DESIGNING WITH CHAOS
DESIGNING WITH CHAOS:
allowing the unprogrammable to occur.
In the '80s, much was published in western scientific literature on chaos, "making a new science". The nature and behaviour of chaos was studied in fractals, the butterfly effect, periodicity, pendulum clocks, clouds, blood vessels, turbulence, geodynamos, and snowflakes. These studies showed science the failure of singular linear forms of explanation as fixed truths. Plurality of continua became legitimate. One dimension expanded to many. Unpredictability and endlessness revealed in their own way, patternings, contingent on context with all its complexity. Systems yielded their own irregularities and chaotic forms their own order, one masquerading as the other. Time and place were given new value in studying these flow states. Western science had to retune itself by proving many age-old premises and coming closer to understanding patterns in nature.
As a white, western female composer and sound artist living in the southern hemisphere, I found this amusing. Chaos was hardly a new science, rather an old wisdom. It caused me to look back. Like many other people, I realised that I had been working in this field all my life, in both research, performance and my own creative work.
My musicological research in the early seventies was on chance operations and indeterminate procedures in the works of John Cage (1973). In the 80s I was working on models and processes in repetitive music for a doctoral thesis (1984). In the performance area I was working with two major ensembles, the multimedia "Live Improvised Music Events" 1978-85, and "La Romanesca". I had years of experience in interpreting conceptual and medieval music, watching fixed and unfixed musical processes unfold, mapping and reconstructing fragments in a time-dependent ephemeral art form. Constants and variations had varying relationships which differed each time. Works could be recognised from a substantial number of characteristic traits which would shift about according to the specific performance and event. "Soft and Fragile Music in Glass and Clay" is a case in point. In composing, performing and analysing this work, it was clear that freedom and control had changing relationships, as did order and irregularity. Works were more like living tissue, chameleons. The Buddhist attitude to the passing of time as the present continuous moment of constant focus, so clearly applied in Cage's works, changed my perception and intention. Watching the ebb and flow of the now could receive more specific attention. It was a microscopic way of being immersed in fluid sound states. From these early beginnings a way of working absorbing risk, improvisation, changes in states, indeterminacy, real-time composition and audience participation was defining itself. Site specific work arose from my experiments in sound painting in cement water tanks and wheat silos, 1978-80, and car park cylinders ("STARGAZER", CD, 1984-87). These urban found sculptures could be "played" in their entirety, demanding time, risk and experiment to understand them, to excite vibrations. The direction and movement of sounds in space could be crafted as changing mass. In such space, all the boundaries between composition, improvisation, performance, research, recording were discarded. Spatial sound painting in action was a joy. I wanted to share it. Something more interesting than preplanned and learned art was possible. It was a holistic world requiring time and observation. Then one could instigate and graft intersecting plateaux of sound which were free to move as they would, their meetings and departures being defined by the time, place the people there and the acoustic resonance. Things should be made appropriate to the time and place, not imposed. An open frame of form and time in the design from the outset was needed to allow the unprogrammable to occur.
It is not surprising that sound installation eclipsed musicological research, composition and performance in providing the most appropriate means to investigate these concerns. Working with the unexpected, the irregular in this state would yield surprises with its own life and breath. No theoretical position needed to be imposed, nor constraints made in the scales of time and space. One could observe the works "in their manner of operation," to use Cage's phrase.
Rather than adopting an Aristotelian methodology aimed at proving the application of chaos theory in my sound installation work, a more appropriate way to proceed may be to share a selected range of installations from 1977 to the present, observing traces and experiencing the works. The works are their own solutions, shifting and drifting through their times and spaces.
"WINDS AND CIRCUITS AND SURFACES AND CAVITIES", 1977, was a double installation of audience interactive electronic art. In an old organ factory, 7 large wire coathanger mobiles were suspended from the ceiling. Each was amplified by polystyrene resonators attached to the horizontal rods. Wire springs and slinkys connected the mobiles kinetically so that all motion was contingent. A magnificent wind activated-decay piece lasted 25 minutes when the sliding loading door was opened. Old turntable pickups transferred the sound of the colliding wire harps to 5 old TV sets tuned with the ABC Lissajous figure which would distort. Children could play with amplified sound and images by spinning colour wheels in front of the TVs, turning knobs on amplifiers or activating the mobiles. This installation could be accessible day and night. I was interested to see the changing forms run over long durations. I wanted to experience how the changing diurnal patterns of activity and inactivity, wind, passers-by, acoustic context could influence the content and perception of the installation. Entry was free. I wanted the work to have breath and space and was ready to accept what might occur from the public.
Large-scale time-spans were enabling from the point of view of the work and the people using it. Things may occur that could not be noticed or executed. The aspect of play and public accessibility became issues in presenting installations. Time is suspended. The condition of play allows unpressured activity. This should be everyone's right. This led me to create the public out-door installation "Sound Playground" (Brunswick, Victoria 1981). The sound sculpture was entirely made from found objects from industry and factories in this working class multi-cultural area. As an object sculpture it comprised 19 large instruments tuned microtonally in modal sets with differing timbres of wood, metal, P.V.C. pipe, play sculptures and toy telephones. This sound-sculpture installation had many lives, as a serious tool for compositions, as wind-activated sounds and as an arena for sound play of the organised and unorganised types. I gave 55 free workshops at the site and sound playgrounds followed in Bethnal Green, London, and Sweden in 1983. The site and public involvement had become overwhelmingly important. I was made to confront the meaning of land ownership in Australia and multiculturalism head-on, the two great features which define Australia's identity.
The effect of the landscape whether urban or natural in Australia is overwhelming, in terms of its scale in distance, and the dichotomy between the new culture and the geologically ancient land. Its emptiness and isolation have preserved it, along with an indigenous culture which has lived in complete harmony with this fragile natural habitat, caretaking it for 40,000 years. In 200 years of western values it has been desecrated. The Aborigines' survival is rooted in chaos theory. They see the patterning of the winds, clouds, shifting sands, rivers, currents, and notice the very slightest disturbances in all continua simultaneously. They have adapted thousands of years of close observation of the movement of the stars into seasonal feeding instructions and have used sophisticated genetic organisations in their clan structure to avoid interbreeding for thousands of years. Their knowledge of place and time governs their every move, based on actual data experienced at that moment. In working on the Aeolian Harps project (1987-92) on their revered land at Lake Mungo
I was able to spend seven days in their world with them, understanding the winds, the drifting sands, the dingo, fox and kangaroo tracks, reading the constellations and just breathing, watching the light change. They in turn had come to listen to the sound sculpture I had built with locals from the Mildura area years before, which had been revamped to withstand the 120 degrees(F) heat. The microphones melted. My DAT machine crashed. The sound recordists from the CSIRO and the ABC slept through the best aeolian music because they were preserving urban time. We slept on the sands, vibrating with the strings. The harmonic series of the harps was exquisitely played by the breeze, endlessly creating music more beautiful than any possible human creation. It is the same sound as the wind in the casuarina trees. These had been my inspiration for the design of the harps, soft sensitive and site specific. These sounds can only be reproduced by special interplay of circumstances. One can only design so far to allow the unprogrammable to occur.
"TRACING THE SOUND ICONS" was another sonic archaeology involving metamorphosis at a later stage. 10 artists were invited to make work for an outdoor disused limestone quarry 16 kilometres out of Mt. Gambier on the coast between Victoria and South Australia. This site was going to be filled in by the Mines Department and this was to be an attempt to save the hundreds of hectares of ancient ruins of quarry sites, as well as to inform the local district about the potential loss of great beauty. It took some time to learn how to proceed by reading the site, despite the excellent briefing about aboriginal and mining history. Limestone doesn't vibrate. The sound ambience was wonderful. I didn't want to compete with nature. I found 5 petrol bowsers discarded which became "The Sound Icons". They told their stories in steel percussive rhythms I recorded, by playing their frames and then inserting tape loops of different lengths in their heads. This made a resonant amplified filter for the speakers in the small tape machines. They chatted away to each other. The earth which I dug out revealed beautiful channels of earthmoving history, the notations for the stories. I made earth rubbings of these and the sides of the frames of the bowsers for "Tracing the Sound Icons" in Perth, Western Australia, later the next year.
In Perth I was concerned about Man's interference with nature compared with the natural flow of entropy. Gravity and time are much more powerful than Man. Over the long term, the stones would return to the earth. The songs would remain in the ether, changing their composition by particle attractors and initiating small disturbances over time and space.
Spatial playback design was a necessity to allow the life-force of the stories to play out their own futures. In 1984 I invented the SSIIPP Sound Sculpture Interactive Installation Performance Playback System. This was an 8-track continuous looping playback system using two 4-track Tascam fast speed cassette decks interfaced with infrared sensors. This would allow the prepared materials to run out of phase and the audience to interfere with this in a sophisticated sound chess arrangement. By adding small boards into the sensors I wanted the sensors to be able to be programmed for indeterminate lengths of time and to have to be reactivated in order to change their state. If it was playing, then the sensor would stop it; if silent, then it would start. The new state would continue until the sensor was reactivated. The speakers were always positioned near the sensor so that the audience's position in space influenced the overall sound as well as defining a changing spatial listening field. The socialisation which emanates from this, as more people enter the space and change it, is always fascinating for them and the onlooker. It is rarely possible to codify all the changes completely. The ramifications for this in designing the 8-track composition for the playback are vast.
Given the fact that the perceivers walk through the listening environment in their own pathway, it is almost impossible for two listeners to have the same experience. The individual listening experience is augmented to effect change, not just passively to receive information. As well, it dispels the myth of fixed works altogether. The morphology of continuity has to be visualised as a large scale many-stranded entity comprising floating and shifting continua which may change their state at any moment. The impact of chaotic dynamics can then be understood in terms of the work's content and playback structure. The only way to experience such a system is through the interactive playback system, wandering through many speakers as a walk through a forest where you have the right to go at your own pace and pick whichever flowers you want. This kind of freedom to direct one's own course is all too rare. The liberating feeling is empowering and challenging. Listening to a frozen stereo realisation of such a work bears less resemblance to the original than a postcard. Even video cannot give the feel of a chaotic piece. One must be immersed, living inside the world of the ear, swimming in a sea of sound and opportunities. One hears what one inhabits.
TIMEWARPS is another piece using the SSIIPP, (University of Adelaide Gallery, South Australia,1991). It was a sonic wilderness, a new/old technological landscape to wander through, intercepting eight different time continuities, consciously or unconsciously. This was made visible by ascribing 6 temporal categories to each of the six anthropomorphic deities, the tree of time and the sounding ether, together forming an unworldly environment. Sitting in the Autumn leaves in Spring time, opening the exhibition at the end and employing disfunctioning clocks added to this sense of out-of-jointness.
The eight temporal continua were adapted from those defined in J.T. Fraser's book, "Time, the Familiar Stranger". (University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.)
Each sculpture or time-being contains a speaker so that the designed sound is emitted at the position of the human voice. Four of these, "Darlene", "Fascisti", "Pumpkinman" and "Frogman" have sensors. They appear to chat directly to you according to how you use the sensor trigger. "Angel" and "Birdwoman" have continuing tracks of the ocean and pastoral countryside environment, ever-present as cycles in nature. Each of the two banks of four rewinds after its 15-minute cycle.
Complex patterning results. People are constantly activating gaps, stops and starts in over half of the prepared sonic material which affects the overall form and audio result substantially. Half of the designed sound has to be given over to enable the listener to effect spatial changes. Furthermore, the complexity of the audible results, moving in such a space, is a metaphor for the complexity of understanding needed when experiencing time at all. The futility of trying to codify or experience time as a linear strand is well demonstrated by experiencing the complexity of intersecting changing sound lines in space. Just when you think you've understood key relationships of the sensors and spatial counterpoint, someone in the space may change the backgound or foreground so easily. One audible moment has many possible solutions.
The constant sounds of the sea, the countryside and the harps help to counteract these disruptions by continuing to play. Things we know and come to expect as predictable, such as the sea not stopping, or the sun rising in the morning become constant security blankets against which the other forms of temporal experience, such as clocktime, reproductive cycles, fashion, and living patterns are constantly being manipulated by man himself.
The SSIIPP technology allows a complex changing sound chess to occur, a game which - unlike chess - is seldom learned. New rules require hard work and repeated effort. The important essence of life, and the incredible effect of time in defining our options of history, geography, human development, can never be fully accounted for or fully organised. The technology itself is designed with the changing relationships of the individual and society, or at another level, the artist and the audience, in mind. Its flexibility allows for the changes between people, sounds and spaces to be taken into account, unlike nearly every other playback system. It is a vehicle to yield life's fascinating patterned chaos and chaotic patterning, something to be experienced, listened to and felt.
The role that technology plays in the temporal design of the world is confronted in the "TIME TREE" where computer boards are mounted on pieces of driftwood as found objects that will also disintegrate, and the "GI JO" men, dismembered and hooked on to the boards, have lost their life-support systems. They hang on precariously to feathers and blades of grass, disengaged from batteries.
All other technology from the SSIIPP is hidden, with speaker cables wired from the ceiling into the heads of the scare-crows so that the magic is unidentifiable. Methodologically there is a "green tech" approach to this work.
In "ALTARS OF POWER AND DESIRE", (Ball State University, Benjamin Cohen Peace Prize, USA, October 1993), all tracks were given over to sensors. 8 altars, with 8 CD tracks spinning around continually over three weeks made a chilling critique of capitalism. 4-second tastes of sound cut through the space when passers-by worshipped the shrines of nature, creeds, love, food, the dream home, travel, money and sports. The fragments splintered their way through the ether over the long durations constantly changing configurations, breathing a performance of their own and reacting to listeners. Much of the preset was organised, including all the sound material. The sequencing and vertical intersection of it was contingent on passers-by, as were the electronic birds which whistled from movement activation chips on the edge of the pedestal of nature. In designing such a chaotic work the decisions about which features will be controlling, or which will be left free are critical choices. This was a collaborative work involving about 70 people from 4 faculties. They not only had input in the playback, they had input into the design. Sounds from Muncie were mixed alongside the ones I had prepared from Australia: bald eagles and merlins in Australian waterfall habitats. My desires had to include theirs. After all, it was their place, not mine.
Several thousands of people came through the installation and recorded their comments on the Mac portable. Everyone was given a present of a recorded cassette mix of the sound materials so that they left the free exhibition also with something for nothing.
The more one collaborates, the less input one has. The working process itself becomes the chaotic dynamic with everyone shifting around to accomodate the others.
"THE WHITE ROOM" was a five-way installation of sound performance, sculpture and light in Warsaw for ISCM in 1992. My contribution was to build the decor for a large listening temple in line with a dream described by Vineta Lagzdina and to provide various sounding elements, as well as to design the interplay of the sounding masses, ready for the other artists to compose and perform in it. Elements of trust and understanding were needed. How do we measure this scientifically?
The acoustic and psychological impact of context can not be underestimated in defining the perimeters of chaos dynamics in many ways. "The White Room" had an unforgettable aura, but clean acoustic. We had to make it all.
SEVEN PILLARS OF MEMORY for ZEITGLEICH uses an 8-track interactive digital open playback system to bring in the voices of the people who are intimately associated with the Salzmagazin in Hall and the history of the mine there, to be sounded for the last time, as an elegy. The time span of the mine, beginning in the 13th century and closing so recently in 1967, closes a door on seven centuries of Austrian heritage that only those connected with it can fully appreciate. As listeners we can only perceive fragments of this understanding. The abundant working lives over hundreds of years still have connecting voices alive in this town. The voices of the director of the mine, Max Mair and the 90-year old twins, Olga and Hermine Wick who now run the Herrenhaus, will be heard telling their stories. Many of the sounds connected with that environment have become endangered or are forgotten. Early explosive devices in the form of voltaic batteries, mining ambience or the working songs are cases in point. New sonic environments intrude such as the motor car and air compressors. Memory collapses all chaos dynamics and time into dream and fiction alive in the spirit and minds of those connected with them. They are fantasies for those who aren't.
The designer of SEVEN PILLARS OF MEMORY will have been a phantom present in short term memory,allowing the unprogrammable to occur once the stories and acoustic ecology is set in place.Its producers and installers are the local connection point. The chaos dynamics and people participating will articulate the SEVEN PILLARS OF MEMORY. Each will have had an individual experience. Its life will be the sum total of all the continuities, too vast fully to comprehend.
This is the essential component that has emanated from chaos theory, that something more than the sum total of parts comes into existence. Schwenk wrote eloquently about this in the nature of universal principles in his Sensitive Chaos, (New York: Schocken, 1976, p.19) which was primarily about the relation between force and form in water. "Flow wants to realise itself, regardless of the surrounding materials. They are not really single strands but whole surfaces interweaving spatially. When the flow is past or invisible, the evidence remains. Rivers of air leave their mark on the desert sand, showing the waves. The flowing of the ebbing tide inscribes a network of veins on a beach."
Chaos composition/installation then breathes, having many simultaneous lives leaving sonic and visual traces in the mind's eye and ear and sensibility of the perceiver. Hopefully we can become more acutely aware, as in Wallace Stevens' poem: "The knowledge of things lay around but unperceived". (The Flecked River, The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens New York: Vintage, 1972, p.321).
Thanks to: Werner Resch, Geologist, University of Innsbruck; Max Mair, Director of the Salt Mine; Olga & Hermine Wick, Keepers of the Herrenhaus Museum; Peter Hirschhuber & friends, Café Saline - Tirolerlieder; Nicola Mayr, Interviews & translation of the tapes; Helga Griffin, Melbourne, dialect identification & translation; Arthur McDevitt, translation; Wendy Taylor, Sovereign Hill Ballarat, Victoria, tape and recording permission for endangered sounds. My family for time away.