Sound-Image Relations in Interactive Art

3 Early Use of Technology in Art: Intermedia

The new interest in elements of chance and the process-related aspects of artworks also led to the use of technical equipment that, on the one hand, structured or mediated processes, and, on the other, served as an inexhaustible supplier of sounds (and later images). It was John Cage who first incorporated radios and tape recorders into his compositions and thus inspired the visual artists of the period. In the mid-1950s, Robert Rauschenberg began experimenting with technical components (lighting, ventilators, radios) in his Combine Paintings. His relationship with engineer Billy Klüver eventually led to the renowned 9 Evenings (Theater and Engineering) in 1966—a series of events in which performers, musicians, and visual artists designed and implemented elaborate multimedia performances together with the engineers. Rauschenberg himself staged a tennis match entitled Open Score, which was used to control the lights and to perform as an orchestra.[6] Microphones were attached to the tennis rackets, recording the vibration of the racket strings, and then the recording was sent to loudspeakers via FM transmitters. Each sound emitted by the loudspeakers switched off one of the floodlights illuminating the court. Other artists involved in 9 Evenings also experimented with image-sound interactions. David Tudor’s Bandoneon!, for example, controlled light sources, video images, and sound using the instrument of the same name.

Up until then, interaction had been confined either to specially trained performers using technical equipment or to the incorporation of the recipients, in particular by means of an acoustic or visual reflection of their presence. However, in the 1960s Rauschenberg also created installation works that called for effective action on the part of the recipient. Oracle (1962–1965), for example, is a sculptural ensemble which plays radio frequencies that can be manipulated by visitors, while the extensive installation Soundings (1968) consists of three large panels of plexiglass standing one behind the other. The first is mirrorized, the other two display photographs of chairs. Lights are installed between the panels, and their brightness varies in intensity depending on the level and pitch of the noise produced by visitors, thus allowing the viewer to see the motif more or less clearly through the reflective panel. Billy Klüver explains the effect of the work as follows: Soundings places you in a semi-dark room looking only at your own reflection. To remove the darkness you have to talk out loud to yourself, which is an unpleasant thing to do in public.[7] The works of the 1960s based on active inclusion of technology are often termed intermedia—a word coined by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins—because they rupture the disciplinary boundaries both within the arts and between art and technology. Interactions—between people themselves, between people and technical systems, and within technical systems—are a central feature of these works.