Kathy Hinde on nature, tech and Bristol’s DIY arts scene
Kathy Hinde’s work grows from a partnership between nature and technology expressed through audiovisual installations and performances that combine sound, sculpture, image and light. Drawing on inspiration from behaviours and phenomena found in the natural world, she creates work that is generative; that evolves; that can be different each time it is experienced. Hinde frequently works in collaboration with other practitioners and scientists and often actively involves the audience in the creative process. She has created light and sound installations in public spaces, including town high streets and woodlands.
She has shown work across Europe, Scandinavia, China, Pakistan, USA, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand. She became a Cryptic associate in 2015. Hinde received an Honorary Mention at Prix Ars Electronica 2015, and in 2014 was runner up for the Sonic Arts Award and listed for the Aesthetica Art Prize. In 2017, she received an ORAM award for innovations in sound and music and a British Composer Award.
Can you talk about the genesis of your work – as a visual and sound artist and inventor.
From an early age, I’ve been passionate about ways to combine visual art and music; both being important to me as a mean of expression and hugely enjoyable.
I started off by creating live visuals for musicians, performance artists and dancers. This was a time full of experimentation centered on a very collaborative process, through which I developed many new methods of generating ideas and processes across different art forms. As my practice grew, I found opportunities to create my own projects – still with the aim to combine visual art and music, trying not to privilege one medium over the other.
For example, my piece Piano Migrations, uses a video of birds to play the strings of a piano. The way it is presented is quite sculptural, but it is also a subverted musical instrument, yet the composition is reliant on the visual movements of birds in the video. So, this is one way I’ve tried to achieve an equal balance between the visual and sonic.
Through developing pieces like this, I’ve became drawn more and more to new (and old) technology as I found myself needing to invent new solutions to realise ideas. I would end up searching the internet for instructions on how to make a circuit board to control a motor to move physical parts of a sculpture – that would then interact with video, light and sound. So, much of the ‘inventing’ area of my practice is self taught and learnt through sharing knowledge with other artists, musicians and maker communities in quite a DIY fashion. This is always evolving, and pretty much every piece of work I make presents a new problem to solve that leads me to use different technology, so… I’m always inventing new ways of working.
You are inspired by nature, which you also incorporate into your work. Can you talk about some of the ways/methods this happens? Also, birds play a recurring theme in your installations and sound pieces. Is this related to the traditional bird-watching experience, which used to be a popular pasttime, esp in England?
Yes – birdwatching is quite a tradition here! I do love a bit of birdwatching, but I’m by no means an expert. However – I did share some of my favourite bird-watching experiences on a BBC radio programme called Tweet of the Day recently. And, yes, the work I make draws inspiration from the natural world, and this happens in a few different ways. I enjoy going outdoors to film, photograph and make field recordings, but I don’t necessarily use these recordings in my work. I find being immersed in the process of listening and close observation helps me to focus, to think and also heightens my sense of connection to a place. Being as I have a specific fascination with birds, (especially how they flock together and migrate over long distances), birdwatching is quite a good way to find this immersive space. I’ve been constantly fascinated by large flocks of birds and how they move together, especially starlings, who flock together in thousands, sometimes millions; making incredible patterns in the sky.
A flock of starlings is called a murmuration. It is like one huge organism, with many individual parts – each bird follows an instinctive behaviour so it can be part of a fast moving flock without crashing into other birds. I’m really interested in these kind of systems, like how many small parts, each with a fairly simple set of rules, can work together en masse to produce something highly complex. I often make installations for outdoor settings, so people come across them in the woods, or in a street, which means the location, the weather and all other elements from the outdoors impact on the experience.
I have a series of installations in a group show called ‘For the Birds’ which is a 2km night time walk through a woodland with over 25 installations all inspired by birds. Simply inviting people to walk through the woods at night can create an intriguing immersive experience and the installations are mostly quite subtle, encouraging close and quiet observations. I hope this kind of show can bring about a fresh sense of wonder and connection with the natural environment. My outdoor installation Luminous Birds was shown in three cities in Scotland in 2016, on a tour organised by Cryptic, who also commissioned me to compose sound for it. The idea was to celebrate the huge flocks of geese that migrate to Scotland from the arctic in the winter. The installation is installed in public space, so it is surprise intervention in people’s everyday lives – as would experiencing a huge flock of geese flying overhead.
Does your work also have an ecological/environmental aspect?
Absolutely! It is the most important aspect of my work. I want to encourage an understanding of ecological issues in a way that differs from talking about it. Perhaps it is possible to make an alternative kind of thinking space for contemplating these big issues that can be overwhelming. I purposefully create levels of ambiguity to discover what other interpretations and conversations arise. My recent installation Phase Transition, which is centred on global warming, employs extremely low bass frequencies, so the sound can be felt as well as heard. There are other aspects of this piece that guide thinking towards global warming, but it is this experience of the physicality of sound that I hope might generate a more visceral way of engaging with these issues, or pausing with them in mind. I’m always conscious of using materials and technology, so I often try to re-purpose objects, and search for small, low energy solutions for tech.
Can you talk about all the various processes involved in making a project? And which is your favourite?
It’s different for every piece, but I could talk about my installation Tipping Point which was commissioned by Cryptic for Sonica Festival in Glasgow in 2014. I set out to make an audio visual installation about our relationship with water. At the time, there had been a lot of flooding in the UK, especially in an area close to where I live, so I wanted to highlight the preciousness of water, the importance of balancing how we use water supplies and how human induced environmental changes can disrupt the water cycle. My intention was to create a direct relationship between a shifting water level and a changing sound. I collaborated with scientific glass blower, John Rowden, at the University of Bristol Physics department because I wanted the water to be held in fragile glass vessels. I began by experimenting with vessels of water, hydrophones, microphones, syphoning, live audio processing… and discovered many ideas through experimentation, which I then refined to work with John on some prototypes.
The biggest learning curve for me was to design a fool-proof, automated, mechanical system to move the fragile glass vessels of water, and for them to always re-balance and not spill or tip too far! It was interesting being based in the Physics department, as I met researchers and saw some scientific experiments – all of which were fascinating. This process lead me to seek more direct collaborations with scientists for future projects. When I had a working prototype for Tipping Point, I went on a residency to Cove Park in Scotland where I had space to set it up and work with programmer Matthew Olden on devising a control system. Finally, when the installation was all up and running, I devised a live performance to ‘play’ it like an instrument. In terms of what part of the process is my favourite; the research element is always very exciting, as this reveals and opens up many possibilities. I also enjoy sharing the work with other people, to have conversations around the ideas behind it.
At this point, I start to experience the work from another perspective, and get to know it in different ways. The ambiguities within a work means I can continue to discover new ways of understanding it. With Tipping Point, doing the live performance often generates new thoughts and ideas because every performance is different. The acoustics of a space can subtly effect how it behaves; so it becomes like a dialogue between myself and the installation, meaning I always come up with new ideas and ways to perform with it, so it’s never really ‘finished’.
Can you talk about research within the context of an artistic practice, also pertaining to the inventing aspect of your work?
I often start a new piece with a period of research, which might be a combination of reading, practical experimentation and conversations. The main motivation behind my work is to find ways to connect with ecological issues – searching for new perspectives and responses. This research informs the work I make, and also creates a context to learn in depth about the content I’m addressing. For example – at the start of making Phase Transition, I read a huge amount about climate science, and also spoke with a glaciologist and climate scientist (although this happened much later in the process).
As I outlined earlier – the ‘inventing’ aspect of my work also involves a lot of research in terms of searching for practical ways to achieve an idea. Everything from learning about engineering or mechanical systems – to looking out for new microprocessors, and keeping up to date with new technology. For example, I’ve been using the Raspberry pi since it first came out, and there are always new versions and new tools that are developed to be compatible with it, especially as the user community expands. At the moment, I‘m interested in discovering what might be possible with renewable energy – to create solar powered outdoor installations.
Is it relatively easy to secure funding for such projects these days in the UK, or do you feel Brexit is having an effect on arts funding as well?
The current UK government has implemented lots of cuts – especially to arts and culture, so there is less funding available, which makes it more difficult for everyone working in this area. So, in general, no, it’s not easy to secure funding.
For the last 3 years, I have been an associate artist with Cryptic, who produce the brilliant Sonica Festival in Glasgow and London – with the tag line ‘Sonic Art for the Visually Minded’. I’ve received a lot of support from them in terms of commissioning new work for Sonica, promoting my work for touring and sending me on interesting residencies. This means I have an ongoing dialogue with a curator and producer, who are familiar with the kind of work I make, which means it becomes easier to discuss new ideas and take things forward within their artistic planning.
I live in Bristol, which is a vibrant and creative city, and I’ve always been connected to various artist-run DIY projects and spaces. I’m currently an active member of BEEF (Bristol Experimental Expanded Film) which is one of 3 artist collectives temporarily resident in an amazing old building in the city centre (The Brunswick Club) where we put on events, workshops, collaborate and have studios (including a 16mm analogue film darkroom). BEEF is currently unfunded, but there is a definite enthusiasm for the work we are doing, so we are just about making things work by getting good audiences in. We are trying to raise funds so we can plan further ahead and be more ambitious – especially while there is such a lot of local support and enthusiasm. I find it inspiring to be contributing to making things happen in the city I live in.
And yes, I’m really concerned about the effect of Brexit on arts and culture in UK – as well as science, innovation and research. I do a lot of touring – which is always inspiring, as I meet many artists and musicians and feel part of a wider creative community. Being free to work with others all over Europe (and the world) has been so mind expanding for me, personally. It’s important to share ideas, collaborate, think together, create, find alternatives, be diverse – with people from everywhere. I know this will still be possible after Brexit… but it doesn’t help. I’m also concerned that it will become more difficult for European artists to tour to the UK and I don’t want these connections to a wide creative community to become narrowed and reduced. Having said that, artists and musicians are quite resilient – so I’m confident we will find creative ways to stay as connected as possible – despite Brexit… taking an optimistic viewpoint.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m in the early stages of a new project called ‘Chirp & Drift’ which is concerned with how birds modulate their song in response to urban noise. I’m interested in birds’ ability to adapt to survive, their neuroplasticity, and how this can be a response to human’s impact on the environment. Also, when it is not possible to adapt quickly enough to sudden changes, looking at how this can impact on biodiversity. At the moment, I’m running a series of workshops in Lancaster and Bristol, and I’ve been out on a day’s ‘field work’ with behavioural ecologist Stuart Sharp, who studies river birds, including the impact severe weather events have on their habitats. Alongside that, I have a great team to work with including creative technologist Matthew Olden, poet Sarah Hymas, ecologist Laurence Rose, with Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol and Lancaster Arts in Lancaster. More info here
I’ve also got quite a few shows coming up this year – to name a few… Next weekend I’m taking Piano Migrations to Supersonic Festival in Birmingham – including a live performance with Matthew Olden. Info here . And I’m preparing to show numerous outdoor installations for the group show For the Birds at Milton Keynes International Festival in July.
In September, I have an exhibition at esc media art gallery in Graz, showing Phase Transition alongside some new works, and reviving a collaborative performance with Swedish Artist Daniel Skoglund called Palimpsest .
Video of Palimpsest here.
Info on the exhibition here.