Annual Irish Sound, Science and Technology Convocation (ISSTC), August 28-29, 2013
Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design, Ireland
From the ISSTC 2013 open call: ‘Transmissions enable us to experience ideas, energy, data, sounds, events and art from distant and long ago places. In negating temporal and physical boundaries, transmissions sustain traditions between generations and broadcast across borders. The act of transmission is simultaneously cultural, technological and political, but it is never simple, because transmission requires both senders and receivers, and meanings frequently drift between the two. Messages are distorted, drowned in noise, re-discovered and interpreted, censured, forgotten and forbidden. Mediated and buffeted by the motions of fashion, genre, bandwidth and fidelity, electromagnetic transmissions are an ever-increasing constant. Electromagnetic frequency bands can be commercialised, purchased and sold, making the content of broadcasts answerable to financial enterprise. How, as artists, composers, writers and scientists of sound, might we engage with the concept of transmission?”
Being able to spend time in Italy in the summer has its downsides (not many, mind you) – but here’s one: not being in town when the ISSTA convocation is on. This year somehow the stars aligned and I was able to finally attend this enticing blend of symposium, art exhibition, performance and workshop event. In Dublin. For once. No need to catch a plane for a dedicated sound art gathering.
We all often joke about how the international sound art community is small, and unsurprisingly the Irish sound art community as represented here feels remarkably cosy and intimate. But don’t hold this against it: as I discovered by the end of the two days, this ratio is also responsible for conjuring up some ideal conditions for the blossoming of human and creative connections and for the exchange of ideas. The dreaded ‘networking’ element doesn’t feel like work at all at the ISSTC, and you can’t say that about all conferences and symposia out there. Of course it helps that I do already know a couple of friends and colleagues here, but it is also to the credit of the organisers that the overall event feels like it’s been running for far longer than its young three years.
Photos above: Linda O’Keeffe
This year’s convocation theme, poetically titled Transmission Drift, is represented and interpreted in various ways in a number of paper sessions, art installations, audio performances and concerts. Some of these explore the concept of transmission quite literally, some just about trace a tenuous connection with it, and some others reinterpret and stage it in a creative and playful way.
The programme is jam packed with events, and – this I find worked particularly well- intersperses papers with concerts and sound art installation viewings, keeping curiosity and interest levels up throughout the proceedings. A personal highlight was most definitely Sean Taylor’s Art Walk, during which we were led through the IADT campus (this year’s venue) as a group, through a guided ‘tour’ of the sound installations selected for this year’s event. In some cases, the artists were physically present to talk to us about their piece and to answer any questions.
One such works was ‘Still Here’ by Chicago-based Alyssa Moxley, a cleverly designed interactive installation where field recordings from the Greek island of Santorini are ‘trapped’ inside traditional bird cages, which, picked up and moved around the space by the listeners, create ever changing mobile layers of sound. Because the field recordings are transmitted via short wave radio, it is up to each cage-carrier to find the idea position to make their sounds truly ‘sing’. This is why upon first walking into the installation, the overwhelming sonic impression is that of unremarkable static, but by looking and listening closer, the sounds make their fragile appearance, as they are carried and helped along the way.
While this installation makes use of a transmission system long practiced and experimented with, Richard Carr‘s ‘Homebird’ utilises the relatively new Audio-spotlight system, considered the world’s most directional audio technology.
As Carr explains in his statement, this technique “uses a beam of ultrasound as a ‘virtual acoustic source’, allowing you to transmit extremely narrow beams of sound giving you control over where you would like to put these sounds (…), more similar to the light from a torch rather than an overhead light bulb”. It is a fascinating technique (this particular system developed by the Holosonics research lab in the US), and it is great fun to explore it in the space, hearing it reflected off the back wall of the space, then disappear as we step out of its trajectory. The system raises a lot of curiosity in the room, and sparks a discussion about its potential in other fields such as dance. I am concerned however about installations such as this one, running the risk of becoming a mere showcase for the technology rather than of their own artistic content.
For the evening concert we are shipped off to a different venue in Dun Laoghaire, on the grounds that it is equipped with surround speakers. The displacement is less than ideal but understandable, however it did make most of us wonder out loud why an Institute of Art, Design and Technology – running courses in film and broadcasting among others- would not have such facilities on campus. Let’s hope events like these are a reminder of how important sound equipment is and should be to educational institutions.
The concert itself showcased once again a wide variety of approaches on the theme. While I cannot run through all of the 10+ compositions featured, one in particular caught my attention due to its creative and sensitive treatment of a difficult political theme. ‘From the 9th Floor’ by Sergio Andrés Santi was composed in response to the economic and political crisis in Argentina. It takes its cue from the ‘cacerolazos’ of Rosario city, protesters loudly beating kitchen pans at their apartment windows: tolling in angry isolation, movingly intersecting, and coming together. A successful example of a piece that is being openly political (that, rare in itself) without coming across as preachy or didactic. [Sidenote: I have been thinking a lot recently about how shocking revelations and events such as the Snowden case or the Manning trial have (so far) elicited so little response from artists, for a variety of reasons. I do feel reassured when I come across somebody who does step up to the plate and isn’t scared of taking a position.]
Another highlight for me (and for all other attendees, it’s fair to say) took place on the second day: the keynote speech from Darren Copeland, of Toronto’s NAISA (New Adventures in Sound Art), a somewhat iconic organisations for all of us who practice within the field of soundscape studies.
Photo: Linda O’Keeffe
An acclaimed and accomplished sound artist in his own right, Darren is here to talk to us about the work carried out by and through NAISA, which he directs alongside his wife Nadine Thériault-Copeland, who unfortunately was not able to join him this time around.
Talking us through a slideshow, we are introduced to the huge variety of events that NAISA runs as either presentations (where the organisation provides equipment and publicity/ PR, but all the rest is in the hands of the artists) or productions (where set parameters are in place for the artists, such as for example the completion of a period in Residency). These include site-specific events in natural environments, soundwalks with performative elements, installations, ‘in-the-dark’ performances and a 24/7 radio broadcast, with artists that have so far included Benoit Maubry, Viv Corringham, Paul Scriver, Tetsuo Kagawa and Anna Fritz. A very interesting problem is thrown up when discussing the limitations of staging work, when Darren proposes that mobile and internet works – by definition made for a world/wide/web stage – lose their original identity and purpose when constricted within and sacrificed to the confines of a gallery space. I personally would agree. We are also told that NAISA is particularly interested in working with artists to develop new and exciting performative approaches to replace the ubiquitous (and let’s face it, stale) performer-at-laptop, fader-diffusion format of electronic music performances. The keynote speech is rounded off by Darren’s performance in octophonic surround of works from a selection of NAISA artists-in-residence, making use of the Spiz patch developed for the NAISA spatialization system.
The afternoon sees us attending the ISSTA AGM (all convocation participants automatically become members of the organisation, and are invited to attend). Although I am completely new to it, it is nonetheless an interesting experience that gives an insight into the achievements, current work as well as future challenges of the association.
The two days are rounded off by a final concert (back in the Dun Laoghaire venue), and by a social outing.
I will finish by saying that I am genuinely puzzled as to why not many more artists are attending this event. If I had to define it, it would be a ’boutique’ conference, or, for the day that’s in it, the Electric Picnic* of sound art gatherings: it’s fun, it’s eclectic, it’s relatively small and it’s not overwhelming in scope or programming aims. (I am not going to say you could bring your child along to it, EP style – but actually as far as the installations go, you definitely could.) We do discuss during the AGM whether the double whammy of science and technology in the title might be scaring some audience sections away, but I am happy to attest that the experience was anything but dry and impersonal. So you heard it here first, folks: when ISSTC 2014 rolls along, no matter who’s headlining, you’re advised to get your tickets.
The Irish Sound, Science and Technology Association is an organisation that brings together practitioners integrating fields of music, sound, science and technology based in Ireland. It serves musicians, researchers, scientists, engineers and artists by promoting the art, music and research in Ireland, especially in international communities.
Special thanks to Kerry Hagan, Linda O’Keeffe and Anthony Kelly.
* non-Irish folk: the Electric Picnic is a relatively small, family-friendly music festival that runs every autumn.