After my frustration with the stethoscope experiment mentioned in my last blog post, Ben suggested several other methods of sourcing sounds to consider. The first suggestion that I tested out was to hire a Doppler fetal monitor, which is a piece of medical equipment that generates sound as it monitors the movement of body fluids and their velocity within the body. Typically a Doppler is used to monitor the heartbeat of a baby in utero during pregnancy, but it was my hope that it would capture sounds related to the movement of blood within my body. I was surprised to see that you can hire this technology – intended to be used by expectant mothers or midwives and doctors.
The lub-dub that I heard through a stethoscope was mesmerising, but it is a sound that we are all familiar with. We have all, at some point heard the pulse of the heart beating – whether by placing an ear against someone’s chest or hearing the pounding of your heart in your ears after physical exertion. With this in mind, it was really surprising to hear the sounds produced by the Doppler on monitoring the blood pumping through the valves of my heart. The rhythmic high pitched squelchy sound was very visceral and seemed to create an image in the mind of how fluid the pathways within the body are actually constantly in motion – never still or stagnant whilst we are living. I was surprised to hear how much the sound changed by slightly moving the probe – collecting sound from various angles. I thought about how privileged I was to be able to experience the body in this way. We often don’t encounter these types of sounds or experiences of the body unless there is something wrong with our health, or during pregnancy. But even in these circumstances there is a medical professional in control of the equipment and we take on the role of the passive patient. To be able to access medical equipment and to use it as a method of exploration of the body is a powerful experience which brings to the surface the hidden activity of the world within. I begin to wonder what other medical technology could produce in relation to explorations of the body, not for diagnosis, but for artistic research. I have previously been hesitant about collecting sounds from outside of the body, but actually the Doppler is capturing a sound that I would never be able to experience – the sound of blood flow.
Thinking about the need to be open and accepting of alternative methods of collection opposed to my previous desire to collect directly from the body, Ben and I had an interesting conversation about sounds from the body that we encounter through other media. For example, in film making sound effects are created and recorded, so when we think we are hearing someone being punched in the face, we are in fact hearing a series of carefully constructed sounds. The Wall Street Journal gives an example of this when talking about the sounds made for the film, ‘Out of the Furnace’:
For the gritty “Out of the Furnace,” released in December, the film’s sound-effects designers wanted Casey Affleck’s brutal fist fights to have visceral, fist-on-flesh punch sounds. They recorded a martial artist pounding on human flesh but also had him punch blobs of pizza dough, a slab of beef with a wet towel on it, a watermelon, and—to simulate the sound of bones cracking—dry pasta shells.
I suppose the question I need to consider is where the importance of the sound lies within my work – Is it about the sound and how it affects the audience? Or, is it about investigating body directly? Even if that means that the desired sound is not possible, but the place of the body within the work is authentic? I need to also remind myself of my starting point with this work – that I wanted to explore what my body may say when I use different technologies to give it space to speak. I need to remember that it is important to chase the unknown… that if I am trying to produce a specific sound in mind, then there is nothing to gain from that; no space to grow. It is through allowing the technology and the exploration to lead me that new things will be discovered, widening the dialogue uncovered.
Going back to my experiments with the Doppler, the sound produced was heavily distorted – the speaker on the doppler is obviously made for medical functionality to count the heart beats and not for good sound quality to be shared in an immersive art experience! I took the Doppler to my mentoring session with Ben and we plugged it into a large speaker. To hear the sound without the rattling of the Doppler speaker was so exciting. It felt so immersive and confronting – the abject nature of the sound was unavoidable. I felt bathed in this strange sound that felt both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I realised that in fact – I didn’t necessarily need to alter the sound, that it could in fact exist as a live work. To bring to the surface the inner workings of the body, and to share that on a large scale would be a really interesting experience.
The Doppler does carry some strange background sounds as it picks up different frequencies. I’m not sure how, but at one point whilst experimenting with the Doppler in Ben’s studio, as we sat listening to the sounds from within my chest a faint sound of a man’s voice began to emerge. It wasn’t clear enough to hear the words he was saying but there was definitely a male voice speaking. It was actually quite spooky! It reminded me of the strange sort of equipment that paranormal investigators use when on ghost hunts! (I love the irony of those TV shows and how they employ empirical scientific equipment to ‘prove’ the existence of metaphysical activity / beings – metaphysical being beyond the empirical, behind the physical and therefore unscientific!). I can’t help but wish that the sound of the Doppler functioning wasn’t there, but in a way it is an authentic part of the process – an amalgamation of the sounds of my body working and the machine working. To remove these sounds would give the audio a cleaner aesthetic, but it could be considered to be an attempt to trick the listener into not hearing the technology – without which the sound would not exist. It’s complicated, and I don’t know what I think or how I feel about it yet.
Thinking about the visceral sounds of the blood flow, I wonder whether these inner body sounds are stored as a memories buried deep deep within our mind and our body, captured from the last and only time that we existed within a body of another… our mother. I wonder whether feeling these sounds trigger the memory stored within, initiating the visceral physical reaction that occurs when we experience such sounds in space through the cells of our body – a primal memory of the sound of our origin. The more I record and collect these sounds the more I understand my intrigue in them. Hearing the squelchy fluid sound of the blood being pumped through the valves of my heart through the tinny speakers of my laptop is a disappointment – particularly after hearing the sound through Ben’s speaker. This experience has led me to realise that I think the true power of these sounds will only be realised when encountered very loudly in space, opposed to loudly on headphones. I realise that my interest in sound – particularly these visceral sounds is the physicality of them. They are sounds which I believe will be most affective when felt, not just heard.
Apple mic within a latex cover.
I decided to cover the Apple mic (mentioned in previous blog post) with a finger cut from a latex glove, firstly to keep moisture out of the microphone and secondly to get rid of sharp corners that could catch on my throat. I finally braved an attempt at getting the mic down my throat. Unfortunately due to the 4cm length of the hard plastic section of the mic, I just couldn’t get it to go around the bend of my throat at the back of my mouth. My fingers couldn’t reach to push it, and the wire is so soft and flexible that it doesn’t help to push the mic at all. It was so frustrating!
I decided to hold the mic in my mouth to see what sort of sounds would be produced – the Apple mic is incredibly sensitive and good at picking up even small sounds at a distance, so I was hopeful that there would be some visceral sounds captured from within my mouth through sucking and breathing and generally moving my tongue around the mic. Annoyingly, this experiment left me frustrated again, as the only sounds that I seemed to collect was the scratchy sound of friction as the mic rubbed against the surfaces of my mouth. Instead of the squelchy visceral sounds I had hoped for, I was left with crackling, rattling and scratching. I am finding this to be slightly infuriating! To collect the sounds that happen inside the body seems like a simple concept, but I am starting to worry that it is in fact impossible!
Sketch: a plan of action.
As usual when I feel like I’m getting nowhere I turned to the internet for inspiration, (or procrastination!) I found a Youtube video where someone showed how he had managed to connect a stethoscope to a microphone. I know I have talked about how I thought that instruments that collect sound from outside of the body would not be what I would want to make use of – I previously described how I thought that they seemed like secondary sounds and that they would not hold the integrity of sounds collected directly from within. But… I think that for the sake of trying to progress this work as part of the fellowship I need to try everything out. I try to remind myself that it is important not to box myself in with my experiments by making rules for myself of what is and isn’t okay. I have realised though, that when you have very little kit that it can be difficult to test things out. I don’t own any sound equipment so to be able to experiment with a microphone I needed to buy one first. There’s actually a lot of kit that I will need to invest in if I am to continue to play with sound. For example, to be able to record sounds to my laptop, which I definitely will need to do if I am to make a circuit using sound, then I will need to invest in the right equipment. I think this is an aspect of working with technology that has previously put me off. The not knowing / understanding how the equipment works, the worry that I may buy the wrong kit and the general lack of funds has meant that this way of working has not been accessible to me. This is where the Fellowship has been really useful. I have access to people like my mentor Ben Sadler who has the knowledge to be able to advise me, and I am hoping that Random String will be able to help me accumulate some equipment that will help with this process.
Going back to the stethoscope, I decided that I needed to invest in this idea. I bought a stethoscope which was not expensive at all and I also bought a condenser mic, which I am sure will be useful in the future outside of this experimentation. I really enjoyed sitting with the stethoscope placed on my chest, listening to the rhythmic lub-dub of my heart. It was mesmerising. It felt like a really magical experience – to be listening to the one muscle that keeps me alive. It so easy to forget that this incredible machine is working so hard inside, so when you connect with it, feel it and hear it the body suddenly feels like something bigger and more incredible than any technology that is man made! (I have to find a way to share this experience with others).
I followed the instructions of the video, expecting that by attaching a condenser mic I would be able to amplify the rhythmic sounds that I had heard through the stethoscope…. I was wrong!!! It amplified some noises, but definitely not the noises I had heard. I sat thinking about this and I realised that, when I think about how a stethoscope works, maybe I had just made a large contact mic?! I really thought it would work. Maybe talking it through with Ben at the next session I will be able to make some sense of it, and hopefully I will find a way to move forward. It feels like time is passing so fast and that there’s just not enough time left of this Fellowship to move as far forward as I would like.
My last mentoring session saw me arrive at a point where I knew that I wanted to move forward experimenting with making and collecting soundscapes using the body as a source. I had talked to Ben about how I would like to find a way of collecting sound directly from within the body, opposed to using external tools to listen in. In my mind this listening in from outside seems secondary, whereas to hear sounds as they actually happen from within seems to have integrity with my initial thoughts and reasons for wanting to collect the sound. Conceptually I am intrigued with the notion of how we occupy the body of another whilst we live in the womb. To live inside another body accompanied by this seemingly endless visceral soundtrack of the body is something I hope to create / signify through this work. I imagine there to be a duality of reactions to the experience, where the rhythmic sound would be comforting whilst the visceral sounds may repulse. In a way, I suppose I hope to create a body within which we can spend time being; connecting with both our own body and our forgotten memories of the body of our mother.
When thinking about how to collect the sound a funny memory from childhood surfaced. I remember myself and my brother holding one end of spaghetti whilst swallowing the rest of the strand. We would then slowly pull the spaghetti strand back up, out of our stomachs! (we do strange things as children!) when this came to mind I wondered if it were possible to do this with a tiny mic. If I could find a mic small enough then maybe I could use this as a method for collection of sounds. Unfortunately very small mics seem to be very expensive and I struggled to find a mic that could be suitable.
Image: Albert Swiston/MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
During my research I came across an article by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about how a small silicon pill with a mic inside had been developed to generate accurate data about heart rate and respiratory rate of a patient. Click here to see video. This technology is exactly what I need to make this work!! This discovery brought to mind the question of artistic collaboration with the medical world. There have been several points in my art practice where an opportunity to seek advice from or work alongside or in collaboration with a doctor or medical professional would have been incredibly valuable. I have often wondered how those types of working relationships are developed? How do you make initial contact with medical professionals? I have never known where to start with that method of research and I wouldn’t even know where to go for advice on the matter. I have always been fascinated with the medical aspects of the body, which is probably why my practice has taken the path that it has. I remember feeling envious of a friend who whilst training as a doctor told me how he had attended autopsies, worked with cadavers, watched operations etc. When I have read about artists who have studied anatomy where they made drawings in response to sitting with and observing cadavers I felt very envious. I have always been intrigued with the invisible unknown inside world within our bodies.
Stripped down mic on Apple headphones.
Going back to the issue of finding a mic small enough to swallow, Ben had the genius idea of stripping down a set of Apple headphones that have a microphone. The mic in the headphones was tiny but it was fitted into a strip of plastic which also held the circuit for the headphones. Whilst this strip is very thin it does measure 4cm in length. During our mentoring session we made sure that the mic would work in fluid, which it did, and Ben also showed me how to connect it to the sound editing software, Audacity so that I could make recordings. Swallowing the mic was something I wanted to do privately, (which I am sure Ben was more than happy about – nobody wants to sit and watch someone gagging!!) so I took the mic home with me to play with after our session.
Whilst the method of collecting sound was still questionable and not guaranteed, the fact that it is clear that sound is something I want to explore meant that Ben devised this mentoring session as an introduction to the various bits of sound equipment, how they work and how to use them. This was a very useful session as I had no idea where / how to start.
From the basic exercise of wiring up and soldering a transducer mic to looking at more technical projects such as this box made by Ben a while back using a Theremin kit (I’ll talk more about this shortly). I think just going through each part of the tech, even down to learning how different jack connections work helped me to understand things better. There is something about knowing the anatomy of the tech and how it all works that makes me feel less intimidated and more confident to experiment with it all. Ben showed me how by using kit such as a reverb pedal or an audio mixer different effects can alter the sound that you are using. This whistle stop tour of sound equipment was definitely a valuable experience for me.
Going back to Ben’s sound box, I found it to be visually gorgeous and I loved the tactility of it. The switches are asking to be flicked! I liked the way that it is seemingly functional and utilitarian, but in actual fact it is like a box of madness, making sounds that are unpredictable and noisy. This odd juxtaposition is humorous to me. The importance of touch in this box was very interesting to me also. I liked how the touch of a hand on the copper plate, (which acted as a proximity sensor) left a residual trace/mark – like a ghost of another’s experience. I found this box to be inspiring and I talked to Ben about how I’d like to develop something similar, but making use of an action that frequently features in my performance works.
Action from Following IN//Footsteps OF. Photo credit: Julia Bauer.
During the action I hold an object, (this has previously been my children’s teeth, broken bits of bread, egg shells etc) with my arm outstretched to the side and back enough that I cant see it in my peripheral vision. The weight of this object as well ads the weight of my arm which fights to resist gravity eventually becomes too much for my arm to bear, and it drops to my side. This action is a metaphor for the weight of the hidden things women carry with them, e.g.: the pain of miscarriage, the weight of expected fertility, the weight of society’s expectations on women and their bodies… the list goes on. This action of resistance always feels like such a powerful thing to do and to experience. I had wondered whether sound could be brought into this action. A proximity sensor could be used so that as my arm lowers sound increases//as my arm raises the sound decreases in volume. I imagine the increase of noise to be unsettling – like an eruption of visceral abjection through the rupture of pain and failure during the action. In a way, it is a Theremin on a grand scale. I imagine the space between my arm and my body to be activated through the sound, amplifying the power of the absence within this liminal space – the space between.
Moving forward from this mentoring session I have plenty of things to consider and work with. I am excited moving forward to see what emerges.
As part of the Fellowship the group met up in London to look at examples where art and technology collide. Our first encounter was at Saatchi Gallery with ‘We live in an Ocean of Air’, a work created by Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with Natan Sinigaglia and Mileece I’Anson. I had heard lots of exciting things about this work, especially because it was an untethered virtual reality experience. I had no experience of VR and so I didn’t really know what to expect. I felt sceptical about whether you could actually feel like you are somewhere else through VR, especially where the visuals were computer generated opposed to making use of photographs/film. Saatchi Gallery website described the work as follows:
We live in an Ocean of Air is a virtual reality experience where the invisible connection between plant and human is revealed through breath. In a 20 minute experience cutting-edge technology illuminates the invisible- but fundamental- connections between human and natural worlds. You’ll be transported to an ancient forest and witness the majestic power of the largest organism to ever exist – the giant Sequoia tree.
Visitors are invited to step through the canvas to explore a magical world where the invisible exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is beautifully brought to life. Untethered virtual reality, breath and heart sensors will track your real-time breathing and encourage you to reflect on our dependence and responsibility to the organisms we share our planet with.
We live in an Ocean of Air can be experienced both individually and collectively; experience prioritised over passive contemplation. The wider gallery allows multiple tiers of immersion, with large projection screens welcoming audiences into the heart of the environment, before expanding to reveal the scale of the digital forest that lies ahead.
As our group was called to gear up ready to enter the VR space, it really did feel like we were preparing to go on a journey. With equipment attached to our arms, a weighty backpack strapped to our backs and a headset that covered our heads as well as our eyes I felt like I was ready for a space mission! This experience really did feel like we were getting ready to go somewhere else. A clip was attached to my ear to measure my heart rate and I was informed that the headset was able to measure my breathing.
I was curious to see what, (if any) affect these measurements / bodily processes would have on the VR experience… I was immediately made aware, as soon as the experience began, of how the VR was dependant / responsive to my body. As I took a deep breath in and then breathed out my breath became visible! A string of blue pixels flowed out of my mouth at the same speed of my breath. Changing my breath’s speed and density the pixels were aligned with my breath, visually matching my action. Strands of pixels hung in the air around me, like strands of DNA. It became clear to me that the boundary of me does not end with my skin and my body. As my breath seeps out across the space it creeps along the surface of others; just as their breath did traverse across the surface of my body. I looked down to my hands and I could see a stream of pulsating red dots. I felt like I was looking at my red blood cells as they rhythmically pulsed through my body, delivering the oxygen that I was breathing from the space around me. Looking out across the space there were clusters of red pixels moving, these were the bodies of others.
The giant Sequoia tree then became visible and I was able to walk through it’s bark to it’s core. As I looked down into it’s roots a vortex of strands, which felt like strands of energy began to swirl. The ground fell away and I was suspended above the vortex – I felt free as I separated from the ground. Ribbons of energy flowed through the roots and the tree and the bodies of others and their breath and me, like an endless DNA strand; it was beautiful. The strands grew higher as they passed through me and over me. I realised that I could alter the path of the strands by moving my arms through them. It felt playful to shape these strands, drawing them in around me. I pulled the strands around my body, creating a cocoon. Everything felt so interconnected as my body was engulfed in the tree, the strands of energy and the streams of breath. This interconnectedness felt very emotional, and whilst it may seem cliché, I felt like I had an epiphany… I came to the realisation of how along with interconnectedness comes dependance. Just as the 39 trillion bacteria that occupy the internal landscapes of my body, so do we exist on the Earth amongst the systems of life throughout nature. We are, in fact, all one – a system of beings all interconnected. Just as the organs inside my body are all interconnected and dependant on each other, so are we in amongst the trees and the roots.
I then felt the hairs of my neck stand on end as a breeze passed over my skin. It felt as though my body fell away as I rose higher and higher through the canopy. I was not prepared for how emotional this experience would be. I had hoped it would be fun and I had joked with my son about how jealous he was that he had to go to school whilst I would be ‘playing’ with VR, but whilst this experience did have it’s playful side, it felt like something much more than that. I suppose it opened my eyes, provoked an awareness in me of how detached we have become from the world we occupy. We are blinkered in our day to day lives, not seeing the affect we have on the world around us. We see ourselves as separate beings when we are in fact all connected. And this connection extends beyond a human connection, we are connected to all of nature, to all that lives and exists on this planet. I am shocked that this awareness of the physical has come to me through VR. I had anticipated that I would feel a sense of otherness – a separation from body, an intellectual / visual experience; but I was wrong in my preconceptions. In fact, I actually felt grounded in my feet as I walked through the space. I felt aware of my breath and the pulse of my body; it was like a mediation where only the immediate existed. I suppose the more I explore technology, the more I see that my preconceived thoughts in opposition to it’s ability to connect with body and embodied experience were wrong! Which is great, because I have this other perspective on the body to now engage with, another means of communication, another voice in the conversation.
I recently had my first mentoring session with Ben Sadler. Ben is an artist who, alongside his own practice, works collaboratively with Phil Duckworth as Juneau Projects.
As this was our first mentoring meeting it was an opportunity to talk to Ben about my practice so that he could get to know me and my work, whilst better understanding my intentions with the fellowship.
I talked about how I’d been thinking about the connection in my mind with the way Dom Breadmore had spoken (during the residential in November) about inputs and outputs in technology, and how I’d been considering the body as a system of processes – a machine even, also with inputs and outputs. I had been thinking about how the body works in a very similar way to the electronic circuits we had made with the Teensy. When discussing this Ben mentioned that the body itself has an electric current and that it is also a conductor of electricity. This reminded me of a conversation I had had with Dom about using conductive thread stitched into my skin, like the sutures or hair that I had used in my work previously. The thinking behind this was that there would be a part of the body that would be even more conductive and could somehow create an output triggered maybe by proximity. Whilst discussing this with Ben he mentioned the Theremin; an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the thereminist (performer). What I really enjoy about the Theremin is that it makes the space between seem tangible. The space between the Theremin and the hand is active, whereas so often when the body is performative the body is the point of focus. With the Theremin invisible energies become notable, and we connect to them through the act of listening as well as watching. The space we occupy is easy to not notice, but for me when I am making installaction / durational works, the space is as important as time or materials. Even if there are spaces in the room where there is seemingly nothing / emptiness – it will be because I am using emptiness as a material.
Clara Rockmore, Theremin performer. b.9 March 1911 d.10 May 1998.
As the conversation with Ben developed I realised that I was hoping to create a large circuit through installation and action, and that my body could/would be an extension or part of that circuit. When talking about Following IN//Footsteps OF Ben pointed out that through that work I had in fact created a circuit. The repetitive action, the dragging of the shoes behind me as they were sutured to my ankles, the sound of the bottle of milk increasing in pitch as the milk spilled whilst it was dragged between my legs and anchored within my vagina, the holding up of my arm until it wasn’t possible; this entire cycle of action was a circuit of inputs and outputs. I suppose what I hope to do is to introduce technology to that method of making. Through discussions there are lots of opportunities to introduce tech, but it is a question of where / how would it be relevant. I must remember that it is important for the work to be led by the concept opposed to the tech; i.e: I must make sure that I am not shoehorning tech into my work. It is my hope that whilst experimenting with tech that the horizon of my practice will be widened and that I will find a method that will add to the conversation within my work, opposed to just including tech for the sake of it.
Following IN//Footsteps OF (2018) Photo credit: Julia Bauer.
I suppose the anchor point for this fellowship is that I want to experiment with a different way of engaging with the body. I want to use technology to see what my body can produce, whether that is sound, or data… to be honest I have no idea what my body may produce, but my main point is that I am hoping to discover new ways of working through this experimentation. I feel that it is the sort of thing that I need to just play and experiment to find out what could be possible. By trying to predict the outcomes I would be limiting myself and boxing in my practice.
As a starting point for my bodily collection through tech I aim to experiment with sound. Using various methods of collection I hope to give my body a voice – although not a vocal one! It is more about creating soundscapes through my body. This will allow for me to learn some tech skills whilst providing me with some material to experiment and play with.