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The Future Of Sound Art Is A Huggable Ball

Alison Ballard and Mike Blow want you to get close and personal with their newest sound sculptures.
June 19, 2014, 3:00pm

Public artworks don’t often include life-sized balloons— but that hasn’t stopped UK artists Alison Ballard and Mike Blow from creating them. POD is an interactive sound installation that allows viewers to experience the physical life of sound waves through the skins of two, six-foot-tall inflatable spheres. The surfaces of POD pulsate in rhythm with a sound file that plays from deep within the sphere. Audience members are invited to drape their faces and bodies over these surface, free to enjoy POD's gentle massage.

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The simple premise and no-fuss approach to technology makes the prospect of future collaborations a no-brainer for Alison Ballard (AB) and Mike Blow (MB). With the help and support of Edmund Harcourt, organizer of the one-night-only experimental sound festival Wycombe Listening and head of Hogarth production company, have already begun to implement exciting new directions for POD, including collaborations with spoken word poets, and spatially-organized musical compositions that use the sculptures as instruments .

We spoke to Alison Ballard and Mike Blow in order to find out more about the humble roots of POD, the project's ambitious future, and its (often) chaotic present.

The Creators Project: Tell us about the history of POD.

Alison Ballard: POD as an idea was kind of, a playful, self-indulgent idea. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to resonate the skin of a six-foot balloon with sound? [laughs] And people seemed to respond really well to that idea! So I thought, well, maybe I should do it.

But I don’t really have the patience for all the technology side that it involves, so I rang Mike, who is very tech-ey compared to me. [Mike and I] met on a residency in 2008.  He uses a lot more technology in his work on a day-to-day basis and has a very technology-based background, with robotics and all kinds of stuff. So I called Mike and went, “Help me! I have to fit very tiny speakers inside the neck of a balloon but make really low sounds!”

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How does POD work?

Mike Blow: It uses this audio phenomenon called beats, where you have two frequencies that are very close together, but not the same. They interact in such a way that you get parts where they reinforce each other and parts where they detract from each other. The original idea for POD was to have just very low sounds. So I was thinking, well, how can you generate a low sound, a deep sound, with smaller speakers? There was no way we could fit a subwoofer inside; the neck of the balloon was like, 40 cm, maximum. The way I figured out was you could have speakers that would do fairly low sounds, but if you use this beats idea you would get this kind of throbbing sound coming out, pulsing sound. And that gives the impression of it being a lower frequency than it is.

POD uses two speakers that face each other inside a cardboard tube—we call it the audio cauldron [laughs]. Each speaker has one pure sine wave going through it at D2, and in the tube they mix together and they make these kind of beating sounds. Technologically, it’s very simple.

What was POD like in its earliest stages?

AB: Shunt, in London, were our first commissioners [for POD]. And that’s when we had six-foot, climbing balloons, as they were called…though I don’t know how you’d climb into them. They were more robust than an average balloon, but they did still burst. And what was interesting was the volume in there [Shunt] was so loud that you couldn’t hear [POD] until you got really close, so everyone had to get very tactile. We ended up having to corner [POD] off, and queue people to get in. It was all a bit unexpectedly crazy!

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MB: When Ed [Edmund Harcourt] got in touch with us, we asked if we could have a bit of funding to make stronger [PODs], and get them made out of this PVC. What we hadn’t realized is because they’re inflatables, people would love pushing them, and that kind of thing. As inflatables, they seem to engender that.

AB: At least now if it breaks it doesn’t burst— it just slowly deflates and no one would even notice. Generally it’s a lot hader to break now.

Are you sad to have lost the original balloons? 

MB: In some ways, they were kind of nice because they were absolutely uniform. And, of course, these [new] ones are made of panels, so you can see the lines.

AB: Yeah. But I think in way that history of the project is what’s given us this looseness towards what [POD] is and what it can be, because it’s always been in a state of flux. The balloons took a lot of invigilation, and were pretty tiring. It worked, it was great, and in a way the resonance was stronger on the surface of the balloons. But it was a little impractical.

MB: POD as a piece has evolved already in quite a few ways, from putting the light inside, to this time at Wycombe Listening we had the radio control so we could turn the sound on/off, which we had never had before.

AB: I think every time we’ve shown POD, there’s been some small change. Or some big change, in the case of changing from the balloons to the vinyl balls. And there’ll be more changes to come. That’s what’s most exciting to me, that POD is still very much about the concept, rather than it’s execution. You can change all these things about it, but the roots of this very simple experience remain untouched.

Can you tell us more about these planned changes for POD?

AP: We had a number of conversations about the things that were good about POD, and the things that you could do with POD. And the three of us [Alison, Mike, and Edmund] realized we were really interested in different ways to install it if we had lots and lots of them. So the conversations have spiraled, as they do, and we all realized we were really excited to get composers and musicians on board. We want them to take the current installation as a starting point, but then we want to let go as much as we can. We want to try to see how many ways people can re-imagine the relationship physically and visually and also sonically. Say it’s a field [of PODs], then it’s a field; but if they say it has to be one long straight line, and they all have to be equally six foot apart, then that’s what we’ll do.

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MB: I think it’s a very exciting idea, to take the PODs and use them as a way of presenting a composition, or to see how people are inspired by the PODs to create something. So you get a synergy between the PODs themselves and what people are inspired to create for them. The proposal is that we upgrade the sound system so it’s a high quality sound system and you can accurately replicate a piece of music that somebody might write, or a sound art piece that someone might want to put in, or even some poetry, I suppose. And then you can basically create a spatial composition or a composition that sort of goes between PODs, or only works at one at a time, like a sequential thing…there’s all sorts of ways you could use them. And that’s the interesting thing about opening it up to composers.

The thing with POD is that I tried different sounds. We ended up with this pulsing sound—it’s abstract, it’s not narrative—but I tried electrical sounds, higher and more descriptive sounds, and I found that they didn’t really fit with the shape of the PODs. There’s a correlation between the shape of the PODs and the sounds, at least in this first version of the piece. It’s not synesthesia, but I think there’s an element of that. The sounds we used seem to go together with a kind of spherical shape. And also there’s a kind of volume that fits the size of the PODs as well. If they’re too quiet, then the visual part dominates; if they’re too loud, then the audio part dominates. To actually balance that is part of the piece.

So I guess, in essence, you’re the first composer in the series of POD composers?

MB: Yeah, well, the two of us, I would say. In a sense we co-created the audio.

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Is there anyone in particular you would like to see compose for the PODs in the future?

MB: If we could go back in time, I would choose Rolf Julius. Rolf Julius was a real pioneering artist in sounds and objects, and he made the most beautiful installations that combined usually very small and humble objects, like bowls of water or bowls of pigment, sometimes stone, concrete dust, things like this and tiny, tiny speakers of them, that would just run without an amplifier directly from a CD player. So very quiet, very understated, but he paid so much attention to the relationship between the sounds that he used and the objects that he used.

AB: I don’t know. I guess my subconscious has a wish list, but at the same time, I don’t think I want to create a wish list. I want to keep that ethos, about trying something you didn’t expect and seeing what happens. If you know who you’re going to get on board, an element of that is gone, because you know what you’re expecting, and that’s why you’re asking them.

Has POD taught you anything about sounds and people’s desire to touch, or the interplay of those senses? 

MB: When we did [POD] for the Whitley Festival and Wycombe Listening, we were able to make the stronger PODs. What we hadn’t realized is, because they’re inflatables, people would love pushing them, and that kind of thing. So some people quite innocently rolled one, cause they just kind of thought it was a big beach ball. But unfortunately it’s got, like, a car battery inside it, and this big speaker and stuff, and it ripped it in several places. I don’t know if you can see it in the photo, but one of them as a few little patches on it where I had to repair it [laughs].

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AB: I’ve learnt so much. POD is all about the responses. People can’t help but tell you that they hate it, or they love it. [And] people tend to fall into two camps. There are the people who adore it, and want to spend loads of time with it. And then there’s the camp of people that go, “So what does it do?” and they sort of touch it and go, “Oh, so does it respond when I touch it?” Because there’s technology involved, people expect to be able to interact with it. And we have to sort of explain to that camp of people that our interaction is far more old school. Just spend some time with it! And they go, “And then what happens?” Well, then hopefully you have a moment. POD makes you stop and interact with it. Whether that’s a big enough interaction for you or not, it’s made you do it.

And it’s funny to think you have this group of people who are feeling so disconnected from the experience when they’ve just spent all this time hugging it and touching it. And it vibrates, which I imagine you’ve gotten more dirty comments about than you’d care to share.

AB: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked people if they want to come and hug my balls, so I’m equally as guilty.

You have to. The jokes write themselves. 

AB: You’d be dead inside if you didn’t.

For more, visit Alison Ballard’s website and Twitter, and Mike Blow’s website. Learn more about Hogarth on Vimeo.

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