Nigel Helyer (a.k.a. Dr Sonique) is an Australian based Sculptor and Sound
Artist with an international reputation for his large-scale sonic installations, environmental sculpture works and new media projects.
His practice is actively inter-disciplinary linking creative practice with scientific research and development. Recent activities include; the development of a ‘Virtual Audio Reality’ system in collaboration with Lake Technology (Sydney) and the ongoing ‘AudioNomad’ research project in location sensitive Environmental Audio at the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales.
He is an honorary faculty member in Architectural Acoustics at the University of Sydney and maintains active research links with the “SymbioticA” bio-technology lab at the University of Western Australia. He has recently been a visiting Professor at Stanford University and an Artist in Residence at the Paul Scherrer Institut http://www.psi.ch in Switzerland as part of the Artists in Labs programme http://www.artistsinlabs.ch
Nigel is a co-founder and commissioner of the “SoundCulture” organisation; a fellow of the Australia Council for 2002/3, the winner of the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award 2002 and the curator of “Sonic-Differences” as part of the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth 2004..
Although the power of hindsight may be both convenient and illusory, the development of my creative practice to incorporate broad areas of science and technology stems from my childhood.
The small Sussex fishing village in which I spent my formative years contained two significant buildings, significant not for their formal qualities, they were both simple cottages, but because one had been the home of Halley, the astronomer and the other the home of William Blake the poet, these men had been friends. Without being conscious of the fact, I grew up in a cosmos in which the arts and science were intertwined and engaged in conversation, it has marked my endeavours ever since.
In a broader context the cultural and physical landscape of my youth was saturated in the artefacts of science, technology and industry, slowly decaying into a glorious post-industrial stupor that placed the corroded shells of furnaces alongside the ruins of castles in a nostalgic afterglow.
What has followed in terms of a creative practice has simply been a way of dealing with an irrepressible curiosity about the world (rarely restricted to the Art World) and driven by a surfeit of enthusiasm!
During the course of the past twenty years my principal focus has been to develop a praxis in Sound-Art, which synthesises practice, critical theory and advocacy. Over this period Sound-Art has slowly emerged from a position of relative obscurantism to become a vital and internationally recognised form of cultural expression.
I have always maintained a strong insistence upon the linkage between practice, theory and history and am a strong believer in collaborative cultural practice, developing models that challenge conventional Artistic and Technological modes.
More recently such philosophical positions have been embodied in a series of inter-disciplinary projects combining my creative practice with scientific research and development, these however are always informed by a keen critical and ideological imperative, demonstrated by the work “Seed”, which invites gallery visitors to enter a sonic minefield and encounter the spiritual world of Islam – revealed via interactive mines and mine detectors!
Much of my energy is devoted to striking a balance between a commitment to aesthetic and philosophical issues and a drive towards researching and developing novel systems that explore non-linear sound compositions and immersive audio experiences.
A recent activity that illustrates this approach is “Sonic-Landscapes” a virtual audio reality system produced in collaboration with Lake Technology (Sydney) capable of tracking a participant through a sonic topography with a high degree of resolution and delivering a highly convincing virtual surround world via headphones. This proof of concept project has lead to the ongoing ‘Audio-Nomad’ research project in location sensitive environmental audio, undertaken in collaboration with the Schools of Computer Science and Engineering and Satellite Navigation and Positioning at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). Current “Audio-Nomad” projects encompass a mobile, spatially inter-active, surround-sound system for ships (Syren @ ISEA2004) and a series of hand-held immersive-audio devices that will, for example, operate within a sonic cartography of the public and personal histories of Berlin (Virtual Wall).
These interests form part of a larger project that seeks to integrate cultural and technical systems, especially those concerned with sound and acoustic ecology, within an environmental and biological context and is currently being developed at the Paul Scherrer Institut as part of the “Artists in Labs” project http://www.artistsinlabs.ch http://www.psi.ch . My position of Honorary Research Fellow at the “SymbioticA” lab in Western Australia has also allowed me to pursue a range of bio-sonic projects. For example the “GeneMusiK” project is designed to establish a functional relationship between conventional Western musical scales and DNA sequences and produce a system for mixing and mutating musical form within a biological context.
“GeneMusiK” departs from previous experiments in that it is an entirely ‘wet’ process, which employs chemical and biological means to achieve musical transformations. Rather than taking given DNA structures and rendering them as musical code, “GeneMusiK” takes fragments of conventional Western melody and sequences them as DNA that is subsequently ‘bred’ and ‘mixed’ within bacterial cultures. DNA extracted from these cultures may then be re-sequenced, translated to musical notation and interpreted as new musical forms.
Ecological and ethical interests surface strongly in the current collaboration with SymbioticA in the form of the “LifeBoat” project, a hybrid mobile tissue culture laboratory and psychological profiling unit encapsulated within a marine survival craft, mounted on the upper deck of the cruise ship “Opera” – designed to challenge and perhaps delight unwary ISEA punters.
Dr Nigel Llwyd William Helyer, Villigen, Switzerland July 2004.