Magnetic Audiotape Used To Bring Medieval Church To Life

Antiquated technology enhances the old world charm of this historic English building.

Nov 6 2013, 8:20pm

Located a half-hour’s train ride outside of London, Reading doesn’t top too many art lover’s lists of places to visit. That could all change, however, thanks to the ever-expanding Whitley Arts Festival, a nationally-focused event run by Hogarth Productions that both exhibits and commissions experimental work by emerging and established artists. The festival was launched in 2004 in Whitley, South Reading--one of the 5% poorest wards in the UK--in the effort to bring more art to Reading and to foster new kinds of engagement from the people of Whitley.

Since then, the festival has grown in leaps and bounds. This year marked one of the festival’s most ambitious itineraries yet, in no small part thanks to the feature event Constellation, a one-night only “art trail” that mapped a network of exhibitions and events spanning ten venues across Reading’s center. One of Constellation’s stand-alone highlights was a kinetic sound art installation Chorus, made by 2012 British Composer of the Year Ray Lee. The piece included towering metal tripods with spinning arms installed alongside a canal running through Reading’s shopping center. There were limited performances of the piece during which the arms of the tripods would spin with increasing intensity as the individual stands themselves seemed to call out to each other, coalescing into a symphony of varying frequencies and pitches.

Another highlight could be found in Reading’s historic St. Laurence’s Church, one of the medieval town’s original parish churches and whose construction dates back to the eleventh century. Exhibiting here was the interactive sound art installation Sonophore by Signal To Noise, the working pseudonym for artistic duo and UK-based media artists Niall Quinn and Oliver Wilshen. Sonophore is an interactive sound art installation where participants wear a wireless glove that has been fixed with a magnetic tape reader at the fingertip and trace over cassette tape that has been adhered to the walls. Tracing the tape with the glove allows participants to “play” the recorded content over a speaker system, though the speed at which participants move and the dexterity of their finger-tracing all factor in to how clear, or unclear, Sonophore’s audio is played back.

Signal To Noise have exhibited Sonophore in a number of different sites across Europe, the US and Canada, but the exhibition at St. Laurence’s Church was a rare opportunity. “The church as a space is a really interesting place [to exhibit],” the guys explained, “part of a church’s specifications for when it’s being built is to amplify sound, so that adds a whole new element for the work. And the visual aesthetics of Sonophore is really inspired by architecture, by contour and I guess you could say the church is a sort of rich site in terms of the elements we work with and the elements within the piece.”

Sonophore is not only a site-specific installation but also site unique. Audio for Sonophore is always a mixture of found audio and field recordings physically collaged together on site while mapping magnetic the cassette tape onto the walls, but the content of these recordings is tailored to engage with a specific motif that is suggested by either an exhibition’s theme or an exhibition space. One previous installation of Sonophore in The Old Credit Union in Skibereen, Ireland, used audio that focused on the subject of financial infrastructures and numerical systems, while Sonophore’s installation for the Pixelpoint Festival in Slovenia played the speed of sound at the mean temperature of 4.1º C, or 333.7 meters per second. For visitors to St. Laurence’s Church, haunting vocal tones blended into syncopated rhythms of speech reciting some of the church’s buildings materials such as flint and ashlar quoins.

Niall explained, “We tried to do as much prep work as possible, in terms of recording content but this was the first time we both went away individually and thought about what the connotations of the building were and its heritage. We responded to it differently. I approached it from an architectural perspective and looked at the literal materials used to make it.” Continued Oliver, “I was inspired by the musical aspects of the church, like choral music, and really early, Medieval music, like Gregorian chants. The sort of singing and performing that would have taken place in that space in the past.”

Signal To Noise’s has been exploring the medium of magnetic audiotape since even before they began collaborating professionally. Oliver and Niall met while completing undergraduate degrees at the University of Brighton in music and visual art. During this time, the guys explain that magnetic audiotape was a relatively inexpensive and widely available medium, so it was perfect for student experimentations. Sonophore was later developed as part of a residency in 2011 at the Blast Theory Studios, building on the success of their previous magnetic tape installations.

On the inspiration for Sonophore, Oliver explains, “[At university] Niall was building a sort of giant tape loop system, and that got us thinking...We were working with the idea of inverting the way tape normally operated in audio devices--instead of the tape head being stationary, and the tape travelling over it, we wanted to try it the other way round.”

Signal To Noise doesn’t plan to abandon working with magnetic tape any time soon, but their plans for future projects aim to include more experimental interactions with the medium.

“We’ve been talking about different magnetic surfaces and experimenting with surfaces that aren’t just cassette tape--basically working on producing our own magnetic material which doesn’t take the form of tape,” the guys explain, “because the device [Sonophore’s glove interface] could read back any sort of magnetic surface. It could play the back of your Oyster card.”*

Below, watch a video of the installation in action:

Sonophore courtesy of Signal to Noise.

For their work with Sonophore the duo recently won first prize in the “Interfaces” Interactive Art Competition by the Research Centre for Science and Technology of the Arts in Portugal and were selected as an “Official Jury Selection Work” by the Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo.To keep up with Signal To Noise, check out their website, follow them on Twitter (@SignalToNoise1), and subscribe to their Vimeo.

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