A Pioneer of Electroaccoustic Wearables
Benoit Maubrey was born in Washington D.C. in 1952 to French parents. In 1979, he transplanted to Berlin fortuitously placing himself in the raucous experimental 1980's Berlin scene, where sound art luminaries such as John Cage regularly performed. A disavowed painter who wanted more reach, more palpable energy, a living, moving form to his art, in 1982 Benoit began constructing Audio Jackets and in 1985 founded Die Audio Gruppe, a Berlin-based art group that to date build and perform with electronic clothes.
Today, it is quite safe to say Benoit Maubrey is a pioneer in electroaccoustic wearables. He has worked on an ongoing basis to collaboratively construct wearable forms that utilize a variety of technologies and most impressively allow performers to extend their physical movement in space through sound. Benoit's work to progressively experiment with acoustic and electronic equipment have led to performances and collaborations around the globe such as his Die Audio Gruppe's collaboration with Director of Berlin's Theatre zum Westlichen Stadthirschen in Audio Drama, Elisabeth Zundel. From New York, to Berlin to the Tokoyo City Opera, Benoit has traveled the world with his wearable sound troop.
In the spirit of honoring Benoit's fascinating development in wearable tech through his art, at the end of our interview with Benoit, we have listed a few interesting historical dates in the history of wearables that shed even further light on not only how much of a pioneer we have here but also, in the current climate of wearable advances, Benoit's work shines and excites the imagination....and (hint, hint) he is open to collaborating with the right fashion designer on a new line.
Q: How would you describe your evolution working with textiles and wearable materials? There is a contrast between your original Audio Uniforms to the Audio Peacocks and Audio Ballerinas. You have the challenge of needing structure to house the technology you are utilizing but also providing comfort and movement for the performers. What has been your favorite resource or inspiration for the materials you have chosen?
A: In the early eighties I decided that my main goal as an artist was to create public disturbances by using portable electroacoustic systems. I quickly realized that I needed groups of such systems (Audio Clothes or Audio Uniforms) in order to be successful in this task.
Each "Audio Uniform" is developed site-specifically according to a local environment, cultural tradition, or social theme. These are "outfits" or "costumes" that produce sounds that are inherent to the clothes. In some situations this seems awkward or even anachronistic but in fact its all quite logical: why shouldn't a clothing "sound" as it "looks"?
Once I know the "task" then I set about with my team (the "Audio Gruppe") creating a suitable "wearable" (this a modern word that has only existed since the last ten years). The materials we use is usually a compromise between structural elements (for the sound) and materials (visuals) : maybe "compromising" is another word for artistic talent.
Q: On your website you explain that, " In each place where [Audio Ballerinas] perform the first task of the group is to find a particular local sound – indigenous to that site or country– that can be used for [the Audio Ballerinas] piece". Sound is a very interesting and challenging element to consider in a piece. Robert Worby makes the point in his explanation of the history of sound art that as viewers we often focus on the object we are identifying the sound with more than actively listening to the sound itself and if there is a sound present without an object that the viewer can associate with the sound they are hearing with, this tends to cause distress and discomfort to the listener/viewer. What are some of the things that you have come to understand about this balance that you achieve and a seem to sculpt into each performance?
A: I think it has been proven that the human being "senses" his environment 60 % via his eyes, and 30 % via his ears. Thats why people are so surprised at my artwork: there is something to "see" as well as to hear. Sometimes the visuals collide with the sound : why do my the uniforms of my Audio Subway Controllers call out "All aboard!" and "Step back!"? Why do my Audio Ballerinas interact with light and "play" the light just like dancing with a partner? Why do the traditional costumes of my Sorben 3000 amplify and light up with the sound of their accordion player ?
Q: What would you recommend to other people who are learning Arduino, microcircuitry and interested in how wearable technology is developing?
A: As an artist: the question is not how to build an Audio Clothing: the question is what do you want to do with it?
Q: Your use of wearable technology in your art work is extraordinary. It is clear that as technology became available such as Sony's Walkman, digital recording devices, solar cells, LED's etc, you were able to readily tap into it and augment it to your various projects.
A: I once commented that my art is not avantgarde, its "normal" because essentially I am using a lot of junk that is produced by today's society. I started using loudspeakers and amps because they were cheap and could be found in most garbage can or flea markets. The technology I use can be found sprawled out on the floor of most children's playrooms. Also, my work progresses with the availability of these modern electronic playthings: in the eighties we used portable ghetto blasters (cassette players), then came the "Walkman", after that music sticks, circuit boards and samplers that we buy from surplus Asian factories.
My artistic "clay" is modern-day electronic junk.
The development of the Audio Ballerina's tutu came about in part out of necessity. Originally created in 1989 for the Festivals Les Arts au Soleil, Benoit began working with photovoltaic cells (used as light sensors) that needed to be positioned in a way to best receive light information. The design solution was a fanned disc constructed out of polycarbonate (plexiglass) that could be positioned on the body. Benoit and collaborators quickly realized polycarbonate was highly suited for encasing the electronics and other assorted technology to maximize the sound potential for the performers. This material is also used for the Audio Peacocks and Video Peacocks costumes. (See below.)
Q: In 1994 Die Audio Gruppe began working in indoor theatre spaces and in cooperation with the Director of Berlin's Theatre zum Westlichen Stadthirschen in Audio Drama, Elisabeth Zundel. Has this experience shifted the idea of costume for you or added new layers to considerations of the performers that you were not attentive to at an earlier point?
A: Since the creation of my first Audio Clothes many new fields of occupation have opened up to me. Remember, I was a painter, now I am an artist involved with sound, performance, dance, music, sports (see Audio Cyclists), light (Sorben 3000), and fashion (I am still waiting a collaboration offer).
Q: To date, each year you have exhibitions around the world featuring your various projects. Having founded Die Audio Gruppe early on in your art practice, many of the members have worked with the group for more than 10 years. How would you describe how the collaborative experience working with performers and your constructions has evolved over the years?
A: Some of these site-specific projects became quite successful, especially the Audio Ballerinas where I collaborated with classically-trained dancers. After some time some of these dancers (especially those with musical talent) asked me to develop individual "sound suits" for them. In fact the "audio tutus" , originally planned as solar-powered electronic skirts, developed into complexe musical instruments. I was even inspired to develope a series of "Audio Tuxedos" for myself.
In doing some research for this interview, we came across some interesting dates on the timeline of various developments that could be seen as intersecting with your work and in many ways highlights how pioneering your electroacoustic pieces were at the time you began showing them and as they continue to be.
These are some dates from the M.I.T Wearable Computing History Timeline & some other historical tidbits:
1973: Martin Cooper at Motorola made the first mobile telephone call from handheld equipment.
1979: Sony introduces the Walkman, considered a wearable cassette player
1982: Blade Runner, Directed by Ridley Scott
1984: William Gibson publishes Neuromancer a cult classic cyberpunk masterpiece considered groundbreaking.
Sony introduces the first portable CD player to industry
1994: Thad Starner develops wearable computing glasses.
1997: CMU, MIT & Georgia Tech co-host first IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computing
Benoit Maubrey ( brief sampling):
1982: Suffering a creative block with his painting practice, Benoit becomes inspired to create loudspeaker systems in public spaces.
1983: Benoit is invited to present Audio Clothes series at the Performance Festival of Paris at the Galerie Donguy and in 1984 in an exhibition in Staatliche Kunsthalle of Berlin
1986: Audio Jeans, "Sounding" jean jackets equipped with Walkman's playing pre-recorded sounds from West Berlin which was shown at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburg, PA
1989: Benoit begins experimenting with solar cells as a power source for the uniform and this leads to the 'tutu' and Audio Ballerinas originally created for the Festivals Les Arts as Soleil
2000: Utilizing the technology in a Yamaha company keyboard, Benoit equips dancers with mercury tilt switches whereby their movement can control sound which opens the ballerinas up to a wealth of electronic sound possibilities.
To learn more about Benoit Maubrey visit: www.benoitmaubrey.com
Click on any of the slide images to learn more about each of the projects featured.