n-Cha(n)t consists of a community of seven speaking computers which
exchange texts associatively. Each computer listens in on conversations
of spectators with microphones and speech recognition software. This
input sends it on a new trajectory of associative links. When there is
too much outside input, the computers stop listening, focus on each
other and fall into an emergent chant.
The title of David Rokebys award-winning installation n-Cha(n)t is a pun on the verbs enchant, chat, chant, and on the mathematical symbol n, which signifies an unknown value. N-Cha(n)t shows how the power of the spoken word creates community, a sense of togetherness and belonging, and how that very system of sociability goes awry when interrupted by a strange voice. In this particular case the linguistic community consists of a set of cha(n)t(t)ing computers.
The visitor enters the space, where a number (n) of computers and monitors are suspended from the ceiling, intercommunicating (chanting) with each other. Every computer has its own voice, speaking grammatically correct English sentences. In addition, each entity is equipped with a highly focused microphone and voice recognition software. When a visitor speaks into one of the microphones, these words from the outside "distract" that system, stimulating a shift in that entity's 'state of mind'. As a result, that individual (i.e. that particular computer) falls away from the chant. As it begins communicating this new input to its nearest neighbours, the community chanting loses its coherence, with the chanting veering towards a party-like chaos of voices. In the absence of further disruptions, the intercommunications reinforce the similarities and draw the community back to the chant.
The ears visible on the computer monitors show the state of receptivity of each system. When the system is ready to listen, a listening ear is shown on the screen. If the system hears a sound, it cups its ear to concentrate. When 'thinking', a finger is pressed into the ear. If the system feels over-stimulated, it covers its ear with a hand to indicate its unwillingness to listen. As a system processes speech, the incoming words are displayed in the ear on the monitor.
It is hard not to read the project through a political lens. The computers communicate and interact with each other, and seem to make up a perfectly closed and harmonious communal system. They could go on chanting forever, yet in comes the human visitor/intrudor and disturbs the voice of unison. However, this process is not an abrupt coup détat-style intervention, it is gradual and subtle and almost attributes viral qualities to language. By corollary, there is no instant gratification for the visitor. In this sense n-cha(n)t differs from most interactive pieces where immediate feedback is a marker of responsiveness. Here becoming intimate with the system is not so clear-cut; any community - whether machinic or human - has its defence mechanisms ready to fend off a threat to the consensus or status quo. Concurrently, every system in equilibrium holds the promise of becoming imbalanced by having its defences punctured.
David Rokeby (GB)
commissioned by the Banff Centre for the Arts
Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Interactive Art 2002