Do you feel like screaming? It’s understandable. Maybe you’re worried about vulnerable loved ones or how you’ll make ends meet, burned out by marathon video meetings, or just bored out of your mind in yet another lockdown.
In London, visual artist Marcus Lyall had a solution: a light installation activated by quarantined individuals screaming into a specially made Zoom call. For more than two weeks, their frustrations were blasted out as light pulses in an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished building in the English capital.
The project, dubbed Scream The House Down, was a temporary experiment in collective venting, at a time when few people could get out to experience unique art installations in person. We spoke with Lyall, whose day job is designing light displays for musicians like Metallica and The Chemical Brothers, about the therapeutic qualities of sentient environments, and whether screaming into the void via Zoom will be coming to a screen near you soon.
Marcus, let’s kick off with the backstory for Scream The House Down. As an artist, have you deployed the much-vaunted ‘Primal Scream’ therapy as part of your own process to know it would be helpful for everyone stuck at home, staring into the void of Zoom?[ML] Well, I’m a fan of psychotherapy in general. And I did another project called House Of Pain, in 2013, which also allowed you to light up a building with your screams. But you did it in person. We made that work at a fairly stressful time in my life. It gave me an excuse to do a lot of screaming while testing it out. This project felt it was the right time to do it in a different way.
The building interpreted every voice and scream differently, delivering a unique artistic output each time. Can you take us under the hood, talk about the tech you used, and how this individuality was reflected in the resulting artwork?[ML] The system uses software called TouchDesigner, which is a great visual programming language. I’m using it in a fairly simple way. Your voice on the Zoom call gets analyzed in terms of volume, pitch, and duration, and that affects the color and pattern of the lights. There’s a mixture of different lights being used, which all get their own flavor of signal. The tricky part was getting the cameras and Zoom feeds working. Trying to remotely control it all.
dating from the mid-19th Century. [ML] Yes, Southwark has a history going back to Shakespeare’s time as a place of release, as it was then outside the confines of the City Of London itself. However, less bear-baiting these days though.
Indeed. The building itself, at No. 55, was built in the 1930s as an office block, but has been used by artists in recent years. Were you already familiar with the area, as an artist yourself?[ML] Yes, I’ve done a lot of projects in Southwark. The first was a Nokia phone launch, in collaboration with Deadmau5. We took over a whole square and made all the lights and objects in it respond to his DJ set. I met a local arts organization through the Deadmau5 gig, and we’ve staged a number of interactive installations together since then.
Was this one very much a keeping-busy-during COVID project? [ML] It was indeed. We were all locked down and in need of a project to keep our brains going. Working together in this way was about keeping us all sane. Also, because the building is quite big, we could social-distance throughout the build process, but still have some camaraderie. Caroline Jones, my producer, spotted the building initially, and the whole thing was done for almost zero budget. We struck a deal with the landlord. I used the guts of another light installation as the basis, and then got support from a lighting company to flood the rooms with light. We got volunteers from the local area and from UCL’s Bartlett architecture course to help set up.
The Zoom call/scream functionality was available post-sundown on Tuesday through Saturday, from 8:30 p.m. to 12.30 a.m. Did you keep data records of the most popular time/locations of screamers?[ML] Parents won’t be surprised to hear that peak time was shortly after kids’ bedtimes. I think people were surprised that it was really happening. They could actually get on and have a go. Most people had a look at the project on YouTube and thought, “I can do that!” We had callers from Australia, Russia, the USA, and all over.
The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism is an important reference for my work. I’ve worked on a lot of crowdsourced projects and, rather than just capturing mouse clicks and “likes” a la FAANG [Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet and Google], I’m trying to capture more intimate responses. It’s more to make a point about our ambiguous relationship with technology rather than as material for a deep-tech start-up. We’re getting offers to stage the work again, so the pool of material will start to grow. It’ll probably become a gallery-sized piece at some point.
Let’s do some backstory on you now. You graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in graphic design. This is a storied place, which boasts alumnae such as late designer Alexander McQueen, industrial designer James Dyson, and popster Jarvis Cocker, who immortalized it in his song ‘Common People.’ Common People.’ What was that like?[ML] I was very fortunate to be at St Martins at an interesting time. I never met Alexander McQueen, but friends worked with him. And Jarvis Cocker was on the course downstairs and spent hours looking louche in the coffee bar. At the time, I was very involved in doing expanded cinema—think VJ’ing, but with slide and film projectors—for the early rave scene. I’m still doing that, to some degree.
You established your name as a director in commercials and creative visual FX for live music events, including The Chemical Brothers, U2, Rolling Stones, and Metallica. Before the great shutdown due to the pandemic, what kind of projects did you spend most of your time on?[ML] In recent years I’ve been developing more art installations and had my first solo gallery show, again exploring the idea of captured data, but shown on analogue oscilloscopes and lasers. I’ve also been working on The Chemical Brothers show with my creative partner Adam Smith as Smith & Lyall. That show has really moved to a new level in recent years, with a big headline show at Glastonbury and arena shows. We had just finished production rehearsals and an exhibit for Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical BrothersElectronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers at The Design Museum when lockdown hit.
For one of Metallica’s massive stadium tours, you built out and animated a 115-foot video floor. What was it like working with the band?[ML] Metallica gave us a lot of freedom, but weren’t afraid to point us in the right direction. I’m more of a raver than metalhead, so there was a lot of learning to do. The fans are fanatical, and you realize you are helping to create part of the Metallica “canon,” so it has to feel right.
Random question: are you a fan of Star TrekStar Trek? Looking through your video streamvideo stream, one imagines you’d be on SpaceX’s speed dial when Elon Musk decides to kit out a holodeck.[ML] Elon can call me anytime! I’ve been looking into virtual production (a la The Mandalorian) a lot recently, which is as close as it gets to a holodeck at the moment. I’m a big fan of early experimental cinema, and a lot of those directors and artists worked on sci-fi shows like Star Trek, so there’s a massive influence. I love using the analogue techniques from that time as starting points.
Do you consider your work part of the emerging ‘responsive environments’ or ‘sentient dwellings’ sector? For example, when I interviewed Dr. Burcin Becerik-Gerberinterviewed Dr. Burcin Becerik-Gerber, she talked about creating buildings with Alexa-style personalities, where AI powers sensor-laden spaces to not just orchestrate heat/light/sustainability measures but also combat isolation.[ML] As an artist, I’ve managed to persuade people to give me their heart data [and] brain data in exchange for a rewarding experience. I have made a light sculpture for a co-working space that looked at people’s heart rate variability and influenced an audio-visual composition depending on what it detected. The challenge there was in making something that didn’t make you feel more stressed if it detected stress.
Right. A responsive environment that adds to stress wouldn’t be cool. [ML] Also, behind all this responsive tech, something, or someone, is gathering your data and building a dataset. People aren’t necessarily thinking about the implications. It’s a deliberate analogue of the transactions that happen in our digital lives all the time.
That we’re constantly being monitored and our data is traded you mean?[ML] Right, because Alexa is about helping Amazon solve speech-to-text and emotion recognition through large-scale datasets, isn’t it? I guess it’s nice when an environment responds to you, but not when it gives opinions on your personal issues to your insurance company.
Good point. Final question. We’ve all been grounded for almost a year now. When you’re allowed to travel for fun, work, or inspiration, where will you go, and why? [ML] COVID has made me think a lot about cutting down the travel as much as possible, for environmental reasons. My 7-year-old son is a train fanatic, so it’ll probably be a train trip in Europe somewhere. Secretly, I have a craving for the Chinatown hawker market in Singapore. Currently? I’d settle for a quiet pint round the corner.
Electronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical BrothersElectronic: From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers will reopen at the Design Museum, London, as soon as UK government restrictions lift.