Array Spring 1999: Journal of the International Computer Music Association

ICMC98 Reviews:

ICMC Installation 4: Intro-specks; by John Phillips & Carolyn Healy

Even though it was no more than a few yards away from the main hub of ICMC 98, I suspect that only those few souls who eschewed the elevator and took the stairs to or from the main paper sessions in the Rackham Amphitheatre (or who were organised enough to seek it out) were ever aware of the location of Intro-specks. Erroneously billed as Nmesh throughout ICMC, this installation by John Phillips and Carolyn Healy was tucked away in an inconspicuous 3rd floor gallery in the Rackham Building. I don't know if it really was because of its secluded location, or simply because ICMC's busy schedule left so little time free for visiting the installations, but whenever I visited the gallery, I found that I had the installation almost entirely to myself: a circumstance which I personally found very rewarding, though which may have been a little frustrating for its creators. I say rewarding for me, because I found Intro-specks to be something through which one simply could not hurry. And one which would not benefit from being crowded.

Carolyn Healy's visual component of the installation consisted almost entirely of found objects, mostly simple in form, with balls, rods and sheets, (each of various materials) predominating. The component items were arranged in groups, generally at floor level, although some items were suspended from the ceiling (managed with a considerable feat of ingenuity, considering the gallery did not permit the use of any fastenings!) and made full use of the available space. Overall, the gallery's lighting level was subdued, with the only source of illumination being a number of carefully positioned miniature spotlights, integrated into the sculpture itself. These were arranged to highlight certain elements of the installation, causing those objects to contribute further to the overall sculpture by casting shadows, or reflecting light, (or both) across the floor and other objects, as well as over the walls and ceiling.

The simplicity of many of Intro-specks' components gave, at first glance, the impression of an uncomplicated sculpture. Until one looked again! For despite the basic form of many of the individual items, the various groupings of related and unrelated objects—be they plastic or steel balls, paper rolls, glass bell jars, rods and sheets of metal, wood, fabric or paper—created little islands of fascinating complexity and intricacy, inviting the viewer to stay and study each in turn. And also constantly to return and reconsider them all from a different angle. This was all very much a physical representation of the acousmatic genre: objects placed in real and surreal contexts, emphasising the beauty of their own particular form.

Against this visual and physical element, John Phillips had provided a composition consisting of a large collection of sonic objects of greatly varying lengths. These too were presented in various related and contrasting groupings. The sounds were selected more or less at random by a computer running Opcode's Max program, which first processed the sounds and then fed them into a high speed audio switcher driving three pairs of self-powered speakers, arranged to divide the stereo image across one of the room's diagonal axes. The result was a series of drones, metallic resonances, and a miscellany of electronic chatterings, knockings and murmurings which at times filled the spaces between the physical objects, and at others ran rapidly around amongst them or were sent scurrying across the ceiling! This series of constantly changing and rarely repeating sonic elements were, in some inexplicable and indescribably manner, wholly complementary to the static and immutable nature of the installation's physical component.

With his composition, Phillips managed to avoid on one hand the triteness of an audio summary, or 'soundtrack', attempting to provide a sonic representation of the objects on display, as well as on the other, the blandness of an unobtrusive sonic 'backdrop', two techniques which I personally find blight so many installation compositions. Instead, the sonic component was in every way equal to the visual, providing both commentary and contrast to it and was every bit as interesting. Intro-specks' constantly varying sound-scape was never tiring and always offered the listener something new to discover, with as many sonic ambiguities as there were visual ambiguities in the sculpture and as many different ways to journey through its sound world as through the physical world laid out at one's feet. I also found many aspects of the sonic elements would bring to my notice certain of the visual components, whilst stopping to ponder some of the more intriguing juxtapositions of the physical items redirected my attention back to the surrounding sounds.

Even though it occupied the entire gallery, the installation was also a profoundly intimate affair. Upon entering the gallery, one truly felt that one was becoming a part of the installation in some way. Partly this was due to there being no obvious or delineated path around or through the installation: groups of objects were placed closely together and to see the whole thing, one had no option but to tread carefully amongst them. Also, in entering the spaces between the various objects, the viewer necessarily altered the fall of light from the spotlights and became an illuminated object along with those on display; one's shadow joining the display of shadows across the floor and around the walls, making this, in its own way, a truly interactive installation. There was also something in its construction which invited an immersion beyond the casual, encouraging both a general and a personal introspection. This sense of immersion felt by those within the installation was immediately obvious to newcomers: I witnessed several visitors halt just inside the door to the gallery, and stand there for some time as if unsure whether or not they should proceed further, or whether to do so would be to transgress some unnoticed rule; to trespass on forbidden ground or to disturb those already within.

Throughout ICMC, Intro-specks was a haven of peace and tranquility. Away from the hurly burly of the main conference event, although still very much a part of it—like some small, out-of-the-way city-centre park—the installation felt like an oasis of calm amidst a world gone mad. I, for one, found myself drawn back time and again throughout the duration of the conference, to explore afresh its myriad pathways. Definitely one of ICMC 98's highlights.

Reviewed by Steve Benner