sa Sound Arts vol. 6

XEBEC SoundCulture Membership Magazine

Interview with Erik SAMAKH
The Techno-ecology of Sound

This issue's interview is based on a conversation the musicologist, NAKAGAWA Shin, had with the sound artist, Erik SAMAKH, at his home studio in Paris on March 31, 1995.

Samakh Image 1

The Sound of a Labyrinth

NAKAGAWA: The first time I came in contact with your work was at the "Ars Electronica" show in Linz in 1991. The piece there, The Snake's Logic, was very interesting. It was an installation of sound in a cave-like air raid shelter, and I remember having the sensation that I was exploring something as I walked through the pitch-black darkness.

SAMAKH: For me, the environment was very natural because the theme was "out of control." For example, when we say that we can hear something, we think that it is like a concert. But my proposition was very different from a concert. It was a labyrinth in the ground perhaps 1.5 kilometers long. When we first go inside the place, we can see some very big, yellow numerals to tell us where we are in the labyrinth. And I decided to take away the numerals, and replace each of them with a machine with a beep. For example, when you first go into the labyrinth you have the numeral one, so the machine goes, "Beep....beep....beep." When you go to the number two, which you don't see--it is very dark--you hear, "Beep-beep....beep-beep." When you go in the proximity of these machines, they stop singing. When they begin after one or two minutes, after you go away, they sing, but in another frequency. They change their frequencies.

NAKAGAWA: What makes them stop?

SAMAKH: Just when you go in front of them with your light, they can sense the light and they stop. It was funny to see all these people with lights, and they didn't know where they were, and they had to speak to each other. After ten or twenty minutes, they began to speak to each other. "Where are we? Do you know where we are?"

NAKAGAWA: I was very afraid that I would get lost.

SAMAKH: For me this was very important thematically. When something is missing, we must communicate with each other to understand what is happening, and to ease our fears. For me, the system and the process wasn't a concept, it was just a code--information. The beep was just a kind of information to tell you where you were. Because if you understand that the first place is number one, you can go without looking.

NAKAGAWA: What does the title mean? I thought the shape was like a snake. Was there some animal symbolism?

SAMAKH: Yes, the beep for me was the sound of a frog--or a toad to be exact. The logic of the snake is to eat the frogs.

NAKAGAWA: I was afraid that maybe there were real snakes.

SAMAKH: (laughing) No, no. ●A Collaboration Between Nature Technology

NAKAGAWA: I want to ask why you work with animals.

SAMAKH: I think that's because Iearn many things from going into nature. In the beginning, it wasn't only information I took, but the animals too. Frogs, insects, and lizards. I think that began when I was a child. I thought even though I have become an adult, I can repeat the activities of a child.

NAKAGAWA: Is there some communication?

SAMAKH: Looking for animals can be communication. With lizards, I understand where you can find a lizard, how they move, how they function, and there is a relation with sound. When you see lizards and you want to catch one, they go in the grass and they're green and the grass is green. And you don't see anything, you only hear the movements. And you have to adapt your senses to that quickly.

NAKAGAWA: Looking, listening. Listening, looking.

SAMAKH: I haven't only been involved with animals. I work with plants too, and I often use bamboo in my work. Do you know the Park de la Villette?

NAKAGAWA: Yes. You have a piece there in the bamboo garden.

SAMAKH: Yes. But I'm not happy with that piece now, because it is too complex. It analyzes temperature, humidity, movement. It is very difficult because the organization has to examine it and make sure there aren't any problems with it .

NAKAGAWA: Speaking of bamboo, you have many pieces of bamboo around your house. Do you like bamboo? Where did it come from?

SAMAKH: France. You can't believe it, can you?

NAKAGAWA: No, I can't.

SAMAKH: In Montpelier, you can see all these pieces of bamboo. They took it from Japan, from China, from South America. It is impossible to have bamboo grow naturally here. I'm experimenting with planting bamboo in the south of France .

NAKAGAWA: Last year, Rolf JULIUS did an installation in a bamboo forest.

SAMAKH: Yes, in Kyoto. There are some similarities between us, but big differences too. Because with Julius, we see the cables, we see the loudspeakers. But my work is really green because I don't want people to see the machines.

NAKAGAWA: Now are you mainly working with sound, or do you also make visual things?

SAMAKH: Both. Never just sounds. (showing photograph) For example, this is a little pond, but these plants are real, and with the light, they are green. And in the beginning, it's impossible to see the water. People believe that it is like a painting.

NAKAGAWA: How about a work that uses sound?

SAMAKH: I'll explain another installation. It was my first pond in the Netherlands .

NAKAGAWA: You put the water there.

SAMAKH: I put the water in the museum. And added sounds of frogs with a computer.

NAKAGAWA: The frog sounds are not natural?

SAMAKH: No, not in these installations. There are some speakers that cannot be seen. And when there is some sun, the computer analyzes the sounds. In one spot, there is the sound of water from the pump.

NAKAGAWA: This is a collaboration with nature (water) and technology. ●On Recent Works

NAKAGAWA: Could you tell me something about what you are interested in at the present?

SAMAKH: I have another piece called "Explorer." It's a chair with sounds of the places I have traveled and it can be a nomad installation. When you sit in the chair, you can't see anything. But in reality, there is a video camera that senses movement. I worked with David RUGBY, a Canadian sound artist from Toronto.

NAKAGAWA: Oh, he made the interactive piece in Linz. I remember.

SAMAKH: If you move too much, everything stops. But if you make little movements, you can hear parts of the computer memory like you are traveling. It is an interactive installation that is different for each person.

NAKAGAWA: Where is the speaker?

SAMAKH: In the dark area, not in the chair. But you have the light in your face and you can't see anything. It's like a virtual system. With virtual systems , you have a glove and goggles, and you see all of these cables and look at the screen. But in my proposition, you see nothing, you just hear sounds.

NAKAGAWA: I'd like to try and sit in it.

SAMAKH: Let me tell you about another one of my projects. Now I'm preparing an exhibition in a forest with fifty small machines using my voice; they are automatons with batteries and solar panels. I worked with a mini-disc for the first time in this exhibition. Before I was working with a program with chips , but the memory with chips is too short. So now I'm experimenting with mini- discs. The house there is very modern with glass and concrete, and there is a terrace. Around the building, there are only trees--a forest. At night, the machines begin to sing around the people in the building.

NAKAGAWA: Will you modify your voice?

SAMAKH: No, not really. Just what I can do with it naturally. Because the computers in the machines analyze the particular circumstances of each machine . And they make a choice about which part of the mini-disc to play.

NAKAGAWA: But the machines don't work interactively.

SAMAKH: They work with the sun and light, but not together. The second series of machines can do that, but I've never used them because the program isn't really finished. I want to do it, but not with such a complex system.

NAKAGAWA: I want to ask you more, but I'm afraid we've run out of time. Thank you for such an enjoyable session

The contents of this issue:
interviews VOLANS
Ocean of Sound
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