Sarah Coulson - Interview
Site/Public Works Water
Video Installations Sound Performance

Caroline Locke in conversation with Sarah Coulson, Deputy Curator, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

SC: We are sitting in the beautiful, meditative space of the 18th century Chapel at YSP, with the installation of Sound Fountains complete and about to open to the public. I wonder if you could begin by describing the work we see in front of us.

CL: There are three steel tanks in the centre of the space; each one acts as a collar that holds a stainless steel membrane, on top of which is a body of water, a few centimetres deep. Speakers are attached to the membrane and when sound is sent through them, we can see sound waves move through the water. Around the space you can see six sensors, which trigger different sound sequences to the tanks. As the audience walk around they get a sense of controlling what happens in the installation space. Each motion sensor lights up as they move close to it, so they know when they are triggering the sounds. This allows the audience to engage fully with the sculpture.

SC: The interactive element is obviously vitally important and is central to what you are investigating during this residency. There is a small, solitary tank in the Chapel’s vestry that has a microphone attached to it – something you have done in the past with musical instruments. Now you are experimenting with the voice and visitors can sing, shout or speak into the microphone to see the immediate effect of the sounds they are making. Where do you hope to take the work from here and what role does this particular installation play.

CL: I’m really interested in developing work where the audience can participate and play an active role in changing the environment they are in, so that is very much an integral part of the research I’ve been involved in over the past few years. I know that sometimes it can be difficult to make this kind of work accessible. My intention is to allow spectators to understand the system and get a real sense of satisfaction from using their energy to work with the sculpture. It’s an investigation – part of what I am doing here during my residency. I have spent the majority of my time watching spectators. I’m looking at the way that they move around the space, the things that they notice and the way they seem to think or react. The microphone is the latest development to the work. It is simple: you speak into the mic and very directly see the effects that your voice is making on the surface of the water. That is proving to be really exciting for people who are here today. I am very happy with the way it is working. I wasn’t totally sure how people would respond to this part of the installation, but people are having fun.

SC: Which is borne out by the length of time they are spending in the space.

CL: Yes, it’s great to see and it’s nice to be in the main part of the exhibition and hear someone in the vestry making noises through the solo tank. At times the sounds coming from the vestry harmonise with some of the sound sequences in this room. That’s something I will probably develop further. I’m thinking about setting up a situation where every now and then a live feed gets sent from the solo tank to one of the tanks in the main space. I can pick up on the way the audience is responding to the space and then extend the research accordingly; it is a great process of experimentation.

SC: As we’re sitting here we can hear people clapping in the vestry, trying to make the sound register in the tank.

CL: Clapping is something they seem to want to do, but clapping is also something that it doesn’t pick up because it’s based on pitch!

SC: On the tone of the voice.

CL: Yes, so already I’m thinking about writing it into the software. It is possible to programme it so that we can pick up on rhythmical sound rather than just pitch, so that’s already on the list as a result of this research period.

SC: Which in itself is interesting, to see that people are actually doing that. People appear to follow a similar path when they want to make noise. You see them repeating each other’s behaviour.

CL: That is why a period of development like this is really important. This particular area of research has been long and drawn out. I made the first Sound Fountains about ten years ago. I could see how people were fascinated by what they were witnessing. I could see real potential to explore ways
that audiences could get involved even more with the work. Technology is evolving at such a rapid rate, the possibilities seem endless.

SC: Ten years in technological terms is an incredibly long time. What impact has that had on the work?

CL: Yes, it really is. The system I’m using here was one of the very first home-built interactive set ups. It was developed by Casey Rice, a programmer in Australia and his colleague in America. The technology available at that time was very limited so this was a hand crafted, a purpose built system. Now you can buy the hardware off the shelf at a tiny fraction of the cost. The good thing about this system is that it was made to be very simple and it sustains itself. We used PIR movement sensors – the kind that set your security lights off at home – which are reliable and hardwearing, but the set up that is involved is really quite laborious with a great deal of cabling to hide. Technological advances mean that I can make the set up so much easier and there is a lot more scope now to develop different ways for the audience to trigger changes. There is an opportunity to make the system much more delicate and focused. The PIR sensors have quite a wide range. I find that in smaller spaces I need to close in and focus down the area where the sensors are triggered. Improvements in technology mean that I can do that easily now.

SC: One of the things I really like about the installation is the combination of complex technology with touches like a case with a sensor inside, which has the word ‘open’ on its lid. This seems like an invitation you would be presented with in Alice in Wonderland. It is a playful aspect to the work, encouraging and enticing people to engage with it.

CL: That is a really important part of the work and these elements very deliberately used to make the work appealing or accessible and inviting. It is something that I’ve learnt from visitors and spectators over the years; encouragement to participate is required. I am attempting to make it comfortable for the audience to touch and explore the work by using objects that are within a certain comfort zone. It also relates to some of my other sculptures and installations. Domestic objects and machines play a big part in my practice. There is something special about the juxtaposition of basiic everyday objects or simple mechanisms and some of the hi-tech equipment that I use. I’m trying to pull those two worlds together. Much of my earlier work is concerned with old technologies; super 8 film loops, domestic appliances, record decks, systems with cogs and cam mechanisms. I used to run exhibitions with mechanical timers in the days before software was first developed to operate systems. A motor turns a series of cam wheels with roller switches turning the power off and on according to the different notches cut into the wheels. I still love those kinds of mechanisms and that aesthetic is still very much apparent in my work.

SC: You have obviously taken it a step further for this installation in that you’ve used an old pew and the lectern from the Chapel. Did you particularly want to introduce these elements to make it pertinent to this space?

CL: Site-specificity has always played an important role. I’m interested in making the work relate meaningfully to the site. Authenticity is also important; it’s good to use part of what belongs to the Chapel as these things have been ‘charged’ with its long history. The chair is from my own dining room and the case is not just a prop but has been used to carry my mixing desk around in for years. It is important to me that these elements are part of my world, real and functional. These details give life to the work.

SC: Another fascinating thing about the Sound Fountains in this space is the relationship between the intangible and the tangible, making visible the things we normally cannot see, such as the heartbeat. This idea has a real resonance in the Chapel, a palpable spirituality. It relates to the human urge to grasp things we cannot reach.

CL: This was a place of worship, perhaps a place where people have hoped that their prayers would be listened to, a place where they hoped miracles could happen. That has a real connection to what I try to do, to reveal the invisible, to try and get some kind of understanding of the unknown. My aesthetic here is geared to that spiritual edge, it’s quite difficult to explain.

SC: That idea also relates to the incredible, ethereal reflections cast on the wall when light shines onto the surface of the water. They change and move like some kind of apparition. Again, elements of the work constantly shift; it is very elusive.

CL: It is otherworldly. The first time I set these tanks up with lights I was amazed at the reflections they gave off. I deliberately began to use mirrored stainless steel to make the reflections even better. The way the light morphs in and out of these reflections is very special - I wrote down in my notebook ‘this is like life and death, this is like the moment of birth and the moment of death’. There is something so particular about the movement in the reflection.

SC: The reflections take on a life force all of their own when you stand close to them. For me it relates to the way that we experience sculpture with all our senses. The work literally vibrates all the way through you. It is the same pure, physical feeling that can be elicited by listening to certain pieces of music.

CL: And it’s emotional. Many people have said how emotional the experience has been. That’s an incredible thing for me to hear. Our bodies are, of course, around two thirds water. Sound moves through us in a similar way to the way you see it moving through the tanks. This experience is physical. Certain physical experiences become intensely emotional. Music is such an emotional thing, linked to those vibrations and how they move through our bodies. We underestimate its effects on us and we tend to take our bodies for granted much of the time. Certainly sound vibrations affect us physically, and trigger emotional reactions from a physical change. My recent work involves processes that show human presence and energy in the form of vibration. I’m exploring ideas centered around life forces and rhythms linked to body cadences
and the concept that life exists around many different silent rhythms. I guess I use mechanisms and technologies metaphorically to explore the human condition. I was a dancer - I am very physical and in touch with my body.

SC: When you sit in the Chapel with the work for any length of time, you start to feel a sense of something almost internal, visceral; the projections showing the surface of the water have the feeling of body scans, that glimpse of pulsing life that I remember from seeing images of my children in the womb. Again in that process exists the relationship between the body and technology; these instruments allow us a temporary glimpse inside ourselves. When making this work you recorded the sounds of your own body, of your heartbeat, and it is this that we hear pulsing through the installation. Is the relationship between the body and technology something that has always interested you?

CL: Absolutely; that connection runs through the core of my practice. In the early part of my career I made performance work; choreography and dance were central to that, both very physical and, of course, ‘body centered’. In later works the presence of the dancer was replaced by the ‘presence’ of a machine or mechanism. My installation Breath was constructed to mimic the four chambers of the heart as I was interested in the two basic operations that keep us alive – breathing and the heart pumping blood around our bodies. I made machines to illustrate this human condition. There was something interesting about the elaborate metaphor that I was making; setting up a complex, large-scale installation to illustrate the simplicity of existence, offering the suggestion that perhaps just to exist, to live and breathe, is enough.

SC: Pattern and repeating shapes lie deep within human life and are in essence the building blocks of the universe – Platonic solids, the Fibonacci sequence – all life seems to reduce to pattern. This is a fascinating but, I feel, almost quite disturbing that our amazingly complex bodies and the natural world around us can be reduced to sequences. However, I
am not a scientist and find it hard to reconcile these ideas

CL: Yes – I see these patterns and repeating shapes all the time and I find it fascinating. I don’t find the sequences disturbing though. I think it is comforting in a way to feel like there is some sort of order amongst the chaos.

SC: The tanks are incredibly utilitarian and driven by technological systems, yet the work, as we have discussed, also has a sense of the fleeting and emotive. Those two realms don’t typically sit happily together; we think of the technological world as being somewhat devoid of emotion.

CL: In an earlier interview (2002) with Nicholas Zurbrugg, he commented that a lot of cultural theorists have said since the 1890s that once we live in a mechanical world we lose contact with our own identity and that somehow machines alienate us from a sense of how and what we are. What I demonstrate is the way in which the orchestration of machines actually allows us to amplify our self-awareness.

SC: It definitely feels like disparate worlds coming together. You are introducing the notion that technology can affect you, that it has the potential for emotional experience.

A related work, Sound Inventory, comprises images captured by digital photo-microscopy, made when selected sound samples are passed through water in the tanks. Crucially, these samples are not random, rather you have recorded and collected them for over two decades and each is carefully noted, often having a real personal significance to you. This rigorous notation made me think of Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume and the central character Grenouille’s relentless collecting of smells, each characterised and unique to a place and moment in time. You are making a bank of memories; some people do that through scent or images, whereas you collect sounds. It is very much a portrait of you and an unexpected portrayal of memory.

CL: All these soundscapes are the result of an obsessive interest in and collecting of sound that I’ve been involved in for years. The process itself, discovering what frequencies work through the system, has also taken a great deal of time. It is important to me that they are not just sounds that I’ve processed. Some or them are environmental recordings, some of them are synthesised. The heartbeat is a recording of my own heartbeat made at Leicester Royal Infirmary for another of my projects called Breath. I was working at the time with Dr Jim Clover, whose medical research became involved. There is a story around every element of this work.

SC: I recently heard Sir Ken Robinson talking of the role of art in helping us to explore our identity. He spoke of the two worlds which we exist in as individuals: the first is the world that existed before us and will continue long after; the second is the world that was brought into life on the day we were born and the one that will die with us. We spend our entire life trying to resolve the relationship between the two. In a sense, what you are doing here is pulling in elements of the world outside of you and giving them a context within your own memory, your own narrative. You are making sense of the wider world in relation to your life.

CL: Yes that what seems to be the right thing for me to do. Life is mysterious – nobody knows what it’s really all about and when or how it will end – we have to make sense of our world for ourselves and do the best that we can to lead what we think is a good life. I’m interested in human nature, the notion of time and memory, repetition and pattern – I try not to take anything for granted. Energy and movement are also at the core of my practice. Energy connects human beings and wave forms – waves continually move and change and so do we – we never finish becoming who we are – we are in flux. I want to share these elements that I find beautiful and pleasing and astonishing. My intention is that other people can share in my enjoyment.
In the past I have spent long, somewhat frustrating spells alone in the studio. Then I get to rehearse with musicians and when they get excited I am able to share that excitement again and that makes all the time in development worth it. For me, it is all about exchange and discussion, about bringing people in. Accessibility is what I am continuing to develop.

SC: What direction will you take the work in next?

CL: This stretch of research has been long and drawn out and I should say that there are many other ideas and works in progress that run alongside the Sound Fountains. I am currently building Singing Pools, a permanent interactive sound sculpture for Klankenbos sculpture park in Belgium. I am also developing a new series of machines that work together, as part of a large-scale installation. Each machine creates a scene and functions like a chapter in a book. I am really looking forward to setting this work up now after such an intense few years spent with the Sound Fountains. I do like to finish a job properly – it seemed to me that my work with sound waves wasn’t really complete until I had perfected the interactive elements. The trouble is that because technology continues to improve at such a rapid rate the tendency is to want to improve the work accordingly. This could go on forever. The trick is to know when to stop. I think after the next round of upgrades I will stop! For a while at least...

The Chapel, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 12 July 2012