Nina Waisman doesn’t really look Mexican. Not that she couldn’t be, but her red hair and light skin aren’t very common in Tijuana. Even more uncommon in TJ are red-headed, light-skinned women walking around carrying 2-foot-long microphones and wearing large monitoring headphones and bulky tape decks strapped to their waists.
“I was walking around all kinds of neighborhoods with equipment hanging off my body and a big phallic microphone stuck out in front of me so, yeah, some people looked me over,” Waisman smiles as she describes how she sampled sounds from numerous places around Tijuana while decked out in her sampling gear. She collected sounds from the beaches of Playas de Tijuana, through the downtown and central areas and in the hills of Maclovio Rojas.
Waisman’s newest piece, “Between Bodies,” uses these audio samples in an immersive, interactive sound installation, which was created for, and is currently on display in, the new multi-million-dollar addition to the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT), the major international art museum and cultural center in Tijuana. Her piece is part of the opening show, Proyecto Civico (Civil Project), curated by Lucía Sanromán and Ruth Estévez.
Waisman isn’t really Mexican at all. She’s a U.S. citizen, and, currently, a San Diegan. She and her husband, Pierre Galaud, moved from New York to San Diego in 2005, after Waisman’s acceptance to UCSD’s graduate program in visual arts. They’ve since fallen in love with the area and live in Leucadia, a few blocks from the ocean.
“My work is noisy, so it’s great to be in a relatively quiet place to offset that,” Waisman says, staring off in the direction of the ocean (from the roof-deck of their home, one can hear only faint sounds of both the ocean and the freeway in the distance). “And the ocean is a great antidote to too many hours soldering or staring at a computer screen. I take a lot of long walks at the beach.”Although Waisman doesn’t exactly agree with the title “sound artist,” she admits that it’s the label she often uses. Her work tends to involve objects that create sounds when the human body moves through them or otherwise interacts with them. The technical hardware involves infrared sensors that can be programmed to do different things as the body changes proximity to them. The completed installations create a complex, surround-sound experience in which the viewer creates his or her own encounter with the work.
“In many of my installations, the visitor’s body becomes a kind of tuning instrument for other recorded bodies, or machines,” Waisman says. “As you wander through the space, you trigger different sounds—your movements and proximity to the sensors changes the sounds’ pitch, speed, volume, placement, layering, etcetera.”
The importance of the body’s movement in Waisman’s work could be attributed to her background as a dancer. At 16, she moved from Los Angeles to New York to study ballet. She later changed her predominate medium from dance to painting and other art forms, but body movement has always been an important factor in her studies and installations.
The “Between Bodies” installation at CECUT is situated in a hallway. Visitors pass through as they enter the museum from the Plaza Rios entrance. The entrance is an important feature to the new addition at CECUT because it’s the first entrance that faces the heart of the city. As visitors come through the hallway, they encounter the first set of interactive, infrared sensors, hanging from the ceiling. The noises triggered are recordings of sounds of labor on the Tijuana streets. Between the bangs and clangs of construction and shouts of workers building the infrastructure of the city, there’s also the sound of someone typing, and as the visitor leans in closer to the sounds, they change. They change speed or pitch or become the beeps of cars and the twitters of birds. The sound also travels though the speaker system and wraps you in a dense and active city soundscape.
“You are surrounded by and affect these rhythms of other people’s labor,” Waisman says, describing the first set of sensors.
The second grouping of sensors sets off sounds of what Waisman describes as “people trying to get your attention”—there are horns, voices, music, phones and other sounds of markets and sales happening on the streets. The third section is focused on children and involves sounds of kids playing soccer and jumping roping, ice cream vendors and more. And the last section, which leads into the main lobby and the Proyecto Civico show, is focused on sounds of “control.” You can hear sirens and helicopters, but these dominant sounds are then undercut by sounds of a contrasting nature, like music, as you move in closer.
Watching others interact with the work is almost as fun as interacting with it yourself. As people walk through the hallway, they realize they’re in control of the sound, and they move back and forth waving their arms and dancing around the piece. All of these immersive sound interactions are programmed using the open-source software called “Pd” (Pure Data), and Waisman works with one of the most talented Pd programmers in the world, Marius Schebella. The Pd software was created by UCSD professor Miller Puckette, who also served on Waisman’s graduate committee and worked with her during her studies at UCSD.
Waisman’s interactive sound work has recently been exhibited with the artists collective Particle Group at the House of World Culture in Berlin, the San Diego Museum of Art and UCSD’s Calit2 gallery. Her solo interactive sound works have been exhibited in Japan, Hungary, Slovakia, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
And for her future exhibitions (and she has plenty of them lined up for 2009), Waisman says she plans to continue digging deeper into the medium of interactive sound.
“To use your body to explore the sound of another body or thing requires you to listen to this other body’s rhythms—its pitch,” Waisman explains, “to become attuned to them, to internalize them in some way—to engage in a bodily dialog. This may happen consciously or unconsciously or both. Such bodily understandings are different from those which come from consuming text or images, and are, I think, worth exploring.”