“Supposing that sense of music still lies in the immediacy with whom it transforms and transcends the being (reality), I believe such immediacy is to be sought in terms of when and how music establishes a system of relations between space and its occupants, and in terms of when and how such systems, determining the use of space, comply productively with all the rules introduced by the presence of sound in space itself. Therefore it could be said that space itself, along with everyone and everything producing and listening to sounds, becomes the true instrument”. (Achim Wollscheid in Does the Song Remain the Same in LaBelle, Brandon e Roden, Steve., Site of sound: of architecture and the ear, New York, edited by Brandon Labelle and Steve Roden, Errant Bodies Press in association with Smart Art Press, 1999, p. 5-6.)

German artist Achim Wollscheid‘s work investigates the possibilities of sound as a social interactive medium. Since the early 80s he and his collaborators Ralf Wehowsky, Stefan Schmidt and Charlie Steiger have been working on experiments linked to the use of tape cassettes and LP records, which have been exchanged and distributed among artists all over Europe, United States and Australia.

The artists cut, manipulate and even destroy the audio material during a non-stop modeling process of the sound object. By doing this, a type of sound – social model is created. Over a period of several years this concept has evolved and has become one of the most important aspects within their interactive installations concerning urban spaces.

Wollscheid’s work amplifies the already existing relations between interior and exterior, public and private, by using it as an interface between artistic object and user.

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In WallField, a 2005 work realized in Gelnhausen, Germany, he succeeds in transforming space and sound through a complex interactive relationship. The object is a house, planned by the architects Seifert and Stoeckmann and characterized by a set of echelon formation windows on every wall. Wollscheid worked on three facades of the building, by placing a series of speakers and microphones on the masonry parts, both inside and outside of the house. By connecting the internal microphones to the external speakers and vice versa, the sounds coming from the outside are reproduced and amplified inside the rooms, and the internal noises are transmitted to the outside. Moreover, the sound is digitized and examined by a software that immediately turns the sound information into tonalities. By doing this, noises turn into a sort of melody, whose volume and sound equalization can be modified by the users, who have also the chance to decide whether to listen only the external or the internal sounds.

The artist opens up the sound that would be normally separated by walls, breaking the barrier between outside and inside. Via the acoustic transformations created, the work establishes a connection between the users on the inside and passers-by on the outside, and between them and the environment. The building becomes a sort of ‘permeable structure’.

Wollscheid’s works invite us to consider noise as something having its own social and narrative potentialities, and above all they persuade the user to relate and participate in the sound events. This relationship integrates the user, or even the simple passer-by, in a dialogue in which they are fundamental inputs, while structures and technological tools become the interface through which this relation can happen.

In a series of works between 1999 and 2006 the relationship concerning the work itself and the public urban space was made clearer.

Connective Memory is an installation realized in Germany in 1999 for the “Balthasar Neumann Technikum” Technical Institute. In the main hall, where students crowd during their lunch break, several microphones and speakers hang from the ceiling. The work functions through the students’ voices and laughs and the typical sounds of recreation in general. Their voices and noises are registered and transmitted to a system which analyzes and places them into an hard disk archive. This hard disk is capable of repeating the received sound information as soon as a sound event that has similar features happens in the hall. Space is further altered with the addition of three big squares of red neon lights indicating the moment the system is on. The sound information is registered and simultaneously elaborated into light signals, and then sent to a great echelon formation light device, placed in the garden outside the school, towards the road. The obtained rhythmic light effects establish a bridge connecting the environment with the school interiors.

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Thus the user is a common student that finds himself involved in an interactive creation experience during his everyday life. Therefore the observer’s vision is no more the one of a subject deciding to consciously utilize an artwork, but instead it is a new vision expressed by a sort of casual user, relating normally to the space in which he lives everyday and, almost despite himself, he ends up playing an active role in the artistic process.

If we think about our schools, and how often they are decorated with low reliefs, painted panels or plaster sculptures: we find that students study the exposed works and utilize them for historical analysis of the creative process, but the interaction never surpasses the representational field.

In Connective Memory however, the relation between the student-user, the sound and light transformations, and the space of the school are the cue for the analysis of the social phenomena, concerning the use of technology in everyday life. In this sense, the fact that the Connective Memory system responds to the sounds’ concerted nature is very interesting: the user is no more a single individual, but a group.

2004 Intersite and 2006 Possible Polysone, along with most of Wollscheid’s works,show how the artist’s conception is based on the environment-user-sound-light interaction.

Intersite was made in Frankfurt, in a purpose-built office building. Microphones were placed on two facades, monitoring and registering the sound of the street, such as the voices of passers-by. The sounds were then transmitted to a system which transformed them into light impulses. On the building’s walls red led lights were placed, creating light choreographies. The exterior of the building came to life during nighttime, when the rooms were empty and no one occupied them for the usual daytime activities. Therefore the user-passer-by sees his own individual reflected in a relationship between the public space and the building’s lights. These very lights, with their movement, end up influencing the vision of the social space which the user creates.

In his essay entitled Interactions: Achim Wollscheid productions of the Local, the scholar Brandon LaBelle explains how “…maintaining an open and indefinite work structure, and clearly showing the user the mechanism staying under the creative process, art can reach the possibility to transform the obtained sound, as well as the becoming of a social body” (LaBelle during the essay Interactions: Achim Wollscheid’s Productions of the Local in Background noise. Perspective on Sound Art, New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2007, p.255).

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In our everyday life we are caught in a constant shift between what it is individual and communication on a global scale, in a shift from material cities to information flow; in other words local and global are ever present aspects or our lives.

“The production of the ‘local’ aspect is thus going to happen as a ‘structure of feeling’, rather than as a real spatial localization. A structure where imagination becomes a collective instrument of transformation of what is real” (LaBelle., Op. Cit.p. 259).

In Wollscheid’s work the interaction systems often answer to inputs that are already generated by users-passers-by, and the output itself is managed by the same users who find themselves in the area.

In the installation entitled Possible Polystone, realized in front of The Palace of Solidarity in Piombino, Italy, for the Experimental Festival by Sound Art, Istallazioni Audio Visive and Live Set, the artist proposes the creation of an area bordered by six circles of light projected on the street. Above, six speakers produce different sounds for each circle. By entering the illuminated area the user activates a sound and modifies it according to his movements. When other people enter the same area new sounds are produced, thus interfering with the old ones. The goal here is to create a “dialogue of sounds” among the users.

“The spatial dimension of these installations is developed thanks to a constant interference between public urban space, multitude and production of the ‘local’ aspect, meant as a system in which the work of imagination unites with collective sensitiveness, thus contributing to presence intensification in digital society” (LaBelle., Op. Cit.p. 259).

In this sense it is fundamental for Wollscheid to use interactive tools in his own artistic work context. Interaction in fact allows the author to recreate a spatial dimension, capable of forming a relationship between multiple users and the public space.

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By using and widening an already common definition, we could consider these “sensitive spaces” as Interactive Multimodal Environments, even if in this case it would be better to define them as Urban. In installations having these characteristics, space is shaped and modified by the attitude of the single user, who finds himself involved in an everyday dialogue with the environment of his town and at the same time relates to a multitude of other people. This multitude then becomes part of this relationship too.

Wollscheid’s interactive buildings, through his work on the relational aspects of interaction, turn space into a performative context. “They invite the multiple user to create a temporal orchestra in which both the individual and the multitude form extended narratives, capable of altering the very meaning of sociality, and destined to investigate new patterns of behaviour” (LaBelle. Op. Cit. 262).

In Wollscheid’s works I think the idea of Interactive Multimodal Urban Environment is strictly linked to the experimentation and planning of sound tools, developed by the artist until he succeeded in the creation of a Sound Box in 2007.

From 1993 to 1999 he realizes numerous versions of the so-called Clapper Systems. These systems make objects, rooms or surfaces sound, by exploiting the distinctive resonance of the various materials, with the utilization of a determined program and numerous magnets. The artist uses Clappers in lots of performances, in which, through sound, the space of the installation is analyzed. In the Sonic Perception festival, for example, magnets are strategically placed under the spectators’ seats. Other times the spatial sound body and the everyday life objects are investigated.

From 1997 the artists’ projects Transformers and Sound Boxes, conceived as veritable boxes capable of registering environment sounds and simultaneously transforming them, and then spread them again, altered, in the space in which the boxes are installed.

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Wollscheid presents his last version of the 2007 Sound Box at the Sound Art Museum in Rome. At first sight we may be tempted to consider these works as hyper tools, but it is actually sufficient to analyze their functioning in order to express some opinions that dissuade us from taking such a hypothesis.

First of all, analyzing the way Sound Boxes are created, its author tries to make them more and more complex on the level of sound translation and transformation, and above all, simpler and simpler to carry, in order to be easily used in their everyday environment. Moreover, another key aspect is the importance given to the users’ movements through space.

This device establishes a relationship between a user and the sounds that surround him, which change on the base of the movements he makes, simultaneously interacting with the multitude. We are far from the hyper tool dimension, and we enter a broader form of interaction which considers sound (and its relation with space as well) as a sort of language allowing us to create multiple relationships.

What it derives is an instrument generating in turn an environment, in which the user plays an active role. By responding to inputs produced by the individual, the sound is reflected and melts into the surroundings, establishing a contact with the multiplicity of sound effects and people in the area the Sound Box is located.

Thanks to the interaction between the parts involved in the user-sound-urban space-multitude relationship, an interesting investigation on our presence in the environment commences, as well as a reflection on the creation of new attitudes and behaviours.

The continuous shift between public interference and multitude seems to play a fundamental role in Achim Wollscheid’s theoretical reflection and artistic work.

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Claudia Maina: I’d like to ask you some questions about your installations Field (2006), Connective Memories (1999) and the more recent 8 lights, 8 speakers (2009). These installations are really different from each other, but they work on a connection between the spectator-passerby and urban space intended as a relation space. How does sound connect with the spectator? How do you intend the relationship between sound, spectator and urban space?

Achim Wollscheid: First of all, I think, I have no general answer, in terms of a motto or a general guideline, as to what role sound, light or space play in my installations. I guess “installation” isn’t a good term anyway, because it puts emphasis on the “built” – installation in that sense being regarded pretty much like an object. As opposed to that I would rather call the things I do interferences or implants: eventual communicators with space and the people within.

Each of those interferences has, of course, different conditions to start from (spatial, infrastructural, political, social, economical) and different conditions that guide concept phase, tests and production (climate, durability, in- vs. outside, protected vs. unprotected conditions). Meaning: context (architecture, infrastructure, density vs. openness etc) presents a set of factors, which predefine possible interferences, like a set of tools pre-defines a repair job. I use sound and light because they can move – preferably in real time. Present technology can react to inputs – pictures can see and music pieces can hear- so to say. I like to invite people to interact, which, from my point of view is more likely and common on a time based ground. Meaning peoples action, interaction, and reaction will usually involve movements or sound. i.e. time – so the media to interact with should do likewise.

Connective memory was planned and realized for students in a high school. I remembered that very special school recess hall sound from my school days – so the point to start from was to think of ways how to modulate it.

(Technical) Result was a set of several microphones distributes across the hall and a set of speakers. The hum of voices is recorded and processed – and replayed. A checkerboard-like light panel (the school officials wanted something representative…) in front of the school translates dynamics and density of the processing into a checkerboard game of lights.

8 lights 8 speakers reacts to the need to have something modular at disposal – for spaces that I do not have the chance to visit before – nevertheless enabling a site specific calibration of sound. The system is comparable to the one used in Connective Memory, only that speakers and lights can be positioned (and addressed) individually on the ground. Environmental sound is recorded, processed and replayed (in real time). Likewise light will react (individually change intensity). In a way space thus combines an in- and output area – not just for a single user but for a group of interactors.

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Claudia Maina: In your artwork you create systems of interaction that respond to an individual input, but at the same time these systems suggest an orchestration of multiple users. The spatial dimension in your installations always grow to continue interference from public space and urban space, “production of the local” (Brandon LaBelle definition) and multitude. In what way do you design your system installation in order to get in connection the single-user’s answer, with the installation space and the multitude?

Achim Wollscheid: This, I suppose, concerns what I call the anthropocentric misconception. As we are – within limits – the centre of our perceptions and actions, we tend to over exaggerate the importance of our utterances in regard to others (who, of course, also exaggerate). In other words – to allow input from a multitude means to address a multitude with the output. So there isn’t a specific interest to address an “individual”

Claudia Maina: Besides the aspect of sound, you often work with light game elements in your installations. How does light relate with sound? And consequently how does light connect with users? I’m thinking about Intersite (2004) where light plays one of the main roles.

Achim Wollscheid: I regard media (such as light or sound) as functions. These functions are not bearers of an aesthetical meaning or content – they are just messengers. According to the demands (or necessities) of a given context messengers can be exchanged. Goal is interaction with possible co-players. If a context is too noisy in terms of sound, I’m using light or vice versa. Crucial for the function is – is has to be recognized. Therefore the function has to accomplish twofold: it has to adjust to the given conditions and it has to differentiate. To achieve this I’m often using modular systems, grids and patterns.

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Claudia Maina: The installation space changes into a new performing context, where the action of a single user is combined with a multitude’s reaction, through the technologic system. This context is developed into new narrative forms. How did this influence the poetics of your works?

Achim Wollscheid: I guess there is not a lot of poetics in function

Claudia Maina:
Let’s talk about the Sound Box presented at Sound Art Museum in Rome in 2007. This tool is a mean between user, multitude and space. Can you please explain how it works and what are its applications? Which features set it apart from the category of Iper-Instrument and the concept of Sound Sculpture?

Achim Wollscheid: It is a portable item. It’s something people could buy, a little thing that – for my part – deals with an unsolved problem of computer music – how to program a piece, that keeps on programming itself and does not become repetitive or redundant in terms of sound production. In my interpretation the problem is solved once the user comes in as a co-producer of sound. The unexpected, the contextual, the voice, noise comes in and retriggers. Technically the box consists of a microphone (input), a micro computer (custom built), and a speaker. Once a sound comes in it is analyzed and processed in real time – producing a sound that is somehow relating to the respective input – sometimes more, sometimes less distantly.

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Claudia Maina: I would like to thank you and ask you what are your future projects and if you plan to do some works in Italy?

Achim wollscheid: No plans at the moment. Many thanks to you…


LaBelle, Brandon e Roden, Steve., Site of sound: of architecture and the ear, New York, edited by Brandon Labelle and Steve Roden, Errant Bodies Press in association with Smart Art Press, 1999.

LaBelle, Brandon., Background noise. Perspective on Sound Art, New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2007.

AA.VV., Selected works. Achim Wollscheid, printed by Vier-Türme-Gmbh, Frankfurt, Selektion SB04, 2001.


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