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  • Richard Kearns

Building Soundweb

Soundweb: A brief description

I designed the installation Soundweb for the Children’s Centre of Creativity, Playeum’s hands-on exhibition, Hideaways – Creating With Nature. It occupied the Dark Space, which is a partitioned black cubed room within the centre. There were no physical objects within the space, instead an array of animal calls and shadow silhouettes were projected whenever movement was detected.

The design concept of Soundweb referenced Plato’s narrative The Cave. In it he related an account of reality that was assumed by a shackled group of people forced to stair at the back wall of a cave. Silhouettes were projected onto this wall in front of the group of the daily movement of life flowing behind them. This was itself backlit by a bright fire, which was the source of the shadows. The images and muffled sounds were accepted as reality by the prisoners and they begin to assign them meaning and names. On a random, day and for no particular reason, one of the inmates is released from their chains and ventures outside the cave into a world of bright sunlight, trees, flowers and birdsong, to discover the formidable truth. Their conception of reality was at best fragmented and at worst utter illusion. However, the sense of enlightened freedom came with a great deal of uncertainty. As this new truth tangible, or was there another exit?

The second borrowed reference originated in Southeast Asian shadow theatre, Wayang Kulit, where backlit silhouettes of puppets are projected onto a screen often accompanied by a narrative sequence of voice and music. The two examples, in my mind, seemed to seamlessly interconnect. In Soundweb, though, there was no accompanying set narrative between the animals, all of which, incidentally, can be found in the Southeast Asian region. Interaction within the installation space was intended to stimulate an open-ended narrative, which while framed in a context of story building, included outcomes that were surprising and unexpected.

Soundweb’s animal calls were carefully selected and then modified to fit within a framework of potentially percussive and melodic rhythms. I have often used How-to literature as a source to examine assumptions, particularly cultural ones, within creative subjects. Soundweb did this by applying rules prevalent in How to Compose texts that suggest, for example, ascending melodies are uplifting and descending ones melancholic. One of Soundweb’s outcomes, alongside overt story building, was the potential to use it as a chaotic music composition machine that operates through movement. This, to a certain extent, could be performed by an individual, but worked best when the space was activated by groups that inhabiting different areas.

What was surprising in Soundweb was the level of engagement that children, even as young as two, displayed once inside it. The space was dark with a low level of ultra-violet illumination that many of the children who engaged with it found thrilling. Three of the represented animals were apex predators, and these were often utilised to accentuate a thrill factor within the children’s play. From the age of five and above this became a significantly immersive and wild activity. Other audiences engaged with Soundweb in a completely different manner, finding it a peaceful and tranquil environment that they did not want to leave. Open-ended interpretation of the installation was deliberate and enabled the underlying rules governing engagement to be explored experientially through acts of play. Often essential to play, as hinted at above, is that it is encapsulated within story building. This happens naturally and not always in the traditional sense of a ‘beginning middle and end’. It is often a continual real-time process that pulls elements of the external world into the imagination to confront problems, primal fears and hopes, among a host of others.

Soundweb was not just for children. There were also adults who engaged deeply with the installation, sometimes when their wards were occupied elsewhere within the Centre.

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