Artist Interview: Teddy Michels


Q: Please introduce yourself and tell us about your experience in audio.

A: My name is Teddy  Michels. I received my formal education in music and audio at Savannah College of Art and Design. I got both my BFA and MFA in Sound Design there.

I actually went to college thinking that I wanted to be a music producer. But then I started to program with Max/MSP in my undergrad and everything changed after that. I realized that linear composition wasn't nearly as interesting to me as it used to be, not once I imagined all of the non-linear, interactive, generative experiences I could create in an environment like Max.

My first real program was a little utility I made for a class assignment - it was called Gang Sines. Basically, it allowed you to enter a pattern of frequency values and play them back as a sequence of sine wave tones. Then you could modify the pitch, speed, and loudness of each note in the series and mix several different "tracks" of patterns together. It wasn't particularly useful, but I had fun making it, and I learned a lot about programming from that project. Most importantly, it made me realize the incredible power and flexibility that code can offer an artist.

So I immersed myself in things like Max, Processing, and the Arduino to learn all that I could about creating interactive audiovisual experiences with all kinds of sensors and actuators.

My master's thesis, A Practical Guide to Interactive Installation Art, was basically a small instructional text on how to create audiovisual installation art with Max/MSP and Jitter. Since then, I've been lucky enough to work on some interactive installations at a few different venues for BLK RBBT, a startup in New Orleans. I also do freelance audio and music work, mostly for motion graphics, with the awesome and talented artist Joe Fleming.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of 238,855 Miles  and the motivation to create this piece?

A: 238,855 Miles is an examination of the relationship between light and sound and space and time. It uses a special "audiovisual instrument" I built called the Hydrocymatic Photoconvoluter. Each note in this piece lasts for about 1.3 seconds - which is the time it takes for light from the moon to reach the earth. When a note is played, it's also visualized in vibrations in a thin layer of water, which is illuminated by the light of the moon. The basic idea is that, as you listen to the musical intervals in this piece you are not only experiencing them as a musical composition, but as a kind of abstraction of spacetime.

In the time it's taken for you to experience the musical interval, you've also effectively had a kind of spatial experience, more specifically you've experienced the space between the moon and the earth.

For a more detailed explanation, you can check out the project's page on Behance.

To be honest, the idea to create this piece came about in a really mundane way. I had just finished building and exhibiting the Hydrocymatic Photoconvoluter. One night, when I stepped into the back yard to take out the trash, I walked past some water that had collected on some of my daughter's playground equipment - it had rained the night before. The moon happened to be high in the sky and was reflected in the water, and the reflection rippled as I walked by. And then I wondered what that interaction between vibration and the moonlight might look like if it played out in a more ordered way.

Q: What kind of technology is behind 238,855 Miles?

A: Overall, the technology involved in this piece is actually pretty simple. Basically, there's something called a "Rock-It" vibration speaker stuck to a thin piece of plastic. The "Rock-It" is really just a speaker without a diaphragm - or cone. The thin sheet of plastic fills in for the missing diaphragm. Then, because water is suspended on top of this thin sheet, it vibrates as well, effectively making the oscillation visible.

The MIDI file was created in Ableton, but it was actually played back through Max, which I used to generate the sine wave signals and drive the oscillator. I was also able to make sure that a note was played every 1.28222 seconds...

After that, the moon provided the illumination, and a friend of mine - Matt Demarko - provided the camera.

Q: Do you consider this piece a form of Ecological art? 

A: Umm, that's probably up for debate. Generally, I think that the best ecological art actually corrects (or at least attempts to correct) a problem in the environment, which of course this piece doesn't do. However, I do believe that it calls attention to some beautiful elements of nature that we might take for granted - the relationship between light and space, the ethereal beauty of the moon, and the incredible complexity and surprisingly ordered nature of oscillation and wave phenomena. In that way, you might be able to call it Ecological art.

Q: What kind of benefits do you believe Ecological art has on society? 

A: Well...unfortunately I'm not sure that society at large really knows much about Ecological art. But I like to believe that those who see it, and who take the time to consider it, can see not only the beauty inherent in nature, but also be inspired to consider how they can grow closer to it, whether simply to come to an understanding of it or, even better, to see what they can do to heal it.

I think that large scale scientific efforts will continue to be (and should be) the primary means of undoing the negative influence humanity has exerted on the earth. But those research and conservation initiatives are generally pretty boring to the average person. Ecological art - for example the underwater sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor - can do a great job of bringing those kinds of issues into focus in a way that's incredibly beautiful and engaging.

Q: Thank you for your time Teddy, do you have any closing thoughts?

A: Thank you for speaking with me. I guess I would just be curious to know what anyone else thinks about 238,855 Miles. I got some positive feedback when I first showed it, but it's something that I haven't discussed very much with other people so I really have no idea how effective it is in getting across the concept I was trying to convey.

So if you're reading this, feel free to contact me and let me know what you think. Oh and, if you're interested in the more technical aspects - constructing the Hydrocymatic Photoconvoluter or looking at the Max patch for example, feel free to contact me for that as well.

Contact/more artwork by Teddy Michels can be located on his Behance or Vimeo.