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The aural experience of physical space – An interactive installation

by Kathy Kennedy

Une version française de ce texte se trouve ici.

The relationship of sound and space is a recurring theme in current sound art, and a new interactive work by Andra McCartney examines this trend in detail. I visited her work in progress recently in the Department of Communications Studies at Concordia University where Dr. McCartney was testing the piece with her graduate students. This interactive installation makes use of ambient field recordings recorded during soundwalks that are activated and manipulated by the movement of performers within a physical space. Recordings consisted of traffic sounds, elevators, urban and rural soundscapes punctuated by occasional birds, doors, cars, voices or music. They were all recorded in the immediate area surrounding where the work was installed. The room is dominated by a large projection covering an entire wall, displaying a grid of 16 equal-sized squares containing body images of the performers that reveal themselves with changing color intensity as they move through the space. This grid is a reflection of a comparable area on the floor where performers can move freely while activating the field recordings. The sounds are heard through four speakers on the floor, one at each corner of the large square.

Dr. McCartney and three of her graduate students each contributed four selections of 30 to 60 seconds in length, one for each square on the grid. Each participant’s four recordings were distributed in one corner of the floor space, creating a specific quadrant per person. The performers’ movements across this area were tracked by a video camera on the ceiling, and fed into a computer program (Max/MSP/Jitter). The movements activated the sound files attached to each square of floor as well as the body image on the projected screen.  In other words, the space on the floor became a stage for the performer that was reflected in the projected image. The velocity or intensity of movement translated into the volume of the sound file and intensity of colour in the visual image. Darker colours represented slower movement and the brightest colours came from the most activity.

All four performers (McCartney and students) moved freely throughout the space, trying to activate and shape sounds with different kinds of movement, affecting a combination of elements to create different sonic mixes. The visual stimulus of the screen increased the feedback loop between sound and physical position as performers watched the various squares light up with organic color traces representing the constantly changing velocity and amplitude of their movement. Sharp gestures, jumping or arm waving was implemented to create sharper attacks or spikes in volume, like a giant instrument being played by four musicians. This model for musical collaboration between players often gleans creative results, requiring all to constantly experiment with and adjust to new feedback.

As with all interactive work, it is worthwhile to qualify the nature and degree of interactivity that is solicited. The idea of moving through physical space to activate different sounds is a compelling one. It is much like real life, where we experience different sounds as we change place. However, this piece takes us into a new realm of possibility where sounds can appear from any direction (i.e. the four speakers) and remain ultimately beyond our control. Throughout this process of experimentation, the Max patch was being adjusted by collaborator Don Sinclair to randomly change the position of sound files so that interaction would stay fresh and new. Other modalities, such as permanent situation of sound files in specific quadrants, were also tried.

The choice of sound file, however, seems to me to be the most important factor in determining the degree of interaction. The field recordings selected were relatively ambient and lacking in distinctive information in the first few seconds of playback. Therefore it took some time to recognize one’s choice and even more time to affect change in volume.  Reaction time became an important issue in triggering interactive responses from the performers. The length of each excerpt seemed to also affect the tendencies of interaction. Some selections with clearer “sound marks” or distinguishing factors drew different responses, as performers tried to access them more often.

One important outcome of this interactive proposition was the fluidity and freedom of movement in performers. In an attempt to affect the audio response, each participant inadvertently became a performance-worthy dancer. I found the visual elements of the piece played an important role in the activity as well. Participants were responding to the spectral colour feedback, and I, as a spectator, enjoyed watching people engage in the process. The shadow of each body appeared on the projected screen, harkening poetically to the inescapable human footprint in all field recordings. In this work, each participant is intended to trigger sounds by their geographical placement and intensity of movement in that space.  This is not unprecedented in interactive works, but the notion of field recordings takes the listener immediately into the realm of ‘place,’ creating an illusory world of cause and effect. One moves in a highly charted, circumscribed world (the floor) in order to affect a much more amorphous world of audio.

There was a heightened or enhanced level of physical and aural awareness implicit in the interactive component of this work that was particularly enjoyable to witness. Navigating through physical space in order to access and alter field recordings (the aural experience of physical space) is a fanciful idea. It is also an important line of inquiry about how we occupy physical space, our awareness of sound being a fundamental aspect of that experience.

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