“Vibrant, physical, meditative…”
The term Auroculis was initially used for a digital release of three of my pieces on the web label, Deepwhitesound (http://deepwhitesound.com/dws167/). However, both the name of the release and the description of it, written by curator D B Amorin, suggested the potential for further exploration:
“Louise Harris’ Auroculis is a collection of video works that serve as translations of digital audio compositions. Harris’ visual-aural explorations into synaesthetic experience made possible through digital technologies hint at a mimicry of the generative process of looking. The result of her investigations are works that rely on projection, location and duration for full contextual consideration. Here she presents in digital download several fixed examples of this process, a mere glimpse at the potentiality of immersive visual music through expanded cinema installation.” (Amorin, 2015).
This description of my work represents an intriguingly accurate reflection of how I have wanted the pieces to be perceived by viewers, without my having discussed the works with Amorin in any real detail. Consequently, I decided to use the term, Auroculis, as the name for a recent solo exhibition of three of my dual-screen, quad-speaker audiovisual works, pletten (2014 – which also featured on the Auroculis digital release), plexus (2016) and callicassini (2017) (I will also return to the specifics of Amorin’s description of the pieces later in this discussion).
Though composed independently, these three works were presented together under the Auroculis heading as a single installation work for Alchemy Film and Arts – the first exhibition in their Hawick art space. Alchemy has a history of supporting and championing experimental artist film nationally and internationally, most recently curating Scotland’s selection for the 2017 Venice Biennale, Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face, in collaboration with the Talbot Rice Gallery and the University of Edinburgh.
The Auroculis exhibition ran for two weeks in May 2017, during which a considerable amount of audience feedback was gathered, ranging from survey responses, post-it note comments and quick audio interviews. This feedback was almost universally positive, with 89% of visitors rating the installation as Good, Very Good or Excellent, and 97% rating it as either Very or Extremely Unique. Comments included:
“Bridget Riley on acid”
“Strangely captivating. I found myself returning again.”
“I really enjoyed the exhibit… it took me a little bit of time to get my eye straight and feel in the space and the right-hand side image would be for me the dominant one to start off with so I was transfixed on that, but also I could see on the periphery of my vision what was happening on the left hand screen and the shapes were just beautiful. It was kind of magnetic, you couldn’t look at both at the same time fully, but yet you could in a way. And then as it progressed and all these wonderful shapes were taking place on the left hand side, still watching the right. And then all of a sudden, I felt that the image on the right, which was to me the dominant one to start off with, was somehow being transported to the other side, but in small forms and mixed with other shapes as well, and the light and shade that was pulsating as well in the image was just wonderful.”
Though not initially conceived as a work of three movements, these three pieces complemented one another extremely well in installation setting; consequently, they have now been grouped together under the banner heading of Auroculis, and will be presented as a single work where possible in future.
The three constituent pieces are as follows:
pletten: squash, crush, flatten.
pletten is a dual screen audiovisual work that is intended for playback on two opposite walls of a dark, square space but can also be exhibited side by side.
The work is an exploration of simultaneous compositional process and the development of complementary sonic and visual forms on a micro- and macro-structural level. The two screens should be displayed opposite one another, with the audience situated in the centre of the two, allowing them to engage with the sonic and visual structures being formed in a variety of ways.
Previous significant performances/installations/prizes:
- Winner – First Prize, 2016 Fresh Minds Festival.
- Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium, August 2015 (installation)
- Sonorities festival launch and concert, London and Belfast, April 2015 (performance)
- Honorable mention in Sound and Space Reciprocity, CMRC 35th Anniversary Festival, Athens, February 2015 (installation) https://cmrc35years.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/open-call/
- World premiere, GLEAM festival, Glasgow, October 2014 (performance)
plexus: braid, interweave, entwine.
Initially conceived as a companion piece to pletten, plexus is another dual-screen, quad-speaker audiovisual work that is intended for playback on two opposite walls of a dark, square space but can also be exhibited side by side.
- Sound/Image, London, November 2016
- Seeing Sound, Bath Spa University, April 2016
- Sound Thought, CCA, Glasgow, March 2016
The newest of the three works, callicassini is a dual-screen audiovisual work made in response to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The piece uses the honeycomb shape of the telescope as a reference point, and is composed using sound recordings made publicly available by NASA, primarily those of radio emissions from Saturn recorded by Cassini, in combination with computer-generated visuals.
Auroculis represented the world premiere of callicassini in dual-screen, quad-speaker format.
Each of these pieces is part of a continued research trajectory in my fixed media work, exploring the following key themes:
- simultaneous compositional process and the development of complementary sonic and visual forms on a micro- and macro-structural level.
- The use of data sets for simultaneous audiovisualisation in the context of generative, fixed media artworks.
- The use of Expanded Audiovisual Formats (EAF) in both the conception and exhibition of audiovisual installation work.
The three pieces are each the result of the construction of bespoke software patches for processing and puredata, which will be released for distribution under a creative commons license on github once properly packaged.
I have begun to discuss the increase in prevalence of works for Expanded Audiovisual Format (EAF) in recent conference papers, including at Sound/Image in London, November 2016. This is a discussion that will continue in the form of conference papers and journal articles in the coming years, but below is a snippet of the discussion as it relates to my practice-based research.
Adventures in Expanded Audiovisual Formats
The best place to begin this discussion is with a definition of what, for me, the term ‘expanded audiovisual format’ refers to. Works for Expanded Audiovisual Formats, or ‘EAFs’, are audiovisual works that are concerned, in both inception and exhibition, with moving away from a one-screen, two-speaker format. In the case of my work, exploring EAFs has involved the exploration of dual, quad, cylindrical, fulldome or site-specific projection mapped visual formats in combination with stereo, multichannel or ambisonic audio formats.
The majority of my work with EAFs initially arose through the need, or opportunity, to compose or reformat work for a particular purpose, usually an installation or festival, or because of possibilities that presented themselves unexpectedly. This initially began with the composition of pletten, in autumn 2014. As is often the case, I had committed to finishing a piece for a particular event, in this case my own festival GLEAM in Glasgow. About three weeks out from the festival, having not yet committed anything to screen or speaker, but with sound materials gathered and a fairly clear sense of the audiovisual structure I wanted, I found myself struggling to choose between two distinct visual renderings I had envisaged for the piece. One showed what I thought of as the visual environment from a distance, while the other an ‘extreme close-up’ of the internal workings of that system.
Being entirely unable to choose between the two, I began to consider– why do I think I need to choose between the two? Why have I always so rigidly stuck to this single video channel format? There seems no real need to, and yet I have always done so – what would happen if I stepped outside of my traditional working methods in this regard?
Historically, I believe my desire to work within the confines of a single video channel reflected my preoccupation with what I perceived as the ‘ideal’ audiovisual experience for viewing my work. My concerns over composing with auditory and visual media simultaneously to create works in which the sound and image function as part of a unified, cohesive system – what John Whitney described as a “complementarity” (1994, 2) and Bill Alves has subsequently referred to as the “digital harmony of sound and light” (2005, 1) meant that the fixed, somewhat rigid nature of these works were historically an essential aspect of this attempt at cohesion — an attempt to limit additional demands on the audioviewer’s sensory experience. In approaching pletten, though, I began to consider the extent to which this fixity of exhibition format really mattered, questioning why I was so concerned with my works looking and sounding a particular way, when in reality I had very little control over how they would be seen by the average viewer.
pletten presented my first encounter with stepping outside and away from this preoccupation, and experimenting with alternative and expanded formats.
The first screening of pletten, though, was still only in single screen format, with the two video channels displayed side-by-side. This presented something of a compromise, between what I had initially envisaged – two very large screens opposite one another, with the audience situated at the centre, and what was possible in the context of the festival. This ‘democratization’, almost, of the visual environment I had initially envisaged, through providing two distinct visual spaces to engage with, was achieved in part simply by providing the viewer with two distinct visual ‘areas’ to focus on instead of one, and although this wasn’t quite what I had in mind I nonetheless found working with two visual outputs for a single work enormously appealing. Additionally, what the GLEAM festival did afford was the possibility to mix the audio of the work in quad as opposed to stereo, allowing me to explore the spatial aspect of the audio in an extended way and indeed in a way that seemed to complement the double-visual aspect very well.
pletten has been subsequently exhibited in its intended, Expanded Audiovisual Format, with stereo and quad audio mixes, and has also been screened and exhibited in single channel video format many times. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that it also won first prize in this year’s Fresh Minds festival, based on the single channel, stereo audio format in which it can be found on Vimeo. The aesthetic and conceptual implications of these various screening and exhibition formats I will consider in more detail later, once I have discussed a few more works for extended format.
The next work I’d like to discuss is ilsonilus:1, a work I initially envisaged for four-screen or cylindrical visual projection with 8 channel audio. This is the first in what I am hoping will be a series of works that explores simultaneous sonic and video illusion; in this case, binaural beating in combination with a 2d representation of the motion effect produced by lenticular printing. Although initially envisaged for expanded format in any case, initially for either four-screen or cyclindrical projection with 8 channel audio, when I was invited to perform at the Kiblix festival in Slovenia last year I was asked whether it was possible to reformat the work for a planetarium. Having never had the opportunity to work in this format before, I gladly agreed, having no real concept of what the work would look like or sound like.
I was surprised and delighted with the visual result, and the gradual undulation of the visual environment over the dome shape of the planetarium worked even better than in flat-screen format. The sound, however, on this occasion left a lot to be desired, but presenting in the planetarium led me to consider how ambisonic audio might complement the visuals, more accurately reflecting the width and height of the visual display. Consequently, on returning to the UK I swiftly made an ambisonic mix of the work.
From here on, I began to consider the possibilities of both designing and exhibiting works in EAF as a way of structuring both the initial conception and the eventual realization of the work. However, this can raise questions and pose potential problems; even if one has conceived of a work initially for a particular format, such as fulldome projection for example, actually getting access to that exhibition format isn’t always possible; indeed, pletten has only been exhibited in its intended format three times. The KEAR miniatures that I completed as part of a residency in the USA earlier this year have only been screened and exhibited in flat, single channel video format with stereo audio, even though they were composed for fulldome projection with ambisonic sound. I wondered if this sense of ‘mismatch’ between my compositional intention and available modes of exhibition should concern me greatly; what’s the point of making work, after all, if you can’t get it exhibited, screened or installed in the way you want to?
Nonetheless, when I began work on my most recent work, ouppo, I initially envisaged the work for fulldome projection and began working on the video accordingly. However, whilst sitting in my office in Glasgow, a peculiar possibility presented itself, initially bought about by my further pondering the ‘problem’ of exhibition formats. Having begun to interrogate my initial preoccupation with the rigidity of a single-screen exhibition format, I proceeded to interrogate my need to have a ‘screen’ at all. What might Ouppo look like if, instead of working within a single screen or fulldome format, something that is not very readily available, I took this opportunity to experiment a little with projection mapping – in this case, with the door to the instrument cupboard in my office, an apparently mundane object not usually associated with the display of audiovisual compositions.
From here, I spent some time working with individually placed plastic panels to further fragment the visual space – here’s a very haphazard version built at the foot of my stairs:
Each of these mapped versions seemed to offer a slightly different perspective on the visual environment and therefore a slightly different audiovisual experience – the fragmenting and mapping of the visual material in this way allowed it to feel almost more part of the material world than when fixed to a one particular mode of display – bringing it more ’into’ the physical space, as opposed to trying to suggest somewhere ‘else’ when presented on screen. Certainly, there was something quite compelling about this as a possibility, and something that suggested scope for further exploration.
To return to the comments of curator D B Amorin, on the initial release of Auroculis:
Auroculis is a collection of video works that serve as translations of digital audio compositions. Harris’ visual-aural explorations into synaesthetic experience made possible through digital technologies hint at a mimicry of the generative process of looking. The result of her investigations are works that rely on projection, location and duration for full contextual consideration. Here she presents in digital download several fixed examples of this process, a mere glimpse at the potentiality of immersive visual music through expanded cinema installation.
Looking again at these comments, in light of my recent work on Ouppo, there were a few things here that struck a particular chord with me. First – that the processes hint at a ‘mimicry of the generative process of looking’. Secondly, that my works might rely on ‘projection, location and duration for full contextual consideration’, an idea that I’m attempting to address a little here, and finally, that the works offered a glimpse ‘of the potentiality of immersive visual music through expanded cinema installation. Having not considered my work as being in any way akin to ‘expanded cinema’ previously, in light of my explorations with fragmenting and disrupting a previously fixed visual space, through working on Ouppo, this designation becomes an intriguing one. Writing in the Audiovisual Breakthrough, Adeena Mey’s chapter on expanded cinema becomes particularly instructive here. In his quest to find an adequate definition of expanded cinema as it relates to contemporary audiovisual practice, Mey considers the ‘dialectics of ideation and materiality through which a work comes into being’, suggesting that ‘in fact, expanded cinema seems to suggest that categories are dynamic and that the dynamics of art practices themselves always create new relationships between ideas and materialities.’ Certainly, in working through my ideas for Ouppo, there has been considerable dialogue between ideation and the physical materiality of the work and, from my own perspective, in working on this piece there is a fluidity to this dialogue that presents possible future trajectories for exploration.
Thinking this through in more detail, one of the concerns historically underpinning my approach to fixed audiovisual composition has been considering the nature of the confines of the audiovisual frame. Chion has of course remarked that “what is specific to film is that it has just one place for images”` (1994, 67), yet what is often central to narrative film is the existence of the physical world beyond the confines of that frame, and this is something that I have sought to explore in my own fixed audiovisual work. Often, the visual component has been intended to give a snapshot of a larger whole, suggesting an environment that extends beyond the confines of the frame, as though the screen presented the opportunity to look through a window into an unfamiliar visual environment. In my live performance work, this has become an area of ongoing negotiation, as the audience is not so free to imagine the environment continuing beyond the confines of the frame; instead being confronted with a physical environment and a bodily presence existing and inhabiting that previously imagined space.
This has lead to some interesting negotiations of the relationship between the physical and virtual within my own audiovisual work, and indeed some reconsiderations of the resistance between physical, virtual and embodied space within my performance and installation works in particular, something that is particularly apparent in Ouppo. Susan Sontag has stated that “If an irreducible distinction between theatre and cinema does exist, it may be this: Theatre is confined to a logical or continuous use of space. Cinema … has access to an alogical or discontinuous use of space” (1966). Though I do not consider my works to be a form of theatre, there is nonetheless an inherent tension between the inhabited, physical space of the environment in which the work is performed or installed and in which the audience is present, and the computer-generated visual component of the work. These two visual spaces could be argued to exist differently from one another; although they inhabit the same space, one is essentially physical and present; a comprehensible, logical and continuous space, whilst the other is essentially virtual; alogical, delimited and, in a sense, discontinuous.
Through taking my work on Ouppo into a variety of projection-mapped formats on real-world objects, some of these tensions manifest differently and, in some ways (in my own mind at least) become a little easier to reconcile. The preoccupation with the confines of the frame become less central, because the frame itself is more fluid, existing slightly differently with each iteration of the work. There is something very attractive about this, offering the possibility to reconsider the work with each exhibition from a site-specific perspective, presenting an alternative engagement between physical and virtual spaces in each subsequent iteration.
This leads to a broader consideration of exhibition format in general, and something I alluded to earlier when I mentioned the fresh minds festival. Pletten was awarded in a format in which it was never really intended to exist – a single channel video with stereo audio. The contest was judged by university students, who most probably viewed the work on a laptop or tablet – a significant departure from the ‘ideal’ exhibition format I originally envisaged. Yet it was still decided to an ‘engaging’ work. Why was this? Does the work present a convincing audiovisual relationship, regardless of exhibition format? Did it stand up better to web-based compression and small-screen viewing than some of the other works on offer? Perhaps the novelty of having two implied ‘screens’, even presented within the context of a single screen, was somehow important? I don’t and can’t know the answer to this, but it perhaps shines light on one of the most prevalent issues I face as an audiovisual composer – that of presentation and exhibition format in general. There is always a tension between intention and exhibition – it’s very rare that one is able to present work in EXACTLY the sonic and visual format one would find ideal. Instead of being inflexible about this, perhaps one is best served by embracing the online availability of materials, as I have through putting my work on vimeo, the often tinny earbuds and tiny screens of the online audioviewer and working not to accommodate them but almost in spite of them, hoping that the audiovisual relationship is strong and compelling enough that even a lack of low end or full spectrum colour definition will still allow the piece to be intriguing and compelling.
Let me conclude, then, with a considerationof what an Expanded Audiovisual Format might be, and specifically as it relates to my own practice
Works for Expanded Audiovisual Format (EAF) are those that seek to explore the possibilities of expanded exhibition formats from both a sonic and visual perspective simultaneously. These might include, but are not limited to, multiscreen, fulldome or projection mapping in combination with multichannel or ambisonic sound. Expanded Audiovisual Format works might also involve site-specific reconfiguration of both sonic and visual materials based on available exhibition space
For now, this will serve as a framework for my own audiovisual compositions and one that, at present, is suggesting considerable promise for further exploration.