sa Sound Arts vol. 5

XEBEC SoundCulture Membership Magazine

Cybernetic Objects
Sound in Interactive Art

By now, you have probably become quite familiar with our "sound & art exhibition"s, the ongoing series of shows held mainly in Xebec Foyer--"the space where sound can be felt." In this section, we will bring you interviews and reports about artists who have produced works for the series as well as other sound artists who are currently receiving attention.

This time we present an edited version of two interviews conducted by NAKAGAWA Shin in May and July 1992 with Peter VOGEL in his studio in Freiburg, Germany

Vogel Image 1

Investigation of Interactivity

NAKAGAWA (N): First, I'd like to ask what you are most interested in now? VOGEL (V): Cybernetic objects, or interactive sound objects. Cybernetic means that they are reactive. They are communicative, they have a kind of memory, and a certain kind of behavior. So they react to each person in a different way.

NAKAGAWA: What kind of mechanisms do you use?

VOGEL: If you look at the electronics, you can see how it works. It is made up of a sound generator, a device that makes rhythmic patterns, a switch, an amplifier, a loudspeaker, and a photocell.

NAKAGAWA: Does the photocell function as a sensor?

VOGEL: Yes, a sensor for shadow, and it could also be a sensor for light.

NAKAGAWA: Each object has its own sound image or sound pattern. Can you determine the patterns?

VOGEL: I can, but I don't do that.

NAKAGAWA: And the combination of parts also creates a very beautiful visual form.
Vogel Image 2
VOGEL: Yes, and electronics people can read it like a diagram because they can read the numbers that are written on the parts. And one of the things I am now working on is combinations of lots of these objects--Shadow Orchestras, which are big installations.

NAKAGAWA: Have you tried to show the Shadow Orchestras many times?

VOGEL: 1991 was the first time in Berlin. It was called the Keller Orchestra because it was in the cellar of the Gianozzo Gallery. Visitors to the installation stood in front of an object and a photocell would react to their shadows, which would produce a sound. Then the shadows of the person and the object would appear on the wall. So "shadow" is used in two senses.

NAKAGAWA: The actions of the visitors create the sounds.

VOGEL: They can provoke reactions, but they don't know exactly what will come out. And depending on the situation, dancers sometimes perform with the Shadow Orchestra.

NAKAGAWA: Is the interaction always between people and objects? Or does it also happen between two objects?

VOGEL: It can happen, if I have an object which makes light and reacts to sound. Or one with sound that makes light. But I am not interested in the interaction of machines.

The Origin of Sound Objects

Vogel Image 3
NAKAGAWA: When did you start to make these kinds of objects?

VOGEL: 1969.

NAKAGAWA: Before that, what did you do?

VOGEL: I painted. But I studied physics too to have a profession. I did brain research. Cybernetics is a very general science, which is linked to biological systems, and mechanical and electronic systems, like computers.

NAKAGAWA: Why did you become interested in the relationship between sound and action?

VOGEL: I started first with my paintings--changing paintings, changing colors into moving parts. And after a while I stopped painting because I saw that there was another possibility beyond just the visual aspect of moving objects. And that was sound.

NAKAGAWA: Are you familiar with Felix HESS' sound objects?

VOGEL: Yes. They are real cybernetic objects. Actually, I was influenced by similar objects. There was a neurophysiologist called Grey WALTER, who was working with psychologists, and he built interactive machines. They were like small animals about twenty centimeters long, and they reacted to sound, to light, and to touch. And when they were taught something, they could learn a certain behavior. He made neurophysiological models combined with psychology. This brought me to the idea of making these objects. At the beginning, I tried to imitate nature. For example, in psychology, you have what is called a conditioned reflex. One very famous example is PAVLOV's dog. First it reacts only to one input, and after a while it reacts to another. I imagined that one could be shadow and the other one could be sound, and then it would react with light or with movement.

NAKAGAWA: Have you been influenced by kinetic art too? For example, TINGUELY.

VOGEL: Yes. Did you see Tinguely's fountain in Basel?

NAKAGAWA: Yes, but it isn't cybernetic art.

VOGEL: No, it's not. It's kinetic.

NAKAGAWA: The conception is quite different.

VOGEL: Yes, it's different. Some galleries say that I am the "electronic Tinguely , " but that's really not true. Because the movement comes from completely different positions.

NAKAGAWA: I understand. On the surface though, it does look like there is a connection between both kinds of movement. Determinism and Randomness

VOGEL: The most important idea thing in my work is interactivity; this was the starting point. I am most interested in the connection between determinism and randomness. I have a number of objects which are divided into deterministic parts and aleatoric parts. One can precisely determine the movement, but the other reacts in completely unpredictable ways. By mixing both of these, there is an internal logic which proceeds to change the structure, and according to one's movement, the internal structure is changed in ways that you cannot tell. This is different from an object that reacts in a deterministic way to a person.

NAKAGAWA: For you, a mixture is very important, not only aleatoric parts.

VOGEL: Because aleatoric music is always around us in nature. And the city too is made up of aleatoric sound structures. And determinism alone is not interesting at all. I think the world is a mixture of both.

NAKAGAWA: At first, your objects were more deterministic, but now they have gotten more aleatoric. Does this mean that your idea about interactive behavior has changed?

VOGEL: The objects I built first were completely deterministic. But in the process of interaction between the spectator and the object, aleatoric things happened. Because the spectator doesn't know exactly what state the object is in. Even if two deterministic elements come together, there can be chaotic interaction. I didn't realize this ten years ago.

NAKAGAWA: So your image of behavior, of interactivity, has changed over the last ten years.

VOGEL: Before there were only deterministic structures, but there could be chaotic interaction. This is a very interesting point about chaos theory in general. When two deterministic systems come together, the result doesn't have to be deterministic. A similar thing happens in minimal music too. For example, two pianos are being playing, and when one changes speed...

NAKAGAWA: But that is not chaos.

VOGEL: It's not chaos, but you cannot predict exactly what's going to happen. On paper you can, but when you listen, you can't.

NAKAGAWA: Is your idea that the physical is more important than something that is written?

VOGEL: My objects reflect the viewer's behavior. If you do nothing, nothing will happen. If you influence it in different ways, it will react in different ways. I take it from a mental state to a physical one. That's another point. When you look at a painting, it's interactive in a certain way too. Because you can see it in so many different ways. It's only the brain and you don't have to move at all to do that. I think the body for me is just as important as the brain.

NAKAGAWA: It has been fascinating talking to you--thanks so much. Since we don't have much time left, can you tell me very briefly what you are planning for the future?

VOGEL: I'd like to continue to deal more with sound and light.

Table of Contents

SoundArts 5
Akio Suzuki part 1 FUJISHIMA
Carl Stone
CD Review
To SoundArts Back Issues Back to Carl Stone Home Page