Sound – Time – Space – Movement

Die RaumklangInstallationen des Künstlerpaares von  <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs>

Abstract, Introduction, afterword and translation:
Ralf Nuhn and John Dack
Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University London

published by “Organised Sound” Vol.8 / 2, Cambridge University Press, January 2004published by “Organised Sound” Vol.8 / 2, Cambridge University Press, January 2004


This article describes the theories and practices of the German installation artists and composers Sabine Schäfer and Joachim Krebs. Much of their work concerns site-specific sound installations involving the articulation of time and space. Their principal work methods and materials are described. In addition, they have formulated a typology of five installation types which they describe using their own installations as examples. Each installation type responds to a particular set of aesthetic and practical challenges both for the artists and the visitors. These are discussed and illustrated in the article. The typology extends beyond the specific work of these artists and can be applied to installations in general thus providing a framework for critical analysis. Furthermore, the translators have discussed the issues regarding the specialised vocabulary of the artists and the rendering of such language into English.


The term ‘installation’ includes many different types of artwork. Some works are site-specific and derive their meaning from being placed in a specific location with historical, social or environmental associations. Others occupy a space within a gallery or public venue and function in a manner independent of the space itself. In addition to the physical dimensions, structure and position of the installation, the relationship between the aural and visual components is usually of fundamental importance. Both senses can provide mutual support or contradict each other in a series of constantly shifting and occasionally unsettling interactions.
In installations where sound is essential to the work, the sensibilities of musicians can assume a significant role. Working with sound is not, of course, the sole prerogative of musicians. Nevertheless, in general musicians are acutely aware both of the potential of real-world sounds as well as the acoustic properties of spaces. (This is particularly true of practitioners of electroacoustic music).
In recent works of the artist-couple <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> spaces are ‘sonified’ by means of carefully constructed installations which are placed with meticulous care within the location. The physical arrangement of the loudspeakers becomes in effect a living ‘body’ or ‘organism’ creating a form of mediation between the sound types, their actual movements and the installation situated in the space. The static, physical structure is thereby ‘energised’ by means of computer control via specially designed software and the visitor experiences processes of revealing and exploring spaces by sound.

In the following article <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> suggest a typology of installation artworks. Each type exemplifies a particular aspect of their practice and reveals a preoccupation for creating the most appropriate installation for the specific space and how it will be experienced by visitors. The value of such an installation-typology results not only from the way it explains the artist-couple’s practice, but also from the more generally applicable criteria it offers other artists. Many installations can be situated within one of the suggested five types. Texts which comment upon and clarify artworks often have a particular authority if written by the artists themselves. Some artists, of course, are reluctant to explain their practice believing the work to be autonomous and capable of speaking for itself. However, when artists are willing to discuss their work, readers have access to the kind of private self-reflection that can be so illuminating.

In translating the article we encountered problems common to all attempts at rendering foreign texts into English. These concern not only issues of selecting the correct English equivalent but also the necessity of communicating accurately the writer’s thoughts. For example, should a translator endeavour to retain the ‘feel’ of the original text? Such a decision might demand the retention of phrases which appear ungainly in English but nonetheless communicate something of the text’s meaning. Many translators of Adorno, for example, seem to adopt this strategy. Sub-clauses are interposed between an introductory phrase and the main clause with its verbs at the end of the sentence. The English translation thus remains defiantly ‘Germanic’ in structure but, far from making the text opaque, the accurate placing of stress is preserved and meaning often enhanced. Alternatively, a ‘free’ approach can be adopted and the immediate comprehension for the reader – both specialist and non-specialist – is given priority. However, clarity can lapse into the simplistic and intelligibility suffers. Our solution is, inevitably perhaps, a compromise.

We have previously translated an article by <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> describing the work ‘Sonic Lines n’ Rooms’ (SAN Diffusion, Sept. 2000). In this article the artist-couple outlined their approach to the particular problems of this site-specific work (see also: Mitteilungen 33 of DEGEM, July, 1999 and Positionen 37, Berlin, November 1998). It was apparent that two terms required particular attention. The issue stemmed from the way two specific installation-types functioned. On the one hand, a ‘sound-body’ could be situated within a space and visitors are encouraged to approach it from various directions. Or, a ‘sound-body’ could be constructed such that people can move around within its confines. In the former case the visitor is external to the object, in the latter s/he is embraced by it. The German word describing an installation in which the visitor moves around in order to explore the interactions between the space and the sounds is ‘begehbar’. This is the third installation-type, the ‘enterable Space-soundBody’ (begehbarer RaumklangKörper). In our first translation ‘begehbar’ was translated as ‘accessible’ but in the context of the present translation this word seemed imprecise. ‘Accessible’ suggests that the installation comprising the sound-body and the space in which it is situated is available to the visitor if s/he chooses to participate. In the present translation the term ‘enterable’ has been substituted for ‘accessible’. Even though it is a relatively uncommon word, it conveys more accurately the necessity for the visitor to actually enter the installation and actively explore.
By contrast, the German term ‘umgehbar’, used for the second installation-type, indicates that the visitor can walk around rather than within the installation. The term we use is ‘circumambulatory’ as in ‘circumambulatory Space-soundBody’ (umgehbarer RaumklangKörper). This word is almost certain to be more familiar than ‘enterable’ and, as anyone with even a modicum of Latin will realise, it means that the installation can be walked around and approached from any direction (unless deliberately restricted by the artist). Naturally, it would have been gratifying to use words retaining the parallel construction of the German ‘umgehbar/begehbar’. Circumambulatory/intra-ambulatory was considered (albeit briefly) but rejected as too unwieldy. In neither case is there any compulsion for the visitor to walk across the space in a straight line or around the installation in any direction – clockwise or anti-clockwise. Nor is movement meant to be uninterrupted. The visitor should, indeed must, make use of the complete space available to experience the animating effects of the sounds emanating from what appears to be a living ‘sound-body’. The organic metaphor of a “sound-body” is deliberate.
The term ‘Space-soundBody’ (RaumklangKörper) – which must be differentiated from ‘Space-soundObject’ (RaumklangObjekt) – has been retained in English. Consequently, we were persuaded to translate its separate components or ‘Glieder’ as ‘limbs’ to maintain the organic metaphor rather than use the more neutral word ‘parts’.

Lastly, we should not overlook the playful aspect of artists’ language. In the description of their work ‘TopophonicPlateaux’ <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> use the term ‘Klangfarbgrundierungen’. The play between the words ‘Farbe’ (colour) and ‘Grundierung’ (a painter’s ‘priming coat’) is lost unless the term ‘Klangfarbe’ – literally ‘sound-‘ or tone-colour’ – is understood. However, to express the concept of a first step which is needed before the final application of other sounds, our translation as ‘sound-colour priming coats’ communicates (we hope) the idea accurately (though unfortunately not with the lightness of the original text). Such are the problems of translation and we can only hope we have captured the essence of what these artists wish to express.

I. Time Becomes Space – Space Becomes Time

All modern perception theories are based on the fact that human perceptions of time and space are interdependent. A distance covered by a person – or a sound – in space is initially perceived as a temporal phenomenon, allowing a person to develop a subjective notion of space and time by measurement and comparison.
Thus, movement in space becomes time. Time periods become spatial distances. The sensation of time is realised by the sensation of space and vice-versa. Space becomes an experience of time due to the movement of the sound event. Time accordingly becomes an open, imaginary process of generating illusory space. Rooms which are open, unbounded, liberated from the linearly directed flow of time serve as three dimensional canvases for constantly changing processes generating transitions.

Between TemporalSpaces and SpatialTimes, there are manifold variations of IntermediateZones with their IntermediateSpaces and their IntermediateTimes.
All this leads to a dissolution of the real performing space, where time itself stages a linear-dramatic, goal-directed idea (of space?).
Instead, the cyclic, non-linear consciousness of time releases the desire to become “immersed” in psychological inner space, to fade out physical outer space with its real time and its thinking spaces (which are predetermined in their substance) by concentrating on the perception of what might seem on the surface, unprepossessing sound events based on elementary-harmonic, simple sound-materials and -transformations, to set free your vision, or to put it better, your hearing, so that you may experience the present – from one moment to another – as a possibility of transitions, of freely flowing conditions.

In the Space-soundInstallations of the artist-couple <sabine schäfer//joachim krebs> specific soundspaces are created, which incorporate the movement of sounds in space as an intrinsic part of the composition. The composition’s individual sound strata are, so to speak, transferred into the exterior space and by means of a loudspeaker matrix – which is installed in the space and controlled by computer with software exclusively developed for the artist-couple – moved and placed respectively in space. Hence, the free distribution of sound sources in space and the compositional sound space extended by the real movements of sounds, are specific to this space-sound art. This compositional sound space – primarily defined as time-based art – thus also approaches spatial art. This is comparable with the medium of film/video, in which the image formerly represented statically can, by its movement, be experienced as time-based art.

The experience of space-sound events which are moved in the architechtonic space is not only meant to give an intensive spatial experience, it also becomes an experience of shaping time acoustically and artistically.
Individual sound locations and sound sources are, by their movement, turned into a quasi organically proliferating sound line, which – itself interconnected to build an artificial matrix of time and space – offers acoustic images of SpaceTimeNets floating freely in ‘non-time’.
Space and time themselves are turned into interactive qualities of perception, constantly fluctuating between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ sensation of space and time.

II. Artificial Soundscapes between Pure Realism and Pure Abstraction

In almost all works of the artist-couple from 1995 onwards in the area of Space-soundInstallations, amorphous animal/natural voices and sounds respectively, as well as heterogeneous everyday noises from human surroundings and habitats form the most important sonic source material, though there is neither language, singing nor instrumentally or synthetically generated sound material! Below are examples of the most essential aspects of the artist-couple’s working methods.

An initial, important stage in composition is the intensive study of each individual found and selected noise and sound. The most important question at this stage is: which naturally existing and which potential, artificial consistency is held by each individual sound in the initially inaudible, molecular interior of its microstructure? Therefore, noises and sounds are recorded with a digital sampler. Delving into the smallest molecular region, the sampler is able to put at the disposal of the sound artist single particles of the inner structure of this noise-sound matter for artistic development. With these ‘abstract machines’ – to quote a concept of the French philosophers Deleuze/Guattari – we carried out, as it were, what we called an ‘EndoSonoScopy’ of the individual sound materials to take single sound tests (so-called samples or fragment-patterns) from the organic sound web. Here the samplers serve as audio-microscopes with a complex of interfaces, which enter the organic sound structure in order to record and split their variations into molecules. These are then artistically transformed in a further operation.
Previously imperceptible inner-polyphonies and harmonic sound-fields of unfolding inner resonance spaces now become audible. What occurs is, as it were, a revealing and exteriorising of the inner intensities of the respective sounds.
All of this was ‘preparatory’ work carried out according to a quasi scientific approach of the observer and researcher; only now does it become interesting for the actual artistic composition process. The next stage is to produce an artificial consistency by means of the most varied artificial transformations of the previously carefully selected sound materials.

The artificial consistency formation as a symbiotically-fluorescing ‘animal-nature-noise- becoming’ of sound succeeds here all the more when the animal, nature, noise becomes something ‘other’: pure line, pure colour, pure rhythm, pure movement, pure figure… pure condition.

Furthermore, so-called ‘artificial sound milieux’ are formed in a quasi acoustic amalgamation process. That is, a temporarily existing, specific mixture of sound substances and particles creates a symbiotic diversity of dynamically driven SoundEnergyStructures by means of self-impelled, proliferating self-intensifying loops – always starting from the middle (mi/middle lieu/place).

Another essential aspect of this microscopy of sound and noise is the dissolving of each particular sound’s semantic meaning. Whereas, at its original pitch, the sound was identifiable as something ‘definite’, for example a frog or a toad, it moves further away from its original semantic character the stronger the augmentation degree is. One could also say that the subjective substantial matter of the original sound transforms into a desubjectivised expressive matter of transformed fragment patterns. Intermediary stages during changing consistencies are formed, between concrete and abstract, natural and artificial and so on.
Thus, the artificial soundscape appears as an ensemble of desubjectivised expressive matter in the artistically layered sound system of the horizontal, rhythmic-melodic sound figure and the vertical, resonant-harmonic sound-space.

III. The five most important types of Space-soundInstallations

Over several years different types of Space-soundInstallations have crystallised and developed – due to, amongst other things, different performance situations. The five most important types will be illustrated below:

  1. The Space-soundObject
  2. The circumambulatory Space-soundBody
  3. The enterable Space-soundBody
  4. Space-within-Space
  5. Concert Space-soundBody
by Ralf Nuhn and John Dack

There is, of course, no compulsion for artists ever to write about their practice. The histories of all the arts have bodies of artworks with little or no corroborating evidence from those who produced them. The theory is there, of course, but it is in the work and we must disentangle it if we choose to analyse the work. However, since the beginning of the last century and the institutionalisation of art there has been a marked increase in texts written by practising artists who want to (or feel obliged to) communicate the processes and underlying aesthetics of their work. These might be texts written to emphasise a personal role in an art-form’s historical development – how many claim to have “invented” minimalism or conceptual art, for example? Other authors are deliberately polemical such as the young Boulez condemning as “useless” all those who failed to recognise the necessity of serialism. Some, due to their role as teachers theorise their practice within a pedagogical framework. For the theoretician or critic all these writings provide valuable source material. Any form of self reflection will almost certainly be appropriated by the academic community as an invaluable research resource. It is an important way in which intellectual and aesthetic discourses are created and sustained.

The sound installation categories of <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> described in the article have been developed in the context of their own unique and original practice. The absence of references to other artists indicates neither unfamiliarity with the world of installation art, nor excessive introspection. As artists who write about their work, their principal responsibility in this article is to provide a coherent account of their own practice. Our role as translators is to render the text accurately into English. However, due to our close contact with the text and its authors, a secondary contextualising role has emerged. Once a typology has been suggested it is available to everyone and can be used with or without modifications to see if additional works can be included within its categories. Some will be placed easily, others will resist inclusion. Both results can be informative.

For example, the circumambulatory Space-soundBody (category 2) is, broadly speaking, identical to sound sculptures in general. Both terms refer to a three-dimensional object which can be walked around and which emits sounds in different directions. One could, therefore, place sound sculptures such as Stephan von Huene’s Extended Schwitters (1987), Trimpin’s Liquid Percussion (1991) and Rolf Julius’ Zwei Steine (1999) in this category.
However, a clear distinction must be made. <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> emphasise that, due to the use of multi-channel recordings and individual loudspeakers, the limbs of their Space-soundBody can emit different sounds. This use of specific sounds from each limb would differentiate their works from those cited (with the possible exception of Trimpin’s Liquid Percussion). Nevertheless, this does not contradict the initial classification. The consideration of the specific role of sounds simply adds a further stage of refinement.
The first category – the Space-soundObject – can also be applied in this way. In this two-dimensional arrangement, sound is emitted in one direction. Similar examples are Takehisa Kosugi’s Interspersions (1987) and Christina Kubisch’s The True and the False (1992). In both these works small speakers are mounted on walls in plant-like configurations with the loudspeaker wires resembling stalks. The distinct character of each work depends, naturally, on the specific lighting, the position within the venue, the object’s dimensions and (most importantly) the sounds used by the artists. By including these works in the category of Space-soundObject these individual features are not disregarded. The defining aspect of the category is still the directionality of the speakers and the restriction placed on the viewer’s position. Additional examples can be suggested for the other categories.
As the enterable Space-soundBody (category 3) has loudspeakers placed on the walls of the space at various heights and positions, the visitor can move freely in order to experience different auditory perspectives. An obvious historical example would be the Philips Pavilion at the Brussel’s World Fair in 1958. Though in this case the movement of the sounds and the accompanying images were more important than the “sonification” of the space as such. Other examples are Bernhard Leitner’s Ton-Raum (1984) and Ryoji Ikeda’s A (2000). In the latter case pure sinewaves and random noises were played within a narrow, purpose-built corridor. The acoustic properties of this, albeit simple, space created different listening experiences for the visitors. By walking at different speeds and by changing direction along the corridor, the visitor could locate and pass through distinct “sound areas”.
Examples of the fourth category – Space-within-Space – are less common. This type is based on a self-contained enterable Space-soundBody within the confines of a gallery or a similar space. Consequently, such a Space-soundBody is also circumambulatory. Once again, a potential example can be found in the works of Bernhard Leitner. His Cylindre Sonore (1987) is a cylindrical space containing 24 loudspeakers. The sounds emitted are modified by natural factors such as temperature, humidity and light. Our sole reservation regarding this work as Space-within-Space is that is it situated in the open air rather than within a venue with clear, architecturally defined acoustic characteristics. However, the visitor to Leitner’s space will experience both the sounds within the cylinder and the sounds from outside.
Finally, the five criteria of the final category – the concert Space-soundBody – conform to certain electroacoustic compositions where live instrumentalists play in conjunction with recorded sounds. Even though an exploration of the specific characteristics of the venue is not the principal objective, the practice of sound diffusion is necessarily influenced by the venue’s acoustics. No electroacoustic composer would minimise the importance of this relationship which will, therefore, have a decisive effect on the work as a whole. For example, Stockhausen’s Kontakte für elektronische Klänge, Klavier und Schlagzeug (1959-60) has a fixed form and audience-instrumentalist relationship. In addition, the use of four channel tape and the positioning of the loudspeakers and musicians will ensure the intimate connection between the electronic sounds, the live sounds and the concert space.

From these examples it is clear that the typology suggested by <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> suits some works but needs modification for others. It must be stressed that this particular typology was the end result of the work and practice of <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs>. This is its unique quality and its strength. Had it been developed by a theoretician, musicologist or art historian the problematic nature of several of the aforementioned examples might well have been addressed by creating sub-categories. However, in our initial attempts the additional refinements usually resulted from considering the types of sounds and how they were used by the artist. This specificity was clarified by an initial categorisation. It is our opinion, therefore, that the origins of these five categories in the works of <sabine schäfer // joachim krebs> does not preclude their general applicability. The art of the sound installation is still relatively new and this typology is an important addition to its theoretical framework.