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Matthew Clark's animal orchestra offers visual translation of natural sounds

Co-founder of United Visual Artists studio, Matthew Clark, speaks to STIR about his installation The Great Animal Orchestra, which is on show at The Triennale di Milano.

by Sukanya Garg Jul 26, 2019

Matthew Clark of London-based United Visual Artists (UVA) has designed a three-dimensional electronic installation, which is a visual translation of Bernie Krause’s soundscapes. The recordings by American musician and bioacoustician Krause offers an immersion into the heart of the sounds of nature, and an insight into the necessity of preserving the beauty of the animal kingdom.

Titled The Great Animal Orchestra, the installation is part of the XXII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano, whose theme for this year is Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. The exhibition opened on March 1, 2019, and runs until September 1, 2019, in Milan.

Here, we speak to Clark, who takes us through the aesthetics and technology used for this installation.

Sukanya Garg (SG): How did United Visual Artists (UVA) first begin collaborating towards projects that lie at the intersection of art and technology?

Matthew Clark (MC): When I was studying art and design, back in the late 1990s, computing technology was becoming powerful enough to offer new types of creative expressions. All of a sudden, you could do things like edit images, videos, sound, and computer coding, which offered another dimension of interaction between the artist and the audience; this was extremely exciting and exotic at the time.

As an artist or designer you use things that are at your disposal, to explore your ideas, whether it is a paint brush or some electronics, they are all just tools really. By the time I started UVA some years later, it was becoming more common and accessible to introduce a more diverse technological palette of tools. At the same time, we were going through the beginning of an informational revolution, which also created fertile ground for conceptual thinking.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 2, Milan, 2019 | The Great Animal Orchestra| Matthew Clark, Bernie Krause| The Triennale di Milano| STIR
The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 2, Milan, 2019 Image Credit: Matthew Clark

SG: How did you go about developing your own technology? Could you explain the use of the D3 software package? 

MC: It came out of necessity, really. Right before I started UVA, I had been commissioned to design a show for the band Massive Attack. Based on initial conversations with the band, I came up with the idea of a visual show that offered a direct way to communicate with the audience using a huge LED display. Using text and numerical information, we created a narrative that explored ideas related to information, misinformation and disinformation. As I wanted every show to be different and localised to where the band was performing, I needed to create a show control system, which at that time did not exist as an off-the-shelf product. This is where the two other original co-founders of UVA came into the mix, Ash Nehru - who is a computer programmer - created a rudimentary piece of custom software to generate the content, and Chris Bird engineered the hardware control system. This was a highly collaborative approach where conceptual, technical, and design implementation were created in parallel. We developed software and used it for nearly every project we went on to make at UVA and we still use it today. It has since been turned into a commercial tool-kit that anyone can now use.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 3,  Milan, 2019| The Great Animal Orchestra| Matthew Clark, Bernie Krause| The Triennale di Milano| STIR
The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 3, Milan, 2019 Image Credit: Matthew Clark

SG: The Great Animal Orchestra is a sound and visual meditation on the necessity of preserving the beauty of the animal world. What inclined you to work on this project? 

MC: Most of the work UVA creates originates within the studio, but occasionally we collaborate with specialists outside of our practice. We were introduced to Bernie Krause’s work by the Fondation Cartier, who invited us to collaborate with him for an exhibition. When I listened to Bernie’s recordings, I was really captivated by the atmosphere of his work and the importance of its purpose. What is really interesting for me is that when you listen to these recordings, you get a sense of a natural landscape, but it communicates only a certain dimension of the natural environment. However, when you see the recordings through spectrograms and spend time just meditating on it, you start to think about the relationship between the natural world and perhaps the origins of art, the origins of music; the work deals with both the aesthetic and scientific issues simultaneously, which is really interesting for me.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 4, Milan, 2019 | The Great Animal Orchestra| Matthew Clark, Bernie Krause| The Triennale di Milano| STIR
The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 4, Milan, 2019 Image Credit: Matthew Clark

SG: What was the creative process like when you began working with Krause? How is it different to work with a soundscape ecologist/musician as compared to your other collaborators?

MC: Every collaborator has their own way of working. Some collaborations are iterative and are initiated together at the beginning of the process and others are different. With this collaboration, our challenge was to translate Bernie’s recordings of the natural world into something that could be experienced visually as well as sonically. We had to trust each other’s expertise, Bernie in sound and bio-acoustics, and our knowledge of working with light, space and the artistic presentation of information.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 5, Milan, 2019| The Great Animal Orchestra| Matthew Clark, Bernie Krause| The Triennale di Milano| STIR
The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 5, Milan, 2019 Image Credit: Matthew Clark

SG: In your work at Milan, you have given a visual language to a soundscape among other technological aspects of the work. What kind of technology was involved in its creation? 

MC: Our approach was to design a software algorithm to represent the soundscapes through light, so as to better understand what you are hearing in a visual representation. The software visualises the sound that the audience hears in the installation in real time, which embodies a sense of here and now, something happening immediately, and that feels alive. The installation would not have any visual composition if it was not for the sounds driving it. We also created a pool of black water that creates ripples when there are frequencies that the human ear cannot perceive; this reflects the data projections and creates a juxtaposition between the digital and the organic.

The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 6, Milan, 2019| The Great Animal Orchestra| Matthew Clark, Bernie Krause| The Triennale di Milano| STIR
The Great Animal Orchestra, Installation view 6, Milan, 2019 Image Credit: Matthew Clark

SG: Conceptually, as well as practically, your works constantly oscillate between the timeless and the ephemeral. Is there a basis for this juxtaposition?

MC: I would say that around 90 per cent of the work we make falls into what we call the ‘transitional space’, works that can only be understood through the passage of time, where light, sound, and movement unfolds. I am not so interested in passive things or objects as a means to express ideas. Saying that, at an atomic level, nothing is permanent, everything is in a constant state of transition. The laws of physics mean that everything is subject to entropy, even a brass sculpture will eventually turn to dust!

SG: Lastly, what STIRs you up?

MC: Emotionally engaging experiences.

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About Author

Sukanya Garg

Sukanya Garg

Garg is an artist and writer with a Masters degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators. Her writing has been published in several art magazines, journals and as part of curatorial notes and catalogues, and her work has been showcased in multiple exhibitions.

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