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Helyer's progress: fusing art and science

John Potts

Nigel Helyer Nigel Helyer
The tape was in the recorder, and it was a long tape. I knew Nigel Helyer would have a lot to say, because even before winning the Helene Lempriere National Sculpture Award earlier this year, he had been busy. And since taking out that prize he’d been overseas, interstate, here and there, on the move, working on projects, collaborations, schemes and dreams. So I came equipped with my trusty mini tape recorder.

Which didn’t work! Press Record or Play and all you got was a blast of nasty static. White noise is fine in its place, but this wasn’t it. No worry: surely Nigel himself, a technician/engineer/acoustician (these sound artists are such polyglots) could fix the recalcitrant thing. He jiggled, he coaxed, he gave it a whack, he held it to his ear, he looked into its soul—but the rascally machine just wouldn’t cooperate. So there we were, on the verge of discussing the fantastic worlds of sound sculpture, Virtual Audio Reality, Networked Environmental Audio Systems, Biotechnology, Intellectual Property, magnetic fields, cockroach hearing and miniaturisation—and the technology let us down.

Funnily enough, one of Nigel’s themes, once we get started, is the robustness of contemporary audio technology. So, dispensing with my dysfunctional recorder, we begin, using the even older-school technology of pen and paper.

First, what of his prize, the National Sculpture Award, which came with a sum of—dare we be so vulgar as to mention the figure?—$105,000? How did it feel to win? And (questions downloaded from E! Entertainment website) has the money changed him? Is he a big-shot sound artist now? Will we see him in the international jet-set, rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno and Moby?

Nigel was “pleased and surprised” to win with his environmental sound sculpture Meta-Diva, which is now installed in the grounds of Werribee Park, Victoria. Meta-Diva comprises 30 tall aluminium stems equipped with digital audio chips and timers. Standing in a pond, the work requires zero maintenance for at least 10 years. One pleasing aspect was the technology used to run Meta-Diva, so that the win in part “recognises that we should be using solar power more.” He adds that “for the first time we can use digital audio in solid state technology with memory. I’ve become very interested with the idea of being robust. Usually now I’m only let down by third parties [like the tape recorder]. Ten years ago you had to depend on technology with moving parts—tape or CD machines. Now you can expect these technologies to run, they’re much more robust.”

Meta-Diva is a successful, yet relatively simple, example of what Nigel calls a Solar Powered Environmental Networked Audio System. Its playback of sampled nature recordings provides an “almost infinite mix” which listeners can’t pick from nature. This technological rendering of natural sounds fits the 2 environments in which Meta-Diva has been installed: one an artificial lake in Korea, the other the English country garden landscape of Werribee Park.

As for the prize money, it will be invested in new versions of environmental audio work, networks that interact with both people and environment on the model of “emergent behaviour.” Some of this work draws on the Virtual Audio Reality System developed during Nigel’s 2 and a half years at Lake Technology, where he was employed as Senior Designer. Having left his academic position, does he now miss the financial security associated with a post in the Ivory Tower? Existing outside the academy is, he admits, “financially risky—but I’d die faster if I stayed there.” As compensation, he has an Australia Council Fellowship for 2 years, and a host of Visiting Fellow positions at various academic institutions in Australia and the US. One of these, at the University of NSW, will enable further development of Virtual Audio, based partly on Satellite Positioning technology.

So what are the artworks that result from this confluence of research and technology? One is an installation called Seed, which was first exhibited in Phoenix earlier this year, and is currently on show at the Biennale of Electronic Arts (BEAP) in Perth. Seed is a “sonic minefield”, a series of 16 facsimiles of Russian landmines as used in Afghanistan. Each one sits in the centre of an Islamic prayer mat which plays recordings of the 99 names of Allah as well as Arabic music. This work melds the Old Testament rhetoric of sowing seeds—like mines, they “lie in wait for the future”—with the “contemporary disasters of military and ideological conflict.” The visitor enters a “place of ambiguity” within the context of current military and political events.

From October, Nigel Helyer will be Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Western Australia. In a lab called Symbiotica—designed to facilitate cooperation between artists and scientists—he’ll be working on a project involving “compound hearing.” This results from research into the animal sensorium, especially that of insects. Spiders, for example, have 8 legs with tiny hairs as sound sensors: a phenomenon known as distributed hearing. But where is all this likely to lead?

“We hear in stereo, with our two ears,” he says. “But other life-forms, especially insects, hear with multiple organs, like legs covered with tiny antennas. In the lab we should be able to plug in things like a cockroach antenna into a listening or sound generating device. I’ll be showing this kind of project in Stanford [where he will be visiting Fellow early next year]. Stanford University is very big on biotechnology. Apparently, you can almost use cockroach antennas as microphones. They’re so well designed that cockroaches can hear us humans. Most insects have poor hearing, but cockroaches have a wide range of hearing.”

Being able to listen like a cockroach presents some interesting possibilities. One other aspect of biotechnology research—the small scale used in the study of, for example, insect antennae—corresponds to a direction of Nigel’s recent art: working in miniature. A project for the School of Sound in London next April involves miniature technology. Called One or Two Things I Know, it uses induction coils in a work of 10 tiny visual pieces drawn from Jean-Luc Godard films. The pieces are so small that you need to look at them with a magnifying glass; in the process, your physical presence affects the magnetic field, which triggers the audio content of the work.

This piece uses an ingenious interface, free of buttons, keyboards and screens. It’s designed, Nigel says, “so you engage the audio without realising it. It’s like a re-enchantment device, where the audio becomes magic. It gives an extra dimension that’s not automatically apparent. I also appreciate the tiny scale. I don’t want to be trapped working in large scale all the time; I like the intimate, hand held scale.”

And why Godard films? This relates to a childhood experience, when as a 13-year old Nigel stumbled across a Godard movie in London’s Victoria Station. It was a cartoon cinema that for some reason was screening Godard! It left a lasting impression, so that when later teaching sculpture to art school students he showed them Godard films to illustrate metaphor. Sadly, his students in the 1990s objected to the films: “They were deeply offended and told me I was sick.” Time to get out of the academy, then.

Nigel is convinced of the potential ensuing from the union of science and art. The omen was there in the town of his birth, which had earlier hosted both Halley (the famous astronomer) and William Blake, the famous mystical poet. Nigel has “grown into the idea that there’s no difference between art and science. Both are to do with creativity and inventiveness. Working with Lake, I found business people very open to creative ideas. They can be generous in the way they do things.”

This fusion of art, science and technology will be advanced in all these projects, as well as the various residencies and fellowships at universities and other institutions. There are other ventures, such as Nigel’s involvement with Polar Circuit, a series of workshops for media artists and theorists initiated by the University of Lapland. And the task of creating an international network of sound artists and theorists. Not to mention the difficult task of re-assembling the complicated installation work Silent Forest for its inclusion in the new Federation Square wing of the National Gallery of Victoria. And did I mention some of his online collaborations, such as Music for Mutants —keyboard standards re-designed (and re-copyrighted) for aliens with extra fingers?

There are other projects, collaborations and ventures, but they can wait for another day. For now, we separate, I with a broken recorder and writer’s cramp, Nigel with a head full of projects and schemes.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 26-

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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