Babies came in waves on Saturday, for Machine Project's Infantcore, a five-hour experimental jam session in which playing 6- to 18-month-olds determined what erratic, synthesized sounds would be heard in the adjoining gallery. At 11 a.m., when Infantcore officially started, there was a crowd, but by 1:30 or 2 p.m., only two or three babies were left (“Maybe it's naptime,” suggested David Eng, Machine's operations manager).
Around 3 p.m., there was another swell, and eight or nine babies played in front of a camera that fed into the computer of sound artist Scott Cazan. He had developed software that isolated baby-sized blobs of color and then determined where those blobs were in an allotted space. Depending on the location of the baby blobs, which the software mapped on a grid with x and y coordinates, rhythms, pitches and sound qualities would be assigned.
In December, artist Nate Page turned the main room of the Echo Park nonprofit into a “plaza,” removing the storefront windows, reinstalling them 20 feet back and building a knee-high platform. This created an alcove that he painted completely red, and it's now a brightly colored recess on a stretch of Alvarado defined by closely packed storefronts. “Machine's gone,” one Echo Park resident said he thought when he first drove by.
Baby Otto, whose father recently co-taught a Machine Project course for kids on stealing cars, crawls around the plaza often, and one of his visits inspired Infantcore. With the plaza functioning as a giant playpen, parents standing by and spectators watching both from Machine's interior and the street, it would be difficult to tell who was inside or outside, who was looking and who was being looked at.
Mark Allen, Machine's founder and director, asked Cazan if he could develop a program that somehow converted the activities of playing babies into sound. Cazan spent a week designing the software, which baby Otto tested, and another week devising the music. Meanwhile, Allen solicited baby performers, sending out emails to Machine's list-serve, which parents then forwarded to their own baby groups. Through last week, it wasn't certain there would be enough babies to keep the performance going for the scheduled five hours. But on Friday, KPCC aired a radio spot and, the next morning, babies materialized.
While babies played in what parents kept calling “the aquarium,” viewers could sit on the other side of the glass, on chairs in Machine's now-narrow gallery. That's where the sound was broadcast. Midway through the afternoon, a woman wandered in from the street and sat quietly for a while. “When is it going to happen?” she eventually asked. “It's happening now,” said the man next to her, who'd brought his baby inside for a break.
“From in here, it's pretty surreal,” said Allen. You couldn't hear anything through the glass and the obscure, sometimes menacing sound that you did hear could make the playing babies and the traffic passing in the background ominous. At one point, two boys were playing alone in the center of the plaza, sharing a toy truck and hardly moving. The sound they generated was a static, faltering thump. When two fire trucks sped by, neither sound nor babies reacted to the commotion at all.
“On the one hand, this seems like a really sweet event for parents and babies. But inside the gallery, the experience is entirely different,” said Allen. “We're interested in doing things that different people can engage in different ways.”
“When you first walk into the plaza,” he explained, “you feel like you're in control, and you're looking in on the people on the other side of the window. There's a boundary you cross [as you near the glass] where it flips. You begin to feel like you're on display.”
Since Machine first opened in 2003, as an informal community space on a relatively well-trafficked stretch of street, people have often stopped outside the window to watch whatever strange event — such as welding workshops, a singing lesson or a puppet show inside a wrecked ship — might be happening inside. Sometimes they come in; many times, they don't.
Page designed his plaza with this in mind, and Machine's recent programming has factored in passersby. Children work well for engaging strangers, they've discovered. The babies brought in a crowd Allen had never seen before, including spectators gathered on the sidewalk trying to figure out what Infantcore even was. The “how to steal a car” workshop Machine held for kids had a similar effect. “Seeing five little girls jimmy open a car window, that surprises you,” says Allen. “That's the great thing about a city. You might walk down the street and have an experience you never could have expected. I'm happy when we can provide that.”