Sound Art and Noisy Hand Dryers Get Equal Hearing at BE OPEN’s Sounding Space Symposium at Chelsea College of Art

6-7 June saw a host of sound aficionados gathering at Chelsea College of Art’s Sounding Space symposium for discussions centred around the BE OPEN Sound Portal.  This event was both a showcase for work produced by UAL students, who have been using the Portal to develop sound art, and marked the culmination of BE OPEN’s year-long exploration into sensory design.

The Portal is a state-of-the-art, ambisonic space, devised by BE OPEN, Arup and the London Design Festival.  UAL students have had an opportunity to explore it in three quite different ways, with the results of their work being played in the Portal during the Symposium.  Pieces ranged from fictional conversation, to the sounds of microphones being dragged along the floor, to rhythmic drumming and singing.

‘Sound as Measure’ led by Chelsea College of Art and Design, saw students experimenting with sound as an integral element of interior and spatial design. Central Saint Martins ‘Nomad Lab’ involved transdisciplinary, or nomadic work, across different artistic disciplines.  ‘Sound, Place, Memory’, led by London College of Communication, involved workshops and themed talks with contributors drawn from the worlds of acoustic archaeology, sensory geography and anthropology, generating three student compositions and two artist compositions. Two students, Robbie Judkins and Sophie Mallett, teamed up to create an audiovisual installation that was shown at the Barbican’s Scream and Outrage Festival in May.  Using contact microphones developed during the Sound Portal workshops, they turned surfaces, objects and spaces in London’s Heygate Estate into an urban orchestra, showing how unique approaches to scoring and instrumentation can offer new insights into familiar landscapes.  This project illustrates the dual opportunity presented by the Sound Portal residency, which encouraged both artistic exploration and a deeper look at the impact of noise on our cities.

This theme was picked up by the Keynote speakers, pioneering US sound artist, Bill Fontana and Dr John Levack Drever, Head of the Unit for Sound Practice Research, at Goldsmiths, University of London.  While Fontana presented an uplifting selection of work made over the last 30 years, filling the auditorium with sound samples that ranged from an amplified cuckoo’s call to the sound of cars crossing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Drever revealed details of his current area of research: the impact of noisy, high-speed hand dryers in public facilities. Research shows that young children, the elderly and anyone with sensitive or heightened hearing issues suffer significantly from this incipient form of sound pollution, yet complaints are currently going unheeded.  Decibel levels can reach the equivalent of a DIY hand drill, which creates a real threat to hearing.  Drever argued that these devices should be discontinued in favour of paper towels!

Gennady Terebkov, Director of BE OPEN, spoke at the Symposium about BE OPEN’s commitment to supporting students and colleges:  “Our collaboration with UAL has given us the opportunity to launch an extensive educational program called BE OPEN Inside the Academy, a way to support young creatives and schools through the development of a ranking system for creative institutes, a scheme to encourage multidisciplinary interaction and the BE OPEN Young Talent Award for emerging designers.   BE OPEN and UAL share a common vision about supporting the next generation and we look forward to watching the students who have participated in the Sound Portal workshops becoming the great, creative minds of the future.”

The BE OPEN Sound Portal program and Sounding Space Symposium bring the Foundation’s sensory year to a close and a new theme will be launched for 2013. This will be the interaction between the North, South, East and West in terms of culture and the different, creative approaches to dealing with critical urban issues of our time.

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