On a zigzag course | Thoughts about my work with sound and light
Release date: 27.12.11
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On a zigzag course | Thoughts about my work with sound and light.
As a fourteen-year-old boy I wanted to become a percussionist, hitchhiked to the next bigger city—I am a real country boy—
and bought myself a pair of Bongos. Shortly after this I started using my father’s old camera—a Voigtländer in a leather case—
took black and white photos and used the darkroom of my school for my first blow-ups. So, here we are! There was this boy, who
began playing percussion and made his first camera shots and here is the man working with sound and light. Looks like a linear
development! But did I really follow such a straight course?
So, here we are! There was this boy, who began playing percussion and made his first camera shots and here is the man working
with sound and light. Looks like a linear development! But did I really follow such a straight course?
Some years later—I was living in Cologne at the time playing percussion in different bands and working in an advertising studio—I began frequently using the studio camera, a large format camera where the photographer’s head is under a piece of black fabric facing the focusing screen. It is the modern version of the camera obscura, a more than two thousand year old invention that finally led to photography, where light travels through a small opening into a dark space and produces reversed projections of images.
The prettiest landscape I ever saw was drawn on the walls of a dark room.
—Eyewitness report about an accessible camera obscura from 1712
Even the British explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873), missionary and explorer, fascinated his audience in Africa with his projections and wrote about his presentations with the magic lantern: It was the only mode of instruction I was ever asked to repeat.
—David Robinson, 1993
During my art studies I left the small room of this contemporary version of the camera obscura—although I am still re-visiting it from time to time. I began working with light projections in different spaces and environments, using various slide projectors, where, opposite from a camera, the light source is inside the box instead of outside it. As microphones and speakers are basically the same, just used in an opposite manner, a camera can also be used as a receiver or as a sender.
Now I am mainly working with pure light, realising installations and performances with light—mostly in combination with sound. I use many kinds of electric light sources: neon lights, fluorescent lights, mercury-lamps, but in particular, incandescent lamps which play a central role in my light work. My performances with light normally take place in a darkened room without any daylight.
It is a bit like in one of the medieval tales from the German Lalebuch—and there are similar stories all over the world. This tale tells of the foolish inhabitants of Laleburg, who build a new town hall, but foolish as they are, they forget to build in the windows. In the end they want to solve the problem of the lack of light by filling sacks with daylight and attempt to carry it into the building.
Etliche hatten lange Secke / liessen die Sonne dreyn scheynen biß auf den Boden / knuefften jn dann eylends
zu / vnnd lieffen damit ins Hauß / den Tag außzuschuetten.
—Excerpt from the Lalebuch, Wunderseltsame, abenteuerliche, unerhörte und bisher unbeschriebene Geschichten und Taten der Lalen zu Laleburg. (The oldest known print of the book is from1597)
Room and space are certainly key words in my work with light. Working with different sources of electric light and their effect on the space, the architecture, and the environment in general, is one of the central aspects in my visual work. I am interested in the change of spatial perception in different light situations and how light modulates and transforms a space. I am fascinated by the ephemeral and immaterial character of light and by the ability of light to capture a room and create a strong atmospheric effect.
We went to the place de la Concorde, and while standing there admiring the stars, we found a man with a telescope. So we had to look at Saturn and his rings. Then we went on to the Gardens in the Champs Elysées which are lighted by electricity and are almost bright as day.
—Mary Roswell Scaife, a visitor from Pittsburgh, reported to her relatives on the Paris scenes around 1870.
And of course, sound and space are necessarily linked as well. The acoustic of a space and the way sound is reflected, but also the positioning of the sound sources have a strong impact on the sound itself and its perception, influencing the musician/performer and the way they are to produce sound.
A long time ago the sound spectrum of my percussion set-up received an extension, with the inclusion of self-designed string instruments that I had built by a piano maker: wooden resonators covered by arrays of piano strings. The sonic blend generated by the use of these different types of instruments, as well as the inclusion of various new playing methods has lead to a correspondingly diverse palette of sound-characteristics in my work.
The plurality of these tone colours creates a pronounced spatial sound differentiation of multifaceted sound spaces: The deep sound layers created with my big Chinese-cymbal, hit with a soft mallet; the spherical resonance arising from my bass string instrument; my bowed chimes which sound almost like sine waves—making the location of their sonic sources nearly impossible; or the sound of a rimshot on the snare-drum. All these sounds have different characters, creating various sonic spaces, generating alterable rooms inside the room (of the performance) itself.
Some years ago I also began to develop the project Light Bulb Music, an audio-visual and electro-acoustic performance dealing with sounds, generated by different light bulbs and electric actuating devices. The changes in the light intensity, the incandescence of the filaments and the rhythmic variety of the flickering and pulsing lights are directly transformed into sound. Once connected to the electric circuit, the set-up of various incandescent lamps, switches, controllers and electric cables allows me to create different changing electromagnetic fields. This is made audible by the use of different microphones and pick-ups. Performing Light Bulb Music is like monitoring varying, invisible spaces of energy.
Byron has had a vision, a vision of 20 million Bulbs, all over Europe, at a given synchronizing pulse arranged by one of his many agents in the Grid, all these Bulbs beginning to strobe together, humans trashing around the 20 million rooms like fish on the beaches of Perfect Energy.
—Thomas Pynchon: Gravities Rainbow, New York: Viking Press, 1973.
Reviewing my work with sound and light so far, how it has developed and the way it is linked, I see a zigzag rather than a straight line. I have been working in a large variety of contexts and have been active in so many artistic fields—and it will for sure go on like this—like music, performance art, sound art, installation art, photography, and film. I have performed in many different types of spaces: museums, concert-halls, galleries and clubs, but also in gardens, swimming pools, customs houses, car parks, observatories and cinemas. The diversity of all these activities resembles a veiny structure where various arms branch out in different directions but still share the same source.
I just read a note of William N. Jennings, an amateur photographer who is credited with taking the first known photographs, dated around 1880, of lightning during thunderstorms, the most primary natural phenomenon of sound and light—also attended by a huge electric potential. Mr. Jennings noticed that artists only depicted one form of lightning—an awkward zigzag—and he decided to see what the camera would show. For over fifteen years he made lightning photographs in various parts of the world. No two of which were alike, and none a zigzag.
—Andreas Blühm, Louise Lippincott: Light! The Industrial Age 1750 – 1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Text by Michael Vorfeld. December 2011, Berlin
[ar056] MICHAEL VORFELD
On a zigzag course 2011
On a zigzag course | Thoughts about my work with sound and light.
Pictures by Michael Vorfeld. Design by Aniana Heras.
We want to give special thanks to Michael for his big support.