Sonic writing. 


Serpentine Galleries, London, October, 2018

Have I stomped on any flies?

*Apart from the British bluebottle fly, all sounds were recorded inside the Serpentine Gallery. The photos were also taken inside the gallery. 

The Serpentine Galleries host French artist Pierre Huyghes for his latest exhibition ‘UUmWelt’, a complex audio-visual installation where the public is plunged into a sensory realm.

On the way to a Radio Earth Hold workshop hosted by Ultra-Red sound activists, I go through a wrong door.

Tens of thousands of bluebottle flies; three rooms with five large LED screens emitting the sounds of brain waves as puzzling images, induce the public to stop - look - listen - imagine. Aside from a small circular window that provides natural light at the gallery’s entry, the only flicker of illumination comes from the screens. This, combined with the presence of flies, slows the viewer’s pace. The idea of killing the insects, stepping on them, is intolerable. Gazing up at the ceiling window, smattered with blue metallic minature bodies, you wonder what their buzz would sound like if the machines were turned off. It’s as if they are seeking to escape to the outer world.

Strolling through the gallery, a discrete, but repugnant smell fills the space; the dimmed light reflects the lacerated walls.

How familiar is it to enter an environment where the synthetic cohabits with the organic? 21st century life has become that surrounding, but Huyghe’s system incites us to push our boundaries further, exploring the space among the different entities that we have such little control over. Very quickly, we the audience become part of it, fully emerged but at moments, puzzled. The difficulty of grasping anything here is omnipresent. How is this sound made? What are those strange, high-speed images on the screen? And what’s that faint, peculiar smell?

A new level of awareness enters the body; I navigate between beta and alpha wave states. The space becomes timeless.

Like flies, we are naturally drawn towards the screens. But with conciousness, we seek to define these visuals. They become somehow a mirror of the experience itself. Hugues, in collaboration with Kamitami computational neuroscience institute in Japan, asked several individuals to look at precise images, measuring their brain activity with a sophisticated MRI scanner, testing the machine’s capacity to connect to what the people saw. The result shows visual information – the product of artificial intelligence: human vision, processed. These changing images make up the installation. Repetition of thousands of distorted, fast-flickering images ask questions in their indefinable state, pushing the viewer to interrogate their own capacity to interpret and connect to the brain wave forms.

We are used to known, identifiable and controlled realities. These visuals throw you, the viewer, into the deep end of imagination. Or at least, they allow for the exploration of tentatives to find answers to what they are: a sense of freedom; or a reminder of our conditioning; the illusion of control and technology.

The cold, deep, metallic sounds intrigue by their mutant character. They fill the spaces with different rhythms and volumes and incite us to move closer to the LED screens, to listen to their composition, to hear from where they come. Tred behind the screens to reveal an imposing metal structure, straight out of a science-fiction film. Here I feel comfortable. I settle down behind one to capture it’s sounds. It’s where I hear them best, hidden away from the rest.

Huyghes does not use ‘institutional taped lines’ to delimit the proximity with the artwork; the audience can walk wherever they wish. The whole system is a porous environment where all entities interact, but also live on their own, with or without the viewer.

After an hour inside, I use the bathroom before leaving. Several flies are buzzing and a few lay drowned in the sinks. Their presence is eerie. How many of them have died here before reaching their two weeks lifespan?

Stepping outside of this gallery into the lush Kensington Gardens is a radical transition. The fresh air and natural evening light is a reminder of how intense Huyghe’s installation is. Several visitors linger in front of the Serpentine using mixed words to describe the experience: odd, incredible, surprising, unwell, unsettling, unbearable. They are the ‘U’ words  of its title, UUmwelt, or ‘environment’ in German, an invitation to experience the semiotic world of organisms with a new lense, one where animals, humans and artificial intelligence coexist.

The Casebook: W

Wellcome Collection, London, June 2019

The Casebook: W  was a short presentation for Sounding the Archive, Early Career Researcher Master Class, conference organized by Dr Louise Gray Marshall, at the Wellcome Collection museum in London. 

Inspired by the Wellcome’s extensive archive, this work questions how sound art practice - by essence, immaterial - can be used to interpret and understand archival material. The presentation explores one of their collections, one of the six century-old case books that belonged to the Manor House Asylum in London (later the private Chiswick House Asylum). These records were used to assess information about patients during their time at the medical centre.

The Case Book : W focuses on a specific section of the beautiful case book: a letter written in 1919 by a female patient, Mrs. White, to the Dr. Tuke. The letter evokes sonic qualities by its haunting echo of oppressive power structures and patient’s rights. The document is a reminder of the sounds of mechanical restraints that were widely used and abused to control before their abolition. The handwriting symbolizes a form of liberty, a living form, a woman’s legitimacy, articulated through an embodied practice of expression. The physical act of holding her font pen on paper - well preserved one hundred years later – express her attempt to communicate with the hierarchy of the establishement where she’s hospitalised. The letter attests a sense of Mrs White’s well-being at the asylum, hinting at the House’s values and ethics of care for their patients.

Translating Mrs White’s letter was an elaborate practice and reminder of how writing changes over time, from oral to written, from printed to electronic. Being used to the latter, and its increasing use of swiping, clacking, tapping and pinching, I saw the document as questioning today’s loss of personal touch through the loops and lines of handwriting.
Translating and transcribing the letter led me to orally record the act of handwriting. Comparing the results with that of a keyboard is very different in terms of sound, rhythm, movement, memory and thought process. The sense of freedom and exploration with pen and paper is multi dimensional and keeps track of the whole written process. It is creative, visual and tactile. Listening back on the oral recordings of writing provides similar information. Handwriting is as singular and intimate as the human voice. They are unimitable and ungraspable.

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