(Public) Space is the Place
Robyn Fadden - June 02, 2010
Melissa Mongiat is not your typical storyteller. She doesn’t want us to sit still and listen, close our eyes and imagine another time and place. She builds stories out of instruments, notes and beats culled from the sights and sounds of urban spaces – and then she turns the storytelling over to us.
The designer’s collaborative project Bloc Jam, a site-specific installation made for MUTEK this year, comes to life at 9 p.m. on May 3 at UQAM’s science pavilion. The multi-sensory experience lights up the entire side of a building, a musical score of sorts that corresponds with beats dialed in via cell phone, by anyone, and processed through a sequencer.
The large-scale public project, like all of Mongiat’s projects, never plays out the same way twice. Over the course of hours and days, the music changes as the people who participate change. No one’s contribution rises above another; rather, each is layered upon a foundation built to evolve.
Rolling with the public sphere
Public space can be defined as anywhere open and accessible to all people – a free, non-discriminating commons. Working in outdoor spaces presents its own challenges and complications, but its openness, its randomness, works with Melissa Mongiat’s way of thinking.
“The way my brain thinks is more design-oriented,” she says. “I’ve been working with projects that have something specific to communicate, with parameters. The thing about public space itself is that you have a lot of parameters anyway – it’s much more difficult to just do what you feel. I want to continue pushing to play with the constraints of public spaces, how people are behaving right now, how you can change that and even how we manage these spaces and these projects.”
“The fun of working with interactivity is that people can take [the project] somewhere you didn’t even think of,” she says. A designer by trade, she has incorporated an open, artistic way of thinking into her work process. “How [participants] take ownership of what you do is exciting and how they can make something and feel that they’ve added meaning to it proves that it belongs to them just as much as it belongs to you. It becomes bigger than you could imagine it being.”
Mongiat’s process of creation is that of an open narrative, evolving as more and more people participate. “It’s like planting seeds in a way. And it’s also how you frame it,” she says. “Projects always work best when you give people something to do that isn’t too open. It’s nice with the general public to frame it in a way that meaning can be created easily. With Bloc Jam, the sequencer has very regular visuals – whatever you do, it’s coherent with the sounds and we’re controlling it to be most rewarding with what you do.”
Bloc Jam gets music moving through people – even those who think they don’t have a musical bone in their bodies. “That’s the magic though – people see they can create something,” says Mongiat. “Even with people who don’t like to perform, they can participate without feeling like they’re performing and they’re still doing something incredible.”
In such a scenario, public space is everyone’s; Mongiat works to make it more concrete and tangible. When we create something in such a space, we have a sense of having contributed to changing our immediate environment. “We’re not just living in something that’s being built for us,” says Mongiat. “We have some control over it. With other work I’ve done, I see people really connecting with each other because of that.”
Telling tales out of school
Mongiat studied graphic design at UQAM and later focused on exhibitions work at an architecture firm, but “I was always working with space and wanted to push that in a more formal way,” she says. Her love of the deeper elements of design lead her to the Narrative Environments Masters program at Central Saint-Martins College of Art and Design in London, England. Her collaborative projects there gave tangible shape to stories that the city and its inhabitants naturally tell.
“Through thinking about scenarios and narration in space, there’s that current, repeated interest for how people behave in space, more than how it looks or what is said in it,” she explains. “It’s about better understanding people’s behaviours; you simply can’t understand a space if you take people out of it.”
Consequently, Mongiat’s projects all have an extremely participatory approach – they simply won’t work without public interaction.
Her 2005 Gamelan Playtime project, co-created with Arlete Castelo, was the first public project she did using interactive technologies. Set in London’s South Bank Centre, then mostly under construction, the project drew on recordings of an Indonesian gamelan group who played at Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s as well as modern-day gamelan workshops in London. Sounds from each instrument in the gamelan were wired to black rubber buffers affixed to a wall in the shape of traditional Javanese patterns. Just as gamelan music is created in a free, organic way with a fixed set of instruments making up a finely tuned, multi-layered whole, Gamelan Playtime encouraged passersby to look, listen, and play in time with others in the impromptu orchestra.
“It worked well with the street, because people were triggering partitions in a natural way and it all layered to create interesting sounds,” says Mongiat. “It was the first time we were witnessing how people were getting in touch with each other through such a project. We started understanding its power and excitement – how people try to figure out how it works and just get it.
Her early-2006 project Hidden Love Song, also a collaborative musical project based at Royal Festival Hall at South Bank Centre, saw commuters creating a sound collage from bits of music (inspired by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s compositions) wired into an 18-metre long wall with a sensor-packed surface that could be rubbed off to reveal words and images
The 2006 project Play.orchestra, also created with Arlete Castelo at South Bank Centre, this time collaborating with the Philharmonic Orchestra, involved 60 seats, each with built-in speakers and labeled with an instrument. Sitting down triggered the music.
“In this case it was a very physical experience,” says Mongiat. “People could feel the vibrations and the sound was coming right at them from speakers. It became a meeting place and a resting place – it integrated into life there. Unlike in a gallery, you get a different crowd, which means you need to make it accessible to everyone.”
That project also saw a burgeoning interest in using cell phone technology as a part of the musical experience, with participants able to send and receive sounds via Bluetooth. Last year’s Montréal-based The Good Conspiracy (La Conspiration du Bien) project, co-created through Mongiat’s Amuse group, spread positive vibes via some of the city’s main arteries, with participants leaving messages by email, phone or text messages that were written on the street, projected on the sides of buildings or broadcast over a mobile loudspeaker. Cell phones, collective creation and a continued fascination with combining visual and auditory elements are at the heart of Bloc Jam, made specifically for this year’s MUTEK festival.
Block party people
Bloc Jam is essentially a giant sequencer, with cell-phone controlled beats synced up to a pattern of coloured lights projected on UQAM’s science pavillion in downtown Montréal. It’s also an acknowledgment of how cell phones have pervaded our everyday lives, public and private – but mostly the project wants to take us out of the realm of mere telecommunications and into a more powerful creative experience. Anyone can call a number to listen to the music and add their own beats by punching digits into a cell phone – they’ll automatically be added to the show.
“We’re very much fascinated by the opportunities of new media and making it more accessible.” Getting technical, Mongiat explains: “There’s one sound per track per measure, with four measures, six tracks. You can log in at different measures – what’s exciting is that when 4 people are on the same measure, you have someone who’s sent in beats and the next person tags along. We’re controlling the sounds, but the rhythms that will always change. The visuals will help people better understand what they’re doing to make something meaningful out of it.”
Just as with previous projects, the music and technology behind Bloc Jam couldn’t have been created without a team of composers, programmers and technicians. Mongiat’s main collaborator for Bloc Jam is technically inclined Montréal artist Mouna Andraos, whose Power Cart project brings electric power to the people. Set up like a market vendor’s cart, Andraos’ invention, solar and hand-crank powered, lets passersby charge their cell phones, laptops or any small appliance that needs a boost. On the streets of Montréal last year, strangers would entrust their phones to Andraos while they ran errands, forging a small but significant kind of public trust.
“I don’t program myself, I usually work with collaborators,” says Mongiat. “That’s what’s great about working with Mouna, who has a DIY background in technology and an accessible and open view of technology and new media. I’m working on the scenario level. I’m interested in participation and collective experiences, how people get together and how technology can enhance that experience… How we can take people walking down the street not thinking about anything like this and get them working together to create music, discover something and share something.”
Bloc Jam has no stage, its performers a deft blend of the original creators and new public participants. Music will be streamed live online and through phones, accessible from anywhere, though the full immersive experience only happens on-site.
“It’s an empowering feeling using a mobile phone to affect what is projected on the side of a huge building,” says Mongiat. “You see references to sequencers and the time-line, and the digits create a visual musicality, tracking beats with different shapes that are aligned and coming together. You can sense the synchronicity. It’s all about the beat really.”
The process of creating Bloc Jam couples the practicality of creating the tools to build the music with studying the ever-changing public participants, the environment and the message. “You’re creating meaning together with people, so how do you start the conversation?” Mongiat asks. “We’re saying something and people are replying with something meaningful – that’s where the narrative and the scenario and meaning comes in.”
Ultimately, Mongiat’s projects are about how music, whatever its original parameters and levels of control, evolves through participation. “The more people who are involved, the more it changes,” she says. “Like radio, you never know what you’re going to get when you turn it on. It takes on a life of its own.”
Bloc Jam, At UQAM’s President Kennedy Pavilion, June 3, 9 p.m.
Robyn Fadden is into the wholly physical experience of sound, but also just simply listens to music sometimes, or dances to it. It's a good thing she lives in Montréal then, where she also writes (and maybe thinks too much) about art, culture, music, science and the intersections between them all.