We miss things that are built to last

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In an uncanny and retro-dystopian aesthetic, the exhibition SARA by VOID gives us a glimpse of how the first sound recording device worked. Inspired by the first phonograph made by E.L. S. de Martinville in 1860, VOID created a fictional company SARA that archives your sound data in a similar analogue form: with paper and smoke. With our world digitalizing to the max, SARA reassures you that no matter what apocalypse happens, they’ll have your voice and legacy on paper. ‘We don’t know what the future holds’, an AI voice says right before seducing you to record your most precious memory, so she can store it forever. Mauro and Arnaud, the duo behind VOID, gave us a tour around the exhibition at Botanique and explained their passion for materializing the immaterial: sound.

The exhibition’s name is SARA. Where does it come from? 

Mauro: SARA is the acronym for Souvenir Archival Recording Apparatus. It’s the name of the company that takes care of archiving memories of people. Of course, it doesn’t exist legally, but it does exist today at the museum of Botanique. She is recording and archiving the memories people record at the studio. Sara is also the name of the machine that records. It looks almost like a space shuttle, and we quickly found ourselves choosing a name that has similarities with both NASA and SIRI.

Arnaud: It’s a machine that archives souvenirs, the french word for memories. When the big drawings with ‘phonographed’ audio files are finished, they are called souvenirs. 



The question of what sound is in matter gives me the same distressing feeling as questioning what our outer space looks like

Can we find, other than the font and name, more similarities between NASA and SARA?

M: The wink to NASA is definitely there, but we wouldn’t necessarily call it inspiration. Our way of working is very anachronistic and anti-technological or rather anti-new-and-faster-things. That’s the complete opposite of how NASA works. What’s interesting to us about NASA is not only the corporate given but the desire to look for something very far off, something almost unattainable, something mind-blowing. Travelling in time and place and our ideas of outer space are so abstract yet they trigger such a vivid imagination. We ask the people visiting the exhibition to travel back to their souvenirs (memories) as well, something that is both close by and far off. 

A: The question of what sound is in the matter, gives me the same distressing feeling as questioning what our outer space looks like, and trying to grasp that the universe is constantly getting bigger. NASA and SARA are similar in the way that they both try to comprehend and give form to the immaterial. 



You said you started working with a very anti-technology mindset, when and why did you decide to appropriate the corporate aesthetic of technology? 

A: We wanted to let the first device for recording sound ever meet the latest that’s hitting the market, like AI technologies. We exhibit a modern paradox in how we approach to sound: you record it digitally in one of the recording booths after which it is engraved on black smoke-coated paper and we delete the digital file. Making something digital into something analogical is not of our time. But what would we do if there was no electricity anymore? We would lose all our digitized memories. That’s where SARA comes in and tells you that in any case, whatever the future holds, she will keep your data. It’s based on the absurd and ungraspable fear of everything we know disappearing. 

SARA's aesthetic is rather inspired by 80’s science-fiction and dystopian movies than actual futurism



M: Something we miss in our modern economy are things that are built to last. Phones break down after a few years, batteries of computers are built to live a short life... I wouldn’t say our work is a direct commentary on production under capitalism, but it’s inspired by our society and its performative durability...NASA is connected with America, and we all are in a way a bit children of American capitalism and consumerism. 

An important note is that SARA’s aesthetic is a very outdated representation of technology. It’s rather inspired by 80’s science-fiction and dystopian movies than actual futurism. 



How did you stumble upon the history of E.L. S. de Martinville and his invention? 

M: We make a lot of time to do research each time we start a new project. We ended up finding this story because scientists only discovered a few years ago that Scott de Martinville was the first person to invent a way to record sound, not Thomas Edison. The difference is that Scott de Martinville was probably not even entirely aware of what he had discovered.

We are very used to sound being recorded and not hearing sound from its original source, but back in those days, it was unthinkable.

A: If you heard a dog’s bark, it was a dog barking, there were no other possibilities of sources: not a ringtone, a recording, a song in the mall,... There were ways to write down sound, but none to listen to it in retrospect. There used to be only so many gates to the past, now we have an abundance of them. 

How do we choose that one memory as humans, as we are a product of all our memories?



Why is it so important to capture this history-in-the-making? 

M: When we make art, we like to create certain conditions for something to happen, to create a clash, an accident: we don’t always know what the outcome will be. In this case, we don’t criticize anything directly, because we feel like our critique wouldn’t be able to cover all the nuances and paradoxes our modern-day system of archiving and legacy-building holds. We put pieces together and offer different levels of reading and interpretation.   


A: Our project caricatures our modern-day legacy-building where we have 50.000 photos of which only one will go down in history. Likewise, the AI asks you to choose and record one special memory. How do we choose that one memory as humans, as we are a product of all our memories?



What were the reactions of the visitors? 

A: People seem to be emotive when leaving the exhibition. What surprised me a bit, to be honest, is how people enter into the narrative of the corporation. We thought, because it was fake and very over-the-top, it might not do something with people. But a lot of people came out of the exhibition very angry and stressed by the man in the white suit who dictates them. You enter a fictional impression of reality. Different from a movie, you immediately get involved in the piece. We didn’t expect that fiction would have so much impact. 



M: It's the first time we work in a sort of fiction. So it’s also the first time we can see what kind of effect fictionalizing something can have on a piece. It’s not merely a gimmick, what we were afraid might happen. For most visitors, it’s not a big effort to enter the narrative and get the full experience. After all, despite being fiction, the moment is real. Isn’t every exhibition fiction after all?  

A clear base of what is fiction is important, not only for us and the visitors but also when working with performers. The performer has to dictate the visitors, but it’s emotionally exhausting work if they have to do that for themselves. For things like that, fiction is necessary.

Can you tell us more about Collective VOID? 

A: One interesting thing is that Mauro and I almost have the same biography, but we lived in different countries, so we didn’t know each other for a long time. We were both untalented musicians in unsuccessful rock bands [laughs] and both ended up in an art academy by chance. I was a bad musician in the way I couldn’t keep up a rhythm, then I discovered sound poetry and sound art. In those art forms, there is no fixed melody or rhythm and no predetermined rules or expectations. We found each other through that shared passion for sound and interest in visual arts. In our work, we try to find a rendezvous between visual arts and sound. We make analogical work because you can’t cheat. What you see or what you hear is what went on. Following the philosophy of the medium is the message, you have to see the way it’s made. In SARA, because it’s designed like a factory, you can see the whole process of what is happening. 



What are some other ways you have captured sound in past projects?

A&M: We made a project in which we let a computer transcribe the sounds a guitar makes. The computer system would be confused and give random words they thought they recognized. You get a very absurd kind of poetry. In another project, we cast glass on a table by blowing it through a tube. On a table were boxes blasting music, the glass case adapted these vibrations, which gave the glass a swirl effect. I think it’s something that is always going to fascinate us because the options are so endless yet often so limited to personal experience.


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