Josephine Bosma on Mon, 9 Aug 1999 10:42:33 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> interview: Mark Bain

(by way of Geert Lovink <>)

              - Trembling Structures - Mark Bain

     "I guess my Vibronic system attempts to question this
      architectural authority in presenting art."

Mark Bain is an artist who makes installations in which sound is an
important aspect. His work is interesting, wild and funny. He connects
oscillators to architectural structures in order to make them tremble. I
saw his work for the first time at DEAF '98, where he not only had used
the V2 building as an instrument, but where he was also asked to be part
of the big boat party of the festival in the Rotterdam harbour. He
attached oscillators to the metal of the top of the boat. He does not use
the internet (yet, that is. as you can see at the end of the interview one
of his new works involves an extension: an etherconnection), which could
be caused by the fact that his work is something one has to preferably
experience live, at the site where it is produced. His unconventional
choice of the medium to produce sound with however, plus his relaxed
attitude towards it, seemed inspiring enough to share with you. 


Josephine Bosma: The only thing I know of you is the work at DEAF98. Can
you tell me something about it? 

Mark Bain: It's called the 'Live Room: Transducing Resonant Architecture'. 
For this project I attached eight mechanical oscillators to the columns on
the ground floor of V2 building. Essentially it is a system that was
designed to resonate the four story steel and concrete structure.  It
actually stems off a project I did earlier which was also called the Live
Room and was presented in Cambridge, at MIT.  That project happened to be
realized in an old space that was originally the instrumentation
laboratory of MIT and was later renamed Draper Labs back in the mid
sixties. This unique space had a specialized architecture that consisted
of seven vibration isolation pads on the surface of the floor surrounded
by aluminum plates. All these pads were floating on their own foundation
of concrete, gravel and sand. They used these for testing gyroscopes and
inertial guidance systems; direction finding equipment developed for the
atlas rocket system and ICBM's, your basic cold war production facility. 
So it was a very specialized laboratory space that was neglected and empty
when I came in with my oscillators and energized it, sort of doing the
opposite of what the original intention of that space was. 

It was interesting because the surface of the floor was enlivened with
sound. I brought in an audience and was also working with four musicians. 
When the audience experienced it, they would stand or lie down on
different parts of the floor while the frequencies would be resonating
throughout their bodies and all the while the musicians were playing which
would act less on the body and more through the ears. We had a blend of an
acoustic and a vibrational event which all was happening within the
spectators. This experience also changed as they moved to different
surfaces and areas in the space. There was no stage or separation of the
performers to the audience; audience, musicians and architecture would
blend into one, how it all was navigated influenced the composition. 

JB: How much audio work have you done? You say you are a megamedia artist,
instead of a multimedia artist. 

MB: I have been making audio art since I was in bands in high school, but
later I started a company with my brother called Simulux in Seattle,
Washington. It is an experimental acoustic and visual research facility
basically for our own projects. We pull in a lot of gear that is old and
discarded. We work it, take it apart and reassemble it together, producing
a very hybrid studio. It's not necessarily correct, in the sense of having
a proper sound studio, but it's a very interesting place to work. 

Most of the audio work goes into my videos as soundtrack material. I
haven't done a CD or anything as of yet, I am interested though. I want to
compile some of the Mutant Data Orchestra which my brother John does with
some of the events that I have been producing, recording for instance the
V2 building. I use special low frequency sensors for this, what geologists
use to record seismic events like earthquakes. I use the sites where I
have my projects, connect sensors to different areas and surfaces of the
building and run that into recording decks. I record the sound and
vibration in the materials, not the in air. Some of these recordings are
quite interesting and I think that in few months I will bring some of it
together as a CD. 

JB: You were also talking about how you also attached your devices to
bridges, but don't especially bridges resonate of themselves already, from
the cars that pass on top of them and the wind that blows around them? 

MB: This depends of the kind of bridge you are on. Some bridges are made
out of steel and the cars going over it can set it going. It is like you
hit a bell. The resonant factor of that piece of bronze is what a bell
sounds like. If you use a bridge, you have that whole object as a resonant
structure. You can either hit it with a hammer or I can attach one of my
oscillators to it, tune it up to that frequency, engaging the bridge at
its resonant frequency. 

JB: What did you do to a bridge, and did the traffic notice anything? 

MB: I have done two bridges. One was a small wooden one on which there was
not much traffic. That was interesting because it was kind of like a giant
marimba, a wooden xylophone. That had a nice woody tone that was quite
beautiful. I have also done a large truss bridge in Boston that was
actually closed to the public and waiting for demolition. It was a hundred
meters long, quite heavy. There was no traffic on it and I went there late
at night. It was like a guerrilla action. The most interesting thing that
happened was this ringing aspect and the fact that all of the rust would
start flaking off. It was quite rusty and the resonance 'cleaned' the
girders while also generating this heavy low-frequency sound which
surrounded you. 

Another structural object I have done was in Maine last summer when I was
using a wooden out building, a shack. I had some electro-dynamic
oscillators attached to the building which were even more controllable. I
could run audio synthesizers into them and put a lot more complex kind of
waveform into the architecture. These wooden structures have a sound that
is more like a guitar. The concrete at V2 is more heavy. 

JB: What kind of sound are you interested in making? 

MB: All my sound work is highly experimental, like tests. I take sort of a
systemalogical approach to it, setting up complex systems that have a life
of their own. You can sit there and tweak it enough to get things to go in
directions you are interested in. This is also present in the Live Room at
DEAF, that sort of complex system: machines fused to architecture, and
playing the building as an instrument. The architecture is also a complex
system of parts and materials, so you could say you're 'collaborating'
with this structure. 

My sound work is just something that I can work with on my own in relation
to my work, whether it is video, or installation, or sculptural. I don't
call myself a sound artist or anything. It ties in directly when I make a
project, just another element. I work a lot with machines, so those are
also dealing with sound, acoustic and vibrational energy. It comes round
the opposite way, the sound as artifact. 

JB: You said you are very interested in sound you can't hear? 

MB: The field of infrasonics is a strange area. The CIA and the Soviet
Union had been doing research into this for riot control and offensive
military measures. Infrasonic or subsonic energy is sound below the
hearing threshold. Your experience of it is physical, vibrational and it
sounds more like it is whooshing air coming at you. I refer to it as kind
of 'sonic wind'. It does strange things to physiology and psychology of
subjects submitted to it. The experiences here at V2 concerning this, were
that Andreas Broeckman was complaining of headaches at one point, and Marc
Thelosen, the production man had to kind of escape the building because he
was getting solidly confused from it. Subsonics is known to do strange
things. Certain frequencies are known to induce bowel movements or
headaches, the most generalized feeling you get is a kind of anxious
feeling, anxiety, a heaviness. 

One of the things that is interesting about the building being sized so
large: when I am putting energy into it, it acts as a radiator, or a
speaker in a sense. The surfaces are rattling and vibrating out. What you
hear is the movement of the building. Most of it is subsonic though, and
it has this heaviness that relates to the heaviness of the architecture. I
like this massiveness of the sound. 

JB: Do you work with these different aspects of subsonic sound on purpose? 
Like: now I will use this, as it produces nausea or headache, or this time
I will just produce dizziness... 

MB: Those are extreme potentialities. The other aspect of low frequency
gets back to an almost spiritual action as certain frequencies can induce
near religious experiences or even hauntings. Especially things below ten
hertz. So there is the potential of these sounds having soothing aspects
as well. 

In the sixties a lot of people were trying to get into this alpha state. 
Nowadays you see these sound and light modulation devices that you can
wear. These are the same frequencies I have been working with in the
architectural installations. There is always a good and bad side of

JB: You can't use these kind of things in mediated work like video of
course, they have to be experienced live, at the installation site. 

MB: I have of course a problem of how to document it. I have shown slides
of work, and it's just slides of an existing building with one of my small
devices attached, not so illustrative. Even on a CD it does not repeat
well. Most audio equipment won't pick up the low frequencies, human
perception of audio stops at about 20 hertz.  So of course it is
definitely experiential. 

I have done a lot of research into infrasonic and subsonic sound when I
was at MIT, I was in the libraries a lot.  One thing that is interesting
is that there is a correlation between building frequencies and body
frequencies. There is a parallel that can be taken to extremes, where
amplitudes and frequencies correlate between the feeling of pain in the
body and the ultimate destruction of a building or even when the body
starts to feel this threshold of uncomfort, certain amounts of cracking
can occur in the building. 

I'm trying to find a bridge between the two, between inhabitants of a
structure and the structure itself. I am using a vibrational vehicle to
connect them together. 

An other aspect of my work is what I tend to call massage-ing buildings. 

JB: Giving them a good time. 

MB: A little resonant therapy...  It is fun in a sense because these
devices are portable, relatively speaking. With this system I can engage a
four story building that is made out of concrete and steel. I go in with
200 kilos of materials, attach it and can engage the whole structure. 
Things that have a high Q factor, the resonance factor, you can excite
with even smaller devices. 

Nicolai Tesla was doing a few experiments also with vibrational devices. 
There are some notorious stories of him shaking up his laboratory quite a
lot with one of these attached to a column. There is a certain history
there. But I am using multiple oscillators which is a little different. It
becomes more like an additive synthesis type of production. A layering of
many sine waves. 

JB: You were also talking about how the oscillators were also a kind of
orchestra you could manipulate... 

MB: I use a digital control board with which I engage the architecture in
a sort of cyclic or symbiotic way. A mix which is tuned directly to the

JB: You are now a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. What kind of
work do you do there and how is it received? 

MB: Well I work out of the Rijksakademie now, if only because it makes it
easy for me to be here in Holland. People there tend to call themselves
'participants' instead of students for lack of a better term. The academy
recently became privatized so it is still trying to define itself from its
past. I tend to think of it as a good place for incubation, a place to
work without the hassle of having have a day job. 

My work is well received though and I've made some good connections with
people who visit there, it's a good front end for the rest of Europe. I
think that most people there consider me as the crazed American who
vibrates buildings, scary and anarchic. But this is good, to provoke new
concepts in this traditional setting, to consider art outside the
boundaries of the museum or gallery space. 

JB: You presented work at the Amsterdam ICA, and will present works in The
Hague and Antwerp soon. What are these works like and do they resemble
each other? 

MB: Yes, the project at de Appel was quite amusing. It was for the
curatorial program that they run where they invite five young curators to
study contemporary issues in art and to produce a show as a final project. 
So this year the show was titled Anarchitecture (a term they borrowed from
Gorden Matta-Clark) which of course seemed quite intriguing to me. They
had seen my project at V2 and invited me to propose something for de
Appel. I proposed two resonant systems to be installed in their building,
one minor system for the metal wheelchair ramp (a beautiful sound) and the
other with four large oscillators attached to a thick wall on the first
floor corridor. 
  Both systems had audience activated detonator switches which would turn
them on for a set time. 

>From the start there was infighting amongst the five whether they should
include me in their show. There was one Japanese woman who knew about
earthquakes and thought that I would bring the whole building down. So
after assuaging all fears I set up the work, but made sure not to run it
until ten minutes before the opening. This was crucial since they didn't
really know the power of these systems. Just before opening, when everyone
was running around stressed, making last minute preparations, my X-Site
project kicks in and they all kind of freak-out. It worked charmingly, I
could move this wall back and forth about a centimeter and engage the
whole building. Because this wall was moving, it was pushing an infrasonic
wind throughout gallery space. It provoked some interesting collaborative
situations with some of the other work installed. 

The visitors seemed to enjoy it though since for the duration of the
opening, the system was always on. At the end of the evening, they told me
that police had showed up due to neighbors complaints and so de Appel shut
down the project, never to run again. I think that this is a good example
of how traditional venues for presenting work become less and less
relevant for work that presses these architectural boundaries. I guess my
Vibronic system attempts to question this architectural authority in
presenting art. 

With the project in Antwerp, I was commissioned to produce the
'soundtrack' for a show titled Laboratorium. For this I recorded a testing
laboratory that is used in the petroleum industry. It was a lab that ran a
24hrs a day testing products brought in on oil tankers. It was a huge
space loaded with machines humming and pumping liquids and had five
technicians nursing it all. So I came in and tested the testing lab. I
spread out an array of geosensors which were attached to the architecture
and furnishings of the site. I recorded the ambient sound resident within
the structure of the building, the sound of all impacts. For an hour I
made direct to DAT, a live mix of the architecture. A smooth heavy drone
of the building singing. It's strange to think that there is this secret
world of sound resident within materials. I produced a CD of this sound
and brought the recorded vibrations back to the gallery space, and using
special vibration transducers, I re-injected it into the walls of the
'host' site. It was a translation of sorts, one building's sound infecting

The project in the Hague is at Het Paard, a music venue that is slated for
renovation this fall. Before that happens and after all the current
tenants leave, they give the building to me to 'wire up'. A dream project
really, to turn a building used for presenting musical acts into a musical
act itself. It is organized by Cell: Initiators of Incidents from
Rotterdam, and will include few other artists collaborating with the
system along with a some performance nights. There will also be a live
performance of the building with the Mutant Data Orchestra, we're calling
it Vibrosonics vs. MDO. The exhibition runs for two weeks and I plan to
mount sixteen mechanical oscillators throughout the three buildings which
make up Het Paard. In conjunction with the oscillators, I'll mount 46
geosensors to reproduce the sound of the architecture which visitors can
then listen to through headphones in the bar. There will also be broadcast
of the sound of the building on radio Tonka (an alternative piratestation,
104.7 FM) in the Hague. 

Mark Bain can be reached at

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