Experimental musician and sound artist Lucas Abela and Indonesian musical duo Senyawa have teamed up to create Gamelan Wizard, an interactive, eight-player arcade game-installation-sculpture that mashes up traditional Indonesian gamelan with an 80s-style pinball machine, all within a hand-carved, wooden Javanese pavilion.
With roots in the noise underground, Abela, known for his eclectic performances involving an instrument resembling a large shard of glass, rides the train of his previous installations that explore arcades as a way to express musical ideas. Earlier, interactive sound-based work saw Abela construct a racecourse out of vinyl records in which visitors could steer cars using old arcade machines. The pinball instrument evolved from there, and Gamelan Wizard is the fifth in a growing line-up of Abela's machines. Crafted in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the work is being shipped to Hobart’s MONA, where it will debut in January as part of MOFO ’15.
We caught up with Abela to discover what fascinates him about pinballs, the pros and cons of experimental music, and what it was like growing up in the age of the arcade:
The Creators Project: You’ve created five pinball machines, suggesting nostalgia for the game. Did you hang out in arcades a lot as a kid?
Lucas Abela: I’m 42, so when I was young it was the age of the arcade and I definitely spent a lot of my misspent youth hanging out in pinball parlours on the beach on the Gold Coast. Those old 80s arcades were loud, cacophonous places — lots of machines making sounds all on top of each other. They definitely had an influence on the music I would make later in life.
Why arcade games and pinball machines?
When you approach an arcade game you’ve already got an intuitive understanding of what to do: you see the ball shooter and the buttons, you hit the flipper. Anyone can walk up to these machines and start playing. Compared with other sound installations I’ve been exposed to where you’re not really sure what’s going on, this installation tries to be more participatory, where you really engage with the instrument. The arcade format, apart from the pop art symbolism, was a way of trying to engage with the audience in a very tactile and intuitive fashion.
A lot of your work uses retro technology like turntables, arcade games. What are your thoughts on the digital age?
A lot of the technology I use is analogue, but it’s not retro to me. I never stopped using turntables or playing pinball. In the current art age everything is so tech-based, and screen culture is so prevalent — everything happens behind the scenes in some program box. I find that quite sterile. I like the idea of having really tactile, electro-mechanical games. I chose pinball rather than exploring the emulation of other video games because I wanted to move away from that screen culture.
Will you be working with other arcade games?
I’m planning one called Physical Pong, which will be like the game of Pong but in the real world using electrical mechanical pinball elements in a similar vein to table hockey.
I also have plans for a jukebox-pinball-game-turntable machine. That would take me full circle to when I first started making music, manipulating turntables. I’ve got a few other ideas, but I don’t want to speak too ahead of myself because you never know where your ideas might go.
Recently you’ve moved away from performing music into creating installations or devices where the audience members themselves become performers. What motivated this shift?
I’ve always thought that its more fun to make experimental music than it is to watch it. One of my motivations behind doing these installations was to give people the experience of actually making the music.
I love performing — it’s my first love and I’ll die before I stop — but installations give me another musical outlet. One difficult thing about creating installations though is just the amount of stuff you end up with. I’ve got five pinball machines. It’s becoming an increasing storage problem.
What does the future hold for you?
After MOFO, I’ll be starting my own arcade for an exhibition at Miami Beach, where I used to hang out in arcades as a kid. Then a six-month gig at a science museum in Germany. Hopefully some exhibition dates in Europe. I want my machines to exist well into the future but I don’t want to be personally responsible for my art anymore. I just want to make more and more new pins. The only problem is space.
Gamelan Wizard will be performed as part of MOFO ’15 summer festival from 15 - 18 January. Entry is included in the festival ticket. Complementing the installation will be a live performance by Lucas Abela on glass instrument with Senyawa. Senyawa will also perform at the Sydney Festival on January 23.