On the edge of perception: the logic of immersive environments : A conversation with Thomas McIntosh
I would like to start with a general thought regarding the concept of composition. Could you describe the key characteristics of your approach to audio-visual installation and performance ?
I discovered recently that Rem Koolhaas was a screenwriter before he became an architect. He describes the moment that his journey into architecture began when on a trip to Moscow he was exposed to soviet architecture and Russian Constructivism (Malevich, Tatline and Lissitzky etc). He observes that their project proposed a radical reconfiguration, a re-ordering of everyday life through the vocabulary of building. Just as a screenwriter prescribes the words and actions of a character in a series of spaces, so architects, with their arrangements of stairs, living room, kitchen and so on, write a script for our lives.
Composition, with its etymological root in the act of combination, is for me, an activity which is common to all creative endeavour. In the most general sense I believe that it implies the imposition of structure onto substance. Whether the substance in question is material or immaterial (i.e. thoughts and concepts) or the structure orderly or chaotic is secondary; what remains common is the combinatory act. If one thinks about composition in the way that Koolhaas implies, i.e. as a systematic recombination of themes, metaphors, spaces, colors, dialog, shapes, notes etc. until a result is achieved that one finds meaningful or desirable, then it becomes a very powerful and intellectually liberating concept that can be applied to any discipline.
Thinking about composition as being synonymous with design, painting or writing etc, i.e. that it is a shorthand for creativity, also provides me with the impetus to work in collaboration. I find that dialectic engagement with people from other disciplines who bring an entirely different intellectual tool box to the same problem can generate results where the whole is greater the sum of its parts.
In my opinion, your audio-visual performances correct a common misunderstanding about the quality and nature of the relationship between sound and image. In the disciplines of sound installation and video art the misunderstanding arises when the artist thinks he or she can create an artwork by simply juxtaposing images and sound. Your work is a very interesting example of integration, resonance and creative tension between image and sound. Could you discuss this problem particularly with reference to Optinen ääni (2005) ?
I recall an advert that I saw in a commercial film festival from the early nineties that consisted of footage of a taxi ride through New York City depicting its landscape and street life. The montage was accompanied by a soundtrack of abstract jazz. The resulting impression of the city it gave was one of frenetic activity, the crush of humanity with the hint of violence and danger. Then the same footage was played a second time but accompanied by a score of serene classical music. The contrast was startling: the oppressive activity and crowds become joyous and tranquil while the overtone of menace completely disappeared.
While this example might seem to contradict your assertion that artistic meaning cannot be manufactured through the arbitrary combination of image and sound, I think that it points to a more nuanced understanding of the relationship. The markedly different effect that the two, starkly contrasting types of music have on our apprehension of the montage suggests that the directors, by extension, can make you the audience see a product in any particular light. Nothing in the film was arbitrary : the footage and the music were very carefully selected to achieve their particular end, in other words to achieve meaning.
For me, a work is unsuccessful, (and I think that this applies to all disciplines, more to some perhaps than others, but not just the ones you mention), when it fails to transcend formalism : when it is only an aesthetic exploration of formal properties to the exclusion of all others. While I recognise that some media and are necessarily more formal than others as illustrated by the story about a famous composer (possibly Mozart?) who when asked by an admirer about a piece he had just played : “Wonderful Wolfgang, but what does it mean ?”, responded by playing it again. While it is obviously more difficult to see meta-meaning in a musical composition, I do think that it can be there.
Mika Taanila’s film Optinen ääni, which is based on the Symphony for dot matrix printers and which we scored with an remixed version of the recorded work, draws on the unstated themes of the musical project. Early on in the development of the symphony project Emmanuel and I made a conscious decision not to take recordings of the printers into the studio but rather to explore the possibilities and limitations of using them as instruments for live performance. The principal reasons for this were firstly that if we had not done so, we would have been using the tools of the studio as our instrument for the creation of ‘studio music’ or ‘sampler music’ as opposed to making ‘printer music’.
Secondly, our insistence on treating the physical objects themselves as instruments preserves the causal relationship between movement and sound. The fact that they make sound as they move while printing is self evident. Consequently, there is no need to search for a meaningful connection between the image of motion and the sonic result. They are free to contemplate, for example, the implications of making music with a collection of obsolete office equipment created by our technological/consumer society and intended for use in the workplace. In selecting his imagery, Mika draws on these implicit, playful themes contrasting them with the darker ones of alienation and loneliness in contemporary urban life; the footage of workers and their workplace the city hinting at a Marxist critique of wave slavery and servitude to debt.
Art, science and technology seem to be connected in a logical way in your work as a whole. What is the relationship between art and science for you? At what level does this occur in your work ?
Arbitrary is a wonderful adjective : “based on randomness or whim, rather than any system or reason.” Its antonyms are “reasoned” and “rational” and interestingly (at least to me), its roots are from the Latin arbiter ‘judge, supreme ruler’. Within this one word I locate the antithesis of my belief system: my dislike of authority and my love for the Enlightenment ideals of reason and tolerance. I also find the scientific method cycle of hypothesis - experiment - hypothesis to be a productive mode of thought when applied to art making. The experimental phase of the cycle becomes the artwork produced as a test of an idea.
While I’m not sure that I seek to relate science and technology to art in any explicit way I am very interested the effect that they (i.e. science and technology) have on our society. Art tends to reflect or perhaps refract the ideas and beliefs that are central to the society it is created in. If I might be forgiven for making a sweeping generalisation, the history of art might be summarised as follows: the natural environment is the preeminent subject of prehistorical art, ancient to premodern art is almost exclusively religious in nature, Modern art is, to borrow Robert Hugues’ phrase, the shock of the new and after that everything is referential or meta (my favourite example of which is Warhol’s art which, in my view, adopts fame as both subject matter and object to attain).
I believe that since modernism, which many view as a reaction to the industrial revolution in general and to the mechanised warfare and industrial slaughter of the First World War specifically, it is technology and the modern idea of progress that have been the Faustian twin spirits of our time. Consequentially, at this juncture in history, it seems fitting or perhaps possibly even necessary to me to engage with scientific progress and its techno-industrial issue as, respectively, the subject and material of art.
2. Sound as matter
Through all of your work, it seems that you treat sound as if it were solid matter, as a kind of material. This approach is particularly apparent in your 2003 album Abandon which you created using the Silophone (2000). Could you discuss your attitude towards sound as exemplified by these works ?
“On the seventh day they marched seven times around the walls, then the
priests blew their ram's horns, the Israelites raised a great shout, and the
walls of the city fell.”
Sound is a form of energy that is propagated as a wave through a fluid, physically displacing its molecules. At least that was what I learnt in physics at school. The definition didn’t really have much real meaning for me until I started experimenting with sound. Listening to a sine wave playing over two loudspeakers in a large room I heard the interference pattern created by the constructive and destructive interference of the dual sources : in one spot the tone was loud but move little to one side and the tone was significantly diminished. This experience really brought home to me that sound, though of course invisible, was a physical phenomena, a force. I am also reminded by your question of a story that I heard much latter about the progressively deafer Beethoven biting down on the piano to allow the sound to travel through his jaw bone to what was left of his cochlear nerve.
Silophone is the transformation of Montreal’s Silo No.5 grain elevator into what is likely the world’s largest musical instrument. The 12 storey building is roughly 300 meters long and is principally comprised of 44 reinforced-concrete cylinders eight meters in diameter by 25 meters high. Sounds from around the world are broadcast into the euphonious acoustics of the storage bins inside the building and re-transmitted to their senders in semi-real time. After creating Silophone in 2000 Emmanuel and I started thinking about compositional approaches to the building/instrument. Abandon, partly inspired by Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work I am sitting in a room, is the result of two days of improvisation that we recorded on the work floor above the the storage bins inside the building. The recordings were made using a feedback loop of microphones and loudspeakers hanging inside one of the silos. Using harmonic equalisers and a mixing console we modulated and controlled the feedback in order to ‘play’ the building itself. A burst of feedback inside a single bin would excite the natural resonance frequencies of the space and the sound would gradually spread to other bins and begin to rattle windows, doors and machinery, the entire building vibrating in sympathy. It was a glorious experience feeling the power of the sound as it swelled, setting such a mighty building atremble.
On a slightly different note, I once heard the Finnish band Panasonic (now Pan Sonic after some gratuitous litigation) talk about sound as being “like sushi : raw”. Ilpo Väisänen or Mika Vainio de Pan sonic, I forget which one, immediately corrected this to : “no, not sushi ; sashimi”. Despite my adoration of sticky rice I really love this image of sound : a beautiful, freshly-caught deep-water fish, the brine still shimmering on its scales, carved into perfect, tender tasty and morsels with a razor-sharp knife.
You describe Ondulation (2002) – realised in collaboration with Emmanuel Madan and Mikko Hynninen – as a “temporal sculpture”. I also see it as a device for the visualisation of audible frequencies. Can you explain the evolution of the project? In what sense does this work propose a new ‘shape’ of time?
Ondulation, to a greater degree than all my other works to date, draws on the writing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His conception of phenomenology proposes that it is our motility, our ability to move through our environment under our own volition, and our sensory perception that together provide a platform for consciousness. It posits perception as the gateway through which all human experience must pass, both to receive information from the world and to act upon it. Ondulation also explores a neurological condition called synaesthesia where individuals experience analogs of a stimuli in multiple senses. Chromesthesia, a common form of the condition, is where colours are ascribed to sounds. Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Liszt and Pythagoras are among the many well-known people who were gifted with synaesthesia. Jimi Hendrix also talked about chords and harmonies as if they were colours. Most famously, he is said to have described the so-called Hendrix chord E7#9 as a “purple haze”. What interest me particularly about synaesthesia is not so much which connections between the senses are made, but rather the simultaneity of the sensual experience – the feeling of experiencing the same phenomena in multiple sensorial realms.
Technically, Ondulation consists of a large basin of water which contains several specially designed audio transducers that create waves on the surface of the liquid using sound. Carefully shaped beams of light are projected onto the surface of the pool and reflect onto a large screen. The movement of the waves in the water modulates the light which forms complex patterns on the screen that are directly linked to the sound that caused them. The audience are given the impression of a single phenomena that occurs simultaneously in the acoustic, visual and tactile domains.
The project had its genesis in a performance I did with Emmanuel called finale in which we were putting various substances into loudspeakers and exciting them with sound. The results with water were very compelling but failed to translate well in the performance context because they were too small. After further experimentation, I invited Mikko, a sound and lighting designer and architect Brian Clark to help find ways to scale up the experience for a large audience. Emmanuel joined the project later and together with Mikko and I developed the audio-visual composition for the performance and installation versions over a period of several years.
I describe the work as a temporal sculpture not because it attempts to ‘shape’, or indeed to ascribe any quality of plasticity to time but rather because I view it as a plastic object that is subject to a composition which is made manifest to our perception, as all time-based media are, in time. Unlike painting and sculpture which can be viewed as attempts to capture a moment or fragment of time, it is a sculpture with a score and a duration.
3. Reconfiguring perception : the logic of immersion
Can you speak about the ideas and conceptual underpinnings for the Coincidence Engines Project (2008/2010 )?
The Coincidence Engines project is an eulogy to György Ligeti, the Hungarian-born composer who died in 2006. The subtitle to the project is Tombeau de Ligeti (literally : “Ligeti’s tomb”) which is a reference to a musical form most prevalent in the 17th century, composed, often by a student or acolyte of a great composer, to mark their death. Ligeti was an important reference for Emmanuel and I at the beginning of our collaboration. During the early discussions about the Symphony for dot matrix printers, we became interested in his 1962 work Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. The piece was important to us not only because he used the sound of something other than a musical instrument as compositional material but also because it re-framed a mechanical device in a musical metaphor : there is a written score, staging instructions and performers wearing “suitable attire” are required. We adopted both of these ideas and expanded the metaphor to an ‘orchestra’ of dot matrix printers ‘played’ by personal computers and ‘conducted’ by a network server following a written ‘score’ of ASCII texts which we ‘composed’. Following his death, we decided to pay him homage by reprising the Poème with a new set of instruments.
The title Coincidence Engines is a play on the double meaning of the word coincidence. On the one hand these are machines for the mass manufacture of chance or serendipitous occurrence. On the other, coincidence implies the co-location or concomitance of a sound with its source (in geometry, two lines are said to be coincident if they lie exactly on top of each other). This latter conception is in opposition to Pierre Schaeffer’s idea of acousmatic sound in musique concrète were sounds are dissociated from their sources, divorced from their cause, by a “veil of loudspeakers”. So the title may be read as either serendipity machines or concomitant machines.
Coincidence Engine One adopts the least expensive timekeeping device we could find: a battery-powered, plastic alarm clock; a marvel of value engineering (value, in this context being defined as the ratio of function to cost), assembled in Fuzhou, China from Taiwanese and Chinese parts and retailed in Canada by Ikea for 99 cents. Approximately 1250 clocks are equipped with their batteries, set to the current time (to the second) and displayed on a structure resembling an amphitheatre, 2.8m high and made from expanded polystyrene foam. A single person stands at the locus of the structure and is immersed in the combined sound of the more than a thousand clocks. The inherent inaccuracy of these somewhat-less-than-stellar timekeeping devices means that they immediately begin to drift with respect to each other and, as a result, the accumulated sound of their combined ticking slowly evolves.
Although the aesthetic quality of the sound field (which is reminiscent to some of rain falling on a roof, to others of a chorus of crickets or cicadas or even of mechanical devices like a dishwasher or washing machine) is quite different to Ligeti’s orchestra of metronomes and the emotions evoked are starkly contrasted (the dark-wood metronomic pathos is replaced with a rather plasticky glee), the underlying compositional form is almost the same. Ligeti’s consciously indeterministic approach in the Poème is to prescribe only the starting condition and leave the evolution towards the known end condition of silence, as all the metronome springs finally wind down, to chance.
Ligeti made a more explicit reference to deterministic-indeterministic dualism in the title to his 1973 work Clocks and Clouds. To quote Steve Lacoste, Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association :
The title of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds refers to an essay by the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Raimund Popper, “On Clocks and Clouds.” Popper’s essay describes two different kinds of processes that occur in nature, one that can be measured exactly (“clocks”) and the other, made up of indefinite occurrences that can only be described in a statistical approximation (“clouds”). According to Ligeti : “I liked Popper’s title and it awakened in me musical associations of a kind of form in which rhythmically and harmonically precise shapes gradually change into diffuse sound textures and vice-versa, whereby then, the musical happening consists primarily of processes of the dissolution of the ‘clocks’ to ‘clouds’ and the condensation and materialization of ‘clouds’ to ‘clocks’.”
Inspired by this we made the second Coincidence Engine as the antithesis to the first. Coincidence Engine Two consists of 96 modified Ikea clocks in an eight by twelve array. Each clock is amplified with its own loudspeaker and each time a clock ticks its face is briefly illuminated by an LED. The clocks are modified by bypassing the quartz crystal that normally counts the seconds and taking direct control of the movement that advances the second, minute and hour hands. The array is controlled from a single device with millisecond (1/1000 of a second) accuracy which issues instructions as it follows a predetermined score. Whereas in C.E. One we abandon musical control of the work at the moment the last clock is placed in the amphitheatre, in C.E. Two, everything is entirely determinate i.e. nothing occurs that is not the result of our composition intent.
Could you discuss the ideas and technical aspects of Autoportrait (2014)? What is the relationship with the audience in this work ?
My catalog text for this work reads as follows :
Autoportrait considers aspects of representation and the act of seeing by reimagining, in three dimensions, Diego Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas in the light of Michel Foucault’s analysis in his book The Order of Things.
The central element of the work is a vertical curtain of oil paint flowing with such uninterrupted constancy that it acts as a mirror, like an upended body of still water. Reflected in the pool’s surface is the viewer herself, bathed in light, her image immediately implicating her in the work’s creation. As she approaches the liquid mirror, it slowly moves to reveal a second face : that of the author of the present work.
The evocation of Las Meninas re-introduces, in a newly mediated form, the zone of the spectator. It is the explicit inclusion of this space in Velázquez’s work that permanently destabilizes it, opening the canvas beyond its two dimensions into the space in which the viewer stands. When we look at Velázquez as he represented himself in Las Meninas, he looks back at us. He is in the act of painting and we assume that the figures he paints are those reflected in the mirror at the back of the room : the King and Queen of Spain. However, we too are standing before him and so it would appear that he is also painting us. The painter himself also once stood in this same spot, as he organized this complex system of signs and their doubles in the composition we see before us.
Autoportrait is a reimagining of Las Meninas : the small mirror at the back of the room in the painting has been magnified, it has become the liquid mirror at which we gaze and in it we see ourselves gazing back at our gaze. It is as though Velázquez’s easel has been turned at last and we see what he is seeing : not the King and Queen of Spain, but rather both ourselves and the artist in the act of seeing.
This piece, which was produced in a very short time and to a hard deadline (both of which things I find less than ideal for new, technically complex works), is a case where the thesis proposed in the conceptual development has not yet been adequately informed by experiment. The considerable technical challenges involved in realising the work led to compromise in the scale of the finished ‘painting’. As a result, although the conditions evoked in the description are present, they are quite subtle and while the end result is interesting, the phenomenological experience is not commensurate with the concept. So this work has reached a fork in the road where either the thesis must be modified to fit the results of experiment or a new experiment must be designed to prove the thesis.
What does the term immersive environment mean to you ?
There is, of course, a lot of discussion at the moment about the term immersive environment in the context of virtual reality. We are told that because the necessary computational power is now inexpensive enough to make the technology accessible to us all, that we are on the cusp the revolution promised by the pioneers of VR decades ago. I feel however that the idea of an immersive environment has been with us for some time.
The cinema is also such an experience : the warm, dark room, comfortable chair and the (increasing rare in today’s commercial cinemas) absence of distraction, dematerialises our bodies, allowing us to float away from our corporal existence into an illusory representation of space and time. Before the cinema, the space of the theatre performed the same role with a panoply of tricks for heightening visual and auditory perception : stage lighting, trompe l'oeil, make-up and thunder machines. Even the white, empty space of the gallery, the architectural equivalent of a frame for a photograph or painting, also serves a similar purpose by excising extraneous experience. So perhaps I might offer a broader definition of an immersive environment as one that heightens one particular facet of experience at the expense of another.
From this perspective, virtual reality is profound in as much that it is a new medium, that like painting, photography and cinema or the zeotrope, camera obscura, and the CD ROM may or may not have a lasting impact on our society.
In what direction are your new works developing ?
There are a number of directions that I am interested in exploring in the future. In the process of working on Autoportrait I have become interested in portraiture in general. What, at a time when we are aswim in an ocean of self-obsessed imagery spawned by Facebook, the ubiquity of cameras and the (appropriately egregiously-named) ‘selfie’, does portraiture mean ? Is a portrait distinct from an-image-which-is-not-a-portrait merely because it is created by an artist ? Perhaps Walter Benjamin’s prescient 1936 prediction of the loss of aura of the work of art in the face of mechanical mass reproduction might be extended to concept of identity itself? Should we accept the dualism of celebrity and anonymity proposed by those that own our media and social networks where identity is metered and measured ? Emmanuel and I have been working for some time on Portrait Landscape, a work that explores these themes with help from Rene Bakker, a Dutch engineer, American wunderkind Atom Pechman and engineering autodidact Ken Campbell. The project is a large-format 3D printer that sculpts faces from sand and water. The chosen sculpting medium is inherently ephemeral, associated with the space of play – evoking the sand castles and constructions of the imagination – as well as recalling the mortality and transitory nature of the individual.
I have recently also been involved in more traditional architectural projects. Most notably, I was commissioned to design a pavilion to house a permanent version of Ondulation for the new Louvre museum in Lens, France. This project, which along with some of the landscaping around the museum was ultimately cut due to a budget shortfall, was nonetheless fascinating and rewarding. The principle challenge was to find a design strategy and aesthetic for the building that wouldn’t impinge on the design mandates of the star-architects Sanaa (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) and equally renowned landscape architects Mosbach Paysagistes, or offend the sensibilities of their institutional and governmental clients (the Louvre and the Regional and National French governments) while meeting the requirements of monumentality and functionality of a permanent pavilion to house a large artwork. Working with another French architect, Pascal Bertholio, with help from a third, Salvatore Chillari from Switzerland, we came up with three proposals. The one that was chosen represents a kind of anti-architecture or an architecture of self-effacement where the visitor follows a 50 meter pathway that gradually sinks into an artificial lake towards the building submerged below its surface.
First of all, I wish to thank Enrico Pitozzi and Archée for your effort in developing much needed critical discourse on the subject of digital culture and for doing me the honour of extending an invitation to discuss my work. From reading your questions I think that some disambiguation is necessary. You have asked about a large cross-section of the work I have created since the focus of my practice shifted from architecture to art in the late nineties. While all of these works were created in collaboration with other people, their authorship is varied. The Silophone project, all of the dot matrix printer pieces and the Coincidence Engines are co-authored by Emmanuel Madan and myself working together as [The User]. Optinen ääni (Optical Sound) is a film by Mika Taanila based on [The User]’s Symphony #2 for dot matrix printers and scored by us. Ondulation began as a solo project, but I brought in first Mikko Hynninen and then Emmanuel to work on it as it increased in ambition and scope. Similarly, Autoportrait, nominally a solo project, was developed with significant input from two engineers: Ken Campbell and Scott Monk. In all of these works, and also the projects that aren’t discussed here, I could perhaps be regarded if not as the lowest common denominator, then as the single common factor.
While I suspect that his attitude towards art (and indeed most other things) may be somewhat at odds with mine, I have heeded the advice of Robert S. McNamara in that I have taken the liberty of reformulating some of the questions so that they are closer to ones I wish I had been asked.
Montreal, January 2016
Thomas McIntosh, born in London, England in 1972, now lives and works in Montreal, Canada. He studied architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa and at the Technical University in Berlin and worked for a number of years as an architect in Germany. In 1997 he began working in collaboration with composer Emmanuel Madan under the name [The User] and produced three major series of works collectively entitled Symphony for dot matrix printers, Silophone and Coincidence Engines. Since 1998 their works and McIntosh’s Ondulation series have been exhibited extensively around the world. He is the recipient of two awards from the Festival de Nouveau Cinéma et Nouveaux Médias de Montréal, an honourable mention from Ars Electronica and was nominated in 2004 for the Nam June Paik prize and their Coincidence Engine series is a finalist for the 2010 Transmediale prize.
Enrico Pitozzi is a professor-in-Charge of “ Forms of Multimedia Stage” at the University of Bologna. He was visiting professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal – UQAM (Canada) and visiting lecturer de l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III (Francia) in the EU program Teaching Staff Training 2013 and cours director at l’Universidad Internacional Menendez Pelayo de Valencia. He gives seminars and lectures at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (Brazil) and Universidade Federal Rio do Sul do Porto Alegre (Brazil) as well as the European Institutions and Universities. He currently collaborates with the scientific committee of the project “Performativité et effets de présence” directed by Josette Féral and Louise Poissant at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the project “Poéticas Tecnològicas” directed by Ivani Santana at the Universidade Federal de Bahia (Brasile) and the multimedia laboratory « MeLa research » at the IUAV University of Venice.
In 2005 he took part in the workshop within the 37th International Theatre Festival of Venice Biennale directed by Romeo Castellucci and in 2013 at the “Biennale Danza College” directed by Virgilio Sieni. The essays : De la constitution du corps de synthèse sur la scène performative : perception et technologies, in R. Bourassa, L. Poissant, (dir.), Personnage virtuel et corps performatif : effets de présence, Ste-Foy, Presses de l'Université du Québec, 2013; Topologies des corps, in J.P. Massuet, M. Grosoli (dir.), La capture de mouvement, ou le modelage de l’invisible, Rennes, Presses de l'Université de Rennes, 2014. Magnetica. La composizione coreografica di Cindy Van Acker / La composition chorégraphique de Cindy Van Acker / The choreographic composition of Cindy Van Acker, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2015. and Bodysoundscape. Perception, movement and audiovisual in contemporary dance, in Yael Kaduri (dir.), The Oxford Handbook of Music, Sound and Image in the Fine Arts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, (2016).
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