ArtsPeople’s Kathryn Hunyor sat down with Lucas Abela to talk about our latest production Fort Thunder, the joys of making noise, and the future of levitating organs.
KH: As tempting as it is to talk about the beautiful music you make while incidentally lacerating your own face with sheets of broken glass, today I want to focus on your interactive art installations, and Fort Thunder.
One of the reasons ArtsPeople were so keen to work with you and Keg was your desire to break down the hierarchy between audience, artist and artwork. You seem keen to put the kids in charge.
You’ve said before that this is motivated by your belief that “experimental music making is more fun than observing people making experimental music”.
As a noise performer, you get a lot of people telling you, “I can do that, making noise is easy”, in a way my installation ideas are a response to that, giving me the chance to reverse the situation and say “ok here you go, here are the tools – go make noise”. I do this because I think noise music is better appreciated in the making rather than passively consumed. So by switching roles between performer and audience, I give them a taste of the joy I find when making noise.
This philosophy has steered my thinking as I transitioned from performing to installation work. I wanted to create situations for my audience to get the thrill of making noise without the inhibitions inherent in presenting people with musical equipment and expecting them to perform. So, I disguised the tools of noise making by putting noise-making tools in the hands of my audience in inadvertent ways. For example, with Fort Thunder, children are attracted to things like pinball machines or swings as they know the language of these forms, but then as they start playing the pinball machine or sitting on the swings, noise is generated – and lo and behold they become noise makers!
KH: I completely agree, and can be said for so much art for children, but I’m wondering, does this desire also spring from your own childhood experience?
I think the reason I may have appropriated arcade culture with works like ‘Vinyl Rally’ and the pinball machines was because way back in my tweens I was a video game addict, like most people in the late 80’s. I loved the cacophonous nature of the arcade environment, it was never just the sound of one machine but the sound of many machines all layered on top of each other, and they are really noisy places. I wanted to emulate the noise of the arcade in, for example, my ‘Temple of Din’ installation where there were multiple pinball machines all overlapping each other. Fort Thunder also does this with three simultaneous and loud sound installations happening at once and in close proximity to each other – their sounds overlap and become one din just like a video arcade.
KH: Your works seem to straddle a sense of ‘comfort’ and ‘discomfort’. On the one hand, the way you use a known format like a pinball machine, puts people at ease and they are less intimidated about “making music”. But the music-making isn’t necessarily straightforward. Are you doing this to stretch and challenge people?
Experiential, participatory installations are all I’m really interested in doing. I try to avoid installations that are passive or interactive to the point where everyone has the same experience, rather I attempt to create experiences where the participation is individualised and where audiences oversee creative decisions. So, with Fort Thunder, children play the instruments rather than recreating a contrived experience.
Essentially, they are designed to lure you into situations to make noise, once you’re there and the noise begins, you quickly realise there are controls that enable you to further manipulate the sounds. Say with the Feedback Swing Set, once they start swinging and the feedback beings, people start to focus on the creation of sound rather than just swinging. Then sometimes people just forget altogether that they are playing on swings, and focus entirely on the sounds, turning to each other to jam the noise with each other.
KH: All artists and curators who make participatory works love seeing the smiling faces, the beautiful moments between kids, their parents and their grandparents. It’s so gratifying and uplifting.
But one thing I’m really interested in is how projects such as Fort Thunder inform and feed into an artist’s practice. There’s often an assumption that the artist or curator is teaching the kids, or giving them this wonderful experience, but the artist/curator also gets a lot out of it, and their practice evolves from it. Both with Fort Thunder and other previous works, how has the audience interaction affected your art making? Or put simply, what ideas have you stolen from kids!?!
I do love watching people interact with the work, unlike performance where the high is in the doing, with these installations the high only comes after you get to see the way they make people feel. Watching my audiences interact with previous works definitely informs my new work. For instance my first installation of the ‘Vinyl Rally’ was initially an instrument idea that grew into a giant video racing game in a real world situation. When I first thought of using arcade consoles it was a means of interaction, but once built, I observed how people naturally knew what to do with them, which then inspired projects like Fort Thunder.
KH: Fort Thunder came about in tandem with your son Ernie. Although Ernie is still only young, you’re obviously thinking about your art now in the context of your personal life too. How has becoming a father changed your life, and your work?
Ernie was definitely a big influence in deciding to move into the playground inspired installations for Fort Thunder. He has one of those baby activity centres and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have one of those full of effects pedals so kids could manipulate sounds rather than spinning and flipping things. That was the first idea that came into my mind and it kind of grew into the idea of creating a sonic playground.
It’s also a way to incorporate my work into my role as a father, I get to make stuff that he can trial for me and as he gets older and my ideas get more complicated I’ll get him to test them. It’s a good way of combining my work and life, bonding and working at the same time.
(KH: Yes, and it also sounds like free market-testing!)
KH: As I know you enjoy wearing your appeal to the “GP” (general public) as a badge of honour I’m going to ask two stupid questions. Can you explain for me in non-artspeak, Goethe’s colour theory, and ‘situational aesthetics’, in relation to Fort Thunder?
Well Keg was developing another work simultaneously to the Fort called ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’ which just opened at Artspace. Its all about pedagogy and she was researching Goethe’s colour theory and how colour combinations helped shape mood especially in the context of education. We both thought that these ideas would be equally useful when deciding how to bring colour to the works in Fort Thunder and picked out three different combos for the Fort, Feedback Swings and Pinball.
As for Situational Aesthetics, it’s basically using known formats like pinball as access points for people to have deeper interactions with a work. Essentially it allows for shortcuts when experiencing the work as the basics are already known. This way people aren’t so shy about initially interacting because they innately knowing what’s expected from them. Then once up close and personal with the work the differences become more apparent and they begin to incorporate the noises into their play.
KH: I love the physical aspect to your work – that moving, feeling, and physically manipulating the works is important. There are no screens involved. “Making” music vs “listening” to music. Is the physical engagement also important to you?
Physicality is probably the most prominent thread spanning my performance career so it only makes sense that it has passed on into my installation work as well. Noise has a physical presence in space which is one of the things that has always attracted me to it. The ability to shake the very atoms around you that are perceived by the mind’s ear as sound is, when you think about it, it’s a strange phenomenon. I particularly enjoy coaxing unnatural alien yet organic sounds out of my equipment which again is something I’m trying to translate to my audience by handing over the keys. From a OH&S point of view I can’t exactly give them a sheet of glass and let them rip, so these installations have found other ways to pass on these feelings and experience the physical relationship between yourself, the space, and sound. A big part of that is the interacting; it needs to be physical and it must have cause and effect otherwise it may as well be playback and recorded sound as opposed to live sound created by the noise maker.
KH: Fort Thunder was a collaboration between you and Keg – what aspects did Keg bring to the collaboration?
Keg and I worked together on the design, layout and aesthetics of the project, she then took lead of the colour scheme incorporating Goethe’s colour theory. I conceived the instruments and was more involved in the technical aspects and electronics. But all-in-all it was highly collaborative experience.
KH: If money was no object what would you do next?
I’ve always wanted to build a levitation organ! It’s a wind tunnel where you wear an EEG helmet. As you think about flying, the turbines start lifting you up through a myriad of different sensors that bend sounds that are also mapped out from the electrical happenings of your brain as you’re hovering in space, until eventually it spits you out via a huge inflated dome, that Keg would make obviously, which is octopus-like with dozens of different slides as exit points.
KH: Reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate factory. Sounds amazing. Please put our names down for testing your first prototype! And thanks for your time today.
For sure, no worries.
This interview with Lucas Abela was conducted by Kathryn Hunyor and edited by Jaclyn Fenech, ArtsPeople.
Fort Thunder: An Acoustic Playground runs until 21 July 2018 at the Fairfield City Museum & Gallery
The works from Fort Thunder will then travel on to Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), Festival of Endless Gratitude (Copenhagen, Denmark) as well as M Pavilion (Monash University).