Capacitive Body: Turning City Noise Into Light

Posted by Staff on Monday, May 30th, 2011

Capacitive Body by Hesselmeier and Muxel

Noise is an inescapable reality of the urban environment. Most of us that live in a city have become accustomed to the ambient noise of buses, sirens, car alarms, construction, upstairs and downstairs neighbors, and are able to go about our lives as if they were all part of the natural order of things. Martin Hesselmeier and Andreas Muxel, on the other hand, tap into these sounds to create flashing patterns of light in an installation they call Capacitive Body. This modular light system presents the viewer with what Hesselmeir and Muxel describe as “visual feedback of the aural activity around the installation.”

Capacitive Body II is an updated version of the original light installation, which first appeared at the Tschumi Pavilion in Groningen, Netherlands. While the output is similar, the current version requires less hardware and is much easier to set up. The main components of each light module are electroluminescent wire, piezoelectric sensors, and microcontrollers. Low frequency sound from the local environment is picked up by piezoelectric sensors that have been mounted on the surface of the building or space that the installation inhabits. These low frequency sounds are not perceived by the human ear, but they nevertheless travel through our buildings and can effect our bodies. The voltage generated by the sensors is transmitted to the microcontrollers of each module, which in turn trigger the electroluminescent wires: a thin copper wire which is coated in a phosphor.

The wires span the room and cut up the space with jagged angles. When all the wires are triggered at the same time, the display recalls those laser rigged rooms seen in heist movies. Unless a strong continuous sound, a bus passing by for example, triggers all the sensors, the individual wires only flicker for a second in a display that resembles lightning.

Capacitive Body at the Tschumi Pavilion, Netherlands

Capacitive Body at the Tschumi Pavilion

Since the first installation at Tschumi Pavilion, Hesselmeier and Muxel have streamlined the setup so that just one computer running custom software can control up to 400 meters of the electroluminescent wire. Now that setting up multiple microcontrollers is no longer necessary, the installation is even more adaptable to various spaces and it has been making its way around Europe; it has already been on display in Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Norway, Germany, and most recently Dornbirn, Austria at the SOUNDSNOISE festival.

Capacitive Body is both a flashy display of light that entertains on a very simplistic level and a provocative reminder of the relationship between city dwellers and their environment. In the description of the project, Hesselmeier and Muxel emphasize that “unnatural sound disrupts the activity and balance of human or animal life.” The problem is that we are not even aware of these disruptive sounds. This installation, however, brings them out of the background and into our field of vision in a way that is both aesthetically interesting and thought provoking.

Check out a video of Capacitive Body in action here.

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