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Image courtesy of Near Now

On Monday i was in Nottingham to 1. spy on Near Now, a new commissioning* programme part of the Broadway art center. 2. attend the launch of a new musical tool called Ototo.

Near Now's mission is to work closely with designers and artists to develop and produce innovative works that explores creativity and technology in a playful, yet critical, way. Ototo is one of their first commissions and it was designed by Yuri Suzuki and Mark McKeague from Dentaku. (In case you were wondering, the name of this design and invention studio comes from the Japanese version of Kraftwerk's song "Taschenrechner" / "Pocket Calculator".)

Unsurprisingly (because we all know that these two never do anything remotely dull), the designers came up with a brilliant work: an experimental PCB based synthesiser that allows you to combine sensors, inputs and touchpads and easily create your own electronic musical instrument. You can make a drum kit out of some saucepans or an origami that sings when touched. Ototo is designed to let anyone unpack a kit and interact with sound however they want to, no soldering or coding required.

Ototo means "Little Brother" in japanese and indeed little brotherly characters are appearing all over the synthetizer, indicating the role of sensor inputs, speakers, headphone outputs, buttons, holes and other functional elements.

Ottoto is a small kit easy to customise. In fact, it was designed for children and for anyone who's afraid of touching electronics. You don't need to code, just to plug and you're good to go and experiment with physical computing without even realizing it.

After the presentation, we got to play with the Ototo instruments created a few days before during a workshop organized by Near Now. The instruments used oranges, plastic cups half filled with water, old knives, computer fan, paper coffee cups, pans and bits of cardboard of all sizes.

The plan is to release Ototo before Christmas. At a very affordable price.

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

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Image courtesy of Near Now

*Near Now is currently offering "artists, designers, writers, ecologists, technologists, policy specialists, architects, cultural geographers and food scientists" the opportunity to do Internet of Growing Things, to develop new work focused on food and future agri-cultures.

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Baudouin Oosterlynck, Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143, 2001. Photo © Leopold Oosterlynck

The photo above lured me to take the train to Peckham Rye and visit the South London Gallery. The image is the one relentlessly featured in the online mags announcing At the Moment of Being Heard, a show of works and performances that reflect on sound and modes of listening.

Sadly, Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not presented in the exhibition. But in case you were still curious about it, the Aquaphone is part of a series of 'instruments d'écoute' (instruments for listening) made with glass objects used by chemists. The Aquaphone works in closed circuit to amplify tiny sound phenomenons. The glass element is partly filled with water and with air that acts as sound transmitter.

Even if the Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus 143 is not part of the exhibition, it still embodies accurately the tone and character of the show. At the Moment of Being Heard is the quietest exhibition about sound i've ever visited. You hear salt being slowly poured, speakers quietly growling, piano strings being struck, shutters falling down echoing inside your head only. At times, you might even hear silence as well.

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Eli Keszler performing at the SLG in front of NEUM. Photo SLG

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Eli Keszler, NEUM, 2013. Photo SLG

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Eli Keszler, NEUM, 2013 (detail)

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Eli Keszler, NEUM, 2013 (detail)

Tuned piano wires stretches all over to the ceiling in criss-cross patterns. The wires of Eli Keszler's installation are periodically struck and scraped by mechanical beaters to deliver deep and resonating sounds that reverberate through the main gallery. The result being quieter and much more harmonious than my description would have you believe.

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crys cole, Filling a Space with Salt (in two parts), 2013. Photo SLG

crys cole's sound sculpture lays nearby and unassumingly within the gallery floor's vents. One part of the work is a small heap of salt that fills the vent in the left corner of the room. Its counterpart is located in the vent at the other side of the space, but this time there is nothing to see, if you bend down slightly you can hear the sound of the slow action (it took 108 minutes) of filling the first space with salt.

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Reiner Ruthenbeck, Rollo, Geräuschobjekt Nr. 3, 1978

Filling a Space with Salt (in two parts) nicely echoes a photo by Reiner Ruthenbeck showing a lady closing the shutters outside a gallery. The black and white photo elicits the loud clang of the shutters inside you head, even if nothing in the room is actually making that sound.

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Rolf Julius, Singing, 2000 (detail). Photo SLG

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Rolf Julius, Singing, 2000. Installation view at the SLG. Photo SLG

Singing, by Rolf Julius, is made of seven suspended speakers which emanate a low, resonant hum. The vibrations in the cones cause sieved black pigment on the membranes to shift in sync with the quiet composition.

At the Moment of Being Heard is a nice, subtle, almost meditative show where i spent more time than expected. It reminded me that i love sound art as much as i dislike writing about it. Speaking of which.... I've only blogged about the pieces in the main gallery but there's more works upstairs: Baudouin Oosterlynck's score-drawings made over journeys in Europe in search of silence, Rolf Julius' curious videos of upturned speaker cones submerged in ash and a lonely and almost undetectable speaker playing an outdoor rural Summer soundscape.

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Baudouin Oosterlynck, Variations of Silence, 1990-1991. Photo SLG

At the Moment of Being Heard doesn't stop there. Live performances and special events run until September at the SLG and also at nearby off-site venues. This one looked good, i'm sorry i missed it:

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Tom White, Public Address, installation shots, Southampton Way estate, 2013. Photo Ollie Hammick for SLG

At the Moment of Being Heard is on view at the South London Gallery until 8 September.

One last project exhibited a few weeks ago at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal. You might remember that a while ago I interviewed Arthur Heist about the workshop Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets. Before that, i talked with Nicolas Maigret about The Pirate Cinema.

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Organic polymers

This time, i had an exchange of emails with Mario De Vega to talk about Thermal, a performance in which he uses microwave ovens to alter the molecular composition of different materials. The work also uses custom-built hardware to sonify the electromagnetic activity produced by the overheating of the content of the ovens.

Hi Mario! Thermal is an audio-visual performance in which several objects are modified using a microwave oven. Now I'm sure you've been asked that questions many times but isn't it dangerous to put objects inside a microwave? The photos from the performances look a bit on the hazardous side to me. Do you have to take certain precautions?

I over-expose danger and confront human vulnerability through a frontal situation. Security advices are given before the performance starts and audience are free to leave the room. I give information and advice of possible danger.

Of course, by overheating a device which development comes from radar technology research from WWII, confronts a complex paradigm: the oven could explode during the performance, gases are highly toxic and electromagnetic activity aim to be materialized thorough acoustic pressure.

Thermal is a confrontation with our own vulnerability using an electronic device that mainly everyone can recognize, a device that modified nutritional facts, social interaction and climate. The action has a political content itself without intending being political as principle. It confronts and intimidates through presence, ambiguity, over-exposed information and acoustic pressure. It also has a visual aim. I'm interested in how electronic devices or arrangements suggest context through ambiguity, in other words, I'm interested in producing events and situations in which codes are visible but not completely "readable". We could be able, in this case, to recognize an object (microwave oven) but our understanding of things reduce our approach, resulting in a situation with dislocated semantic structure in which things are there, frontal and visible and more over we can not understand what is happening.

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Polyurethane

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During the performance, you put materials such as wax, ceramic, magnesium, carboxylic acid, pvc, etc. inside the microwaves. Could you describe how some of them react? Did any of the material you used react in a way you did not expect?

This has mainly a sculptural mean; with Thermal I'm interested in research materialization, irritation and modification as main topics. I modify materials, amplify, expose the process and materialize the results through different outputs. Technically, by irritating the molecular composition of matter, microwaves reflection change by absorption. We can think this in terms that certain materials absorb more than others, and here absorbing means less reflection and less dynamic range in an audio event.
We can understand amplification through four semantic layers.

The first one has the aim to amplify electromagnetic activity, high frequency mainly into the 2.4 GHz range. For this I use SNUFF and LIMEN, electronic devices based on logarithmic detectors used to demodulate high spectrum electromagnetic signals into a human audible ranges.

The second later is luminal activity. Using mainly a custom amplifier (BABEL) to convert lumens into sound.

The third part is electro-mechanic, using mainly a contact microphone to amplify friction and mechanic activity produced by the oven, rotating plate movements, for example.
The forth and last is probably the most dynamic part, reduced in a switch. On / Off. I turn on and off the device in order to maintain tension and produce a dynamic event.

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Window of the microwave oven during performance

More generally, could you describe what is going on during the performance? What can the audience see, smell and hear?

What you hear is mainly activity that in a normal situation humans would not be able to codify as acoustic pressure. I use electronic media to demodulate, amplify and over expose highly toxic electromagnetic pollution produced by an electro-domestic device used by 40% of the population worldwide. Burnt plastic and overheated corrosive materials are toxic; smell is an important issue for Thermal.

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Moscow Biennale, Moscow, 2009

If I understood correctly, the main instrument for this audio-visual performance is the microwave oven. Did you have to modify the household appliance for the work?

No, the ovens are not modified. This would be a very complex and even dangerous task. For me it's even more interesting to use the devices as they are, I just simply amplify its activity.

Any upcoming project, event or research field you'd like to share with us?

Probably I should then here expose deeply my apologizes to delay this interview so long. I've been working in a solo exhibition in Mexico City during the last two years (SIN); the opening was on the 20th of June in a Museum located downtown named Laboratorio Arte Alameda. It's composed by 6 site-interventions, curated by Carsten Seiffarth and a retrospective salon curated by Michel Blancsubé.

An upcoming publication compiling 10 years of my work will be published this month, and an editorial project about thermal must be finished this year, as well as a vinyl edition with artkillart.

Thanks Mario!

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If you're curious about Mario's work, head to Berlin Art Link, they recently visited the artist's studio.

Other works exhibited at Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal: Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization & online black markets and The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.

Photo on the homepage: © Kimberley Bianca / transmediale. All other images courtesy of the artist.

On 12 July, the Arts Calalyst organised one last evening of discussions in its Clerkenwell Road HQ.

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Ariel Guzik, Resonador espectral armónico

The Language of Cetaceans brought together two men who share a passion for whales. One is environmental scientist and marine biologist Mark Peter Simmonds who investigates and raises awareness about an issue that is far away from our sights: the threats to the life of marine mammals caused by the increasing emissions of loud noise under water. The other is artist and inventor Ariel Guzik who has spent the last ten years looking for a way of communicating with cetaceans.

The evening started with Nicola Triscott, Director of the Arts Catalyst, showing us the Field Guide To UK Marine Mammals. I had no idea there were whales, dolphins, seals and sharks sharks on the coast of the UK!

Next was Simmonds' talk. It was very entertaining but also almost heartbreaking.

We might think that oceans are silent but they are filled with noises and animal conversations. First of all, marine mammals, fish, and a few invertebrates depend on sound to locate food, identify mates, navigate, coordinate as a group, avoid predators, send and receive alert of danger as well as transmit other types of information. It's very dark deep in the ocean so hearing is the sense they rely the most on.

Nowadays, however, whales and other mammals cannot hear with each other because of all the man-made noise intruding on their habitat.

Some of these sounds are so loud, they are driving the animals away from areas important to their survival, and in some cases injuring or even causing their deaths. The intense sound pulses of mid-frequency military sonars, for example, have been linked to several mass whale strandings. But it's not just the military that is to blame. The fossil fuel industry is firing loud air guns fusillades to detect oil buried under the seafloor, undersea construction operations drive piles into the seafloor and blast holes with explosives. Add to the picture, the dramatic growth in shipping traffic that generates a constant noise.

Whales are particularly vulnerable because they communicate over vast distances in the same frequencies that ship propel­lers and engines generate. The whales are not only unable to communicate with each other but they also panic when the noise gets too loud. When they are hit by a blast, the creatures flee, abandon their habitat and with that the source of their alimentation.

NGO Ocean Care has launched the Silent Ocean campaign. Have a look at their video, it explains the issue with more clarity and details.


Underwater Noise - The Overlooked Catastrophe

And here's the video of Mark Peter Simmonds's talk:


The Language of Cetaceans - Introduction and presentation by Mark Peter Simmonds

Ariel Guzik then presented his attempts at creating instruments that would mediate the communication between cetaceans and humans. One of his latest instruments is currently shown in the Mexican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

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The devices that the artist developed over the course of his career go from Laúd Plasmaht which uses the electric variations of Mexican cactuses to make a concert for plants to Nereida, an underwater capsule that doubles as a musical instrument to establish contact with cetaceans.

Here's Ariel Guzik's talk. It is not as fast-paced and entertaining as the one by Mark Peter Simmonds but Guzik is one of those 'crazy' visionary artists whose work involves biology, physics, music and a deep respect for the environment. His work, i'm sure, will fascinate you:


Ariel Guzik - The Language of Cetaceans. Part 1

The rest of Ariel Guzik's talk is over here!

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The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest tomorrow will be Marco Donnarumma, a young performer and sound artist who gained fame across the world for a series of performances and instruments that use open biophysical systems to explore the sonic dimensions of the human body. His interactive instrument Xth Sense won the first prize in the Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition and was named the 2012 "world's most innovative new musical instrument" by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, US. 

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Xth Sense, 2011

We'll be talking about Xthe Sense and also about a work that intrigued me a lot: Nigredo, a 'private experience of altered self-perception and biophysical media' that uses Xth Sense. One visitor sits in a blacked out room facing a mirror and wired to sensors that capture the low frequency sound pulses of their heart, muscles and vein tissues. The signals are augmented, and fed back to the subject's sensory system as auditive, visual, and physical stimuli. Marco will tell us more about the effects the installation had on the public during the show. It includes sensory deprivation, feeling of being physically touched, etc.


Nigredo, 2013

The show will be aired this Wednesday 17th of July at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am (I know...) If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Photo on the homepage: Marco Donnarumma, Hypo Chrysos. Image Chris Schott.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

There was a time, not so long ago, when you could visit a new exhibition showing 'bio tech artworks' every second month. These days are over. At least in Europe. But it's a different story in Australia where semipermeable (+) opened last month in the context of ISEA2013. semipermeable (+) looks at the membrane as a site, metaphor and platform for a series of artistic interventions and projects, some commissioned specifically for the exhibition and others selected from the many projects developed at SymbioticA (an artistic laboratory located within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) since 2000.

I haven't seen the show so i'll let Oron Catts, curator of the exhibition, present it in the interview he did with RealTime:

realtime tv @ ISEA2013: semipermeable (+), SymbioticA

Some of the works in the show have been developed by artists while they were in residence at SymbioticA in the past. Others were especially commissioned for semipermeable (+). This is the case for Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste, or SPPS, by sculptor and sound artist Dr Nigel Helyer.

Helyer's work is rich and manifold. Behind its alarming aspect, SPPS considers selectively permeable structures under lenses that range from the molecular level to the macro scale.It explores the (xenophobic) history of immigration in Australia and more generally current infrastructures that define socio-political boundaries. It also looks at the history of biowarfare, from Antique Chinese gunpowder rockets carrying poisonous material to virus injected into chicken eggs.

There was much to talk about and ask Nigel Helyer. hence the email exchange i'm copy/pasting below:

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

What makes your work particularly attractive is the menacing steel weapons. They look like missiles. What inspired their shape exactly?

Two things, firstly the long tradition of Chinese gunpowder rocketry which is documented from the C10th. These were used for both festive and military purposes and there are accounts of "bio-hazardous" material being included in the payload (for example excrement or putrefying remains). The second strand is primarily morphological - the profile of the rockets is based upon an elongated "Bacteriophage" a virus that locks onto bacteria, injects its DNA and in effect turns the bacterium into a virus replicating factory. This resonates with the concept of genetic and/or ethnic mixing within national borders.

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Nigel infecting eggs

One of the phase in the development of the project involved infecting eggs. Can you take us through this process? What did you use to infect them? Is it the 'omnisexual bacterium' your text mentions?

As the work is designed for public museum display the work had to be relatively innocuous. Thus I used chicken eggs which I first 'blew' I.e. emptied them if their contents, and then lacquered and sealed at one end. Next the eggs were injected with a small amount of a lab strain of E.Coli bacteria (common in the human intestines) suspended in a polymer. These were left to dry out in a lab facility and samples tested for viability. Once the samples showed no further growth possibility the eggs were sealed and then double contained in scientific glass (making them safe for the Museum context). The omni sexual bacterium in the text actually refers to the structure of Metaphor. In essence the idea that in the work several apparently desperate strands if thought, history and biology are bought together to 'mingle' - I parallel this to the omni sexuality of bacteria which can exchange genetic material quite freely, mixing and matching, as with ideas as with metaphor.

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Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013. Photo credit Ian Hobbs

The work, you write, pays an "ironic homage that reprises the origins of modern bio-warfare research, where chicken eggs were the bio-reactor of choice at the Chemical Defense Establishment of Porton Down near Salisbury UK." I've never heard about the role of eggs in biodefense. Could you tell us more about it?

Well rather simple really. eggs are obviously natural incubators and were chosen as the original bio- reactors in most Chemical and Biological Warfare labs prior to the development of artificial (and therefore more standardized bio- reactors.) Eggs components are still used in the production of many serums and inoculations for regular medical use.

What makes your work 'semipermeable'? What gets in and what is left outside?

This relates more to the socio-political reading of the word, the border, the frontier, the policing of who may pass and who is turned away.

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Dictation test exemption certificate

There is also a sound component to the work, if i understood correctly. Can you explain it to us? What it is and which role it plays in the whole work.

This relates to the above, the national border, and the "Dictation Test" as applied to Asian immigrants to Australia between 1901 and 1958 under the "White Australia" policy. Asian migrants were made to take a 50 word dictation as a test of English skills. In reality many English speakers would fail and the system was a thin disguise for a racist policy for refusing entry to anyone other than Caucasians.

The scrolling text on the LED board contains just three of the hundreds of examples (to be found in the National archives) and the audio component is a Chinese translation of these three texts.

Ultimately, your work looks pretty dangerous. How do you get to exhibit a work that looks like a weapon and contains infected eggs? Are there special rules to comply to show the work in an art exhibition?

Again simple common sense from the museum team, I ensured that the bio hazard was reduced to less than a Big Mac Burger (actually a sample from a MacDonalds Cafe table could well be more harmful) and then the museum was okay with just a simple discreet wire barrier - so far no fatalities!

Thanks Nigel!

Semipermeable (+) semipermeable (+) at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney until 21 August 2013.

Also part of the exhibition: In-Potentia, from foreskin cells to 'biological brain'.

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