Ars Electronica vs. Architecture Biennale: Sound Wins

October 14, 2012

By Anne Burdick, MDP Chair. I recently visited Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria and the Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, together with Lab Core Faculty Ben Hooker and Tim Durfee. Even though the theme of each of these international events had global-scale ambitions—The Big Picture and Common Ground, respectively—it was the least heady, most local, and most visceral work that left the longest impression.

Each of these pieces used sound as a way to define space, and reworked the physical components of space using architecture, cars, people, or ventilation shafts, as acoustic media. As a result each piece defied documentation and left me with more questions than answers.


Heavy Listening at Ars Electronica lined up for the Heavy Listening performance at Ars Electronica 2012.

Here is the description from the arselectronica site:

Heavylistening duo Carl Schilde and Anselm Venezian Nehls (DE) use high-output subwoofers to morph cars into mobile musical instruments. They’ll be played by motorheads from the Upper Austrian auto powersound scene, who’ll be piloting their pimped-out rides to Ars Electronica. They emit ultra-deep sine waves at the very edge of the human hearing range. The sound produced by a single car is nothing special. But as soon as several of these soundmobiles gather for a traffic jam, the result is a “Tiefdruckgebiet” (low pressure area) you can really feel. The ultra-bass vibrations from the respective cars modify or amplify one another, or cancel each other out. Complex rhythms emerge in the space between the cars and the adjacent building façades. For onlookers, speaking suddenly becomes difficult, and the air seems to liquefy.

There were six cars on either side of an open area contained within the Lentos Kunstmuseum. They were controlled by Carl and Anselm who were standing at a DJ station in the middle of the space. We walked around the cars for about 15 minutes before feeling physically ill. It was impossible to think. We had to move away.

I’ve experienced such low frequency installations before but never at such a scale—for an Angeleno, it was thrilling to experience the raw power and muscle of the local car culture remixed by two guys standing in front of laptops.


The Polish Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale

The Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

The Polish Pavilion, in the Giardini of the Venice Architecture Biennale was designed by curator Michal Libera in collaboration with artist Katarzyna Krakowiak, sound designer Ralf Meinz.

Here is the description of the installation from DesignBoom:

the acoustically soundproof entrance vestibule aurally removes the visitor from the exterior and creates a blank audible slate to be filled within the following volumes. in a carefully designed series of empty halls, a fortunate acoustic discovery led to the installation  of ventilation shafts on the roof that apart from maintaining a comfortable interior temperature, also capture all the surrounding  sounds of the giardini and neighboring pavilions and direct them directly into the space. a very high coefficient of reverberation was found to exist within the rooms, making human conversations very difficult, as words would be blurred into one undefinable noise. a slight taper of the partitions creates an angled playground for sound to bounce off of, together with the 50 individual speakers set up around the floors projecting ambient sounds, creates a profound environment for the user to experience architecture as sound.

Like the Heavy Listening performance, it is a very difficult thing to explain the experience of being in this Pavilion, whose effects were subtle but still immensely powerful.

These two pieces continue to resonate for me, perhaps because of everything they worked against: the impulse toward didacticism at the Biennale (a lazy exhibition strategy for the subject of common ground, in my opinion); and the predominance of narrative as a context-defining strategy for the work at Ars Electronica. But then again, perhaps it is the relentless documentation culture of mobile media and the fact I’ve simply seen too much—still and moving—that made me love the here and now of these two works.