Helena Hamilton: In Conversation with Pohan 2022
Virtual Matter [Ambient] at The Naughton Gallery, Belfast
Astronomers describe the beginning of our known universe as a big bang - a descriptor of sound at the center of that which initiated the great cosmic spin. We cannot see sound, or hold it. It enters our body through our ears and skin, tuning us into resonant instruments as we collide with its boundless waves, echoes, and vibrations.
When considering the whole of Helena Hamilton’s work, I find myself contemplating the energetic and cosmological forces that constitute our individual bodies and those that bind us together collectively. Some of these forces are unseen yet bear visible effects like sound and gravity. Others are visible though their making is hidden to us, such as the software that articulates a virtual environment.
There is a touch of alchemy in the sculptures, installations, and performances that Hamilton stages. In using the most mundane of objects and activities - a fluorescent tube light, a crumpled sheet of paper, the act of writing - Hamilton transforms ubiquity into wonder by amplifying the invisible, tuned out, or oft overlooked.
Affording audibility and visibility to marginal phenomena aligns Hamilton’s work with historic feminist art practices and struggles. She inverts the phallocentric aesthetic legacy of minimalism by shifting the focus away from materiality to the ineffable.
The politics here are quiet. Scientists have more recently theorized that the big bang was not an explosive, cacophonous sound at all, but more of a steady, electric hum.
P: After our first conversation I thought, what even is inside of a fluorescent tube light? Two noble gasses - mercury and argon. I recalled your description of the buzz of the tube lights as something we have trained ourselves to tune out of our sonic field. Then I was amazed to think that perhaps the tube light sound is not just generated by the material connections that make electricity but by the sound of the gasses themselves. There are layers to the origins of this sound and the reaches to which they extend - the gasses, the ballast, the power grid. Can you share your thoughts on the source of this sound and your manipulation of it in the earlier fluorescent tube light sound sculptures?
HH: I use tube lights because they are one of those everyday objects which we have trained ourselves not to listen to anymore and then therefore not hear. I am fascinated by these objects, the ones that we have just gotten rid of, not physically or sonically in reality but in our perception. They are still here and very much present with us but we have gradually erased them from our consciousness and no longer notice them.
I primarily started working with tube lights because of their sound. At that time (2014/15) I was doing my MA in Sonic Arts at SARC (QUB) and was really tuned into listening. Coming from a fine art background I was very aware and trained in seeing/looking. I soon began to introduce deep listening. Through deep looking and listening you can uncover a whole new world of the forgotten that surrounds us daily that we don’t experience.
The first work I made using tube lights was a sound performance piece with three performers each holding a tube light and given simple instructions to hold the tube light horizontally at eye level (light facing out) and to lower the light when tired as often as needed. Live sound was used in this work. A lapel microphone was placed inside the metal part of each of the lights so that you have the resonance of the metal as well as the hum of the electricity which was filtered to amplify certain frequencies. When the performers were holding the lights, the microphones picked up hand movements, which brought a lovely tactile sound to the piece. I was and have been quite keen to keep the sound simple so I just filtered certain frequencies from the original sound and these frequencies would phase in and out of harmony as the light was lowered, creating a naturally evolving sound work controlled by tiredness.
I then went on to further develop this work into an interactive sound sculpture where the tube lights are suspended in the space at different angles encouraging the viewer/listener to walk in and around the work. Each of these works are installed and visually composed in relation to the space. For that work I use pre-recorded samples of the sound generated by the lights rather than live sound (because of practical not conceptual reasons). This work is more about the space and the changes of light in the space. As the light changes, which also includes people walking in and around the work, the sound gradually changes. It is slow and evolving, intended to encourage people to listen and just experience it.
I love this idea of the power grid. We are all connected. This is why I love working with sound - it connects us, it moves through each of us. We actually change sound in the space by being physically present and absorbing some of the sound. This is one of the primary reasons that I began working with sound, it’s a really good way of creating an immersive work to experience an idea/concept. Once sound plays, it’s just all around - it bleeds into all the corners of the room.
P: The use of ubiquitous, mundane objects and transforming them to create a new phenomenological experience all together is a kind of magic. There is a strong connection between the mundane and the magical. Like giving birth. It is very mundane in that it happens every second every day for millennia. At the same time, that a baby grows inside the mothers body and that that body can birth her is infinitely magical. This notion seemed to resonate with you when we talked and I wonder if you could relate this back to what drives your practice.
HH: Through these gentle forms of resistance, by transforming these objects by first learning, challenging and attempting to re-learn how I interact with the world around me, can be really revealing. I first take the object out of its context, e.g. the tube light - take it off the ceiling and place it in my hands. So I'm not using the object for what it is intended, I’m re-contextualizing it - how do I interpret it then? It is still acting as a light, but as a light that controls sound and maps tiredness (as in the earlier performative works). Through stripping away the intended use of the object, I try to re-learn and familiarize myself with it again in a new way - re-imaging it, what are the sonic and visual possibilities? With this way of working, you are really digging deep into how you relate to the world, and this is magical - the everyday and mundane, that is where the magic is.
As you say, giving birth, it’s just mind blowing. It literally tears your body apart. Growing a baby is seen as so normal but it’s anything but normal if we view normality as unremarkable. Growing and birthing a child challenges you to the core of your being, it’s so physical, beautiful, excruciatingly agonizing and magical, and this is just referred to in our society as unremarkable and expected. Going through this experience and now being a mother has really challenged who I am as a female and an artist in a male centric world and this will inevitably feed into my practice, it probably already has.
If you think of snow, water, rain, wind - the weather - it’s mind blowing - the transforming energy, equilibriums, chains of cause and effect, and interdependencies that are required to keep everything working in an ecosystem for example. And when I try to simulate these things in a virtual world (as in the video for this exhibition), the computer power that it takes to do so is crazy. Currently my computer upstairs is, you call it ‘baking’, is performing a physics simulation of a yellow cloth exploding from a central object and it’s taking a long time and a lot of computer power to represent digitally. The natural world around us is just mind blowing and through investigating it both in the physical world and digital it really gives me a new context of how magical the mundane is.
P: Your current exhibition is based upon a drawing which was the last drawing you made before having your child. Can you walk me through the imagery and how you arrived at translating the two dimensional drawing into a virtual environment?
HH: Yes, this whole show originates from the last drawing I did before having my child in April 2020. It was a simple line drawing that was composed digitally and then drawn with a pen plotter. It’s part of a series of machine drawings exploring minimal structure and form - this abstract work started with a circle. I was interested in visually representing sonic rhythmic patterns and phasing, such as produced by electronic drum machines or mechanically moving objects.
When I started my PhD in Jan 2021 I began building ‘new worlds’ in 3D from an unrealised architectural plan and using this visual inspiration to compose a sound piece. When composing sound work I always use a visual element to help work through certain sonic ideas, even if it is not presented with the final audio work. I also started building imagined 3D spaces from my own abstract drawings, placing sounds throughout these virtual spaces to be walked/floated through and explored.
This work being exhibited at the Naughton gallery is primarily a research piece created to explore sound, materiality, movement and scale in the virtual. All the works in the gallery are from this one imagined virtual space. The process of creating and perceiving this work has raised a lot of questions surrounding immaterial ‘objects’ and their sonic qualities, what sounds make sense in the virtual? It has challenged how I have used sound in the past - by merely recording a sound you are manipulating the original sonic event.
What happens when you use everyday sound in the virtual? In this virtual world do you adopt the same sonic rules present in the real world or turn them completely on their head and why? How does the sound you attribute to an object change its perception? Do you even attribute sounds to an object , focusing more on a documentary approach or do you abandon this notion and follow the sounds, attempting to capture the ambience of this new virtual space ? I began researching this by bringing some of the virtual objects into the real world rather than placing the viewer into the virtual. This whole show is exhibiting a process of trying to understand what this virtual world is and potentially can be, creating a dialogue between the virtual and physical spaces whilst exhibiting how thoughts have taken shape.
In the virtual space I have attempted to recreate aspects of the familiar that also have something odd/isolated/different about them, for example introducing a ‘natural’ randomness to this world via the ‘ambient explosion’ whilst playing with gravity - gravity is turned off during the explosion and for a while after, the yellow fragments (which are programmed to behave like silk fabric) get caught in some of the rotating objects and in the upside down trees before gravity is turned on and most float to the ground. I have also used this approach when composing the soundscape, some sounds are barely recognizable but there is something about them that makes them familiar. For example there is a sample of me humming ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ that appears throughout the piece - it is mostly unrecognizable but at certain points it almost appears from under a veil.
P: I interpret the yellow color at the start of your video as the touch of alchemy that sets the whole explosion into orbit. Other than the yellow, the video utilizes many of the software defaults to articulate its aesthetics. I’m personally drawn to the default state, whether it be a software program or institutional wall paint color, as if they were an agreed upon neutral, universal choice. Do you connect the concept of the default back to the tube light’s electric hum, as if these two phenomena were similar givens that we both accept and tune out of awareness at the same time?
HH: I have consciously chosen default colours and materials for this work except for the trees and the yellow at the beginning. Everything else in the space is just the default white colour that comes in Blender (the design software). I haven’t made things look like concrete or added dust, scratches, or water droplets for example. I wanted to concentrate on the shapes of the objects, how they are lit, their scale and if/how they move in space.
There is a default, agreed neutral choice that is handed to us which we can choose to accept or challenge. With both the tube light and the 3D world I have chosen to try to use the accepted and neutral but attempt to turn them on their head and use them as characteristics to be explored and exploited.
I chose to install multiple yellow video screens in the gallery, which was inspired by the ‘ambient explosion’ at the beginning of the video. I only began noticing how much the solid yellow central object in the video affected the surrounding environment after the yellow fragments had fallen to the floor (when the gravity in the virtual world was turned off). I wanted to present something similar in the physical space and therefore introduced the screens.
P: You’ve taken some of the visuals in the video and brought them physically into the gallery, such as the dibond prints of trees or the video screens casting a yellow hue in the galley, both elements originating from the digital video. This move creates a slippage between two modes of embodiment - the digital and the physical. I’m curious about this slippage as it relates to the soundscape you created for the exhibition and how you came around to crafting an ‘acousmatic’ experience - sounds whose source you cannot see - in both the physical and virtual worlds?
HH: The soundscape played in the gallery is the result of an experimental process of sound composition, using sound to make sense of the virtual. Throughout this whole process, I have used sound to bring a materiality to the virtual, digitally manipulating field recordings and sounds sourced from my everyday environment. The decision to use sounds from the physical world took a while to make. I explored many different options before coming to this decision. I did find it challenging to know where to begin when sonifying this work as most of my previous sound pieces have been directly from a physical material that I am using - and that made complete sense in these works. But when working with the immaterial - what sound sources make sense?
I read an article by Francisco López ‘Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter’, he talks about “the illusion of realism”, stating: “As in the case of traditional bioacoustics, in which sounds are isolated, this artificial mixing approach of massive inclusion could be criticized as being unreal or hyperreal.”
He also describes microphones as being ‘non-neutral interfaces’ - as soon as you record a sound you are manipulating it. What he was talking about resonated with me in regards to this work. I am not trying to represent the real here but I am trying to sonify the virtual, unreal. It began to make sense for me to utilise field recordings and recordings from my everyday physical world for this virtual soundscape. Some of these sounds have been manipulated more than others, wanting to create moments of sound experiences that are familiar but yet isolated and dislocated from their original physical source (a theme repeated in the use of hyperreal, identical trees in the virtual space which can be seen in the dibond prints). I’ve used sound as a tool to help me make sense of this new work, I always create from something rather than towards a specific idea/ideal - I let the work lead and I follow.
I have composed the soundscape to cast an ‘ambient glow’ that bleeds into every corner of the room - similar to how the yellow screens tint the space before gradually turning white and back to yellow again. Some sounds that are used include interactions with plaster, trees in the wind, breath, walks in the park, birds, the drawing machine drawing the original drawing, hand drawing the original drawing and interactions with my child.
I am using sound as a material in this work, not as a representational tool, creating a dialogue between the virtual and physical whilst using it to make sense of this new work.