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ellen moffat: vBox

Compose sounds with this interactive sculpture and musical instrument.

vBox is an installation that unfolds the music at the heart of speech.

Ellen Moffat has had a long standing interest in the underlying fundamentals of sound. The artist is particularly interested in the limits of language and how far it can be pushed, yet still continue to hold onto meaning. Moffat regularly uses the human voice in her artwork. vBox is part of a larger body of sound-based artworks, where the artist uses the smallest linguistic unit of the spoken language–known as phonemes–as central elements of the work.

Moffat is keenly interested in how fragments of speech such as phonemes have no meaning in and of themselves–they are not syllables or even words–yet they can suggest meaning through composition. In vBox, the sounds are mainly consonant sounds, or speech sounds that are articulated with partial or complete closure of the vocal tract (such as ‘p’ pronounced with the lips or ‘k’ pronounced with the back of the tongue). Through its distributed length of speakers vBox emits a wondrous array of fragmented linguistic sounds that resemble fragments of conversation, or words that might be.

Crucial to vBox is that it allows for interactive participation by visitors to effect an ongoing and ever-changing composition. The audience is invited to become participants in the work by manipulating a variety of physical controllers along the object’s surface. vBox, according to the artist, seeks to “break a stationary active listening stance” of the viewer/listener. In doing so, vBox, Moffat says, is “less about the perception of composition, and more about the opening up of co-authorship as exploration within sound making.”

Another key aspect of Moffat’s art is its spatial dimension. vBox builds on the artist’s larger body of sound objects and sound installations that have sought to position language in space and actively use those spaces in the composition. According to Marie Lovrod, vBox “attracts the curious visitor to its vibe: soft sibilant sounds emanate from a space that contains and therefore conditions their cadences.” vBox questions ideas associated with authorship, the status of modern sculpture, and the conventional notion of the musical instrument as individually played device. Yet it does so, while at the same time eliciting the limits of music at the heart of speech.

Moffat’s vBox is presented as part of Open Sound 2011: Nests Built by Birds, an exhibition of sound art presented at intervals throughout the year.

About the Artist

Ellen Moffat is a Saskatoon based interdisciplinary artist with a committed interest in sound. Her diverse practice includes installation, new media, public art, performance, and collaboration. She has presented work in solo and group exhibitions across Canada and internationally. Projects include urbansubsonic (2009), which used audio recordings taken beneath a 1913-built glass sidewalk in downtown Saskatoon to create a chance-based soundscape; Claybank Voices: How Men Made White Mud into Cape Canaveral (2006), a 24-channel sound installation at an industrial site in Claybank, Saskatchewan, which explored notions of labour and cultural transformation; and Blow (2006), a multimedia installation which used cut-up fragments of male and female speech to create a spatialized sound poem.

Image credit: Ellen Moffat speaking about vBox at Surrey Art Gallery.