A brief history of Audio Jacket and other electronic clothes

In 1982, while recuperating from a bad case of painter's block, I started taking long walks through West Berlin: my path took me one day through a department store, where I heard a voice advertising a sale on jeans over the public-address (PA) system. This, I thought, was the solution to my problem: art happening through loudspeaker systems in public spaces -- instead of "painting" my colors, I would "speak„ them through the air. I soon began noticing that PA systems existed everywhere around the city -- convention centers are equipped with them, as are train stations and sport stadiums. They can even be found inside buses and airplanes, or mounted on street lamps along important boulevards and city squares. As a matter of fact, everywhere you find large groups of people the chances are you will also find public speaking systems. I proceeded to try to obtain permission to use these existing speaker systems for „audio performances„. In the beginning I had some success: I did a performance on visitor's day at the International Congress Center in Berlin. I repeated the sentence "Yellow and blue make green„ through the main loudspeaker system and had the technicians process my voice through a sound modulator. But no further offers came, mainly because those responsible for these PA systems were afraid that people might be annoyed or even panic at what I was saying -- a problem that still exists today in the case of some of my more recent Speakers Corner sculptures and projects (see SPEAKER'S MONUMENT/ Riga 1991, SPEAKER'S CONTAINER/ Freiburg 1989, SPEAKER'S MAILBOXES/ Berlin 1986).

This is why I started attaching loudspeakers to various second-hand jackets and clothes lying around my studio, transforming them into mobile loudspeaker systems. I created entire series of Audio Clothes out of my friends and neighbors wardrobes. I had each person make recordings and play them through portable cassette recorders while hooked up to the clothes. Eventually I sat down by myself one afternoon and made a series of recordings with pots and pans in my kitchen -- creating, in effect, a „heavy metal„ composition for Audio Jackets. In 1983, I was invited to present the audio clothes at the Performance Festival of Paris, at the Galerie Donguy, and in 1984, at the Art and Media exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle of Berlin. The participants in our performances were allowed to move around any way they wanted -- in other words, the performances were quite loose and individualistic. But somehow I felt that the performances lacked a framework and direction: there was no choreography, and the sound quality of these electroacoustic clothes left a lot to be desired.


In 1985 a public arts competition for the Berlin Federal Garden Show („Bundesgartenschau„) gave me an opportunity to conceive a complete "Audio Uniform" both in terms of electronics and sound. I founded Die Audio Gruppe (sound: Hans Peter Kuhn, electronics: Wulf Köthe, organization: Claudia Träger) and succeeded in obtaining funds for creating The Audio Herd. This electroacoustic uniform consisted of seven custom-built Audio Suits for ambulatory performances through the various landscapes of this park. These suits -- classically cut jackets with pants for men and skirts for women -- were made from a synthetic material that looked like animal fur. The idea was for them to blend into the environment like multimedia chameleons -- the participants played audio recordings of animals (monkeys, birds,human beings) that were choreographed to different areas of the garden (e.g. monkeys in the tropical sections, birds in the bushes, people in the clearings). The performers were fitted with >=audio corsets,„ 40-cm -diameter circular pieces of leather onto which a car loudspeaker was mounted. The audio corsets, worn under the jackets, were strapped to the performer's backs. The only visible electronic element was a 30-watt amplifier that was mounted on the back of the jacket (Fig. .. ). The cassettes were played on "Walkman" cassette players, and a 12-volt battery served as power source.

THE SOUND EFFECT OF AUDIO CLOTHES: a mobile and multiacoustic performance.

Unlike most outdoor concerts where the sound is amplified through one massive PA system, an Audio Uniform concert consists of individual performers each playing his or her own sound. The music is not blasted at the listener with 30,000 watts of power from a static source, but is carried with 30 watts of power from different places at a volume that depends on how far the listener is from each performer. The Uniform wearers spread throughout an area so that it is impossible for the listener to see or hear all sound sources at the same time. (As I recall, during the >=monkey„ part of the the The Audio Herd performance, most of the Herd was hidden behind bushes.) I use the term „multiacoustic„ to describe the sound effects of the Audio Herd: the cassettes, though identical and played simultaneously, are not (and cannot be, due to the portable nature of the „Walkmans' mechanics) perfectly synchronized.

Synchronization is not the intent of these mobile sound sculptures anyway: the sound changes as soon as the Audio-Uniform-wearer turns his or her back or starts moving in a different direction. The same sound is propelled through the air from a variety of vantage points in space, so that it reaches the listener;s ear >=staggered„ or like a echo. This is why the places in which these Clothes are played are so important -- the topography and architecture of the area are vital elements in the concert. In addition, the loudspeaker sources are carried by people who react spontaneously to situations (e.g. walking up stairs, waiting at a stoplight or exiting through a door), thus bringing whole new factors to these sound events that cannot be duplicated by normal >=instruments„ in the protective environment of a concert hall, gallery, or museum. The element of chance plays an important part in our performances. The public-at-large does not usually expect us (one cannot choose one's public when working outdoors). The first official Audio Herd performance at the Bundesgartenschau 85 was briefly interrupted by a posse of park police, providing us with an unexpected intermission while they cleared up matters with their superiors.


In 1986 we were invited to the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. During a preparatory visit I discovered that the city is home to the Voest Alpine, the biggest steel mill in Central Europe, so for this occasion we created The Audio Steelworkers. We borrowed 10 fireproof coveralls, on which I mounted amplifiers and loudspeakers (Fig. ). HP Kuhn created a tape based on live recordings from the steel mills. During the week-long festival we had 10 walk-on performances in various locations in and around the city. The Audio Subway Controllers (1987) were created for the festival Die Anweisung in Berlin. In the Berlin subway, each station has an attendant who uses the PA system to advise passengers (with more or less emphasis, depending on his or her mood) when and when not to get on the trains („Einsteigen, bitte!„ and „Zuruckbeleiben!„ are the phrases they use, translating roughly as „All aboard please!„ and „Step back!„). I systematically recorded all the attendants' voices along one subway line and had Hans Peter compile them them onto two separate cassettes: one with approximately 30 „All aboard, please!„ voices and another with 30 >=„Step back!„ voices. Because this was an official festival project, the Subway Authority loaned me seven authentic subway attendant suits, under which we could fit the audio corsets. As it turned out, the suits also had extra-large inside pockets for the amplifiers, batteries and cassette players, so that we had ourselves an instant Audio Uniform (Fig. ). The performance consisted of playing the subway voice collages while „patrolling„ the subways in which they had been recorded. Needless to say, the combination of subway voices being played through authentic suits caused a certain amount of consternation among the subway passengers (and employees).

In 1988, we created The Audio Bicyclists for the Festival des Arts Electroniques in Rennes. This city in the Bretagne area of France is crazy about bicycling, which provided the inspiration for the theme of this project. I had 10 „audio jerseys„ (the typical nylon knit sportshirts that bicycle racers wear) built with loudspeakers sewn into the lower back area (reinforced with leather), where the cyclists usually keep their water bottles and energy rations. Conveniently for us, we discovered that that Bernard Hinault, the five-time winner of the Tour de France, lived on the outskirts of Rennes. He agreed to let us interview him, and the musician Ralf Buron, an avid cyclist who had joined the Audio Gruppe as sound man for this project, used the taped interview to splice together a word collage that sounded in some parts like a techno-rap: „J'ai gagné„ was the basic chorus line of the Audio Cyclists' cassette. The local sports center recruited 10 amateur racers and organized a route through the streets of Rennes, complete with an official master of ceremonies and obligatory Audio Cyclist trophy for the winner at the end. There were even solo races against the clock, during which a metronome sound was played through the speaker-jerseys.
The Guitar Monkeys was conceived for the Berlin Atonal Festival (1986), a series of punk and avant-garde rock concerts. Ten performers with little or no experience with playing guitars wore black leather vests with loudspeakers mounted on the lower back section and an amplifier in the inside pocket into which one could plug an electric guitar or a microphone. In some cases , for extra volume, we did away with the leather vests and simply strapped large loudspeaker boxes onto our backs like backpacks (Fig. ). Each member of this >=rock band„ could individually amplify his or her instrument without having to be on stage. Most of the time we played in the middle of the audience or in stairwells, hallways, or other niches particular to the space. (Men and ladies' rooms have unique acoustic qualities.) The Guitar Monkeys were basically a noise and feedback band -- and an intense one at that: imagine not just one loudspeaker giving off feedback, but ten at once (from below, above, and around you). We purchased our guitars at the local Berlin flea market with a budget limit of US$10 per instrument. Instead of standard contact microphones, we used cheap Piezo ceramic loudspeakers as pick-ups. Even after the Atonal Festival, the Guitar Monkeys stayed busy in local underground clubs and went on tour (one critic dubbed us the „grandchildren of Jimi Hendrix„ and described the music as „post-industrial punk„).
Guitar Monkeys marks an important step in the development of Audio Uniforms because it made the performers personally responsible for their sounds, while previous Uniforms only permitted them to play prerecorded cassettes. It was during the Guitar Monkeys European tour of 1989 that I happened to meet the director of lAeronef in Lille who asked me to design a new Uniform for the festival Les Arts au Soleil (Arts in the Sun), which was going to take place on the beaches of northern France. This is how the Audio Ballerinas came into existence.


I had been experimenting with solar cells as a power source for the Uniforms (usually we use rechargeable 12-volt batteries) and came to the conclusion that they had to be mounted on a horizontal surface in order to catch as much of the sun's rays as possible. The artist Susken Rosenthal helped me build a transparent disc-like skirt out of plexiglass that could hang loosely on a belt from the waist On this surface we placed the solar cells and electronics. A visiting dancer friend who saw the prototype explained that we had created a tutu -- the skirt-like piece of clothing that dancers wear in such classical ballet pieces as Swan Lake. This is how Audio Tutus came into existence. We also discovered that the hard but flexible tutus were ideal for mounting speakers, microphone jacks and amplifiers, not unlike a disc-jockey's mixing board. Under the guiding impulse of our new chief engineer , Manfred Thiem, we started trying out new equipment -- for example, a digital chip (256 K) for sampling sounds, an electronic metronome, a photovoltaic resistor (to be used as a light sensor), and even a miniature receiver. With their photovoltaic sensors the Audio Ballerinas can react to light, not unlike a Geiger counter responding to radioactive substances. The pitch of the sound changes according to the intensity of the light. This occurs when either their own shadows or the shadows from their surroundings (tree, clouds) interfere with the direct light as they dance. In effect, they can thus translate their body movements into sound. With their receivers, the tutus render audible the radio waves traveling through the air. (My favorite sound is actually the >=white noise„ between the radio stations.) In the end, we had a plexiglass dress that could spontaneously pick up sounds, record them digitally, play them back, amplify them, repeat them (via an electronic looping device), and alter their pitch.

For example, the tutus could record five seconds of the sound of a bell tower ringing nearby and instantaneously play back the sound. The additional electronic features allow the wearers to change the speed of the loop or the tenor of the pitch (like a rudimentary sampler) to make the sound of that of a heavy brass gong or, in the other direction, to that of jingling bells.
A piece based on this idea, called Digital Memory, is at the core of an Audio Ballerina performance. In each place where they perform, the first task of the group is to find a particular local sound -- a sound that is indigenous to that site or country -- that can be borrowed for this piece. A few examples have been Lenin's piano in the Lenin Museum in St. Petersburg, a well-known yodeler in Munich (Fig. ), an aborigine native playing the didgeridoo in Australia (Fig. ), and a Japanese shamisen (a sort of high pitched banjo) in Tokyo. These new additions allowed us to do away with the Walkman stereos and prerecorded cassettes we had been using previously. Like the Guitar Monkeys, the Audio Ballerinas also used contact microphones and Piezos in their performances. Instead of attaching them to old guitars, they fastened them onto other „instruments„, such as umbrellas or a simple metal rods, which functioned like giant phonograph needles being dragged on the ground and amplified via the electronics and solar cells on their tutus. Hence the title of the piece, The Earth as a Record Player
(see Fig. ). Acoustically speaking, the sound of this piece can be liked to a team of sanitation workers dragging empty garbage cans on the street.

What began as a limited project soon blossomed into a full-fledged troupe. When I returned to Berlin from the festival Les Arts au Soleil with the electroacoustic tutus, I recruited a group of local dancers, trained them to operate the tutus, and organized a series of performances in the reunited Berlin. The Audio Ballerinas grew to include a core of dancers, a choreographer, 2 engineers, and myself as director/manager/ and performer. From simplified group choreographies in the street (see The Line : Fig...., Blümchen : Fig...., and the previously mentioned Digital Memory) some of the dancers started working on solos for staged indoor situations (Elizabeth Brodin with her Seguirya piece, Fig....). Our basic bread-and-butter performances are still the work in public spaces and on the street: the mobility and site-specific versatility of our electroacoustic clothes lend themselves obviously to almost any outdoor situations. On the other hand it was with great interest that I took up the challenge in 1994 of cooperating with a Berlin alternative theater , Theatre zum Westliche Stadthirschen, to create a piece to be performed indoors. Together with the regisseurin Elizabeth Zundel, we put on Audio Drama, in which the actors all wore electroacoustic clothes and performed in the middle of the audience in order to showcase the fact that they were „wearing„ their sounds and that the sounds were being produced by their movements. We used this situation to create, develop, and refine a number of solos that are included in much of our present indoor repertoire (Audio Ballerinas and Electronic Guys). In particular pieces, such as Seguirya and Feedback Fred were first presented in this piece.
Feedback Fred (Figs.:.....) actually has his roots in the days of the Guitar Monkeys. This „audio character„ (as I like to term these solo performances) essentially wears a large loudspeaker on his back, strapped backpack style to a corset-type body brace and equipped with a 30-watt amp and microphone that is kept clamped to his mouth via a black face mask. Essentially he >=„plays„ feedback in the true sense of the word. By moving through a room and speaking through the microphone he produces different sound effects due to the phenomenon of feedback. He is also fitted with various knee-and-elbow protectors as his actions also involve somersaults and other semi-acrobatic stunts. Dramatically speaking he is a cross between the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hamlet: he expresses himself oratorically, but his speeches are limited due to his actions and constant struggle with his-self-produced feedback. He is a melodramatic character b ut he is also a clown.

Seyuirya is a piece that Elizabeth Brodin (a principal dancer in the group) developed using light sensors and a spotlight directly above her head. Originally conceived for an audio tutu, the piece has progressed to the point that she uses a small loudspeaker box strapped to her back, which enables her much more freedom of movement. In her hands she holds one light sensor and one infrared sensor. The sound is created from the millimeter-accurate play between her hand and body movements within the circle of light.


In 1997 I was invited to Tokyo to prepare a series of the Audio Ballerinas' performances at the Intercommunication Center (ICC-NTT). While shopping around in a local department store I came across some dolls wearing extravagant robes and playing interesting looking guitars and small drums. I was informed that these were Geisha dolls wearing kimonos. This is how the idea for Audio Geishas came into my head. It was an even more logical idea than Audio Ballerinas (who had come from the solar idea) because these dancers actually played music: it made sense that they should also wear electroacoustic kimonos. The next step in the process was to find the electronics for the dress. To be honest, we find all the parts for our clothes in surplus electronic parts catalogs: the digital memories, I believe, are left over from end-of-line Korean of Chinese productions for talking dolls or answering machines. In fact, it is accurate to say that we use modern garbage to create our electroacoustic clothes: most the electronics we use can also be found in the toys that litter a ten-year-old's playroom. Whenever I consider building a new art work I first look inside bargain bins at local electronic shops. In Tokyo there is a whole city area („Akihabara City= Electric City) where they sell only such products. Accompanied by a local electronics expert, we searched through the alleys and narrow shops until we found pretty much what I was looking for: a Casio Voiceman. This unique instrument is a sampler with a small keyboard that allows the user to sample live sounds and pitch them with the keys. Back in Berlin I hatched a plan with Manfred Thiem to cannibalize the instruments and replace the keyboard with light sensors that were spread out over the Kimono so that external lighting would trigger the sounds as the Audio Geishas moved. I also purchase a small portable guitar amplifier that we fitted into the traditional belt ("obi") section of the clothing Additionally we equipped them with acoustic microphones , infrared sensors, radio receivers and guitar jacks so that they could fulfill other audio tasks. The premiere of the Audio geishas took place at the Intercommunication Center in May 1997 with a follow-up performance in the streets of Akihabara City (Fig.:...). We had the Geishas produce feedback through their microphones and amps, which was then recorded by the Voicemans and subsequently pitched and triggered via their light sensors. Interestingly enough the result sounds remarkably Japanese.

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