Nolan Miranda: Installation Artist Residency/Archival Intern (ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe)
This summer, I completed both an artist residency and archival internship at ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien, or Center for Art and Media), a media art museum in Karlsruhe. The building has a grim history as a former munitions factory, but the giant doors and massive halls prove a haunting, historically self-aware venue to display modern art. For the first half of my stay there, I was responsible for designing, creating, and staging an installation at ZKM for the Karlsruhe Museum Night, an annual city-wide festival where over 15 museums in the city stay open until around midnight. After that event (and some seriously deserved rest), I undertook a project converting old spatial audio pieces to a channel-based playback format (apologies for the jargon; I promise it isn’t as complicated as it may sound). I had the pleasure of working with several different mentors, artists, and staff members at the museum, some of whom have quite strong connections to Stanford University themselves!
My installation, Catching Sparks, was a participatory interactive exhibit meant to inspire group improvisations using simple interfaces for a software instrument. Up to three people at a time could participate; each had a small macro pad that looked like this:
I mapped the knob and keys to specific keypresses, then designed a visual environment in Unity, a game engine (that afterward has come under scrutiny for abhorrent monetization practices). I also created the audio for the installation using a computer music language called SuperCollider; the two software programs communicated using a protocol called OSC (Open Sound Control). (Funnily enough, one of the founders of the OSC protocol is Stanford’s (and CCRMA’s) very own Matt Wright!) The whole installation was staged in ZKM’s premier spatial audio venue, the Kubus. The Kubus is a 47-speaker “Klangdom,” or sound dome, in which an impressive number of loudspeakers surround listeners in a hemispherical format.
Thanks to the wonderful direction and mentorship of the Hertz Lab at ZKM, named after Heinrich Hertz (of the eponymous measurement), including Ludger Bruemmer (a German artist who in fact spent two years at Stanford and befriended my advisor), Goetz Dipper, and Dominik Kautz, I was able to complete this installation in just over a month. One key component of my installation was the use of an in-house audio spatialization software called Zirkonium, which allows users to merely draw or specify x and y coordinates in a room to spatialize the audio (rather than computing complex polar coordinate transforms in order to move a sound source through space). Over 200 people experienced my installation, which allowed the (maximum) three participants at a time to catch sparks falling from a wheel and either pass them to another player or use them.
Using a spark initiated a short, 20-25 second improvisation environment, in which the buttons on the macro pad served as an instrument interface for on-screen visuals and spatialized audio surrounding the audience and players. Special events occurred when participants all used a spark at the same time, especially if there was sufficient variety in the types of sparks being used. I was particularly happy to see kids enjoying the experience; I fondly remember one child playing with the installation as their parents gradually moved farther back and eventually out of the room while urging the child to depart with them. (After they’d finally stepped outside for a few minutes, the child realized their parents were no longer around and scrambled out the Kubus doors.) This work, my first major public installation, was incredibly rewarding, challenging, and informative to implement, and I now know so much more about my work style, artistic ideals, and future career because of this experience.
The second half of my internship was more archival rather than creative. The in-house audio spatialization software I mentioned above, Zirkonium, has three versions, and the latest one is the state-of-the-art software I used for my installation. However, the previous two versions have been used by some phenomenal artists over the past years, but they are incompatible with the newer Mac operating systems. Thus, these pieces are literally unplayable on the newer Macs at ZKM, and so my task was clear: migrate these pieces to a newer format for playback.
One way to think about spatial audio is as follows: if I have 8 speakers in a ring and I just move one audio file (like a song, or water flowing noises, or something) around this ring, there’s a few ways to think about the sound. One way is to say “there is one sound source being panned around the room.” Another way is to think “there are 8 sound sources: each of the speakers is playing audio, just at different times (and they happen to play at the right time).” This means one could think of recording what each speaker “hears” throughout a song by recording what each of the 8 speakers is playing rather than thinking about how many source audio files there are. Thus, a recording will always have 8 files for playback: just play what each speaker hears in the correct speaker, even if 1 song or 100 songs are playing at the same time all around the ring. This is called “channel-based playback” (where a channel just refers to one speaker). I completed this process for around 60 older spatial audio pieces in the back half of my internship; each piece was converted to 23 (and sometimes 43) channels of channel-based playback, rendering them playable on modern Macs for future audiences at ZKM.
This internship was a dreamlike trial of my idea of a future career. I pivoted to media art relatively recently at Stanford; when I came in 6 years ago, I thought I wanted to pursue a PhD in mathematics. Now, I’m certain (at least for now…) that I’d like to create interactive experiences for a living, ideally combined with some sort of teaching and other audio work. The GRIP grant provided me a safe space to explore this newfound passion, and I am extremely grateful to the program, ZKM, and the support network within GRIP for making this an enriching, challenging, and formative summer. I met many amazing artists, mentors, and friends over the three months, and Karlsruhe and the surrounding areas have made an everlasting impression on my artist collaborative network, career ideal, and worldview.