Peter Cusack is a field recordist, musician and researcher who has traveled to areas of major environmental devastation, nuclear sites, big landfill dumps, edges of military zones and other potentially dangerous places. He has been to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the Caspian Oil Fields in Azerbaijan; 'London Gateway' the new port on the River Thames where massive dredging severely damages the underwater environment; the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, which is now being partially restored after virtually disappearing due to catastrophic water misuse.
While most of these locations have been extensively discussed in articles and documented in images, we don't know what a day in any of these places sounds like. With his field recordings, however, Cusack gives us an idea of what a radiometer with a cuckoo in the background in Pripyat sounds like. Or what it is like to hear the wind whistling by the Sizewell nuclear power stations. These recording belong to a practice that the artist calls sonic journalism. The discipline is an audio complement and companion to images and language. Using field recordings and careful listening, sonic journalism provides valuable insights into the atmosphere of a particular site.
Hi Peter! The public is now used to seeing images of dangerous places. Focusing on sound recordings from these same places, however, is less banal. What can sound communicate that an image cannot convey?
Field recordings are very good at communicating the atmosphere of places. They also give a good sense of space (distance, position, how things are moving) and timing of any events happening. I think this is important because it gives a sense of what it might be like to actually be there and allows you to think about what you might feel, or how you might react if present. I don't really agree that images are more banal (some recordings are also). It depends on the image. For me a better impression is given when images, sounds and language are working together. Most reportage uses images and language but not the sounds, which means we are usually missing the aural information. This is a pity because it can be very informative and expressive.
Some of the sounds you collected are seducing and fascinating. The ones you recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are particularly charming, even the Cuckoo and radiometer has some poetry in it. So how do you suggest the sense of danger to the listener?
Yes, sometimes they are a complete contrast to a sense of danger. However they are part of the the larger whole. Most dangerous places are very complex. For me it's important to suggest the complexity and the contradictions that are present. That way one gets a more complete picture, e.g it may seem a contradiction that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now a wonderful nature reserve. That is definitely to be contrasted with state of human health there.
Is it easier to get access to these locations as a sound artist than as a photographer? I imagine that people in charge of a military site or a particularly environment-damaging oil field will be wary of a photographer but might underestimate the strength of a sound recording. Do you find that you face the same resistance and restriction when you record ambient sound than when you take photos?
The only place where i had access to a place where photographers cannot not go was the Jaguar car factory in Liverpool, where they are paranoid about industrial espionage from rival car manufacturers. At Chernobyl they give anyone access if you can pay the entry fees.
In places where you don't get permission it depends on how obvious you are. Large microphones are as visible as large cameras. I often use small equipment which is not easy to see. However, it's true that security guards don't know about recording equipment compared to cameras.
The UK now is very security conscious. I've been stopped at places for recording and for just standing in the wrong place not recording or photographing.
The first recordings of the series dedicated to the oil industry were made in 2004 at the Bibi Heybat oil field, in Azerbaijan. Why did you start there? Was it a conscious decision to start in that location or did you find yourself there for another reason and the idea emerged then to start a new body of work?
i was in Azerbaijan for a holiday. i did not know the oil fields were there, so it was a very lucky accident from which the project grew.
You see Sounds from Dangerous Places as a form of 'Sonic Journalism'. Yet, you are a sound artist, so what makes your work an artwork rather than merely a 'sound reportage'?
My interest is to document places as best i can (audio recording, photography plus any other kind of material or research) so that anyone listening/reading can get an idea of the place itself and the relevant issues. this material gets used for a variety of purposes - sound art, cds, radio, education, talks, installations. whether it is art, documentary or journalism is not so important to me.
Are there dangerous places you wish you could go to or sounds you wish you could capture, only they are out of reach for some reason?
Yes, many. most military areas are completely impossible to get into. So are a lots of industrial sites, nuclear power stations, etc. Sometimes official tours are organised but usually these are useless for recording, which takes time to do properly without other people talking or getting in the way all the time. However it's sometimes possible to make interesting and valuable recordings from outside the fences.
Other places are really, and personally, dangerous like war zones. My project concentrates on environmentally dangerous place. War zones are not part of this and i've no wish to get killed.
After this exploration of the energy industry, you are planning to explore global water issues. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? Your website states that the work will include the dam projects in Turkey. Why do these dams strike you as representative of the global water problems? Where else will the project take you?
The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. the aral sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. today it has almost dried up because the water flowing into it is diverted into major irrigation schemes far up stream. The disappearance of the sea has been disastrous for the local climate and huge fishing industry that once supplied the Soviet Union with 25% of its fresh water fish.
The Kazakhs are now trying to restore a small part of the sea with support from the world bank. This has been quite successful and the fishing industry has re-started bring the economy back to some of the fishing villages. the wildlife has returned and so has the climate. I have travelled there twice so far - very interesting.
I know you're not supposed to ever be tired of London but if you feel like a change of atmosphere, there's some rather spectacular disused wind tunnels to gape at in Farnborough, a mere 35 minute train ride from Waterloo station.
The Wind Tunnel project filled with site-specific commissions two wind tunnels buildings, known as R52 and Q121, that were built to test planes, from Spitfires to Concorde. These buildings were decommissioned after the 1960s and have remained closed to the public ever since.
Opened in 1935, Q121 is the largest wind tunnel in Great Britain. Inside, two gigantic holes face each other. One is a powerful fan with 600kg blades which would drag air fast and furious across the space between them to test complete planes and sections of bigger airplanes.
R52 was built in 1917. It is now an empty hangar but it used to house one of the world's earliest aerodynamic testing facilities.
McIntyre-Burnie's sound pieces makes use of archive materials from the BBC to fill the impressive Q121.
The basis of his sound work is an outside recording made by the BBC of the song of a nightingale in 1942 in a garden in Surrey. It was a yearly broadcast since 1924 but this year, the microphone accidentally picked up the sound of RAF bombers flying overhead on their way to Germany. The program had to be interrupted, for fear it would have tipped off Germany about the upcoming bombing attack.
McIntyre-Burnie's new composition fills the wind tunnel. It doesn't try and compete with the impressive structure (that would be foolish.) In fact, it make the whole experience of going through the historical space even more awe-inspiring.
One of Bridle's works, Rainbow Plane 001, also paid homage to the history of the site. The installation outlines the silhouette of a Miles M.52, an experimental supersonic aircraft developed in secret to break the sound barrier at Farnborough in the early 1940s.
The contour is shown as if distorted by the pansharpening effect of satellite photography, as if viewed, in flight, from space. There never was any original photography of that Miles M.52 in flight. First of all because, the aircraft never flew. It was a research project that was cancelled in 1946 even though its aerodynamics had been successfully demonstrated by a scale model. Besides, satellites don't take 'photos' of what lays below them. Instead, they use sensors to look down onto the earth and acquire information about its surface and atmosphere.
Rainbow Plane 001 is ducted tapped under the site's portable airship hangar. The structure was one of the 6 airship sheds in the UK at the outset of WWI and it probably isn't as 'portable' as its name suggests. It is estimated that it would take 50 men ten days to dismantle the structure, 7 to load it onto railway and 2 to 3 weeks to reassemble it.
The Wind Tunnel Project was organised by Artliner and curated by Salma Tuqan. I must say that the website of the project is one of the most frustratingly dysfunctional i've ever visited. Anyway, you can see the tunnels and artworks in Farnborough until the 20th of July. A shuttle service is helpfully available outside the Farnborough railway station.
More images from the wind tunnel (I also posted a photo set from the opening on flickr, if ever you're interested):
The Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor, sold in North America in the early 1980s, was engineered to transmit any noise from the nursery to a wireless receiver accompanying a parent in another part of the home. However, just like many other baby monitors, this model was known for its pesky audible interferences with signals from radio, static, cordless phone or even from neighbour's baby monitors. Furthermore, as with any audio input/output system, when both units are in close proximity they produce disruptive audio feedback. Not great for sleeping babies.
Darsha Hewitt built a whole installation that exploits these inherent glitches and she appropriately called it Feedback Babies. The receivers are attached to motors and slowly bow back and forth in front of the emitters, creating a subtle soundscape of nuanced feedback patterns and squelching radio interference reminiscent of the whimpers of crying babies.
Feedback Babies will be part of the program of the Sight + Sound festival which will open in Montreal on the 20th of May. Let the screeching Feedback Babies gently batter your ears by clicking on the video below and get more details about the work in the little chat i had recently with Darsha:
Hi Darsha! How did you find out about this late '90s model of Fisher-Price Nursery Monitor?
I grew up in the heyday of Fisher-Price technology - I had the baby monitors around when I was a kid. I had younger siblings so we had them in our home - I had a babysitter, she had them too. More recently, they became a common cast-off in the home electronics aisle at second hand stores. My dad was an antique dealer so the act of collecting old things in multiples comes naturally. Also, I'm a sucker for old radio technology and who doesn't love the idea of walkie-talkies made for babies?
And why did you focus on its glitch?
Audio feedback and radio interference are commonplace in sound art. These particular baby monitors seem to have somewhat of a cult following within experimental music. I've seen them used in performances and they are often subjected to circuit bending.
When the receiver and transmitter are used in extreme proximity they cease to function as a device for one-way human communication. Instead the internal voice(s) of the machine takes over. Depending on how you position them, the sonic distortions can range from Walt Disney style bird song to eerie whimpering. By rigging-up the transmitters slowly bow in front of the transmitters they oscillate through this tonal range. As a group they fall in and out of synchronisation and develop some sort of strange inter-machine worshiping pattern...the overall effect is mildly creepy.
What made you decide to bring emphasis on them?
I am particularly drawn to their scale and volume limitations - in a way they remind me of babies. When a newborn belts out a scream from the top of their lungs it can be shrill and alarming, however; since baby anatomy is so mini its cry is still quite weak and helpless. Similarly, even though these machines are feeding back and generating interference to their maximum capacity, their signals are weak and much more subtle than the more balls-out approach to noise that often dominates experimental music and sound art.
Why do you leave all the wires and electronics uncovered?
Electricity is my medium and I enjoy working with its related material dimension. These are domestic electronics - cables and wires are part of everyday life, why should they be concealed?
You seem to work a lot with outdated technological devices. What do you find so fascinating in them?
I am skeptical of certain forms of innovation. As I mentioned above, my dad was an antique dealer - I was taught to value the quality and craft of objects from the past. Furthermore, the practice of planned obsolescence that inhabits industry generates an abundance of discarded electronic devices. This surplus is an economical and steady source of art supplies. Since old technology is inexpensive and readily available, I am free to experiment without fear of failure because I know there will always be more. In my studio I deconstruct these machines as a starting point to gain material knowledge - if I am lucky, artwork emerges.
In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell Invented the Photophone. While his earlier invention, the telephone, uses electricity to transmit voice communications, the photophone relied on a beam of light to send sound. A person's voice was projected through an instrument toward a mirror. The vibrations of the voice caused vibrations in the mirror. Sunlight was then directed into the mirror, where the vibrations were captured and projected back to the photophone's receiver where they were converted back into sound.
Bell believed that the photophone was "the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone". He might be right, the photophone was a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems. The reason why the photophone didn't take off during Bell's time is simply that the system was useless whenever the weather was cloudy.
Inspired by Bell's patent for the photophone, artist Arcangel Constantini developed the Phonotube which uses fluorescent tubes and strips of leds as light instruments and sound sequencers for audio and visual performances.
The tubes are covered with negative offset, printed with sound patterns that spin at variable speeds. The oscillation from the light emitted by these patterns is transduced into sound processes by light excitation, through a variety of electronic circuits as pre-amps photo-cells and photodiodes, voltage control oscillators, relays, circuit Filters, 1bit systems.
The Phonotube is part of the program of the Sight + Sound festival which will take place in Montreal next month. And because i've been admiring Arcangel's work from afar on too many occasions, i thought i should take the upcoming festival as an excuse to get in touch and interview him about the work.
Hola Arcangel! Reading through the description of the Phonotube on your website, i had the felling (perhaps wrong) that it relies on a fairly simple technology. Is that correct? How much did you have to tweak.improve/modify the Graham Bell patent for the Photophone?
In reality, it is a very simple technology, the patent is very crude, clever and significant. It is about the transmission of information using vibrating light, Graham Bell state that this was his legacy to human kind and this is true.
We perceive our surroundings because of light oscillations, our retina transmits the perception of the visible spectrum of light to the part of the brain that interpret this light frequencies as images.
Every aspect of reality is on its own frequency, mystics knew this by meditation and contemplation, science by theory and experimentation, all this intermingling knowledge is a legacy, Graham Bell had an intuition on how to manipulate light to integrate information on it, and with this started a revolution. I'm interested in researching this simple perception principles through art practice, in exploring the meanings and implications while experimenting with the process.
Phonotube is part of this research, based on a simple principle, in this case experimenting with fluorescent lights. To energize this kind of lamps, a transformer and electronic circuit are used to generate high voltage in a high frequency energy, the gas inside the lamp is expelled and turns into a light that is vibrating to this energy frequencies. The light produced is a kind of carrier, the repetitive patterns printed in the tube give a new oscillation to this light, small Photocells are transforming light into electrons, this energy is pre-amplified to audible sound, and processed trough filters. Furthermore, a circuit with Photo diodes is used as a variable for Low Fidelity Voltage Controlled Oscillators.
A second sound artifact uses a strip of LED lights inside a transparent Tube. A series of AtTiny85 microcontrollers are programed in 1 bit sound (1, 0) that produce light pulsations on each of these LEDS. Small photocells and a pre-amplifier Circuit transform these pulsations into audible sound. OculO is another instrument involved in the performance, it uses a Joule thief hack from a disposable camera that energizes a 22 watt circular lamp with a 1.5 volt battery. Photocells transform the gaseous light into sound. These energy frequencies and the electromagnetic induction become part of the sound performance of OculO. I also interact directly with my body, canalizing energy by receiving tiny electroshocks in my fingers trough contact with the electrodes and the lamps.
You use the Phonotube in performances but is it an instrument anyone could use? I suspect many people in the audience wouldn't mind to have a go and play a bit with it? is it intuitive or is there a steep learning curve to be able to play the instrument?
Phonotube is still an experiment. I have tested different sound circuits. The intensity of the sound frequencies in its current state are meant for live performance. I included small speakers on it, thinking that it could be used by the public also as an installation, as it is simple and intuitive to use. Now, the speakers are used during the performance to Generate some EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomena using piezoelectrics directly on the speakers, performing it with OculO turn into a spectral portal.
The descriptive text says that the Phonotube was "inspired by visuals experimenters as Norman Mclaren, that used the optical sound of cinema, reversing the process to experiment with it." I looked online but didn't find much information about McLaren's experimentations. Could you tell us what they were about?
Norman is a pioneer of experimental sound and animation. He was artist in residence with the National film Board of Canada, he started to work directly in clear film, drawing, scratching, painting the material to produce abstract Motion films. This lead him to invade the film area dedicated to the optical sound. Fascinated by the abstract Sound Frequencies archived by different visual patterns, and how sound worked in synchronicity to the visuals, he started to produce an Impressive work using this techniques.
The description also said that "In the history of the invention of electronic instruments, the study of light and its behavior as a particle or wave, and its application to sound processes (...) is currently, one of the areas of scientific research with the greatest potential in human communication." Now that sounds really interesting. Do you have examples of how the study of the behaviour lights can lead to innovative means of communication?
Most Telecommunications nowadays are based on light transmission, fiber optic cables crisscross the planet connecting the continents transmitting terabytes of data using laser technology.
There is an important research in the spectrum of visible light to transmit wireless data, instead of electromagnetic radio WiFi. The researchers are using pulsating Led light to transmit data with a huge increment in broadband velocity.
There is also the fantastic research on Quantum teleportation that tries to establish instant communication between photons separated by large distances, the record now is 143 km,
The object looks stunning. I really like its simple and striking design. How important is the visual aspect of the Phonotube in your performances?
Gracias Régine. As i mentioned, the research started as a visual project. Aesthetics become very important in its relation to sound. The tube has an the aura of a partitur. The intensity of the sound frequencies of the Low Fi oscillators are meant for live performance, the plan is to develop the project as an instrument, but as the lamps are no longer on production there is now an obsolete quality to it. The light of the lamps is the only light on stage, and for Sound & Sight performance will explore the use of analog video filming the tube.
I already mentioned the festival Age of Wonder last week in my notes from Nick Bostrom's talk about (human and artificial) Super Intelligence. The festival attempted to reflect on the challenging but ultimately exciting techno-mediated times we are living with a series of performances, keynotes and art installations. BioArt Laboratories illustrated the essence of the festival with Tree Antenna, an installation and workshop that engaged with alternative wireless communication, ecology, DIY culture and historical knowledge.
The Eindhoven-based multidisciplinary art&design group recreated an early 20th Century experiment in which live trees are used as antennas for radio communication.
General George Owen Squier, the Chief Signal Officer at the U.S. army not only coined the word "muzak", in 1904 he also invented in 1904 a system that used living vegetable organisms such as trees to make radio contact across the Atlantic. The invention never really took off as the advent of more sophisticated means of communication made tree communication quickly look anachronistic.
Tree communication was briefly back in favour during the Vietnam War when U.S. troupes found themselves in the jungle and in need of a reliable and easy to transport system of communication but after that, only a few groups of hobbyists used tree antennas for wireless communication.
During the last afternoon of Age of Wonder, BioArt Laboratories invited members of the public of all ages and background to join them and bring back tree antennas to our attention. Participants of the workshop could craft simple and affordable devices that would allow anyone to use the tree in their backyard as a radio receiver (it is also possible to broadcast from your tree but the technology is slightly more expensive and it requires permits.)
Squier drove a nail into the tree, hung a wire, and connected it to the receiver. The BioArt Laboratory team used flexible metal spring that wrapped around the trunk as planting a nail into the tree would have damaged it. Their system definitely works as the team managed to communicate with amateurs radios from countries as distant as Italy and Ukraine.
Right now there are only a few amateurs using tree and other high plants for wireless communication but the BioArt Laboratory's objective is to spread the word about this simple and affordable technology and gradually build up a world-wide forest of antennas.
Obviously, in this experiment the tree is part and parcel of the functionality of the antenna. We're thus not speaking of questionable antennas disguised as tree.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
This week I'm going to be talking with Antony Hall. I interviewed Antony many many years ago and his work is as interesting as ever. Antony creates kinetic artworks; sculptures and installations, often using sonic, mechanical, fluidic, electronic or biological elements. But in the show we will focus on Owl Project, the artist collective that Antony forms together with Simon Blackmore and Steve Symons.
Owl Project works with wood and electronics to create musical and sculptural instruments that question human interaction with computer interfaces and our increasing appetite for new and often disposable technologies.
The work of Owl Project goes from simple ironic devices such as the iLog which is a log that thinks it is a music player to large scale installations such as ~Flow, a floating tidal waterwheel powered electro acoustic musical instrument responding to the river Tyne in Newcastle. Owl Project has also toured festivals and events with their rather ingenious Sound Lathe, a musical instrument based on a traditional green wood turning pole lathe that explores the relationship between the crafting of physical objects and the shaping of sound.