On Sound — reaction essay to ‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’

1. Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age


In the book ‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’, Margot Lovejoy brings us through the history and evolution of Art in light of the rise of technology. My personal insights and opinions will be in reaction to the Sub Chapters:  (Exhibiting) sound as Art‘ and ‘Sonic Bridges‘ — the sections in which Lovejoy explains the relevance and potency sound has in this digital era and also the overarching dilemma artists grapple with, due to constant technological advancement.

2. On Sound (Personal Thoughts)

Initial Thoughts

After reading the section on Sound as a medium, listed below were the initial concepts that I pondered about to myself :

Sound as A New Medium?

When does Sound become ‘Interactive Art’?

Sound is Relative not Definite

Sound as a Measurement of Space
(Visually Impaired use their hearing to gauge proximity and spaces and hence ‘see’)


When we approach the use of Sound as a ‘Visual Art’ medium, it is often isolated from any strong visible elements that might distort or ‘soften’ the experience. The space of sound exhibits are kept relatively minimalistic in terms of aesthetics — any interesting aesthetic acts as an extension for the sound interaction rather than a pre requisite to its affect. For example Lovejoy talks about the work ‘Tim Hawkinson, Uberorgan, 2000, sound sculpture installation.’ In this installation, a massive instrument, representing our internal organs occupy the span of a few rooms, attached to a central organ. The sculptures are inflatable cavities and pipes with piano keys that act like the work’s central nervous system. When the audience walks in the space, their motion triggers different keys, producing different notes.

In this example, the sculpture is transparent and the organ itself is stripped down and ‘raw’. It is not embellished and rather is placed there to simply serve a technical purpose. However at the same time, Hawkinson plays with the scale and form of the pipes to resemble that of an internal system to heighten the immersion and veracity of the experience. He does this without disrupting the hierarchy of significance ‘sound’ plays in the work. Instead it is treated as important as the tangible sculpture itself.

Hence when working with sound as a medium, we have to be sensitive in the way we employ visual complements without compromising the central medium of sound and at the same time using just the right amount of visual elements to create a holistic experience still.

Fundamentally, by removing away or ‘suppressing’ our sense of sight, we are prevented from ‘seeing to believe’ and instead have to form our own perceptive version of reality with whatever abstract information we are being exposed to in that moment -temperature , sound etc. It gives way for wonderment and synaesthesia to occur (touch, hearing, smell) , allowing us to potentially experience a heightened multi sensory sphere.

When the relative and elusive nature of sound becomes our primary source of ‘vision’ (as dictated by the limitations imposed by the artist), we are lured to ‘unsee’ to see again. Of course not all sound exhibits involve blinding the audience. However most of these exhibits are minimalistic in nature and often have wide empty spaces with almost no intentional use of colour to cause any visual bias. On the contrary, the use of variation in spaces or the nature of the space itself acts as a vessel both physically and metaphorically for sound to travel or convey its meaning. If we were in a space resembling an empty ship and hear sounds of screaming, we might associate it to that of drowning.

Association in the digital age, with the rise of mechanisation and the internet, have become more introspective and metaphoric rather than connotative. Instead of associating a certain sensation to a definite imagery, we are likely to associate it to a multitude of simultaneous feelings or fragmented ideas derived from constant exposure to social media, the internet or even mass culture. These in turn come together in that moment to form a temporal experiential bubble that is unique to each individual. However the context of the sound and the space it is set in does set boundaries or an overarching concept for pockets of these multiverses within the same alternate reality.

The author also talks about the era of simulation with the advent of technology and computers being incorporated into art. This is inextricably linked to the way sound is used – as much as it is considered an abstract medium conceptually, in science, sound is empirical and the way it is produced or transmitted can be changed via its voltage, frequency, etc. We use hardware and manipulate elements of it to choose the type of sound emission we want to achieve. This then leaves it up to the artist to transcend it beyond science. Rather than just emitting sound, we have to exercise our creative freedom to play around with these elements or string them in non functional and unexpected ways to induce a certain reaction.

For example in Shinseungback Kimyonghun’s ‘Stone’, which we discussed in last week’s lecture, wave crashes against a stone rigged with pressure sensors, are translated into mechanical knocking of solenoids against a block of wood. The output sound occurs after going through a technical and systemic process. However the sheer loudness of it and the way it has a very flat sound is unexpected and contrasts with actual dissipating sound of waves crashing (which is projected on a screen).

Another aspect of sonic in modern culture would be how easily accessible and ‘producible’ it is. Anyone with the right software, has the ability to ‘create’ their own sound just like how artists create songs and music. Existing sounds can also be studied, taken apart and selectively replicated. Lovejoy talks about Laurie Anderson, an experimental artist who explored the melding of sound and poetry in her works, before sound was recognised as a legitimate visual art form. Interestingly, I personally love one of the ‘songs’ she wrote in the 1980s that became an unexpected hit — O Superman. It utilises poetry mixed with constant distinct humming and electronic vocalised harmonies. It has a very mechanical, robotic and futuristic sound.

Sound, in spite of its relativity, and in its function, has a distinct power to covey a specific idea or philosophy effectively. As humans we associate sounds to objects. Anything unfamiliar or new we tend to associate with the Avant Garde or the ‘future’. When Laurie Anderson released O Superman In the 80s, when the established sound was ‘pop’, dominated by the likes of Madonna, it cause a stir and was considered highly experimental for radio. This is an example of how the accessibility and ease of transmission of sound allowed it to penetrate mass culture. Years on, as a millennial myself, ‘O Superman’ is one of my favourite songs as it still holds its own ground in being an experimental masterpiece even in today’s music scene.

Although one must not confuse between sound in the visual arts and sound that is consumed in mass culture via music, it is important to understand both the nuances and the essence of the power it upholds universally. It is important for artists to play  with, and approach sound in a poetic and liberating manner.

One further notable exploration of sound as medium would be the undeniable presence that sound has in both its presence and its absence. Marina Abramovic, in her long durational performance art training institute, MAI, has chambers that immerse prospective artists in absolute silence. It is part of her ‘workshop’ which is intended to ultimately heighten our creativity and consciousness as artists.

Here is an independent experiential installation of hers in which silence is the main transcending medium bridging the audience and the ‘artwork’ and also the only ‘artificial’ and deliberate mode of interaction.

Concluding thoughts

Apart from this specific idea I have chosen to discuss and explore in the above reflection, in ‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’, Lovejoy emphasises throughout, of the dilemma we as creators grapple with, as technology advances exponentially in this digital era. We are part of a very real digital ‘Matrix’ of our own where we too are offered both the Red Pill — brutal and harsh truth of what technology can do (negatively when manipulated) and in an increasingly subliminal manner and the Blue Pill — this seductive idea of an unchartered and constantly growing territory for us to explore our ‘Art’ with each new development that comes with each technological milestone. In our reality, we are acutely aware of both these dichotomies and hence must come to a personal compromise within ourselves in order to shape and assert our creative voice with both conviction and affect.

As an artist I’d choose the thing that’s beautiful more than the one that’s true — Laurie Anderson

3. Links





Future World @ ASM — Reflection

1. Layout

Experiential Design

The Space in Future World by Art Science Museum is an example of Experiential Design, from the way the works are curated and the manner in which visitors navigate through the space. The purpose of a successful and immersive space is the create an ‘umwelt‘ — a world of perceived reality that is unique to each individual that comes into contact with it. FutureWorld achieves this through its enclosed yet open layout, comprising of various interactive art works placed all over, allowing visitors to move around freely and make their own choices. As visitors ourselves, we were not restricted or force to directly interact with any of the works. Everyone had 3 choices while navigating between the works : Interact, Observe as a Voyeur or Interact in ways different from what is suggested by the description complementing each work. This ‘freedom’ makes each individual’s experience and take away from the same overarching narrative of FutureWorld, unique to them and them only. This was evident in the way me and my friends approached different works we gravitated towards or engaged in different modes of contact with the same works.

2. Experiential Journey

Hero’s Journey in FutureWorld

Coined by Joseph Campbell, any successful Experience Space should incorporate this theory of leading one from the known to the unknown and back again to the known with some sort of internal transformation.

Source : Worlds of Wonder ,Experience Design for Curious People

Based on my personal experience at the FutureWorld Exhibition, I will breakdown how it integrated this theory and achieved each step in leading us through this journey through the gallery space.

1. Invitation

Pre-Visit, people are enticed to step into this ‘unknown’ realm via its advertising and promotion online. We are given a tease of the potential ‘journey of discovery’ we will undergo and urged to explore it for ourselves. We are also informed of a Story (Narratives) that tie the exhibition together, making the idea of visiting the exhibition less foreign and more intimate. When I read the ‘invitation’ my curiosity was undoubtedly piqued and I wanted to experience this narrative for myself.


2. Transition

This crucial step is the first glimpse the visitor gets of the unknown world they are about to step into — a bridge between their present familiar world to the one they’re about to be immersed in. We were introduced to a guide who gave us the breakdown of the key exhibits and the modes of interaction we would encounter once we stepped in. She also presented us with a floor plan to facilitate our navigation while in the gallery space. Each student was also given a sticker right before we stepped into the FutureWorld space, almost like a ticket to our transition.

3. Introduction

In this stage, visitors would typically be immersed into an introductory area filled with evocative and sensory elements to welcome and give them a taste of the rest of the space they will go on to explore. In FutureWorld, the first area we stepped into was enclosed with high ceilings and big walls that had projections all over. These projections were interactive and veracious in the way they reacted to touch and movement. Even the floor had projections. This space also featured six different artworks that seemed to dissolve and flow seamlessly into each other. Many of us spent a considerable amount of time within this space before stepping into the main area which was sealed off with a black curtain. The intense ‘immersiveness’ set the appropriate tone and mood for the digitally interactive theme of the whole exhibition.


4. Exploration

Typically in this stage visitors would come into contact with a myriad of exhibits and stations allowing them to choose which ones they would want to participate in. The key element in this stage is the freedom of choice coupled with the depth and multitude of experiences to choose from. Here, users are ideally supposed to complete certain tasks and see the direct effect of their interaction. In FutureWorld, most of the tasks involved direct and deliberate physical interaction and an outcome. For example in the Giant Block Connecting town area, we were able to build our own cities with large blocks and observe a real time projected map of the city. We were able to place obstructions to divert ‘traffic’ or hinder movement in the virtual projected city.  In the Sketch Aquarium exhibit, users had to draw and colour out caricatures that once scanned, got projected and brought to life on a huge aquarium screen. Hence once we completed tasks, we were paid with a satisfying ‘reward’ in the form of a tangible and observable outcome.



5. Admiration

This stage is a pivotal moment where an intimate relationship with the audience is created to encourage them to continue on their ‘journey’. All sensory organs should be potentially engaged and and evoke enough wonder to sustain the narrative and their commitment to it. In this area of FutureWorld, most of the interaction here was physical involving pushing illuminated balls which resulted in corresponding music and designing and playing hopscotch. It was a predominantly ‘play’ area where visitors were able to respond to each other via their interaction.



6. Immersion

In this stage, which Campbell describes as the ‘Descent into The Innermost Cave’, the interaction between the visitor and the main subject or theme meet in the most intense manner yet. In context of FutureWorld, we as visitors are transported into a ‘psychedelic’ room that alternates between complete light and darkness with projections that warp according to specific movements. The experience one feels here is somewhat overwhelming.


7. Connection & Recollection

This step aims to consolidate the overall experiences for the visitor and offer them a transformational final experience before they depart from the space. In a sense it is the stage that fully tries to engage the visitor on a personal level and convince them of the relevance of the narrative they went through to their personal lives. In FutureWorld, Crystal Universe undoubtedly and successfully delivers this. As we step into a mini ‘maze’ surrounded by strings of shimmering 170,000 LEDS and distorting mirrors, we experience a temporal existential moment — floating in a ‘digitalverse’. The lights around us changed as we interacted with our phone screens. The sheer luminosity and intensity of the surroundings reminded me of my ‘insignificance’ in the vastness of the universe we live in today — not just the literal universe but the virtual one of technology.


3. Reflection

Sketch Aquarium

When I reached the Sketch Aquarium Exhibit, I sat down at the drawing tables that were occupied by kids and their parents and observed how drawings were being converted into animated images onto a huge projected aquarium. I realised that there was no mediator to filter the works or images that were being scanned and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reaction would something controversial or ‘inappropriate’ incite in the viewers. Hence I decided to disrupt the idea and demography of the work by making a ‘protest’ Jellyfish. I used the colour red, an angry face with the slogan FTP (Fuck The Police) and Free HK. I wanted to it to be graphic, tacky and controversial —especially right now with the ongoing protests. As I wasn’t breaking any law by doing so, it was a line that I decided to cross intentionally. The fact that this particular artwork was accessible to anyone and had no filter, gave it huge potential for open collaboration. I scanned the image multiple times and an army of angry looking jellyfish started floating insidiously in the aquarium. Almost immediately, adults who were before just smiling innocently at kiddy drawings, got tensed up and murmured among themselves . It was significant that there were a number of mainland Chinese tourists on the day. The station was mostly ‘intended’ and targeted at adolescents who would pick up their crayons and enthusiastically draw. But does the museum expect only kids to interact in this work? Despite being open to public? Personally I felt that the lack of a moderator and the easy access gives way for a ‘Trojan Horse’ in the way the safe space within the kid context allows for controversial opinions to be conveyed and garner attention without facing hinderance.



Physical Space

The set up of the Disappearance Bar at National Gallery is based on Lee Kang So’s work, ‘Disappearance, bar in the Gallery’ which involved incorporating wooden chairs and tables from the bars he frequented within a gallery space where viewers could have momentary and temporal interactions just like people do over casual drinks at bars. The idea of leaving behind permanent marks of our presence within this temporal space — alcohol stains, burn marks and cracks on the furniture underscores the idea that temporary interaction can leave a permanent and lasting story. In National Gallery, instead of Korean drinks, local alcohol and traditional ‘kueh’ and tea were served to contextualise and appropriate the original concept for the local demographic. The significance of the physical nature of this space itself serves as a fundamental base for Urich Lau’s experimental and telematic work ‘Life Circuit’ to be performed in.


“Regardless of medium or form, technology is irrelevant if the work of art does not speak about humanistic values, or new ideas or critique our society” — Urich Lau, https://pluralartmag.com/2019/02/12/back-to-the-future-in-conversation-with-urich-lau/

Telematic Art

Urich Lau’s works mainly involve integrating and intertwining the archetype form of technology with the new and ever changing alternate reality that it has become as of today. This combination creates a simultaneously jarring yet oddly discomforting unity in his works. The output of his conceptualisations are glitchy, elusive and unpredictable just like the ‘cerebral cortex’ of 21st Century technology and media. He however also centralises his ideas around the concept of Telematic Art’ — “focused on the human aspect of the medium, the desire to communicate with another even in the virtual world, and how this (notion) is central to the creation of the medium.” — https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/i/internet-art. Telematic Art is something Stelarc, the artist I talked about in my previous reflection post pioneered with his project ‘Third Hand’ which involved attaching a third mechanical hand to his right arm. This is similar to how Urich Lau incorporates gadgets into his body as extensions.

Stelarc — ‘Third Hand’

Urich Lau, Teow Yue Han — ‘Life Circuit’



‘Life Circuit’ essentially, runs on the simple idea of an input and an output. This dichotomy is technical yet they act as conduits for non discrete and non absolute form of interaction with technology. In ‘Life Circuit’, Urich’s sensory organs lose their ‘human’ functions and instead are replaced with gadgets to alter his perceived reality into that of the alternate scape of technology. He is stripped of his ‘humaneness’ and instead becomes a temporary intermediary ‘cyborg’ that processes and then continuously bombards and projects video and audio from live feed, the internet and other sources to the audience within the space of the interaction. This in a sense forms a closed circuit within the audience by involving them in the alternate reality he is immersed in. Moreover, the idea of us, the audience interacting with Urich, who in this work takes on a tangible and physical form of technology, allows us to establish a (despite confusing), direct connection with the technological realm. However the output is distorted, disturbing and overwhelming, making it a rather uncomfortable and pervasive experience. This then forces us to take a step back and re-think our intimate relationship with potentially innocuous technology.


Performative aspect

‘Life Circuit’ also explores a second conceptual layer that focuses on the physical presence of the audience and the space in which they share with the Artist. As he navigates around the audience members, with his gadgets constantly converting live feed visuals into sounds which in turn ‘hack’ his senses, he becomes blind and occasionally bumps into one or two people. The visuals displayed are furthermore glitchy, distorted and fragmented — caused by the technical glitch brought about by the input interference from the devices attached to his body. The audience’s passive and non voluntary presence then inherently becomes an important part of establishing a direct and forced interaction between them and the artist. The line between the artwork and the observers is blurred here, forming a closed loop that causes a more assertive participation from the ‘voyeurs’.

Critical Aspect

The third layer to ‘Life Circuit’ is slightly more abstract and interpretative. Amongst all the noise and glitchy technical projections and set up, Lau included National Art’s Council’s statements visually projected and also aurally projected by a AI entity, as part of the interference. At first glance I was confused by the distinct foreign presence of the NAC statement beside the visual landscape of the other output. However his intentional inclusion of it is significant and makes us think about the correlation between it and ‘Life Circuit’. Personally I feel that it could be his way as an established Artist to critique the way Art in Singapore is restricted by a seemingly ‘harmless’ statement.

Maybe there should not be any directive or statement that governs what Art in Singapore should be.

Maybe by portraying it as interference his intention was to express how the Singapore art scene is stifled by the same pragmatic and capitalist values that our nation functions on.



‘Ear on Arm’ by Stelarc

“Engineering an alternate anatomical architecture, one that also performs telematically. Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body’s identity, but its connectivity- not its mobility or location, but its interface. ” — Stelarc

Artist Overview




Stelarc is a performance artist who has been known to physically alter his body and replace parts of his anatomy with digital parts or prosthetics (as objects of excess instead of loss)  to explore the idea of extended connectivity with the world. In the face of advanced technology and the subliminal interconnectedness that exponentially increases with it, Stelarc’s ‘Ear on Arm’ is both a permanent, lifetime artwork and a piece of detailed, functional design that emphasises the idea of an alternate digital dimension we all inhabit, not dictated or limited by our physical bodies. It took two surgeries and meticulous research and procedures to implant the third ear on his left arm. The first one involved altering the physical body to allow it to accept a semi organic material to naturally inhabit and grow into the skin. While the second procedure involved the insertion of a microphone that would then serve as a transmitter.

Instead of allowing our physical existence become subservient to the intangible prowess of technology, Stelarc’s externally implanted digital ear, permanently alters the human body, turning it into a bridge between our physicality and the technology with which we interact with on a daily basis. It shifts the human body into the technological dimension, extruding it’s awareness and experience. As part of this work, he further planted receivers and speakers in his mouth — if someone were to call him, he would verbally communicate with them through his ‘Ear on Arm’ but hear their voices in his ‘head’. This then becomes an immersive yet pervasively interactive experience. 

An isolated person in a totally remote and detached body, is able to intrude his personal and physical shell via technology. The ear acts as a portal between these two normally separated realms. It becomes a tangible conduit for technology and digital input/information. Hence this work could also be seen as an exploration of new media and technology’s influence and power in our lives. It critiques how we willingly have let it pervade our consciousness and permanently distort our innate perceptions that were once formed based on our own personal experiences. In the twenty first century where everything is connected by the global internet, willing and non-willing forms of collaboration shape our perceptions more so than in silo.

Stelarc’s ‘Ear on Arm’ does however, ‘prophecise’ a radical stage that we could be heading towards. Instead of relying on external devices to communicate with someone who is physically away, if we integrated tech and digital prosthetics or micro inputs into our system, we would be able to extend ourselves as part devices to directly communicate with other bodies in other places. It would enable us to personally feel and listen to people, connecting body to body via mere radio or bluetooth signals. The foreign intermediary of the ‘phone’ and the external net dissolves, propelling us into a utopian evolutionary state that will then have literally adapted to survive in the alternate dimension.

However, to do so would be irreversible and we have to question if full intimacy with technology is something we want to embrace in the future. By removing the barrier between the net and our body, though we might be able to process incoming intangible information into tangible emotions, we also risk losing full control and agency over our private personal space.