From the Hypnotic to the Chaotic

December 9, 2015
Mark Cetilia [Schaulust]

Light and sound are abstract concepts that only become real to us when perceived by our senses through the eyes and ears and translated by the brain.  Mark Cetilia, a Ph.D. recipient in the Computer Music and Multimedia (MEME) program of the Brown Music Department who successfully defended his dissertation on December 1, explores the interaction between human senses and surroundings by investigating “structure and rupture, rhythm and noise.” He calls his dissertation work a “sensorial exercise focused on developing an awareness of the conditions of observation.”

To explore sensorial awareness in his dissertation, Cetilia focused on “the intersections between improvisation, paracinematic performance, techno, and experimental music.” This array of performance styles and music genres and methods were created with custom hardware and software designed for real-time improvisation that incorporated stroboscopic light and robotically controlled mirrors. This multi-faceted approach to music and visual art results in a “full-body experience that embraces the base pleasures afforded by the generation and manipulation of light and sound as physical objects, evolving over time from the hypnotic to the chaotic.”

Cetilia’s dissertation includes both a project and written document and is a product of years of research in the tools, technologies, and fields of inquiry seen in both aspects of his thesis. The sonic parts of his piece pull from histories of noise and techno music that he has made accessible with a custom analog/digital hybrid performance system that he has worked on for fifteen years. Upon coming to Brown, Cetilia rewrote the digital aspect of his performance system to allow both sides of the system to fully integrate in a way that he says, “allows for the development of complex feedback networks and the evolution of chaotic systems.”  

The visual aspects of his project are a result of past experiments with stroboscopic light that he has expanded upon with physical computing platforms he learned to use at Brown. The written aspect of his project pieces together the sound and light aspects into a history of his experiences along with the “histories of techno, noise, structural/materialist film, and the paracinematic performance work of Ken Jacobs.”

Making abstract entities such as light and sound tangible and accessible to the human mind has been a focus of Cetilia’s research and passion for over a decade.  At the age of four, he began playing the piano and when he began his undergraduate studies at Roanoke College, he furthered his interest in music while earning a BA in Studio Art. For his undergraduate thesis, his work involved 3- and 4-way calls between patrons, who individually went in a dark room with only a telephone and received calls from random visitors outside the gallery via a cordless phone. The outside callers initiated conversation while Cetilia inserted pre-recorded tape loops, introducing confusion to the conversations. The purpose of this experiment was to explore “shared experience as the locus of creative activity” rather than art being seen as a product of individual genius.

After graduating, Cetilia spent ten years establishing himself in the fields of electroacoustic improvisation and sound art by learning basic electronics, synthesis, and programming techniques. At the same time, he worked as a graphic designer and multimedia/web developer. In 2006, Cetilia, along with media artist Joe Cantrell, received a Creative Capital grant for their group Redux to develop their audiovisual installation Callspace. This opportunity encouraged him to look into MFA programs, and he discovered the Digital + Media program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) which allowed him to study “technology as means to an end rather than an end in itself.”

At RISD, Cetilia often found himself working with the MEME program at Brown. Several years after earning his MFA, he applied for the Ph.D. program with MEME, which he describes as, “one of the best decisions I have ever made.” Through his studies at Brown and earlier and particularly through his dissertation work, Cetilia hopes “to create works that are at once moving, inspiring, and intellectually stimulating . . . My work should not only test the physical limits of the senses, but should give pause for thought and initiate inquiry.”