Darsha Hewitt's Electrostatic Bell Choir Turns Static Electricity Into A Mechanical Symphony
As a child, many of us have been fascinated by occasionally receiving electric shocks when removing our sweaters or by our hair standing on end when in contact with a balloon. Assuming we were attentive during science class, most of us are familiar with static electricity. This phenomenon, resulting from an accumulation of electric charges, affects everyday objects.
Some of them carry positive charges, others negative charges, and the effect of their opposing union can be unexpected. It’s these properties, particularly those of physicist Andrew Gordon’s lightning bell, that nourish the thoughts of Canadian artist Darsha Hewitt especially her piece Electrostatic Bell Choir, one of her most notable works. This electromechanical sound installation is fed by static electricity emitted from cathode ray tube (CRT)-based television screens. The energy collected is used as a kinetic driving force, producing movements and sounds.
During the 2013 edition of Montreal’s Elektra festival in May, Hewitt will present a new configuration of Electrostatic Bell Choir. To find out more about this latest iteration and how the project came about we contacted Hewitt and she revealed to us that she was on a mission to find old television sets. "I visit Montreal’s best dirty basements, dark garages, and shitty piles of garbage these days." she told us. These words motivated us to accompany her to one such place, which was covered in several inches of dust.
The Creators Project: Firstly, could you tell us where your interest in static electricity came from? What was the starting point for your artistic research?
Darsha Hewitt: This work grows out of a long and rigorous experimentation phase I carried out in my studio between 2010 to 2012. I wanted to wrap my head around radio propagation. I was quite fascinated by how energy from one machine could be carried invisibly by a wave through free space, bounced off of the ionosphere and then some other machine in some other part of the planet could tune itself to that wave, cast it away into the ground, and glean a communication signal from it.
I tinkered a lot with AM radios, galena crystals, and hand-wound coils much like early amateur radio enthusiasts would have done. However, I’ve never been interested in listening to human broadcasts. I’m much more intrigued by how radio can tap into the invisible dimensions that electronic technology inhabits (some might call it noise, interference, machine crosstalk, or electromagnetic radiation).
Electrostatic Bell Choir, 2012
I guess that’s the path that led you to working with TVs thereafter. Can you explain to us why you later became so particularly interested in television mechanisms?
My preliminary research into analogue TV demonstrated that CRTs are in fact particle accelerators. Inside the tube a hot cathode shoots electrons through a vacuum and sprays them onto the surface of the tube. The result of this collision magically gives us our TV picture! So I figured that maybe by collecting a herd of these mini particle accelerators and doing tests with them I might start to understand what the hell is going on at CERN with the Large Hadron Collider and just maybe the universe might start to make a bit more sense.
Okay, now that we understand the theoretical and experimental approaches that brought you to develop Electrostatic Bell Choir, could you describe the installation for us in detail?
The installation takes place in a dark room where approximately 22 CRT TVs are cycling on and off in alternating sequences—they are muted and tuned to empty ‘snowy’ channels. In front of each TV is a set of electrostatic bells. Though I hand fabricated these ones out of brass and fitted them with bells I scavenged from rotary telephones and grandfather clocks, electrostatic bells are scientific instruments that date back to the 1700s. They are electroscopes and were originally used to demonstrate the presence and magnitude of electric charges by converting it into mechanical energy.
When a cathode ray tube turns on it generates a bust of static electricity that builds up on the surface of the tube. So, as the TVs turn on, the static charges they emit agitate the pith balls suspended from these apparatuses and causes them to waiver and strike bells as they oscillate between positive and negatively charged poles. I use solid state relays and a big fancy Arduino Mega microcontroller in order to compose and manage the on/off sequencing of the TVs.
The televisions that we are helping you look for right now are for your installation at Elektra 2013. I’m concluding that whenever you present work, it’s unique. Since the beginnings of the choir, how much has the work evolved?
I’ve installed this artwork in some form or another and every time it’s different—it mainly changes based on the TVs that I’m able to source in the city I’m installing it in. I’m trying to be more ambitious with the sculptural elements of the work so there might be more stacking and TV pyramiding going on for the installation during Elektra.
When I initially started doing experiments with the work I wasn’t even using bells. I started by hanging my fur coonskin cap in front of the TV and tried to figure out where the hell to go with this idea next as I watched the tail move back and forth as it was affected by the static. Midway through my research I was fortunate to receive an international work stipend from Edith-Russ-Haus für Medienkunst. Once I had money to put into the work I was able to spend all my time with it to turn it into something more interesting—it has come a long way since then.
Currently, what direction is your work going in? How will it evolve against technical constraints?
The work will definitely evolve in the future—mainly in ways that I am not really looking forward to. Having chosen to work with obsolete technology, I am constantly challenged with technical issues. As other tools I rely on get updated and no longer ‘speak the same language’ of the old stuff I have to do a lot of problem solving to make them work together. For instance the newer CRT TVs—which seem to creep up more and more as the artwork travels present frustrating challenges—they were manufactured with failsafe features that are annoying for me to work around. I have a feeling that I will either have to retire the work completely at some point or totally make over the circuitry. I really would rather not do that because it would mean switching to another system that I would likely find a lot less intuitive to work with.
Finally, can you tell us more about your upcoming projects? Daughters of Drone for example…
The Daughters of Drone only really exists in name but I’m pretty excited about what it will turn into. What I can tell you is that it will be a collaboration with one of my new favorite people: artist/electronic instrument inventor Peter Edwards of Casper Electronics and it will likely involve modular synthesis, kits, and kids maybe.
Thanks Darsha and see you at Elektra!
All Photos: Darsha Hewitt