MONOM William Russell by Maansi Jain MONOM William Russell by Maansi Jain
Photo by Maansi Jain

MONOM and Spatial Sound: William Russell

March 7, 2018
Text by Claire Mouchemore
MONOM William Russell by Maansi Jain
Photo by Maansi Jain

The time has come – we must learn to listen again and MONOM is here to help. William Russell is the creative director of MONOM – Berlin’s center for spatial sound and the most recent edition to Funkhaus Berlin. The distinctive venue and studio space utilize an omnidirectional sound system which is made up of 48 speakers – designed and built by MONOM’s innovative partner, 4DSOUND. MONOM host a range of commissioned performances and artist residencies, allowing audiences to assume the role of an active listener – absorbing the sonic landscapes that are emitted through the speakers suspended within the space and the 9 high-powered subs that lay beneath the acoustically transparent floor.

What is spatial sound and how does MONOM harness it in order to provide attendees with new sonic experiences?  

Spatial sound encapsulates emotional and physical responses that are inscribed in our ancient memories, it’s how we’ve evolved to interact with everything; the way we listen based on the threats and the enticements of the natural world.

What we are seeking is for people to experience a more enriched human and social experience than what they would usually find in a club environment with two PA speakers. The objective is that people give way to their senses whilst in this space and engage in the provided hyper listening experience. Our intention is to have participants feel more immersed in the artwork itself. The system has been designed to emulate sounds that one would hear in actuality; sounds that move around you, towards you, below you and through you. The instrument that we use has been developed over 10 years, in collaboration with over 100 artists and although the system has physically existed for this period of time, the actual tool itself has developed remarkably. The hardware has remained the same, but the way in which it is used has become much more advanced.

In his recently published essay, 4DSOUND’s John Connell references “Learning to Listen Again”. In MONOM’s case, what does “Learning to Listen Again” signify?

My interpretation of John’s essay is that currently, we are finding ourselves to be constantly inundated with noise – and not necessarily the good kind. Visual noise, sonic noise. In a way, we have – in my opinion, numbed ourselves as a means to an end, in order to go on without losing our minds. By doing this we’ve also disconnected from our environment even further. This kind of space [MONOM] is almost like a recalibration zone for people to find refuge in; creating a space to reawaken the senses, a safe place. I believe that what John is trying to say is that we need to open ourselves up again, but for us to do that we must first realize how we came to be in such a state of closure.

How does MONOM place attendees in the space?

Well, we don’t place them – they enter the space themselves. However, we do play an announcement before the show, in order to place people into the right frame of mind before entering the space. The space that audiences select to occupy varies incredibly, especially depending on where the artist chooses to perform. At times the artists are also non-existent within the space; we don’t like to have a stage. Some [attendees] will sit or lie down, completely enraptured. Others will roam the space throughout the performance; we do encourage people to move around the space because by doing this they experience the piece from different perspectives. Although, standing in one particular stationery place allows a completely different experience of its own. The point is to listen – the position that attendees choose to listen from is entirely subjective and usually instinctive.

MONOM is both a performance venue and a spatial sound studio, how is the space being utilized when a performance isn’t taking place?

We host a residency program that invites a range of artists to produce a singular piece by working with the system to create an experience – a sonic landscape, a world to be explored. That studio aspect is day to day – we’re running a 20hr schedule with up to 3 different artists at a time who come in and work independently on their own pieces. Artists come in, engage in their own creative process and use the space however they see fit – similar to the way in which an artist would record an album; they’re creating a sound installation.

The residency programs are based on the events – there is always the exhibition of the work in mind. It’s not just a residency for the artists own development and research, it is with the intention to exhibit.

What is the process that artists undertake when participating in a MONOM residency?

We start by just listening. Together, we play a number of pieces from previous artists who have worked with the system – there are over 80 pieces to be played. We just listen, without engaging further with the technicalities of the system – that’s the most important thing – listening. Next, we explore the parameters that exist within the system and how to control any parameter of sound that we may be met with.

The artist then begins interacting with the system which allows the procedure of experimentation to begin and simultaneously, inspiration begins to breed. Some artists have a preconceived idea of what they want to do before they enter the space and we’re here to support them in realizing that, rather than propelling them forward in fixed directions. We are merely the facilitators, it’s really about what the artist is trying to accomplish.

MONOM is one of two dedicated spatial sound spaces that exist in the world. While the experience of the space at its core is – of course – sound based, is there also a focus on visual elements?

Decisions regarding visuals are left up to the artist in residence. Specific works require visuals and can be integral to the concept – but generally speaking, we don’t have a visual focus. Our simplistic lighting design is positioned at the top of the columns; following the sound in a diffused manner. It’s not direct – something that audiences are not consciously struck by or aware of. It doesn’t interfere with the experience of sound. Our visual senses can be overbearing and often hinder our other experiences.

In an ideal world, the space would be completely pitch black for the entire duration of the performance. The fact is we can create a completely alternate reality within the space and as soon as a wall or a visual is placed within that space, then the illusion is broken.

The space is still relatively new, having only opened towards the end of 2017. What can we expect from MONOM in the coming year?

I would like to use this space to weaponize art; to use it as a tool to influence people in a positive way. One example would be this idea of lost spaces, harnessing the attributes of the system that allow us to transport audiences to a particular environment. The idea would be to go to a space that’s about to be destroyed – one which is very rich in sonic material; record that and then implant that environment within the space. To give a sense of and actually – in turn – exaggerate what we are going to lose and allow people to grasp that and then leave the space affected. This system, in particular, has the power to engage audiences with those realizations.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

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