Leave a comment

Poème Mécanique – A subtle and cascading sound sculpture encircles Montréal

Tobias Epsen, Poème Mécanique

Created by Copenhagen-based artist and researcher Tobias Ebsen, Poème Mécanique is an electromechanical sound sculpture in Espace culturel Georges-Émile-Lapalme, a public walkway connecting the Place-des-Arts metro and Complexe Desjardins in Montréal. Utilizing a continuous ring of 840 flip-dot mirror disks and defining a 4.2 metre circular space the piece offers a subtle sonic counterpoint to the din of a (generally) bustling public thoroughfare. Developed as part of the broader “Common Space?” initiative (a partnership between MUTEK, Quartier des spectacles, and the National Film Board), the piece is one of eight media art installations presently installed at a variety of public and semi-public spaces throughout Quartier des spectacles in downtown Montréal.

Tobias Epsen, Poème Mécanique

While Ebsen generally works with lighting and video projection the amount of daylight at the site required him to consider other options. “It was important for me to find a dynamic material that would work under those conditions and also compliment the space, which already has a lot of digital signage,” he shares over email. Having previously warmed to the signature pulse of flip-dot displays (a technology we admittedly have a fondness for here at CAN), Ebsen opted to use them to drive a sound-based work. An acrylic frame structural module was designed for the the flip-dot units, and their boards and the assembly was fortified within a sheet metal enclosure (quite pragmatically, the size of the structural module was developed with airline baggage size constraints in mind). Drawing on a custom openFrameworks application and utilizing the Raspberry Pi as a controller, Ebsen developed a suite of spatialized audio compositions for the installation. His goal: to create a moment of intimacy and contemplation in a vibrant, noisy public space.

↑ From schematic, to prototype, to assembly testing, to custom enclosures—to the airport!

With a total running time of just under five minutes, Poème Mécanique mobilizes its underlying electromechanical technology to novel ends. Rather than use flip-dot to render graphics, it offers a very subtle 840×1 resolution surface that is more invested in demarcation than display. When entering its enclosure, visitors are invited to let its cascading rhythms wash over them. “Placing them in a circle gives the experience of being surrounded by the sound – much more than can be achieved with Dolby 5.1,” Ebsen summarizes. “The ear is much more direction-aware than we think.” However, the walkway was louder than anticipated and listeners need to work to attune themselves to the subtle machinations. Unfazed by the ‘mix’ of ambient noise intruding on Poème Mécanique, Ebsen insists the contrast ‘is not a bug, but a feature.’ “It is a bit difficult to hear the low parts of the composition, but the audience ends up concentrating to hear the sound, and as a result, filter out the surrounding soundscape.” And filtering out the surroundings is of course the endgame here – taking a break from the noise of the crowd and routine movements across the city – if only for a few quiet moments.

Tobias Ebsen
MUTEK | NFB | Quartier des spectacles
“Common Space?” was produced as part of the Human Futures project
Lead photo: Martine Doyon

Tobias Epsen, Poème Mécanique