Tides that crash to land

A review of Open Tuning (Wave Up), a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and an interview with artist Stephen Kelly.

Photo Credit: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2010

An ocean of sounds. The audio output marries the tilt of metal structures and simulates what we imagine could be a digital wave. Open Tuning (WaveUp) is an audio kinetic installation by Halifax-based artist Stephen Kelly presented at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) and curated by AGNS Chief Curator Sarah Fillmore. The exhibition runs until January 9, 2011. The elevator doors open straight into a moderate-sized gallery space on the fourth floor of the AGNS’ North wing. 5 years ago these elevator doors opened to a dark hallway of curtains and projections for Gary Hill’s Tall Ships. At the time, the exhibition generated much needed attention to media arts, proving that the general public is interested, if maybe a little amazed at a genre of artwork that has often been conceived as a spectacle lure or technically elitist. Though Hill and Kelly are completely different in terms of the concepts and even the technology driving their artwork, it’s a relief to see another media artist featured at the AGNS. Though new media technologies can be difficult to relate to and even to describe, it’s commendable that our provincial art gallery believes in its public’s attention span. As arts professionals, we know its important to continue to learn about the new tools of artists, and it’s as important for our public to encourage local artists who are on their way up and will eventually extend their practice beyond the borders of our own province.

In comparison to the Gary Hill installation, the gallery is now a bright white space with elegant metal sculptures hanging off the ceiling, some mounted on the back or sidewall. The kinetic structures are made of metal, speakers, and electrical wire. The speakers are attached to the ends of meter-long metal bars; some titer-tot horizontally back and forth in a clean movement. In a counter-intuitive action (similar to patting your head and rubbing your tummy in a circular motion) one speaker is being propelled in a tight circle caused by the different vibrations of the sound coming from the speaker. Each speaker is connected via the Internet to real-time ocean wave data collected from many buoys upheld by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. There’s a small map to the left side of the gallery space where little red ball pins point out the exact location of the buoys.

Exhibition Stills by Steve Farmer Here.

The exhibition has an organic feel to it. Sound waves incite a feeling of flow, continuity and motion. Mimicking ocean waves, in theory and in physicality is a beautiful idea. As much as we can imagine the wetness of a wave crashing into us in the gallery space (maybe I’ve heard one too many relaxation tapes featuring ocean waves), we can also imagine a group of 0s and 1s playing in the ocean as a wave flows up and down, itself imitating the input/output of information. I couldn’t help but ask more questions…

Mireille Bourgeois: You’ve been working towards the completion of this project for how many years?

Stephen Kelly: The idea started in 2005 after returning from Norway where I participated in the Idea Of North Exhibit about ‘sound and site’.  I was still thinking about that theme.

MB: Did it take multiple forms before this installation?

SK: Yes, mostly in my studio and during a residency at the Centre For Art Tapes in November 2006. I started by simply using wave data to turn stepper motors back and forth. I was pulling wave buoy data from the Internet and mapping wave height to the amount of motor rotation. What I found immediately is that I was trying to create an impression of a complex natural phenomenon with relatively coarse tools. The complexity and character of the ocean was too complex to translate the simple motor setup. After this I started incorporating elements of balance, weights and counter-weights, and swinging motion throughout the work as a way of re-introducing complexity.

MB: Despite your hours of research, and your technical connectivity with the ocean, has this impressive body of water, micro and macrocosm of organisms been demystified for you?

SK: The opposite is true.  I started out knowing that I personally knew very little about the ocean.  After working on the project, I currently feel that in many ways the ocean is unknowable. It’s always different, constantly changing, and infinitely complicated.  I address this in Open Tuning by introducing mechanical complexities into the installation, programming tricks that I barely understand (even though I coded them), and audio processing that introduces uncontrollable sonic oscillations. This all contributes to a loss of control for me.

The installation becomes complex and unknowable as a way of mirroring these characteristics of the ocean. Both environments are tied together by the real-time ocean wave characteristics but both have elements beyond my comprehension and control, which I find interesting. I’m often surprised by the work, which is an important aspect for me.

MB: What first attracted you to look out there for a subject to study?

SK: That’s difficult to answer. The first time I swam in the ocean, out far and over my head, I realized how massive and powerful the ocean is.  It doesn’t care about me.  I tried to bring this into the gallery a bit. Some of the larger swinging modules can get pretty violent.  The installation is not interactive; it doesn’t care about you.  If you’re not careful it will swing around and hit you in the head.

MB: You’re also a musician, playing multiple instruments; you have a band with artist Eleanor King called The Just Barelys and have a new record coming out in Winter 2011. Do you find your audio kinetic installation is inspired by some of the elements of sound recording that you’ve used in your music?

SK: Everything I find interesting about sound relative to other media is its relation to music. I’m interested in sound because I love music. The act of writing music is fascinating to me because it’s really a process of pulling ideas out of nowhere. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s a process of arbitrarily touching the guitar until something sounds ‘good’, which is impossible to classify or describe before finding it.  I guess it’s the process of exploration that is significant in both my musical and art practice.

The other thing about WaveUp that relates to music for me is something I kind of learned/stole from artist and musician Rita Mckeough; I really dislike being the centre of attention in a room full of people, so performing is generally difficult. In a way, the modules in WaveUp are performing for me all day in the gallery.  I don’t even have to be there, which is perfect.

MB: Do you think your experimentation with pirating data signals into audio result in musicality?

SK: I haven’t pre-conceived this idea but I guess the process the installation is forever going through, modulating notes and chords with ocean waves, creating waves of dissonance and harmony, is akin to the process of songwriting as I describe above.

MB: Thank you Stephen for sharing your process with us.

I am frightened of the ocean. I love it but respect it too much not to fear it. After WaveUp I am aware more than ever that the ocean is a mystery to me. Kelly is indeed bringing the ocean to us, but what are we transmitting into the ocean?

Stephen Kelly holds a BFA from the Nova Scotia College, Nova Scotia.

Mireille Bourgeois is the Director of Programming at the Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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One Response to “Tides that crash to land”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Art Gallery of NS, Art Engine. Art Engine said: The first post for the AE blog comes from coastal waters – kinetic sound art about waves in Halifax : http://artengine.ca/blog/?p=1807 […]

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