Ambient togetherness: an interview with Mark Fell and Rian Treanor

Mark Fell is a multidisciplinary artist based in Rotherham (UK). His practice draws on electronic music subcultures, experimental film, contemporary philosophy and radical politics. Over the past 30 years, Fell’s output has grown into a significant body of work: from early electronic sound works and recorded pieces (including the acclaimed SND project), to installation, critical texts, curatorial projects, educational systems and choreographic performances. His releases have appeared on labels such as Editions Mego and Raster-Noton. Rian Treanor’s sound practice re-imagines the intersection of club culture, experimental art and computer music, presenting an insightful and compelling musical world of interlocking and fractured components. Since 2015, he has focused on solo sound works, developing musical environments for improvisations within his live performances. His latest album, File Under UK Metaplasm, was recently released via Planet Mu. 

Together, they have collaborated on a number of new commissions called “Inter-Symmetric works”, a series that explores the musical possibilities of remote participation, with a focus on exploratory forms of networked interaction between audiences and collaborators. These include workshops, live performance, installation and critical discussion.


You have developed a new collaboration tool, a project called Inter-Symmetric works, which enables remote participation. Can you talk about the genesis of this project? Was it inspired by the new kind of online work and co-work brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Mark Fell: We had been thinking about remote participation and interaction for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought this into focus and we decided now was the time to act on this and try to explore it and make something public. Several years ago, for example the work I did with Mat Steel as SND, I was thinking how to develop networked ways of performing. At first, this was just two people on stage connected by an ethernet cable. Although there were technical issues, for me the most important thing was how networked processes could enable new forms of musical performance. The motivation for this was quite simple – we both wanted to feel engaged in the algorithmic structures we were working with, but didn’t want to have to share the mouse or keyboard. Of course, we were able to use controllers and share those, but somehow we wanted the structure of the work (at a technical level) to be more than this. So, for example with SND, a very simple step was to synchronise algorithmic processes, but then we decided to both have access to different parameters within the same algorithmic process. And for me this is where it became quite fascinating. For example, feeling the presence of someone else’s input into the process that I was also working on. More recently, I started to think of this feeling as “ambient togetherness”. Like very different to the mode of interaction facilitated by social media or messaging services, etc., and less about the communication of meanings and more about a linking of presence. Anyway, as I say, this all became very urgent in the pandemic. 

At first, shows were cancelled, and we were both okay with that, but then soon after promoters began to ask us to be involved in streaming live shows. But both of us felt this format was not very… er… enjoyable actually. So we started to think of alternatives. Liam, a good friend of ours who runs No Bounds and Hope Works in Sheffield, got in touch asking us to contribute to the online version of his festival in October. And we took that as a cue to start work on the infrastructure to enable remote performance and participation. With the help of Cycling74 and also Kimin Han, a student at HFG in Karlsruhe, we got some basic structure working. And we decided at that point to contact festivals and galleries about our new work. CTM replied with an opportunity to do something at HKW in Berlin. And that became the first piece in this series. We performed from our studio, sending parameter controls to a computer at the venue, which played patterns over a four-channel system, and with the dancer Justin F Kennedy in a sealed sphere rolling around the audience. 

Rian Treanor: That was fun. We were thrown into the deep end with it and we had to build the systems really quick and perform with it without too much prototyping. That’s the best thing about doing events – you have a concrete deadline where you have a specific thing that needs making. It’s really tangible. In our case, it was “you need to build systems that do this remote thing in two weeks”. So we had a very clear brief to work to. It’s really strange dealing with the cognitive dissonance of performing remotely, though. Like you’re not quite sure how differently it sounds in your studio or over a PA in a different room. And also how audiences are responding. From my perspective, these questions make it really obvious that the interesting thing to focus on is exploring interaction or participation, and how to enable that kind of feedback loop.

Can you describe the project in detail, including its technicalities and challenges? 

MF: The basic system is a kind of client-server model. I mean essentially like a chat kind of system. The max patch logs into a server, and any messages that are sent to the server are received by all others. This is why the title in this series refers to symmetry. It reminded me of the quote by Merleau Ponty, “every object is the mirror of all others”. In terms of challenges, it feels like the technical, conceptual and aesthetic challenges all join at this point. So the very simple challenge of how to implement the client-server model was relatively easy to resolve. But the challenges that then faced us really brought together lots of issues at the same time. For example, how to structure interfaces and pattern-generating processes in a way that doesn’t just fall into chaos. Musical performance, for example in improvised practices, is often described in terms of giving space, of not dominating, etc. And it became clear to us that the things we were building also took these kinds of concerns into consideration. And at that point, we began to think of the tool itself as the composition. At this level, the two seemed indivisible. Definitely not a technical tool in support of achieving a compositional end. 

RT: The thing that has been technically difficult is how to share the interfaces in real time. For example, if multiple people have the same step sequencer open, how can all the interfaces mirror each other? So if player 1 changes step one, then all other players will see that change in real time. The problem comes when multiple people change the same thing at once and how to avoid feedback that can occur when these types of crossovers happen. It’s challenging because this is also compounded by latency issues within the network. This is only an issue when working with shared interfaces, though. It’s not a problem for the piece we’re doing at NEXT, for example. For this piece, we’ve made an interactive system that anyone can participate in. It’s really simple – there’s a button embedded in a website that people can use to send triggers to generate rhythmic patterns. 

The project aims to enable greater participation by the audience, which you contrast with standard online performances that reinforce standard performer-audience dichotomies and power dynamics, usually putting the performer on a pedestal. How does your project subvert this? 

MF: I think we had both become a little bit bored of the classic performer mode. And we were unhappy with how streaming seems to exacerbate this situation. I’m not sure our process is about subverting this situation, I mean often we still rely on it, but, especially in the workshops that Rian is doing, it’s much more about giving access to the algorithmic processes via carefully considered interface structures, rather than just tuning in and listening. I mean both are nice. It’s just we felt we wanted to explore other options. 

RT: For me, it’s just that I like working with people. I can’t just make work on my own with no obvious place for it to go, or make something just to play in an empty room with no tangible connection to anything. I make music to play in clubs; I know how it can function in that space. But if I’m not making work with a specific physical situation in mind, then what else is important? I think this situation has made me realise how much I need to collaborate with people. I guess we’ve been thinking about how to make something that responds to that situation and connects people or that at least explores it somehow.

It’s weird – I kind of find it easier to work against something in a way. So thinking about things in terms of what is wrong with something or why isn’t this thing fit for purpose. And I just find the ubiquity of streaming is alienating for all parties involved – audiences, performances and promoters.

Inter-symmetric Workshop for Kids in A4, Bratislava (Rian Treanor) – NEXT Festival 2020

In the context of the project, you also mention the term “ambient togetherness”. Can you elaborate? 

MF: Oh, I think I mentioned this earlier. Yeah, basically like all human interaction does not have to be about realising specific goals or functionality. And it seems like most online connections are quite direct – I mean, for example, messaging services. Of course, you can just chat aimlessly, but I was thinking of how people are aware of one another’s presence, for example in waiting rooms or passing in corridors. All that form of interaction is kind of missing with online systems. And I was thinking what kind of interaction that could mean in online systems. Of course, we’re not saying we’ve done that; we’re just saying that was our motivation. 

Mark, you’ve done a project called “Structural Solutions to the Question of Being”, reflecting on the music cultures of the early 90s, mentioning 1992 as a pivotal time when technology and music intersected. With a lot of these communities and music subcultures shifting online, do you feel the nature of music and community will change in the future?

MF: In the project, I was thinking about how the changes in music technology and studio practices coincided with new musical forms such as house music and techno. I mean, it’s kind of obvious really that the two are interlinked so closely. But I just wanted to map out those developments, along with political contexts and drug usage, etc. One important thing to consider is just how important it is for people to come together, I mean physically together in the form of parties or protests. It feels to me like a kind of very basic need in times of difficulty. This is something I felt in the 1980s which culminated in large raves etc. The long-term impact of Covid on cultures and communities is hard to predict, but it will probably be quite dramatic. 

Inter-symmetric Workshop for Kids in A4, Bratislava (Rian Treanor) – NEXT Festival 2020

You’re now both based in Rotherham, UK (Mark is Rian’s father). What does your collaboration look like in practice? In what way do your approaches to creative endeavours differ? 

MF: At the start of the lockdown, Rian decided to move back here and to isolate with us. So the house has become kind of like a functioning studio system. Most of the time we discuss each other’s projects, and, because of Covid, we’re much more present to give each other support and feedback. That’s been quite unusual I think, but it has had a good effect. For example, if one of us is struggling with a particularly tricky bit of a Max patch, the other can have a look and try things. And we can break down bigger jobs by saying “I do this bit, you do that bit” and so on. And also we can just sit and discuss possibilities and come up with new approaches etc.

In terms of differences, I guess we both work very differently. I tend to work for short periods and take lots of breaks to drink tea, whereas Rian is much more about longer working periods and more isolation from other jobs. We do have creative differences sometimes. For example, we recently made a project together, taking it in turns to do the editing. And it was clear he was undoing all the bits I had done and vice versa. Like we basically just had a different approach – I was adding a certain kind of material and he was removing it. So eventually, we found a middle point. 

RT: It was like a botched painting restoration.