Image Bank (Lukas Girling and the Secret Life of Sounds)

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 January 1997

Lukas Girling and the Secret Life of Sounds

As the desktop GUI becomes the de facto computer interface standard, and Microsoft tries to leapfrog via an Apple style desktop GUI to a totally integrated web and desktop navigation system, debate about the 'desktop principle' continues. Usually concerned with the day-to-day practical problems of computer usage; speed, memory allocation, network compatabilities, data conversion etc. it is accompanied by discourses examining the influence graphic metaphors have on our cognition, behavioural patterns and interaction with each other. In this context the endlessly reiterated and banal slogan which describes the computer as 'just another tool' stands in the way of both critique and subversion and not just of naive celebration, flights of fancy or cyberhype (as is no doubt believed by those who use it).

As Eating Disorder, the story of a shape Matthew Fuller's recent archaeology of the interface shows through many different examples, if the computer is a tool, then it is one that makes other tools. As it impacts upon our epistemology and representations it can also be seen as self-reflexive. Early development teams of the Macintosh OS and interface knew this. They knew it would change the way people thought and interacted with each other. The Macintosh 'would be a discourse machine that produced its operator'. As Fuller rightly says though 'whilst increasingly unwieldy applications are fracturing to meet the upsurge of data-types, the conceptual models that construct operating systems and their interfaces remain largely the same.'

The increased computing power that has made 'passive' or exploratory real-time interaction with 3D environments possible has yet to spawn a desktop (in this case meaning cheap) 3D environment that is itself a software application. Superficially, it might seem that 3D programs themselves are part of this sub-category, but most of these produce environments and objects rather than, themselves, simulating them. More importantly though, they only let you interact with a pre-determined environment, rather than enabling you to make something within them (unless, splitting interactivity hairs, you want to describe your great gaming experience or online avatar as such). I don't design VR, but I assume that there are hi-end packages that are the start of this (and the terms 'garage-' and 'desktop VR' have flown in and out of my ears enough for me to know that they have their cheaper siblings). Within architecture also, packages are being developed which enable more intuitive placement and viewing of objects within the constructed environment. Mainly though, these present visual environments, to build other visual environments. Elastic programmes that explore the sound-image interface and don't subordinate one to the other, are still rare. Koan is sound generative software and, though they integrate the audio-visual more so, both AudioRom and the sound CDs of Anti-Rom were never aimed at having the wide parameters that musical software does; they are more like sampling, randomising and collage experiments (this is also why, in a kind of sound-image-interface wager, they do end up with a far more 'playable' result). In the background it is the VR industry and Artificial Intelligence community who most arduously hack their way through perceptual theories on sound.

With cheap 3D hardware acceleration, the opportunity for creating a dynamic realtime audio-visual interface is becoming a possibility. However, as interface design as described above is either a problem of productivity (application programs), adrenalin-count or realism (entertainment/exploration), the twin questions of efficiency and accuracy will be the first to be posed. I doubt, unless a pretty 3D world does the job far better than the kind of glued together, medieval perspective icon frenzy that is the average interface, there will be much enthusiasm for it. So, the point remains, what are and what will such 'immersive' interfaces be used for.

Lukas Girling, a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art's Computer Related Design's department has also been experimenting with visually based sound manipulation systems. His are abstract ones that only hint at representing a 'space' for interaction as such. They are more in tune with the history of abstract film than the minutiae of desktop interface design. In trying to marry images with sounds in a way that would make their manipulation feel more 'intuitive', Girling has been influenced by the way sound use developed in film and early cartoons; cartoons had to develop a convincing though not necessarily naturalistic sound vocabulary from early on for suggesting movement, the relationships of objects and characters in space and their inherent physical characteristics. Composers such as Scott Bradley, who was one of the first to experiment with the way that sound could define and communicate the 'energetics' of a situation in cartoons provide an important backdrop. What makes cartoons interesting as opposed to traditional film, though both have pushed this marrying of sound and image far beyond the simple need for an auditory parallel for the image, is that a lot of the time the sounds that are generated for cartoons have to accompany events that are improbable if not impossible. This, coupled with the fact that they never have their own, original soundtrack means that they involve a high level of abstraction and fuse sound representations of 'literal' and 'non-literal' sounds. Literal sounds being ones that are associated with a specific object or 'source' (in film these are commonly used to reinforce the presence of an object without having to simultaneously show it visually) and non-literal sounds being those that manage to describe the feeling of a specific action though containing little reference to the actual event they describe e.g. the ubiquitous 'BOING'...

Girling has chosen this, in his eyes, 'intuitive' and 'anti-theoretical' approach because visual writing systems which have tried to find direct analogies for sound (for example the spectograph, a simple analogy) have been unable to analyse them with sufficient complexity. One of the main problems is distinguishing between which sound source generates which sound when all overlap in time and together make up a new sound. This problem of allocation means that, unlike human ears which, it is thought, differentiate sounds by 'matching' and then connecting sounds to their (remembered) source, systems attempting to produce something which is theoretically faithful will only be able to transcribe the ambient environment and all that makes it up, rather than find a satisfying visual analogy for it. They are therefore impossible to grasp with the immediacy required to interact with something, needing instead to be 'read'.

Girling's system is visually quite simple. He has made a series of shapes with accompanying physical and sound 'properties' that are expressed when they collide, pass over one another or turn round on their own. As it stands, they are manipulated by a games joystick, though this might change to increase flexibility. In a similar way to Toshio Iwai's now famous 'Bugs', the shapes allow you to test the parameters of the system by reorganising basic components whilst at the same time generating sound. It has to be said that, at the moment, the system Grilling is making has some way to go before becoming fully functional. He is able to demonstrate its uses by creating small concept models, where only a few parameters/features are implemented such as pitch and amplitude. These function as small prototypes for further development. The main strength of his approach is that he avoids the classic methodologies of imitation; he feels that sound synthesis technologies have mistakenly been used to simulate traditional acoustic instruments rather than being treated in an idiomatic way. He sees this mainly as a fault of the manufacturers rather than the users as it is precisely their often autodidactic use of sound technologies that has brought about changes in musical forms. In some ways, he is trying to pre-empt that old refrain '...the street finds its own uses for things....'

The 'desktop principle' appears as a sign of our times due to the sheer cultural dominance of its office metaphors. The phrase Microsoft should go for is 'Home is where the office is' not 'Where do you want to go today?'. Critiques such as Matt Fuller's, aswell as I/O/D, the floppy based zine he co-authors disrupt the illusions of transparency, efficiency and 'ease of use' that the desktop has engendered, for good or for bad. Though something like I/O/D fucks with your brain and system a bit, it is clearly more than a one-off anarchic joke. It functions as a proverbial kick up the arse reminding you that there are many ways in which the 'static' information that exists even on the smallest computer can be presented. It makes you re-think what the computer is and what it is capable of doing. Girling's interface differs from it in many ways. Arguably his has more in common with the notions of interactivity that Brenda Laurel has become famous for developing and espousing; of the computer as stage where something akin to dramatic action takes place between the user and the information. In fact, as Girling's system is visually classicist, 'clean' and culturally non-specific they probably couldn't seem more different. Somehow though, their effect is very similar.

Eating Disorder: the story of a shape can be found on the site of ANAT, the Australian Network for Art and Technology. Go to then then 'Virogenesis2' and on to 'Agent Fuller' where you'll find the text and much besides.

Lukas Girling <girling AT>AudioRomAntiRom

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <>