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30 October 2010

Live blogging from the NEU NOW Festival // entering the dark sanctuary of Irad Lee's sound installation SONOMATERIA.

The RDV gallery is in between two sex shops. In the first room you will see empty space, and a video of Coded Sensation performing – and where, three times a day, they perform live. Behind a black curtain you enter a dark space where SONOMATERIA is installed. It is like you enter a dark sanctuary. Irad Lee’s installation consist of a large black cube with a white lit screen on top, and fifteen small black cubes you can place on top of the screen. The cubes produce sound. In fact they produce different sounds if you move them around, depending on position and movement. They are made of a variety of materials, ranging from foam to stone to metal to wood, each with a material that somehow matches the sound, which ranges from synthetic beats to slow thumps to buzz and noise, some of them based on acoustic sound, field recording or found footage but processed beyond recognition. Depending on where you put them on the screen, the sounds they produce come in different pitches and from different angles, sometimes to the point of acoustic disorientation. And yet, despite this dark and serious atmosphere, they are really fun to play with – it’s the sort of contemporary art that passes the ‘kids like it’ litmus test without making any concessions on substance.

But it takes quite some self-restraint to build good music with these fifteen cubes. If you put down too many and move them around aimlessly you get sound pudding. Irad, on the other hand, creates a mind-blowing spectralist soundscape with a few confident movements. Some people, including yours truly, think at first that the sound comes from weight, because there are heavier sounds when the cubes are heavier – and sometimes they leave the gallery believing that. It’s not true. Under the white screen there’s a camera scanning code images that are on the bottom of the cubes, and if you don’t put the right side down you’ll hear nothing. It’s like the hash-tags for smartphones, or the algorithms for face scanners. There’s nothing very special about the images – they’re just the default images from the open source programme Reactivism that Irad used.

I promised Irad not to tell anyone what’s inside the black box – at least until after the festival. But the ingenuity with which he produced something which looks like a state of the art product from Ircam with the help of a few friends and no external funding is impressive. [In fact this makes a good quiz: first take a look at Sonomateria, be impressed, and then guess how much it cost.] Irad has been thinking of augmenting it further, adding tactile or visual output, but in its current form the concept was rather to eliminate the visual field as much as possible, letting the hearer depend entirely on weight and touch.

Irad is from Israel, but came to Holland to study at the sonology department of the Royal Academy of the Arts in The Hague in 2004 – partly because this department is unique in the world, partly to flee military service in Israel halfway before he would lose his mind there. At that point he was entirely self-taught as a sound designer, and it was only later that he embarked upon installation work. But it’s just the designing that he likes, not actually building them - “I’m not  the handyman type”. That’s why it helps as an artist to have good friends, also because he got all the cubes from a sculptor friend who had all that scrap material anyway. Having good friends and doing more with less are obviously among the core skills for a contemporary sound artist.

Irad got his BA last year, and is now working as a freelance commercial sound designer alongside his own projects. This is not a harsh fate – in fact he loves doing things like designing the sound interface of Ubuntu, the Linux operating system. He didn’t learn that kind of entrepreneurship from his school for that matter. In fact it was the complete lack of any attention to career prospects at the somewhat unworldly sonology department that caused in him a paranoia about this future prospects that now made him – excuse the language – a successful artistic entrepreneur.


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