ON AIR was commissioned by the Open University to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s University of the Air speech. Four artists were commissioned, one in each of the UK’s component nations, each with a different remit in terms of the academic knowledge to be represented. I was selected to make the work for the English commission, the theme of which was Design and Technology.
I conceived ON AIR as a multi-channel sound installation that would form an acoustic layer throughout the campus. I wanted to present fragments of the knowledge, ideas and voices of the Open University floating throughout the campus – as though vestiges of the output of the OU are always present on the air currents throughout the site and are made temporarily audible by the work. By using a large number of hidden sound sources, the work would completely transform the experience of the space without visual trace.
Prior to my proposal, I made a number of site visits to establish an initial structure for the work and decided to use the central walkway as a backbone for the installation, spreading out into the gardens from there. You can listen to extracts of the final recording by selecting the link below.
I was inspired by the open and inclusive notion of an accessible network of knowledge transmitted through the air and available to anyone and it struck me that a network structure would resonate with the spread of knowledge and influence of the Open University and its social justice mission to reach out and provide university education for all.
When Harold Wilson presented the idea of a University of the Air in 1963, developments in technology were promising a brighter future and the Open University was a compelling notion that had the potential to radically alter the educational landscape of the UK that, according to academic Prof. Stuart Hall, was at the time ‘badly skewed’. I began my research in the Open University library, sourcing archive material of OU educational programmes as well as the original University of the Air speech by Harold Wilson and interviews with Jennie Lee, Tony Benn, Walter Perry and others instrumental in the early stages. In hindsight, I have been glad that the project presented an opportunity for me to work with the voices of the (now) late Tony Benn and Stuart Hall.
Archive material was plentiful and catalogued (no scrabbling around for rare recorded fragments of the past at the OU!) and would be great for bringing the origins of the OU and the aims at its inception to life. However, I also wanted the voices of the academics to speak of their work throughout the ensuing years and bring the story up to date with current research.
I looked through papers and abstracts and contacted Emma Dewberry of the Design Group in the Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology who put me in touch with Chris Earl, Robin Roy, Stephen Potter, Sally Caird, Godfrey Boyle, Matthew Cross, among others, all of whom agreed to be recorded for the work.
Robin Roy, Chris Earl and Stephen Potter had joined in the early days of the Open University and were able to provide an overview of the key areas of research over the years. I found the pioneering and progressive spirit that informed the early OU was still evident today. As I was able to use archive recordings in conjunction with current interviews with some of the academics, I was also fascinated to be able to hear the way that their voices had changed over time.
The academics gave up their time for interview sessions. I wanted these to be informal affairs during which they could speak about the ideas that were important to them so there were no formal questions. Rather, I asked them to give an overview of the areas and ideas that were important to them or inspired or motivated their work.
Having researched their academic output, I mentioned which areas could be useful from my perspective for the composition before turning the recorder on and leaving it running while a discussion ensued. As the academics were accustomed to discussions and familiar with each other’s work, the ‘interviews’ flowed smoothly and I soon had plenty of material to work with. I used this material throughout the walkways for the final piece to achieve my intended effect of walking through a layer of thought, enquiry and knowledge.
The academics had relatively quiet, considered voices that worked well layered and overlapping each other as though ideas were being carried on the air currents and coming to meet each other in eddies and whirlpools. The politicians (e.g. Harold Wilson) by contrast, projected their voices in such a way that they suited the more formally constructed pieces in the Berrill and Walton Gardens. I became acutely aware of just how little amplification is required for the voice of a politician in comparison to that of an academic.
Spending a large amount of time on site developing the work provided an opportunity to bump into Simon Holland, whose haptic research with Janet Van de Linden I found particularly interesting, as well as a chance encounters with various other academics, including Peter Scott from the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) and Blaine Price who wandered over to find out why he could hear the voice of Cory Doctorow coming from a bush.
I consulted with Trevor Collins (KMI), whose expertise on mobile technologies was especially helpful regarding technical aspects of the sound system, which needed to be discreet, reliable and flexible enough to distribute sound to all the trees, bushes, walkways and any other inaccessible nooks and crannies I wished to animate throughout the gardens.
Several members of OU staff contacted me with suggestions for voices they would like to hear and contacts where I might find existing material. This led to my contacting Disabled Student Services who provide audio materials to students – OU staff and others volunteer to read the print learning materials for recordings that are then compiled as talking books and distributed to disabled students. As well as providing another layer of knowledge that linked the research with the teaching, I felt these voices were significant in highlighting an important aspect of the inclusive nature of the OU.
I gathered a number of field recordings from the site and was keen to make recordings of signals that were inaudible around the campus. I have a receiver for the gathering of electromagnetic signals but I was delighted when I heard that there might be an opportunity to record the local bats.
An Open University bat walk organised by the MK Parks Trust took place in October and I managed to go on this with several members of OU staff and get some excellent recordings. October is a great month to hear bats and although I have been on bat walks before, the recordings I made on this walk were much better than I had managed in the past. Even if you don’t know what echolocating bats sound like, there is an organic rhythmical nature to the sound that makes you suspect that it has a natural origin (even though the signal passes through technology during the process of heterodyning).
The bat recordings featured prominently in the final work as I was fascinated by the way I was able to use their chaotic movement to animate the garden spaces amongst the formally clipped bushes. I combined the echolocation recordings with the insect-like sounds of electromagnetic emissions from computers and other technology. I wanted to evoke a feeling that the air was alive with normally inaudible signals as though a visitor was experiencing a form of super sensitive hearing that could pick up insects and machines as well as thoughts and ideas.
ON AIR was an ambitious work, both in terms of its physical scale and the research content, especially given its relatively tight time-frame for production and installation. By embedding myself in the Open University in this way, I was able to absorb a very large amount of material that I then fed back into the work. As well as the research relating to networks, sustainability and distance learning of the Design Team and the haptic research from the Music Computing Lab I incorporated various other themes, such as the exponential growth in publishing and archiving of knowledge and ideas surrounding openness and accessibility.
When the installation was finally switched on for my initial tests, I had a real sense that a wealth of knowledge, enquiry and ideas was present on the air currents of the campus and floating throughout the site. The voice of Prof Peter Taylor talking about the chemical composition of air was interspersed throughout the work, interwoven with scuttling leaves and the sound of the wind that I had recorded on site.
These light and ephemeral elements intermingled with the real sounds and dynamics of the weather to embed the work into its surrounding acoustics and blur the boundary between the aerial, immaterial work and its environment. Sounds from the campus floated and mingled with the work just as elements of the work were carried across campus by the wind, as though the air itself was alive with knowledge, enquiry, thought and understanding.
Caroline Devine – Composer and Sound Artist
Caroline Devine is a composer and sound artist whose practice investigates the boundary between sound and music, encompassing electroacoustic composition, sound installation, radio and theatre. Born in London in 1969, she studied Sound Arts and Design at London College of Communication.
Her work with On Air was shortlisted for a BASCA British Composer Award in 2014.
Caroline’s works explore voices and sounds that are ordinarily imperceptible, silenced or in some way absent, such as naturally occurring radio signals, solar resonances, electromagnetic signals or hidden voices. She has a particular interest in the use of space as a compositional parameter and her site-specific sound installations include an outdoor parabolic dome structure, a lift in MK Gallery, The Open University campus grounds and Alan Turing Hut 8 at Bletchley Park codebreaking centre.
Caroline’s soundwork documenting derelict buildings at Bletchley Park featured on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. Recent commissions include Poetics of (Outer) Space, for Ikon Gallery, Space Ham, Between the Ears for BBC Radio 3, Oscillations, for ICA SOUNDWORKS and 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun – an outdoor multi channel sound installation that was shortlisted for a BASCA British Composer Award.
Caroline is currently Leverhulme Artist in Residence in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham where she is collaborating with scientists working on the NASA Kepler mission who study the natural acoustic resonances of stars.
You can find her online at: http://www.carolinedevine.co.uk