Testing Grounds

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Testing Grounds

Testing Grounds

Susannah Langley studio


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With her Testing Grounds studio, Susannah is working on innovative uses of virtual reality.  Her project aims to set up virtual drawing experiments based on 360 sound, using Tilt Brush & AnimVR software, that audiences experience through a system of projection mapping and surround sound speakers.

Susannah Langley is a visual artist operating at the intersection of drawing, sound, and virtual technologies.  Often using unconventional media such as conductive material, touch technology and virtual reality to create site-responsive, experimental works that explore ideas of history, memory, movement, feeling and space. Currently, Susannah is a Master’s researcher at the Victorian College for the Arts exploring drawing and sound in virtual environments.

Since 2013, she has collaborated with Warren Armstrong developing works that people can move through, and touch, to summon stories and soundscapes. These can broadly be divided into two types: physical installations and virtual reality experiences.  The collaboration has contributed commissioned works for art centres, festivals, residencies, and artist-run initiatives both nationally and abroad. Including in 2019, Vivid Ideas, Chatswood Arts Precinct, Gertrude Street Projection Festival, and the Vrystaat Arts Festival, Bloemfontein, South Africa.  In 2017, they won the Paramor Prize for Art and Innovation from Casula Powerhouse Art Centre and were awarded a City of Melbourne Arts grant and Inner West Council Arts and Culture grant.

In addition to her art practice, Susannah is experienced in the delivery of creative tech-based workshops to a variety of age groups.

The Keepsakery project

November 2019

This first month at Testing Grounds Studio I’ve focused my research on to listening to the sounds of the place itself. Finding and identifying the different types of sounds present in the area and testing approaches for drawing these heard sounds. Primarily using coloured pencils and gauche onto paper journals and also by drawing directly in VR with Tilt Brush Software. Through this daily exercise of listening and drawing sounds, I’m beginning to sketch a type of local sound map of the city. What I’ve discovered so far, is this city is packed full noise. And that noise is specific to the location and particular to time. For example, yesterday was Derby Day at Flemington racecourse and from 1.20 pm to 1.33 pm the acoustic space was full with 7 helicopters flying over on their way to the race! In addition, I’ve used this month to invite as many friends, curators and VCA art colleagues to come to visit TG studios and share the work in progress. This has started some interesting conversations and is an informal way of testing out, how people engage with the VR drawings and move through a virtual environment. Thanks to all who’ve dropped by and interacted with the works including Tilly from Science Gallery; Ioannis and Jess VCA researchers, Supervisors Helen and Roger, the Film and Television students from Melbourne Uni, my bestie Sharon and academic Dr Jackquelene Drinkall from Tasmania University.

Primarily I’ve been using a process of sketching into journals with coloured pencils and gauche and also by drawing directly in VR with Tilt Brush Software. Drawing with a key of colour coded sound: Pink: music; Purple: air breaks: Blue: helicopters; Green: Industrial squeaks; Yellow: birds; Red: Car horns and crows and Black: trucks. Through this daily exercise of listening and drawing I’ve began sketching a type of localised sound map of the city. What I’ve discovered so far, is this city is packed full noise. That the noise is specific to the location and particular to a time.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Testing Grounds, it is a purposely designed site made of utilitarian shipping containers and gardens, that is located in Melbourne Southbank Arts Precinct. This site is surrounded by main roads, tall modern architecture, and industrial scale building sites and the dominant sounds are traffic noise with smatterings of ‘sound events’ such as, car horns, nail guns; airbrakes; helicopters; and the occasional bird. At this stage of my research, I’ve been I’ve been drawing these sounds directly into journals and directly in the VR headset into a 360 space. I’ve begun to teach myself to how to use AnimVR. A VR software that will allows me to animate the drawn marks in 360 space.

I’m reading a great book, ‘The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. A History of Space from Dante to the Internet’ by Margaret Wertheim.


December 2019

This month I’ve been experimenting with listening to the sounds in the studio and drawing these in VR, using Tilt Brush software. I’ve also been experimenting with different types of field recording equipment such as: Zoom H1 with Roland Headphone Mics, iPhone Voice Memos App, and Zoom VR recorder. Using them to record the local soundscapes as I”m drawing in the HTC Vive headset and testing different field recording setups in different locations around the site, at various times of day, weather conditions and events. I am hoping this will build up into a picture of the auditory space, and describe some of the events that happen at Testing Grounds site in drawings and sound. Locating and identifying a drawn sound map full with information about Testing Ground site itself. Identified a key of colour-coded “sound events”:Sounds: Helicopters – Blue Light Lorries and Buses (idling) – Dark Grey Motorbike – Madder Horn – Scarlet (light Red) Birds – yellow/Green (blackbirds/Minor/sparrows) Crow/Cockatoos – Black Music – Opalescent Pink/Blue People – Blue/PurpleThis daily exercise of listening and drawing in VR is building into a personalised sound vocabulary. And what I hope will form into a developed series of hand-drawn, room-scale 3D virtual drawings that audiences can walk through, touch, and listen to.

What I’ve discovered whilst listening regularly to the space at TG, is that I am listening with my body and not just hearing with my ears! Feeling the sound waves as a vibration – through the process of reverberation, echos and orientating at different points and places in my body. Therefore, expanding my personal understanding of auditory perception and the act of listening. The soundscape is densely populated with traffic noise and peppered with high frequency/sharp sounds such as: accelerating motorbikes, care horn, occasional crow or cockatoo, and raised voice, music from Community Precinct coffee and later in the evening blackbirds with a smattering of minor birds and sparrows throughout the day.

Currently, I’m researching colour and sound and have discovered some interesting ‘facts’ connecting to the idea of Synethesia. I’m reading a book by Cretien Van Campen“The Hidden Sense. Synesthesia in art and Science.” 2007. That simply describes the process of Synesthesia and its connections to science and art.In addition, I’m loving this link shared by Roger Alsop: Listening In. “What Does Colour Sound Like”. I’ve visited the Stephen McLaughlan Gallery in the Nicholson Building for the first time which is celebrating its 25th anniversary exhibition. And experienced “Incomplete Infinities” a VR, Sound and Poetry happening with 8 channel spatial sound composition by Roger Alsop, VR projections by Reverse Butcher and Poetic Works by Kylie Supski. Congratulations Stephen and artists!I was lucky to meet with Robin Fox at MESS (Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio) this week. Spending an interesting morning, exploring MESS’s historical synthesiser collection and discussing Robin’s research into drawing with sound waves and the developing a system of laser driven graphic scores.Thanks again Robin and for the introduction Micheal Carr!

This is a walk through virtual drawing that participants touch to hear sounds pf a tram journey home.

February 2020

From January to February this year, I’ve been making drawings in virtual reality that respond to the sounds heard at Testing Grounds studios. Undertaking a daily exercise of listening to the immediate soundscape and drawing a response using Tilt Brush software. Resulting in the production of 37 3Dimensional hand-drawn studies that describe the local acoustic ecology.

This process of inquiry has required me to develop a drawn language of ‘sound events’ and invent an accompanying vocabulary of ‘sound marks’ using colour, line and form that represent the types of sounds I am listening to e.g. red line in the shape of a horseshoe = car horns; and thick blue/black lines = lorries and trucks on city road. Using this vocabulary of ‘sound marks’ to draw a type of graphic notation and recording of sounds in 360 space.

This is an important point in my research as I have identified a process for describing sounds heard using a drawn language which I will use as a key for plotting sound maps in future work.

I was lucky to get to the book launch earlier this month and hear some of the contributors speak about this fantastic book I’m reading at the moment called ‘The Project is the Relationship. Working with Communities’ edited by Jade Lillie, with Kate Larsen, Cara Kirkwood and Jax Jacki Brown A. It is certainly easy to read, with straightforward and professional considerations and questions to hold in your mind when working with people in the community. Practical and relevant to anyone working with others in a creative capacity.

March 2020

This month at Testing Grounds studios I have been working closely with Warren Armstrong on the design for a ‘Sound Field Sketch Pad’ or SFSP, a bespoke software tool that visualises 360 sound in VR. Together we have developed a process for using a Vive Tracker, VR object that allows you to bring ‘real’ objects into a ‘virtual’ world, and thanks to a cunning hack from Warren the tracker now allows participants to see a drawing without the use of a headset.

The ‘Sound Field Sketch Pad’ is similar to a spectrograph, in that it uses colour to visualise frequencies in an ambisonic field recording, in VR. It is designed to allow me to see, locate and eventually plot sound events in 360 space in a virtual environment. The SFSP displays the changing frequencies over time as different colours, registering from black (no registered sound), through to a sliding scale of red (low sound); to orange; to yellow; to green (moderate sound); to blue/purple (high sound).

The initial prototype is now working and testing of the software has begun in VR with options for navigating the ‘seen’ soundscape by pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding the sound recording in 360 space. The next phase in the design process is to devise a system for sketching these sounds in VR and providing options for me to plot and locate the sound events as they occur in time. With the aim to be able to sketch out and export these drawings of sound and develop them into a map that traces the sound experience in the coming weeks to months.

Another key focus this month was developing interactions with a Vive Tracker. Working closely with virtual developer Warren Armstrong to devise a process for viewing the VR drawing using a Vive tracker and projection system and thereby circumnavigating the VR headset. Collaborating with Ioannis Sidiropoulos in the development of a performance that explores VR drawing virtual technology and the bodies movement through a virtual environment.

Thanks to a cunning hack from Warren, a participant holding the virtual tracker can now see the VR drawing in space without using a VR headset, through the tracking device and projections alone. Freeing up the participant to walk through the VR drawing and use the tracker as a ‘torch’ and discover the unseen drawings in the dark, like an explorer in a cave.

I have begun a new project working with Ioannis Sidiropoulos an actor, performance artist and dancer, that aims to explore a VR drawing using the bodies movement, a VR tracker and projection system. Consulting with Centre for Dramaturge and Curation as we develop a performance, which we hope to share with members of the public soon.

I am re-reading a charming book called Birds Art Life Death. A Field Guide to the Small and Significant by Kyo Maclear.


April 2020

I’ve been taking my existing research and studio collaboration with Ioannis Sidropoulos, which we turned into an AR app during ‘The Great Lockdown’, and translating it into a choreographed performance using a VR Tracker and a CAVE projection system. It explores drawing, sound, and virtual technologies through performance.

Parts of it, like the CAVE projection, are still in development, but the Vive Tracker component is ready go and I’m really excited about sharing the 37 walkthrough VR drawings that I made at Testing Grounds and seeing Ioannis perform in them.

A mentorship/opportunity to work with an experienced producer would be a great way to develop this project further. I also need access to a CAVE projection system, or the funding and hardware to create my own. My other thought is to get some seed funding to do a quick video to document the project as it stands, so I can pitch it to experimental theatre companies and venues like Substation or Arts House. You know, the big guns.

Anyone can get in touch with me drawntosound@gmail.com.

Simply put, I had a ball at Testing Grounds! I really appreciated the opportunity to develop a new body of work. And the time, space and infrastructure to experiment and develop new areas of research. These included: 37 VR drawings of sound (soundscapes of the city); collaborating with Warren Armstrong to develop software prototypes to allow a virtual tracker to ‘see’ virtual drawings of sound. I also enjoyed making connections to a new community of arts practitioners.