Collegium Helveticum
Tim Shaw and Tuncay Alan experimenting Phot by Eliot Gisel
In conversation

It Started With Silence
Or How Talking Created the Waves for Collaboration

Tim Shaw and Tuncay Alan are both senior fellows at the Collegium Helveticum. Tim is an artist working with sound at Newcastle University (UK), creates augmented soundwalks, and designs performances for high-voltage devices. Meanwhile, Tuncay is an engineer manipulating droplets to improve drug delivery at Monash University in Melbourne (AU). The similarities between their interests may not be obvious right away. Yet, the two started to experiment together soon after they met at the Collegium and work now towards an art installation later this year. During this conversation, Tim and Tuncay talk about what they have in common and what is so special about the Collegium: a shared space, unexpected encounters, and the openness to learning from practices in other fields.

How did the two of you start to work together?

Tuncay Alan: I met Tim on my very first day at the Collegium. Right from the start, we discovered a lot of shared interests: vibration, sound waves, fluids, acoustics, and more. He is working on sound, while I use the sound waves in my work for drug delivery, mixing fluids and synthesizing materials. The devices I normally work with are on the micro- or even nanoscale. Thus, Tim and I had the idea to enlarge the device and to visualize the process behind sound-induced waves. Such a visualization helps a lot. If you work on the micro-scale, you are often left with raw data to interpret—it is difficult to see the device in operation. Sometimes, you lack a sense of the process.

Tim Shaw: For me, as an artist working with sound, it’s interesting to transform sound from one type of media into another. I have been interested in the different ways to visualize sound, also how visual media can also be transformed into sound. In our creative experiments, Tuncay and I bring sound into a visual form and then turn it back into sound. The next step could be to feed the system back on itself, to create a feedback loop. This could result in something surprising and emergent, but we haven’t tried that yet.

Mico-mechanical resonator in action Phot by Eliot Gisel
Video of the micro-mechanical resonator in action

What have been some interesting or surprising potentials coming out of your collaboration?

TA: I wasn’t expecting to interact with a sound artist but was hoping to encounter someone who is more visually oriented. But Tim has a lot of experience in visualizing sound, and he has created a wonderful digital synthesizer that creates sound out of visual material.

TS: There is actually a long history of turning colors, shapes, and light into sound, for example many artists and musicians experimented with making color organs to produce sound and light. I also think of the movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, in which a so-called ANS synthesizer was used that can transform patterns of light into sound. It worked by scratching a drawing into a black pane of glass, and the resulting image was fed into the synthesizer, which rendered the interaction between light and dark into sound textures.

TA: This was new to me. But from our discussions and creative experimental approach, several ideas have emerged. For example, I realized that the digital ANS synthesizer might also be interesting for a lot of people from my field. When you feed videos of droplets into the synthesizer, you can trigger acoustic signals in real-time that provide a reliable tool to detect the droplet in a very specific area.

Just common interests are often not enough for collaboration to happen. What were some deciding factors why the two of you started to experiment together?

TA: My topic and project at the Collegium were broad enough to get impulses and input during my fellowship. But you need to be ready for that; you need an open state of mind. Similarly, Tim has a lot of equipment with him and around him that he can experiment with right on the spot.

TS: I agree with Tuncay. It’s very helpful to approach a place like the Collegium with very open-ended experimental ideas. My projects have enough fluidity and openness to input and can react to new situations. For me, the thought was very much: “Let’s share our practices, let’s do quick experiments and follow the curiosity, and let’s see what happens.” It is about serendipity and meeting different people.

How did you create this kind of openness?

TA: It helps that everyone here at the Collegium is visiting and is away from their day-to-day administrative or teaching duties. Openness is certainly not easy in an ordinary department or faculty, which makes having places like the Collegium so crucial. You need this dedicated time and space to let the ideas flow. Places where you can deviate from your usual projects and think about new aspects.

TS: But you can’t force it. I was once part of a program that was designed to make people collaborate with each other. And it basically made people not want to work together. Because it was too formalized and structured, and people were top-down assigned to problems and then expected to solve these through collaboration. That was very stifling. The setting at the Collegium is much more conducive because no one is forced to do anything collaboratively, but it creates a lot of opportunities for that to happen naturally. The Collegium is more environmental rather than structural or conceptual. You create an environment in which people find it easy to talk to each other and collaborate. Without the Collegium, I would have stayed at the ZHdK and worked with other artists or done my own projects. Similarly, Tuncay may have mainly interacted with other engineers. When people start to share their practices and interests within a common space, then unexpected encounters and projects can happen.

Was there an encounter that started things for your collaboration?

TA: Discussions at the Collegium may start in a workshop completely outside your own field. Our conversation actually began when we both attended a workshop on epistemic authority. As you may guess, as an engineer, I don’t usually go to workshops like that.

TS: Oh, right. There was a panel on knowledge, the voice, and silence. I went there because I am interested in sound, and silence is obviously an important part of that. It was there that we talked with each other for the first time and learned about our mutual interests. It was one of the many opportunities to meet people from both inside and outside the Collegium. So, if we hadn’t talked there, we probably would have met in another context. 

TA: For this, having a common physical space, the building, is crucial. You can wander around an observatory, and casual encounters just happen, which are incredibly important besides the more organized meetings with fellows. It’s not easy to create an environment like this. But it was just the right one for us. And I think it is—and can be—for many others, too.