Dropbox has more than 700 million registered users across 180 countries. Where we once cut-and-pasted photographs into physical photo albums, we now save our images on iCloud. Answering machine messages are locked behind passcodes, and conversations with friends and family are encrypted on platforms like WhatsApp. These new ways of communicating and storing memories have myriad advantages: they are often faster, cheaper and less resource intensive. Yet, the pace of technological change poses questions about the the future of our personal information. Will today’s file types become obsolete? Who controls what data? How do we preserve our digital legacies for generations to come?
Artists and technologists Harry Yeff (Reeps100) and Trung Bao are interested in these questions. Their answer is VOICE GEMS, “the first project in the world” to produce gemstone artworks generated from influential human and critically endangered animal voices. This September, these dazzling objects are displayed across the interior and exterior of London’s W1 Curates on Oxford Street. Presented by W1 Immersive, these sculptures turn audio recordings into a visual archive of love, death, hope and legacy.
A: The very first VOICE GEM was created in 2018 from the laughter between two lovers. Where did the idea come from, and how has it evolved since then?
HY: VOICE GEMS is the result of 10 years spent building generative systems that use the human voice as a driver for art and design. It’s a technology-driven project which offers a novel form of digital and spiritual ceremony, with the human voice at its core. My collaborator Trung Bao and I have collected hundreds of vocal expressions and techniques from across the globe. Every voice on Earth is unique and precious. This is a new way to preserve and own something that is normally amorphous – like smoke.
A: Can you explain the process of creating a digital gemstone? How do you turn human and animal voices into visual artworks, and what is it that we are looking at?
HY: We work with one minute of audio per piece. Our innovative 200,000 particle system harnesses the fingerprint-like features found in the human voice to generate the colours and form of one-of-a-kind gemstones. Once this process is complete the pieces are rendered digitally, or 3D printed in resin or silver. We see this process as a new kind of digital ceremony, and so we take great care over every work.
A: Can you name some of the individuals – and species – that can be found in your archive? How did you decide which voices to include, and what messages do they share?
HY: The curation sprawls across a spectrum of human expression and vocal phenomena. We focus on Earth’s most vulnerable, remarkable and unique voices – with the aim of preserving the pieces for 1,000 years. We have included conversations with dear friends, laughter between lovers and recordings of loved ones who have passed on. We are honoured to have Ai Weiwei, Lily Cole, Sir Geoff Hurst, Felipe Pantone, Herbert W. Franke, Dr. Jane Goodall and more join the archive. Last year we partnered with National Geographic explorer Ben Mirin on a set of five pieces generated by critically endangered species. You can see how this kind of project can enter many spaces, and the archive will simply continue to grow.
A: The works are visually very striking: glittering, colourful, mesmerising. Why did you choose the image of an uncut precious stone to represent these voices?
HY: All voices are precious, like jewels. I have created many voice-generated sculptures, but the vibrancy of VOICE GEMS is something different. It celebrates the power of voices and positions them as some of the most complex expressions found in nature. The VOICE GEMS system expresses a visual identity based on voice alone: the tone of the sound produces shapes and colours. Although voices can be heard nearly everywhere, we often don’t take the time to consider their profound value and contribution to our identity.
A: The exhibition raises questions about life and legacy in the digital age – our data footprints and the media we leave behind. How do you see VOICE GEMS developing going forward?
HY: I am interested in the future of ceremony and tradition. I know the digital can be spiritual, and there’s a new wave of individuals looking for unique ways to celebrate their lives. People are seeking new ways to highlight our most fundamentally human experiences with technology. We now have vast amounts of what I call “precious media”: voice notes and recordings of loved ones kept on cold hardware like phones and laptops. A home for these recordings is becoming more and more needed, and I believe there is room for future traditions around the data and media we leave behind. VOICE GEMS is the first to explore a solution of this nature. We aim to contribute to the next 1,000 years of tribute and remembrance.
All images courtesy Harry Yeff (Reeps100) and Trung Bao.