Ah, memory. That great muse of poets, filmmakers, songwriters and artists everywhere. For what else but art can interpret such a beautiful and baffling function of the human brain?
Katherine Bennett is a Philadelphia-based electronic artist, travelling to Australia to present her sound and light installation, Then Ether, at the Electrofringe festival. She is fascinated by memory and by what she calls “transformative instances” and has created an installation that plays sounds to visitors as personalised memories.
Appropriately, for an artwork centered on the concept of memory, Then Ether also evokes loss. “It’s about memory, the loss of it and our inconsistent ability to access it,” says Bennett.
The installation senses visitors’ activity in and around its space and collects sound files from them. The sound clips are played back, after which they slip into a database that loops randomly. As the days pass, the “sound memories” return in a manner that reflects the differing nature of how memories assail us.
“The first way is right after a sound is recorded so the visitor can hear their presence fold into the piece,” says Bennett.
“The second way is when the sound falls into the deeper memory of the space and is played back sporadically, like a distant memory. These distant memories are broken and rarely play from beginning to the end, which fractures their identity. The last way is when all the speakers swell with the sound of many triggered sounds, like a deluge of memories.”
And, as Bennett explains, memory’s attendant state – lack of control – is also implied in the piece.
“The visitor becomes part of the fabric of the space long after their body is absent. So they have an ongoing effect in the space, but not ongoing control.”
For those unnerved by the nuances of their neurological innards, another sound artist at Electrofringe is offering a “relaxation and well being” experience. Even better, you get to lie down in a deck chair to activate it.
Sound and multimedia artist Guillaume Potard’s modified chair, called ‘Bass Masseuse’, will be unveiled for the first time at Electrofringe.
“I have fitted the chair with subwoofers and vibrating pillows,” says Potard.
“Sound is used to massage people’s back, legs and arms. By using certain frequencies such as delta brain waves, it aims to produce responses in people such as relaxation and well being.”
Potard has long been interested in the parallel between people’s intellectual and emotional responses to sound. Yet he has not always explored it as comfortably as Bass Masseuse does. Potard’s 2006 piece ‘Iraq Body count’ used the method of sonification to communicate the scale of the casualties in the Iraq War.
“I took online data from Yahoo Finance and the Iraq Body Count website and turned it into sound,” says Potard. “The price of crude oil controlled the pitch of a drone sound, and civilian and US soldier casualties were represented by click sounds. It really gave people an idea of the scale of the bloodshed.”
Potard and Bennett both express their appreciation of sound’s distinct properties in communicating artistic concepts.
“For certain things, sound is a more powerful way to represent information than visualisation because hearing is extremely sensitive to harmony, rhythm and correlation,” says Potard.
“Light and sound possess the unique quality of lacking mass and having volume,” says Bennett, simply.
Bennett says she’s found it fascinating to observe the response to Then Ether at U.S. exhibitions.
“It’s especially interesting to see people recognise a sound from the deeper memory – one that was left a long time ago – whether it was them or someone they know. It gives an odd, sometimes unsettling, feeling of presence.”