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Bouncing off the Walls

Image courtesy of UAL

Bouncing off the walls or Soundtrap: exploring architectural acoustics and the sculptural potential of sound and redundant technology

Project summary

John Wynne undertook a research residency at Beaconsfield, a central London gallery dedicated to providing "a critical space for creative enquiry" and with a reputation for innovative work through programmes involving artists as diverse as Gustav Metzger, Bob and Roberta Smith and Leafcutter John.

Wynne was invited to develop a new site-specific, sculptural sound installation, working within the space for 6 weeks, during which time the gallery was open to the public 2 days per week.

Rather than installing a preconceived work, he responded to the acoustic characteristics of the space, specifically its resonant frequencies, the way it acted as an acoustic filter for sounds arriving from beyond its walls and the way it in turn shaped and reflected sounds produced within it. Rather than bringing pre-recorded sounds into the space, he created synthetic sounds from scratch in response to the soundscape of the space and used a pianola as the only other source of sound. He used a (still growing) collection of approximately 300 discarded but working domestic hi-fi speakers which, like the pianola, are redundant cultural icons that speak directly of the ongoing evolution of the way we listen. He also used a flexible high-level sound diffusion system called the AudioBox, allowing the possibility to create an immersive soundscape in which sound moved through the space on precise, independent trajectories.

The speakers themselves, no longer restricted to the function for which they were manufactured, became sculptural building blocks. The speaker sculptures reached into corners and up to the seven-metre high ceiling, and the sound returned to the listeners' ears, filtered by the extraordinary acoustics of this former Ragged School for deprived children. Its rich history and remarkable architecture, combined with the experience of the curators and sound art, made Beaconsfield the ideal location for this research. The only visual elements in the installation were the devices and equipment required to produce sound (amplifiers, speakers, pianola, a kilometre of speaker cable).

The physical forms of the sculpture affected the sound, and sound in turn influenced the form. The orientation of the speakers was intended to affect the listeners' experience of the sound, while the physical structures into which the speakers were constructed were influenced by the particular effect they had on sound and its spatialisation.

As the work-in-progress developed, connections between sculptural processes and sounding results were revealed and exploited. The pianola was used not in a musical way but visually as a sculptural element, and sonically as a kind of tone generator to probe the resonant acoustics of the gallery space. The artist worked with a piano tuner to tune the instrument to the resonant frequencies of the space. Whatever music roll that came with the pianola (there are always many on eBay) was modified so that it played only the notes that excited the resonant frequencies of the highly reverberant gallery space.

The finished piece hovered on the border of sound and music, playing on the aura of the absent/redundant performer and on the 'personalities' of the gatherings of discarded speakers, as projected through their design, their marks of use and misuse, the modifications carried out by their owners, and even the odours some of them still carried from their former locations in smoky pubs, damp garages, dusty lofts, etc.

In contrast to the redundancy of the speakers and the pianola, the arrangement of sound in this piece was made possible through the use of the AudioBox, an immensely powerful sound diffusion technology which allowed the artist to move sound across, up to, 64 channels and through arrangements of hundreds of speakers. He reconfigured the system, which is normally used for complex surround sound in major theatre productions, to develop its potential for experimental sound art.

Installation for 300 speakers, Pianola and vacuum cleaner, the artwork created from this residency was shown in Beaconfield Gallery in 2009 and the Saatchi Gallery in 2010.