Ian Maleney visits a new interactive sound installation in Dublin, with contributions by David Blamey, FM3, Mattin, Sarah Pierce, Steve Roden, Wolfgang Voigt, Mark Peter Wright, Miki Yui and others
Continuous Drift is an interactive sound installation that has been integrated into Meeting House Square in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar district. Conceived by Dublin-based artist Sven Anderson, the installation consists of eight speakers embedded in the large retractable umbrellas that sometimes provide a roof for the square. Anyone with access to the internet via phone, tablet or laptop can control which sounds come out of the speakers, choosing from a list of pieces contributed by 21 international artists. People can also control the volume, and anyone can interrupt someone else’s choices with decisions of their own.
When I get to Meeting House Square on a blustery Tuesday morning, five men are chatting and drinking cans of Strongbow cider on the bench nearest to its northern entrance. It’s about an hour before lunchtime, and things are fairly quiet. Tourists passing through on their way to somewhere else stop momentarily to check maps. I take out my phone and immediately feel self-conscious, like an unwanted DJ interrupting someone’s day for the sake of their own experiment. Scrolling through the playlist, I go for a familiar name first: Wolfgang Voigt. Strange, plonky synth tones emerge from the speakers. I switch to Taylor Deupree, a US musician who makes beautifully frozen ambient works, like light refracted in ice. One of the men on the bench notices the sound. He looks up at nothing in particular and swivels a little on his seat. “It’s very soothing, isn’t it?” he remarks to his uninterested friend. He says something else, but his voice is swallowed up by an angle-grinder at work somewhere behind me.
The square is ringed by businesses and various cultural institutions, highlighting the somewhat uneasy marriages of convenience found in Dublin’s so-called ‘Cultural Quarter’. Beside the entrance to the National Gallery of Photography, steps lead up to the Irish Film Institute. A restaurant imaginatively called The Meeting House is flanked by the Gaiety School of Acting. Through an open window on its top floor I can hear a class going through a boisterous song and dance routine. They drown out the sounds of Sarah Pierce’s “Birdcalls”. A man in a hi-vis jacket and huge, red ear-protectors running some large machine over concrete totally overpowers the sounds from the speakers. Danny McCarthy’s “Step-By-Step” is more mechanical, made up of recordings from the old Crown Alley telephone exchange, and sits more comfortably against the din. I decide to stick the Deupree back on and let it flit amid the noise of the machines.
Returning the following day, I find a dozen people sitting on the benches: two women eating their lunch from little plastic containers; two men in their early twenties smoking and chatting; people speaking on their phones, or reading books. This low level activity strikes the impression that this is a small escape from Temple Bar’s cobbled streets. Nonetheless, I take my phone out and make my way through the pieces. Bik Van Der Pol’s voice, issuing commands over regular sounds of someone knocking on wood, is the first voice to come up in the recordings and there's an immediate sense of something happening. Compared to the more usual drones or clicks, a voice emerging at relatively high volume is difficult to ignore. People are well accustomed to paying attention to commands issuing from unseen speakers. The uncanny repetitions of David Blamey’s “OK” compound the strangeness of this situation, with that utterly banal phrase growing weirder with every resounding.
Two pieces in particular seem deeply aware of the project they are involved in: Mark Peter Wright’s “Can You Hear Me?” and Mattin’s “Electronic Funds Transfer”. Wright’s piece “explores the effort to hear and be heard amongst everyday technological noise” by assembling recordings of laptops, phones and other everyday communication devices, echoing the technology involved in controlling Continuous Drift. The technological interface allowing one to interact with the installation is easy to use, but you’re just picking things at random from a list. Your hearing of the selected sounds is affected by the limitations of the technology used, as well as the distortions and shadows created by other activities occurring there at the same moment. Somewhat aptly, perhaps, it’s hard to hear Wright’s piece through all the surrounding everyday noise.
Meeting House Square might be a public space, but here we are playing music into it from a list cut according to the curator’s taste. During the two hours plus that I spent in the square, no other person activated the installation. That is, no one else attempted to take control of it. A good many people did take control over their own hearing space, their choices made and heard privately through their own headphones. Observing a woman reading a book, I’m reminded how annoying I find the seepage of someone else’s music when I’m trying to read, and I feel awful for bothering her with these experiments. The artist’s responsibilities have fallen to me, as temporary curator, and while I inherit the anxiety and self-consciousness inherent in that – a strange sort of stagefright – the absent artist retains the security of his publicly funded title.
Mattin’s contribution is more whimsical, even as it’s more critical of the dynamics involved in creating a public work of art like Continuous Drift. The piece consists of an electronic voice reading out words and figures relating to a money transfer from Dublin City Council to the artist, paying for art supplied to the public. The piece strips the art back to expose the processes that bring it into public existence. Making the listener more aware of the time, money and effort involved is a provocation rather than a pacification.
The interactivity promised by Continuous Drift is ultimately illusory Here, engagement with the artwork is never for its own sake. It might be about the nature of sound in the city, showing ways members of the public can positively alter the ambience of an urban space according to their individual needs. Whether the music is any good or not is largely irrelevant in this case. It’s not really there to be listened to – it’s to be listened through, a means of thinking about something else. Like other areas of relative quiet in the urban environment, Meeting House Square offers an escape from the inhuman pace and ear-crushing noise of modern city life. Most of the music contained within Continuous Drift mirrors that idea of ambience as a withdrawal; by extension it provokes little in the way of an active response from the listener. It is fated to shade the urban experience, to potentially make living within the rapacious private developments of modern capitalism slightly more pleasant, rather than radically disrupt or re-imagine it. As a conceptual work, Continuous Drift asks good questions. As an experience, it doesn't have much to offer by way of answers.