Arie Altena

Introduction to The Poetics of Space

Sonic Acts: Lucas van der Velden, Arie Altena

This book was compiled and edited in 2009 during the development of the thirteenth Sonic Acts Festival. The research, ideas, and thoughts that led to the Festival, held between 25 and 28 February 2010, were the same as those that guided the compilation of this publication. This book is therefore a counterpart to the Festival, but not a catalogue. Although the title, theme and research are the same, the resulting product differs.

The title The Poetics of Space derives from the English translation of the book La Poétique de l’Espace (1958) by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard meticulously described the influence of space and architecture on humans and implicitly argued for an architecture based on experience and imagination, not only on scientific knowledge and functionality. The guiding idea of Sonic Acts’ Poetics of Space is the exploration of space and spatiality in art, sound, technology, and science. We focused attention on the physical spatial experience, on the physical and psychological impact of spatial designs in a society, which has increasingly put technologically mediated communication and immaterial data-streams at its centre.

The central motif of this book is an examination of spatiality in the arts, more specifically the poetry of (abstract) space and the (psychological) perception of space. In what ways do works of art approach and define space? In what ways do technological artworks examine the visual, auditory and psychological properties of spatiality? What developments have taken place over the past centuries in the relationship between technology, space and architecture? How have technological developments influenced our perception and conception of space and the ways in which we relate to the space around us?

Immersive installations, spatial sound, multi-screen projections, performances that combine sound and vision, and the innovative artistic use of technology often take centre-stage at Sonic Acts. The presentation of such works is combined with an interest in the scientific and conceptual background, and in works by precursors from the history of art and technology. For The Poetics of Space we were also interested in how technology redefines public, private, and intimate space, and how it has changed our orientation in, and awareness of, space. The interest of visual and media artists in such issues links up in interesting ways with the research and works of different generations of sound artists and soundscape composers who have delved deep into our understanding of space through sound, and have enabled a profound exploration of specific spaces and environments. The idea that architecture and spatial design is not only visual, but speaks to all the senses, is a notion which not only informed Bachelard but also the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, whose The Eyes of the Skin was a profound inspiration for the Festival programme. Underlying all of this is not only a critique of ocular-centrism, but also an emphasis on the experiential aspect of art. Needless to say, these are wide-ranging issues that can hardly be covered in one book. But the aforementioned questions and issues do return, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, throughout the texts presented here.

Sonic Acts commissioned texts from Brandon LaBelle, Douglas Kahn, Trace Reddell, Cindy Keefer, Erkki Huhtamo and Eric Kluitenberg for this book. Brandon LaBelle’s poetic performance-text explores how the speaking voice relates to space. Douglas Kahn’s essay is about extremely long soundwaves, such as those produced by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and also touches on electrical sound phenomena heard on telephone lines and the work of Gordon Mumma and Alvin Lucier. Trace Reddell interprets the legendary Vortex Concerts of Jordan Belson and Henry Jacobs in the light of cybernetic theory, space travel and cosmology. Cindy Keefer condensed her meticulous research of the Vortex Concerts. Erkki Huhtamo’s media-archaeological account, shows how the form of the Diorama, which aimed at creating an immersive experience by creating an illusion of spatial depth, changed through the years from Daguerre’s original Diorama to the modern miniature dioramas of popular culture. The essay by Eric Kluitenberg describes the effects of the use of mobile technology on our experience of public and private space and elaborates the concept of Hybrid Space, a spatial condition that characterizes the contemporary condition.

Barry Truax’s previously published ‘Soundscape Composition as Global Music’ is included here because it is a clear overview of the original ideas and history of the World Soundscape Project (1973) and describes the evolution of soundscape composition. Mitchell Whitelaw’s essay directly relates to the Sonic Acts XIII exhibition programme, which features a spatial installation by HC Gilje’s; Whitelaw establishes a link between tangible spatial installations and immaterial network culture. Juhani Pallasmaa’s ‘Mental and Existential Ecology’ is a lecture from 2008, in which he pleads for an architecture that places the mental ecology of humans at the centre.

These articles are interspersed with interviews with artists, architects and composers – though these terms are not really applicable to contemporary practitioners. It is especially difficult to label Raviv Ganchrow, whose practical and theoretical explorations of sound and space are the subject of the first interview. Maryanne Amacher’s work was very much on our mind while we were working on The Poetics of Space. We originally intended to invite her to participate in the Festival, but learned that her health was too frail. She passed away on 22 October 2009. While the Maryanne Amacher Archive has started to sort out her papers, we thought it fitting to re-publish a conversation between her and the American composer Frank J. Oteri from 2004, as it sheds light on many of her interests and furnishes an accessible description of some of her artistic intentions and concerns. Takuro Mizuta Lippit takes the perspective of a performer on working with space and sound. The interviews with TeZ, who works on immersive installations and performances that incorporate spatial sound and flicker, and with Edwin van der Heide, are concerned with their artistic and compositional ideas. The interview with Sonia Cillari focuses on the relationship between the body and the experience of (intimate) space. The interview with the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde deals with subjects such as Augmented Reality, liquid architecture and how society is radically changed by technology, while the architect Marc Maurer proposes a more down to earth view of architecture that is similarly influenced by contemporary technology. Some of the utopian architectural ideas about immersive environments that informed the thirteenth Sonic Acts Festival are represented by images of Iannis Xenakis’ Diatope and Polytopes (with a text by Elizabeth Sikiaridi); the Pepsi Pavilion by E.A.T., realized in 1970 in Osaka; and the Blur Building by Diller + Scofidio.

This is a book of many strands, sometimes loosely connected – sometimes tightly interwoven. Together they explore and give shape to a vibrant Poetics of Space.

This text was published in The Poetics of Space, 2010.

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