Duxford’s DX17 sound sculpture by Nick Ryan, supported by Bowers & Wilkins

2017 marks the centenary of Imperial War Museums (IWM) and 100 years since work began to create RAF Duxford.

To commemorate this landmark occasion I was commissioned to create a new artwork for IWM Duxford. The artwork, DX17, is IWM Duxford’s first ever contemporary art installation.

DX17 was opened to the public on Friday 16 June by HRH The Duke of Kent and the experience is included in general admission to IWM Duxford until the end of September 2017.

As a sound artist I wanted to create a multi-sensory artwork and immersive audio installation that allowed the many people whose lives have been shaped by this unique and special place to somehow speak for themselves and transmit their memories to us directly and palpably. A listening portal connecting us to the past, if you like.

DX17 is a dramatic large-scale sculpture, similar in size to a Spitfire, futuristic and aerodynamic in form. Like other recent projects of mine (such as A Living River, the world’s largest brand sound installation, currently on display at Gatwick Airport), DX17 explores the act of listening as a means of transporting people to another place or time. In this case it is to a place where present and past can ‘co-exist’.

DX17 is presented in a dramatic, misty, atmospheric and dark space which provides an immersive environment and the backdrop for a 15 minute performance given by DX17 to 20 visitors at a time.

Each group of visitors is led into the performance space by a guide and glimpse DX17 front on, looming out of the mist and darkness toward them. After a moment, as if responding to the presence of an audience, DX17 comes alive – 100 bright lights emerge from the sculpture each representing one of one hundred discoverable ‘memories’.

Visitors are given a bespoke handheld device, or ‘receiver’ connected to a pair of Bowers and Wilkins P5 headphones. Visitors explore the sculpture holding their receiver in the palm of one hand, scanning it over the surface of the sculpture to magically transform these points of light into sound and effectively ‘tune in’ to up to 100 voices from the past.

Whilst this is happening, a cinematic soundscape surrounds them in which a collage of elements received through the headphones are dramatised around the listener. This surround system is delivered in quasi 7.1 format by 7 pairs of Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 (14 in total) speakers and an ASW15 Sub connected to Rotel RMB1512 and Bowers and Wilkins SA100 amplifiers, respectively.

The immersive soundscape includes Morse Code messages that reference the sculpture’s name, fragments of historically significant music and original ambisonic recordings of a Spitfire performing a high speed, low altitude manoeuvre known as a ‘run and break’, which we captured at Duxford especially for the project using Soundfield’s ST450 microphone system.

The voices and other memories received in the headphones (all of which are curated from Duxford’s historical archive) together with the soundscape heard in surround are interwoven to conjure an immersive and emotional ‘picture’ of Duxford though sound and light.

Diane Lees, Director-General of Imperial War Museums said: “Nick Ryan’s DX17 commemorates Duxford’s centenary in a unique way that really reflects the wonderment of aviation and the unique history of the site. This futuristic sound sculpture will surprise and fascinate visitors, enabling them to physically and emotionally engage with personal stories of Duxford’s past and present, immersing themselves in this absorbing sensory experience.”

The name DX17 references the centenary narrative (1917-2017). DX was also the airfield identification code for Duxford during the Second World War. It forms part of the Airfield Signal Square, visible from high above in the sky. The two consonants are quickly interpreted as a synonym for the museum and the airfield. DX as a verb describes the activity of listening in on long distance (short wave) radio linking the radiophonic narrative of the installation and the aural connection it provides to the long-distant past.

Making DX17

As well as celebrating the theme of flight, I also wanted DX17 to reflect the technical innovation for which Duxford is known. We were keen to represent this legacy by exploring emerging technologies and fabrication techniques to deliver audio in an entirely new and special way.

I worked from the start with mechatronic engineer Sean Malikides to develop a novel new technology that allows audio to be encoded into the 100 light beams inside the sculpture and then decoded by a receiver into audible signals.

The system that we developed is based on the principle behind the ‘Photophone’: a telecommunications device that allowed transmission of speech on a beam of light, invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880. I worked with Sean Malikides to develop a fully analogue electronic transmitter and receiver circuit that makes it possible to transmit speech through the light beams that illuminate DX17’s surface and enable people to decode the signals as sound with a battery-powered handheld device. The 100 emitter and 40 receiver PCB’s were manufactured in UK.

Design studio Kin and designer/engineer Tom Cecil worked with me to develop DX17’s sculptural form. Taking the size of a Spitfire as a reference of scale, the team designed a 10m x 6m aluminium ‘space frame’ structure with a 3D mesh fabric covering. A selection of recognisable aerodynamic shapes (winglets of a Eurofighter Typhoon, the exhaust manifold of the Spitfire) found in aircraft in Duxford’s collection evolve DX17’s basic delta into a hybridised shape that is both evocative and futuristic. DX17 was hand -built by Tom Cecil (by coincidence the grandson of Wing Commander Rupert Cecil) and Kin in Tom Cecil’s workshop in Leyton.

The form of the receiver object (that holds the receiver electronics and is used by visitors to decode light into sound) is inspired by various metallic, leather and Bakelite objects found in vintage aircraft including avionics, pilot oxygen masks and headsets. The object was fabricated using 3d printing technology.

DX17 was created with the generous support of Bowers & Wilkins. The installation uses 14 x Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 loudspeakers, ASW15 Sub, Rotel RMB1512 and Bowers and Wilkins SA100 amplifiers and P5 Series 2 model headphones. DX17 was also generously supported by MOTU whose AVB system is used to distribute audio to the sculpture.

DX17 was opened to the public on Friday 16 June and the experience is included in general admission to IWM Duxford.

Nick Ryan

Nick Ryan is a multi-disciplinary artist and composer exploring the use of sound and music to represent information, physical sensation, materiality and place. He is widely recognised as a leading thinker in relation to the future of sound for creating unique, immersive and highly conceptual audio experiences that push the boundaries of audio.

His work involves applying emerging technology to the process of creating and experiencing audio, introducing people to new ways of thinking about sound. His novel sound installations, bespoke instruments, generative music compositions and interactive audio experiences explore ways of representing information, language, story and perception solely through the act of listening.

Nick is the recipient of a BAFTA for Technical Innovation, a Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel for sound editing and an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Plymouth University. He is currently an artist in residence at Somerset House studios. www.nickryanmusic.com

IWM Duxford

IWM Duxford is Britain’s best-preserved Second World War airfield, with a fascinating 100 year history that dates back to the First World War. Duxford has been a witness to world-changing events over the past 100 years where ordinary people have had extraordinary experiences. At this active and dynamic museum, historic aircraft can regularly be seen taking to the skies from Duxford’s wartime airfield. Exploring state of the art exhibition halls and historic buildings, visitors walk in the footsteps of the men and women from across the world who served at RAF Duxford and explore the rich displays which share powerful stories of the impact of aviation on the nature of war and on people’s lives.

Open Daily:

Summer 2017: 11 March to 22 October 2017 10am to 6pm. Last entry at 5pm. Winter 2017/18: 23 October to March 2017 10am to 4pm. Last entry at 3pm.

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