Microcosmos and Macrocosmos

the Sound Drifting installation in Linz

catalogue text about one of the 16 sub-projects of Sound Drifting, an interdependent, temporary system of international remote sub-projects using a wide range of methods and approaches to the generation and processing of sounds and images to form a continuous on line - on site - on air sound installation on the occasion of ARS ELECTRONICA 99

by Martin Breindl, September 2000

The gaze on a molecule through a strong microscope can evoke the same feeling as looking at a distant galaxy through a telescope. Knowing that one is perceiving different objects in different spaces - both dissimilar in material, size and appearance - one discerns clearly an identical underlying structure. Without giving up its own identity, a molecule can become a mirror of a universe or vice versa: the unbelievably large, a mirror of the invisibly small. Technology which sharpens the human ability to distinguish, washes away the culturally bound limitations of imagination, thus releasing one’s mind for the essential: Things remain the same, what changes is our attitude towards them.

In the same way, the Linz manifestation of Sound Drifting was a kind of mirror of the project as a whole. While it clearly remained just one of the 16 sub-projects which formed the interdependent, temporary, generative system - receiving, processing and transmitting sound data - it was also a physical representation or image of the overall structure. The Linz installation exploited the entire range of perceptual possibilities of Sound Drifting - opening visual/acoustical gates through which visitors on site, on line and on air could slip into the ongoing flow. Sound Drifting in Linz was definitely not the centre; it was more a meeting place where the many dispersed and varied elements converged briefly, only to immediately fragment again into a kaleidoscope of different events that projected Sound Drifting’s pulse into many other spaces, non-stop for 216 hours. The various spaces and media functioned as filters, processing different aural and visual events out of Sound Drifting’s data-static. The diversity of events was not the effect of different causes but merely of different settings of the filters.

The Colour Code

Light reflected from coloured surfaces and light filtered through transparent film are the forms of visual events closest to sound - ambient effects similar to an acoustic drone. With this in mind, the motif of 16 coloured squares used as a visual code for Sound Drifting was chosen both to suggest a generative system processing the spectrum of sunlight and as a colour code intended to create identities for the 16 Sound Drifting locations. The combination of all 16 squares, as on the brochure, poster or the cover of this catalogue, form a new square - a pattern of coloured surfaces without predetermined content, which hints at the nature of the Sound Drifting project as a whole.

The Installation

The conception of the sound installation, a close collaboration between visual and sound artists, was strongly influenced by the appearance of the space itself: the O.K Media Deck, a large glass-fronted box perched on top of an old building in the centre of Linz. Not a black box (theatre or cinema) nor a white cube (gallery or museum) - spaces which seal themselves off from the everyday world - but a transparent box that forces the view outward, towards the impressive panorama of the cityscape. This made the Media Deck a perfect space for a node in an interdependent system of remote sub-projects, scattered across the globe, that required the creation of a feeling of extended space and not the building of real or metaphorical, white or black, walls.

Sound Drifting took place in the context of the bustle and stress of the high-profile spectacle of the Ars Electronica festival with all its technical gadgetry and rows of gleaming monitors. In contrast, Sound Drifting was conceived as a space of calm and clarity, inviting people to slow down, to dive into the flow and drift with the sounds - drifting with them through the spaces of the network, back to their sources and forth to their uncertain destinations.

The floor space of the installation was bare except for the row of deck chairs looking out through the long, south-facing front windows, and two sub-woofer loudspeakers on the floor in the corners. There were no monitors in the space, only three small flat LCD-screens mounted on the ceiling that displayed the live webcam images from the network. Eight loudspeakers could also be seen suspended from the ceiling along the walls of the main space. Concealed in the space under the floor-grid along the window walls were eight additional speakers that reflected sound into the space from the glass. This array of 16 loudspeakers was fed constantly by the mix of all the individual remote sound events filtered and processed by the Sound Drifter programme. This immersive sound installation filled the space of the Media Deck with a permanent ebb and flow of sound surging through the space: a multitude of sounds emerging, living, and slowly dying away for 216 hours – washing over the visitors in their deck chairs as they listened and drifted and looked out into the world.

The east- and west-facing windows at each end of the Media Deck displayed the visual reference to the network in the form of suspended Plexiglas panels containing the Sound Drifting signature of coloured transparent squares representing the different nodes. Small speakers, quietly playing the live stream from the respective location, were mounted in the centre of each of the squares. The two audible rows of squares formed a faint acoustical, as well as optical, borderline – not blocking out the world but tinting it. Walking past the small speakers, the faint sounds could be heard against the background of the spatial density of the Sound Drifting installation - sometimes a sound from an individual stream could be identified as one of the objects circulating in the Media Deck.

What could not be seen was the kilometer of wire and cable concealed in the space under the grid by the windos and down to the - also invisible - room full of computers and sound equipment on the floor below.

There were also four additional Sound Drifting locations in the context of the Ars Electronica 99 in Linz (the AEC Skylab, the pedestrian tunnel between AEC and the Linz City Hall, the Sound Bar at Brucknerhaus and the ORF Landesstudio OÖ entrance). The sound material was comprised of samples from the Media Deck installation, compiled every day by different artists, burned on CD, and played as loops in the spaces. The ‘Sound Drifter’ was the actual composer of the pieces, the role of the artists was simply that of compiler, mediator and/or distributor. Inverting the role of human and machine, they merged with the machines like cyborgs, processing and distributing material, as elements in a generative system.

The Sound Drifting Radio Installation

Sound Drifting was also on air as an eight hour live radio installation, broadcast on ORF Österreich 1. The radio version was again a collaboration of humans and machines that tried to change - or at least to restructure - the hierarchies of human-machine interaction. The radio work itself was composed by the Radio Drifter which allowed the various artists to make simple adjustments to the sound parameters. This proved to be a major challenge for the human participants, who often surrendered to the urge to wrest control from the machine and re-establish the traditional hierarchies. This was a perfect demonstration of an issue that is becoming more and more important - and that was also one of the main topics of Sound Drifting: control sharing .

"In a non-hierarchic structure, like this generative sound installation, all participants have equal rights: artists, users and machines. We have learned that it is possible to create open structures within a project without losing control of the idea or the concept. Accepting machines as partners, not as mere executive tools, but as part of the whole organism, is another step. Not the glorification of man-like robots, or machines imitating human abilities, but to work with machines as partners, with their possibilities, their imperfectness and bugs, to accept them as collaborators in a team-working process.
Communication between us and machines in a generative project means that sometimes we are the listeners and sometimes they are." (Andrea Sodomka)

This text was published in: Sound Drifting : I silenzi parlano tra loro, Wien, Triton, 2000
Online version at Kunstradio