Joe Bauer's "Robots vs. Aliens" is a multimedia art project, concept album, and mailed mystery tale


Robots vs. Aliens

It may sound like a movie title ripe for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 show, but Robots vs. Aliens is the name of a new multimedia art project by Joe Bauer, an Ann Arbor-based musician and co-founder of the North Coast Modular Collective

Produced under Bauer's stage name, Verzerren, Robots vs. Aliens is comprised of a concept album featuring modular synthesizers, illustrations, mailed letters and postcards, and performances at Riverside Arts Center in conjunction with the new exhibition Towards/Past the Future, which explores "technology, society, and identity through the lens of science fiction."

Set 100 years into the future, Robots vs. Aliens tells the story of humans and cyborgs living together, but their equilibrium is disrupted when peaceful dispatches from extraterrestrials are misinterpreted. The robots revolt, aliens invade, at the Earth is devastated. But the remaining humans have a chance at redemption when intercepted messages are sent back in time in hopes that people will read them and make different choices to induce an alternative future. This is where the postcards and letters by Bauer and artist Aaron Graff come into play: participants will receive these documents in the mail over a two-week period with the object of piecing together the story and solving the mystery of how humanity can save itself.

I asked Bauer some questions over email about the inspirations and ideas behind Robots vs. Aliens, which you can also listen to below.

Q: Where did the idea for this project come from? Any particular inspirations behind it?
A: The idea for this project evolved over a couple of years into what it is today. Most of the albums I've put out up until now have been compilations of works I've recorded over a year or two. So, more like collages of what occurred, than any sort of specific narrative that has a strong thematic or conceptual arc throughout it. I wanted to make something that carried a concept or story throughout the album, so it could be a single cohesive piece. 

At the same time, I had been thinking through futuristic socio-technical scenarios. From this, the framework for a science fiction story began to emerge and I decided I wanted to make each song in the album representative of a "chapter" in that story. Not long after that idea had formed, I fell in love with Aaron Graff's ink work. I was also trying to think of what it meant to release a physical album in this digital era and wanted to do something that played with time, space, physicality, and virtuality. As I engaged with Aaron about illustrating for the album, the idea of images, almost like comic panels, being associated with each track emerged. I kept writing more and more detail in the story to help Aaron while he worked on the illustrations and, after a while, there was so much story that it felt wrong to just leave it out of the project.

I've been fascinated by the concept of immersive worlds with stories you have to put together yourself. Of entering a world and having to discover it yourself. A few years back I learned about the concept of focalization from a professor at U-M who is working on an ambitious project where he lets the reader of a novel he's writing pick the character, time, and space and they can construct the narrative themselves. That's not exactly what's going on here, but the concept was influential. My grandmother was a big postcard collector and, as a kid, I remember enjoying reading the small fragments of a conversation on the back from people generations ago and trying to fill in the rest of the context on my own. Using the song illustrations as postcard images and putting small fragments of the story -- transmission intercepts between characters -- seemed like a natural fit and a great way to share more of the story details as a way that made the reader piece things together themselves, so we went with it. 

Q: Did the story / song titles come first, or did you write the story after you made the music?
A: The song titles, which were chapter titles for the story, came first, then I made the music from there. One of the delightful surprises was how the story, images, and music all influenced each other as they were being created over the last 12-18 months. 

Q: How did you go about composing the pieces? Are they edited improvisations?
A: Usually my process is more improvisational, but for this album, I had to plan ahead more. After I had all the story titles and some of the story I started thinking of sound design and musical motifs that could follow the characters of the story or certain story elements from one song to another. Then I took notes on those ideas for each of the tracks and referred to them while I was working on one. Over time I would get sketches from Aaron, so, where possible, I'd have those sketches up while working on the track, too. I think Aaron sometimes listened to the tracks I was working on while he was working on illustrations, too. 

Q: What are contributions of Nick Gaydos?
A: I had talked about the project with Nick, a fellow member of the North Coast Modular Collective, and at one point over the summer, while I had a bunch of elements from a track I was working on already loaded and patched up in my modular synthesizer, he and I did an informal jam session. I ended up liking what emerged from that session even more than what I had recorded for that "chapter," so I asked him about adding it to the project. 

Robots vs. Aliens images

Q: How do people get on the mailing list for the letters and postcards? What will these items look like?
A: The project can be ordered from Bandcamp. You get a digital download of all the songs, then you are snail-mailed a physical letter and notebook entries from one of the characters, followed by the eight postcards (one for each track). They're mailed out over the span of about two weeks to you, so they'll trickle in over time.

Q: Will your project be a part of the month-long Towards/Past the Future exhibit or just part of the opening night party?
A: We got Aaron's eight postcard illustrations enlarged and printed out at 12"x8" each and they will be on display at the Riverside Arts Center gallery throughout the March science fiction exhibit. I'll be there on opening night, March 1, playing some music inspired by the postcards and story -- due to the nature of modular synthesizers, it won't be exactly the same as the recordings in the album. Onyx Ashanti and Dan Blades will also be performing that night, and Bill Van Loo will be DJing between sets. Related to the month-long exhibit, North Coast Modular Collective is hosting an event at Riverside Arts Center on March 15, featuring performances by Arthur Durkee, Joo Won Park, Mother Cyborg, and Steve Swartz.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Joe Bauer as Verzerren performs on March 1 at the Riverside Arts Center's opening reception of Towards/Past the Future, which will also feature a performance by Onxy Ashanti, a "gallery full of visual art, a robot ready to play chess against gallery attendants, and other strange intergalactic oddities." The event is open 6-10 pm, free. Riverside Arts Center is at 76 N. Huron Street, Ypsilanti.