ALGOBABEZ: Writing Code, Pushing Buttons
Durham University (UK)
Leeds University (UK)
ALGOBABEZ came together through a shared skepticism of code-bro cultures, a flurry of oestrogen, and overloaded algorave line-ups. Collaboration felt inevitable. We were both performing regularly as solo performers but were drawn together by the maleness of the scene.
Our first performance took place in the corporate sheen of the Open Data Institute as part of Leeds Digital Festival (2016). We felt a sense of disrupting the atmosphere—when we started playing the crowd changed. The women moved forwards, the men we didn’t recognise (so assumed part of the festival) moved backwards. We had to let rip, ending in smelting metal and broken eardrums for all. Though totally unplanned, and a result of resistance to the context, this set up a "legend" around ALGOBABEZ as an obnoxiously noisy and unapologetically feminist double-act. Sonically this performance caused a shift in the scene (see Futures below).
We’ve always embraced the experimental foundations of the live coding scene e.g. (Collins 2011), preferring to do everything in the moment composing our tracks in response to context, audience, mood, alcohol consumption and each other.
Before performing we don’t discuss structures, preferring to just bounce off each other, developing a structure as we work, continually creating and resolving tensions. Our performances often oscillate between building up and then stripping back dense textures, creating space for each other, and working in different frequency bands to fill in gaps.
Our individual live coding practices meant we naturally took specific musical roles when we started to collaborate: Knotts making textural drone sounds that are rhythmic and broad spectrum, and Armitage tending towards coding drums, effects and patterns. But these roles have always been as fluid as the code, with us merging, swapping and bouncing off each other’s contributions. Part of the ALGOBABEZ sound is combining sound qualities: pairing Knotts’ lo-fi software synths with Armitage’s higher-fidelity hardware instruments that she controls through MIDI and occasional manual button-pushing intervention.
We’ve resisted the more recent live coding modes of coming to the floor with pre-written code and polished pre-composed music. Coding from scratch is more fluid and visceral. Responding fundamentally to the context and risking absolute failure connects us to the audience and each other in ways that pre-coding limits (McLean and Parkinson 2014). It feels simultaneously powerful and communal to stand in front of an audience and challenge gendered expectations by writing code from scratch.
Having said all that, we didn’t come to this entirely unprepared: we rehearsed once before our first show.
Beyond algoraving, we’ve been using ALGOBABEZ as a research vessel, looking at new ways of knowing and controlling sound through performance. By integrating Armitage’s knowledge of physical computing and Knotts’ skills with biometrics, algorithmic systems and network music we have explored algorithmic improvisation in new ways through projects such as BabeNodes, Vibez and Chemical Algorave. BabeNodes encourages audiences to interact, through dancing, with sensors mapped to performance parameters including tempo, triggering samples and mixing volume of our relative sound. Our Chemical Algorave performance used data sourced from drug design processes to control parameters of Armitage’s drum machine and generate melodic patterns for Knotts’ synths. Most recently we developed Vibez, a telehaptic live coding performance where performers share their biometric signals across the internet with algorithmic mediation (Knotts and Armitage 2018). As non-normative coding entities, we're interested in bodily interventions in the code space and through these projects have been using biometric signals from ourselves and the audience to intervene in our normal performative flow.
All of our projects are woven with the threads of feminist theory (Plant 1997; Hayles 2010; Balsamo 2011). We both engage with feminism in our academic work and this has fed into the way we present ourselves as ALGOBABEZ. Connecting the technical "algo" to an ironic use of a term of endearment—that is more at home in mainstream popular music than experimental contexts—allows us to overtly perform gender in academic and electronic music scenes where women are underrepresented. We’ve used this "ironic gender performance" as a mechanism to build narratives around our work, and cement a resistance to the mainstream, in a way that we often shy away from in solo projects.
The sound world of algorave has changed as a result of ALGOBABEZ taking noisy sounds and seamlessly integrating them into four-to-the-floor beats. We didn’t set out to play a particular genre or type of music, but this emerged out of improvisation and performance, and we’ve seen this experimentation with sound propagate across the scene since we started playing. We’ve taken the more experimental side of live coding—often concerned with SuperCollider synthesis—and worked out how to transpose it into the algorave context. We create noise on the dancefloor while projecting ourselves as bad-ass women, crafting new codes for the future of algorave.
ALGOBABEZ has also made a significant contribution to diversifying the gender balance in the UK algorave scene through teaching workshops, changing narratives, acting as role models and informally mentoring other performers. Through collaboration with other women including Alexandra Cardenas, Lucy Cheesman and Miri Kat we have helped to establish a critical mass of women who are performing, teaching and organising live coding activities (Bolt 2017).
ALGOBABEZ have been blasting eardrums with noisey synth-driven algo-pop since 2016. Formed of algorave regulars Shelly Knotts and Joanne Armitage, they use SuperCollider to code and control patterns of weird, wonky, noisy, thumping, danceable music. OK apart, but better together: 2 babes, 2 laptops and 1 sound.
Balsamo, Anne. 2010. Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bolt, Isabelle. 2017. "Meet the Female Coders Pushing Electronic Music into the Future". Mixmag, 31 August.<http://mixmag.net/feature/female-coders-algorave> (accessed 1 October 2017).
Collins, Nick. 2011. "Live Coding of Consequence". Leonardo 44(3): 207-11. <https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_00164>.
Hayles, Katherine N. 2010. My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Knotts, Shelly and Joanne Armitage. 2018. "Vibez: A Small Sense of Presence at a Distance". Porto: International Conference on Live Interfaces.
Leeds Digital Festival. 2016. "Code in the Dark". <https://leedsdigitalfestival.org/code-in-the-dark> (accessed 10 April 2018).
Mclean, Alex and Adam Parkinson. 2014. "Interfacing with the Night". Lisbon: International Conference on Live Interfaces.
Plant, Sadie. 1997. Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women + the new Technoculture. New York: Doubleday.
Johnson, Eric. 2018. "Why Silicon Valley has a Bro Culture Problem - and How to Fix it". Recode, Feb 5: <https://www.recode.net/2018/2/5/16972096/emily-chang-brotopia-book-bloomberg-technology-culture-silicon-valley-kara-swisher-decode-podcast> (accessed 6 November 2018).
 For example, see Johnson (2018).
 Clip of first ALGOBABEZ performance: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXQNtK_5sVw>
 We are not exaggerating; the sound system was literally smoking.
 BabeNodes2.0 performed at Improvisational Creativity Workshop, Prato, July 2017: <https://vimeo.com/240415986>
 Performance at Chemical Algorave, Culture Lab, Newcastle, May 2017: <https://vimeo.com/218455683>