Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 17th, 2010

Adam Donovan’s work combines the highly specialised field of scientific acoustics with the visual arts. Donovan has been researching focused acoustics and acoustic lenses since 1996 drawing on scientific research in this area to create interactive sound installations. Donovan’s interest in using lenses in his artwork evolved while he was completing his Fine Arts Degree at Griffith University, Queensland.

“The initial attraction to lenses was in their beauty and later formed into ideas about human perception and memory. For me the lens is an infinite model for my work, lenses represent the collecting of information/emotion and define a person’s view of the world. This model of perception led me to think about other senses. Auditory awareness was of particular interest because it’s secondary to vision. It became an obsession of mine in 1996 to find a way to control sound (or focus sound), I wanted to sculpt sound in space and change they way people perceive their auditory environment,” comments Adam.

Scientific collaboration has been an integral part of the work enabling him to gain the skills and expertise needed to develop prototypes for exhibitions. In this unusual area of interdisciplinary art practice, Donovan has found himself at the forefront in developing new and innovative methods of incorporating applied physics with installation art. Donovan’s collaborations are also challenging for the research scientists he works with as he is often asking them to extend the boundaries of currently available technology and their (usual) uses.

As a participant in the ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency, Donovan chose to work with the Marine Operations Division (MOD) of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), one of the few organisations in Australia working extensively with ultrasound and parametric arrays. The goal of the residency was to develop a prototype acoustic lens, which would operate in a similar way to an optical lens, but instead of focusing light, the acoustic lens would focus sound. Donovan’s developmental work at DSTO looked at ways of using high amplitude ultrasound to project a very narrow directional beam of audible sound, which could only be heard within the projected beam.

The prototype developed during the residency was used as the basis for the creation of an acoustic lens for an interactive art installation. Donovan incorporated the lens with a robotic tripod, which controlled the angle at which the sound beam was projected and followed people around the room. Camera tracking systems were used to add audience interactivity to the work so the sound beam could be triggered and manipulated by audience movement. The prototype work was exhibited as Perimetry in conVerge (2002 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art) at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Can you describe the process of how you chose the host venue and developed the residency? What role did ANAT play in this?
ANAT first approached me in 2000 about the possibility of a residency. It took some time to negotiate what the residency would involve. The host venue was chosen that had some of the equipment that was required for the development of the acoustic lens. Linda Cooper (Project Coordinator for the Scientific Serendipity residency program) and I researched organisations (including commercial companies) before we agreed on approaching the DSTO. Linda had some contacts with the DSTO and initiated liaison with them, while I made a trip to Adelaide to discuss the feasibility of the idea. Having ANAT behind this residency was definitely a big advantage.

How did the residency progress? What stages did it go through?|
The first step was getting help from the scientists involved in the project so I could become familiar with the lingo of the technology and understand some of the basic physics of ultrasound. A lot of time was spent testing ultrasonic transmitters to see if we could find any off-the-shelf products. After searching through hundreds of products worldwide and some basic testing we eliminated all ready-made products available and decided we would need to build our own from scratch. Once the basics were dealt with we constructed a few prototypes to further test the theory. Following successful testing, I set out to design a final prototype, which was then constructed by an engineering firm in Brisbane.

Can you describe in more detail the research you were working on with the DSTO scientists during your residency?
The area of research for the lens we were developing at the DSTO was in the area on non-linear acoustics. The device itself is a parametric array and one of the current accepted terms for the method we applied to it is ‘acoustic heterodyning’. Another way of describing acoustic heterodyning can be found in the principles of difference tones. For example using a microphone and oscilloscope to measure two equal amplitude tones above certain amplitude you not only get the two tones but also the sum of the tones and the difference between them (this is caused by air distorting sound). Using this principle we created a parametric array (basically multiple speakers in a hexagonal pattern). The reason for multiple speakers is that the creation of a culminated beam of a particular frequency requires that the emitter is much larger than the wavelength. So the device we were designing in itself can emit very focused ultrasound (currently about 5 degrees over 150 meters). Our aim was to combine the phenomenon of difference tones into the very focused ultrasound array and create audible sound only within the ultrasonic column.

Did you encounter any problems in the construction of the prototype acoustic lens for Perimetry?
The construction of the lens and all of its processes was a really big project and yes, there were problems every moment of the residency. Most of the problems were because of a lack of information regarding the device we were building. The housing (kind of like a speaker cabinet) posed some real problems as it had to contain (and indefinitely hold) nearly a full vacuum (this turned out to be a very difficult thing to do and we broke some general engineering rules to do it). I spent nearly two months fiddling around with two hand-built prototypes that kept leaking or the ultrasound film kept shorting out due to the high voltage we were using. Also the amplifier needed to be specifically designed for it to work with the lens as high frequencies are usually filtered out in audio amplifiers. The signal that drives the lens (a type of AM radio wave) was also very tricky (and still is). These processes were especially difficult because if wrong then you don’t hear anything at all. In fact the only thing we got to hear during the residency was a very weak 2khz tone. I had to wait until the finished lens housing was completed (late January 2002) before I had a reliable lens that produced more audible frequencies.

The research work you were doing during the residency culminated in the installation of Perimetry in the conVerge exhibition. Can you describe this work and what you were hoping to achieve with it?
The title for the exhibition Perimetry comes from ‘Sound Perimetry’, the mapping, by a sound cage (or sound Perimeter), of the subject’s auditory space. The title relates to a previous installation titled Phonelescope and refers to the subject’s (audience) awareness of sound. Sound as a beam is very different from the usual experience of everyday sound (I am looking at a very different perception of the sense). The object of the work was to make a type of virtual containment room. This room is defined by the beam and eludes bystanders because they are not directly in the beam. If you are the onlooker to the interactor it seems like they are dancing to music that is not there (kind of like someone talking to themselves).

Basically the work consisted of 12 sound-absorbent foam panels that were in the arc of the sound beam. A camera mounted on the tripod where the lens was also situated allowed the work to visually track its audience through this arc (about 160 degrees). The sound from the lens is also interactive. A camera mounted on the ceiling monitors people’s actions and hand gestures in the space, triggering modulations in the sound, which causes changes in pitch.

You have previously collaborated with artists and musicians (eg Ben Marks) in some of your earlier works. What was it like collaborating with scientists?
Generally speaking other collaborations have been for similar reasons – to create a work or performance that has the scope of more than just one individual’s knowledge. They are very different in the way they were maintained because Ben and I could work more independently from each other (focusing more on each person’s skills for the project rather than each of us needing to learn those skills). When working with a scientific concept you can’t simply leave these gaps. Plus I think that if you are working with other artists you have more of a choice of whom you might work with but this is not the case with science because things must be specific. It could be seen not so much as a natural process, but then this also makes it more exciting as you have to form relationships with the people you are working with.

What were the key outcomes of the residency for you?
The residency was a catalyst for my ideas. Ideas that I would come up with were explored very quickly because I could confirm them simply by going and asking one of the scientists. Also they had a lot of good equipment that I could use and was shown how to use. I feel the progress we made during the residency would otherwise have taken me about two years to complete on my own.

As it turned out three months was not enough time to bring a project like this to a final developed piece of equipment. I do however have a very good understanding of the systems and will continue to develop the lens until it functions as I had originally perceived. At the moment I am trying to get companies such as Brüel & Kjær (a microphone company from Denmark) interested in taking the idea further by providing equipment for further testing. Ideally I would like an Australian company interested in this technology to provide some serious support.

What did DSTO get out of the residency? Were there any benefits for them?
There was an interest in the new technology spin-offs that the DSTO might be able to implement into their systems. I think it was also interesting for them to see how an artist would deal with real scientific problems. No direct outcomes have evolved for them (any useful equipment) though you could say that the exchange of methods or processes of thought was useful for encouraging non-linear thinking. As the project is ongoing I am confident that the device will have spin-offs for them in the future.

Do you have any advice for how to successfully maintain relationships with scientific institutions?
Well I guess this one can be a bit tricky because not everyone is going to be as enthusiastic as the artist who is in residence, but it’s important to really listen to what the scientists have to say and to genuinely follow through with their suggestions. Also it’s important to try and form friendships with the people you are working closely with.

Have there been any on-going relationships or any new projects that have arisen as part of the residency?
I still communicate the developments of the project and the DSTO have done some further testing for me but no other residencies have been planned at the DSTO. I have certainly had a lot of interest from galleries about showing Perimetry. I have also had some interest from engineering companies but nothing definite yet.

Post residency finished you have been developing the work  exhibited in Perimetry? Can you describe the new developments?
I think that one of the most interesting developments of this technology is its integration with Virtual Reality and I will be focusing on developing a 3D (IMAX) type installation that ties in 3D particle systems with the movement of the lens. I am also still working on the mathematics integral to signal processing for the lens, improving the amplifier and changing aspects of the array so that I can have a wider bandwidth of audible sound. The systems of perimetry will be incorporated with this 3D environment and will further explore the psychological meaning of ‘sound perimetry’.

What has the impact of the residency been on your plans for new works?
The residency made me a lot more aware and gave me a lot of knowledge that I feel will generate works that I could not have achieved without the steep learning curve that I experienced. It has also made the work I do a lot more expensive, which is frustrating now that I do not have the support of such a good facility. I feel strongly about this last point because residencies like these give artists a taste of what is possible. When it’s taken away it’s like someone confiscating your paint-brushes.

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