Milieux Sonores: Sound and Imaginary Space

With Daniel Bisig/Martin Neukom/Jan Schacher, Jason Kahn, Yves Netzhammer/Bernd Schurer, Felix Profos and Jeroen Strijbos/Rob van Rijswijk.

Exhibition Description
From the rooms we imagine when we hear our noisy neighbors across the wall to the echoes that bounce off mountain cliffs, sound and space combine to create mental landscapes that become important parts of our environment. As developments in media technology make these virtual spaces and soundscapes ever more present in our lives—think video games, GPS applications, and audio surround—they are increasingly the subject of cultural theory study. Rarely have these concepts been explored in media art exhibitions, however.

Now, swissnex San Francisco and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts are pleased to announce the U.S. debut of Milieux Sonores: Sound and Imaginary Space, curated by Marcus Maeder and the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) at the Zurich University of the Arts.

Milieux Sonores, which premiered in Zurich in 2009 at Kunstraum Wlacheturm, was designed to create imaginary spaces that could be shown in actual places as exhibition architecture. Participants, who included artists, composers, and sound designers often working in teams, were issued the following challenge: Build an imaginary space. The resulting five installations make use of cutting-edge audio technology developed at ICST Zurich to propose very diverse solutions. At Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, they all become part of a dark, mine-like space defined by sharp black shapes jutting out from gallery walls.

With support from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. Stay tuned for upcoming related events.

© Lorenzo Pusterla, Kunstraum Walcheturm

Flow Space
Daniel Bisig,Martin Neukom and Jan Schacher

Flow Space is an audiovisual space set in a Platonic body, a regular geometrical space. Surround-sound, video projection and interaction create an immersive media experience. A touch-sensitive interface offers an intuitive, contemplative interaction with swarms of sounds. A choice of different executions is provided, each with its own performance, sound and visual representation. Ambisonics surround technology is used for three-dimensional sound projection and spatialization. Flow Space is the fruit of three research projects of the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology at the music department of the Zurich University of the Arts: The Interactive Swarm Orchestra (ISO) project, the Immersive Swarm Spaces (ISS) and the Musical Gesture project. The Interactive Swarm Orchestra (ISO) is a research project which involves the use of swarm algorithms for sound synthesis, sound spatialization and interactive composition: Sound events are modelled and controlled in synthesis, spatialization and movement in accordance with the principles of biological swarm movement. The ISO as well as the ISS project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF). The Musical Gesture project researches the basic physiological and psychological principles of gesture-controlled musical performances. It also involves the development and application of technologies used within the context of music composition, performance and interactive installations. The touch-sensitive interface of Flow Space is an example of a gesture-based digital instrument directly accessible to laypeople.

© Lorenzo Pusterla, Kunstraum Walcheturm

Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos

At first glance, Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos’s SoundSpots resemble oversized Plexiglas lamps. Only when one stands directly below one of the „lamps“ does it reveal its auditory secrets: the listener is submerged in a sound-bath of “musical eruptions”. The sound installation entitled SoundSpots was developed in 2007 by Dutch composers Rob van Rijswijk and Jeroen Strijbos. It consists of traditional and parabolic speakers focused on a single point to create a walk-through sound environment, i.e. a spatially distributed composition. As visitors move around the installation, they experience their own version of Rijswijk and Strijbos’s work: The base sound generated by the normal loudspeakers mounted in the space mixes with that of the SoundSpot below which the listener is standing.

© Lorenzo Pusterla, Kunstraum Walcheturm

Four Adjoining Rooms
Felix Profos

The installation Four adjoining rooms consists of a room in complete darkness, in which the only discernible elements are a seat, headphones, a navigation trackball and projected visual navigation. The work itself consists of four imaginary adjoining acoustic spaces. Composer Felix Profos writes: “Being alone in an empty room surrounded by adjoining spaces, from which muffled sounds can be heard: a fascinating situation, in which listening – without being able to make out exactly what is going on in the adjoining spaces – comes into its element. The most nondescript sounds are charged with meaning and begin to shine, and the remotest events become related to one another. I have long yearned to have this condition within reach, perpetual and undisturbed. The project Four adjoining rooms is an attempt to achieve this goal. However, compared with the condition as described, the advantage of this project is that here, time does not slip irretrievably through our fingers: we are free to stop at any given point in time and listen for as long as we like; we can observe this environment from up close or further away – from a temporal point of view – and can return to it at a later point in time. Consequently, certain elements may recur twice or even three times, although this is often difficult to determine given the inconspicuous nature of the events. And so we move across a threshold between an unspoilt nature of events and music, so to speak“.

© Lorenzo Pusterla, Kunstraum Walcheturm

Perimeter Gray
Jason Kahn

Jason Kahn’s installation Perimeter Gray is the only work that is not directly in the exhibition itself but rather on the façade of Gaffta. Here, taut wires pick up electromagnetic and acoustic vibrations outdoors – specifically from the inner courtyard of the barrack grounds – and transform them into sounds. The modified signals from the acoustic environment around Gaffta are played back outdoors via various loudspeakers mounted in the same location: Thus, the sonic space of the street is enriched with its own transformed sounds. Jason Kahn writes: „The focus of my sound installations lies in our perception of space through sound. I see space as a sculpture shaped by sound. The emphasis is not so much on the sound that I bring into a space as on the space itself. My installations seek to heighten our perception of space. Today we often try to shut out the world around us: we are faced with simply too many sounds and too many images, resulting in an information overload. In my work, my aim is to empower visitors to perceive a given space, sensitizing them not only to its sound, but also to the general perception of the place.”

© Lorenzo Pusterla, Kunstraum Walcheturm

Presumed Wind Load
Yves Netzhammer & Bernd Schurer

Yves Netzhammer and Bernd Schurer have created an installation transcending synthetic virtual reality. It consists of a table set in a small room: the space inside the four open drawers has gained independence on an imaginary level; it has broken free and collected in four pillars formed by four black objects that project up to the ceiling. The pillars emit sounds, turning the four objects into acoustic inner space. This installation is the poetic expression of the achievement of independence for spatial relationships. Yves Netzhammer and Bernd Schurer write: “Tables are social instruments used to verify our proportions and distances. Through the components of the installation, the imaginary space switches latently between the inside and outside, with drawers represented by pillars and the communicating elements cushioned with pillows. The vertical projections, between the inner and outer surfaces, delineate an acoustic inner space. This supports the imaginary architectural space through an audio-collage. The symbolic use of sounds and the question as to how one space relates to another within a system are part of the process of creating a new world – heterotopia engaging in dialogue with the imaginary space and examining the experience of touching the various (spatial) objects.“

The concept of space has always served to define relations between things in our imagination, thus interpreting reality. According to Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida, space can be seen as a place that absorbs ideas and allows the expansion of our thinking to be grasped in linguistic terms. Without any doubt, reasons for a stronger emphasis on the spatial aspect in the arts as well as in science can be found in the increasingly important role spatially oriented media plays in our living environment. Whether it is the simulation of space used in almost every computer game, GPS navigation systems or space metaphors in the internet such as chat rooms: the large share of virtuality structured in analogy to space is defining of our discourse on the world.

Furthermore, through recent media technology, a veritable topos of media related experience and acting is taking on form, an ontology of the virtual is in the making. With cinema, DVDs and computer games the spatial design of sound and the sonic design of space has gained importance. Surround technologies allow to simulate complex acoustical spaces: the “virtual“ acoustic space has become a widely discussed subject. If we view the fields of media and sound art, of electronic music, of game and sound design from such a perspective, it is striking that especially in these disciplines, topological terms become parameters in artistic and medial work. Furthermore, sounds do not only exist in a spatial relationship to one another, they are on a level of imagination and creation part of a consciously generated sonic and spatial milieu.

If we understand artificially generated sound spaces as fields of imagination that are composed of sound milieus structured in space and time, they are nonetheless primarily composed of technically generated signals that trigger sensations. The producer’s as well as the artist’s and the recipient’s imagination through acoustic sensations creates a space for association which brings into relation our knowledge about the real world and the simulation of the possible. Under the influence of our perception’s expansion brought about by media technology, the conception of reality begins to change. Space simulations created by artists, be it in films, in installations or musical works, create – “hyper-natural“, surreal spaces of experience that are filled with strange sound objects, impossible or remote spaces, sounding artificial life forms – they create mental landscapes which become part of our environment. On this phenomenon, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari noted in the dawn of the computer age: “The real is not impossible, but it becomes more and more artificial.“

In the exhibition Milieux Sonores, we focus on artistic and musical designs of sound spaces, on working with sound and the visualization of imaginary space. Milieux Sonores presents five different artistic approaches, each of which either creates, in its own unique way, a world of sounds and a space for a framework of sounds or transforms and redefines space through sound. Two of the five works were developed at the music department of the Zurich University of the Arts, namely Four adjoining rooms by Felix Profos and Flow Space by Daniel Bisig, Martin Neukom and Jan Schacher from the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology.