London Students Step Into the Future Through the BE OPEN Sound Portal

2012 saw the arrival of  BE OPEN Sound Portal, launched September. The matt black cylindrical listening booth stood for a week in one of London’s most noisy locations and transported visitors in Trafalgar Square to a number of imaginary places with soundscapes designed by the likes of Squarepusher, Jana Winderen and Ivan Pavlov. His contribution, for example, sounded like folk music for aliens. Never mind Italian futurism; this was pure futurology.

The rubberised structure, engineered by design firm Arup, can fit about a dozen people at a time and offer a sound-proofed, surround-sound, listening experience without equal in terms of acoustic quality. Crowds were drawn by its mysterious dark form and the din of city centre traffic could not have seemed further away. By making their presence heard as well as seen at the London Design Festival event, BE OPEN set out their multi-sensory agenda.

The creative think tank behind the Sound Portal are keen to explore what they call sixth sense design. If sound design was so new in the 1920s, perhaps design for human intuition may just characterise the 2020s. And as if to ensure the take up of this forward looking philosophy, the Portal has been enjoying an afterlife in the realms of academia. It will now be found in use by Chelsea College of Art and Design, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design and London College of Communication

Chelsea tutor Dr Ken Wilder is interested in the relation of sound to space. The architect and installation designer explains how the host college is exploring sound as a measure of all four dimensions. “Sound is often neglected by architects designing buildings,“ he says, “yet it is such an important aspect of how we bodily experience space”. Meanwhile the Portal “can alter, enhance and disrupt our reading of a space, giving us the possibility to test ideas in a ‘real’ situation”.

In this way, Wilder hopes to connect conceptual and poetic ideas for defining space through sound. Spectacular light shows will compliment the soundscapes within the Portal during its time at Chelsea. The work comes under the banner Sound as Measure and should prove to be sixth sense design writ large.

Meanwhile at Saint Martin’s they are taking a different tack and looking at the Portal as a rootless space for different disciplines. Central School tutor Matt Lewis explains: “Until recently the reception and creation of work for ambisonic systems has been largely limited to a small number of systems, often hidden away in university departments.” By contrast the Portal now sits in the highly public Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground at Chelsea, giving “students with no previous background in multichannel sound the chance to experiment”.

Students taking part in Saint Martin’s so-called Nomad Lab will be post-grads working on “trans-disciplinary” sound works. The practical aspect of sixth sense design are explored during sessions in data-sonification, audio programming, multi-channel sound and physical computing. “There is significant and growing demand among Art and Design students for expertise in this area, I don’t see it going away,” says Christabel Harley, another tutor at the Central School. The results should include two student-based commissions and one artist commission.

Meanwhile London College of Communication is commissioning work by three students and two artists. It is a measure of the potential here that their interest in the Portal has been from the viewpoints of acoustic archaeology, sensory geography and anthropology. Those are at least three disciplines you might never think to associate with a state of the art piece of sonic engineering which looks for all the world like a UFO. The college is titling their programme Sound, Space, Memory.

The inter-college projects runs from April to June with a lecture series and a symposium with the title Sounding Space. Up to 20 speakers will address students from all three institutions, with the likes of Jacob Kirkegaard, Zoe Laughlin and Kaffe Matthews at Saint Martins, and United Visual Artists at Chelsea. Those not in higher education should be able to follow at least some of the activities during broadcasts on Resonance FM.

It is clear that London’s design students will get a lot of mileage out of the Sound Portal. And indeed BE OPEN’s Russian founder, Elena Baturina, has said: “I am pleased that BE OPEN’s conceptual project continues to evolve, furthering intellectual development. Supporting practical studies, research and sound design with these three world-renowned art colleges underlines BE OPEN’s commitment to exploring the possibilities of sound and the sensory journey.”