Benoit Maubrey is known internationally for his acoustic sculptures which range from the inventive, audacious wearables he first created in the 1980's to his striking, interactive public sculptures. Sasha Amaya sat down to speak with the "grandfather of acoustic wearables" and self-described “analog man” to find out more about the origins of Maubrey's work, his objectives, and why he likes to create for public spaces.
Interview by Sasha Amaya.
The creator of experimental acoustic sculptures ranging in scale from the wearable to the monumental, Benoit Maubrey is a maverick of whimsy and grit with a constant mind toward the built environment and the transformation of public spaces. Born to French parents and raised in the United States, Maubrey's early years were often occupied with electronic tool kits and mechanics. After training in visual art at Georgetown University, Maubrey quickly found himself bored with gallery spaces and the expectations they entailed. When he relocated to West Berlin in the early 70’s, he found a robust sound art scene which was already probing possibilities of exploring art outside of traditional galleries and interior spaces. Maubrey’s first project was giddy and simple: he wanted to bring sound and motion together outdoors. “ I stuck speakers onto my jacket so I didn’t have to ask anybody for any kind of permission,” Maubrey recounts, “and then I could just walk around and create small public disturbances. There’s nothing like changing the air around you!”
Maubrey took his first creations to audiences by “kamikaze action,” paying admissions to festivals and performing uninvited and impromptu. His first break came with a successful bid to stage an intervention at the Berlin Garden Show. Maubrey and his collaborators crafted the first of his now-famous “wearable” creations: bizarre and elegant tailored suits out of animal fabric that emitted growls, mews, and purrs.
A performance at Ars Electronica followed, and more outdoor opportunities developed. It was a time, Maubrey remembers, “when I was just filled up with constant, new ideas.” The challenge was in obtaining materials: “There was so much new, cheap junk! I would check the surplus electronic market for what might be interesting, order one or two of each device, and the technicians would figure out if it might be useful… but we’d have to figure it out fast enough so that the suppliers didn’t go out of business.”
But Maubrey admits this race for analog obscurities was only half the battle. The other lay in understanding the relationship between the analog creations and the spatial environment. “You can’t develop these interventions inside a studio,” Maubrey explains. “‘Multi acoustic’ means you need to develop the work in different spaces. People tried to corner us on stage. You can show how well an instrument works on the stage, but that isn’t what this work is about. I realised it was really about space. We would discover for example that a particular instrument worked well in a narrow or a wide space. We were learning by doing.”
Learning by doing yielded significant success for Maubrey’s team. In 1989 they created the first solar-powered tutu for the Festival Les Art au Soleil at Lille. The tutus they created enabled the dancers to produce sound through their interaction with the environment via a network of digital samplers, contact microphones, light-to-frequency controllers, movement sensors, radio receivers, and — in their more recent manifestations — MP3 players. Performing in various locations from train stations to palaces to beaches, the dancers were tasked to find a particular local sound, which would then be recorded, and looped. Dispersing from one another, the dancers would then carry the sound across a park or public area as they moved. “It is very aesthetic, and that helps a lot,” Maubrey explains. “It became a great success because of the dancers; the public stood there and watched that. I spoon fed them sound or avant garde art that the public would hardly have any patience for had it been inside a room.”
Seeking to elicit “surprise and wonderment” from his audience, Maubrey’s works involve interactivity between his creation and its audience. His Speakers’ Series, for example, began in the mid 80’s with a d.i.y. project in which tenants of an apartment building created cassette recordings for their respective mailboxes, and has since had numerous manifestations, including the imposing, and static, Speakers’ Wall. Created in 2011, this large scale electroacoustic sculpture, created from 1000 recycled loudspeakers, radios, and amplifiers, integrated with an original piece of the Berlin Wall. Beckoning participants to speak directly through the wall, these activated sculptures physically pulsate with the whispers of visitors; a transgression only imaginable in the Berlin Maubrey first discovered in the 1970’s.
“Working with public spaces and using this tool called sound — that’s my original goal and that’s essentially what I am spending my life doing," Maubrey states. His works, filled with the intrigue of the interactive and the grittiness of analog, are striking meditations on the relationship between humans and our surrounds. ”An artist’s job is to interpret reality. Instead of using pigment on canvas, you can imagine the air is the canvas and the pigment is the sound, so you’re out there painting canvasses. That’s what I felt most comfortable with. Here was something fresh — you’re out there making air vibrate. It felt good!”
To learn more about Benoit Maubrey's work, click here.