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'Whale' Creates Immersive Audio Art of the Self

By Clive Young on Apr 28, 2014

Audio and art have always gone hand in hand, and as technology has advanced, the realms of possibility have only broadened. But while we often delight in seeing technology used to create something otherworldly that we’ve never seen before—say, video games or the latest special effects blockbuster—Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Sonia Li has been making her name by creating art that explores and interprets the natural world around us through experiential technology. Her latest art installation is Whale, which she describes as “an interactive multichannel sound installation strongly rooted in humanity.”

Whale is designed to be experienced by one person at a time; the visitor lays on a subsonic vibrating bed and makes sounds into a nearby microphone, which in turn triggers different whale songs that are experienced both audibly and via resonances throughout the body. The combination of sounds, vibrations and complete darkness around the visitor alludes to a variety of things, from the depths of the ocean to Li herself, as she noted that the installation was “…an aural and physical manifestation of who I am as a person and how I feel within. However, since the user doesn’t know who I am nor how I feel, one ultimately experiences oneself through me.”

Of course, art is always open to personal interpretation; Li told PSN, “I interviewed many about how they had felt amongst the Whale installation; everyone had a very different experience, ranging from meditative, peaceful/happy, warm/comforting to unsettling, isolating, intimidating, powerful and otherworldly, amongst other [sensations]. Each of these descriptions is highly personal, and reflect much on each user and their psyche.”

Besides the vibrating bed, Li’s installation employs Cycling 74’s Max MSP visual programming language for multimedia; Ableton Live; and various speakers for the multichannel sound. “I shaped the concept to maturity with some sense of what I would use,” said Li. “As I went into the production phase, I tested out many different technologies, and found the ones that worked best. In the case of Whale, the technicality supports the concept, and the concept would not work without the technicality.”

“Currently, this is a one-person usage installation, with plans to expand it into multiple users,” she added. “However, many I have interviewed have told me that while waiting to experience the installation, the whale sounds seemed very distant, but when they are laying in the subsonic vibrating bed, they felt as though the whales were right next to them, and the space became much larger. In that sense, everyone is able to experience this piece at different standpoints.”

Whale will debut at La Sala / Royal Cantina (58 N. 3rd St, Brooklyn, NY 11211) on May 1, from 6pm-midnight.

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