David Cunningham AHRB proposal

Activated Space - the transformation of internal spaces to become audible and interactive.

Activated Space is a proposal to develop and present a series of installations that alter an architectural space to allow its resonant frequencies to become audible and interactive. The proposal combines elements from sculpture, electronic media, music, architecture and acoustics.

research programme:

research questions:

How can active listening be encouraged?
How does our awareness of acoustic surroundings influence our perceptions?
What happens if you magnify the sound of a room?

Why is the role of sound increasingly coming to the fore within the Fine Arts?
How does technological change cause perceptual shifts which generate new potentials for awareness both inside an art/music context and generally?

aims and objectives:

To foreground and reveal how the spatial elements of sound contribute to the conditioning of human activity. To investigate what happens if you magnify the sound of the room. To expose the nature of hearing, how to a very precise degree we are subconsciously constantly aware of our immediate acoustic environment.

As a sustained attempt to produce and monitor this work, one distinctive feature will be to maintain an online diary of the creation and duration of each component installation open to the interactive scrutiny of peers (See Appendix 2). This electronic resource will be complemented by my own published texts both online and in other media, continuing a discussion of the research questions above and a parallel investigation of the documentation of such experiential work.

To place this investigation within the related concerns of the Newcastle University Fine Art and Music Departments and exhibition within the established regional context of innovative time-based work eg: the development of the New Media Centre at the Baltic Centre and the work of Locus+.

research context:

This work is entirely dependent on real-time activities, taking the sounds in a space and allowing people within that space to hear the space in a qualitatively different way, to begin to listen actively.

This series of works could be considered to be architectural or sculptural in the sense that there is a consistent structure moderated by external factors. Formally it is situated within the practice of Fine Art, a minimal aesthetic with much concern for the materials and structures, an open or experimental situation within which the viewer/listener is an essential component.

The installations have a musical function and unlike much other time-based work are responsive to musicological analysis, creating a slowly shifting series of chords based on a fundamental which is always a resonant frequency or a harmonic of the space. Possible developments involve the creation of an active acoustic environment for music performance, an interactive harmonic environment which is quite different in nature to conventional reverberation or echo.

Amplified sound surrounds us constantly, increasingly employed by industrial and commercial concerns, often in inverse relationship to any value to be derived from that sound and to the detriment of any idea of an aural ecology.

New technologies of reproduced surround sound are emerging and these technological shifts generally alter listening habits. This research is concerned with individual perception of acoustic space and builds on these perceptual shifts to emphasize potentials for awareness that may well become relevant outside an art/music context in the near future.

I am not aware of other research in this specific area elsewhere. Technologies of amplified and reproduced sound are industry-driven and are diametrically opposed to my concerns of observation, of listening and valuing the acoustic space inhabited by an individual. My concern is shared by the Swiss-based World Soundscape Project - their output (mostly documentation of an ecology of sound) provides support for an implicit ideological position rather than practical or technical comparison.

research methods:

The methodologies of this work combine those of an interdisciplinary practice of experimental music/sound/sculpture/time-based art within a Fine Art tradition and those of professional music/sound production. These processes are grounded in many years experience of creative work, both commercially and artistically.

The process of development is integral to and directs the work towards a final structure.

The working procedure will be to initiate installations in a range of spaces amplifying the sound of those spaces in accordance with their inherent acoustic properties of reflections and standing waves.  Various techniques are employed to allow the resonant frequencies of a room to become highly audible in real time (See Appendix - Installation Technologies). This process is modulated by very slight acoustic changes as people move around the room, by ambient sound, by humidity, by the movement of air.

A parallel and complementary component of this research will consider the placement of the viewer in physical, perceptual and critical relation to the work.

Exploration of an acoustic is by its very nature site specific and one key element is to use as many sites and situations as possible developing, documenting and refining the project throughout the duration of the Fellowship. The main criterion for the selection of installation sites is the specific acoustic offered by each space. There are a number of practical secondary factors, access, invigilation, power supply and so on.

Development of these research stages and methodologies will be documented (see Appendix 2) and made available on a continuing basis throughout the project in order to reveal how this specific research process leads to the expansion of the research questions above.

ii - research dissemination:

The prime output will be a series of installations to be developed and presented in a series of locations - gallery spaces, disused buildings, public spaces. This will be monitored and supported by an online diary of the creation and the duration of each installation and complemented by online discussion as the work emerges. There will be continuing documentation of each stage of the process.

Documentation of such site-specific work with its implicit focus on the real-time presence of the viewer/listener within the active installation presents significant problems and a continuous aspect of the programme is to actively investigate appropriate recording techniques within the spaces created (see Appendix 2) which will be referenced and annotated within the online diary.

Year One - Initiation of the website and online diary. Installations within the Fine Art Department exploring variants of the work with existing spaces and experimentally trying alternatives to the basic technology. Exploration of the spatial variants introduced by the reflective qualities of different spaces, in particular arches, vaults and domes, using the variety of architecture within the University.

This ongoing work will be offered to musicians within the Music Department to begin to formulate strategies for performance within the installation - performer(s) using enhanced room acoustics as a musical component. Refinement of the technologies over the period of the Fellowship would suggest the parallel development of a formal compositional approach to the musicological aspect of the work.  Involvement with the Department of Music at Newcastle is an obvious step and the Department's response has been positive.

Year Two - A formal presentation of the work in a public space in the Newcastle area; continuing development of technical aspects of the work eg: computer control of amplification and spatial diffusion. Collation and formal documentation of work to date including recordings in DVD 5.1 audio format.

Year Three - Extrapolation of the key innovations developed through the Fellowship into a series of public installations, the precise nature dependent on the way the research has led the work, but the aim is to incorporate a public space, a formal gallery space and a performance space.

Collation and publication of documentation of the installations and indexed online archive.

Throughout the Fellowship I expect to continue to exhibit variants of this work outside Newcastle and internationally which will incorporate research developments and provide feedback.

iii - career development:

My career has been based on work with music and sound in a variety of contexts: performer, producer and recording artist, gallery installation works with sound and writing for a number of art and music-related publications. Other work has included technical consultancy, assistance and collaboration with artists' sound installations, video and film. I have lectured on sound within many Fine Art departments working with students from BA to PhD level; this has involved practical studio tutorials, workshops and thesis supervision.

Commercial recording work alongside part-time teaching has funded my own research to date but to move the project forward will entail a sustained period of development, access to University facilities and the opportunity to engage with experts in complementary fields such as musicology, acoustics, linguistics, architecture, perceptual psychology and neurology alongside a continuing dialogue within Fine Art.
The Fellowship is a release from the demands of work within the commercial domain, enabling a significant enhancement of the scale and pace of my research interests.

Facilities provided by the University and the Newcastle area in general:
Locations for work - Newcastle's history of innovative time-based exhibition, and the city's architectural and economic past has created a significant number of possible locations for this work including locations within the University for controlled test work. The University's Music Department and Computer Centre (See Appendix 2) will provide essential support.

The University Staff Development Unit offers a Postgraduate Certificate in Research Management which will be valuable to the progress and dissemination of this work.

To an independent practitioner like myself people are the most significant resource.  The University environment offers audience, helpers, collaborators, critics and the inevitable mixture of all of these.

iv - contribution to the institution's research environment and culture

1 - Teaching, in the broadest sense
Sound has played a significant part in art practice over much of the last century, from Dada to contemporary work, in particular artists' involvement in time-based media without there being any formal provision within most Fine Art Departments of specific expertise, practical or theoretical. Within Newcastle I intend to offer a series of seminars and workshops with staff and students to explore and develop the role of sound within Fine Art

2 - Presentations within the Institution
Installations within the University will provide a basis for workshop activity with students and as an introduction to the principles of the work for interested parties from elsewhere in the University, thereafter to refine and develop the work expanding the principles outlined above.

My initial intention is to use the installation space to encourage interdisciplinary meeting and  activities with students and staff from several departments to discover and discuss areas of overlapping interest and to generate collaborative and cross-disciplinary work. This discussion will extend to the online website.

Coming, in part, from a music background, collaboration is normal within my work. Newcastle is one of the few British Universities offering the disciplines of Fine Art, Architecture and Music and it is my intention to take full advantage of the possibilities of cross-disciplinary collaboration, in particular the electronic interface with time-based work being developed by current Fine Art AHRB Fellow Monica Ross.

APPENDIX - Installation Technologies:

The basic system components of the installations are a microphone connected to a noise gate (in principle a switch which activates according to the volume of sound passing through it), amplifier and speakers in a highly reverberant room. The system is arranged in such a way that when the microphone and loudspeaker begin to feed back the amplitude of the sound causes the noise gate to cut off the signal. The feedback notes resonate through the space accentuated by the reverberation time of the space. As the sound falls below the threshold of the noise gate the system switches back on and the process continues.

The available pitches of the sound are primarily determined by the distance between the wall, floor and ceiling surfaces in the space, and by the location of microphone(s) and loudspeaker(s); by the time it takes a sound to travel and be reflected in three dimensions; not a simple equation. Microphones are Pressure Zone type to enable the plane of a room surface to act microphonically.

It has been my intention to keep the technology involved in these installations minimal and comprehensible to the viewer. This does not preclude future developments with alternative technology, in particular the development of a software-controlled version of the installation.

For other software-related developments see Appendix 2, the electronic resource.


Appendix 2, electronic resource
Summary Curriculum Vitae
List of publications

activated space website