adsonore2.jpgNatasha Barrett’s Adsonore is a sound installation in the highest stairwell of the brand new building for basic biological sciences. I went to explore it today. The building’s only a ten minute walk from my home; it’s where medical and dental students spend their first years at university. Barrett sticks to a biological motif in her sound installation, emcompassing the foreign sounds of people in its musical system.

One can regard the building as the ‘body’, and the tower as the central carrier. At the beginning of the year, people are regarded as foreign bodies unless their physical motion clearly follows the pre-specified weekly timetable. The installation responds with moving and fixed sound. Over time the installation has to find ways to ‘accept’ (in the immune system this would be ‘destroy’ rather than ‘accept’) the people within the building. Gradually the daily, weekly, and monthly patterns form trends, and the installation ‘calms’ and ‘reacts’ more quickly as it ‘learns’. But people may try to upset these trends and fool the system.

adsonore1.jpgThe stairwell is dizzyingly high, with a strip of glass from bottom to top showing more and more of mountains and fjords the higher you climb. The speakers are strung on wires stretched taut between stairs and glass, and motion sensors are placed all the way up the stairs. Microphones pick up sound from the foreign bodies (like mine) treading the stairs.

When I entered the building I asked the receptionist where the sound installation was. She laughed and told me oh, she said, yes, she said, you figure it out for us! I was walking through there to get to the canteen today, she said, and I was wondering if it shouldn’t be doing something, you know, it was quite silent, she said, when suddenly I heard a roar and then such a bang! But do you know what? It was the workers outside, she said. My friends in the canteen say it just sounds like noise, she said.

Walking up the stairs I wondered whether perhaps it was out of order. As the receptionist had said, it was silent. There was nothing to suggest it was working at all. Until I heard a faint whisper. I looked outside at the workers, but they seemed quiet, taking a cigarette break. I looked back at the speakers, willing them to speak. Nothing happened. I walked up another flight of stairs, stamping my feet, hoping to annoy the speakers into reacting to me. Murmured voices, forks against plates, the canteen, perhaps the sounds of the receptionist and her friends, but after just a few seconds the sounds ceased. I was alone in the stairwell so I sang: loud and clear, louder and clearer as my voice grew in the amazing acoustics. The speakers returned my sounds, a little, not much, slightly different. Then again, differently again. I sang more, it responded, but then would do nothing more. I ran, stamped, clapped, had some sounds returned, yelled at it ECHOOOO!!! and echo!!! the speakers responded. I heard people’s voices several stories beneath me but by now I was having such fun that I didn’t care and cried out echo again and again until Adsonore ignored me. Competely.

I decided that the system had neutralised me, what is the biological term, I wonder? But reading the project proposal, I see that it’s much more complicated than that. The system reacts in various ways. Perhaps I was hearing the actions of sonic antibodies?

Antibodies (tagging mechanism)
Purpose: to identify a foreign body.
Sound: The sounding analogy of an antibody will be ‘negative’ in some sense to a fragment of the foreign body sound, in analogy to the ‘lock-in-key’ interaction between antibody and antigen. In practice this can be temporal reversal and / or spectral inversion through ring modulation, filtering and pitch shifting of the original. Sound example 7a and 7b present a simple instance.
Motion: Antibodies will move in random but continuous trajectories, their spatial location remembered by the installation. When they encounter an ‘antigen’ (a person making a sound similar to the antibody source), the antibody will tag, or follow the foreign body until it either leaves the building, or is tackled by a ‘killer-cell’. Until larger quantities of antibody sound are produced (with a larger spatial coverage), the installation may loose track of a foreign body.
Life: Die after a few days unless useful, in which case stored as a labelled sound file for later use.

The sounds of the receptionist and her friends at the canteen were probably actually killers:

Killer cells
Purpose: identify a tagged foreign body and disable it.
Sound: pre-prepared sound retrieved from the hard-disk, transformed in combination with the current antibody sound to enhance latent spectral and dynamic information. Pre-recorded materials will consist of sounds that are relevant but not found live in the tower, such as higher quality recordings, materials transformed with techniques that are unreliable in real-time, or ‘staged’ versions of the type of sound normally found. Examples of these materials may include expressive vocal materials like sighing or laughing. Sound example 7c.
Motion: chase the foreign body, surround it and stay with it until it leaves the building.

And if I go back there and sing, yell and stamp some more, the system may well react more speedily to my intrusion:

The immune system responds much more quickly to a foreign body on its second encounter, and quickly produces large quantities of the relevant antibody. The duration of the first response is on the order of 27 days. The response of the installation will be based on weekly cycles, with the temporal peak in sound-antibody production scaled appropriately. External weather conditions will also effect the health of the installation and influence its speed of response.

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