The Human Measure

April 29, 2011 § 5 Comments

Paul Devens on essentials, control, dead kittens and sound mapping the city of Kortrijk.

City Chase is the title of a new Resonance installation produced for the upcoming Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk, Belgium (from May 5th until May 22nd) by Dutch sound artist Paul Devens. I visited Paul in his little white home, a bit outside the center of Maastricht, at the border of the Caberg neighborhood. It was a very sunny day in March. The weather had decided to settle for spring. Paul had just returned to base, after several weeks of travel that took him to the east: to the Estonian city of Tallinn (one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture); and to the west: to Brooklyn, New York. In Tallinn he performed at the radio art festival Radiaator. In Brooklyn, Michael J. Schumacher’s Diapason Gallery showed his Probe, a site specific work developed especially for the exposition space of Diapason. It was on show there in March.

Paul and I have quite a few things common. Both of us were born and raised in the Dutch city of Maastricht. And when we were young, we both were fascinated by the many small wonders of technology that surrounded us. Paul told me how as a kid he used to take radio’s apart, put them back together again, while attempting to find out what would happen if on the way one changes something here or there. I used to be a pretty fanatic young de-constructor as well, with a liking, also for radios and other things electric, but very specifically for mechanical clocks. Contrary to Paul, though, I have little remembrance of ever having succeeded in even approximately putting back together again the collections of loose parts that were the result of my pre-teen deconstructive efforts.
So that then is a difference.
It might explain the fact that eventually I left Maastricth, while Paul stayed.
Which is another difference.
Paul Devens has been living, studying, researching and working in Maastricht until this very day.

“When I entered art school,“ he said, “this technical bricolage gradually became less haphazard. It took on a more focused form. It was also in art school that I became interested in the peculiarities and possibilities of ‘sound’. I embarked upon the artistic research that I pursue until this very day, in which research into ‘the sound itself’ became more and more central. This then led me to create installation pieces, even though I started out as a painter. But already for my graduation work, though, I did installations that make sound.”

Several of Paul Devens’ recent works, such as Panels or Probe, investigate and re-sound specific locations and the corresponding architecture by means of the sound of the space itself, often using audio feedback as sound material. Both also involve meticulously produced and well thought out electro-mechanical devices, that impress by their effectiveness and (apparent) simplicity. Panels, as you may remember, was pretty large, while Probe is relatively small. But both witness Paul’s keen eye for materials and his love for construction, in the broadest sense of the term.


“For ‘Probe’ I asked Michael to send me an architectural drawing of the space where the installation was to be,” Paul explained. “I then used that drawing to make a 3D model of the space in Google SketchUp. As I could not just hop over to Brooklyn to have a look, this virtual model enabled me to get a first feeling for the circumstances as I would find them there. I then had a physical scale model made of the space. The real space has a length of about 20 meters. The model is about 50 centimeters long. It was made in stainless steel. With a waterjet the doors, windows and pillars were cut out, and then bead blasting was used to get a specific surface texture. More than a maquette, I wanted it to emanate a certain functionality. To have it look like a little machine.”

It is also a sculpture.

“Yes, it is a sculpture, of course. A replica of the space. And for the installation at the gallery, I placed this replica of the space inside the space itself. It is partially filled with water, and a probe is moving through the model, like someone erring through the real space. Six spots on the bottom of the model correspond to six fixed loudspeakers in the gallery, and whenever the probe comes near one of the spots, you will hear the sound coming from the corresponding spot in the gallery. You can see how it works in this short video.”

“As you see, the model thus acts as a potentiometer which uses the conductivity properties of the water, for the panning of the sound, its division among the six loudspeakers.”

You once told me that, when it comes to sound and sound art, you see yourself as ‘a purist’: when you create a work for a specific space, you try to reveal the sonic properties, the sound of the space, and its relation to the specific architecture, the materials and the geometry. In doing so, you avoid adding or imposing whatever accessory or incidental sound events in the process.

“Yes. Even though it regularly happens that I am tempted to also consider the esthetics in and by itself as a point of departure, I have until now always managed to restrain myself in that respect. Like in Probe, or in Panels, I work with little else but the Larsen effects of a space, with audio feedback. It is of course true, that the feedback of a microphone placed at a certain distance from a loudspeaker in a room can be rather unpleasant to listen to. So I could make it more agreeable to the ear by adding harmonies, by using techniques like, for example, pitch shifting. But I do not do that, because in the end this is little more than decoration, without conceptual connection to the piece itself. It is possible that this makes some of my works somewhat hermetic. Maybe. But it does assure that everything fits, which I find essential. Because that is how I think I can achieve the broadest possible artistic range. For me this is a necessity, as I want avoid at all cost that a work in the end is little more than a first encounter, a mere gimmick. It should be coherent, in all of its aspects. It is this internal coherence that emanates a strong interrelation and interaction with all that what one sees and what one hears. I want to be very strict about this.”

The work becomes, let’s say: ‘pretty’, because you avoid trying to make it seem prettier than it really is… Does this approach make your work ‘abstract’? Or is it, on the contrary, very ‘concrete’?

“What would you say is ‘abstract’ about it? I often hear people use that term in relation to my work: ‘abstract’. But I don’t know …”

‘Abstract’ maybe in the sense that you keep things bare. The materials are bare, the sounds are bare. You strip it all down to the essentials, and do not add something like a ‘narrative layer’, a ‘story. You see what you see, you hear what you hear…?

“But is that ‘abstract’? Is it ‘concrete’? As far as I see it, there always is a ‘story’. A very clear story, even. An evident one. No, I feel pretty uncomfortable with all of these terms: ‘abstract’, ‘concrete’, ‘figurative’… A work results from a certain conditionality, that is based on a given reality. This conditionality represents the reality, ‘the way that things are’, in a situation that transforms, with and by the work. This enables one to see, to experience, that piece of reality (a given space) in a different manner. In order to achieve this I probably do apply strategies that can be associated with terms like ‘abstract’, ‘concrete’ or whatever; strategies that I put to work depending on their functionality, in certain circumstances, at certain times. In other situations I may find a certain narrative envelope, or social-cultural facts that are related to the place, of utmost importance for the production of a work.”

The installation in Kortrijk also will be different in this respect. Your point of departure is a different type of space.

“Yes. In City Chase it is not so much the given room for the exhibition (which in Kortrijk is the topfloor of the Budatoren) that I take as my point of departure, but the space of the city itself. The idea is to create a ‘city sound scape’ by applying – to use a fashionable term – a mapping technique: I will be mapping the city. The sound material consists in field recordings that I will make in the streets of different parts of Kortrijk at the end of April. I will go to different areas, with different sonic characteristics, and put together a collection of recordings that will constitute a cross-section of the many different sounds that can be heard there: sounds in residential areas, in the more industrial areas, shopping areas, and so on. But I will not record these snippets of the city sound scape by going to different places, then placing myself here and there, put down my digital recorder and then statically record. What I aim for are recordings with a strong dynamic component, in the sense that there is no ‘focus’ to the recording. There is no static, single ‘point of hear’, no fixed spot for the listener. For this, I will record the city while riding on a bicycle.”

Riding the bicycle through the city will by itself already be an impressive & dynamic sonic event. There might be a lot of wind, also… I guess you’ll have to limit your speed…?

“Well, I just got my ‘dead kitten’… I will use a double protection: inside the ‘dead kitten’ there is another windshield. I hope that will do to minimize the noise of the wind in the microphone. I’ll have to see for that. I just received it, so I did not yet try it out. With these recordings I then will compile a library of fragments of the sound of the city.”


“This library of dynamic, unfocused, city sound recordings is the material for a four channel composition. There will be four voices. And each of the voices is linked to the installation, via a computer. The installation itself consists in a long, self-supporting wall, that is now being built, and that I will position within the space in the Budatoren. Along the wall, at a little distance, there is a range of benches that visitors can sit upon and listen. Onto the wall four metal rails have been mounted horizontally. Each of these serves as the track for a little motorized wagon – a little gondola, a ‘gondolette’ – on which a small loudspeaker has been mounted. These gondolettes can move along the full length of the wall, in both directions. Each loudspeaker corresponds to one of the four sound tracks; each is one of the voices. The installation is variable in size. It is conceived in a modular way, put together from a number of identical parts. So I can adapt it to the size of the available space. In Kortrijk I will use the full length; that is about 10 meters. In other spaces it will be possible to use different lenghts, down to 2 meters. And then of course whatever there is in between.”


For next installments of City Chase, like in Bergen or in Maastricht, will you replace the Kortrijk library with another library of sounds, recorded in the corresponding city? Will the sound part be specific to each of the different cities?

“No, I want City Chase to evolve with each subsequent version. It will grow as it goes from town to town. So in each of the next cities that will host the installation, I will not replace the sounds, but add new recordings to the library of sounds.”

And how are the movements of the gondolettes determined? What will make the little speakers move the way they move?

“The gondolettes will move when there is sound on their track; they move as soon as they have a voice. When there is no sound, they don’t move.”


How do they move? What will make them move in the one, rather than in the other direction?

“That will be a matter of choreography. I am going to compose the movements: when a little wagon will move, in which direction it will go, whether it will go fast or go slow… This I will program, so eventually the choreography will be a fixed thing. I really want to determine this, and not leave it up to chance, or some algorithm or other. Because, as I see it, not all movements will be equally good. An algorithm would reduce the choreography to a set of mere mathematical relations. That I do not want. I want to stay in control.”

“In the very end, in all of this, it is the human size that matters. The human measure. Are things bigger than you are? Or are they smaller? And these questions in turn, of course, eventually also evoke a relation with ‘power’.
Who is it, that is in charge?”

The Festival van Vlaanderen Kortrijk 2011 takes place in Kortrijk, Belgium, between May 5th and 22nd. Sound City (Klinkende Stad) is the title of the Resonance exhibition (with sound installations by Pierre Berthet, Esther Venrooy, Paul Devens and Maia Urstad) that is part of the Festival. The exhibition’s opening (in the Budatoren, Korte Kapucijnenstraat), will take place on Saturday May 7th.

“Meanwhile, somehow, something …”

April 9, 2011 § 9 Comments

Skyping with Maia Urstad. A conversation about radio on our private globe-spanning channel…

A couple of days ago I sat in my Parisian bedroom, looking out on a busy avenue with a nervous traffic rushing towards the Place de la Nation and back again. There I talked with Maia Urstad a Norvegian artist, who meanwhile, at that very same moment, was in her Bergen studio, overlooking the calm water surface of a small harbor.


Maia Urstad is one of the artists that, as part of the European sound art network Resonance, produce a new sound work for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk, Belgium, which takes place next month, from May 5th until May 22nd. As communication technology, its fate and its ‘ruins’, are topics central to Maia’s work, it was in hindsight rather appropriate to have this conversation over Skype, which these days is one of the main ubiquitous technologies used, not only to privately talk with people all over the globe, but also to transmit lectures and performances from one place to another, as nearby or as far away as one wishes. With its blurry images, failing connections, freezes and drops in the sound transmission, it comes with a pretty lo-fi feel. It is a bit like having your own home-built radio transmitter and receiver, and a frequency that allows you to broadcast to whoever you allow to listen in. We are all ‘radio amateurs’ these days, without even knowing…

The (idea of) radio is pivotal in a still growing number of Maia Urstad’s works, reflecting her fascination with radio as an object, as a technology, as a source of sounds and as a means for globe-spanning communication. Reflecting a fascination also for how radio somehow seems to manage to survive current technological changes that follow one another in ever more rapid succession.


‘Structures of stone have been built since time immemorial, and are still erected today,’ it says in a series of short notes on her web site. ‘Monuments will stand after us, as they have stood after our ancestors. But will the remains of our technology be understood in a hundred years or more? Will these remains be accessible when our descendants attempt to discover our everyday concerns? What do we erase as we progress?’

Indeed, what do we erase? Will a next generation have the slightest clue of what is a ‘Skype’, and how that was like? Does it matter?


“My work with portable radios actually goes back to 1996,” Maia said, smiling into the small lens of her computer’s camera in Bergen. “At that time I was working with sound in the context of experimental theatre. These were the kind of productions in which each of the makers contributes a part of equal weight: The director had one voice, the writer had one voice, I had one voice … So the sound was an integral part of the performance. I then got four radio cassette players. Because these provided a nice way to move the sound and move with the sounds that I had recorded onto cassette tapes. A bit later I was invited to Krakow for a project, where I decided to improvise with portable radios. Again, because they make it very easy to move the sound around and blend in with the actors. So I got four more radio cassette players. At the time I was working with the radio sound, but transferred onto cassette tape. because that was a nice way to make textures. So then I suddenly had eight of these radio cassette players. In 1998 I did a project in the mountains in Bergen. There I hung four radios in some trees, and I worked with these medium wave sounds, that, you know, can sound almost like birds. So I was working with space and birds and medium waves, communication…”


“I realized more and more that these machines, that then already were quickly becoming obsolete and were very easy and cheap to get, would be very interesting material for constructions. The radio’s are blocks, they are construction bricks. So I started to build with them, like the classical arch of ‘Stations’, which is a 3 meter tall portal, that I made in 1999 with some 50 cassette radios and CD players, at the Fortress Bergenhus.”


“Since then one project has been leading to another. What I began in 2004, and still continue to do, is the construction of this big wall, the ‘Sound Barrier’. It is changing all the time, but the main structure is there. I just adapt it to each new space. Also the sounds are always changing, depending for instance on whether it is a group installation or a solo installation. In constructions like ‘‘Stations’ and ‘Sound Barrier’, I use radio cassette players and CD players, with technology that makes the CD players play in a synchronized way. So I can start many of them at the same time, and use several separate layers: I can start one layer, and then another layer and then add another layer, and so on…”


“The Resonance installation that I will produce for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk is a continuation of these projects. I now am also very interested in the radio again, and I felt the need to dissolve…”


It somehow gives me the impression as if you just have been taking the big wall apart again. Or maybe it exploded and you captured the moment just before a part of the machines hit the ground again?

“The radio’s are floating in the air, each of them separately. I was in Kortrijk in February, to work on the piece and try out things in the space where the installation will be. It is a very interesting place, an old brewery, I believe. I like the floor, and I like the material used in the spaces. The organizers in Kortrijk collected radio’s for me, and they will continue to do so for the Festival. I actually asked for 96 of them, but for the tests in February I got 16. I believe that they even intend to put out a call on the radio in Kortrijk, to ask people to give or lend their radios…”

“But when you use so many radio’s, there are quite a few technical challenges: with noise, and interference… I would like to transmit the sounds with four short-range transmitters. But maybe four frequencies will be hard in Kortrijk. I will have to find more or less empty spots on the radio, and it’s on the FM. So. It is not completely clear that I will be able to find these. When I was there in February, there was a lot of interference and a lot of noise. And it seemed to me that the stations were very strong.
I want to use the sounds of the radio’s as textures. If there are 16 of them, then I can frame the space, if you see what I mean. But if I have very many of them, I can install them in the space so that it becomes, as it were, one texture. So you don’t walk around in it, but you just get into it. You become yourself a part of the installation.”

You want to give the impression that the radio’s are freely floating in the space. What sort of wires do you use to hang them?

“I want them to float, but on the other hand, of course everybody knows that they are hanging from the ceiling… The first thing one does when one wants something to look invisible is use fish string. But I think that is not really working. It is also too elastic, so that after a while the radio’s are hitting the floor. So, you see, I do not know yet. I tried out a few different possibilities, but I haven’t decided yet. If the wire is too thin, then it will not carry the radio. And if it’s too thick, it takes the energy away from the radio. So it’s a fine balance, you know.
Another interesting technical problem to be solved is how to provide the electrical power for all of these little machines. I would like to work with batteries, but that will not be very practical, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it would probably mean that during the period of the Festival someone would need to turn on every radio every day, and maybe also change batteries over time. With wires for the electricity it will be possible to switch all of them on and off at once. But it also means that we will have to solve an interesting visual problem. There is always this negotiation between what is visual, what is not visual, what is main, what is accessory, and what is practical, what is needed in the installation. “


“The title of the piece is ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai …’, which is inspired by the thought bubbles that are so often used in comic books. For the sound part, I am collecting many details about the time and the place, as they are being transmitted continuously by radio stations all over the world. Announcements like: ‘Es ist drieundzwanzig Uhr in Deutschland’, ‘Cinco de la Manana en Madrid’, ‘Het is nu middernacht’, and so on. I collect such announcements when I am travelling, but that is not always easy, especially when you don’t know the language, and are not quite sure what exactly is being said. So there are some blank spots… but if I like the voice, I can use it anyway. These messages I want to put together with other radio-specific sounds, in a polyphonic sonic image. Like a phonogram of a 24-hour cycle on the air. All of this I will have to develop and clarify when I am in Kortrijk to continue my research and the development, during the month before the opening of the installation on May 7th.”


“I can’t really start composing before I am Kortrijk, because I will have to consider what material there is already. All the Beyoncé and who knows other music… and I have to see for the volumes. As I said before, I work very much with layer upon layer upon layer upon layer upon layer. I work with textures, with background, with foreground… It still is not very clear to me how the composition will sound in the end. Though the idea now is more or less articulated, in a way, the sound is not there yet. At other times I started with the material. Maybe that is easier. But this time I started with the idea.
The way I see it now (but that still might change) is that there will be no frame. You will not be able to go around the installation, you will have to go into it, and become surrounded by the sound.
In fact, it will be around your ankles. I mean, the radio’s do not hang at ear height. I want to have them close to the floor, so that, acoustically, you won’t have your ear towards the radio.”

I like a lot the idea to built the installation with radio’s that are collected locally, that come from within and around Kortrijk.

Maia laughs. “Yes. Maybe we will empty Kortrijk of its portable radio’s. So then people will have to listen on the internet. I had an interesting experience this autumn, when I was in Brasil. I was doing a workshop with a group of artists. I asked them to bring a radio, and in my mind they would come carrying something. And then they popped in, but nobody carried anything at all. so I asked: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring your radio?’ But they said, ‘yes! sure we did!’ And of course, they had the radio on their cell phones, or computers.”

You will agree that listening to the radio on the web or on your iPhone (where you simply will ‘click’ to chose and listen to one among a range of available channels) is a very different experience from roaming through the ether turning the dial of your radio, with new voices and other music crackling in and out of ‘focus’…

“Yes, it is! But maybe that is also sort of a generation thing. My kids do listen to the radio, but I don’t think they turn the dial to search for channels. They simply pick the station that they want to listen to. They don’t search in the same way. I think that has something to do with memory. But I still think they have a memory for radio as well, it ‘s just a little bit different. It is true that things are changing…”


Do you listen yourself to the radio at home, Maia?

“Oh, actually I do. Yes, I listen to the radio. To a real radio. There is this one station left in Norway that has a lot of topics, that often before I didn’t even know that I would be interested in. So yes, I like to switch on the radio, and listen to that station.

I actually always envied friends of mine, who are also artists, but who can listen to the radio all the time when they’re working. I cannot do that. I cannot listen to the radio when I am working with all those radio’s that diffuse my sounds…”

The Festival van Vlaanderen Kortrijk 2011 takes place in Kortrijk, Belgium, between May 5th and 22nd. Sound City (Klinkende Stad) is the title of the Resonance exhibition (with sound installations by Pierre Berthet, Esther Venrooy, Paul Devens and Maia Urstad) that is part of the Festival. The exhibition’s opening (in the Budatoren, Korte Kapucijnenstraat), will take place on Saturday May 7th.

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