Screaming Bone Vibrating mass (2009)

A short description of the project done at the end of the first semester at SymbioticA, University of Western Australia, Perth.

The unit Art and Life Manipulation aimed to expose the student to the seminal works done within the banner of biological art and to recognize key issues that artists deal with in their works specifically involving artifacts of nature (most loosely defined) as well as critiques of lab culture, processes and ethical issues magnified and examined as specimens through the lens of philosophy and artistic epistemology.  Among the many discourses taken, i was particularly interested in the topic of death and the reappropriation of life/living material into a perpetuating cycle of information, probably encouraged by the presence of SymbioticA resident Pia Interlandi, whose pHd work involved burying 20 pigs to test the decay of a special fabric wrapped around them as burial shrouds.  (more of her work here)

The visits to the forensic department and a couple of “digs” were lessons in the materiality of death and the transience of flesh and bone (with some resistance).  it was also pretty amazing listening to the great people working at the forensics department talking about death and bodies (and maggots and rotting smells) with the levity and humour you’d find over drinks at the pub.  I decided to look for ways in which i could extend the life force of animals through the alternate use of some of their body parts after death.  Being first and foremost responsible for a so-called altered view of these symbols of ‘death’, i sought to change the symbolic appearance of bones, selected because of their immediate reference to ossification and death.  By shaving the edges and breaking apart some of them, i could create enough textural variations to ‘draw’ with the bone debris.  And going further, I decided to that i could add a subsequent layer of representation – a musical one that could be derived from ‘reading’ the bone drawings as an aural score:

The project involves the production of an aural score using the detritus remains of the body after death.  Bones can be used because of their symbolism to fossilized memory; as an entity that persists in contrast to the ephemeral quality of life.  The project arises as a memorial for death, and the passing of a loved one, writing in the ritual of farewell a composition of sentimentality, and a lingering soundscape for nostalgia.  The use of a score provides a representational piece for the deceased that can be re-visited time and time again just as a book can be read and the story re-interpreted at every subjective experience.  The significance of an aural score allows the use of detritus material freely and in a graphical way that facilitates body material that is often hard to work with and to contain within conventional notational icons.  The aural score also provides a broader scope of expression for a musician to establish a deeper emotional connection, and also does not limit the musician to conventional music making instruments, but is open to innovations – even in using the bones themselves to create the music.

The project sadly got canned before i could get down to crushing any bones, basically because i started feeling like i was moving further away from the original intention of the project after several meetings with my supervisor Dr Ionat Zurr.  For one, the ambiguity of abstract musical notations focused the reader more on the process of reading than on the significance of the material – making the use of bone arbitrary, and while still rather poignant, felt like i wasn’t making full use of the bones.  The other problem was with the basic (flippant) use of the biological material, and without wanting to feel like i was riding on the sentimentality of using biological media, i decided i would focus more on the materiality of bone – the physicality, tangibility, texture, mass, resonance frequencies, volubility and so on.

But. nonetheless a project that definitely is waiting to be produced.  At least in my slow trot of an artistic career there might be a month that i could invest into that 🙂  The idea of biological media being sentimental, or empathetic is the subject of  media theorist Tim Merritt in his pHd at the National University of Singapore.  More information can be found on his blog (of which i am a very honoured guest blogger) or in his paper Empathetic Biological Media .

After reading Boo Chapple’s Can You Hear The Femur Play?: Bone audio speakers at the nano scale, ( , i started thinking about the character of the bones as raw materials for the propagation of sound.  The idea was that i would build on the physical resemblance to tubes, pipes, horns, conduits by resonating the bones at an identified frequency.  I found that by attaching a contact microphone to an end and looping the sound it was picking up into a speaker at the other end, I could effectively create a continuous loop of sound that was passaged not just through the conduit and out into the space but also through the walls of the tube, so much so that the tube could actually become an interactive interface, with touch dampening the vibrations picked up by the contact mics and reducing/altering the feedback of the speakers.  Heres a little writeup:

Bone is used in this artwork as a symbolic and physical conduit from which sound is both recorded and propagated in a feedback loop which resonates through of the bone, presenting an exploration into the decontextualization and re-appropriation of the materials of death through a study on base materiality, as well as reflecting on the broader questions of technology components and their effects on the body.  Bone is used in this artwork specifically for the significance of fossils as repositories of information, as well as of memory and nostalgia.  As a musical instrument, the project is reminiscent of cave lithophones and stone organs, the sound of which is incumbent on the physical properties of rocks, stalagmites and other natural formations used.  In many ways the project as sounding sculpture is also a similar exploration into the resonating potential of bone.

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