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<nettime> Interview with Mark Bain
Rosanne Altstatt on Tue, 8 Apr 2003 11:56:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Mark Bain

This interview with Mark Bain was conducted on the occassion of his current
solo exhibition at the Edith Russ Site for Media Art in Oldenburg, Germany.
It is also part of a reader for the current exhibition “ArchiSound: Mark Bain
– Sonusphere” which will be published by Revolver and released on the
finissage, May 4, 2003. 

Sounding out the Terrain

Rosanne Altstatt: Would you sketch out the ‘Sonusphere’ installation?

Mark Bain: The ‘Sonusphere’ is something I developed for the Edith Russ Site
which incorporates a few lines of research I have been working on for a
number of years, namely that of sound in relation to location and architecture.
With this piece I was interested in how a certain site magnification can
invade a space both physically and acoustically. I wanted to make a kind of hybrid
sound system of almost ridiculous proportions that would be tailored
specifically for sub-sonic frequencies. The system utilizes a pressure envelope that
both contains the sound and radiates it through an active pulsation of the
air inside a 6-meter inflatable sphere. It is sort of an absurd speaker
design, quite large but necessary for the low frequencies generated. The sound
source used for the work is derived directly from the ground itself, the live
seismic signals of the terrain around the building. These signals are picked up
and magnified through the ‘Sonusphere’ acting as the acoustic interface. In a
way, you could look at it as an acoustic macroscope, something that divines
the terrestrial energies and projects the physical presence of these

RA: How will this interact with the architecture? 

MB: It won't necessarily interact directly. The architecture defines a
location, a place for the visitor to come in contact with a work that is a
systematic reflection of this location. In this way the architecture is just part of
the system, part of the interface, an address to arrive to. 

The exhibition hall is a simple space though, with a large volume upstairs
and a smaller area downstairs. I like this aspect of over/under, of above and
below the terrain. I wanted to make a special system for this arrangement to
sort of plumb the building with waveform data and sound. Along these lines, I
came up with ideas for acoustic vessels that are spherical in shape and are
linked together by signal conduits and cables. Just like the architecture can
be a container of sound and activities, the vessels work as another layer of
containment like a sonic capacitor to trap the sound. They are designed to
extract and hold onto this sound, processing it by means of magnification,
transference and projection.

Along with the large sphere, which expands to fit just inside the
rectilinear box of upper space, I have placed a second, much smaller sphere suspended
between the columns of the downstairs area. This smaller container is a kind
of sonic charger made of aluminum and steel with two low frequency transducers
that are driven by the amplified signals of the seismometers placed in the
ground outside. This action provides an intense sound field inside the focus
point of this smaller sphere. At this point the signal is picked up and
delivered directly to the large envelope upstairs where it is projected toward the
same relative focus. I suppose this small sphere is a model of the large, you
can potentially enter one while the other you can't. It all mimics each
other, playing with the scale in relation to the building, the spectator and the
ground outside. With this magnification of the site an attempt is made to
create a stage of destabilization, a reactive zone or interface between the
spectator and the architecture. 

RA: You have these spherical containers made of metals or plastic inside the
building, a different type of architectural container. Have you designed it
so that they will feed off each other?

MB: Depending on how they are tuned to the space there is a relation between
the two spheres and the building, though the spectator may not be aware of
it right away. I am particularly interested in the subtle interactions that
can occur within energetic and potentially energetic systems. Actually the
whole system has the potential to feed off itself, including elements of the
building. Ground transference can be very efficient since sound travels also
through solid materials quite well. So the possibility of the sound inside the
building reaching the sensor arrays is always there. I try to use this to an
advantage; magnifying the signal and tuning it like a complex resonator
incorporating all the separate elements. 

In the process of making this work I discovered that the idea of resonance
could be taken a step further by running the system so that the sphere
generates its own signal without any input from the ground sensors. By feeding the
output of the smaller sphere into itself there is a potential for the most
intense feedback. Using this self-amplifying signal as a base material, I run a
simple discerning algorithm that tracks and controls the changing frequencies
as they slide around. The sound is perceived as kind of sonic tug-of-war, a
system that fights to stay both in control and out of control at the same
time. The objects become a pure sonic formation unto itself. It develops its own
self-induced composition and is a reflection of this struggle of amplitude
and frequency. 

RA: In contrast to the sound recordings you used in past shows such as your
Silent Sound System (2001), this data is fed ‘live‘ to the building. Are you
now interested in creating larger systems? 

MB: Most definitely, but I have also done this in the past with other
projects. Each location dictates the size of production and the set up. I try to
develop them as mutable works that can be modified and adapted to different
situations large or small. Like portable site activators. Portability is
important along with the idea of the implanted system, something that integrates,
interprets and projects. I see them as machinic in-betweens or as interfaces
for unstable experiences. 

The ‘Sonusphere’ was developed for the Edith Russ Site, but because it is
portable and inflatable it can be easily adapted to many different situations
as a roving seismo-acoustic magnifier. Since all sites sound differently,
portability was important for this exploratory apparatus. This way, it can be
extended to mapping locations and deciphering relationships between differing

RA: How would you describe the visitor’s position in all this? After all, he
or she is caught between all of these sound containers, each emitting its
own sounds and vibrations.

MB: In my work you never know what the visitor might do. Since I'm concerned
with the pure experience and the physicality of it, I want to take the
spectators out of their normal roles as visitors and bring them into something
else, perhaps as witness. I wouldn't call it interactive art though, more like
inter-reactive. The frequencies produced seem to affect the psyche of the
viewer, thus sometimes creating “other“ behaviors. Of course none of this is too
predictable before you start actually running the work. But I like this
aspect of reactive art, of provocation. This is where so much interactive art
fails, where the brain has to take over and somehow figure out an interface to
control what the artist has intended. You lose so much of the experience this
way. It becomes too much of a serial situation, call/response,
action/reaction, a maze for mice to run in! Instead I think it is ultimately important to
hijack the senses, to escape from the purely screenal and deliver something
that provokes on other levels. 

As I mentioned, the scale differential of this particular work is important
as a measuring experience for the audience. It is, I suppose, a perverted
utopian construct in the form of a relational device; it attempts to place
viewers into a surrounding cosmos that we all occupy. The connection of the body
to the building and the ground: of the earth and the matrix of materials that
transmit a collective network of impulses. Well, I don't want to sound too
“out there“, of bringing it in relation to other global issues, of
destabilization and shrinking space, but I think amplifying this experience can provide
an analog of a certain crisis, or at least a metaphorical version of it. The
work attempts to illustrate in a very real way that all actions have impacts
which affects the situation. Virilio relates that the innovation creates its
own accident, perhaps this is just a tool to locate a global accident. 

RA: The sound goes through many different mixing stages. What is left of the
original? What I mean is, couldn’t you just feed any kind of sound data into
the system and manipulate it over and over again until you get the
particular sound you desire? 

MB: Yes, I suppose you could. Developments in the synthesis of sound have
come a long way. You can pretty much produce any sound you wish. But I am
interested in sound as material and the certain tactility of it, the rawness. This
is why I work with the live sound of micro-signals and activities travelling
underfoot and within our buildings. It's heavy, distinct, infested and most
importantly, alive! So with this I try to keep it as pure as possible. I only
apply some signal processing to make the “audification“ and run it though
different stages of amplification. The action of bringing something that is
unheard and unfelt to the realm of the “hearable“ and the “feelable“ is what's
interesting. I try to reveal these hidden agents, unearthing the spectra for
human reception. The microscope analogy fits here as the magnification of the
sub-audible mimics the optical.

RA: In an interview with Josephine Bosma you mentioned that you did a lot of
research into infrasonic and subsonic sound while you were at MIT and that
there is a correlation between building frequencies and body frequencies. Yet
doesn’t it depend upon the materials used in the architecture? All humans are
made of flesh and blood, but buildings are made of many different
combinations of wood, steel, glass, stone and many other materials. Can there really be
a correlation between the tolerance level of sound in human beings and

MB: For sure. With that work I developed special machines which provoked
structures with sound and vibrational energy, essentially shaking buildings. In
the course of that research I found different documents which measured how
certain frequencies would affect a structure and how frequencies affect a body,
and I saw a distinct correlation within the two data sets. Then I discovered
after running these systems on different structures that this in fact was
the case. During the times where I would sonically destroy parts of a building,
like what happened at a show in The Hague a few years back, I would ramp up
the system till you could feel the crack both in your gut and in the
structure. It’s not so comfortable for the body but nice to test the potentials.
Actually, I am more interested in the frequencies and amplitudes just before it
reaches this point, where you can fine-tune it to create other actions that
are more subtle and affective. As far as the difference of flesh and blood and
the flesh and blood of buildings, the resonance characteristics do have
similarities. A building is a collection of parts forming a system that creates
the space, the body is also a collection of parts, of materials and internal
spaces and all these materials have resonant properties that react similarly
within the collective system. What I do is tap into these relational
frequencies and amplify it, a simple concept yet with resounding consequences. 

RA: It has been said that you play architecture as an instrument. The
‘Reconstructies’ (1999) piece in The Hague is one example as well as the ‘Angel
Machine’ (2001)in Gronigen which can almost be described as a land art project:
Although your work often has a sculptural element, like the ‘Wavefront’
(2000) horn you made, this new piece overtly goes into the realm of sound
sculpture. Are you moving into new territory? 

MB: Perhaps, I think that I have made work in the past that is almost
invisible, just the tactility of the sound. Very hard to document! But now I am
finding a visual component that compliments this sonic invasion of space. For
me, something has to have a function if it is to be shown at all, thus the
large horn I made for ‘Wavefront’ or the earth compacting machines used in
Gronigen. But these can be difficult to produce sometimes, these functional art
objects, especially in an art world that values mostly representational objects.
In a way I'm an irrational inventor of dis/functional systems, attempting to
connect to other rationales. I guess it is a kind of a parallel to a science
of imaginary possibilities, like Alfred Jarry's concept of Pataphysics and
the story of Dr. Faustroll.

RA: There was a time when you provokingly called your work “architerrorism“.
Aside from the fact that after 9-11 the word “terrorism“ has an increased
meaning within the American vocabulary, I would hardly use this term for your
work today. Recently you’ve been creating concepts for sound systems that form
more of a symbiosis with the architecture instead of working against it.
What direction do you think your work is taking now?

MB: Well, it is all process, actions of destruction and construction. I
still make the deconstructing works and also the ‘Projectile Objects’ (1998,
2001, 2002 )that don't involve any sound but attack structures in other ways, but
yes 9-11 had a major impact on being invited to shake people's buildings.
How can you compete with that kind of spectacle? When the event happened, I was
in the south of Holland installing the ‘Portable Earthquake’ (2001) machine
which I had just finished and I didn't have the heart to run it on that day
while all the neighbors were watching buildings falling.

I do think the symbiosis aspect is growing, though, as I develop the ideas,
this notion of connectedness I referred to earlier. The activation work and
the listening work are self-similar projects coming from opposite directions.
Both deal with the resonance phenomena of materials but one is passive while
the other is active. Perhaps now the scale is growing, towards looking at the
earth itself as a sublime resonator and developing systems that engage this
aspect. Nicola Tesla had similar ideas in relation to distributed electricity
networks a hundred years ago. It's the tapping into this unseen and unheard
world, this resonant matrix, which makes the work.

As to the use of the word terrorism, this has been going on for a long while
whether privately sponsored, state sponsored, or fundamentalist, we
shouldn't hide from terminology because of one monstrous event. It's a vague term
anyway, conveniently used for any enemy designation. I also refer to it in a
reverse situation, where capital expansion, speculative development, and the
taking over of space are also forms of “architerrorism“. But of course this is
not such a popular idea, this equating of construction with destruction.

RA: When you write about searching for a “living entity“ in materials by
recording the sound that is usually out of the range of human perception, there
is a certain animism involved in this idea – a belief that there is a life
force in natural objects. Do you believe that there is a connection between
sound and life force?

MB: I think sound becomes the indicator of this life force, the echo of all
action and interpreter of all systems whether mammalian or tectonic. If you
ring a bell, you know the materiality of that bell; your action defines the
certain molecular construct. If you zoom in to a supposedly static object by a
few orders of magnitude, you find at the atomic level there is certainly an
active system at play, of vibrating electrons and circulating orbits. When I
was at MIT, I used to work with a friend who had access to one of the most
powerful electron microscopes in the world. She was analyzing crystalline
semiconductor materials, as static as something could be, but when you zoom into it
you find something else instead. This machine had the ability to see down to
the atomic level where you could observe the stacked electron shells. What I
found was this oscillatory buzzing of the shells, shifting from dark to
light and resonating with a peculiar sense of energy and all this from a
tiny-sized chip of crystals. Amazing for me, very real and strange to look at. I
guess I am trying to locate this incessant buzzing that surrounds us in different
forms, this infection of energy or animism which connects everything. 

RA: Lately, there has been much theory on transcoding and the visualization
of hidden data or (computer) codes. Do you think your work stands somewhere
in this context?

MB: Certainly any act of divination is a process of data collection, so in
that sense I am a collector of hidden data records and a transcoder of sound.
It seems though that the digital has taken over the analogue, yet the
analogue never went anywhere. It's still there living, as always. So I'm a collector
of this alternate record which is retained within the walls of a transient
database. Even as the digitalization process reconstructs living systems and
their represent signals, in the process, it has itself become a living entity,
of buzzing data networks.

I made a work called the ‘Sniffer’ (2002), now standing in the MIT museum,
which specifically does this transcoding of data fields. It was designed to
sniff out and “audify“ radio traffic that involves only data transmissions, not
voice or normal radio. It has a very wide spectrum input, which allows you
to hear the transmissions as far away as other continents, from satellites or
even down to the immediate location of the local wireless networks and your
mobile phone. It sort of eats up this digital spew making up the ether traffic
and spits it out as different kinds of transcribed data sounds. There is a
whole study of “data sonification“ going on right now, which seeks to provide
acoustic cues in interpreting data sets. I think it can be interesting to use
sound in this way; to let the ears take over where the eyes left off.

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