DESMONTE- the implications of sound and the politics of speech recognition software

On Sept. 27, the Marilyn I. Walker Theatre and the Brock community had the pleasure to experience Pedro Oliveira’s DESMONTE. His performance focuses on uncovering the racial bias behind AI technologies responsible for speech recognition through distorting recognizable vocal sounds from his work, to play with the idea of what really makes up a voice.

For context, Oliveira is a Brazilian scholar that focuses on decolonialization through sound, and more recently, on critiquing the AI softwares for speech recognition that the German government uses to “determine” the nationality of refugees seeking asylum in the country. As explained by Oliveira, refugee seekers are submitted to speak for the software, so that it can determine where they are from, and the software’s conclusion determines where the asylum seekers will be deported to.

At the event, students and faculty gathered at the theatre eager to see what the mysterious, modular synthesizer in the middle of the room was about to be used for. Once the performance began, the room went quiet, the room faded into darkness, and the only thing visible were the coloured lights reflecting on Oliveira’s synthesizer, full of  unique looking cables to achieve the sound he was producing.

The most striking thing about Oliveira’s performance was the fact that the sounds he was playing around with did not resemble anything in particular until the end, when it is revealed to the audience that the sounds they are hearing are in fact, all stemming from a vocal performance. 

As he explained during the Q&A period after performing, a great majority of the sound that the audience heard stemmed from the performance of Fernanda Lira, a death metal singer. Through her stunning performance, he was able to distort her voice to an unrecognizable degree, to help the audience get lost in the idea of what listening to a voice even entails and furthermore, what this says about voice recognition technology.

Following the performance, Dr. Christine Daigle, a philosophy professor at Brock, facilitated an insightful Q&A period between herself, the audience and Oliveira. Within the Q&A period, Oliveira explained some of the musical influences for the project, which included Pink Floyd, Swans and the genre of death metal as a whole. Though he clarified that the project was not intended as a music piece, but rather a piece that is inherently connected to his research in colonial bias as well as the politics of AI as a whole.

Another important detail of his work in DESMONTE is that it is mostly improvisational. Outside of the intro and outro for his piece, every sound in between is created on the spot, and he embraces the process and the synthesizer’s direction, rather than focusing on a specific sound that he wants to achieve. 

Overall, DESMONTE was an engaging auditive experience, as well as an opportunity for the audience to educate themselves on the politics at hand in the AI technology involved in the asylum-seeking process in Germany. For more information on Oliveira’s work, visit his website and check out the recorded projects he has produced thus far.

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