Contextual Reflection

My VLF project is an artistically-based version of scientific ‘field data collection’.  It grows from my interest in links between science and art, and in re-applying scientific data and tools in an artistic context. Other important aspects of my project are exploring  the unknown and making the otherwise unheard heard. These themes are evident in pieces shown by sonic artists at  Invisible Fields, an exhibition held in Barcelona during 2011 – 2012 to explore “the invisible environment that underpins contemporary technology.”.  The exhibition also brought together leading artists, designers and scientists working on or with the radio spectrum.

Exhibits spanned a range of approaches.  Semiconductor’s piece ‘20Hz’ is a video based on radio signals from a geo-magnetic storm in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that were collected by a radio telescope in Canada.

This contrasted with Joyce Hinterding’s piece “Loops and Fields: Induction Drawings Series 4″, made with thick spirals of graphite drawn onto paper to create bespoke VLF receivers that picked up nearby VLF signals.

Some of the main differences between the works in the exhibition are the range of ways in which radio signals are processed or manipulated and the relationship between sonic and visual elements in the pieces.  Semiconductor’s piece uses radio data that has been extensively processed  combined with computer-generated graphics that suggest scientific visualisations.  Hinterding uses raw signals that are heard in real time using low-tech equipment.   The pieces also differ in their focus on natural versus made-made signals.

Also of interest here is Streetlight Storm, a piece by visual artist Katie Paterson that uses an antenna to receive the VLF signals of lightning strikes around the world.  These are then translated into light, rather than sound, by brightening and dimming the lights along Deal Pier in Kent.

My work combines several of these aspects.  For example my installation A Machine To Listen To The Sky presented listeners with unprocessed VLF focusing on natural VLF signals and low-tech equipment, combined with a 2 metre diameter weather balloon tethered high above ground that adds a very strong visual element. This tied the installation together: crossing the boundary between being visually impressive and pertaining to scientific properties. It drew in people to investigate this unusual object, and several visitors initially assumed that the installation was a physics experiment, underlining its link with science as well as art.

For my piece Recording The Spirit Level I decided to use heavy processing to manipulate my VLF recordings.  Here I used a number of signal processing techniques, along with micro editing and cherry picking short sections (such as individual spherics) to create composite sections.  In one of these sections, I group together all the spherics from a one hour recording.  The final 12 minute piece was created from over two hours of raw audio.

My project also has links with earlier sound artists such as Alvin Lucier, who created Sferics 

– a ‘real time listening installation’ that he carried out in Colorado in 1981, and which involved members of the public listening to live VLF.

During my project I contacted Lucier to ask about his motivation for working with VLF.  In his reply he says:

my investigation and recordings of Sferics was simply part of my ongoing interest in acoustical and natural phenomena–brain waves, echoes, room resonances and so forth.  Sferics are one of the most lovely natural phenomena in the known universe, resonant by means of reflections from sky to earth and back.”

Ultimately my project is about making VLF phenomena audible to demystify these signals that are hidden but all around us.

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