Thursday, April 12, 2007

going DEAF: Sound, Image, Matter, Form

I'm in Rotterdam, briefly, for DEAF07 - a little taste of the European new media festival scene. Synaesthetic media has been a minor theme - primed perhaps by the train trip from Amsterdam airport to Rotterdam; I had a hunch that minimal European techno would go nicely with the gliding green planes of the Dutch landscape. I was right: superb - though no doubt the jet lag helped, and of course I probably got the idea from Michel Gondry in the first place. My soundtrack was by The Field and Ellen Allien and Apparat.

A kind of material synaesthesia from Canadian artist Thomas McIntosh, whose Ondulation is one of the standout works in the DEAF exhibition. The work uses water as a connective medium between sound and light. Amplified tones create standing waves in a large shallow pool of water; lights reveal and reflect the wave patterns. Ondulation parallels earlier work exploring sound, vibration and form, especially Hans Jenny's cymatics and the late-60s cybernetic sculptures of Wen-Ying Tsai. The documentation of Ondulation is nice, but the scale and material presence of the work is much more powerful; it's an elegant, non-computational way to achieve the kind of tightly fused AV that many other artists are currently exploring. It feels deeply retro - it's essentially a programmatic son-et-lumiere show - and very contemporary; the visuals reference (and totally surpass) digital sound visualisations.

Roman Kirschner's work Roots, another dynamic / generative sculpture, also stood out for me. More cybernetic influences here: Roots draws on cybernetician Gordon Pask's experiments with growing conductive metal filaments in a solution. Pask showed that a device can "grow" a new sensor adapted to its input - something that remains beyond the capacity of most computational systems (see this paper from Peter Cariani). Roots mines the aesthetic potential of Pask's technique: filaments branch, curl and intersect, suspended in an orange-brown haze and streaming dark, viscous clouds. As Kirschner points out their growth and disintegration both shapes and is shaped by changes in the electrical current flowing through them. There's material synaesthesia here too: the voltage at each filament drives a simple analog sonification of those electrical transformations. Unlike Ondulation, the scale of the work is small and intimate, but both works have the same feeling of encounter, a sort of physical self-evidence often absent in computational, screen-based work.

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