What is music? A composition of sounds made by instruments or voices? Brisbane artist Ross Manning hopes to broaden the definition by introducing young visitors to ‘a sonic experience that is different to what they might have been taught is music’. His immersive sound installation, ‘Idling Engines’, comprises a series of suspended, low-voltage motors that are weighted off-centre to create vibrations. Everyday objects attached to the motors’ cables are then activated by these vibrations, creating an unexpected soundscape. As visitors will learn, walking through the space triggers the activation of the motors. Of his intentions for the work, Manning has said:
I want the piece to be realised by this journey through the physical space of the gallery. Each sound is quite subtle and detailed, so as you are walking through, your personal experience of the composition changes, your movement through the work realises a unique interpretation that’s slightly different for everyone.
Manning hopes that this experience sparks curiosity in children, adding that he hopes ‘they are engaged with finding out where the sounds come from and why it’s doing what it’s doing’ — the work will have ‘an interactive element where your body and your presence shapes the sound’.
I think it’s really important for children or young people to experience contemporary art and to be engaged by the conversations and the ideas that contemporary art puts forward. I think it’s a really healthy thing for young people to get interested in.
Having long been intrigued by how things work, Manning took an early interest in science and physics, and later, in sound and technology. He had a previous career as an audiovisual technician, repairing televisions and data projectors — a role in which ‘those two strands from my history came together and inform what I do now, which is working with technology, installation, light work, kinetic work and sound’. Manning has a genuine love for presenting the ordinary objects of everyday life in unexpected ways. He enjoys using what is readily available, such as paper cups and tin cans, to connect the audience with the work and see these objects in a new light.
I don’t have a set way of working, sometimes it is an experience or something that I want to build on or that draws my attention and I want to investigate it . . . regularly, it’s based on the object or the medium that I’m working with.
‘Idling Engines’ is a convergence of ideas. It’s a subtle nod to ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’, but it also builds on other experiences. Manning recalls memories of catching the old-style buses on which you could open the windows, and the ‘kind of composition or music the bus played while idling at a traffic light — you get a certain pitch and the bus would vibrate and the windows would vibrate, then they’d drop a gear and start taking off and it would change again’. The project is also an extension of a live performance that Manning developed as part of a residency at the Kyoto Art Centre in 2019. A new interpretation of this performance, in which he clips different objects onto microphone cables to create a layering of textual sounds, was filmed at Milani Gallery in Brisbane and will be displayed as part of this project.
Another component featured in the installation is the artwork Elements Song 2020, which is a ground-based sound installation. In this work, Manning visualises the components of technology by exploring ‘the precious metals that go together to make a circuit board that’s inside your phone’. He was interested in ‘the raw geological form of the rocks pitted against the more refined form or distilled form of the elements found in the rock, reflected by the tin cans and the little motors that sit on top.’ This conjuncture of materials brings to mind their journey from ‘the processing, all the energy, the production, the social and environmental parameters of what goes into the making of common technologies’. As the cans orbit the rocks, they each make a different sound depending on its size or shape, ‘so it’s sort of resonating the object, the can, and giving it a voice’.
Ross Manning has a masterful way of orchestrating the unexpected musical potential of ordinary materials, which promises to delight both children and adults.
Laura Mudge is Senior Program Officer, Children’s Art Centre, QAGOMA. She spoke with Ross Manning in August 2020.
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‘Idling Engines’ was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) from 28 November 2020 until 26 April 2021.