(Author's note: This piece was first published on the Philadelphia Art Alliance blog here!)

Artist Profile

Samuel Cusumano, whose exhibition NOISE: Electricity for Progress opens at the Philadelphia Art Alliance on March 20th, is a Philadelphia-area multimedia artist who focuses on pushing the boundaries of art and science.  His pieces incorporate a merging of electronic sound equipment and natural elements, inviting audiences to participate and create new sounds using such disparate items as fruit and old toy parts.  He is far from a traditional artist both in his craft and goals.  His website, which contains images and video of past projects, can be found here.  Additional video for one of his projects can be found here.

I corresponded with Sam Cusumano over email in an interview for the Philadelphia Art Alliance blog to find out more about his unique approach to art-making. Enjoy!

Artist Interview

I On the Arts: Can you describe your projects, in general and for the PAA show?

Sam Cusumano: I am an Engineer for the Arts.

Electricity for Progress is my direct action educational interactive electronics initiative through which I work with media artists, youth organizations, producers, and curators to build interactive electronic installations.  I focus on the theme “understand how your tools work.”  I believe that through examination and analysis, we can understand the simple and complex electronic devices surrounding us every day.  I work with consumer electronics, children’s toys, electronic musical effects, and analog synthesizers, both to repair and to modify the devices in order to produce a wide array of sounds, rhythms, and textures. By examining the changes in the sounds of modified devices, the electronic properties of the circuits can be better understood.

At the PAA I will be showing four primary exhibitions:  

The first will be Biodata Sonification, where I present two tropical plants fitted with custom electronics, which produce a changing stream of music based on fluctuating galvanic conductance across the plant’s leaf.  Along with the plants, a Theremin will be featured, which is a musical instrument that is played by moving your hand near an antenna.  The Theremin functions by radio field interactions, without touching the antenna, and is presented along with the tropical plants which also appear exhibit reaction to human presence.   

The second exhibit will be Modification, where a variety of circuit bend and modified children’s toys and musical instruments will be presented both on display and for guest interaction.  Guests will be invited to play with and explore the devices and will be encouraged to play together and create novel compositions.  On display will be Barbie Karaoke machines, the Speak and Spell, Casio SK-1 and SK-5, and an array of custom circuits.

The third exhibit is a presentation of the Apple Interface, where guests are invited to sit at a table, don headphones, and touch two apples, which will produce a series of musical notes in reaction to the users grip.  This exciting interface is augmented with subwoofer seats from SubPac and beautiful soundscapes from Data Garden.
Samuel Cusumano, Apple Interface.

The fourth exhibit will be a Room of Sounds.  Samples, performances, demonstrations, explorations, and archives will be played back for listeners and guests.  Experience high fidelity recordings of some of the devices on display, and enjoy selections from key experiments, albums, and exhibitions.  At times beautiful and melodic, and at times harsh and gritty, guests are invited to listen and find their own patterns in the noise.

IOtA: Has sound always been your medium?  

SC: I have acted as sound engineer and recordist [sic] for the past 15 years, providing a modest PA setup to local psychfolk [sic] and traveling artists in cozy bookstores and churches.  Musically, I have produced a powerful album Sequence of Prophets with Niagara Falls, which features circuit bent SK5 keyboard as a variety of waves, winds, washes, hot leads, and deep bass.  I have performed regionally as Electricity for Progress, where I present and explain different modified devices and perform a, sometimes noisy, demonstration (with commentary).  I also work with the media organization Data Garden, where we work with Biodata Sonification systems, presenting artists and biologists with streaming data from plants.  Our MIDI Sprout project places electrodes onto the leaves of plants and graphs changes in galvanic conductance across the leaf surface as MIDI notes that can be played on a computer or synthesizer.  

IOtA: What is the most satisfying part of your practice?

SC: It has been amazing working with plants, and presenting my Biodata Sonification systems to the public.  Through powerful daytime outdoor exhibitions, we have been able to show, explain, and entertain hundreds of passers through sounds and questions.

IOtA: What is the most frustrating part of your practice?

SC: In the Biodata installations, people often walk up and want to touch the plants.  This always frustrates me, as the most amazing aspect of the Biodata installation is in the way that plants and humans interact without touching.  For patient guests who linger to listen as others come and go, some of the subtle dynamics of the sonification process can be heard, and the listener can begin to decode some of the complex information presented.   

IOtA: What is your artistic background?  What about your musical and scientific background?

SC: When I was a child, I always wanted to understand how machines and systems worked.  I would build and dismantle anything that I could take a screwdriver to.  I began working with simple electronics and computers, which became a huge asset for repairing and rescuing aging machines.  By working with musicians I began repairing guitar effects and old analog synthesizers.  I was introduced to circuit bending and modifying toys and small keyboards, which opened my mind to a whole array of modular synthesizer and DIY electronics organizations.  
Samuel Cusumano, Circuit Bending, and Modification: A display of interactive modified electronic toys.  Courtesy Electricity for Progress.

My devices begin with opportunity and inspiration.  Conversation and crazy ideas can sometimes lead to amazing systems.  For example, earlier last year I worked with Little Baby’s Ice Cream on a device that allows users to play music while they eat an ice cream cone. Music for Ice Cream presented a duet where friends eating ice cream cones fitted with my interactive “cone-troller” could produce generative music.

IOtA: What do you hope people take away from your craft?

SC: My goal is to inspire creative questioning.  By presenting modified, noisy, devices to a group of public guests, I create an atmosphere of free play and allow users to explore and interact with the modified devices and with each other.  I love discussing my devices and machines with guests, understanding their perceptions and discussing questions.