© Ray Lee - sound and wonder  ray@i-f.org.uk

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Updated: Nov 14, 2018

In Lawrence Weschler’s book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder[1] the author gives an account of what Francis Bacon describes as a ‘model of the universe made private’. What Bacon was referring to were what became known as Wunderkammern, cabinets of wonder, the precursors of the first museums. At this time, in the early renaissance, the opening up of the world and in particular the New World led to a profusion of ‘marvellous new stuff’ becoming available to the wealthy gentlemen collectors of the old world[2].

According to Erika Suderburg[3] we can see in these ‘room sized collections of art and intriguing objects [.....] more than a passing resemblance to the contemporary practice of installation’.

Prime among wonders was the magnet. Goethe called the magnet ‘a symbol of everything left over for which we need seek neither words nor names’[4]. From Mesmer’s magnetic cures[5] to perpetual motion machines the magnet has both fascinated and intrigued; the restless human quest to make sense of the magnet’s mysterious properties could be seen as one of the motive forces behind the development of the scientific method. In Hidden Attraction: the mystery and history of magnetism Verschuur introduces Peter Peregrinus who in 1269 wrote an ‘epistola’ on magnets. According to a description of him by his contemporary Roger Bacon, Peregrinus could be viewed as one of the first experimental scientists [6].

Even today when I hold two powerful magnets in my hands so that they attract or repel each other I am confronted with an experience of a physical force that exists, but which I cannot see. The magnetic field is real, tangible, physical, concrete, and yet invisible.

In 2005 I curated, through Oxford Brookes University, a version of Christina Kubisch’s Electrical Walks[7]. This work is a compelling example of how the invisible world of electromagnetic radiation can be revealed and made audible. The participants wear modified headsets that amplify the radiofrequency noise generated by electrical activity. In the city centre, this can be a cacophony of hums, buzzing, screeching, thumping and clicking that can terrify as well as beguile. Alone in our listening, we are alienated from our surroundings, only we hear what others around us cannot perceive. It is as if a sonic veil has been lifted from the world to reveal an insane electrical choir. Wearing this headset I walk into a shop on Cornmarket Street, Oxford and the electro-magnetic radiation generated by the anti-theft security gates creates a loud thumping rhythm that goes through my body. Those around me walk through the gates unaffected, unaware. If I take off my headphones I am also removed from this sinister audio reality. As I walk around the city, having collected the headphones from a central location, I map this invisible maze of sound and I am reminded of Jeppe Hein’s invisible labyrinth in the Hayward Art Gallery show Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012 in 2012[8]. By wearing vibrating headsets, the audience were able to navigate or get lost in a maze delineated by infrared sensors in the roof and detected via the headsets. When I reflect on these works I am conscious that my fascination with invisible forces is increasingly related to my interest in wonderment. The magnet for me is an instrument of wonder, a way of connecting with a sense of not knowing. We can explain magnetism in the same way that we can explain gravity, but the scientific explanations do not seem to penetrate our consciousness. I am left stuck to the planet holding an invisible force at bay between my two hands, a magnetic flux resisting my muscles as I push my hands together.

As I became reacquainted with the electro-magnetic spectrum I looked with amazement at the simple fact that visible light is a form of electro-magnetic radiation. Meanwhile inside our ears, inside our organs of Corti, our astonishing harps of hearing, the stereocilia turn sound waves into electrical impulses. The human perception of both sound and light is fundamentally electrical. My research is intrinsically linked to the history and nature of electricity as well as its use as the prime motive force. In Electric, as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s One-on-One festival, I set up an ‘electrical practice’ in a disused office at the rear of the building. The audience, one at a time, like clients or patients at a disreputable back street clinic, entered the practice for a five minute consultation during which time we discussed the nature of electricity. I then invited them to share a mild electric shock with me. We held hands and shared a distinctive, low voltage, electrical tingling sensation, while the electrons moved between us:

And then, you’re connected. Ray Lee touches your hand, completing a circuit, and a tingle paces over your fingers. It defies description, but remains absolutely recognisable as the sensation of electricity . [...] Rather magically, there’s also a realisation that something – electrons, presumably – is travelling between your body and his. There’s a genuine exchange. It’s smile inducing and eye-widening.[9]

Electric at BAC, London 2010 Photo: Ray Lee

During our discussion I asked each participant about their understanding of electricity. What is electricity? How does it work? I was fascinated to discover that of the hundreds of participants very few had any tangible grasp of this fundamental force that drives the modern world. By sharing the sensation of electricity I aimed to make electricity tangible, engaging people in an experience of electricity, in an empirical appreciation of an invisible phenomenon.

[1]Lawrence Weschler, Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 1996). p.76

[2] Ibid. p.76

[3]Erika Suderburg, Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art (Minneapolis /

London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). p.7

[4]Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism (Köln: Taschen, 2005). p.620

[5]Ibid. p.621

[6] Gerrit L Verschuur, Hidden Attraction : The History and Mystery of Magnetism (New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) . pp.9, 11

[7]Christina Kubisch, "Electrical Walks," accessed 31.07.2014 http://www.christinakubisch.de/en/works/electrical_walks.

[8] Hayward Gallery, London 2012.

[9] Matt Trueman, "Response: Electric, One on One Festival at BAC | Matt Trueman," accessed 31.07.2014, http://matttrueman.co.uk/2010/07/response-electric-one-on-one-festival-at-bac.html.