words & interview by Nick Ramsay
photos provided by artist
This article is part of Greenroom's "Creative Inlet" series, an on-going exploration of modern meditation practice, told through interviews with an eclectic mix of artists and creative professionals.
It would be technically accurate to say that audiovisual artist Florence To is from Scotland, but if Wikipedia ever calls to ask me where she's from, I might just say “the future.”
Working closely with spatial sound designers, Florence uses live-projections and 3D mapping to manipulate her audience’s perception of their surroundings. Light and darkness are her paints, sound waves are her brush strokes, and the room you’re standing in is her canvas.
Or something like that. Florence is a leading innovator in an art form that merges cutting-edge technology with a scientific and emotional understanding of the way that humans experience architectural spaces. In the past several years, she’s had shows in London, Glasgow, New York, Montreal, France, Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and… Well, just about everywhere.
All of Florence’s projects are fascinating, and the most recent, called Noqturnl, is no exception. Here’s a description of the show, which made its debut last weekend at Today’s Art in The Hague.
Greenroom Magazine: So, the first thing I’m curious about is— where did this idea come from? How did the concept of an overnight meditation experience even come about?
Florence To: At the beginning, it was based on a new collaboration with John [Connell] and when we got involved with 4DSOUND, Paul [Ooman] became involved, who is the creator of the system. It was quite intense because we had to work late hours, between 10 pm to 6 am - it wasn’t easy for us. But everything just started coming together—in quite a subconscious way. When you’re that tired and being creative, it releases something from you. I was filming our creative process during the residency and when looking back at the footage we realized we had created something we didn’t quite expect. This is when we began the development of Noqturnl.
GM: Could you kind of walk me through what I would see and experience as a member of the audience when I show up to spend the night at Noqturnl?
FT: We are premiering the installation in September as part of 4DSOUND’s Circadian programme for Todays Art festival in The Hague. The sound system will be set up in De Electriciteitsfabriek, an old power plant, and we will be presenting 3 nights of Noqturnl for 6 hours each night. We will have beds prepared in the space for the 50 participants and we gradually build up the performance in darkness with the sound, preparing the audience to let themselves feel comfortable in their environment. The 4DSOUND system is a spatial sound system where you can feel the sounds all around you, it is quite a physical presence in the body where there is not one location focused but all around the 256 square meters installation. As the audience start to drift away I begin to use lights from 4 angles of the space, slowly revealing parts of the space and also the outside surrounds of the system. I use 4 projections that are mapped onto the sound system and through the night I create a series of ‘rooms’ which create different perception of the surroundings.
GM: What do you mean when you say you “create rooms within the space”? How does that work, and what kind of experience does it create for the audience?
FT: I use the frequencies of the sounds working with x, y, z dimensions. The entire performance is live using generative frames, each frame represents colour, textures and forms. Using 3D mapping I map the sound system toproject these frames into the space from different angles creating a 3dimensional frame which translates into the “rooms” in the space. This is to try re-create illusions that could be seen in the space and give a surreal experience to make people aware of the physical presence of the space. It’s drifting in and out of sleep that creates a vulnerable experience with our reality and a different awareness, exploring how that can affect the mind and also our memories. Through the development of Noqturnl and participating in the installation myself, there is a shift of emotional patterns when becoming vulnerable, allowing ourselves to relax with our senses and using the heightened senses to be more aware of our body. The focus for this meditative experience is for the audience to get something out of it emotionally.
GM: I want to go to that so badly.
FT: (laughs) Hopefully we can come to New York. We do plan on doing some sort of world tour, hopefully, maybe next year.
GM: You should!
FT: It’s just really expensive, the system-- and It’s quite heavy!
GM: How important is the 4Dsound system for achieving the right effect for the audience?
FT: The 4DSOUND system is very much part of the whole project, because of how the sound travels within the space. It’s about creating certain waves that go around the body. There are 48 omni-directional speakers, and the sounds are put through different channels to form 3dimensional shapes. Say you’re in a square room, and you put out a sound, you could change the room to sound like a circle or like a hexagon and these shapes can also shift, multiply and separate in the space-- This is an example of how the 4DSOUND system works. The research behind the system are based on Nicola Tesla’s theories. The sound is very different from any ordinary sound system. It’s quite difficult to describe as its something that can't be explained unless experienced, everyone wants a good sound, but this system is more conceptual. It’s all about how sound travels, how it changes our environments and how it makes us feel the space differently. And that’s why it is important we keep using the 4DSOUND system.
GT: So, John Connell, who is the creative director of 4D sound and your collaborator on this project, he’s also a meditation teacher?
FT: Yes, he’s been practicing meditation for quite a while now. We had met in Berlin a few years ago and spoke about our ideas before John became fully involved with the company. We both had quite similar interests and experiences and wanted to explore it further. At the beginning developments of Noqturnl we began the performance with a breathing and meditation exercise but later we realise that letting the audience use their own energy to guide the performance was more effective. We did a test session with some audiences a year and a half ago, to see how we could develop this area. We started off by doing a workshop where John would do a short session on breathing, then a session of sounds and light. We learned a lot from this workshop as we felt the installation should speak for itself and attract the right audience. It’s not an easy thing to be in a meditative state and also to have sounds coming out from a spatial sound system instead of the natural environment which some could argue would be more effective for meditative experiences. We are experimenting with different levels of frequencies, field recordings and other instruments so this argument broadened the depth of sounds that would be used for the final developments of the installation.
GM: That’s interesting. I work at a meditation center that has a jazz meditation program, which is a few jazz musicians who perform live music that’s integrated with a guided meditation. Putting the program together, the same issue that you just raised has come up, because only certain sounds, I guess you could say, "feel" meditative. So at one point we weren’t sure about calling it “jazz meditation,” because maybe the sounds that the musicians actually end up playing during the meditation don't fit the genre of jazz.
FT: Well, actually, you know what though? With jazz, is it kind of like, more experimental, like free jazz? Is that what kind of jazz it is?
GM: I’m no jazz expert at all, but one the musicians described it to me as "Post-Coltrane"?
FT: Ok. Because I find— Do you know Ornette Coleman?
FT: When I hear his music, I feel quite meditative, but not in the sense of doing meditation while listening to it, it puts me in a nice place. I feel quite relaxed and also comfortable. But I don’t know if that is because I’m quite opened to this style of music. I also have some odd music that can be quite meditative. It doesn’t make any sense as the rhythms are all over the place, very much the opposite of a 4-4 rhythm. For me these less unconventional rhythms feel more intuitive and organic, you definitely need to be in a certain state of mind to be able to appreciate it.
GM: Can you talk about your own meditation practice?
FT: I do meditate, but I don’t do it as much as I should. It’s difficult when you live such a busy life, but I do it when I can-- Maybe a few times a week, and it does help. Some people find that meditation takes a while to get used to, but for some reason when I began I really connected with it. There is a book that a partner on another project recommended to me, called Advanced Yoga Practices. When I started meditation it helped me balance my anxiety and to calm down when everything was getting too much— it felt quite similar to what I would do when I was a child. When working through the chanting, I could feel this connection between my spine to my brain within the first 10 minutes. When I first felt this, I instantly knew that it was relevant to my creative process, as at younger age I would feel a similar connection. I used to describe this feeling as a realization, although I don’t know if that was the right word for it, because it was an invigorated sense of knowing and understanding, with no doubt. I had this a lot during my creative stages growing up, and [doing AYP] made me realize that maybe I hadn’t had this feeling in quite a few years. When I first felt the connection, I never realized that it was the source to how I would know if I was going on the right path. But through this connection in memory I remembered that it helped me to make decisions and also where I am today. As an artist, you toy between ideas, you’re never sure of the right path to go towards, but once I started meditating, I was able remember that balance, quite often, by remembering that feeling, holding onto that feeling of how to meditate rather than using techniques. If I was having bad anxiety from work-- I would sit down, stop and meditate to myself and it would help the situation. It’s about remembering that feeling and where the source comes from. When I’m traveling a lot for work, I’m also around lots of different people which can get quite hectic so I’m not able to meditate for 20 minutes a day like I should.
GM: That leads into the last question I wanted to ask you, which is sort of the flipside of the previous question. A lot of artists will talk about having this “creative flow state,” where making art is, in itself, a form of meditation for them. There’s research that shows that making art increases brain activity in the same way that meditation does. So, I guess the question is… In your experience— Do you find your practice as an artist to be meditative?
FT: I find being creative very meditative which is why I’m creative in my own way, I find a sense of relief, and also being able to have an outlet for my emotions-- all of my extended emotions are put towards my work. It also gives me a process to know what to work with. I know it’s a bit of a cliché when people say, when they’re sad they make art. But it’s not really a cliché, because it’s true, the deepest, darkest emotions do come when you’re in not such a good place, but it’s such an intense energy [for making art]. Meditation is a platform to find yourself and creativity is also a platform. If we can’t voice out in words, about how we’re feeling, then at least we can show it visually or creatively. It’s all interlinked. There shouldn’t even have to be science to prove that, because creativity is such a natural element that we all have. How we feel—how the artist feels after being creative—is generally where it comes from.