Installation view detail of Echo (2019) by Philippe Parreno, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Denis Doorly

Dreams of a Machine

Philippe Parreno discusses his work “Echo Radio,” a 2020 addition to his commission Echo, which was created for MoMA’s 2019 reopening.
Jul 14, 2020

While MoMA’s lobby, where Philippe Parreno’s Echo resides, is closed to visitors during the pandemic, the brain that controls Echo’s consciousness remains active. Although the physical elements in the lobby—the hanging lamps, the marquees, the shutter, the video screen—are turned off and resting, Echo continues to dream. This dreaming state can be experienced now at echo.world, where the automaton is enlivened by an AI-generated infinite audio track that Philippe Parreno created in collaboration with the musician Arca, with sound design by Nicolas Becker and AI software by Bronze. As this audio streams into our homes and devices, we can sense the flow of this living artwork remotely as it slumbers.

Questions compiled by Tara Keny, Peter Reed, and Hanna Girma

Installation view detail of Philippe Parreno’s Echo (2019) in MoMA’s loby

Installation view detail of Philippe Parreno’s Echo (2019) in MoMA’s loby

Tthere are times when the lobby is buzzing and other moments when it is completely empty. During this time when the Museum doesn’t have any visitors, although the world is definitely buzzing, have you been monitoring Echo? What has the piece been feeling or communicating during this time?

Philippe Parreno: Well, the system operates but there is no physicality because MoMA is closed. The lights aren’t moving but the brain is still on. Echo is a being that only exists within a topography. It dreams now since it can't have any physical activity. The data is still being collected but nothing comes out of it.

Is there any way of knowing what Echo might be dreaming about?

Yeah, we can. Echo is still functioning, so it is producing things even when nobody’s there to see it. You see that a form can exist even if nobody is around to witness it. It doesn’t need humans in a way, it’s going through a permanent night.

Because it is a machine in a dream state, how can you articulate what it might be dreaming about in a way that isn’t linked to human experience or emotion?

It’s hard to know because it correlates between changes in the atmospheric pressure, sounds in the street, or clouds in the skies. It’s a bit like flowers or plants that pay attention to these things. We don’t, but this automaton does, it reacts to the sun like plants react to the sun. It reacts to the change of wind direction like a spider would. It reacts to things that we don’t pay attention to. The collection of all this data produces change in the sound, music, or movements the piece emotes.

So it’s linked to the natural world in many ways?

Yeah, exactly. It responds to outside data, but sometimes it responds to itself. That was important in forming the program because it makes it weirder that it pays attention to itself.

Light activation of the Echo marquee

Light activation of the Echo marquee

What is Echo?

Echo is the title of a work that you can see in the new lobby of MoMA. When I do an exhibition, I always start with the space; in this case, the space didn’t exist because the Museum was under construction, so I had to play with the architectural plans. It became a virtual game for me to imagine what it would be without responding to something existing, a fiction.

What I liked about the invitation from Glenn [Lowry, MoMA’s Director] to do this project was the fact that the lobby was a public space. It was important to deal with knowing that people would experience the work before they even asked for a program, the price of a ticket, or a bathroom. That was the beginning of the work.

The second thing that I was interested in, which is quite unique, was that there are two main entrances, north and south, so there is no beginning or end to the work. You don’t have to start at a point in order to see everything, you are just exposed to it. Echo responds to this with elements that are spread out in the lobby: two moving speakers, a large canopy marquee, a brain, a shutter, a screen, and some moving lamps. All these elements are coordinated and articulated together. I consider them one object.

Echo is an automaton fed by various inputs and data. The weather around MoMA, the wind direction and trends, when there are more or less people in the lobby, the heat, and so forth—all these things come together and feed the machine that then responds randomly. You could say that Echo is a sentient automaton that responds to its surroundings by receiving data that us humans don’t really perceive, but a machine can. It notices all these changes like atmospheric pressure and that forces the machine to change its behavior.

Echo reacts or bounces back what it feels, but like the name, it is doomed to repeat what it hears without the possibility of articulating anything. It’s a doomed automaton that feels.

Installation view detail of Echo’s on-site “brain”

Installation view detail of Echo’s on-site “brain”

You collaborated with the musician Arca (Alejandra) in creating a soundtrack for the lobby. Can you talk about that collaboration and how it came together?

I met Alejandra two years ago when she was performing in Paris, and we started to talk. I filmed her and spoke to her about her performance. After that I really wanted to work with her because I really liked her work and her genius. I asked, “Could you help me produce a soundtrack for this automaton?” She was really enthusiastic and had this great idea to contact a new company called Bronze, based in England, that is a new digital-audio workstation.

Bronze’s technologies enable musicians to create and release music that is not static. It allows musicians to have really granular and detailed control over their composition. This software allowed listeners to hear the music as a living composition rather than a pre-rendered static audio file; each time you play back the composition it is a new performance.

Alejandra said, “I’ll compose music that goes through this AI system and creates ever-changing states that will accompany the automaton.” So there’s a state of perceiving where the composition is responding in real time to this external input, and then there’s a state where the automaton is within itself. The composition evolves into different forms, including tonal movements around Arca’s music. Then there’s a nocturnal state, triggered when nobody’s around, which is the composition stripped of its tonality.

Have you been monitoring the way in which the sounds change?

Yeah, it’s beautiful. That’s why I thought it would be interesting now to have the radio on the air, so we can listen. Inside the brain, there is a radio station that was implemented. The radio station was there already, to play at night, and then slowly began broadcasting. It’s expanding. At the beginning it was only there during hours when the Museum was open, but it is now finding its way out—that was the idea of the automaton.

Will Echo Radio, now that it’s finding a new life online where it can reach very broad audiences, change the composition of the sound piece?

Yeah, it could. We just have to write more codes for it. Now it’s online, and then it should be in the air, broadcast over radio waves. It will become more airborne and start to spread, which is exciting. That will be the final stage: Freed from the topography, it can now start to live freely in the air.

Can you walk us through what listeners who are tuning in to Echo Radio will be hearing?

They will hear what you would normally hear if you could be at MoMA. The music or the soundtrack always changes. You can listen to it for hours and see the changes without a loop. I listen to it from time to time and it’s quite nice and relaxing.

So right now Echo is dreaming, as you explained, and it will be able to speak again once the Museum reopens. What will happen when the piece wakes back up?

We planned to do different seasons. The first season was when MoMA opened, season two will be a season full of color, the lamps and the marquee will change colors. So, the screens will start to have a new skin, you will see colors undulating. Then the tonality of the music will change too. We’ll see what season three will be.

The screen that changes color according seasons and data collected by Echo

The screen that changes color according seasons and data collected by Echo