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Sonic Arcade: Interview with Louise Foo and Martha Skou of Foo/Skou

Danish-born collaborative duo Louise Foo and Martha Skou work with smartphone technology, physical computing, graphics, printmaking, and sculpture to explore the possibilities of composing, making, and experiencing sound in the digital age. The graphic score, a form of musical notation that utilizes visual symbols to represent music, is central to their interest in experimental sound production. Traditionally, graphic notation acts as a musical map, inspiring a musician’s performance of a piece of experimental music yet leaving ample room for interpretation.  

For Format 3, part of Sonic Arade: Shaping Space with Sound (on view through February 25) the artists produced a sound experience through the passageway of MAD’s Stairwell B, linking the 6th, 5th, and 4th floors through a series of plateaus, where visitors are invited to explore the concept of the graphic score with the help of an iPhone app and touch-reactive sculptures. The sculptures and graphics distributed across these spaces make up the Format 3 alphabet, a system of eighty-one sounding symbols. Using the Format 3app, which functions like an optical synthesizer, visitors can trigger sound, samples, and synthesis connected to each symbol. The complete installation explodes the tradition of the graphic score to create a spatial rather than textual experience.

1. Tell us a bit about your background(s) coming to work with sound as a medium.

Our collaboration started organically, from related thesis projects. Our formal education is in art/design (Martha attended design school and Louise studied visual art and creative technology) and at the same time we both play music, so working with sound as a material for artistic exploration was a natural convergence of the two worlds. 

2. In what ways do you consider sound “material” and explore that through your practice?

We are interested in making sound tangible and in creating visual interfaces in order to catalyze new and intuitive experiences with sound. By giving it a shape and image, it is our hope that our audiences will be able to relate to sound in new ways. We draw inspiration from various sources: visual mapping of sound information (wave forms and spectrograms), studies of patterns of vibration and harmonics (Chladni patterns and Lissajous curves), the role of graphic notation in musical composition (John Cage, etc.), visual music (Kandinsky, etc.), and synesthesia in the artistic sense.

3. Can you talk about how collaboration is important to your work, whether in regard to whom you make work with or how the audience might act as collaborator in their reception of it?

Our practice is based on the collaboration between the two of us. We developed the Format 3 alphabet through a dialogue about how to work with concepts in both image and sound, between digital and physical space. Also, the audience interaction with the work is essential; we facilitate the scores and the interfaces, but the audience becomes the performer of the piece. Our practice is based on other collaborations, too. In this case, we worked specifically with the Museum to make the project fit the space in the stairwell, as well as with the programmer Aaron Sutula, creative technologist Mark Kleback, and a fabrication studio.

4. Sound practices seem to have increased in prevalence. Do you see a reason for sound’s wider practice and reception that is particular to our times?

We think that there are many aspects of sound that have yet to be discovered, so maybe that draws artists to further explore this medium’s potential. What will the future sound like when machines no longer make mechanical sounds? What other uses could sound have beyond music and entertainment? Scientists are exploring sound levitation, for example, as a way to move materials around without touching other materials—that idea seems like magic to us! Format 3 is for us about meditating on what role technology plays in our relationship to the physical world, since so much has become about the digital world, social media, et cetera.

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