blackbox is an audio-visual installation designed around a single-person enclosure containing surround sound and surround image in the form of physical objects. The project was born from a desire to explore minimalistic cinematic experiences using LED lights, recorded sounds, and a reimagining of the theater space. This project was completed for CART 356b: Audio | Vision at Concordia University in Winter 2009.
blackbox was exhibited at the EV building at Concordia University on April 9, 2009.
Stereo track for top speakers
Stereo track for bottom speakers
The blackbox project started when we began throwing around ideas for an installation piece centered around audio and video as they relate to cinema. We wanted to create an installation art work in order to establish a physical space that would serve as the starting point for our exploration in this domain. Concretely, we envisioned a dark and enclosed space that would somehow display imagery and produce sounds to thread a narrative.
Following discussions and feedback, we decided to move away from a story-telling approach such as that of cinema, and instead consider more abstract ways of crafting cinematic experiences. We were interested in the idea of raw, physical materials and how their texture and essence could be combined with a soundscape to create added value. The objects would have to reflect, absorb, or refract light in interesting ways, but also vary in material. We thought of wood, glass, plastic, fur, metal, and so on. Further, we wished to create a programmable lighting system using individual LED lights, and throw the light onto the materials. As a re-imagining of cinema, our installation would project light onto concrete objects hung inside our space; a one-person surround-image and surround-sound experience.
The assembly and creative process took us five days. To create the space, we built a 7 x 4 x 4 feet box from wooden panels and we painted it matte black. We drilled sixteen holes to accommodate ten white LEDs and six blue LEDs, each with a low viewing angle. The sixteen lights were arranged so that our twelve distinct materials, hung all over the inside of the box, had at least one dedicated light, while four had two lights. The lights were wired to a circuit board containing a multiplexer and an Arduino, connected to a laptop via USB. In Processing, we programmed three simple light behaviors with variable time and intensity parameters: on/off, blink, and fade, and mapped lights to segments of our audio piece.
The soundscape was created by field-recording all sorts of sounds, such as dragging metallic chairs on concrete, dropping various objects on the floor, tapping the interior of the box, boiling water in a kettle, or simply drilling into wood. We then distorted these sounds beyond recognition. We wanted to mask their source but amplify their intrinsic quality to compose sonic textures. We used effects like reverb, echo, and all sorts of filters that Adobe Soundbooth offers. Using these sounds, we composed a four-minute audio piece, mixed over four channels in order to experiment with dimension, depth, and movement. The piece was then exported to two stereo files: the first to be played by the two speakers placed under the ceiling, and the second by the speakers sitting on the floor. Each pair of speakers was connected to an amplifier, and we used a laptop and a portable audio player as playback devices. All the equipment was placed atop the box, and we covered the box with two pieces of black fabric. We originally wanted to have a curtain drop from ceiling to floor for aesthetic reasons, but because of ceiling grid restrictions, it didnʼt happen. We built around the problem by installing wooden brackets to support the curtain.
We found that our soundscape and light show worked well inside the enclosed space. We were happy with our recordings, distortions, and mixing, as well as the coldness of the LED lights hitting the materials. The acoustics of the box blocked most of the ambient noise of the room it was in, and, to a certain degree, reserved sounds to the individual inside it while leaking some of them to the curious outsider.
The outsider/insider dynamic was unexpected and we noticed it during the two exhibitions. People stood or sat, hushed or whispered, and slowly transitioned from the outside to the inside, cautious about their entry. Inside, a lot of people shifted about, and they told us they moved their heads, turned around, or bent over to examine objects/lights. This movement is something wanted to achieve. Then they came out either perplexed, smiling, frowning, or indifferent. The responses varied in enthusiasm and assessment, a sign that we managed to trigger the reactions we sought. Some felt distracted, some were impressed by
the unfamiliarity of the sensory experience, while others were scared by it. To some, the point of the piece was to identify a relationship between physical material and the sounds playing, and to others, it was more about the ephemeral and reflective experience itself. A lot of people were impressed by the synchronization of lighted object and sound, while in reality that process was random.
The audio piece was segmented into eight, 30 second parts, and within each part we randomized light behaviors over a set of chosen lights/objects. This was done due to lack of time as we had planned to do a careful sync of audio and lights/objects. This decision turned out for the best as we realized during the first exhibition that the experience wasnʼt about our interpretation or our vision of how the piece should be lit during playback. Rather, it was about letting the audio and lights/objects mesh at semi-controlled intervals so that the viewer might draw a personal interpretation. This approach, also, pushed some control out of our hands and gave each viewer a slightly different version.
Some commenters pointed out that the piece was holistic in its audio-visual presentation due to the gallery-like array of materials and lights. This flattered us because we worked hard on crafting a consistent visual and sonic aesthetic. The gallery-like look of the interior was unplanned as we wanted total darkness to hide objects outside the spotlight. During the building phase we quickly realized that it wouldnʼt be possible due to outside conditions and due to the equipment we used. The LEDs were sufficiently capable of throwing light, but were also creating ambient light. This was something we had to deal with.
However, we realize that we should have spent more time exploring the materials themselves, and perhaps focusing in and narrowing the scope of our selection. One comment, which also surfaced during the initial discussions, spoke about the need to play with a specific theme, such as light processes or the investigation of single material. We feel that our piece had some of both, but ultimately our materials of aluminum foil, translucent bathroom tiles, saran wrap, meshed paper, pieces of flexible, textured plastic, and gauze covered a broad range. We relied on our initial instinct to explore all these materials all at once, and it might have done us well to pinpoint a specific physical quality to present and combine with audio. We feel that we managed our time effectively during the project, as we managed to pull off most of our initial plans, but this is one area where we should have spent more effort.
The outside conditions played a big part in the success of the piece. In the first, class-only exhibition, we had a silenced room but too much exterior light coming in. We corrected this with the addition of a third black cover, this one much thicker. But in our view, this wasnʼt as big of a problem when compared to the second exhibition, where our piece sat next to percussion instruments and chanting speakers, not to mention ear-crippling microphone feedback. Having to move this big box for the second exhibition proved difficult, and to be installed next to a loud installation was upsetting.
The collaborative process in this project proved to be exceptionally successful. Elizabeth and myself not only worked well together from a practical standpoint (organization systems like note-taking, post-itʼs, taking pictures, electrical wiring, etc.) but our artistic outlooks complimented each other to our satisfaction. Granted, we each made compromises along the way, debated and struggled at times, but we both came away from the experience with more knowledge, more confidence, and we had fun doing it.
We learned a lot from this project. We dealt with circuits, optoelectronics, and programming, sound recording and multi-channel mixing, wood construction, assembly, and painting, wiring, and of course, concept design and sketching. This was all done with the goal of creating an abstract, cinema-like space, drawing on ideas that emerged from studying Chion. We feel that we executed our ideas successfully and we see blackbox as being a valuable launching pad for future projects.
sketches and prototyping
assembly and construction
Processing code used to interface with Arduino board:
- TI Multiplexer
- 22 gauge solid core electrical wire
- 10 white 3.2V LEDs
- 5 blue 3.2V LEDs
- 5 bright blue 3.2V LED
- 16 gauge stranded speaker cable
- 2 1/8" Stereo to Dual 1/4" Mono Cable
- 4 speakers
- 2 amplifiers
- laptop (first audio source)
- iPod (second audio source)