Monday 19 December 2011

This fluid world

In a gallery is a massive, almost overwhelming, box with an inviting little door. Stepping into this room gives the guest the ability to control nature – to move liquid simply through controlling sounds that the liquid "hears". While this may seem to be the preserve of science and fiction – if not science fiction – it isn't. The room holds Suguru Goto's work Cymatics.

Suguru Goto. Photography by Pablo Balbontin, by courtesy of Luca Barbeni / Action Sharing

Cymatics is an installation which plays carefully with nature. While this play is overtly natural, the way in which nature is manipulated in the work, through a computer, is highly covert.

Suguru Goto is, in his own words, "... a composer, a performer, an inventor and a multimedia artist and a Japanese artist". Now based in Paris, a common thread running through his work is an experimental use of technology in art, and the pushing of the boundaries that define the relationship between man and machine. These ideas surface in work which mix installation and performance.

A kinetic sculpture and sound installation, Cymatics expresses Goto's vision of nature through symbolic elements within a technological context; the work creates a space that is, as Goto says, "... metaphysical and spiritual at the same time. A place where art is a bridge between the material and the spiritual, between technology and nature, and between the humanities and science". As Goto's homeland of Japan has a strong history of combining ecology and technology in a harmonious co-existence, Cymatics invites the viewer to explore what is essentially a natural phenomenon – though accentuated by technology – that is rarely encountered.

In the work, sound waves transform water into geometric shapes. The result is something of an orchestration of nature; hence, "Cymatics". Goto started development by considering music that could be seen, and images that could be heard, creating a performance that both challenges and immerses the senses. The sound is generated by a user-controlled computer, with the output – speaker vibration - expressed as a wave motion as it is transmitted to a liquid. The liquid makes a pattern which vibrates; the pattern itself is determined by the configuration of the software at the time. By contacting a liquid during oscillation, vibration becomes visible as a physical reaction to sound. This results in a simple pattern for simple sounds, and a complex pattern for complex sounds. As Goto confirms, the results can be staggering to watch. "It is interesting to closely observe this natural phenomenon which is artificially made. The complexity of perception is recognised anew here, and it is re-expressed on this work as an interactive installation."

In developing Cymatics, Goto spent a year on his own testing the system to deliver the right results, before winning the Turin Chamber of Commerce Action Sharing project award, which led him to finish the work in conjunction with the city's Polytechnic University. This enabled him to fully test the system with the University's mechanics department. Such is the delicate, intricate nature of the work that galleries are usually requested to build a space specifically for it, in order for the elements to work correctly and for the audience to truly appreciate the experience. Goto is adamant that producing Cymatics required as much knowledge of computing as it did of mechanics and sound design.

"The problem confronting artists who work with interactive media is the use of commercially-produced computers. Very few of them build their machines from scratch. Individuals tend to purchase computers that have evolved from marketing strategies, while institutions equip themselves with larger computers in accordance with their administrative requirements. Yet these commercially-produced devices are aimed at the mass market, rather than at the individual artist who wishes to develop original ideas based on an imaginary world of their own making. Even if the artist knows how to program a computer, their possibilities are limited by the computer's operating system and by the power of the machine. [The artist] might create a controller using sensors and a circuit of their own design, but these signals end up being treated by the computer. The artist has to be aware of the fact that creativity is always reliant on commercial considerations.




"Likewise, we have to be selective with regard to the overwhelming mass of information surrounding us. Otherwise, we will succumb to the totalitarianism of the media. If we are to retain a certain amount of individuality, we have to be aware of these manipulative processes. This is not the case with many artists, which is why many artistic creations are banal and conformist.

"We are living a time when technology is accessible to all. The computer may be regarded as the symbol of our democratic society, inasmuch as it is a product that is available world-wide. At the same time, it can be an instrument of power and authority." Goto cites the changing relationship between artist and technology as being most evident in music, where technology has offered musicians many new possibilities. In surrendering the limit of possibility to the machine, the artist becomes "... an intermediary who offers their audience new values and perceptions based on their interaction with technology. Artists should rather consider how they can confront technology, while remaining aware of its dangers."

Next for Goto is further work with robots, where he been building a robot orchestra, as well as creating an interface for a project where sound and video are controlled by virtual music instruments in real time. Goto's RoboticMusic, shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, firmly positioned the artist in this area. Goto's ability to connect the natural and the artificial across physical and sensory experiences is something to sample, particularly if it opens up an understanding of the sensory perceptions that often lay dormant within us.


Further information on Suguru Goto is available on his website. Further information on Cymatics is available at the Action Sharing project website
Cymatics is being shown at Watermans in Brentford, 07/01/12 – 19/02/12, as part of the Watermans International Festival of Digital Art 2012.

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