Andreas Miranda s1260076
DMSP Submission 3
Orchestra of light pollution: a reflective note on LCD (Light Controlled Drone)
The urban landscape is a vast stage governed by an evidently visible and intense sounding orchestra. Yet it’s sonic and musical properties are almost secrets to most city inhabitants. Once exposed, the sound of city lights provide us with rather harsh drones that rarely seem to go for beyond the range of 50 Hz. This might seem so at the first listen, but with the huge variety of light emitting instruments in our cities, we can find ourselves exploring the sounds of a rich and extremely widespread orchestra.
After having completed our RGT recorder prototype (which permitted us to easily uncover the sounds of light sources) I took the role of exploring the hidden sonic light-scape through the persona of a conductor. The sense of discovery and awe and plentiful and provided me with plenty of interesting compositional material. Entering powerfully lit buildings with my recorder was a particularly rich listening experience. In that position I truly learned to appreciate the orchestral qualities of light. There I found a vast amount of expressive voices and kept looking for the smaller and more subtle instruments found in modern buildings that could range from an exit sign to an ambiguous LED’s next to main entrances.
It also gave me the opportunity to gain a new insight on urban life in general. One issue that immediately struck me during my sonic exploration was light pollution. We often read about the adverse effects of light pollution and the energy waste that accompanies it. We know how it disturbs nocturnal creatures and for humans, certain correlations with increasing risk of breast and prostate cancer have been made. Being able to hear the noise of light added a new layer of awareness to the issue of light pollution. I didn’t want to speculate on the effects that it might have on ones health too much. But I did want to contemplate on the fact that our eardrums vibrate to these hidden frequencies far more often than we are aware of. Being able to bring these frequencies to the audible domain provided me with exiting musical opportunities. Most light sounds have certain edgy listening characteristics. Personally I found that the constant harshness and distortion of the light sounds often make it difficult to listen to without some sense of discomfort. Yet I thought it would be interesting to use this as a tool of insight in relation to the issue of light pollution. It seemed to be dealing with the problem directly. One memorable first hand experience of this occurred right after finishing the set up of LCD installation. After having established all the audio connections and turn our six LDR equipped speakers on, we heard a hellish yet very expressive screechy sound shooting out of our speakers. This came from picking up the rows of bright light in our installation space, and everything went quiet again after turning all the lights off. I found it fascinating to work with such a source, as it automatically uttered a sound with an immediate synergy with light pollution. As the sound of our installation became more concrete, the orchestral qualities of light became very articulate. Many moments occurred where we could clearly distinguish brass like sounds accompanied rushing high-pitched string passages. I felt like we gathered the widespread urban light orchestra into a single room for every one to play with. These musical elements are very much present in the following recording of the presentation night of the LCD: soundcloud.com/andreas0miranda/dmsp-optical-audio
I found this ensemble quite dramatic in terms of impact. I also noticed that people entering the installation space often showed signs of immediate responsiveness. On some occasions this was partially due to the surprise factor caused by the discovery of optical audio. On the other hand it was also caused by the arresting sound that this orchestra unleashed. It brought light pollution at the center of the stage and allowed everyone to immerse themselves and participate with it. However, some attendees left in a hasty way after being subjected to the noise while clearly stating their uneasiness in relation to it. It was interesting to take note of this reaction because in essence it showed quite a natural response to a phenomenon that is seen as harmful and destructive. In essence light pollution, same as noise pollution is something most of us prefer to stay away from. But yet with people also queuing up to get closer and have a go at creating optical audio at LCD and contribute to the noise also displayed another very interesting human reaction. One that uses the resources of energy to create and enjoy a collective by-product of modern life. Weather or not the sounds could be judged as good or bad played a secondary role in terms of the relationship between LCD and light pollution. The important thing for me was that this phenomenon was very much present during the installation and for once people could experience and interact with this orchestra first handedly and intesivaly.
Jim Pritchard s1152050
DMSP submission 3 individual submission
What did you think was going to happen?!
The missing link- invitation, interactivity and the invisible task.
LCD, or Light Controlled Drone, was an exhibition event held by the DMSP Optical Synthesis group at room B28 of the ECA building at 19:00 on the 3rd April 2013.
For the audience, the exhibit comprised half a dozen DC fan/LDR receptor drones mounted in conjunction with a matching number of loudspeakers positioned directly behind them. A projector & wall surface showed an interpolated visual output from the drones and a sub-bass system reinforced the low frequency component of the audio.
Technology, hidden to the attendees, interfaced with and acted upon the signals given by the drones to produce the audio and video outputs as displayed.
This essay concerns itself with the nature of the interface between front-end hardware of the exhibit and the attendees.
Interactivity and the link between what people see and can physically manipulate and what they expect back from technology, which they can touch, would be key.
During development, alternative control scenarios were considered including stroboscopic laser and high-intensity LED sources firing inline through subsequent fans to successive LDRs. Although keen to incorporate a beam-breaking facet within the exhibit, it was felt that this type of input essentially reduced the level of perceptive control to an ‘on’ and an ‘off’. The advantages of a polemic digital input notwithstanding, we were keen to pursue a ‘dirtier’, more real world degree of control. A further development from this to a more intuitive, interactive, group-participatory medium, had to happen. It was desired that members of the public would be drawn to and have confidence in the operation of the drones; their appearance had to denote a ‘missing link’ of activity- to suggest an incomplete task, which required an operator. The deliberately stripped down, plain featureless public-face of the control surfaces should have presented a question. A kind of anti-technology was developed, the appearance of which did not suggest an outcome and in fact may have suggested completely arbitrary functionalities. We made something to invite, not to help augment a goal (like the definition of a ‘machine’) but to ask for interference. Indeed without interference, the exhibit would sit silently.
The group mooted a conceptual operation-brief in that the very context of ‘optical synthesis’ was to be embodied by operation. An open-ended variety of physical tasks undertaken by the user or attendee would lead to an outcome. People should be drawn to ‘play’ and in turn this effort becomes itself synthesised into a sound form- an optical act; the manipulation of darkness and light, inflection and refraction leading to timbre and pitch, velocity and amplitude.
In this respect I was very happy with the level of resolution of nuance that the resource would offer in return for the input of the user. A reflection of movement was transposed in some detail into the auditory domain. A skewed return being offered back by the hardware in the form of a moving physical surface at source giving an additional tactile feedback of movement from the otherwise auditarily realised activity. In particular, the duality of roles for the DC fans in this respect was perfect; another conundrum for the brain to sort; hands move lights- ears hear sound, hands feel an air pressure (?).
Alternative scenarios suggested to us included a pair of speakers ahead of the projection surface which would have presented the sum main output of the system, with only the local speakers at each drone giving a reduced individual feedback output. This I think would have been a good idea as it would have projected the operators’ perception of their role forwards ‘into’ the exhibit, detracting from the node like operating position to build an orchestral-like participationary sense.
A litmus paper for gauging the success of any relationship, which takes place through the medium of technology, is how far that relationship can go before technology gets in the way.
No instructions were given through the posters & flyers to denote functionality or working instruction and little more than an initial invitation to engage and manipulate the drones was needed with the opening wave of attendees. I think a level of creative & interactive autonomy ‘beyond language’ with the hardware was achieved. The front-end of the exhibit should not have preceded a reluctance to interact. Friendly technology not hindering operation.
Sometimes in exhibitive forms which incorporate a technological medium as a front end, the hands-on part of a work may inject a distance between the audience and the intended message or result. Attending myself an exhibition at F.A.C.T in Liverpool in February 2009 called ‘Ding Dong’, I played with a piece of work which offered a wooden handset replete with contact pads and controls which invited, through detailed instructions, attendees to press buttons and shake the handset in order illicit sounds from a speaker. The output was intended to have a musicality to the timbre but I found that the handset and physical components were not velocity sensitive and the latent sample frequency allowed only monophonic operation and precluded higher rhythmic tempos.
In this respect, although significant technology was utilised within the LCD exhibit, its’ position within the signal chain denoted to the audience/players themselves significant individuality of expression to generate & manipulate the waveform audio output. Although the wave form output passed through the medium of manipulative synthesis; digital-technology acting upon it; the core seed of the auditioned material was conceived and curated in analogue fashion by analogue entities! I believe this facet of the exhibit led to longer than brief (dare I say; ‘sustained’) interaction with the drones themselves. Attendees could perceive their nuance and aesthetic input right through to what they heard and saw directly.
A tuned balance between deliberate (lack of) instruction, instinctive intuitivity, on behalf of the public, and resolution of source playability all contributed to LCD working- I’d like to think I could repeat the mix in the future…
Ian Hynd S1163663
The secret world of light
“LCD is a interactive installation that explores this secret world of light and manifests it as a event that can be directly interacted with by participants and manipulated by them to give unique experiences of the sound stage created by the play of light on the installation and the immersion within the audio interpretation of environmental lumination.”
Introduction to LCD – light controlled drones
This project set out to examine the environment around us as a exploration into the lightscape of the contempory urban environment, where transient aspects of the urban lightscape were examined, recorded and translated into an audio format to make the variations perceptible to the observer’s senses.
Light is generally considered to have three basic properties, Intensity, Frequency & Polarization. We only examined one of these aspects within our project; we had neither time nor resource to look at the other aspects individually or as elements of a whole but that is not to say they were unimportant, indeed there are still considerable areas as yet unexplored which may produce surprising results.
This aspect formed the basis of our study, it was the aspect to which the sensors we utilized responded and it is the aspect which is employed in light based digital communication systems, i.e. Laser light in fiber optic cables, where light is conducive to transmitting digital data. In our project we examined the analogue aspects of the light, analyzing changes in intensity across the whole spectrum of visible light
We are all aware of light in the environment around us, but to a great extent we take it for granted with little thought given to it’s complexity, this is in part due to the way in which we perceive light, our senses are tuned to perceive only certain aspects of this illumination, brightness, colour, contrast etc. some aspects are hidden from us, particularly changes which happen at frequencies greater than 25Hz. While we can perceive the slow change of night to day, the sun passing behind a cloud or when we walk from light into shadow we tend to simplify to experience as the relative contrast between bright and dull, we don’t consider these as absolute values. When we consider high rates of change anything above 25 Hz is perceived as a constant (Van Cott. Kinkade 1972), we simply can’t perceive this frequency of change, this issue is utilized in TV broadcasts or cinematography where we merge a series of still images to give the perception of continuous movement This project utilized our ability to sense and perceive minute sound variations by converting fluctuating light to sound.
However when discussing light, of course we can easily detect frequency changes when they are frequency modulated, we see these changes as colour. It is evident in our environment that colour is everywhere mostly we see it as reflected light, where surfaces absorb some light frequencies but reflect others
Prof Harald Haas of Edinburgh University is investigating the use of LED lighting to carry data. (Haas et all, 2006) The basic premise is that standard led lighting has the ability to broadcast a high frequency data stream while not impacting on it’s ability to provide illumination. It would seem that when an led bulb is illuminated it operates at a fixed frequency, <100Hz and that a data signal can be superimposed upon the basic operating frequency much in the same way as an audio signal is superimposed onto a radio carrier wave in FM radio. We encountered this effect to an extent with our LDR circuits where the operating frequency of the fluorescent room lighting was perceived as a steady 50Hz hum though the LDR audio circuit, but in terms of light this frequency was above our perception levels and we consider the illumination as a steady glow. Prof Haas’ experiments involved digital transmissions at 1GHz and above.
While this research is interesting, it serves to point the way to another area of investigation of the environmental lightscape, our studies of environmental light only detected the grosser variations in the lightscape, neither the LDR’s nor our recording mechanisms were sensitive enough to explore more subtle variations in the lightscape, there are still areas to be examined with more sensitive equipment and techniques. There is scope to look more closely at the really small fluctuations that are to be found in the environment. With investigations into techniques to extract these lesser signals from the either in much the same way as a amplitude modulated radio signal, as with radio the key is to determine a method of extracting the “carrier wave” from the “transmission” to reveal the “message” An aspect of prof. Haas work in this area is to contend that the visible light spectrum has the potential to contain the greatest data carrying capacity of all the electromagnetic spectrum, while we can relatively easily extract data from amplitude modulated light we also have to consider the data which is potentially carried in frequency modulation.
Light is complex, for though considered a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, it is also considered to have wave-particle duality in that it displays properties which are associated both with electromagnetic wave propagation and with physical particles moving in a wave like manner. Unlike sound wave which has no orientation, light waves can oscillate with more than one orientation. We could investigate this buy the use of polarized filters and again
Our investigation into environmental light can only be seen as an introduction to the subject, we have barely explored the possibilities Due to the limitations of our detectors, which were not particularly sensitive to colour variations, we considered and rejected, the utilization of colour filters to examine this aspect. However, since a filter is only sensitive to a narrow band of light frequency, examination of any frequency (colour) modulated variations would be a complex task exceeding the time and resource available to this project. But it is likely that this could be an interesting area of investigation, unlike amplitude modulation, frequency modulation is likely to reflect variations both brightness, colour and polarity, giving us a much more complex stage upon which to convey a concept of light in the environment, for as in this work we can look at fluctuations in brightness but without considering colour we cannot fully contend that the study reflects a true environment
- Afgani, M.Z. Haas, H.; Elgala, H.; Knipp, D. Visible light communication using OFDM. Testbeds and Research Infrastructures for the Development of Networks and Communities, 2006. TRIDENTCOM 2006.
- Raz Ullah; Andreas Miranda; Martha Winther; Ian Hynd; Fiona Keenan; Marie-Claud Codsi; Jim Pritchard: LCD – light controlled drones, the digital media studio project
- 3. www.meethue.com
- HP Van Cott, R G Kinkade. Human engineering guide to equipment design United States. Dept. of Defense. Joint Services Steering Committee
Marie-Claude Codsi s1234371
Interactive installations and their challenges
Interactive installations are most interesting as they involve and immerse the audience itself into a unique world, rather than giving the public a passive role as was mostly done in the past before the advent of computers. Indeed, it can be easier for many people to learn while having fun and experiencing something new and different. Although these types of installations are not easy to create as they usually touch on various disciplines, they can be more rewarding for the audience than, say, a more traditional presentation. People can experience first hand how, for example, visuals react when they move in front of a screen. These installations therefore involve them directly in the process and usually make them more eager to know why something particular happened.
That being said, creating an interactive installation (or should we say interactive art) is not an easy task. One must first have an idea, then have access to the proper space as well as the proper equipment and know how to use different softwares such as Max/MSP, and different tools and equipment such as Arduinos. Therefore, it could be said that interactive installations are much more complex then it seems. Indeed, they require an understanding of various disciplines in order to work. People behind these types of installations are not just artists, but also engineers designing and building something to be used and enjoyed by the public.
The success of an interactive installation lies in the degree of what is left to do for the audience. It is crucial to make things easy for the people that want to try an installation. However, one must be careful not to make things too simple and therefore boring. As an organizer, you want people to spend more than 10 seconds trying out what you have spent so much time working on. On the other hand, you do not want people to give up on your installation because they cannot figure out how it works. Therefore, balance is key in these types of projects. Moreover, it is more appealing for some people when more than one person is involved in the process at the same time. It can rightfully be scary to try out an interactive installation on your own in front of strangers, with all their eyes focused on you and you solely even more so if you do not really know what you are supposed to do. However, if many people can try out an installation at the same time, as an on-going process, then there will be less pressure on them and in addition more people will be able to try out the installation.
Of course, the final important aspect regarding interactive art is aesthetics. One cannot diminish the importance of aesthetics in these types of projects. People are not just judging the end result, but the overall look of an installation. It is fundamental for the installation itself to look as striking as possible. People are more likely to be attracted to something that looks great rather than something that looks amateur.
LCD – Light controlled drone
Recently, I have had the chance to work with a group of people on an interactive installation called “LCD” (Light controlled drone). This installation that could be used by six different people at the same time, had for aim to look into optical audio. Each people could control two light sensors simultaneously with LED torches. These two sensors would trigger a fan and create a drone that was processed in Max/MSP (granulation and pitch shifting). Moreover, it would create some visuals that would reflect how much light was put on one of the sensors. Each person had their own speaker and their own visual space on a screen and could therefore see how the light they would project on the sensors would affect the end result (both sonically and visually). They could also see and hear what the others were doing and how the sensors reacted differently (different parameters of the sound were affected in the Max patch for most people to create a more interesting overall result). As a result, people were very keen on trying out more than one “station” to experience what different sounds and visuals they could make.
As a group, we spent a lot of time and effort to create the actual look of the installation. As the installation itself required the use of LED torches on light sensors, we realised that it was important to showcase our installation in a dark space. Moreover, as there were six different “stations” that were similar, yet that did not behave exactly the same way, we thought it was important to differentiate them with a coloured code (red, blue, green, yellow, white and orange). The great thing that helped us complete our installation was definitely the fact that there was a wide range of skills in the group. The hard work that we put in paid off, the end result was quite successful (see the following link for more information on LCD: dmsp.digital.eca.ed.ac.uk/blog/opticalaudio2013/blog-2/submission-2/).
Interactive art is not the easiest thing to achieve, yet it is so rewarding when it actually works. You learn a lot from it but moreover, the audience also gets the chance to learn and experience what it is you wanted to show them. The audience is no more passive, but an active agent in the overall project as without them the installation would not work and mean nothing.
Martha Winther s1248406
The sonic installation LCD and itsʼ potential loss of aesthetic reflection due to interactivity and soundly immersion:
The interactive installation LDC explores the light-scape of the urban environment and examines it’s connection to sound. This relationship of endless variation is converted into audio formats which its’ viewer is invited to engage with through the physical modules which build the installation. LCD is thus an installation which attempts to interpret and provide information about complex relationships between the human being and its’ surrounding modern society as well as natural forces. It is, however, also a playground in which technology is utilized to let the engager create sound of his own. This article will concentrate on this exact relationship between the artworks’ profound basis and the consequences of the disposition of the observer, thus the potential loss of critical reflection. Subsequently, it will look at LCD as exhibited, rather than LCD in development.
Immersion is a common denominator across various art platforms; virtual reality, illusional imagery, interactive installation and so forth. With immersion, however, comes the potential of eliminating critical contemplation. An analysis of this concept can begin with a brief mentioning of early modern philosopher Immanuel Kant [1724-1804], who reflects upon the importance of cognitive processes in personal perception. Kant accounts for this as following: in essence; preexisting knowledge cannot be undone and thus determines how the individual perceives its’ surroundings. As such, naturalness and artificiality are apprehensions based on personal entry. This notion, however, has not discouraged artists (across artistic platforms) to create pieces which invites the spectator to physically enter into the art whilst assuming it will be perceived as it intends to. This potent dilemma between cognition and assumption causes the issue of aesthetic distance. Is it possible to experience and understand something as a whole if you, yourself, are part of it? One current figure within the domain of media and illusion is German art historian Oliver Grau [1965-]. Grau describes the potential loss of critical reflection, which can occur within interactive arts, and deems this a major threat to the practice as rational access is a core element when perceiving art. He argues that, without distance, artwork cannot be perceived as autonomous objects of aesthetic value, but becomes a medium impossible to objectify. To perceive art, aesthetic distance is crucial as it permits an overall perception of structure and function; without it the art object cannot be understood as art. A source of inspiration for Grau may be Theodor Adorno [1903-1969] who’s famous quote states; “distance is the primary condition for any closeness to the content of works.” Clearly, the subject of perceptional function and value within the sphere of artworks is expressed thoroughly. However, Adorno and Grau’s approaches, are opposed by artist Claire Bishop [1971-] who argues; “Many artists and critics have argued that this need to move around and through the work in order to experience it activates the viewer, in contrast to art that simply requires optical contemplation (which is considered to be passive and detached)”. Bishop argues the opposite position, in which the distanced viewer looses the ability of critical appraisal due to indirect consumption of the artwork. According to Bishop, immersive installations lay emphasis on sensory immediacy and heightened awareness through introducing the art with an invitation to engaging.
As these opposing theories of reflection and aesthetic distance has been brought to light, it becomes obvious that both Bishop and Grau has a common thread. They both assume that installation art with notions of interactivity and immersion flourishes if reflected upon with historical and contextual competence; Grau from a distance and Bishop from within. However, one could argue that immersive art should be created to be observed and experienced on basis of individual emotional involvement. That the immersion based strategies could be approached on the basis of the phycological philosophy of Kant, by which the artist must accept that perception is solely dependent on ability and cognition.
Whilst I would personally tend to agree with the latter, I believe none and all of these theories apply to the installation LCD. LCD is an interactive piece, and needs thus be interacted with in order for it to ‘be’; it is through the act of creating sound with the modules provided that the audience experiences its’ function. As such, one must agree with Bishop. However, since LCD is based on converting light into sound through advanced technological understanding, is it uncertain if the audience becomes aware of the conceptuality behind it through interacting. It is, of course, clear to the audience that sound is simulated by flashing LED torches, but because it is amusing to hear the product of your own engagement, the concept and context in which LCD exists may be undermined or simply forgotten.
One must also agree with Adorno and Grau in terms of the installation LCD as it is an installation which takes up much space. It takes up space due to its’ physicality, but I am here mainly referring to the sound domain. LCD deserves to be experienced it in its’ entirety which can only be obtained at a distance because it creates is a sound-wall with a vast amount of variations provided that all modules are engaged.
Whilst I believe it is worth while stepping away from and listen to if no one is engaging due to its’ running background composition, I have to admit that it is paradoxical, if it needs be engaged with to be experienced from a distance. My conclusion must then be that the people who has had the best opportunity to thoroughly appreciate LCD are the people who has been involved in the developing stages; building circuits, recording light sources, conceptualizing and so forth. I base this on the fact that as we through exploration obtain an extended knowledge, the final installation becomes one which we need not concern ourselves with understanding. We can engage with it for amusement value or we can step away and remind ourselves that we are in fact listening to a street light and the sun (parts of the background soundscape).
Adorno, Theodor W. “Aesthetic Theory” 2004, London: Continuum International Publishing Group Translation by Robert Hullot-Kenter (1997) First edition published 1970, Germany
Bishop, Claire “Installation Art: A Critical History” 2005, London: Routledge
Grau, Oliver “Visual Art, from Illusion to Immersion” 2003, Cambridge: The MIT Press Translation by Gloria Custance First published 2001, Germany
Kant, Immanuel “Critique of Pure Reason” 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Translation by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood First edition published 1781, Germany
Reflections on creating Installation Art
Installation Art is unlike traditional art works in the sense that the work is usually created at the exhibition site and it depends more on spectator participation. The process of creating our installation involved a very steep learning curve and has resulted in a much deeper understanding of the various factors surrounding the creation of large works of interactive art, from situating it in a viable space to exploring ways of making it accessible and attractive to spectators. In this short article I will outline my main findings about the process, which range from the practical to the philosophical.
A realistic work schedule is paramount as large projects can become difficult to complete if one falls behind. Projects can be held up by monetary problems, lack of access to resources, weather (in the case of installations situated outside), and other difficulties. None of these can be allowed to hinder the project, however, because the artist will have agreed to deliver the work on a specific date, therefore it is essential that enough time has been factored into the development process to make allowances for such setbacks. The artist must plan for the unexpected right up until the exhibition opens. In the case of LCD, the early stages of development were somewhat compromised by poor time management and lack of forward planning, however as the preview date approached our team worked very well together in bringing the project to fruition.
Situating a large interactive exhibit in a traditional gallery space brings it into the realms of insurance, health and safety legislation and contracts between the artist and the gallery. During the initial stages of planning our team did consider approaching galleries in Edinburgh and had we continued down that route then we would have entered into negotiations about what was to be expected of us as the installation team, payment for use of the space, supplying detailed plans / drawings and perhaps even working with the gallery’s technicians. This final point would have taken careful consideration as it is not be expected that they would be familiar with the somewhat non-traditional ways of installing interactive art. Fortunately, we found a space within the University to situate our installation and were in complete control from the beginning. Access was not a problem and the infrastructure of the space meant that it could more than comfortably accommodate the size of the work. Testing of the work is another important consideration bearing in mind that it is designed to be interacted with by members of the public. In the case of LCD, which consisted of six identical sound sculptures, we assumed that since they were all constructed the same way they would all work the same but this wasn’t the case however as it transpired that each sculpture had its own peculiar idiosyncrasies which didn’t come to light until they were all situated in the space together. In hindsight we should have paid more attention to testing and troubleshooting the sculptures as this would have prevented the need to make final adjustments in the last hour before we opened to the public. To summarize, I found that the installation process lies somewhere between routine and uncertainty – the path is guided by some rules but alongside these there are many moments of improvisation and inspiration that contribute to the work being produced.
In terms of aesthetics and visitor experience I discovered that a minimal approach to installation art had the effect of drawing one’s attention to the space in which the work was situated, resulting in spectators engaging with the space as a work in itself. The key to producing a successful interactive exhibit is the creation of an inviting set of auditory and visual conditions that activate the spectator’s entire realm of senses – installation art should be an immersive experience therefore the space is just as important as the actual artwork. Positioning the art objects correctly heightens the viewer’s awareness of them in the space and invites a response to the arrangement, therefore creating the conditions for ‘activating’ the viewer and encouraging their interaction. During discussions about the work we all agreed that we wanted to provide an intense experience for the visitors which I feel we achieved very well. Finally, although the bare, somewhat industrial nature of the space closely mirrored the auditory and visual aesthetics of the piece it would have been interesting to situate the work in another space where it could be argued that the work might create a sense of antagonism and friction towards the environment, resulting in an even more unique experience for the visitor.
Submission 3: Fiona Keenan s1131152
Zen and Our Elusive Light Microphone, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electronics
“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.” – R. M. Pirsig (1999)
This article discusses some peculiarities around the task of experimenting with electronics and translating historical audio methods into an interactive sound installation.
Admittedly, it was a host of impractically romantic notions that pulled me into this project. Early electronic experiments are unbearably seductive things, right? It’s hard not to be drawn in to the quasi-magical role of the inventor as, poised over their creation, they carefully calibrate and test. An image of a dimly lit desk, a chaos of wires, and a smoking soldering iron spring to mind. Daphne Oram, one of the optical pioneers we studied as part of our work, sums up that feeling of peering over a precipice to spy on a new frontier:
“We will be entering a strange world where composers will be mingling with capacitors, computers will be controlling crochets and, maybe, memory, music and magnetism will lead us towards meta-physics.” (Oram, 1972)
The ‘have a go’ ethos of circuit bending, and hobbyist making, had long ago prepared me for the unpredictable, the repurposed and improvised in audio electronics. But what about the measurable, reliable and configurable? Had I been missing something all along?
Faced with the altogether dry and technical account of Henk Badings’ (1957/58) optical work for the Kain en Abel ballet production, it occurred to me that the Phillips Technical Review was sitting squarely opposite the rhetoric of publications like Make Magazine:
“Being an expert means your journey is somewhat over. When you start out making something, you usually don’t end up where you thought you would. It’s usually some place better. A beginner can imagine more than an expert because a beginner doesn’t see constraints yet. Experts stay still; beginners are constantly moving. An expert can point out the difficulty in every project, while the beginner can only see possibilities (and later many ways to make mistakes).” (Torrone, 2011)
Admirable words perhaps, except of course if you’re trying to follow a schematic diagram.
The task ahead of us suddenly seemed more challenging than at first glance. How, as beginners, would we know if we had merely reinvented the wheel? From my own early attempts at circuit bending and breaking, I feel the difficulty with a constant agenda of improvisation and unpredictability leads inevitably to a rejection of the opportunity to learn and gain skills, and the accumulation of a large amount of results-focused projects that lack clear process.
With LCD, I felt our interactive installation brief too readily pulled us in this direction. Our starting point in historical research produced some interesting ideas, but our first foray into practical circuit design was undertaken with an interactive outcome in mind.
Even as our initial photoresistor recording circuit yielded results in audio, there was some discussion over what we were actually listening to. Had we managed to transduce light into sound? Or was it, in fact, the sound of a 9V battery across a varying resistance? We experimented with colour filters, but the photoresistors stubbornly refused to respond. Why? We scrutinized data sheets. They just aren’t very sensitive, as it turns out.
Adding our fan element to the circuit, which produced a much more sonically satisfying result, our photoresistor became even more explicitly a control element. No longer the sole modulator of the output voltage, it served only to control the fan’s rotation. A great sounder, but even less ‘optical.’ It was, however, controlled by a light source.
Once the fan sounder had been consolidated as the basis for our installation, the focus inevitably shifted to the final piece, as practical considerations and user experience became paramount. While we collected audio recordings from our photoresistor circuit, and an oscillator circuit designed to react to sunlight, talk turned to more visual considerations. How would the objects be placed within the exhibition space? Shouldn’t we include a visual feedback for the users via a projector?
LCD was my first experience of working on an interactive sound installation. Our publicity and summing up of LCD references terms like ‘sound sculpture’ and ‘sound art,’ and I felt I needed to look for definitions. Licht (2007) outlines the following possibilities, for example:
“1. An installed sound environment that is defined by the space (and/or acoustic space) rather than time and can be exhibited as a visual artwork would be.
2. A visual artwork that also has a sound-producing function, such as sound sculpture.
3. Sound by visual artists that serves as an extension of the artist’s particular aesthetics, generally expressed in other media.”
Sound art, then, has a largely visual aspect (as LCD clearly did). It also seems that whatever sound/sonic art is, it would like to be extra-musical, and seems to want to define itself against the musical (Kane, 2013). It’s hard to highlight without irony that both Badings and Oram sought to use optical technologies to produce musical material. Perhaps, in trying to meet the demands of something extra-musical, we strayed even further from the reason that optical audio originally offered such promise; a finessed control of timbre and tone, an idiosyncratic and multifaceted interface. Interactivity, spatial arrangement and visual feedback were not aspects of this original work.
We need to take care when tracing a thread from historical audio pioneers. We run the same risk as composers of music in the thrall of romantic notions of creative inspiration if we deny formal methods and procedures as an integral part of creative production (Edwards, 2011). For all her marvelous meta-physics, Oram’s stupendous eccentricity was bolstered by an in-depth knowledge of her invention down to the level of its components, and if she didn’t know the details she had a technician on hand who did. While it is her personality and story that are more often accentuated by acolytes, her technical expertise or the technical in her Oramics system is swept aside. Oram wrote her book for people who could follow her on flights of sonic-meta-physic fantasy, as well as pick through dry details around electronics and the harmonic series – “…most of us probably have an inkling of how both capacitors and composers work.”
If we don’t, then we probably should if we want to investigate her work.
Now that we have realised our design, I have found it hard to reconcile what we have produced in light of the research we undertook. While optical audio experiments formed the basis for our project, this content was not present in the final outcome, and left me wondering if the sound installation brief itself was in fact the cause of this. Given the ubiquity of intermedia installation works, it’s surely the quality of our process and surety of our direction that will set our works apart from others in their usefulness and technical prowess (Higgins, 1966).
LCD has, however, broadened my mind to proper electronics manuals, and sent me all the way back to Robert M. Pirsig and his reconciliation of Art and Science. It’s something I’m only beginning to work on.
Henk Badings Philips Technical Review Vol. 19 (1957/58) No. 6. Eindhoven: Philips.
Michael Edwards (2011) ‘Algorithmic Composition: Computational Thinking in Music’ Communications of the ACM, Vol 54 No. 7, online at cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/7/109891-algorithmic-composition/fulltext
Dick Higgins (1966) Statement on Intermedia, online at artpool.hu/Fluxus/Higgins/intermedia2.html
Brian Kane (2013) ‘Musicophobia, or Sound Art and the Demands of Art Theory’ in Non-site: The Music Issue, online at nonsite.org/article/musicophobia-or-sound-art-and-the-demands-of-art-theory
Alan Licht (2007) Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories
Daphne Oram (1972) An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics
Robert M. Pirsig (1999) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Phillip Torrone (2011) ‘Zen and the Art of Making’ Make Magazine Blog, online at blog.makezine.com/2011/11/02/zen-and-the-art-of-making/