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> > > Damien Robinson: Songbird


Deaf artist Damien Robinson talks to Ele Carpenter about an intriguing audio installation, which explores the relationship between sound and vibration. Damien produced the work during a LabCulture residency and it was recently shown at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery in a digital arts exhibition called Re: Thinking Time. The interview appears courtesy of Peterborough Digital Arts.

How did the idea for your artwork germinate?

Prior to the Lab, I worked on a commission for inIVA, which sliced voice clips according to their frequency. From that work I realised that I was able to distinguish low frequency sounds by touch. Research in America has demonstrated that deaf people sense vibrations in their auditory cortex, the area of the brain active in hearing people when they listen to sounds. If you are deaf you use the auditory cortex to 'listen' to vibration. There is also an interesting contradiction to standard sensory conventions, in that the less you can hear of the mid and low frequency sounds, the more easily you 'listen' to vibrations. At the same time I read an article about declining numbers of skylarks; in their preferred habitat of farmland, skylarks declined by 75% between 1972 and 1996.

The anthropologist Paddy Ladd, has written of the Deaf community as 'people whose lives were not motivated by a sadness in not being able to hear birds singing' and it seemed to me that whilst people focus on the concept of hearing 'loss', their sonic environment - particularly natural soundscapes - are disappearing. 'Songbird' unwraps the structures of a natural sound source and presents them in a number of different ways.

Who did you work with to develop it both conceptually and technically?

The work has progressed in stages with three distinct versions emerging; an embryonic 'end of Lab' version, a web-based version and now an installation. I've been able to tap into different people's experience and skills to shape each progression. I had a direction for the work before the ArtSway Lab but was stuck on how to get there. At ArtSway I worked with Simon (Poulter) developing an interface and with Gareth (Jones) on developing the sound. The LabCulture symposium (Sept 2003) gave me an opportunity to show the work in progress and get feedback from a wide range of people, including other Lab artists (and you, Ele).

Rod Dickinson provided a Lingo tutorial (the joy of variables) and there was a final work period with Simon, polishing the sounds and helping me find my way to the structured randomness I'd been aiming for. All the way through, I've been working with interpreter and lipspeaker Diana Barimore (who fortunately likes the skylark song, because she has heard it more than anyone else).

What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the work?

Trying to progress the work by myself when I was working with sounds I can't hear or feel; I can cut sounds using visual displays within software like Peak or SoundEdit, but once back in Director, you have to rely on getting the code right. Or in my case make a lot of test movies using 'feel' sounds, get the sections of code right, fit everything together, find you've sewn the neck of your digital jumper to the sleeve, unpick, re-sew…etc, etc. I toyed with the idea of training one of our cats as a 'hearing cat' - he would jump on my desk when the birdsong was playing, but it only worked twice and after that I just got a filthy look from him.

Developing the work, as an installation starting from its previous web-based form, meant taking the work apart again, looking at its components, rethinking the structure and ensuring we had an interface which would allow people to experience the feel of some sounds as well as encouraging them to listen to others…that was a tricky bit too, but cat-free.

How does the work rethink notions of time?

Although human hearing is thought to be sensitive to the same frequency range as birds, theirs has finer resolution in time. So a single 3 second verse of bird song might be perceived by birds as we would follow a 20 second piece of music. Each of the original sounds in the work is dropped by pitch (two and four octaves) and by pitch and speed. Pitch and speed are inter-related - if you drop a sound's pitch it's duration expands (like playing a 45rpm vinyl record at 33rpm). A five second clip becomes 40 seconds.

Additionally, although the work loops, the random elements mean it never repeats itself exactly (so you think 'Oh I've heard this bit', then you realise you haven't) but the work still constitutes a sound memory, not a 'live' experience.

What was most significant about your LabCulture experience? And where has that taken you?

If you take out one aspect of Labculture and examine it in isolation, it's harder to see the impact of something fundamentally holistic. At the symposium it was said that it felt more like a wedding than a conference; you either knew everyone or knew someone who knows someone else. The process of connecting to other artists and a wider family of ideas and experiences allows you to escape (or at least gives you a holiday from) the isolation that can be the artist's default position. The opportunity to extend my technical (and therefore) artistic range in a supportive environment meant I tried out ideas I might have thought were interesting but not practicable. I might be in the same place, but I'm looking in a whole new direction.

An online version of Songbird has been prepared using shockwave as a 1.4mb or 2.4mb download depending on your connection speed. To best experience this work you need a good set of speakers with a wide dynamic range, particularly at the bass end. Go to:

Related information

PVA Media Lab