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.

The Ringing Wealth of Curves

October 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

When I was much younger than I am now I often sat under bridges and marveled at the reverberation and the echoes that came whirling back to me from the curved (concrete, metal or other) structures above my head. And I found that while strumming my guitar there definitely was good, screaming, shouting and stamping around were even better.
As far as the screaming and stamping goes, I especially remember one little bridge in the small town of Luxembourg, which crosses the Sauer from the Luxembourg to the German side. Here is a picture:

wasserbillig bridge

Part of the reason why I do remember that particular spot so very well is that it was under this Wasserbillig bridge that in the summer of 1973, with a small battery powered portable cassette machine, I made one of my very first outdoors recordings. The resulting five minute soundbite always remained dear to me. Every now and then I listen to it ( † ). And though of course even the best recording would not be able to emulate the physical sensation of being part of that small curved space and its particular acoustics, it does ensure that I will never forget the Wasserbillig bridge.

It therefore is no wonder that I was struck by a Wasserbillig ghost when on Monday October 3th I entered, for the first time, the upper floor of the Wiebengahal on the Avenue Céramique in Maastricht and heard the rattling echoes of my footsteps under the low semicircular concrete shell roof.
The peculiar acoustics of this vast (some 800 m2) space is the subject of Panels, an intricate installation by Dutch sound artist Paul Devens.

paul devens panels

Paul molds, transforms and re-shapes the hall’s acoustic ‘matter’ by means of four metal ‘bridges’. These are the panels that the title of the installation refers to. Covered with acoustic foam, and according to a fixed, programmed, scheme, they slowly move along four long metal tubes that on both sides are fixed just above the floor. When they do, they squeak and moan. Softly, like chained and forgotten old Céramique ghosts. And there was a distant crackling, irregular yet rhythmic, as if raindrops were hitting a thin metal roof.

paul devens panels

The panels’ ride continuously transforms the space and its acoustic. This ongoing transformation is made audible by means of feedback, generated by 16 loudspeakers on one side and 16 corresponding microphones on the other side, placed in a wedge-like pattern. In order to avoid that the resulting tone field gets dominated by single pure frequencies, a notch filter is applied as soon as these emerge. Here is a short sound file to give you an impression:

A mere recording, though, can do Panels no justice. And neither does the work’s matter-of-factly and prosaic title. (But that is of course a matter of taste. Or of temperament.) The panels are the tools that are applied to reveal what is the true heart of the matter: the ringing wealth of the very special acoustics of this curved surviving trace of Maastricht’s industrial past. The Wiebengahal is one of the few buildings that were spared when, starting in the late 1980s, the industrial park that used to be home to the Société Céramique, was transformed into an office and residential area. Paul’s equally industrial installation fits the Wiebengahal’s attic, almost literally, like a glove. The result is monumental. Panels fills the hall with slowly meandering clouds of almost tangible sound that make the vast empty space seem eerily timeles. I was both surprised and impressed, already then, in broad daylight. But while I wandered back and forth beneath the gliding arcs I wondered. Would the magic not be even bigger were one to come here alone and sit and listen at night, with nothing but the glow of the city lights, maybe along with that of the moon and some lone stars, falling through the roof’s curved glass windows?

It was at this precise moment of reflection that one of the moving panels accidentally set off the Wiebengahal’s burglar alarm. With its painful and penetrating yell it blew up the clouds and chased us away, along with our dreams and all of the Céramique’s ghosts.

[ Panels can be seen and heard daily (except on mondays) until January 16th 2011, at NAiM/Bureau Europa, Avenue Céramique 226, Maastricht (the Netherlands). October 29-30 the installation will be the setting for a two day symposium with a series of performances, centering on the manifold aspects of the relation between space and sound. For a detailed program, see the previous post. ]

[ ( † ) The curious and courageous may find my 1973 Wasserbillig soundbite here. ]

Symposium: The public, the sonic, the spatial

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

On Friday 29 and Saturday 30 October, the Panels installation by Paul Devens (on display at NAiM/Bureau Europa, Avenue Céramique 226 in Maastricht, the Netherlands, until 16 January 2011), will provide the setting for a symposium and a series of performances related to space and sound. Paul invited a number of artists, theorists and architects to lecture and perform at the heart of his installation. The symposium will focus on the relationship between sound, image and architectonic space.


‘An inquiry into the spatial, the sonic and the public’ is presented by Armeno Alberts, sound artist, programme-maker, and director of the CEM studio for electronic music. Alberts worked with the radio programme Cafe Sonore for the VPRO (national broadcasting station), which was the most important programme on sound art in the Netherlands. Alberts also takes on cross-border projects, such as the yearly ‘Art’s Birthday’, which links ten countries directly via internet and satellite, exchanging and broadcasting live concerts.

Here is what you can expect during this special sound/art/science event in Maastricht:

Friday October 29th, 13h-18h: Lectures

Karin Bijsterveld (NL)
The research performed by the historian Bijsterveld is directed toward the – historical – problems associated with noise, the link between technological developments and music, and historical sound. Bijsterveld is the author of numerous publications and is a professor of the Technology and Social Sciences Department at the University of Maastricht.

Eran Sachs (IL/DE)
Eran Sachs is a sound artist, curator and musicologist. He is active in the world of the establishment, in the symphony orchestra of Jerusalem, and in the underground. By mixing consoles where the inputs are connected to the outputs, he is able to produce unsettling loud sounds that have little in common with normal symphonic structures. His energetic live compositions can be referred to as ‘noise music’. He was the curator of present-day electronic music and sound art of Levontin 7 (Tel Aviv) and the ctrl_alt_del festival (Istanbul), among others.

Emre Erkal (TR)
The Turkish architect and sound artist Erkal studies the significance of planology (spatial planning) and architecture against a changing cultural background. Erkal is active as an architect in Ankara and works as an artist in an international field. He has exhibited work at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, at the Singel Cultural Centre in Antwerp, and at the Vooruit in Gent, among other places. He is also one of the founders of NOMAD, a platform for new media and present-day art and, as such, one of the initiators of ctrl_alt_del, the first sound art festival in Turkey, at Istanbul.

Wim Langenhoff (NL)
Langenhoff was educated in Arts and Sciences and works as a Conceptual Engineer for various companies, ranging from the amusement industry to sulphuric acid production. On the basis of his portfolio as an artist, he switched from Research to Advertising at the NatLab in Eindhoven, after ten years’ research, and soon became the marketing and business operations consultant. In the mid-sixties, Langenhoff founded the ‘New Electric Chamber Music’, an artists’ ensemble that experimented with self-made electronics and prototypes from Philips’s NatLab. He is chairman of the Instituut voor Betaalbare Waanzin (Institute for Affordable Nonsense) and is still active as an organizational expert within trade & industry.

Brandon Labelle (DE/US)
The versatile artist Labelle makes sonological installations, gives performances with electro-acoustic sound, and issues his own work and that of others on CD. Labelle is an authority as a publicist and writer. In one of his publications, Background Noise, Perspectives on Sound Art, he positions sound art at the very heart of contemporary art. In his book he describes not only the various forms of expression such as performance, installation and composition, but also elucidates sound as a phenomenon in relation to local circumstances, culture and society.

Friday October 29th, 20h30-23h: Concerts in Panels

Performances by Brandon Labelle and Eran Sachs.

Saturday October 30th, 13h-18h: Lectures

Raviv Ganchrow (NL/IL)
The architect, sonologist and sound artist Ganchrow studies the inextricable link between space and architecture. He develops autonomous installations with self-designed sound technology, such as the ‘Wave Field Synthesis’. Ganchrow exhibits his work and gives performances both at home and abroad. In addition, he is a teacher at the Institute for Sonology in The Hague, at the Academy for Architecture in Arnhem, and at Delft University of Technology.

Basak Senova (TR)
Curator, designer and publicist Senova is the initiator of a great many present-day art projects, often related to the new media. She is a founder of NOMAD, a platform for critical reflection ad the production of exhibitions and projects. Senova is head of the organization behind ctrl_alt_del, the first sound art festival to be held in Turkey, which is still linked to the to the Biennial of Istanbul, and she was the commissioner of the Turkish Pavilion at the Biennial of Venice in 2009.

Justin Bennett (NL/VK)
The work of the sound artist Bennett is often inspired by the context of a specific environment and his work is mainly location-related. Bennett’s work consists of installations, sound strolls and CD issues. He also gives performances with his BMB con ensemble, jointly with Roelf Toxopeus.

Esther Venrooy (NL)
Venrooy is an artist par excellence who is not satisfied with the musical scope offered by classical music. After her saxophone study she investigated the technical and performance qualities of electronics. The physical qualities of (exhibition) space have been increasingly incorporated in her productions in the last few years. Besides her work as a performer, composer, teacher and artist, Venrooy is also currently following a PhD course.

Kees Tazelaar (NL)
The composer of electronic and electro-acoustic music and head of the
Institute for Sonology at the Conservatory of Music in The Hague is also known for his restoration of and reconstruction work on historical electronic compositions. Thanks to his commitment, the work of Gottfried Michael Koenig, Jan Boerman, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Luctor Ponse and the multi-channel sound track of the Poème Electronique of Edgard Varèse has been preserved on the basis of the original tapes.

Janek Schaefer (GB)
Schaefer is a composer and sound artist. He is the inventor of the turntable with several tone arms. The much-honoured British artist issues records and CDs with his ‘deconstructed’ view of reality, involving field recordings and so-called ‘found-footage’ in collage form.

Saturday October 30th, 20h30-00h: Concerts in Panels

Janek Schaeffer, Esther Venrooy and BMB con (Justin Bennett and Roelf Toxopeus)

On both days it is possible to participate in a dinner at Ipanema at 7 p.m.


  • Full programme: € 32.50, (students: € 25.00)
  • Day programme (friday or saturday): € 17.50
  • Half a day (morning or afternoon): € 10.00
  • Participation in dinner per day:€ 15.00

You can inscribe for the symposium at the Bureau-Europa website.

Symposium: an inquiry into the spatial, the sonic and the public

September 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Paul Devens’ installation Panels will be the setting for a symposium and a series of performances on space and sound, co-organised by NAiM Bureau Europa and Stichting Intro/In Situ in Maastricht (the Netherlands), as part of the RESONANCE project. On Friday 29 and Saturday 30 October, various artists, theorists and architects will come to Maastricht for a series lectures and performances in the middle of Paul Devens’ installation.

Participants in the symposium will include Justin Bennett (NL/GB, sound artist/composer), Karin Bijsterveld (NL, historian/Professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture at the University of Maastricht), Emre Erkal (TR, architect/sound artist), Raviv Ganchrow (NL/IL, architect/sound artist), Brandon Labelle (DE/US, artist/composer/writer), Wim Langenhoff (NL, chemist/musician/founder of The New Electric Chamber Music), Eran Sachs (IL/DE, curator/sound artist/composer), Janek Schaefer (GB, sound artist/musician/composer), Basak Senova (TR, curator/writer/designer), Kees Tazelaar (NL, composer/head of the Institute for Sonology in The Hague), and Esther Venrooy (BE/NL, sound artist/composer).

A detailed program will follow soon

PANELS, by Paul Devens

September 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

An inquiry into the spatial, the sonic and the public.

From 12 September 2010 to 16 January 2011 the sound installation entitled Panels. An inquiry into the spatial, the sonic and the public, by Dutch soundartist Paul Devens can be experienced, viewed and heard at NAiM/Bureau Europa in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The installation in NAiM’s Wiebengahal with its characteristic semicircular concrete shell roof occupies the whole upper story, covering no less than 800 m2. The work by Paul Devens offers the visitor an alienating architectonic experience in which sound and light play a major role.

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