Electric Birdsong

The University of Brighton Gallery is currently hosting a retrospective exhibition of the work of German sound artist Peter Vogel. Spindly frames dressed with transistors and capped with speakers eschew monumentality or anything as straightforward as a message. They are like electronic pets which respond to the presence of people. When a viewer casts a shadow over a photocell or claps hands before the tiny microphones soldered onto the frame, she or he is rewarded with pulsing beats and musical notes. The tonality and modulation of these pieces hints at Steve Reich or the Aphex Twin in a quiet moment. There are no instructions. Is the challenge is to unlock the hidden melodic and rhythmic pattern in the object or, perhaps, to create one’s own electronic music?  It is never quite clear who is in command – you or the instrument?

One large piece – a ‘Shadow Orchestra’ – offers an elaborate interplay of shadows. The viewer sits before a control box with his or her hands hovering over light sensors: their actions stimulate a range of percussive fans, chimes and drums which are lit to create a large shadow on the wall.  When the instrument is played, it produces something like a shadow theatre in the gallery.

The history of sound art is full of these kinds of modest experiments with interaction. What makes Vogel’s work so charming is the close connection between form and effect. They look like three-dimensional diagrammes featuring actual transistors and speakers, whilst the linear frame suggests the transmission lines of sound or electricity. Transistors also have the unusual advantage in the world of electronics of being visually appealing things. They come in bright colours and sweet-like shapes.

The Brighton exhibition represents new wave of interest in Vogel’s work. With a background in physics in the 1960s, he was a cyberneticist interested in the operation of the brain. In the 1970s his art works were something like experiments exploring the potential of interaction using current technology: today they look like artefacts from another age. Transistors are, for instance, made today at the nanoscale beyond the powers of human sight.

Watch Vogel play his ‘Sound Wall’ in  documentary ‘The Sound of Shadows’ made by Jean Martin and Conall Gleeson in 2010.

Images from the University of Brighton website

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