Singapore Voices

interactive displays with sound and photography (2009)

Ng Bee Chin - research concept & producer
PerMagnus Lindborg - art concept & interactive sound design
Roeland Stulemeijer - curatorship & display design
Joel Yuan - photography

Lindborg, PerMagnus (2009). “Singapore Voices: (re)(dis)covering the intergenerational distance”. ACLA 2009, Harvard University (Cambridge), United States. 27 March 2009. [slides]

Lindborg, PerMagnus (2010). "Singapore Voices: an interactive installation about languages to (re)(dis)cover the intergenerational distance". IM: Interactive Media. Issue 6: Special issue on ‘Performance’. National Academy of Screen and Sound (NASS), Australia. ISSN 1833-0533.

Singapore Voices is a series of displays integrating an interactive sound installation with images. Each display shows a portrait of an elderly person, standing with the hand turned outwards, as if saying: “I built this nation”. When the visitor touches the hand, s/he hears a recording of the speaker’s voice. Chances are that the visitor won’t be able to understand the language spoken, but will indeed grasp much of all that is, in a manner of speaking, “outside” of the words, i.e. phrasing, speech rhythm, prosody and voice colour as well as coughing, laughing and so forth. These paralingual elements of a voice are extremely important in communication, and furthermore, their meaning is quite universal. This installation wants the visitor to experience and reflect upon the musicality of the voices.
The interaction design relies on two capacitive sensors built into each display. When the visitor’s hand comes in contact with the surface, the electrical field is altered and this is registered by a microcontroller, which has a little bit of human-communication logic built into it. The sensors can be touched either one at a time, or both simultaneously, so that, including ‘no-touch’, there are four trigger situations. Such a small number seems at first to offer limited options for the design, but the number of transitions between the trigger situations is ten. We can think of the transitions as reflecting different body gestures. Let’s call the transitions thus: none-->left, none-->right, none-->both, left-->none, left-->both, right-->none, right-->both, both-->none, both-->left, and both-->right. We can assign to each a certain response, depending on how we understand the associated gesture, and choose an excerpt from the voice recording accordingly. For example, the none-->left transition, moving to touch with the left hand only, is somehow timid; consequently, triggers a soundfile, but plays only the beginning of a story. Adding the other hand, a left-->both transition, triggers the rest of the story, continuing for as long as the visitor stays in touch. Then, a right-->none transition - letting go - interrupts the story-telling, perhaps with a chuckle. Immediately touching with both hands, none-->both, is something like a hug, a most wonderful gesture, and gives a ‘special story’ as a response.
In real life, touching, holding hands and hugging are their own rewards. In the micro-world of the installation, triggering the sensors of the display-object closes a circuit between the visitor-subject and the speaker-object. A touch acts as the key to unlocking the silence, allowing a knowledge transfer between individuals and between generations. Things simple may be revealed: a reminiscence about childhood days, a song, a hearty laughter. When the visitor starts to listen to the voice sound, s/he is no longer only the acting subject in a design but has also become the receiving object in a human conversational exchange.
The display’s plexiglass pane acts both as transparent support for the portrait and as loudspeaker membrane. Naturally, the voice is heard with the ears, but here, it is also, via the vibrations of the pane, felt with the fingertips, reminding the visitor of the physicality of sound. The tickling feeling soon becomes an unforegoable part of the experience. Touch becomes a metaphor for the effort to (re-)establish contact between people of different tongues, of different generations. The gesture is small but quintessential, and necessary, if we want to understand the richness of the culture we are living in: understand the histories and conditions for speakers of minority languages. [excerpt from exhibition booklet]