Love assignment #3: create a site-specific work for the knitted speakers

While I was doing my MA I knitted a soundsystem with 32 working, miniature speakers. This piece was the start of my obsession with The Domestic Soundscape, and I played many domestic recordings through the soundsystem once I had spent an entire night installing it.

Here are the knitted speakers 1. being made 2. laid out ready to wire together 3. installed in the Arena gallery space at Oxford Brookes.

In its incarnation in The Arena, I felt the form/function marriage within the piece wasn’t really working. The tempting way that the speakers hung above peoples’ heads made the audience want to listen individually to each speaker; and for that to be a really satisfying experience, there needed really to be different sounds coming out of them, rather than just the two L and R stereo channels. So the work didn’t really deliver on that score. Also, I was mistaken in using Knitting to make a kind of Domestic reference, since Knitting – especially in this kind of playful, sculptural, public-art kind of context – is specifically Non-domestic in reference. Furthermore, the sounds that played through the speakers did not provide the fascinating, intimate sonic portrayal of home life that I was aiming for. Tea pouring into mugs, rain falling on the roof, rice going into a pan, onions frying over a stove etc. somehow lost their meaning when dispersed via this incongruous, hanging appendage of knitted speakerdom.

Sometimes the failure of a work can push you into new and exciting territories, so I was undaunted by the negative feedback I received on this work. To me it just meant I needed to reinstall the speakers in different situations, play with their potential, and learn what DOES work when played through them.

So they had a second installation in The Jam Factory, at MAJAM, where the sounds of jam being created (from fruit to jar, all the stages…) were played through them. And they were deliberately installed in such a way as to resemble a fruit tree. The feedback was more positive this time and during the day, it was very pleasing to walk through The Jam Factory cafe gallery with the sugary bubbly sound of jam emanating from the knitted speakers. And I think a lot of people enjoyed the fact that the sound source is difficult to identify; like you know the sound is coming from the speakers, but it is dispersed in such a strange, spatial way that it is still a surprise when you select an individual speaker and discover that yes, it is actually making a sound! And many people stood sort of inside the installation, putting the speakers to their ears, so the tactile quality of the piece was good.

But again I got the impression that the intimacy of that tactile-ness, the intimacy of the knitted speaker right up against your ear, required something less distant than recordings of sound events. Narrative perhaps? Involving a story or a voice, perhaps?

The knitted speakers installed in the Jam Factory.

So I thought about how I would use the voice with these speakers, and what it would say and how that would all work, but I didn’t come up with any genius ideas, so they languished in a box until I showcased the knitted walking stick cosies at Prick Your Finger last winter, and bought the speakers along to play carols through and drape over the woolly Christmas tree that Rachael made.

The knitted speakers at Prick Your Finger.

In this final installation, the knitted speakers worked basically on a playful, straightforward, visual level and fit right into the ethos and context of Rachael’s amazing shop.

Thing is, there is still more for these speakers to do. So in preparing for Love Is Awesome, I have decided to reinstall the speakers and to develop a soundwork specifically for them which will work in the context of the gallery and the show. The trick is to build on what I know about the speakers whilst devising the sound-recording to be played through them.

I know:

  1. That the speakers have an innately tactile quality about them which makes people want to pick them up and listen to them.
  2. That the speakers disperse sound broadly across the area where they installed, in a very curious way. They create a kind of sonic texture which is emenating from everywhere rather than one or two distinctive source points.
  3. That the speakers are sort of sculptural and architectural and can be ‘fitted’ to a space.

So I am wanting to organise a set of recordings which use the voice, and I am inviting you to be a part of this work. The focus for the sound piece is going to be conversations that happen on stairs, or the sonic life of stairs. I am interested in learning about squeaky stairs, exciting conversations that have taken place on stairs, the kinds of exchanges/dramatic exits and entrances that can happen on stairs and momentous occasions that have taken place on stairs. I want to know about characterful staircases and memorable staircases; about things you wish you’d said on the stairs, or things that get shouted up and down the stairs.

I have set up a way of recording skype conversations on my PC and so can collect these interviews from in my place, right here, right now. In order to contribute, you just need to install skype and call me on it. My username is felixford; I can’t wait to hear your stair stories!

And before I forget, while I am on the subject of knitting and sound, how about this?

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