a permanent sound installation (2008)

by Gerhard Eckel, David Pirrò, Martin Rumori,

Gerriet K. Sharma, Christos Zachos

Studienzentrum, Inffeldgasse 10, 8010 Graz, Austria

Staircase is a sound installation inscribed into the atrium and the stairways of a three story building located on the campus Inffeldgasse of the Graz University of Technology. This well frequented building hosts institutes of the Graz University of Technology and the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz along with library spaces, teaching rooms, student learning spaces and a cafeteria.

Staircase is a site-specific intervention reflecting the transitional nature of the space it augments auditorily. Conceived as a permanent installation, it has been carefully embedded into the existing acoustic ecology of the space it inhabits. Operating in its own sound niche, it slightly colours the everyday experience of the people frequenting the building. In its sonic and visual appearance it is intended to be perceived as an integral part of the building, contributing to its identity and atmosphere.

In order to adapt to the current acoustic situation, which depends on the number and behaviour of the people frequenting the building, the installation tracks the patterns of acoustic activity with a phonmeter. An adaptive generative process informed by these activity patterns creates and projects carefully shaped sound events and gestures responding to the current situation as well as taking into account its development through the recent past.

The sounds are projected through two square-column-shaped loudspeakers with a height of 2 meters each and facing each other at a distance of about 15 meters. One of the columns is installed on the ground floor and is projecting the sound upwards into the square-shaped open staircase and the other one is hung from the ceiling and projecting downwards. This particular arrangement emphasizes the vertical axis of the staircase, around which three flights of stairs connect the floors with their large landings.

The installation reflects the particular acoustic situation of the building and shapes it by creating three distinct listening zones. The deliberately high degree of directivity of the loudspeakers combined with the sound occlusion caused by the glass balusters concentrates the sound in the open center of the staircase. This can be experienced clearly when leaning over the inner railing, thus positioning ones head into the zone of direct sound. When climbing up or down the stairs, a pattern of quickly changing reflections can be experienced, creating a fine sprinkling of sound in this zone of indirect sound. A third zone of very diffuse indirect sound is experienced on the large floor landings. This is due to the high reflectivity of the floors, walls and windows resulting into a long reverberation time.

Above the last floor, the staircase continues another three flights up to a door leading to the flat roof of the building. The last landing right below the staircase’s ceiling forms a dead-end space so far completely neglected by the people frequenting the building. This orphaned space has been claimed by the installation and turned into a listening post by installing a sitting bench there, creating kind of a retreating space in the public part of the building. The bench resembles in shape, color, and size the loudspeaker columns (installed horizontally instead of vertically), thus creating a visual unit with the other installation elements. When seated, the window front reveals a splendid panorama view of  the south-east of the campus, turning the dead-end space into a pleasant leasure room.

The main artistic challenge when creating such an installation is to imagine the different ways it can be experienced under the various conditions occurring during a day, a week, a month, or a year. As an exhaustive study of these conditions is impossible, the software controlling the installation has been conceived such that it may be adapted and refined easily over time, making use of the experiences gained while living with the installation on a day-to-day basis. The underlying creative process is understood as a collective and open one, allowing to react to the feedback of the people frequenting the building regularly (in the first place by the authors).

The installation has been conceived and created in an collective effort by a team formed in the context of the 2008 Seminar on Installation Art held by Gerhard Eckel at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics (IEM) – an institute of the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (KUG) located in the Studienzentrum Inffeldgasse. All aspects of the installation production have been taken care of by the multidisciplinary team including the concept for the placement of the loudspeakers, the microphone and the listening bench, the design of the loudspeakers, the budgeting and management of works (production and installation of speakers and bench, cabling and installation of microphone, audio interface, amplifier and computer), the programming of the sound analysis and synthesis software, the conception of the adaptive and generative algorithms, the selection and treatment of the sound material, the project documentation, and the webpage.

The production of Staircase was financially supported by the Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) and the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (KUG). The team would like to thank Anton Freißling, Christian Freißling, Siegfried Gartner, Robert Höldrich, Harald Kainz, Gerhard Kelz, Thomas Musil, Marko Rostek, Stefan Warum, Stefan Zedlacher, and Franz Zotter for their generous help and support.