Interview with Mark Bain

September, 1999

Mark Bain "I guess my Vibronic system attempts to question this architectural authority in presenting art."


Mark Bain is an artist who makes installations in which sound is an important aspect. His work is interesting, wild and funny. He connects oscillators to architectural structures in order to make them tremble. I saw his work for the first time at DEAF '98, where he not only had used the V2 building as an instrument, but where he was also asked to be part of the big boat party of the festival in the Rotterdam harbour. He attached oscillators to the metal of the top of the boat. He does not use the internet (yet, that is. as you can see at the end of the interview one of his new works involves an extension: an etherconnection), which could be caused by the fact that his work is something one has to preferably experience live, at the site where it is produced. His unconventional choice of the medium to produce sound with however, plus his relaxed attitude towards it, seemed inspiring enough to share with you.






Josephine Bosma: The only thing I know of you is the work at DEAF98. Can you tell me something about it?


Mark Bain: It's called the 'Live Room: Transducing Resonant Architecture'. For this project I attached eight mechanical oscillators to the columns on the ground floor of V2 building. Essentially it is a system that was designed to resonate the four story steel and concrete structure. It actually stems off a project I did earlier which was also called the Live Room and was presented in Cambridge, at MIT. That project happened to be realized in an old space that was originally the instrumentation laboratory of MIT and was later renamed Draper Labs back in the mid sixties. This unique space had a specialized architecture that consisted of seven vibration isolation pads on the surface of the floor surrounded by aluminum plates. All these pads were floating on their own foundation of concrete, gravel and sand. They used these for testing gyroscopes and inertial guidance systems; direction finding equipment developed for the atlas rocket system and ICBM's, your basic cold war production facility. So it was a very specialized laboratory space that was neglected and empty when I came in with my oscillators and energized it, sort of doing the opposite of what the original intention of that space was.


It was interesting because the surface of the floor was enlivened with sound. I brought in an audience and was also working with four musicians. When the audience experienced it, they would stand or lie down on different parts of the floor while the frequencies would be resonating throughout their bodies and all the while the musicians were playing which would act less on the body and more through the ears. We had a blend of an acoustic and a vibrational event which all was happening within the spectators. This experience also changed as they moved to different surfaces and areas in the space. There was no stage or separation of the performers to the audience; audience, musicians and architecture would blend into one, how it all was navigated influenced the composition.


JB: How much audio work have you done? You say you are a megamedia artist, instead of a multimedia artist.


MB: I have been making audio art since I was in bands in high school, but later I started a company with my brother called Simulux in Seattle, Washington. It is an experimental acoustic and visual research facility basically for our own projects. We pull in a lot of gear that is old and discarded. We work it, take it apart and reassemble it together, producing a very hybrid studio. It's not necessarily correct, in the sense of having a proper sound studio, but it's a very interesting place to work.


Most of the audio work goes into my videos as soundtrack material. I haven't done a CD or anything as of yet, I am interested though. I want to compile some of the Mutant Data Orchestra, which my brother John does with some of the events that I have been producing, recording for instance the V2 building. I use special low frequency sensors for this, what geologists use to record seismic events like earthquakes. I use the sites where I have my projects, connect sensors to different areas and surfaces of the building and run that into recording decks. I record the sound and vibration in the materials, not the in air. Some of these recordings are quite interesting and I think that in few months I will bring some of it together as a CD.


JB: You were also talking about how you also attached your devices to bridges, but don't especially bridges resonate of themselves already, from the cars that pass on top of them and the wind that blows around them?


MB: This depends of the kind of bridge you are on. Some bridges are made out of steel and the cars going over it can set it going. It is like you hit a bell. The resonant factor of that piece of bronze is what a bell sounds like. If you use a bridge, you have that whole object as a resonant structure. You can either hit it with a hammer or I can attach one of my oscillators to it, tune it up to that frequency, engaging the bridge at its resonant frequency.


JB: What did you do to a bridge, and did the traffic notice anything?


MB: I have done two bridges. One was a small wooden one on which there was not much traffic. That was interesting because it was kind of like a giant marimba, a wooden xylophone. That had a nice woody tone that was quite beautiful. I have also done a large truss bridge in Boston that was actually closed to the public and waiting for demolition. It was a hundred meters long, quite heavy. There was no traffic on it and I went there late at night. It was like a guerrilla action. The most interesting thing that happened was this ringing aspect and the fact that all of the rust would start flaking off. It was quite rusty and the resonance 'cleaned' the girders while also generating this heavy low-frequency sound which surrounded you.


Another structural object I have done was in Maine last summer when I was using a wooden out building, a shack. I had some electro-dynamic oscillators attached to the building that were even more controllable. I could run audio synthesizers into them and put a lot more complex kind of waveform into the architecture. These wooden structures have a sound that is more like a guitar. The concrete at V2 is heavier.


JB: What kind of sound are you interested in making?


MB: All my sound work is highly experimental, like tests. I take sort of a systemalogical approach to it, setting up complex systems that have a life of their own. You can sit there and tweak it enough to get things to go in directions you are interested in. This is also present in the Live Room at DEAF, that sort of complex system: machines fused to architecture, and playing the building as an instrument. The architecture is also a complex system of parts and materials, so you could say you're 'collaborating' with this structure.


My sound work is just something that I can work with on my own in relation to my work, whether it is video, or installation, or sculptural. I don't call myself a sound artist or anything. It ties in directly when I make a project, just another element. I work a lot with machines, so those are also dealing with sound, acoustic and vibrational energy. It comes round the opposite way, the sound as artifact.


JB: You said you are very interested in sound you can't hear?


MB: The field of infrasonics is a strange area. The CIA and the Soviet Union had been doing research into this for riot control and offensive military measures. Infrasonic or subsonic energy is sound below the hearing threshold. Your experience of it is physical, vibrational and it sounds more like it is whooshing air coming at you. I refer to it as kind of 'sonic wind'. It does strange things to physiology and psychology of subjects submitted to it. The experiences here at V2 concerning this, were that Andreas Broeckman was complaining of headaches at one point, and Marc Thelosen, the production man had to kind of escape the building because he was getting solidly confused from it. Subsonics is known to do strange things. Certain frequencies are known to induce bowel movements or headaches, the most generalized feeling you get is a kind of anxious feeling, anxiety, a heaviness.


One of the things that is interesting about the building being sized so large: when I am putting energy into it, it acts as a radiator, or a speaker in a sense. The surfaces are rattling and vibrating out. What you hear is the movement of the building. Most of it is subsonic though, and it has this heaviness that relates to the heaviness of the architecture. I like this massiveness of the sound.


JB: Do you work with these different aspects of subsonic sound on purpose? Like: now I will use this, as it produces nausea or headache, or this time I will just produce dizziness...


MB: Those are extreme potentialities. The other aspect of low frequency gets back to an almost spiritual action as certain frequencies can induce near religious experiences or even hauntings. Especially things below ten hertz. So there is the potential of these sounds having soothing aspects as well.


In the sixties a lot of people were trying to get into this alpha state. Nowadays you see these sound and light modulation devices that you can wear. These are the same frequencies I have been working with in the architectural installations. There is always a good and bad side of things.


JB: You can't use these kinds of things in mediated work like video of course, they have to be experienced live, at the installation site.


MB: I have of course a problem of how to document it. I have shown slides of work, and it's just slides of an existing building with one of my small devices attached, not so illustrative. Even on a CD it does not repeat well. Most audio equipment won't pick up the low frequencies, human perception of audio stops at about 20 hertz. So of course it is definitely experiential.


I have done a lot of research into infrasonic and subsonic sound when I was at MIT, I was in the libraries a lot. One thing that is interesting is that there is a correlation between building frequencies and body frequencies. There is a parallel that can be taken to extremes, where amplitudes and frequencies correlate between the feeling of pain in the body and the ultimate destruction of a building or even when the body starts to feel this threshold of uncomfort, certain amounts of cracking can occur in the building.


I'm trying to find a bridge between the two, between inhabitants of a structure and the structure itself. I am using a vibrational vehicle to connect them together.


An other aspect of my work is what I tend to call massage-ing buildings.


JB: Giving them a good time.


MB: A little resonant therapy... It is fun in a sense because these devices are portable, relatively speaking. With this system I can engage a four-story building that is made out of concrete and steel. I go in with 200 kilos of materials, attach it and can engage the whole structure. Things that have a high Q factor, the resonance factor, you can excite with even smaller devices.


Nicolai Tesla was doing a few experiments also with vibrational devices. There are some notorious stories of him shaking up his laboratory quite a lot with one of these attached to a column. There is a certain history there. But I am using multiple oscillators, which is a little different. It becomes more like an additive synthesis type of production. A layering of many sine waves.


JB: You were also talking about how the oscillators were also a kind of orchestra you could manipulate...


MB: I use a digital control board with which I engage the architecture in a sort of cyclic or symbiotic way. A mix that is tuned directly to the building.


JB: You are now a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. What kind of work do you do there and how is it received?


MB: Well I work out of the Rijksakademie now, if only because it makes it easy for me to be here in Holland. People there tend to call themselves 'participants' instead of students for lack of a better term. The academy recently became privatized so it is still trying to define itself from its past. I tend to think of it as a good place for incubation, a place to work without the hassle of having to have a day job.


My work is well received though and I've made some good connections with people who visit there, it's a good front end for the rest of Europe. I think that most people there consider me as the crazed American who vibrates buildings, scary and anarchic. But this is good, to provoke new concepts in this traditional setting, to consider art outside the boundaries of the museum or gallery space.


JB: You presented work at the Amsterdam ICA, and will present works in The Hague and Antwerp soon. What are these works like and do they resemble each other?


MB: Yes, the project at de Appel was quite amusing. It was for the curatorial program that they run where they invite five young curators to study contemporary issues in art and to produce a show as a final project. So this year the show was titled Anarchitecture (a term they borrowed from Gorden Matta-Clark), which of course seemed quite intriguing to me. They had seen my project at V2 and invited me to propose something for de Appel. I proposed two resonant systems to be installed in their building, one minor system for the metal wheelchair ramp (a beautiful sound) and the other with four large oscillators attached to a thick wall on the first floor corridor. Both systems had audience activated detonator switches that would turn them on for a set time.


From the start there was infighting amongst the five whether they should include me in their show. There was one Japanese woman who knew about earthquakes and thought that I would bring the whole building down. So after assuaging all fears I set up the work, but made sure not to run it until ten minutes before the opening. This was crucial since they didn't really know the power of these systems. Just before opening, when everyone was running around stressed, making last minute preparations, my X-Site project kicks in and they all kind of freak-out. It worked charmingly, I could move this wall back and forth about a centimeter and engage the whole building. Because this wall was moving, it was pushing an infrasonic wind throughout gallery space. It provoked some interesting collaborative situations with some of the other work installed.


The visitors seemed to enjoy it though since for the duration of the opening, the system was always on. At the end of the evening, they told me that police had showed up due to neighbors’ complaints and so de Appel shut down the project, never to run again. I think that this is a good example of how traditional venues for presenting work become less and less relevant for work that presses these architectural boundaries. I guess my Vibronic system attempts to question this architectural authority in presenting art.


With the project in Antwerp, I was commissioned to produce the 'soundtrack' for a show titled Laboratorium. For this I recorded a testing laboratory that is used in the petroleum industry. It was a lab that ran a 24hrs a day testing products brought in on oil tankers. It was a huge space loaded with machines humming and pumping liquids and had five technicians nursing it all. So I came in and tested the testing lab. I spread out an array of geosensors that were attached to the architecture and furnishings of the site. I recorded the ambient sound resident within the structure of the building, the sound of all impacts. For an hour I made direct to DAT, a live mix of the architecture. A smooth heavy drone of the building singing. It's strange to think that there is this secret world of sound resident within materials. I produced a CD of this sound and brought the recorded vibrations back to the gallery space, and using special vibration transducers, I re-injected it into the walls of the 'host' site. It was a translation of sorts, one building's sound infecting another.


The project in the Hague is at Het Paard, a music venue that is slated for renovation this fall. Before that happens and after all the current tenants leave, they give the building to me to 'wire up'. A dream project really, to turn a building used for presenting musical acts into a musical act itself. It is organized by Cell: Initiators of Incidents from Rotterdam, and will include few other artists collaborating with the system along with a some performance nights. There will also be a live performance of the building with the Mutant Data Orchestra, we're calling it Vibrosonics vs. MDO. The exhibition runs for two weeks and I plan to mount sixteen mechanical oscillators throughout the three buildings that make up Het Paard. In conjunction with the oscillators, I'll mount 46 geosensors to reproduce the sound of the architecture, which visitors can then listen to through headphones in the bar. There will also be broadcast of the sound of the building on radio Tonka (an alternative piratestation, 104.7 FM) in The Hague.