UCL Art Futures


‘Concourse’ artist Patrick White on celebrating creative collaboration

Concourse was commissioned to celebrate the multi-disciplinary and collaborative work that created the CreaTech Glossary. In this Q&A artist Patrick White shares his thoughts behind the piece.

Tell us about Concourse – what is it designed to represent?

I’m not sure about representation but it exemplifies serendipity and possibility – that in the work there is the chance of, say, listening to a firework go off as a giraffe walks through a bar in the Czech Republic. I like that this experience could emerge rationally from the name of a person, a real individual with feelings. It doesn’t represent them, but metaphorically celebrates what they have done, and what they (and by extensions we) might do.

Why the name Concourse?

This is named after the typeface used in the work. I was looking at various options and came across Matthew Butterick’s Typography For Lawyers and Practical Typograph. His Concourse font looked good to me, connects to the role of art institutions (e.g. the Bauhaus) through 1930s font design, and links to architectural themes in the work by being a geometric typeface and through its meaning as a word. And of course, ‘concourse’ more generally means an assembly or meeting of people, and links etymologically to ‘concur’. So, it seemed fitting. Butterick’s site is great and in addition to well-designed and packaged fonts, and typography design guidance, contains various musings on copyright, internet publication, and other issues.

How can a user interact with the work and what does this experience provide?

It’s an online work which puts you into a projected 3D space in which float the names of the glossary contributors. You can navigate around, and when you get close enough to a name, or click on it, a sonification of that name is triggered. This sonification follows a simple generative rule: a sample from a sound library is assigned to each letter of the name, like a sonic parallel of an acrostic poem. For example, if you have the sound of a cat, that will be assigned the letter ‘C’. But that sound might also be assigned a ‘P’ if the cat was purring, or an ‘M’ if it was miaowing. So, each sample in the sound library is tagged with one or more letters in this way and becomes available to be dynamically assigned to a letter of a name when the visitor enters the site.

Each name therefore generates a unique soundscape, and the sample for each letter plays once, beginning so that it ends at some random time before the longest sample finishes playing. So, the soundscape of a name evolves, becoming quite noisy at times, especially if the name has a lot of letters, and at other times it’s more serene, with maybe one or two concurrent samples. You can also trigger multiple names at once, and since the sound volume changes with proximity to each name, getting louder as you get closer, you can listen to multiple soundscapes together dependent on your positioning – a sort of spatial mixing.

The user will have a different sonic experience each time they refresh the work. Could you share your thoughts behind that?

Mostly it’s just a sort of instinct that has formed a habit in my art practice, which is to not make any decisions that don’t need to be made. The sonification of names is a decision (or an idea I decide to enact), and there are decisions to be made on how to do that, but they can be at a higher or more abstract level than the decision to make a name sound a particular way, always. Simple generative systems are one way to achieve this, which I sometimes use when making work. I often have an idea what will come out of these, but the reality is always surprising on some level, and occasionally totally unexpected. Perhaps with this strategy in general there is an element of wanting to discover something about the world, rather than creating something new to add to it, to be yet another author. 

There are implications to this habit, and in this case, it could be to avoid tailoring a set of sounds to the name of a person who I don’t know in a way that says: ‘this is your identity’. I enjoy hearing examples of nominative determinism, like Margaret Court being the most successful tennis player of all time (until recently), or jokes about urologists called Dr Burns and so on – and there is genuine and interesting research into that – but I don’t want to promote it as an idea, or be in any way presumptuous. It then becomes more about potential or possibility. This seems fitting for a project that, although fixing meaning through a glossary of terms, seeks to do so to enable its readers to do something else. 

Where did the library of sounds originate from and why was this source important for this particular work?

I used a library made by the BBC in the late 80s or early 90s, sometimes called the ‘original’ library, released on compact disc and numbered 1-60. It contains recordings made throughout the preceding decades and was kind of the go-to library for a long time for many people in TV, radio, and film. There are lots of little reasons that attracted me to it, but not a strong reason that explains all.

One is that although the internet was just about existent when the library was published, there are no sounds pertaining to it, not a dial-up tone or even the sound of a computer – there’s a typewriter in there somewhere, and some electronic beeps, but that’s about it. And you will find sounds made by all sorts of other technology that is no longer around. By its nature any library emerges out of the past, and I enjoy that anachronism, both with respect to the work’s online existence and that most of the students contributing to the glossary were not born when the recordings were made. I was a child when the internet emerged, and it’s a privilege to remember some of what the world was like then. There’s a melancholy there which can express itself through the rapid change of technology.

I also think the sounds are great and again there’s an aspect of not deciding and saying, well, this was once a standard reference library when I was growing up, it’s complete in its own way and quite general, and it would be very different if I were to use a more specific library or to make one myself. It’s an international collection which reflects the character of the student body, but it also reflects the problematics of field recording, of going to a place, capturing it, bring it ‘back’, and selling it – and labelling it. And of course, it’s the BBC, an instrument of soft power at a much earlier time, and these complications are relevant too. It’s important to remember that the sounds are not ‘the’ sound but ‘a’ sound of something, and although some of the labels may have changed, there’s no denying a person stood with a microphone in a particular place at a particular time. And sound is so slippery that once you remove the text labelling it then it can be quite difficult to know what its reference is, and that quality pervades the work.

I also enjoy the thought of the medium through which I must travel to use the sounds in the work, which is CD. There are around 2,400 tracks in the collection, all of which (I imagine) are accessible through the BBC sound effects archive, which now has over 30,000 tracks available on demand. There are licensing conditions on these, and you can buy the tracks I used, but I bought my CDs on sale for £1 each and can use them however I want. There’s no neat narrative to this situation really, but I just think these limited and historically and technologically specific collections have meaning in a way that the totalising data practices of the present don’t. Maybe it’s about what happens with discarded mediums: who moves into these spaces when they’re no longer the focus for intense profit making. There’s a lot of work around radio along these lines, for example.

Finally, and this is a long answer I know, there were no sounds in the library that could be tagged by the letter ‘X’. No xylophones or xeruses or anything. My singular contribution to the sound library is a recording representing this letter, so listen out for that. Culturally ‘x’ is an interesting mix of the generic and specific (as a sign for a variable or to denote a particular place, for example), so I was pleased I had to correct its absence.

Different textures are used to represent names within the piece – could you explain the reasons for this and where the textures came from?

This comes from the idea of a concourse as a grouping of people with some sort of common purpose enabled by architecture, whether that’s the physical architecture of a train station or stage, or more invisible architecture that might, say, make an internet forum work, or conceptual architecture, like that of the law. I went for the university as a place that incorporates all these things, focussing on the physical by photographing bricks and blocks from the facades of each of the departments represented in the glossary and using them to texture the names. There’s no correlation between a name and their associated department’s brick, unless by luck – I didn’t want to fix anyone to a specific genre of learning or research, to reflect the interdisciplinary spirit of the glossary.

While walking around Bloomsbury doing this, I was thinking a little of the bizarre categories of red brick and glass plate universities. Despite the large quantity of both these materials making up its buildings, UCL is neither. Like most universities though it has a diverse and dispersed set of spaces and the bricks I photographed reflect that.

Can you share information about the colours used in the work?

The colours conform to a recent attempt to standardise the colour-representation of stars in digital colour spaces used by screens, projectors, etc. (Jan-Vincent Harre and René Heller https://doi.org/10.1002/asna.202113868). Apparently, people were colouring their diagrams of red dwarves an inappropriate red. In the course of applying a lot of scientific knowledge to the problem, the authors do things like remove the effect of the earth’s atmosphere. To be able to specify the colour of a star, as an average human would perceive it, if they saw it from space, is just really pleasing. Apart from a lucky few, much of our star gazing is mediated through telescopes either in orbit or on the ground, but in my work, you’re floating with them. So, it’s totally appropriate to use this data (and amazing that you can through Open Access), and there is something of the impossible, or at least very rare, wish-fulfilment about it. And all sorts of other corny metaphors about stars, if you like. If you set a few names off and watch from a distance, they do twinkle a bit.

Why was it important to have both a sonic and a visual aspect to the work?

To be honest I would have been quite happy with an entirely sonic work. But it would probably have been too obscure. To the extent it is cohesive, I was glad to have a way to tie everything together and the visuals do that. The colours give you a chance to work out what the sounds are recordings of, but it still leaves much to the imagination.

What do you hope the audience takes from engaging with Concourse?

Well, when I engage with it, I wander about and settle on something I like the sound of. Or I set a few going and listen from a distance to them mingling. Sometimes I try to work out what the sounds are of but mostly I’m happy not to know. This seems to help me attend to listening to something that I likely won’t experience again. The work references the past through its sound library, and we know which direction the Art Futures project is oriented. So perhaps a good outcome from my point of view would be to enable someone to notice being in the present, to appreciate the value of that, and relate it to the times they have or will be momentarily and serendipitously brought together with others.

Patrick White is an artist and educator working in London and Glasgow, teaching at the Slade School of Fine Art and the University of Edinburgh. His work stems from a fascination with ‘indiscernibles’ – that objects or experiences can have radically different meanings not discoverable through perception alone – using these as a key to unlock the rationalisations we invent to articulate our world. Working in primarily digital forms of media using text, sound, web, video, and print, as well as attending to the physical and philosophical properties of different technologies, he combines strategies of humour, logical absurdity, linguistic and non-visual methodologies, and displacement of authorship to scrutinise the gap between what we think we know and what is.