Adam Tinkle

They Shoot Lasers, Don’t They?, my collaborative duo with Joe Mariglio, explores the transduction and transformation of signals between the media of light and sound. Cold War spies were said to have bounced lasers off of distant windows to listen to the conversations inside, but today, laser microphony is hardly known or remembered – even though it remains uniquely useful for detecting sounds too quiet for ordinary microphones, at greater distances, and in unusual media, such as spider webs and fluids. By reexamining the musical uses of laser microphones, in tandem with an ever-shifting assemblage of custom and vintage technologies, (including photosensitive musical electronics, tactile audio transducers, and old video hardware), we explore the flows and feedbacks of signals that cross the boundaries between the states of matter and the faculties we use to sense them, suggesting that “synesthesia” may not be so much a mental condition as a fact of the vibratory universe. 

With handbuilt laser microphones at the heart of Rube Goldberg-esque stacks of technological contingency, we present rumbling, raucous performances in which the tactile heave of low-frequency sound is transduced into fluids, inducing standing waves that manifest visually as cymatic patterns, all of which produces chaotic nonlinearity that can be seen through video projection and heard through the pickup of the laser microphone, which in turn drives the system into new nonlinearities and surprises. We surf upon the unfolding churn of these systems, not seeking to control or determine them, but rather trying to elicit their quirks and inherencies. 

An early documentation of the project (from a Stanford University performance in 2015) demonstrates the phenomenon simply, as light is simply projected through the fluid in which audio feedback and resultant cymatic patterns are being induced.

A later performance clip (from NYU’s Waverly Project performance series) suggests the expansion of the expressive range of the core lasers-and-fluids phenomenon, through the visual amplification of the patterns in the fluids, through the incorporation of my live video performance setup.

In our most recent performance (presented by the Arts Center of the Capital Region in coordination with my solo exhibition, Screenbathing), additional dimensions of feedback complicate and enrich the system at the heart of the performance: the camera feed of the water dish is altered by my video processing instrument, and then projected both onto the large screen at right and through the vibrating water dish, onto the small screen behind my head. This smaller projection can be seen to distort in ways that mirror the audible sound, because that sound is also shaking the fluid through which the image passes. And, because the sound is being picked up by laser microphones which are by their nature broadly photosensitive, the magnitude and rhythms of the light emitted by this second channel of video projection influence the sound as well! 


Though we have primarily used our system as an instrument for performance, we have recently begun to explore an alternate assemblage of similar elements as a sculpture, which can run autonomously and allows viewer to get closer to, and spend as long as they want with, the “cymatic” visual patterns in vibrating fluid, and to the even more bewitching results of laser light reflecting off of that vibrating fluid. One foray into this sculptural mode, Liquid Crystal Dysplasia, was exhibited as part of Screenbathing:

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