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Dissipation

Entropy, the tendency of everything to fall apart (or tend to a lowest-energy state) is a topic that fascinated Smithson (crystal works, Glue pour, Partially-Buried Woodshed) and Morris. The reversal of entropy is the most convincing definition I have ever heard for something being alive; for a limited time life brings matter together, resists disintegration, and heals itself if it is damaged. Sound is (as I recall) often quoted as a example of the opposite, entropy in action; the sound waves propogate until they disappear, and their energy is ‘lost’ (actually converted to other lower forms of energy). There is perhaps something interesting here, a dissipation.

 

I had a chat last week with Liz and Anke who were visiting the arts dept for a week. Liz is a professor at the Weimar University, and her work involves found objects – often junk – which she appropriates and uses in installations, often using the material to comment on a social or cultural issue. She has lived for some time in the former GDR, and collected a lot of the old fashioned GDR possessions being dumped in favour of new IKEA replacements. Of course, the original objects, being altered and mended countless times, have a wonderful air of history. Sometimes they were even handmade, like home-cast sets of tools. Liz works with visual but the language – memory, entropy, social changes and aspirations – and all things that I found very interesting. We could have talked for much longer!

How is a sound fixed to an object? Where does it attach to the object? What size is it? Is it equal in all directions? Does it expand the physical boundaries of the object to the boundary of the sound? What does the edge of the sound look like?

Had an interesting one-on-one discussion with Brandon Labelle who was visiting SARU for a few days. We chatted about the way sounds and objects can interact and what came out most strongly from the discussion was that sound can be performative; in other words it can ‘bring an object to life’ by adding movement, history and so on (obvious example; vent dolls), and that it turns the object into something else. The object is no longer just the visible thing, but is turned into something else; a new dual-thing created by the collision of the solid and auditory objects.

Brandon also quoted “The Eyes of the Skin” by Juhani Pallasmaa: “Sound brings time into architecture”. This idea is similar to some thoughts I have been toying with wrt sound and objects; in other words, sound brings time into objects, and that there are certain characteristics of an object that can be brought to our attention better by sound than by other means. Sound by its nature is temporal and spatial, and changes at a sense-able rate. This means it is well-placed to comment on the temporal and spatial nature of other materials, which may change too slowly for us to appreciate.

In a lecture to the listening group Brandon made other observations; that sound defines territories, and that these territories are ‘negotiations’ (perhaps – I wonder if they are more akin to claims. Brandon quotes from Vito Aconci’s work ‘Claim’ in one of his books I remember). Sound does not respect borders, it leaks and spills. He showed Richard Serra’s work ‘Boomerang’ in which the subject hears their own voice in headphones but delayed by a small amount. This is often used as a ‘party trick’ as it is extremely difficult to talk under these conditions. However, Serra had the good fortune to have Nancy Holt talking, who was able to reach beyond the obvious effects to the way it made her feel; disassociated etc. Very interesting. Finally Brandon made a comment about the positioning of work wrt its sound; for instance, quiet work on the floor, louder work on a pedestal etc. There’s something about power relations here that makes sense, although I like the way that quiet work on the floor tends to turn the power tables by enforcing the listener to engage with it on its own terms.

Unfortunately introduced my beloved black macbook to a cup of water. They didn’t get on. So back to PC while I try and fix it…
However it has given me a good opportunity to think away from the computer, back to pen and paper and making things. At least, for a bit.

Working today on the ‘sound invention’ project, an open call to create new and unusual instruments. I am making a solar-powered distributed instrument (i.e. lots of small individual sound-producing elements). Working today on making sounds with simple oscillators and trying out piezo disks as speakers. Have arrived at what I think is a decent circuit. Would like to try and get lots of them made up as PCBs … need to talk to technology dept. Also looking into solar-powered bell chimers and today looked into the Miller Solar Engine, a circuit designed to activate motors LEDs and so on by charging up a capacitor. Need to get a couple of sets of parts and get experimenting…

The reason for building this instrument is threefold:
– I’d like to create something which isn’t reliant on external power and can be left outside without maintenance
– An instrument into which you can walk
– and one which your shadow will affect

The display and choice of resonator will have an impact on the perception and aesthetic of the work… needs consideration. Not much sun right now so its all being developed using batteries!

Wonderful to be able to see some of Rolf’s work at last, tempered of course by the knowledge that he’s no longer with us… RIP, Rolf.

This show consisted of two pieces, one by Rolf and one by Miki Yui. Rolf’s piece, Rain, was a wooden plate upon which were 2 bowls and and video screen. One bowl held water; the other powder and a lump of coal with a tiny speaker on top; and the screen played a video of a similar rock and speaker arrangement emerging from a pond, with raindrops making patterns in the pond. The video had what sounded like synch-sound – rain in a pond. The real-life speaker was playing a soundtrack which consisted of buzzes, hums, clicks, and what sounded like a voice heard through a short-wave radio, indistinct and unintelligible.

What struck me about the work was balance, and the semiotic layers within such a simple arrangement. The moving image balanced the stationary rock. The two soundtracks were equal volumes. The water in the bowl reflected the water in the pond. The combined elements in the video are separate in their bowls. A zen garden-like sense of simultaneous stillness and movement pervades the work. Alert and relaxed. The soundtrack seemed full of doubt, half remembered mutterings, insect sounds, the workings of unknown machinery. And yet these sounds were issuing from a rock; the symbolic opposite of doubt; certain, immutable, dependable. The soundtrack was obviously created in response to the appearance and materiality of the rock, I found this connection hard to make. I’m still thinking about it. At first I thought the bowl of water was superfluous, but then imagined the piece without it and I realised it does need to be there.

What did I learn? The soundtrack especially was a lesson in creating an atmosphere using layers of sound. My work until now has used simple, single sounds with clear referents. I like the sound in Rolf’s work because those things are obscure; its quiet, we don’t know if the sounds are natural or artificial, or what the voice is saying – and these things create a mood which is hard to acheive with a clear, loud, obvious sound. I like the time pervading the video and the stillness of the rock. I like the natural elements in the gallery context, and the minimal feel of the work. I like the meticulous nature of the arrangement. And I like the way the work meets you on its own terms; it demands listening and attention, because it will not come all the way to you. The visitor is actively involved in creating the work (as Salome Voegelin suggests in ‘Listeing to Noise and Silence’) because she has to bend down to the floor, listen intently, spend some time. Important.

Additional: I read about a piece of Rolf’s that was installed in a busy street, and the quiet sounds he played forced you to block out the background noise and focus on them, just to hear the piece. Here’s what’s important; in this way the piece became ‘louder’ than the street because it forced you as listener to block out the background noise. I love this, not competing, but overcoming. It is a wonderful expression of wu wei, the daoist practise of ‘doing by not doing’. Water is a common metaphor; it is soft and pliable, it flows, and it bends; yet it erodes mountains.

SARU’s sound art and music festival, renamed this year ‘Audiograft’ from the previous ‘Sonic Art Oxford’, happened this year on Feb 14th – 20th. A very strong collection of work by Ray Lee, Max Eastley, Stephen Cornford and Shirley Pegna amongst others at Brookes and a series of events (live music; electroacoustic music; performance pieces) around Oxford.

I created a new piece for the show, ‘Piano Arrangement (low – high)’. I had recently visited SAM’s ‘Off the Page’ conference in Whitstable and it had got me thinking about the words we use to describe music, and sound. I wondered if there was an instrument where the high notes are higher in space than the low notes*. I initially thought about creating a piano where each key is successively taller than the previous one, from left to right along the keyboard. But then I realised the easiest way to achieve this with piano is to tip it on its end, so the bass notes are near the floor.

After a bit of soul searching – this idea seemed too simple really to be of any worth, on (over)reflection – I decided to go with my instincts, and let people decide, and that I would try and get it set up for Audiograft. Initial results were encouraging – my requests were met with disapproval, meaning there is something about the idea which merited persistence. On reflection it is the ‘properness’ and establishment-connotations of the piano which is subverted, and the sense of this not being ‘proper’ which captures the attention (compared with a synth on its end, which is often seen, and would certainly not have the same visual effect). After a little politics it was sorted (tipping pianos on their side is not nearly as bad for them as the vast temperature changes wrought by turning the heating on and off in winter, it turns out) and the tipped-up piano was exhibited in the RHB foyer for the duration of the show.

The name is a vital component of the piece; in fact, the name is the piece, in many ways. It plays with what we think we mean by a piano arrangement, by low and high in regards to music, and even the hyphen (low and high? low to high? low minus high?). The implication being, what is the gap between music and the words we use to describe it? What might we find in that gap? What do we mean by a ’round’, ‘sharp’, ‘hollow’, ‘thin’ sound? Why are these phrases universal (if they are)? Where did the concept of low and high come from wrt pitch? I figured the number of cycles per second in a frequency; Trevor Wishart thinks the fact that high things – birds – have to be small to fly and hence high pitched, while ground-based things tend to be low pitched (whale song, earthquakes).

An entertaining side-effect of the re-arrangement was the sight of people playing the piano on its side, my favourite being co-operative piano; one person played the keys while the other operated the pedals.

* A facebook question resulted in these suggestions: harp, penny whistle, recorder, drumkit, dulcimer, yamgquin, pipe organ, violin and viola. I can’t vouch for all of these personally as I don’t play them…

I was thinking about how much of an object’s definition is contained within its sound. Shower arose out of this premise. I recorded the sound of my shower at home and then re-created the spatial placement of the original sounds by playing the sound of the shower head from a speaker hanging overhead, and the sound of the water hitting the floor from speaker at your feet. A button in the wall triggers the shower sound via an arduino and MAX patch. An interesting point is that the illusion doesn’t work if there is just one speaker at your feet; the sound needs to surround you to be realistic. I used four speakers, one at each corner of the invisible shower tray, to recreate the effect. Each was playing the same sound, so the sound file was simply stereo – one channel the shower head and the other the water hitting the bath.

The aural illusion works for the majority of people, and creates a flight response as you fight the urge to jump out of the stream of water which isn’t there. So our mental model of a shower must contain the sound of a shower. We feel we are in a shower even though we know the water isn’t real. Does this mean that ideas of objecthood should include the sounds objects make? Do they already? Is a guitar without the sound of a guitar half a guitar?

Shower also raises issues of privacy and feeling like you are showering in public, which can seem uncomfortable.

On further reflection there are two things missing when you activate the virtual shower; the water, and yourself. As I recorded the sound of the shower with nobody in it, the water sounds are constant and don’t vary in the way they do when a person is stepping in and out of the flow of the water, turning around, etc.

Shower attracted the attention of New Scientist when I showed it at Kinetica, who wrote:

“Based on his research at Oxford Brookes Univeristy, Mike Blow’s Shower explores the relationship between perception, sound and physical objects. By pressing a button positioned to evoke memories of municipal swimming pools, you activate sound recordings of a shower which are played back through four speakers placed at each corner of an imaginary square shower tray and one suspended above you like a shower head. The effect is disconcertingly realistic, the disconnect between your auditory and other senses causing a quick succession of anxious double-takes as you fight the urge to leap out of the water that isn’t there.” (Kat Austen, Culturelab editor, New Scientist blog)

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/02/angels-lemons-and-calculators-discover-the-unexpected-at-kinetica-art-fair.html

Kinetica

Feb 2-6th or so was Kinetica in London. I shared a stand with Manchester Art Gallery and Lewis Sykes, and was planning to show a few theremuinos and crackleplants. Life with its habit of being distracting (as Ray says) meant I didn’t have the time to create many of these and I couldn’t find the parts to fix my crackleplants so in the end I took down ‘Ceremony’ and ‘Shower’ and showed those, along with a couple of theremuinos. Good conversations and comments, lots of interest in both works and it was a great experience to be able to show them to a wider audience.

What did I learn? Ceremony needs topping up twice a day and is not quite as impervious to water as I had hoped (although it survived perfectly well), the shower software (MAX4LIVE) needs to be made into an app and run under MAX runtime in order to stop it crashing every half-hour (go figure). Ceremony draws people in and a lot of the interest is in trying to figure it out – what the liquid is, what the pattern is, etc. Artists who saw it often commented on the size – specifically that the small size of the speakers caused you to engage with the piece on its own terms, and that making it bigger would destroy this power relationship. Others commented on the hypnotic effect of the piece, although very few could make out the 2/3 pattern. I wonder if that is something we are aware of subconsciously. Many conversations focussed on the mechanics; the materials and pattern.

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