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Tangible Frequencies

Steve Gibson, Julie Andreyev, and Randy Adams, Curators
January 26-29, 2006
Open Space, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Event website: http://cfisrv.finearts.uvic.ca/interactivefutures/frequencies.html

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Texas Woman’s University


Without a doubt, we have become an audio culture. [1] Walk into any grocery store––in the U.S., at least––and you will see people pushing carts down the aisle with one hand and holding a cell phone to their ear with the other. Students come to class plugged into their iPods. Televisions blast away at airports and restaurants. Webpages belt out sound files. No decent minivan would be complete without speakers in the back seat. When in 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote in The Medium Is the Massage that "we are enveloped by sound" (111), he could not even begin to understand what an understatement that comment would be 39 years later.

What does it mean for a visual culture to become so heavily impacted by sound? What is the relationship between sound and image? What are sound’s spatial and temporal considerations? These are some of the questions probed at "Tangible Frequencies," the recent show at Open Space. An "installation series" held in conjunction with the conference, "Interactive Futures: Audio Visions," and the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival in Victoria, British Columbia, in January 2006, it was curated by multimedia artists Steve Gibson, Julie Andreyev, and Randy Adams. Works by 11 artists were featured in 10 different works that ranged from time-based projects to video games.

Open Space [2] has a long history of showcasing emergent art forms, beginning with Don Druick’s 1972 "piano and electronic compositions" ("Archives"). In a panel given last year at "Interactive Futures," Todd Davis, Douglas Jarvis, and Jeremy Turner detailed the gallery’s work with the project Sat-Tel-Comp, described as "one of the first telematic video transmissions utilizing satellite technology." [3] In 1983 the gallery featured Diana Burgoyne’s Digital Body, seen today as "one of the earliest experiments with electronic sound as part of an interactive performance" [4]. So, it seems appropriate that a show experimenting with the way "site, space, vision, volume and perception and . . . physical location 'matters' to the reception of audio frequencies" ("Tangible Frequencies") would take place there.

For instance, Leonard Paul’s Core Dump––an irreverant title for an installation mounted in a bathroom stall, to be sure––was described as a "[Game Boy Advance] with a flash ROM running custom-made software which explores issues of space and privacy on the small screen." That it played nonstop, literally "dumping out recombinant and pseudo-random images and audio samples" ("Tangible Frequencies") while one was supposed to go about one’s business in the loo could be viewed as a statement, on the one hand, about the value of the content found in video games, and on the other, the nature of the media we engage in within our most intimate spaces. In essence, the work suggests that the Game Boy is youth’s answer to the newspaper and raises questions about what happens to the core of humanity when information being dump[ed] in it is inane and meaningless.

Another piece that made good use of the gallery space was Peter Courtemanche’s Spark-Writing, billed as a "generative audio installation." The title is derived from an idea by Velimir Khlebnikov, who, in 1915, envisioned a form of telematic communications. The piece consisted of four wooden speakers crafted by hand that hung from the ceiling in the stairwell leading to an unused and dark location on the gallery’s lower floor. Described as "fantastical instrument[s]," like those envisioned by Douglas Kahn, the speakers each quietly broadcast a "sound collage" based on, according to the artist, "four stories (or four such instruments)––The Factory Floor, Very Low Frequency (magnetic) Sculpture, Ocean Harp, and Volcano Trumpet" ("Tangible Frequencies"). Each story was reflected on a scroll mounted on the wall near its corresponding speaker, thus combining old technology with new. "Ocean Harp," for example, alluded to the 1918 "Open Letter" written by Vladimir Mayakovsky; The Factory Floor, the 1908 work by Alexander Bogdanov, "Red Star: A Utopia." As a whole, the piece critiques utopian dreams that accompany the introduction of new––and fantastic––technologies, the hollowness of such claims reflected in the echoes of the space.

Snippets, by Bobbi Kozinuk, was a "radio soundwalk" that took participants on a journey around the gallery space. Sounds, made up of, literally, snippets of conversations, were transmitted to particular places in and around the gallery and picked up by the radio headset worn by the participant. As she or he moved around the space, the participant would hear these sounds, along with those emitted by the other installations and participants, and, depending on the route taken, could experience the work uniquely with each engagement. Because of the way the audio samples were mixed by the artist and combined with the other sounds enveloping the participant, and the fact that the sounds emitted from the headsets were of a lower intensity than the live sounds, the experience purposefully confused the participant and asked her or him to think about the way humans try to make sense of the un-sensible, unravel truth from lies, and discern the spontaneous from the contrived.

Another noteworthy piece was Marshall Jones and Jonathan Zalben’s Compound Pilot, a collaborative work consisting of seven different net art pieces. While all successfully explored, either directly or indirectly, the "correlation between the sonic and the visual elements" ("Tangible Frequencies"), "Teardrops 1" and "Teardrops 2" deserve mention for their wit and intellectual depth.

"Teardrops 1" began with a light bronze background with "circle cutouts," resembling teardrops, floating upward. Obfuscated by both the colored background and the floating teardrops was an image. One could never quite make out exactly what it looked like, only that it was there. Ambient sound "puls[ed]" in the background ("Tangible Frequencies"). Touching a particular drop with the cursor caused it to float up, but since all drops eventually seemed to move up the screen and disappear, the touching only singled one out for immediate release. No matter how long the piece ran and how many drops the user touched, the image never emerged from behind the veil of tears. "Teardrops 2," the reverse of "Teardrops 1," began with the scene that lurked behind the first piece. An animation set to loop, it was a landscape of trees, mountains, and villages. No tears appeared in this piece, but it was not without its own confounding elements. In this case, small white squares that also floated upward didn’t hide anything but still got in the way of a clear view of the changing landscape. Taking the place of the pensive ambient sounds of the first piece was a constant buzz that further obscured access to clarity. Together "Teardrops 1" and "Teardrops 2" lead us to think about the frustrating and disjunctive ways memories come to us––how they lie beyond our grasp, and how when they do finally appear, they are never enough to take away our pain or satisfy our desires.

Adding also to the success of the show were Christopher Moore’s edgy Love + Hate, Life + Death, and Why? Because! , Jim Andrews’ beautifully conceptualized Nio and War Pigs, [5] Vera Bighetti’s compelling Gr@fite, [6] Shawn Pinchbeck’s highly inventive Sonic Spaces, [7] and David Tinapple & Andrew Johnson’s haunting When Pulse Becomes Pitch. [8] One can only hope that the show and the conference continue for a sixth year, for they draw excellent work to one of the most stunning locations in North America and take up such timely topics so cohesively and thoroughly.

[1] I borrow this term from Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, from their book, Audio Culture, which I reviewed here previously and also appeared in Leonardo 38, Number 4, August 2005. See: http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/reviews/oct2004/audio_grigar.html.
[2] See: http://www.openspace.ca/.
[3] Davis, T., J. Turner, and D. Jarvis. "Outerspace: A Network of Accessibility, SAT-TEL-COMP, 1977 through 1982." Interactive Futures 2005. Victoria Canada, February 4, 2005.
[4] Marzolf, H. "IF2 2006." Personal email. February 7, 2006.
[5] Jim Andrews’ work can be found online at http://www.vispo.com. The URL for Nio is http://vispo.com/nio; War Pigs, http://vispo.com/vismu/warpigs/warpigs8.htm.
[6] Vera Bighetti’s Gr@phite can be found at http://www.artzero.net/grafite/index.htm.
[7] A Quicktime movie demonstrating the piece is available for viewing from http://cfisrv.finearts.uvic.ca/interactivefutures/pinchbeck.html.
[8] A Quicktime movie demonstrating the piece is available for viewing from http://cfisrv.finearts.uvic.ca/interactivefutures/tinapple.html.




Updated 1st January 2006

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