Till Bovermann is a post-doctoral researcher on tangible and auditory interfaces at the Media Lab Helsinki. Previously, from 2006 until 2010, he worked as a research assistant at various institutes of Bielefeld University, Germany, most recently in the Ambient Intelligence Group of the CITEC Cognitive Interaction Technology, Center of Excellence. In 2010, he received a PhD for his work on Tangible Auditory Interfaces. His artistic works are mostly concerned with the relationship between digital and physical space. He is co-founder of TooManyGadgets, a media art group that tries to reveal this interconnecton. Alongside his academic and artistic work, he also develops software (mostly in SuperCollider). Since 2010, Till has been teaching at the Institute For Music And Media of the University of Music Düsseldorf and the Generative Art class at UdK Berlin.
On my recent trip to Finland to attend the Global World Alliance for Arts Education (WAAE) Summit at the University of Lapland, I met Till through a mutual colleague/friend who introduced us over several drinks at a Helsinki bar. Amongst the general chit chat we shared with other friends at the table, we both got chatting about what we do and discovered we share an interest in working with people with (perceived) disabilities. I wanted to learn more about his work and so have remained in contact with him since returning to Adelaide. Till and I correspond across the internet for this interview.
So tell me about your family origins. Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
I was raised as a son of a graphics designer and a teacher in a small village next to Bielefeld, a City with 320,000 inhabitants in Western Germany. I am glad about being raised in such a small village; it was great to play in the woods and get an understanding of nature. Also roller skating on nearly all streets without the fear of getting hit by a car was fun.
Were you more into sports, books or computers?
I read a lot. There was a huge Library where my parents used to go with me and I think I read nearly everything they had in the children’s department. My father is a teacher for maths and computer science so I had contact to computers quite early in my life. However, it took until I was 16 that I seriously did some programming.
What was your relationship like with your parents as a teenager?
Quite good, I think. My father was always present and had an opinion about many things, a true natural scientist, whereas my mother as a graphics designer came from a completely different world. I never really rebelled against my parents, though. Sometimes I regret that but on the other hand, there is nothing really that is between us today.
Can you tell me your fondest memory of your mother?
I remember being a child and at home with her. It was bright sunlight outside, we lived at the countryside… and she was telling a story about a bunch of people flying with a hot air balloon over the world while I was dreaming along. In my memories, this took forever, a great moment of security.
You’re living and working in Helsinki but have recently visited Germany. I’m wondering what are some of the noticeable or more subtle changes in societal change there since the Global Financial Crisis and how does it compare between countries?
I could not really see any substantial changes in everyday life. Generally, though, it seems that Finland is less suffering from the crisis yet. This impression is based on my insights into specific aspects of life, though, so mainly related to the cultural and scientific environment.
Like many Europeans, you must be fluent in several languages. Is Finnish one of your strongest?
Ha! I speak German and English, I have a vocabulary of about 200 words in Finnish. Sometimes I understand Dutch and French…
Is it common for young Germans to work abroad or have you really paved quite a different pathway specific to your career?
I wouldn’t consider my career to be typical in any way.I studied “Computer science in the natural science” with focus on (theoretical) robotics, majored with a work on interactive sonification, and continued to work as a PhD candidate in interactive sonification and tangible interfaces at the Ambient Intelligence Group of Bielefeld University, Germany. All of this, though already a bit off the normal tracks, is still part of a fairly engineering and natural science-bound scientific research environment.
Then, with a doctoral degree on the theme of “Tangible Auditory Interfaces”, I started to look for jobs. At that time I was already searching for “new horizons”, i.e., somehow I was missing a bit more discussion about research methods. Especially because I wanted to work in between humans and computers; so having a methodology at hand that helps to discuss and investigate that relationship would’ve been great.
With that in mind, I came to the MediaLab Helsinki, a place highly associated with that same area I worked in before. However here, I soon realised that I was surrounded by interaction designers. So in a way I learned the guts of both areas, the engineering part and the designer part.
Finally, I started to get seriously interested in contemporary music and dance (practice) which, fortunately, Helsinki is not the worst place to be for.
In 2010 you received your doctorate in computer science, but I understand your real interest is in music. Can you tell me more about the focus of your PhD?
I wrote my PhD thesis at the Ambient Intelligence Group of Bielefeld University. It covered the field of ‘Tangible Auditory Interfaces’. This means that I investigated into alternative ways of interfacing with the computer, mainly focusing on sound and haptics.
The most popular examples that I developed are “Auditory Augmentation” (together with René Tünnermann) and “AudioDome SoundBlox” (together with René Tünnermann and Bodo Lensch, Animax Bonn).
To explain the notions “Haptics” and “Interfaces” I used above:
“Haptics refers to the sense of touch (from Greek ἅπτω = “I fasten onto, I touch”). It is a form of nonverbal communication.” (wikipedia)
“Interfacing is a textile used on the unseen or “wrong” side of fabrics to make an area of a garment more rigid.” (wikipedia)
But seriously, with interfacing, I mean the connection between human and computer, e.g., a computer mouse, a screen, a keyboard and so forth.
“Where a visual space is an organized continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships” [McLuhan (1967): The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.] Can you talk a little more about this?
The complete quote from McLuhan (which I put in front of the description of my work on Anemos Sonore) is this:
The ear favors no particular “point of view.” We are enveloped by sound. It forms a seamless web around us. We say, “Music shall fill the air.” We never say, “Music shall fill a particular segment of the air.”
We hear sounds from everywhere, without ever having to focus. Sounds come from “above,” from “below,” from in “front” of us, from “behind” us, from our “right,” from our “left.” We can’t shut out sound automatically. We simply are not equipped with earlids. Where a visual space is an organized continuum of a uniformed connected kind, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships.
This quote is a good starting point to get an idea not only about the differences between our visual and our auditive perception, it also explains the consequences in perception:
Whereas focusing on specific aspects is mostly mechanical in the eye, the selection of the sonic effects we decide to concentrate on takes place in after the sensory element.
It is impossible to not hear something, making hearing a more holistic sense.
How has this led to your work with people with a disability? What was your initial introduction?
I think, the connection is that I want to examine different world views, mainly. Using sound as a medium is one way to a subjective experience, working with people that have a fundamentally different way of acting (and percepting) the world, as it seems to be the case with Autistics (people with Austism Spectrum Disorder), is another form.
This now may sound very selfish, and frankly, I think it is. But then again, on my way to more insights, I hope to be able to provide something that they consider valuable as well. Learning from each other is, after all, a mutual activity.
Has ‘politically correct’ language in the cultures of disability that you’ve worked in been difficult to navigate?
As I am very new to the field of working with people with disabilities, I am very much struggling with the correct notions, trying to not offend anyone. Now that I start to get a feeling for the vocabulary, it is interesting to notice how wrong people around me use the language. Things I would not have noticed a year ago are now already an absolute no-go.
Using “autistics” rather than “people with autistic spectrum disorder” e.g. is such a case where I am unsure. Headlam (2006) e.g. uses autistics following Sinclair (2005). And I think there’s a clear reason to this.
[Headlam, 2006] Headlam, D. (2006). Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, chapter Learning to Hear Autistically, pages 109–120. Routledge.
[Sinclair, 1993] Sinclair, J. (1993). Don’t mourn for us. In Our Voice, volume 1 of Autism Network International newsletter.
Do you think that People with ASD is a better name though? I’m asking because somehow it states Disorder which means that there is something as ‘order’ or ‘normal’, that’s why we named the project “Electronic digital music practice for Neurodiverse People” to emphasize that we’re not thinking of normal or abnormal but about a diversity neurological diverse.
What is the TAI Studio and can you tell me more about the electronic digital music practice for neurodiverse people?
The TAI Studio provides a framework for scientific and artistic research on tangible and auditory interfaces (TAI) between digital media and the physical realm. Researchers and students share their knowledge and competences in order to creatively work on TAI-related ideas. During its 2 years of existence, the TAI studio hosted some fifteen projects and the annual multichannel concert series 4for8. TAI-studio is affiliated to the Department of Media at Aalto University and run by myself.
Does the TAI Studio have the capacity to work remotely (geographically and technologically speaking), outside the confines of four walls?
Well, the TAI-Studio is more meant to be an idea, not a room in that sense… all the equipment we have is either portable or pretty much standard. We have an eight-channel surround sound setup that is not fixed to the walls, i.e. it can be carried around fairly easy.
You’ve written and contributed to more than 19 publications to date. Which publication do you think best describes the kind of work you do?
But since I am in Helsinki, my research interest turned away from these more or less abstract ‘turn data into sound’ towards a more artistic approach of work.
So is your work with young people with Autism more research-based or performative?
That is yet to be decided… but it definitely has a research-related character.
What does your heart say?
We will work with design methods like participatory design to develop ideas and prototypes for instruments but there is certainly a big portion of creativity involved.
What has been the highlight in this work so far?
The project ‘Electronic digital music practice for Neurodiverse People’ (DEIND, http://tai-studio.org/index.php/projects/deind/) is my first project in which I work with neurodiverse people and it is still in its very beginnings. I work together with Ramyah Gowrishankar, Mila Moisio and Julian Parker; together we form an interdisciplinary team with expertise in Sound, Music, Signal processing, Interaction Design, Textile, Fashion and Computer science.
Just two days ago, we had our first visit in Imatra, a small town near the border to Russia where our project partner, Nuorten Ystävät (“friends of the youth”) operates an assisted living place in which 13 people with autistic spectrum disorder are hosted. We will work with three of them, all not able to orally communicate.
The highlight so far was to realise that all our ideas for instruments that we had beforehand fall short the fact that all three participants have difficulties to sit down at a table. They are more or less constantly walking around, or, if they sit somewhere it seems to be impossible to seek their attention to anything.
So in conclusion, our primary task will be to get their attention or, better, to find ways on how to integrate our endeavour into their life-world.
When will you know you’ve succeeded in this integration?
That’s a difficult question. I have the feeling that I won’t succeed in being able to answer that. For now, I feel a bit like a stranger looking at a culture I don’t understand and that I might destroy with my attempts to get closer to.
I think, one scenario would be, if I actually get an insight about how the people I am working with perceive my investigations. And hopefully, their reaction will be a positive one.
How do you know when you’re in love?
I think, when I’m in love, I can feel it. I get curious about the person or thing I’m in love with and, optimally, this is mutual. But that’s a tough question, really. I think it is essential to get to a stage where I am not waiting for anything to happen when it comes to love because that seems to close me up and make me stiff and restless.
Hopefully, a year of almost distraction-free working on this new project, followed by perhaps moving to Berlin. On the long run, I’d really like to do a project with contemporary dancers, maybe doing the music for an experimental piece.