My work utilizes sound as a medium to create immersive experiences responding to site. Since 2005 I have become engaged with a process called “sonification” – that is making data patterns audible, specifically in the site of their existence. This translation of inaudible or invisible phenomena into sensible experiences interests me as it engages new interactions between the site and the audience of the work, relating body to content, as mediated through technology, and set into the context of a site.
My background and area of study has been in the visual arts specifically installation art, public art, video, and sculpture, and I didn’t begin working with sound until 2002. At the time I was creating a project in response to a 19th century bolt manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio and was primarily working with video for the site-based installation. Creating 5.1 surround sound on DVDs was a new technology at that point so I experimented with spatially distributing field recordings of a tide moving in on a shore through 6 speakers in one of the large industrial rooms of the space. What I liked about the spatialized sound is that it connected with the audience in a much different way than the video piece: it created a personal experience between body and site but at the same time its presence could not be excluded from the video and the awareness of other people in the space. It was intimate yet completely surrounding all at the same time.
In 2004 I worked with sound as a primary medium in the installation Oscillations (2004) using 48 speakers on 24 channels distributed across 3 four-story facades of a U-shaped loading dock area. Responding to the history of the building, which in the 1950s housed a manufacturer of instrumentation measurement systems and referencing equipment – oscillation circuits were one of their significant contributions to the technology field – I utilized sounds of audible oscillations, pure tonalities based on sine waves, that swing back and forth between the buildings’ facades. The sound was provided by 24 independent sound channels through 48 speakers “swinging” the sound source spatially throughout the loading dock area. The etymology of the word “oscillate” is possibly derivative of the Latin word “oscillum,” a diminutive of “mouth.”
I liked this reference for the speakers on the building façade becoming “small mouths” speaking from the history of the site, forming a chorus of the building’s past yet interweaving this voice with contemporary sounds of the busy street surrounding the building: the beep, beep, beep of delivery trucks backing up, the long, deep throaty call of a train passing by, and the clacking of containers being loaded onto trucks of the NECCO factory next door. This intermix of sound referencing past histories and current activities was a thought-provoking experience of the permanence of the site, posing the question “what has changed?”
At the time of creating Sonification/Listening Up (2005) I had heard a radio broadcast of two asteroseismologists studying the internal structure of pulsating stars through the interpretation of their frequency spectra.1 The sound samples that were produced by this stellar data (frequency, amplitude, and phase) were phenomenal! Alpha Centauri A sounded like a wobbly, wooing top spinning in space – but what was so engaging with what I heard was the translation of scale – Alpha Centauri A was close to me and I could hear it. This was an intimate experience for me, shifting a distant and somewhat abstract entity into an immediate relationship between myself and a star 4.37 light years away. I knew that I wanted to explore this further and create this as an experience that could be shared with others.
The history of sound as an art medium originates – like photography and film – with the invention of new technology. Technology has been the theme of sound art in the work of the Futurists, propagating the themes of progress in the form of noise, destruction, speed, and ecstasy. The group was one of the first to make use of sound as an art medium, not as music, but as something else that stood in its own right. Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noise (1913)2 proclaims the end of Western music and proposes its replacement with sound derived from grinding, crackling, and exploding instruments. From the Futurists perspective, life was constant warfare. In contrast, artists in the Dada movement experimented with sound playfully. In the harsh emotional and intellectual climate of post-WWI Europe, Dada saw its mission in the production of anti-art that would eventually destroy culture and in this way “end all wars.” In the following decades, artists have continued to work with sound as an experimental medium between the boundaries of abstraction and representation, as intervention and as ambient form.