Day in the Lab

XIX.4 July + August 2012
Page: 90
Digital Citation

STEIM


Authors:
Takuro Lippit, Kristina Andersen

How do you describe your lab to visitors?

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We are a place where people make new instruments for live performances. You can call us a lab because we have engineers and researchers working on technological realizations of projects. You can call us a studio because we have artists coming from around the world to record, rehearse, and try out new ideas. You can also call us a venue because we host workshops, concerts, and lectures throughout the year. What connects all these activities is that we are a physical place where people come together with an interest or desire to make music in an unconventional way. Our mission is to support this one way or another.

What is a unique feature of your lab?

Our practice touches upon many different fields in design and engineering, but ultimately the focus is on music. Our goal is to make innovative instruments, not just for demo purposes, but to be used on stage and on tour. We want our artists to build a practice around these instruments over a longer period of time and develop unique expressions and virtuosic skills. Whether these instruments contribute to academic research or have market potential as products are secondary concerns for us.

Our work is based upon the notion that live performance is the moment of proof. This is where our instruments—which are essentially tangible interfaces to large collections of data manipulated in real time—prove themselves or fail. Our 43 years’ worth of knowledge ranges from designing complex interactive systems to knowing how to choose the right cables and connectors.

What makes a good instrument?

In acoustic instrument design, the sonic possibilities are shaped by the resonance and friction of the material. When building instruments from universal machines, such as computers, the first task is creating a conceptual resonator metaphorically, to establish a unique internalized sound space. Our work is to help artists identify this resonance and friction within new technologies that they can push against or reflect upon. A good instrument doesn’t make music easier, but rather gives a glimpse of new music making, even if it’s initially hard to play. We want to bring sweat back into computer-based music.

How many people are in the lab, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles?

We have 10 staff members, and their backgrounds cover music, design, engineering, critical theory, and art. Everyone here has their own practice along with their involvement at STEIM. Our roles are divided into those who facilitate the space and program activities, engineers who build prototypes and provide assistance, and artistic staff who advise and consult on projects. However, these roles can shift a little bit to fit each project. Some staff members have worked for us for 40 years.

Our interns are immediately thrown into practical projects, where they have real influence and challenges from day one. They are expected to quickly find their own roles within the organization, which is not an easy task, but in return we also give them access to everything. In fact, this is how most of the staff ended up here—they came with an idea and were given the opportunity to run with it. In that sense STEIM has a very flat structure, and the institution has seen a fair amount of success from being overrun by artists or interns. Potentially, everyone who comes here can have a very large impact if the intention is there.

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Briefly describe a day in the life of your lab.

It is hard to describe a typical day here, because they can be very different. Some days are quiet, working on funding applications, general meetings, and planning. Other days are development and production days, which are more active; people are in the labs, studios, and offices with a feeling of “all hands on deck.” Then we have concert days, when the whole building is vibrating with musicians and audience members. On these days some staff leave well past midnight, after closing the bar.

Another kind of day is Sunday, when we run the Electro Squeak Club. The club is our version of an alternative music school. We teach children to build their own instruments, but more important, we teach them to broaden their idea of what music can be. The youngest are five and work with acoustics—resonance, strings, and rhythms—while the seven-year-olds make simple electronic circuits and explore microphone and speaker circuits. The older kids build more complex projects such as radios and oscillators. The Electro Squeak Club is where we can test our ideas and inspire new generations to make experimental music.

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The building can also be completely empty when our staff members are teaching, lecturing, or performing abroad or organizing a festival in another venue in the Netherlands.

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What is one feature of your lab you could not do without?

Our sound studios. These studios are very flexible: They are soundproof, but you can also solder in them or even work with water and ice. You can play very loud or be very isolated and quiet in there. We are always very aware that the soundproofing works both ways. Our largest sound studio can be opened up to become a performance space.


“We want to bring sweat back into computer-based music.”


The other essential space for us is the guesthouse. This is where our artists live while they are working with us. In a way, the guesthouse allows you to become part of how we are at STEIM: We are here for work, but we are also here as artists, neighbors, and friends. And we are here all the time.

What is one feature of your lab that you want and don’t have?

Over the years, the amount of administrative work to sustain a cultural foundation has grown exponentially. All staff are involved in fundraising, administrative work, and writing reports. We always wish for more time, resources, and staff to do what we think is the real work: technology development, artist support, and project production.

Maintaining the lab technology is always a challenge. It is a double task in which we need to keep up-to-date with equipment for developing new work but also need to maintain outdated systems to show and preserve old work. We find ourselves updating software and cleaning old synthesizers’ circuits at the same time. This is part of the dilemma of being a historical innovation lab: Although we are proud of our work in this field and want to preserve the legacy, our true mission is to build new things.

What is the one thing you see as most important about what you do here?

Developing technology for technology’s sake has never been our focus. Instead we work on making new scenarios of use. In the end, it’s all about what you do with it. Sometimes we can adapt an existing technology to make new instruments, and sometimes we have to invent new solutions to achieve the result we want. In retrospect, we have on occasion been very early in developing new technologies and interface solutions, but the newness in itself has never been the goal.

Our most important task is to support transitional and emerging artists with their ideas. We are deeply dedicated to the artists who are adventurous and willing to take risks on stage through exploring new technologies and new ways to make music. STEIM is their home.

If you want to see and hear some of our instruments, please visit out our Vimeo page (http://vimeo.com/steim).

Authors

steim.org

©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/0700  $10.00

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