The Interactive Sound Art of Peter Vogel

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4007 Articles

By Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4007 Articles

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If you’re a fan of experimental music and sound art or interested in how artists use interactive electronics in their work, you will likely find a lot to be inspired by in this 30-minute mini-documentary about German interactive sound artist and sculptor Peter Vogel. The video is an excerpt from a larger documentary from 2011, directed by Jean Martin and Conall Gleeson.

If you are not already familiar with Peter Vogel and his work, here is an excerpt from the catalog for a 2011 Vogel exhibition done at the University of Brighton.

Peter Vogel’s work melds art and science in a unique way, and a glimpse at his early life history helps to explain how this came about. Born in Freiburg, Germany, to artist parents in 1937, Vogel was drawn to art from an early age but came to realize how difficult it would be so soon after the Second World War to make a living as an artist. So he decided to study physics and, after a period in industry developing medical tools and equipment, he spent 10 years with Hoffmann-La Roche working with cybernetic models in the fields of neurophysiology and psychology. Throughout this decade (1965-75), he continued to feel drawn to art and to pursue painting. He became particularly interested in how to represent movement and time in art and was influenced by the abstract art movements of tachism and action painting.

Fascinated by the work of English neurophysiologist William Grey Walter (1910-77), who invented small robots (called Machine Speculatrix) that simulated basic neurophysiological behaviour, Vogel was intrigued to discover that, with the help of sound and light sensors, such machines could react to the world. Thus, at a time when many artists were pursuing the idea of the viewer as active participant, Vogel began to embrace interactivity as a major theme in his work. And all of this prompted him to move away from painting and start to create picture-like interactive objects.

Make: readers may remember the piece I wrote on proto-robotics and cybernetics pioneer W. Grey Walter in Make: Volume 19 (also reprinted in my collection Borg Like Me). Walter had a huge impact on the field of behavior-based robots, BEAM, and other bottom-up schools of robotic thought. And apparently on Peter Vogel. Vogel even called his early art pieces “cybernetic objects.” It is amazing how beautiful these pieces are (even if they didn’t interact with the viewer), and how he uses freeform soldering as a sculptural technique. He is painting and sculpting with discrete electronic components! The results turn out looking like compelling pieces of 20th century modern art.

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If you enjoy this video, you might want to look for another equally inspiring documentary, called Trimpin: The Sound of Invention. It is about another German kinetic sculptor and sound artist, known as “Trimpin,” who also works in way that many makers can relate to (iterative, tinkery, playful, improvisational, use of techno-junk).

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