Thanks for agreeing to this interview, and congratulations on your new book in the Routledge Sound Design series, Sound and Image: Aesthetics and Practices.
Before talking about the book, I suppose it’s de rigueur in the current context to ask about how the pandemic lockdowns have affected your teaching. Hands-on the hardware and studio-based work are obviously such an important aspect of education in audio arts. I imagine, like everyone else, you’ve had to switch to a purely online learning format? How have you managed that? Did all courses switch to laptop-usable software? Are you doing synchronous, asynchronous or hybrid approaches?
Luckily (if it’s appropriate to say that) the timing meant that much of our hands on content delivery had been completed. Students were mainly in “project mode” working on assignments towards the delivery of end of year compositions / soundtracks, so we were able to move our tutorial discussions online fairly easily, though it did make joint listening difficult and eliminated much of the group dynamic in favor of one-to-one experiences. As for the fall term and the next academic year, we’re looking towards a blended learning with a lot more asynchronous delivery than we’ve done in the past. “Flipping the Classroom” may become a standard practice with contact time dedicated to tutorial style discussion. We had already implemented partial flipping for the technical aspects of teaching (basic software how to’s etc), but it looks like this will now happen for hardware as well as software and also theoretical materials. We won’t be delivering lectures until at least January 2021 and any workshops and hands-on classes will be socially distanced.
The biggest challenges are with student access to machines and software. We were lucky that an audio software company gave us access to remote licenses and that a sound effects company gave a free subscription to their library, but you realize how quickly you take for granted your own access to powerful computing and that students are not universally fortunate to have such tools at home. This is even more the case when we talk of listening environments and access to good quality speakers.
There are lots of discussions ongoing and many questions still to be resolved at this point but I’m lucky to have diligent colleagues who have been carefully reviewing the situation and keeping abreast of industry work practices to feed back into our own approaches.
Are you seeing any major changes in enrollments for this Fall, with the online learning situation?
The reports from the other day actually show that our School (Design — so this is across the board — Film, Graphics, Architecture, Animation, Media) was up on last year’s numbers in terms of recruitment, so it looks like perhaps individuals are looking at the potential future job market in — what I think I saw being described as potentially the worst recession in 300 years — and deciding that education is the way to go for now (or it could be that they’re postponing “gap year” trips until after uni?!). Either way I’m looking forward to welcoming new students back in the new year, to open up their sonic horizons.
Your book is based on the work presented in the Sound/Image conference over the years. How long has that conference been around, and how often is it held? Do you archive proceedings that readers might want to explore? What kind of works have been exhibited?
I’ve always been a fan of bringing people together to share their ideas and works, and the SOUND/IMAGE conference is the latest manifestation of this. I’m very fortunate to be in the position where I have access to facilities and a platform where I can host an event to celebrate the latest in audiovisual practice, and it’s been a pleasure to welcome people from all over the world who are generous enough to share their work with us.
We welcome a whole diversity of practices and approaches (for me that is what makes for a compelling experience), but I suppose a key aspect of the event is the way that it brings together both people who have an interest in the sonic image (those from electroacoustic music and sound arts) as well as those who are interested in sound and image relationships (filmmakers, digital artists etc). These are contiguous areas which have both so much to share with one another, but often don’t quite bridge that gap. The event has run each year since 2015, and each features talks, concerts, screenings, installations and performances. Details of past events can be found online:
as well as through our page on Facebook — Sound Design at Greenwich.
We were looking forward to hosting a bumper 2020 celebration, which would have included a special launch for our new book, but with the current situation it seems like we’ll take a year out from the usual conference and return again in 2021. However, while the full conference won’t take place this year, I have been awarded some funding by the local Royal Borough Greenwich council to bring aspects of the conference to the wider Greenwich public through a festival of installations in the local community. We’re planning this in concord with the Diwali celebrations and will take place in various locations across Greenwich through November/December 2020. It’s great to find that the local community have recognized the potential of audiovisual practices and artworks as a vital part of the post COVID-19 recovery, inspiring people as we move beyond lockdown.
Sound and Image presents a rich discourse for composing and understanding sound-image relationships in the context of many discussed works. For a reader of this interview, what would be your short summary or ‘elevator pitch takeaway’ for what the book offers its readers?
I wanted the book to be a reflection of the diversity of audiovisual practices happening today. To include artists talking about their work, revealing and discussing their working practices, alongside theoretical discussions and critique of these practices in the context of historical practice. Each contribution in this book is about doing, about making art. It offers up a range of approaches and techniques that are as diverse as the contributors and artworks in question, and which connects historical practices in sound and image to the contemporary.
Many other texts and edited volumes in the audiovisual area end up analyzing historic works or discussing theory, so it was really important to me that our book offered a balance to that, a robustly contextualized discussion of creative practice. My hope is that it will inspire even more audiovisual practice and experimentation, as well as a cross fertilization of ideas between different disciplines.
With the kinds of works and ideas discussed in your book, one of the potentially tricky aspects, at least from an institutional angle, is the implied inter- or multi-disciplinarity implied. I.e. musicians making videos, filmmakers composing sound, linear versus interactive media, etc. There are usually strong departmental lines, units or silos organized around all forms of media specificity. How do you gauge the institutional climate for boundary-crossing practitioners? Are old categories melting away, or are there still challenges with an artist wanting to cross over into other practice areas when exploring new technologies? How useful do you find medium specificity as an aesthetic concept that is often mapped literally to the organization of creative institutions?
The whole aim of the SOUND/IMAGE conference is to shatter these boundaries. I’m very lucky to be in a diverse School of Design which includes Architecture, Graphic Design, Film, Media and Sound and I’ve always actively pushed interdisciplinarity. While I appreciate that some people find specialisms comforting and constructive for focus, I’ve always relished the energy of being in a liminal space between and with other different creative practitioners.
As you suggest, these barriers are often entirely arbitrary. And I think there is a move towards more diverse practices, but it can be daunting. I didn’t make an AV piece for the first few years that I was in my position at Greenwich because I was intimidated by colleagues in cinematography. Then I realized that I could collaborate. It’s a compelling challenge for a cinematographer who is used to shooting actors to suddenly be asked to film something abstract, such as an empty stairwell in which nothing moves (as in my piece VOID), and they can really enjoy it. Too often I think we cling to this idea of the composer as an isolated musical genius, especially when it can just be us and the computer. We need to embrace collaboration, adopt a more directorial approach. It’s good to work with others.
There seems to be a trend amongst administrators towards repositioning certain art and design practices under new labels, such as ‘creative technologies and industries,’ to repackage or market programs to make them seem more closely connected to job prospects and economic initiatives. Do you find that to be the case in your teaching areas at the university?
I’m all for learning applied skills. But often the skills that are most desired by people I talk to in the industry (post-production sound) are creative thinking and problem solving. They are looking for people who can be inventive and adapt to fast-changing situations. You don’t get to build those skills learning in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach. So in this regard, I think it’s about changing the dialogue about what “employability” (the term beloved by UK institutions) actually means.
All of this is exacerbated by the pure financialization of value. The increase in fees for university in the UK (in 2012) has really pushed degrees completely from a social to a personal good. And, for better or for worse, the narrative used to drive up enrollment numbers (the UK hit its historical target of 50% of school leavers to go to university in 2019 — up from 15% in 1980) has been centered around personal financial gain. And I note the most deleterious consequences of this in the latest news from Australia where the government is incentivizing STEM subjects to the detriment of Arts and Humanities.
So I really think that this whole discussion needs to take place in consort with the creative industries. Institutions will always develop generic strategies to appease external policy pressures. But we also need to be confident in our knowledge and our understanding of what really will be of maximum benefit to students. I like to tell all of my students when they enroll that the true goal of my program is to teach them to teach themselves, building independent confidence and skills in critical reflection so that they can drive their own practice forward, beyond their studies and through into their career.
How much has the development of programming skills become a part of the kinds of courses taught in your department? Have you been emphasizing this more in recent years?
Our programs in Sound Design and Digital Arts make coding a core focus of studies with compulsory modules on Creative Coding, using Max MSP and Processing, and Creative Interactions moving to create interfaces and interactive media through tools such as Flora, Arduino and Raspberry Pi. While students don’t necessarily see the relevance at the time, they always really appreciate having these skills by the time they get to their final year of study and beyond.
What are your thoughts about online exhibition? I managed a film festival and conference for a number of years (Cinesonika). The experience is so different when you can be in a truly immersive space, with a large projected image and surround sound system, compared to even full screen videos in web browsers with decent headphones. On the other hand, the web certainly makes a lot of work accessible in a way that a live venue can never achieve. What are your thoughts about the possibilities of online curation compared to the venue-based exhibition?
It’s certainly true (even before the pandemic) that you have the potential to reach more people via online platforms. But one of the key things for me about the SOUND/IMAGE conference is the community. It’s not just the screening of the works but it is the conversations afterwards. This is why we try to prioritize and encourage attendance at our events. We want to bring people together in dialogue.
The lockdown has been a real shift in this, and while I’ve attended virtual conferences and concerts, I really miss that human engagement and the social experience of works. Sometimes it’s good to have a personal and really intense experience with a composition to really examine those details. But that’s a different experience from the concert.
Perhaps it’s about a blended approach, a combination of the physical and virtual?
What are your current interests for your own creative work? What kinds of ideas and projects have you lined up for yourself for the near future?
I’ve been very lucky recently to engage in some exciting collaborations. These have even drawn me out of the studio to work with living musicians! One of these has been a collaboration with the Trumpet player Bede Williams. We’ve worked on quite a diverse and wide range of projects in the last couple of years. The next one (which has been postponed until Spring 2021) is a score and soundtrack for a theatrical immersive production inspired by Akkadian myths of the seven sages and the great flood. I’ve been working with scholars of ancient Assyria, to develop libretos and music in ancient Sumerian to be sung by the fantastic choir of St Salvator’s Chapel at the University of St Andrews. These choral elements are then combined with trumpet and marimba to create a ritualistic and evocative soundtrack.
I’ve also got a stack of footage from collaborations with the fantastic cinematographer Luc Sung Yu Lun which I need to edit and develop into audiovisual film works. And I’m hoping to continue my collaborations with experimental filmmaker David Leister when the lockdown eases. Our recent collaboration GONG was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival , and at London Short Film Festival at the ICA.
This autumn we’re hosting a special SOUND/IMAGE festival supported by the Royal Borough of Greenwich this will see us install audiovisual artworks in and around the historic market in Greenwich. And we’ll be celebrating the launch of the book.
Do you have a ‘favorite theory’ or set of ideas, philosophical outlook, etc. that you find particularly interesting for your own work?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about practice and research. One of the books that I’m most excited about is Tim Ingold’s “Making”. In it he argues that there are different ways of knowing and that while we are constantly taught to value knowing ABOUT (the study of something abstracted) we can also gain valuable insights knowing THROUGH. Western thought has devalued the physical and the material in favor of abstract concepts. Ingold argues that its time for us to re-embrace the tactile and material knowledge that we gain from doing. Such understandings can of course inform thinking and abstract knowledge. I am a big believer in this multifaceted perspective on work. I see the process of making art as akin to being in a laboratory mixing chemicals. You perform the act, analyze the result and draw conclusions. Ingold’s book draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari who also feature a lot in my chapter via the lens of Brian Massumi. Indeed, this is where the notion of space comes from and the arguments towards spatial ways of thinking over striated temporal concepts.
One of the reasons that I love the study of the audiovisual is that it interlinks and draws associations with so many different disciplines and subjects. It truly is a trans-disciplinary topic.
What do you think are some of the emerging frontiers of sound and image in their rich combinatoric possibilities? Looking backwards in time, we find the color organ as one of the first, if not the first, explicit technological proposal for a new multisensory or ‘synaesthetic’ (in its non psychiatric usage) practice. What new technological proposals can be glimpsed now for what may lie ahead in coming years or decades, as best as you guess, through your own ‘futurological’ lens?
It’s a fascinating question. I’m not sure I want to predict the future, but I can perhaps point to some areas where I think there is a need for interesting and important research. What jumps out, especially so in this post pandemic world, is the research on VR and immersive environments. At the moment these tend to be fixated on the reproduction of reality, and often tied to the heritage of film and theatre. But these are genuine spatial formats. The viewer has control and can move and shift the narrative themselves, so this requires a more spatial approach to composition and development. We will continue to see people try to apply outdated temporal aesthetics into VR, but gradually I think things will evolve.
I hope too for more exploration of abstract material, more textural experiences. More immersive audiovisual spaces, taking the VORTEX, Stan Vanderbeek dome shows and making them genuinely 360º immersive experiences.
I also hope that practice research continues to go from strength to strength, and that books like ours serve as a strong tool to justify make a case for the value of practice research in the audiovisual domain.
I’m really delighted to be able to share this volume with the world. The SOUND/IMAGE events have gone from strength to strength and is a privilege to now be able to share some of the fruits from these events in written form and make them more accessible to wider audiences.
I’m keen to hear back from people on their response to the book, and hope that people will be inspired to learn more and to connect with audiovisual work, as well as future events that take place all over the world. While we embraced quite a range of styles and approaches, I’m very accepting of the fact that this isn’t a total picture of all audiovisual practices and there are a great many additional styles and approaches (and incredible artists) which I would have loved to be able to feature. Perhaps we need to think about a future volume?