‘ALERT TONES’ – Thoughts on the way in which we use sound and sight to navigate the physical world, a reflection on artists and theorists influencing my practice and analysis of recent work shown in ‘IRIS TURNS’ an emerging artists group show at the Barge house, OXO Tower, London.

 

Reflecting on the failure of the work I presented in ‘TARMAC’ I decided to focus my attention on my sound work as it had been the most successful element in my previous works ‘WE FEEL’ and ‘MEMELTSCREN.mov’. Over the past year I have developed a new appreciation and understanding of the powerful influences of sound on affecting experience and space. This encompasses everything from the emotions evoked from the roaring sea, to the effect of pop music being played in the shopping centre.

This contrasted my recent observation of how dominant our sense of sight is in our collective perception of the world. In particular I find this currently problematic because of the proliferation of personal images shared on the Internet. Social media outlets such as Instagram and snapchat encourage users to crop and filter their lives into attractive advertisements of the self. The deception of the lens is a theoretical discourse that has been discussed from thinkers such as Roland Barthes to artists such as John Hilliard since the birth of the commercial camera. Although these discussions have traditionally focused on images used in film and journalism, I believe that they are now more relevant than ever, as every smart phone user has the ability to create untrustworthy presentations of the world and human experience.

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John Hilliard – ‘Cause of Death’ (1970)

Sight allows us to see what is immediately in front of us. If we stand on a precipice, we will see for miles in the direction our body faces. If we stand inside a cave we will be able to closely inspect any part of the cave wall in as much detail as our eyes can account for. Looking is a constant act of choice; by choosing to look in one direction, or at one section of cave wall, we are immediately choosing not to look at all other directions or all other sections of cave wall. In this sense our access to visual information is limited by the position of our bodies and the physical environment that surrounds us. This is the best example I can relay here to describe the limitations of sight that are not possessed by sound.

Standing on the precipice, or inside the cave, one will have access to audio information that is not limited to the bodies’ position or the physical environment. We are able to hear sounds that are happening all around us, whether our eyes are closed or we are facing the opposite direction to the sounds source. This allows us access to information that extends beyond the physical limitations of our bodies and the space they inhabit. Sat in my bedroom with the curtains closed I can hear birdsong, then the siren of an ambulance. Through sound I have access to information about the wider world outside, whilst being physically inside. Sight only gives us access to the immediate environment and is very much dependant on the physical position of the human seer, sound on the other hand is dependant on its physical range and frequency. The difference here is that as sensory beings we do not possess the natural ability to choose not to hear sounds in the same way we can choose not to see. The artificial exception to this rule is headphones.

This new understanding of the neglected importance of sound dramatically effected my relationship with music. I realised that by wearing headphones whilst walking through the park or in the street, I was cutting myself off from audio information that is crucial for navigating the natural and urban landscape. Headphones allowed me to ignore a vast part of physical reality, to shut my ears to the local environment, obliterating my relationship to the rhythms of the world, whether organic or artificial.

The first problem with portable music devices and sound cancelling headphones is that it prevents us from being present. Sound and sight go together to create a narrative; I am walking down a path, I can see trees, I can hear bird song, I am in the park. As I have discussed, sound is not limited in the same way that sight is, so by limiting our sense of sound we dramatically reduce our understanding of our surrounding environment.

The second problem is that we exchange this valuable information about our environment for music that has the ability to radicalise our experience. I find this to be a side effect of cinemas alluring depiction of reality. This new ability to walk around plugged into our own soundtracks completely unrelated to our surroundings ultimately effects our perception of reality and therefore our behaviour. What is most concerning about this is that due to the popularity of headphones and portable music devices, a large percentage of people inhabiting the same physical location are able to have very different experiences of the exact same time and place. This creates an emotional social divide and thus makes it more difficult for people to interact with one another. Just like the structure of cinema and the Internet, this cultural phenomenon forces us to focus on the narrative of the individual experience rather than on the collective, polarising our common social and political abilities.

Ultimately, this preference of the virtual cinematic experience over the ‘organic’ experience gestures toward a much larger issue that has possessed humanity since the first agricultural revolution in 10,000 BC. Since this technological revolution, humans have manipulated natural resources for their own benefits, effecting global ecology. This dominance over the natural environment has had profound effects on the way that we think about the non-human environment; we see fauna and flora as natural resources that exist only to serve us. Today, many millennia later, human arrogance and self obsession can be seen in the abundance of cities, portable music devices, noise cancelling headphones and digital screens. We have slowly but surely cancelled out the natural landscape, replacing it with human invention and imagination. We live in a human-only world built on a practice of decision-making that benefits human kind only.

In his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2011) Yuval Noah Harari describes how this dynamic between man and nature has accelerated dramatically in the past 200 years; “The Industrial revolution opened up new ways to convert energy and to produce goods, largely liberating humankind from its dependence on the surrounding ecosystem…As the world was moulded to fit the needs of Homo sapiens, habitats were destroyed and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre.” I must reflect here that Harari’s text has been greatly valuable to my practice in terms of thinking about the relationship between history and biology in specific subjects such as the economy, gender and agriculture.

This removal from the organic world of which we originated creates a self-fulfilling cycle of destruction. Once we developed a cognitively superior perception of our neighbours, in this case; the tree, the deer, the rock, our respect for these entities diminished. This then allowed us to exploit these entities for our own needs, thus reinforcing our biological superiority. Our lack of respect for other species and biota has resulted in our disinterest in them. We can no longer hear the birds over the roar of the car engine or the sound-cancelling headphone, so we will not notice if…when they disappear. Our cognitive superiority has blinded us to our moral ecological responsibilities and we have drowned out the rest of the natural world. The effects of a diminishing ecosystem will not be felt by us until it is too late.

During the development of these thoughts I came to admire the work and ideas of Bernie Krause. In his TED talk ‘The voice of the natural world’ (2013) Krause talks about the importance of studying soundscapes to ‘evaluate the health of a habitat across the entire spectrum of life.’ He demonstrates this with the example of Lincoln Meadow in the US where the process of selective logging (removing trees sporadically rather than in one selected area) was implemented under the assurance that it would not have any environmental impact. Krause recorded multiple dawn choruses before and after the selective logging. Although there is little visual difference between the Lincoln Meadow before and after the logging process, the decline of birdsong is drastic. This demonstrates the valuable information that we miss out on when trusting so dependently on our sense of sight.

Another example Krause uses is how Mono Lake’s Great Basin Spadefoot Toad was affected by the flight path of US navy jet pilots which drowned out and disoriented its chorus. This is a literal and very poignant example of how human progress and arrogance has the ability to drown out the natural world. So long as it is benefiting us, any negative effect of our actions on any other specie is unlikely to affect our behaviour. Krause has also put together a selection of his ambient recordings under the title; ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ which combines Krause’s intimate field recordings with a human orchestra. This is a beautiful and important project that poignantly places man back into the Animal Kingdom rather than above it.

Pinar Yoldas’ work ‘The Very Loud Chamber Orchestra of Endangered Species’ (2013) is very closely related to the practice and ecological ideas of Krause. In this work Yoldas uses recordings of endangered species to create a rare orchestra that is conducted by input from environmental datasets. The installation of this work presents skulls of each endangered animal, and when the animals cry is triggered by the input of live data, its jaws artificially open and close in the rhythm of mechanisation. This collaboration between data and biology creates a profound emotional experience that confronts the audience with the urgency of human’s continuous ecological impact. Yoldas describes herself as a ‘Post-humanist’, which since has become a line of theory and philosophy that I am often finding my own thoughts align to.

The very loud chamber orchestra of endangered species _ abridged documentation of CO2ncert may 15-17 2013 from pinar yoldas on Vimeo.

In ‘The Great Silence’ (2012) Allora and Calzadilla utilize the techniques of documentary storytelling to reflect on our prioritisation of technological progress over the welfare of other species. The multi-projection installation combines footage and soundscapes of the critically endangered Amozona Vittata Parrott with imagery of Arecibo, the world’s largest radio telescope. Using a script written, by science-fiction author Ted Chiang, from the perspective of a parrot, the film unfolds the alternative narrative of human progress. This script poetically highlights the absurdity of humans fascination with finding intelligent life in outer space whilst destroying the habitats of and ignoring the potential of species we have co existed with for millennia. The dramatic irony that inhabits the centre of the piece is the fact that the Amozona Vittata Parrott and the Arecibo telescope both reside in Puerto Rico. Both the subject matter and style of this work is something that I greatly admire. This documentary style method of making art, which deals with particular narratives in order to talk about much wider global issues is far more effective, in my opinion, than the more commonly used abstract approach. Not only does this work respect the perspective of non-human experience but it also echoes my own belief that man’s interaction with advanced technology is a spiritual and sacred experience that goes beyond scientific understanding or classification;

“According to Hindu mythology, the universe was created with a sound: “Om.” It’s a syllable that contains within it everything that ever was and everything that will be.

When the Arecibo telescope is pointed at the space between the starts, it hears a faint hum. Astronomers call that the “cosmic microwave background.” It’s the residual radiation of the Big Bang, the explosion that created the universe fourteen billion years ago.

But you can also think of it as a barely audible reverberation of that original “Om.” That syllable was so resonant that the night sky will keep vibrating for as long as the universe exists.

When Arecibo is not listening to anything else, it hears the voice of creation.”

I came across this work at the Wellcome Collections current show ‘Making Nature’ which has been detrimental to my recent modes of thinking due to its display of other artworks and artefacts that deal with this subject matter in a similar style.

Allora & Calzadilla (in collaboration with Ted Chiang), The Great Silence from Artribune Tv on Vimeo.

Evan Roth’s recent video work ‘Total Internal Reflection’ (2015) follows the same mode of thinking about the development of digital technologies as sacred and spiritual. In this this work Roth combines the deceptive invisibility of the Internet with sounds and visions that are beyond the human spectrum and locates them in the physical landscape. This video work depicts snapshots from Roth’s global mission tracing the physical locations of fiber optic cable landing sites. Alongside this, Roth has utilised techniques used by so-called ‘ghost hunters’ to collect infa-red footage and radio frequencies that cannot ordinarily be detected by the human spectrums of sight and sound. Not only does this reflect my interest in physicalizing the Internet, but Roth also uses technology in a quasi-spiritual manner to highlight the breadth of audio/visual information that humans as a species do not have access to. This collection of audio-visual material is combined to produce a work that is both visually alluring audibly repellent.

Despite what I previously said about the realisation of sounds impact on space and experience to my relationship with music, there have been several musicians that have also been integral to the developments of this understanding. In particular the works of Brain Eno, William Basinkski and Steve Reich have enriched my understanding of the possibilities of sound as an artistic medium. Through Eno’s work I have realised composed music’s ability to open up and reveal moments, as opposed to the way in which I believe lyric heavy pop music conceals and masks real time and moments. I believe there is a time and a place for rock music, where it can harvest unbelievable emotional and political power. But I personally feel that this power is exploited and lessened when it is removed from its historical context and location and listened to in privacy, on headphones or in the car, it becomes a commodity. The power of ambient music on the other hand, lies in moments of solitude where it has the ability to amplify the transience of time and space.

Through both Reich and Basinkski’s works I have been exposed to the discourse of process music and musical minimalism. Manipulation through controlled encouragements of chance has always been a strong element of my work making process. This was encouraged several years ago when I can across the print work of John Cage. It seems that Reich in particular has also been heavily influenced by the same line of thinking. Both Reich and Basinkski have used the material limits of sound equipment to create melancholic works that reflect on the technological capabilities of man. In particular here I am referring to Basinkski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’ (1982) and Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’ (1968).

This exploitation of sound technologies limitations was also used by Alvin Lucier in the work ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ (1981) which has recently come to my attention. This work traces the disintegration of the human voice that occurs when it is captured using recording devices. Lucier re-records this recording of his voice multiple times in the same location causing the technological qualities of the recording device to combine with the resonant frequencies of the room, creating a soundscape of unrecognisable, free flowing organic noise. This work reflects the ideas around language that I was working on in earlier works after reading the David Abram’s ‘Spell of the Sensuous’ as I believe that this work also focuses on the limitations of languages and Lucier uses these flawed technologies to liberate speech back into sound. This work also reflects what I was attempting to do in ‘MEMELTSCREN.mov’ with the translation of organic matter into artificial man made structures. Here Lucier proves this to be a self fulfilling cycle – when these recording technologies are used in accelerated manner, manipulating their intended use, the unpredictable output reflects an organic sensibility.

‘ALERT TONES’ originated with the idea of creating a soundscape out of smartphone ringtones that could be mistaken for the soundscape of a rainforest. I felt this was vital to demonstrate my reflection on how we have drowned out the rest of the natural world with our own self-obsessions. In this sense I wanted to make a comparison between the calls of animals to the replacement call of humanity, a noise that is identified by artificial sounds radiate from electronic devices. The deception of digital sounds as natural phenomena was something I have been interested after hearing multiple stories of people confusing bird-song alarm tones for actual birdsong outside. The part of these stories that I find so compelling is that at some point the person deceives reflects; ‘what beautiful birdsong!’ only to find that it is a pre recording of a healthy sounding bird community. This highlights the lack of such bird communities in areas where smart phone users generally reside.

After seeing Laure Prouvost’s work ‘Hard Drive’ at the British Art show 8 (which I wrote about previously, here)  I was keen to experiment with this use of interactive synchronisation with disparate electronic elements. My initial idea was that the viewer would enter a dark space, on their arrival a motion sensor would trigger the start of my composition. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the composition to begin quietly and slowly build up. At the pinnacle of tension in the composition I wanted the faux animal noises to cease at the same time a bright light flooded the space, revealing to the audience that the space they have been inhabiting is in fact a greenhouse. As the audience became accustomed to their surreal surroundings I wanted the voice of Siri to speak, slurringly and incomprehensibly. This shift in the soundscape was meant to create a sense of technological malfunction reminiscent of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when Dave unplugs Hal. Ultimately, I wanted this moment to be physically and emotionally revealing, just like the power of ambient music.

Due to many technological difficulties this idea could not be executed to quite this standard. Fortunately, the sound work was very close to my original idea but the physicality of the lights and greenhouse had to be abandoned. My first test of this work used a projector to light up a wall with white light when the composition shifted. This was effective in that it transformed the room radically, but the rigid rectangle of the projection was a problem along with the impossibility of hiding the projector itself.

For the presentation of this work at the Bargehouse show ‘IRIS TURNS’ I swapped the modern projector for a CRT monitor. I originally intended to have this facing the wall so the wall was lit up ambiguously in the shifting moment but during the set up I found it much more effective to have the monitor facing the audience. This monitor was not as bright as the power of the projector, but I believe that it lit up the room with a more sinister light. I also feel that the use of this out-dated tech was more appropriate for the context of the work as it develops what I attempted to do with the digital photo frames in the work ‘UPDATE/OUTDATE’. Alongside the clear ecological focus demonstrated by the manipulation of digital sound into animal calls, I feel that the disintegration of the screen in the second half of the piece demonstrates my ideas about our wasteful relationship to digital technologies.

To attempt reclaim the atmosphere I wanted to create with the implication of the greenhouse, I used black PVC strips to black out the space and separate it from other works in the exhibit. I felt it important to use this material as it has connotations with many human-animal environments such as the butterfly house and the butchers. An unexpected addition to the piece was small green and red lights that flickered in time with the composition from PA system that the audio played through. I felt that this was a subtle visual supplement to the piece that was welcomed in this space that aimed to reflect on technologies ability to be poetic.

I feel that the most successful element of this work was the sound itself. At first I attempted to create the sounds by rerecording one ringtone at a time, until it became unrecognisable, much like Lucier’s process. This did not create the deceptive soundscape that I desired so I experimented with manipulating the audio digitally. Firstly I tried reversing and slowing the audio, then playing the same audio still reversed but slightly faster. I repeated this process until the audio was playing at normal speed. This experiment still did not have the desired affect. Finally I collected many more alert, alarm and ring tones from multiple different mobile phones. Instead of listening to the sound and then deciding if I would use it or not I reversed and slowed all of the ringtones, using these sounds to create my faux natural soundscape. During the composition the soundscape gradually transforms from rainforest environment to unforgiving digital racket. A sound byte of Siri then interrupts the eventual silence, admitting; ‘I’m not sure I understand’. I layered this audio to create a second build up in the composition that then gives way to a slow droning noise and the sound of a chime. This technique of non-musical audio sampling to create ambient music can be seen reflected in the works of Reich such as his piece ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ alongside many other examples often seen in popular music.

When listening to the variation of ring, alarm and alert tones all reversed and slowed down there were many ambient tracks that arose without any manipulation on my behalf. I selected and cropped these minimal tracks, which often were not appropriate to use in the ‘ALERT TONES’ composition and uploaded them to soundcloud as the start of a new project. I hope I will collect more such tracks that I have unintentionally come across, as I feel these ‘songs’ reflect the process and work of musicians such as Baskinski.

Ultimately, I am satisfied with the presentation of my ideas and with the eventual presentation of this work. I do believe though that this works power lies in the knowledge that the soundscape is composed entirely from ringtones and alert tones from mobile devices, and it was difficult to present this information clearly to viewers. The inclusion of Siri may have indicated this slightly but I feel that it needs to be much more specific for the implications of the work to be truly realised by its audience. I also believe that it is a great shame that my more ambitious plans for the work, including floodlighting and a greenhouse, were not possible but I hope that these elements may come into play more sophisticated roles in my degree show work.

In terms of the success of the work at ‘IRIS TURNS’, it was interesting to find that a few minutes walk away from the Barge house, at the Tate the work ‘South Tank’ by Wolfgang Tillmans was being shown. This artwork presented an immersive experience in which the audience walk into a space dotted with very ordinary chairs that sprawl across the space. It is not clear for a long time what the audience is being exposed to. The installation shifts from lightshows in time to bombastic music, to the grumbling of field recordings. The installation stays mainly dark throughout the 90 minute duration of the piece, with the occasional use of projectors to display an array of seemingly disconnected imagery.

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Wolfgang Tillmans installation ‘South Tank’ (2017)

The current work of Philippe Parreno being shown in the Turbine Hall; ‘Anywhen’ I also feel reflects my current interests. The installation of Parreno’s work is physically kinetic, with speakers, lights and screens all mechanically setting into motion at the dictation of information triggered by micro-organisms. Not only do I find this ambition awe-inspiring but Parreno also utilises an array of soundscapes to challenge the audience’s perception of time and space. The provision of blankets encourages visitors to lie on the floor, physically stopping all other distractions that the gallery environment might initiate. On the other side of the Turbine Hall huge speakers have been installed. These speakers sporadically play the sound of rain, a large carpeted space is provided for visitors to sit and listen to this sedative soundscape, which drastically transforms the commonly hectic environments found in central London.

The unnerving atmosphere caused by the constant and unexpected shift of audio and lights in both of these works, along with the manipulation of soundscapes, is something that I had tried to attempt with ‘ALERT TONES’. The fact that the timing of these exhibits at the Tate coincided with my own work being shown in London has given me a boost of confidence in terms of the mediums I am approaching to demonstrate my ideas.

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BlueDot Festival – A Reflection

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In July of 2016 I had what may be described as an out of this world experience. The story starts with simple, average expectations of a weekend away with friends working (through a company called Festaff, if you are a live music lover and of little means, I would highly recommend) at a brand new music-meets-science festival at Jordell bank, Cheshire. I had nothing to base my expectations on apart from the large commercial festivals I have attended previously, so what I was not expecting was the mind-expanding transformation that I received in those 3 days.

The first sprinkling of magic occurred when we were delegated our shifts for the weekend and were faced with a choice; a 16 hour shift in a car park from 10am till 1am, or, 3 x 5 hour shifts, one on each day, inside the ‘Luminarium’; an art installation. Tempting as it was to spend the best part of the Earth’s daily rotation standing in a field in a high-vis jacket periodically waving our arms around to direct fellow sweaty festival goers to a campsite, we chose the magic for ourselves and went with the daily shifts at the Luminarium. And how could we have been so lucky as to make such a choice without really knowing what we were choosing?13654322_10210008134260242_8527097354821993962_n

On my first expedition into ‘Katena’, the inflatable alien sculpture designed by Alan Parkinson and conceived by Architects of Air, I felt a lump in my chest that crawled up into my throat and drew tears from my eyes. I was moved, by sunlight hitting plastic. ‘A sanctuary of the senses’ with its turrets and its mutations, its brightness and its darkness, a dome of triangular stars burning just out of reach and endless variations of colours kissing your skin, the experience of a Luminarium is simply beyond words as it is so deeply rooted within raw emotion. Senses ecstatic, imaginations run wild, adults become children and children find a horizon of infinite joy and pleasure.26292745523_4fe52aa647_b1

Possibly the most beautiful part of working at the Luminarium was being able to see a public of all ages and backgrounds react to this magnificent environment. Standing on the other side of the airlock was one of the most wonderful jobs a human could ask for, holding the door open to unleash unsuspecting visitors into a new dimension of experience, each individual becomes a blank canvas, overcome by uncensored visceral emotion and wonder their pupils dilate and their heads tilt back so they can attempt to absorb the beast of incomprehension that surrounds them. This was a place where people could be together without words, without selfies, without ego. Of course, children ran and squealed, couples Publically Displayed their Affection and some were insistent on treating the delicately hand stitched walls as a slide, but one thing was true for every single human being that entered Katena, they were experiencing sensory freedom.

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Beyond the Luminarium there was still infinitely more phenomenon to be explored. The surface of the iconic Lovell telescope, a marvel of architecture, scientific purpose and human will power was used as a backdrop for a projection installation by Brian Eno. Similar to his ‘77 million paintings’ the installation consisted of ever changing textures and colours, this could be seen from any location at the festival, always looking spectacularly different. Most importantly it could be seen from the main stage, so whilst watching Karl Hyde’s energetic performance during Underworld’s set, or Jean Michel-Jarre play music by manipulating laser beams with gloved hands or even smaller bands such as Manchesters ‘Henge’ chanting about demilitarisation and the colonization of space, the Lovell telescope still stood, gloriously morphing, evolving just like our tiny little minds, unaware of the whole that we exist within on this tiny little blue dot surrounded by infinite mystery.

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I have not even gone into detail about the installations that covered the arboretum that continued on well into the night, creating a surreal place for people to meet and talk into the small hours of the morning. I cannot present within the limitations of words the sense of community that was created over those few days and the people we met and the things we saw. The whole experience of this weekend left me astounded by the power of human curiosity. From the musicians to the scientists, organisers to artists, the achievement of bringing humanity together to explore the primal curiosities of the unknown was rife. The realisation for me was that this is what I want to be a part of, I no longer have the desire to contribute to galleries where art is locked up in white cells. It is places like this; with people like this where things can really take place and change can begin to form in the outside world. Take all the ‘art’ out of galleries and turn them into venues that people can use so that things can finally start happening again. I fell in love with life and experience, I felt real hope for the environment and humanity and a calmness and determination I had never faced before, and finally I was brutally awaked from this idyllic utopia as I read the discarded newspapers on my train journey home.