THE SOUND ECOSYSTEMS
OF AGOSTINO DI SCIPIO
Marco Mancuso / Eng: Philippa Barr / Img: courtesy Agostino di Scipio & Galleria Mazzoli
Those who know me and my interests can imagine my reaction when I was asked to write the catalog of the exhibition Digital Direct di Modena, curated by Caleffi Gilberto. One of the artists I was most interested in was Agostino di Scipio, and this is evident in any analysis of the texts chosen for the catalogue: where the interview, as a reflection on the content exposed to direct contact with the author, becomes a moment of openness and honesty between artist and critic.
The interview that follows is the full version of the interview done by Agostino di Scipio for Direct Digital, which was obviously not fully published in the catalog. Di Scipio, within the exhibition Modenese, used the hospital Sant’Agostino to make one of his most interesting and mature environmental installations,"Stanze Private – Private Rooms". This work was was represented by the new gallery Mario Mazzoli based in Berlini, one of the first galleries in the international dedicated to sound art.
An interview about "Stanze Private – Private Rooms" with Agostino di Scipo is an opportunity to talk intensively about the method, research and aesthetics of the art of sound. It is no easy task, given that he is one of the most well known contemporary electronic musicians, and most appreciated at the international level, instructor in the role of electronic music at the Conservatory of Naples, and Professor of live electronics at the Center Creation Musicale Iannis Xenakis (CCMIX) in Paris , Visiting faculty member at the Department of Communication and Fine Arts of Simon Fraser University (Burnaby-Vancouver, 1993) and visiting composer at the Sibelius Academy Computer Music Studio (Helsinki, 1995), artist in residence in 2004 of the DAAD Berlin Kuenstlerprogramm with a series of compositions that have been performed among others at the festival Inventionen in Berlin, the Festival Synthèse (Bourges), the ISCM (Lausanne) and the International Computer Music Conference (Berlin, Thessaloniki, etc..) and author of writing that was published in the Journal of New Music Research, the Computer Music Journal (MIT Press), at the Contemporary Music Review, on Leonardo (MIT Press), and the Journal of Musicology Italian amongst others.
"Stanze Private – Private Rooms" is a sound environment, which applies research into different ways to propigate sound in the environment and how these modes can interact and change according to the presence of people. "Private Rooms" is a work of sound art that requires and is nourished by the presence of man, as it responds through a complex language of sounds and vibrations to his physicality and behavior. "Stanze Private – Private Rooms" uses sound as a medium and a means of emotional communication, as a real transfer of behavioral information. The objects used, the materials chosen, their placement in space, scenic construction, each draw the viewer inside the room where the work itself is set up, for his or her curiosity and voyueristic enjoyment, desire to look beyond the object and to "touch" it. From curiosity to know what kind of sound can result from such common and well-known materials, the audience is drawn to try to understand the operation of the work.
"Stanze Private" works on multiple levels which are amalgamated into a single emotional and aesthetic by its author that intelligible and impeccable: the sound as a material in space, the sound as an element of experimentation and composition, sound as a medium of investigation, the interactive relationship between man and works of art, the sound as an element in the feedback that keeps the memory of a place and those who lived. And sound was certainly the cornerstone upon which rotated throughout the interview and chat with Agostino di Scipio.
Marco Mancuso: In your work Stanze provate – Private Rooms, there is a direct correspondence between the work and the environment in which it is posted. The ecosystem you’ve created is nourished by a mute exchange of energy between the sonic environment, the people who inhabit it, and the technological component of the work. Did you base this interactive element on emotional and environmental factors rather than use procedural interfaces?
Agostino di Scipio:The production of Stanze Provate – Private Rooms has been piecemeal, because in the two years since the request to delivery I have brought forward other projects. Sometimes working on several projects at a time is useful, experimenting different ways of dealing with the same basic ideas, allowing technical solutions in different operating conditions. Usually I start from a sketch of the technical infrastructure, on the basis of which the work can generate sound independently, but in close relationship with the surrounding space. For "Private Rooms" I have outlined a network of miniature microphones and headsets (ie, miniature speakers) that, by accumulating background noise from the room environment, could possibly generate sound. Then I spent a long time to implement, empirically, the mutual influence between the various network components, making it to some extent self-regulate over time, and to dynamically change its own process depending on acoustic events in the surrounding space.
I am referring to each component, in the network, capable of produing, conveying, mediating, transferrring sound, depending on acoustic circumstances and the materials present in the room, plus the digital sound processing, and, in short, the whole electroacoustic chain that. For me it is crucial to compose the interactions among these nodes, i.e. to shape up the range of their mutual relations, and the relations between individual nodes and the entire system (as well as the range of feedback from the whole to the single node) – that’s much more crucial for me than establishing what it sounds like and what the visual structur should be. The latter emerge later in the work, in a way consistent with the real time intarctions (almost all my recent works are like living creatures in circumstances of real time and real place, and rarely present pre-recorded sounds). As you can imagine, the sonic potential and also the conceptual profile of the work came out a little at a time, with a prolonged trial, not on the basis of a predetermined expression.
I’d say that the expressive aspects of works like "Stanze Provate – Private Rooms" are slowly determined during my time of "living with" the work, through the months, they are not put forth at the outset as a finality, as abstract ideas. The interactive element your question refers to is, in my work, the unraveling of real-time relationships between the component parts of a whole. Emotional aspects and sound shapes emerge from this self-organizing dynamics over time. That’s a peculiar notion in all the Audible Ecosystems I’ve realised in recent years.
Marco Mancuso: With "Stanze Private – Private Rooms" it seems that you want to assign to the spectator a voyeuristic role, in the sense you seem to propose to the viewer the task of taking a conscious role, not passive, but rather proactive, as someone who practices enjoyment, desire and consumption of the work. Is sound is for you an ideal medium for this type of analysis?
Agostino di Scipio: Well, it touches an important point, and is also difficult in some respects. I would say rather that the work of "Stanze Private – Private Rooms" reveals a voyeuristic element that is just a way of perceiving, and to enjoy the art, which is appears crushed on the aesthetic dimension, blind and desperate: a work like "Private Rooms" says the observer is a "voyeur" when required, as nearly always, to observe without being observed, and observed without affecting the observed. This theme, on the contrary, as the observer cannot, with his watch, not affect the observed (who want to or not), and the observed is not entirely alien to him.
There are echoes here of "radical constructivism" thought, transverse to countless scientific disciplines and traditions of knowledge (I think of von Foersters work on cyber, and neurobiologists Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana). For me it is simply a way to declare the responsibility, knowingly or not, that each of us has in any relationship with others and with the surrounding environment. Facilities such as "Private Rooms" and the others that I have achieved in recent years, say that nothing is disconnected from the rest, that everything is connected to everything (a "green" for which it knowing some reflection of Edgar Morin). We cannot pretend to be opposite to the work, without altering its presence, or the alien presence of the subject.
With "Stanze Private – Private Rooms", basically it is this kind of dualism, just across the art crushed in the aesthetic dimension, which puts it into question, making it uncertain. Yes, sound is an ideal medium for this type of research (which reflects the policy position as immanent in all my work that I did not realize was never proclaimed, in either slogans or posters). In a sense that is provocative, the sound is experienced as interface and mediator (The title is deliberately ambiguous, "Sound is the interface", I wrote a few years ago about this in the margin of the series of works entitled "Ecosystems audible"). The acoustic dimension is pervasive and the anthropological condition is ongoing, you cannot pause: our ears incessantly and always choose what to focus attention on the flow surrounding sound, and are always active in the area (before the ear hears the sound event, then the eye turns to look at the source). Of course, the ear is never detached from the world, is not isolated, but interacts with the environment constantly, and is always in action in building the consistency and the plurality of acoustic stimuli.
"Stanze Private – Private Rooms" amplifies the noise inside these small rooms, these few jugs and glass ampoules, transparent. And it amplifies the noise in the surrounding environment, in the largest room where the installation is placed. It produces sound from the audience. We as listeners can not only be part of this small ecosystem, our physical presence alters the acoustics of the surrounding space, altering the dynamic. Listening thus interferes on listening, the listening is never something objective, is always something that changes the listening itself."Stanze Private – Private Rooms" invites the voyeur listener (as would also the transparent glass, to curiously peek inside these small rooms, and to listen to voices of the feeble and not very clear, as from a neighbouring room in an apartment near) so that the listener does not feel the impossibility of its posting, the fiction of his alleged separateness in relation to the context of the work. The listener-observer voyeur remain as long as they are not warned about the responsibility alone for the simple fact of his own existence, so long as no warning to contribute to this already just with his mere presence. The function of the aesthetic becomes a prerequisite of social behaviour, beyond the aesthetic enjoyment. Given the condition of relationship with the work, given that we act in any other and objects around, let it decide whether to act with awareness of the consequences of our actions, or remain in indecision, indifferent to the consequences of our actions.
Marco Mancuso: In all your work, including Private Rooms, you do not only take care of the audio technology but also to the material and aesthetics of the instrument itself. Is the integration of sound, technology and material the point of your installations?
Agostino di Scipio:Yes, I guess so. In my work I tend to focus rather on technical and conceptual aspects, than on the final sound, since at the end of the day I know I can trust my ear, I need not to think too much about it. My approach on sound is perhaps due to some predisposition about the body and the ear, often for me more important than the eye, and it clearly stems from personal history of auditory and musical education. There are interesting phenomena, in this respect: working on "Private Room", sounds developed which are rather feeble, but also pungent, abrasive, and biting, sounding very much like glass, like actions with glass objects. That’s something not initially imagined, it came late in the project, yet not becoming more important that other aspects and gestures. In general, the consistency of that material element stems from the
design, structure and dynamics of self-organized relationships and interactions mentioned earlier. Basically with apprpriate techniques, we provoke the irrational, the infinity of matter, and that in turn allow us to return to the finiteness of the human dimension
Marco Mancuso: The "space" is of fundamental importance for you: how to use sound to make a fluid environment, using different forms of perception by the public as an architectural form which relates source to its recipient?
Agostino di Scipio: I usually use electroacoustic transducers (microphones of various types, sometimes accelerometers or other) to detect the acoustic reflections of the walls or other niches resonant in a given space. Often I detect sounds reflecting the social function of the surrounding space, but small sounds that are typically removed from our auditory experience – acoustic scraps, sonic garbage. These sounds are analyzed by a computer, with digital signal processing methods, so the computer measures some features of sound, and that information is finally used to drive the process of generation and transformation of the environmental sound itself. At the base, there is a kind of retroactive scheme in which the sound production is at least partially modified by the manner in which the space responds to the very same sounds that are produced: the computer process is rendered space-dependent, adaptive.
I’ve been developing these techniques for over fifteen years now. Over time I have simplified the approach, and at the same time made it more effective in the algorithmic procedure. Of course, one can not separate the sound of the room, the reflections of the space given, from the sound produced by the equipment itself in the room: space and technical infrastructure are "structurally coupled", to use a term from cybernetics and other systemic sciences, ecology included. In that sense, sound becomes and "interface" between us and the space: sound is energy (mechanical, acoustic, electro-acoustics), but it also bears an "informational" signature of spaces and bodies from which they emanate. A part of my research, in technological terms, consists in treating sound, in all its richness and complexity, as a carrier of information, leaving the idea behind that sound is separate from noise and that noise is a "lack of information". From my background in experimental music I always obtained that the "sound" is "form", not just and object or available energy, but as a pattern of traces left by human actions and tensions (in fact: "print", or "timbre"). In installation works, this is also quite relevant, I think. However – perhaps building on pioneering work by earlier sound artists – I also try to broaden the understanding of "form" to what we might call "active acoustic horizon" – ie the profile defined in the real space by the real time sonic process. You may call it an anti-virtualist position, maybe anti-illusionist. That admittedly contrasts with more trendy directions, nowadays. But that is good! I guess I am purseing a kind of heretical, and anyway autonomous, approach on technology.
Marco Mancuso: Your experience with electronic technologies and digital noise is vast and multifaceted. We recognize those who complain about the ‘purity’ of their discipline before the onset of practical applications and the accessibility of home computer music, or are you more inclined to deal with the potential of integration? What in your opinion are the reasons for the contemporary complaint that digital music lacks communicability and feeling, as distinct from the tradition of concrete and electronic sounds?
Agostino di Scipio: I cannot recognize any purity in my work, if only for biographical reasons (on which I won’t touch here). Since long (I guess since Anton Webern, at least, beginning of 20th century), nobody can claim any kind of purity… Thank goodness! "High" and "low", "serious" and "pop", communicate, hybridize, overlap. At the same time, we can feel how liberating is any artwork vis a vis the technocratic ideology suffocating our lives, and hegemonic in the music and sound art worlds too. The variety of current developments is definitely interesting, and I tend to be omnivorous – but even then I tend to listen very very carefully … I mean, listen to sound to perceive the degree of freedom that the artist is able to carve out in doing his or her work. The sound always bear traces of the skill and autonomy with which an artist strives to operate. There are audible signs of how free he or she can be in his or her existence. It’s not a question of trendy currents, fashion, labels, movements. It’s a widespread problem, that you see both in ‘academic’ productions and research, and in productions claiming a more direct and emotional communicability. In the end, today both those lines, however different, are often very self-referential: the one is a stranger to the problem of communication because it feels that as insoluble, the latter trivialises communication at any rate, flattening it out on the media marketing goals. As always, the really interesting things happen elsewhere, on the edge, where the conditions of existence are uncertain, unstable. Crucial is not what kind of artistic language or context one deals with, which what margin of manouver, what spaces of free action and participation is structurally consistent to his or her work.