Nicole L’Huillier, cosmos sound

Cosmos y sonido.

On 17 November 2017, 20 researchers from the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology posed excitedly in front of a specially modified Boeing 727 at Sanford International Airport in Florida. Wearing navy blue boiler suits with American flags emblazoned on the sleeves, the group of graduate students and researchers—all part of MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative—were about to embark on a zero gravity flight. Their self-declared mission? To democratise access to outer space. In practical terms, they were eager to test out their various projects and creations in a fully weightless environment: from a modified rowing machine, to a seahorse-inspired robotic tail designed to assist astronauts with mobility.

Nicole L’Huillier’s project was a futuristic musical instrument called the Telemetron, a basketball-sized dodecahedron chamber containing gyroscopes which react to the structure’s positioning and movement. Sensors record the object’s motion, and then create a corresponding musical composition. By directing the Telemetron through the plane’s anti-gravity fuselage, L’Huillier and her collaborator Sands Fish would, in theory, be able to acclimatise to the weightless environment and “play” the instrument as it floated through space. In reality, she says, the experience of anti-gravity was so peculiar and disorienting that the prepared choreographies were abandoned almost instantly. “You don’t understand how to move,” she remembers fondly. 

Despite the technological complexity of her work, L’Huillier is also influenced by myth and cosmic mysticism. Her sound room Delira, curated at the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts in 2019, was inspired by the Lyra constellation and the myth of Orpheus and Bacchantes. Horns and cymbals layer over each other around the room, triggered by their own vibrations and manual inputs. The result is a hybrid of sound design and classical iconography, a playful departure from L’Huillier’s more academic work. Her range also emerges through a recent refocusing on her heritage. She concedes that during her years at MIT, she’s grown distant from Chilean influences and modes of thinking, instead pre-occupied with the insistent futurism of the Media Lab. “It’s often been hard to place myself as an artist,” she admits.

El Poema de la Fabrica Cósmica, a major international project as part of L’Huillier’s 2019 Simetría Residency, allowed her to explore this link between Chile and the cosmos, bridging the gap between her own past and present. She designed a listening device called the Para-Cantora and toured it around three locations, each a cosmic frontier in its own way. She travelled to CERN in Switzerland, the ALMA Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and the Paranal Observatory, also in the Atacama. “It’s a series of listening sessions,” L’Huillier explains, “concerts in these very iconic places where we’re already unveiling new realities.” Some of the Para-Cantora’s sensors are microphones, some electromagnetic antenna to pick up the fields produced by the surrounding equipment. There are also non-sonic sensors which monitor data like altitude, pressure, temperature and wind. L’Huillier creates a set mapping for each, assigning a sound, synthesiser tone or voice to each metric. Because the programming is the same across all three locations, the soundscapes are direct transpositions of how the environments vary; there is musical confirmation of CERN’s situation 100 metres underground from the resulting concert.

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