emphasis on using locally sourced materials to produce a work that would hopefully reflect the context in which it was made. The brief was open ended: to create a sound map that explored the definitions of both “sound” and “map.”

The formal design of the Chaos Metronome was mostly inspired by the form of classic metronomes: obelisk like objects with a pendulum, or the arm of a pendulum, extending upwards. My changes to this form were largely efforts to subvert it, and these aspects could, I think, be exaggerated in future iterations. Examples are the jagged, uneven top on the enclosure, and inversion of the pendulum form. The Chaos Metronome also features The Ghost Detector, a custom circuit created by Constanza Piña as part of her DIY electronics practice. The studio began with a workshop where we created these circuits, and used them to explore Mérida, listening to the static produced by rogue electromagnetic signals. Inspired by this experience, I placed this circuit front and center on my design and many of my aesthetic choices followed its lead, embracing  exposed, beat up, electronics and circuitry.   
An area of the project that I think could be further explored is the device’s interaction. Questions I want to consider are:

  • To what extent does the metronome disrupt its surroundings with its  noise?
  • Do its sounds make reference to metronomes, or do they continue toonly utilize the Ghost Detector, making staticky radio feedback type noise?
  • To what extent does the object itself explain its algorithm to the audience?
  • To what extent can the audience directly affect the functioning in an understandable way? Is this interaction explicitly invited or not?

This project was inspired by, and participates in a continuing dialogue about time with a variety of other projects that explore how we perceive time, the time scales on which we operate, and the power that time-keeping devices have come to have over us. Taeyoon Choi’s project In Search of Personalized Time, John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, and Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock were especially influential to me along with the film Milford Graves: Full Mantis, which tells of the life and work of experimental jazz percussionist Milford Graves. Apart from a strong disdain for metronomes, Graves exhibits a commitment to the observation of nature, and a mistrust for other people’s interpretations of nature (which legalized time most certainly is). “I went straight to the source” he says, recounting his purchase of praying mantis insects in an effort to study true martial arts.

Though each project is very different from the others, all discuss time without making clocks that work in the traditional sense. For me this idea of a “useless machine” is very compelling, as it confronts industrial and capitalist norms about what is useful and about what machines are for. Another great source of inspiration for this project was the work of Constanza Piña, who also mentored me during the project. The metronome utilizes one of her circuits, and her poetic thinking around the purpose and function of antennae were hugely influential for me. I hope that this project can contribute to the important conversations she is having around these subjects.

Instructors: Elizabeth Chin, Constanza Piña