John Montgomery on Dark Matter : Light Cycles

I was fortunate to enrol in the week long Collide, Collude, Collaborate workshop hosted by Sound, and given by Kathy Hinde, a sound and visual artist and Matthew Olden, a PureData and Max programmer. A couple of months earlier I had been impressed by Kathy's 'Tipping Point' installation at the Woodend Barn and had asked her, "How much of that did you build yourself and how much did you farm out?" She basically replied that she built "All of it, except the rubber rings holding the tubes." This ad hoc use of technological components, and just how she got it together interested me. Perhaps a week-long workshop under her guidance would help me gain some valuable insights? As it turned out I would not be disappointed.

Weeks before, Kathy set up a blog for the workshop, gave all the participants write permission, and asked us to put up information about ourselves, ( Here's mine ) and what sort of things interested and inspired us. She and Matthew also added up videos of things they felt it would be relevant for us to consider. I put up a video of Zimoun's work, which I found quite exciting for the simple mass produced materials he used and the results he got. Kathy's work is not totally dissimilar in aesthetic, which made me think he would fit. During the workshop, after a busy day attending to us, Kathy and Matthew would spend the evening growing the site with techniques and technology they had touched upon during the day. Consequently it is now a valuable resource for anyone interested in pursuing this "Maker" approach to art installations.

For day one we were asked to bring some sort of presentation introducing ourselves to the group. Thereafter we were given a short 30 minute exercise using our smart-phones, to pair up a sound person with a visual person, and alternating were to take a picture, then record a sound suggested by the picture, then a picture suggested by the sound. We returned back to discuss our experiences. It provoked a wide range of ideas and topics, which as it turned out would feed into many of the resulting art pieces. Towards the end of the day we received a soldering demonstration, how to make a contact mic; how to use Max and Arduino; using them with sensors and motors.

Day two we were then each handed an arduino starter kit and a block-board and walked through the process of making a DIY pressure pad, wiring those up to the arduino boards (these are little OpenSource computers you can purchase for about £30). During the course of discussions we had talked about sound as texture, and some expressed a desire to link visual gestures, as in the film Fantasia, to sound. I came up with the idea of creating a texture turntable, and was charged with its realisation. Kathy gave me close instruction of the equipment to purchase: it would require wiring up a preamp to a contact mic. I was also given instruction on wiring up a driver for a stepper motor, and left to program it in Processing. By the end of the day I was confident enough to order a 2Watt stereo amp kit, and to solder that together too. To my amazement the amp worked - though I learned that my soldering iron has passed its sell by date (it was these little pieces of information that were very valuable to know).

For me building the turntable was a daunting prospect, but after some teething problems, I ended up with a finished result I was happy with making a perpetual crumbling sound one might assign to granite. With only a 2 Watt amplifier, it was quiet, but I was happy with "quiet". It was fortuitous that the texture surface we made ended up looking like the moon, because another Aberdeen fact we were celebrating was that the first photo of the moon was taken by a Mr. Gill in Aberdeen.

Having completed the piece, I was free to wander around assisting with other things needing done. And here is a brief overview behind each piece.

As you entered the door you stood on a pressure mat which triggered a snippet of a computer generated, Markovian chain, Doric poem, with custom composed background music by Calum MacIlroy and Megan Shearer. This music also plays on the street as backing to a movie of North Eastern trades spliced together, in the main by Louise Foreman and read with a poor Doric accent by yours truly. The sound of the mandolin in the music triggered DMX lights - stage lighting - another useful technology we were introduced to.

During the course of research, mainly carried out by Amble Skuse, we discovered that nearby St Nicholas Kirk had the largest carillon of bells in the UK, so one piece sought to connect that fact with the fact about the first photo of the moon being from Aberdeen. The stars were added as a subject: the Plough constellation - pointer to the North Star was chosen to mark this astronomical fact. If a shadow fell on any of the stars, some of the nearby bells sounded.

Next in the room was a beautiful and photogenic oil drum acquired by Louise Foreman, Ceylan Hay, one of our number and quite a renowned singer with a beautiful voice, sang a traditional and haunting whaling song. The oil drum was used to alter the song sound with a watery reverb. The technological aspect was our introduction to transducer speakers, which attached to any hard resonant surface, turn that surface into a speaker. It was simply strapped to the oil drum. The result was a haunting mermaid sound. Quite pleasing.

Many of the group worked on the next piece. Linda Bolsakova was the main mover and maker for the next exhibit, although Amble Skuse again found all the necessary data, and Louise brought a great deal of practical skill and finishing to bear on the project. Ceylan and I also helped get the podiums built. The piece aims to use data from some principal industries of Aberdeen. Oil, Granite, Sea. For the seawater - actually just cleaner tap water - the times of the tides were used to generate vibrations, which are selectively filtered using PureData to arrive at something which creates a visual result. Granite transforms the textures of pictures of granite for its vibrations, vibrating granite dust. Oil used the oil price fluctuations, and synthesized oil – over time the oil became too viscous to form wavelettes – but nevertheless, looked good.

Amble Skuse came up with some of the surest conceptual ideas and the sound of darkness is particularly hers. Amble wishes her work to convey what the illness ME is like, and in this instance, what the sound of darkness is. One goes into a cupboard and switches off the light, which triggers a recording of uncomfortable though not painful sonic textures. There was no indication when the experience was completed. At one point, a group of eight or so folk packed into the small cupboard space, and only emerged half an hour later looking like it had been very hot in there!

The last pieces at the end of room, Harpoons and Hydrophones. The projected and animated graph was a PureData derived oscilloscope representation of the frequency of underwater sounds Louise Foreman recorded at Aberdeen Harbour, and which were played through a sub-bass kindly lent for the exhibition by the University of Aberdeen Music Department. Ceylan made use of Electro-Phosphorescent wire in an eye-catching piece marking Aberdeen's long-gone whaling industry.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that although I have put names to pieces, that perhaps conveys a wrong impression because the group coalesced together very well, and there was much collaboration and sharing of ideas and effort towards completing each piece. We learnt an awful lot of use for the future, and I think the solidarity of the group shows in how the exhibition looked as if it was planned and realized months in advance rather than in a single week. I can only point to the sure handed guidance of Kathy Hinde and Matthew Olden here. They worked extremely hard, inspiring and motivating us all, and demonstrating that tireless energy which I suspect is propelling them towards becoming internationally acknowledged contemporary artists.

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