Surface Resonance…

The installation and examination presentation context

This section is about the questions, tests and discussions with others on the installation and presentation of works.

The compositions and their presentation lead to engaging an audience in vibration and vibro-acoustic experiences, developed to answer my research questions and express my ideas and inspirations. However, the purpose of the research was not to cover the field in terms of installation for vibration, or to explore the full range of ways in which materials can be activated into vibration, such as activating the space, or installing vibrating materials.

This section provides the background to the way I approached installation and audience feedback in my research.

Research Detail


Presentations and listener feedback

Intended installation approach

The intended installation approach is to use the table, or iterations of this (such as a larger vibrating area, suitable for lying or sitting) with a close stereo or quadraphonic loudspeaker arrangement.

I would aim to offer an enclosed experience, by presenting the table within a small, darkened room or partition, and using the location of loudspeakers (as an indication of the listening location) and passage into the space as a passive invitation to the listener to touch, sit on or lie on the table.

The ideas leading to this approach have been developed over the course of the program, through dialogue with others experiencing the table and the works.

Ideally, with funding, I would offer a more constructed approach to the vibration installation, so that the table or a variation from this was integrated into the installation space. However, I intend to keep to an experience that invites sitting or lying, rather than just standing, as this offers a greater bodily experience and sense of being within the sound and vibration.

My thinking on spatialisation of sound is in keeping with this. My initial compositions included quadraphonic (plus vibration) mixes. I found that, beyond very minimal/subtle approaches, the surround effect was too perceptually engaging for the listening sense, which worked against the aesthetic I wanted from the combination of vibration and sound, where the auditory sense was 'deactivated' and folded into the vibration experience.

Guidance from audience and other feedback

In October 2007 (Phase 2), I installed the table at a dub/reggae gig. I used this opportunity to check some of the logistical issues with moving the table, and to test how people related to it in a public setting. The table was installed next to a wall and setup to synchronise with the music, supplementing the bass experience.

This installation showed highlighted the ways that people could engage with the table, and seeded ideas about the 'method' of inviting people to it in a public context, as it related to eventual gallery or public space installation.

I tried to both directly and casually gauge the reactions people had to the sense of an additional bodily element to music and how this integrated into the music experience. Interestingly, composers and musicians at the event were more instinctively inquisitive and came back to it, asking questions and engaging with it by sitting and lying.

I came to the conclusion that for the table to work in installation, I needed to create some form of 'passive invitation,' i.e. not to direct people to the experience, but to allow a curiosity, by somehow suggesting that the table is sat on or engaged with somehow to experience sound.

Loudspeaker positioning would be the most simple answer to this, because an audience will recognise an ideal listening location by virtue of loudspeaker placement, which would lead to engaging with the table. The gig install was valuable in this sense, as it not only reminded me of the potential awkwardness of the system, but that there should be workable approaches around this.

I discussed my ideas during the various sessions with the Sound and Media Art postgraduate students and with Berlin based sound curator Elke Moltrecht, when she attended RMIT in 2008. These discussions really helped in refining my thinking and confirming that I was on the right track.

Also, in late 2008, I installed the table at RMIT and ran a number of sessions with questionnaires. Participants included postgraduate and undergraduate visual and sound arts students and other personal contacts.

I used this opportunity to present the ideas and the experiences I aimed for in the compositions, and to discuss the engagement with the table, the nature and intensity of the vibration experience, the way people responded to my approaches to aligning and pulling apart the vibration and sound components, and installation suggestions.

Some key feedback that helped guide my thinking are provided under 'audience feedback' below. People's suggestions on installation in a space are incorporated in my comments above.

For the creation of new works, the main ideas that I gained were that:

  • There were a range of expectations and preferences for the intensity of the vibration experience but overall the experiences I aimed for in making the works were well received.
  • People focused more critically or intellectually on the work and phrases where there wasn't sound with the sensation. The directly meshed pairing of sound and sensation helped in 'sensory deactivation,' which was an effect I wanted to continue working with.
  • While there is scope to play with divergence in the levels and intensities of the sound and sensation elements, timing differences in more plosive and rhythmic elements tended to jar perceptually. I think these probably worked against established expectations based on the real-world experience of sound paired with sensation, i.e. during more dramatic or obvious sound and vibration events, the elements tend to more tightly coincide, because one low frequency stimulus generates both the sound and vibration.
  • More subtle passages of vibration might not work for a casual listener, depending on the way expectations were set up through the installation. For example, if a listener lay on the table during a subtle vibration passage, they may find the vibration 'insubstantial' and not stay to be drawn into the work. But if the installation was framed in such a way that the listener became involved at the beginning of the work, they may find the more subtle passages interesting, or appreciate them as part of the structure of the piece.

This feedback also clarified differences between what were effective experiments on the interplay between the senses, compared to engaging installation works, which may need to be less ambitious or conceptual.

However, comments suggested that careful framing of the experience through installation can help engage people in more challenging compositional structures, such as contrapuntal passages, plosive elements or more subtle vibration.

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Audience feedback

My intended compositional outcomes seemed to communicate well to the audience - for example, the physical tension and release, auditory sensory deactivation due to the vibration, being physically relaxed but not in a wholly disengaged sense, direct engagement with the table in the vibration-only work, and greater relaxation and shut down of 'critical analysis' over the course of the work.

Similarly, the intended points of sound- sensation dialogue were generally positively responded to, such as the vibration supporting the sound, or shifting the dominant sense throughout the work. However, a couple of listeners felt that intended points of divergence between totally synchronous sound and vibration were not nearly as effective as synchronised parts (although they understood the intent of this after experiencing the works and reading the supplied notes).

Generally, totally synchronous sound and vibration seemed to be responded to most favourably. Some listeners picked up on the time-delay between the sensation and sound. I knew from my early research that this is something to which people have an acute sense, and that I could address this by closer loudspeaker arrangement or electronic delays.

People had a range of expectations for the intensity of the vibration. Most found the level of vibration appropriate to the experience and compositions, but some wanted a more intense experience. While the table is able to generate a strong physical experience, I chose to use shorter passages of this for effect within a work, rather than providing this kind of intensity all the time. This enables me to offer a broader range of communication, and greater subtlety in the sound-sensation dialogue.

I also recognise that while the table can offer an intense experience, this is not comparable to intense sensation from very loud low frequency sound. Sound can cause greater activation of the body through the vibration of the air and of the organs, whereas the deep textural oscillations through the table engage in a different way that is more about the body's interaction with a vibrating surface. I haven't tried to match or repeat the sound experience that people used to bass heavy music performance might be seeking.

Comments from three people suggested that when hearing just sound (before having access to the table), there was a psycho acoustic suggestion about what the vibration element might be. I inferred that this would likely be what we might expect from real-world sound- sensation experiences. The works aimed to play with this expectation.

However, having people hear the sound first was not helpful for the paired experience, as it established expectations about the vibration. This suggested that in installation it would be important to 'contain' the experience so sound and vibration are experienced together (i.e. avoid an audience wandering around listening without sensation).

Although there was generally very positive response to the combination of sounds and vibrations, there were also outlying responses on the mixture of the mediums, with one listener suggesting that they would have preferred just having the table, but another preferring just the sound from loudspeakers.

The works stimulated a range of 'recollections' in the listeners, such as: 'lying in the ocean', 'transport, in particular flying', 'pins and needles', 'being in an earthquake', 'feeling like something is going to fall down', 'trance-like meditative state', 'synaesthetic,' 'addictive'. After the works finished, people described feelings such as 'fuzzy' or 'disoriented' (these were positive descriptors).

People were comfortable (or enthusiastic) with lying to engage with the work, but recommended a softer surface, a longer, more 'bed-like' setup, and exploring materials that moulded to the body. Using pillows to minimise head vibrations was strongly supported. One listener suggested something like a reclined chair, although others noted the connotations to a massage chair.

One participant suggested baffling the table to minimise the audible noise during the vibration-only work. Another suggested exploring spatial vibration with multiple devices in future.

In the undulation composition there was a passage where the vibration was very minimal, intended to sit underneath the sound before rising to prominence. Some feedback suggested that in a normal 'walkthrough' installation sense, there was a risk of the listener leaving too soon. We discussed how this might be addressed through changing the works, or by defining the listening experience, such as a process of walking into the space at a set time, or enabling people to 'push "play"' to experience the whole compositional arc.

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Logistical and technical notes

Around May 2007 (Phase 2) I completed construction of my vibration table instrument, working with an engineer, designer, acoustician and steel welder to construct a steel frame with MDF top.

This was an 8-12 month process of technical and design refinement, aimed at creating an instrument, which principally activated the body without causing unneeded sound. The facing images indicate some of the design work that went into making the table - table design (assistance from Jerome Frumar) and calculating materials usage and mass. My early (theoretical and testing) research in SIAL, and presentations during the course of the research also assisted my understanding of the electronics setup component of using the table in an installation context.

For example, in an installation for a dub/ reggae gig in October 2007, I had to consider compression, limiting, equalisation and delays, to best align the vibration to the music being played through the soundsystem.

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Reference Material