Lovely film of Plasticity installation at British Film Institute

In November, our speakers were integral to an interactive audio-visual installation, ‘Plasticity’ for the 2011 onedotzero ‘Adventures in Motion’ festival at the BFI Southbank, London. Here the sound artists describe the installation.

This commission gave the chance for the creators of The Fragmented Orchestra (Jane Grant, John Matthias and Nick Ryan) and Kin to work together again, and also gave us the chance to experiment with and develop the Neurogranular Software which we have been developing at Plymouth University. Neurons in the human brain fire a signal to all the neurons to which they are connected when the electrical voltage on their membrane reaches a certain threshold. The timing of the arrival of these signals changes the strength of the connections between neurons, one effect within a large number of phenomena known collectively as ‘Plasticity’.

In the Neurogranular software, the firing of an artificial neuron triggers a tiny grain of sound – and in this installation, we wanted the sound to be the live sound made by visitors at the BFI into a set of microphones. What we also needed was a set of speakers, to mimic a very small network of connected neurons, which could be made to ‘fire’ and sound in patterns. One very intriguing idea to come out of Neuroscience recently is that the particular firing sequence of neurons is directly related to the experience which initiated that particular firing sequence. Indeed, the re-firing of that sequence in some sense ‘brings back’ the experience as a simple memory.

The site for the project was to be the atrium, which is a room at the back of the BFI, close to the back entrance, – it has an intriguing shape, which we decided to make the most of throughout the project. The main brief from onedotzero was that the public had to directly understand that they were directly interacting with the system, and so we decided to build in a light signaling system. When a sound is made into the microphones by a member of the public, the firing of a neuron takes a portion of that sound, plays it back through a speaker and also triggers a light signal at this speaker and also at the microphone.

We were delighted to be able to use a set of 16 Bowers and Wilkins CCM682 speakers, which, after much bracket-prototyping and development by John Nussey at Kin were directly fixed to a series of wall brackets set in a network configuration in the atrium and wrapped in LED ribbon (for lighting). We wanted the microphones to be at the entrance pointing away from the speakers (to eliminate feedback) and Kin built a wooden casing to hold the mics allowing for the different heights of potential performers!

Tim Hodgson and John Nussey had the difficult job of developing the Neurogranular Sampler for 6 microphones and 16 speakers and encasing the code in a patch which could also trigger the networked lighting system, which ran through an Arduino board.

At the beginning of the installation, The Holst Singers performed a piece which we wrote specifically to work within the configuration of ‘Plasticity’. A recording of the piece was subsequently triggered through the speaker network and became a sound-bed behind all the other public activity throughout the duration of the installation. A truly magical moment!

The installation ran from November 23rd-27th 2011 and should be on tour in the UK and Internationally in 2012.


Jane Grant: Artist / John Matthias: Artist / Nick Ryan: Artist / Kin: Artist

John Nussey: Creative Technologist Tim Hodgson: DSP/ Audio Unit Programming / Choir: Holst Singers

We would also like to thank Arts Council England, Plymouth University, Bowers and Wilkins, and onedotzero for their generous support of this work.

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