A Row of Trees

The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit

Anna Jane Houghton – Ascending Rooms

Ascending Rooms
23 Notes on Vibration of the Lived Environment and the Question of Immortality


This series of notes ponders Architectural Body (2002), a manifesto of Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, as a form of experimental methodology. An artist-architect pair who believed that, through profound recalibration of our constructed environment, humans could solve life’s greatest design flaw – immortality. These musings are placed alongside a series of sound recordings, which consider Gins and Arakawa’s ethos of ‘reversible destiny’ by questioning the possibility of longevity by activating the body though movement, sound and a relationship with space.



1. “We have decided not to die,” a succinct declaration of Gins’ and Arakawa’s lifelong ambition, in which the boundaries between human and architecture are blurred – a symbiosis between lived environment and resident, in an eternal state of tentativeness.


2. If we consider the basic notions of matter, in this case, not in the sense of an art-object, but rather as a stabilising process of materialisation, then the tangibility of something, its actuality and realness, are subsequent states of its own boundary: a fact which leads one to question the bodily involvement in such materialisation and what it is that matters about the human body and subsequent material bodies. If the intelligibility of one’s own presence within space can merge the individual site/occupant boundaries, can this ensue the preservation of life or sound? If so, what does the fabric of this vibrational fixative look like?


3. Is it possible for a space – our relationship to it and the vibrations that occur between – to challenge us to the point of immortality? Gins and Arakawa believed this with all certainty – that the lived environment and the challenges it proposed could indeed reverse mortal destiny. Thinking on this, in my own surroundings, these walls built in 1848, by design of architect Wyatt Papworth, walls which throw me challenges of my own, through time via decay. As the bricks sit stagnant in the cold late November air, mould and dust collects, resulting in an exchange of care, a tending to the structure that holds. An exercise, rather, in how the body can serve space, opposed to how space can serve the body.


4. Constructed landing sites which hold a ‘deep sense of voicefulness’, writes John Ruskin in 1849, watch sternly with a mysterious air of sympathy, maybe even approval or condemnation, walls that have long been ‘washed by the passing waves of humanity’.


5. Opposing the idea of deathlessness is the premise that immortality exists not in an undying body, but in the output from our mortal boundary. Not that the trace of memory alone should be what preserves our past perceptions, but that memory itself should simultaneously allow us to face our state of mortality. Though this needs the consideration of what we define memory to be, whether that is something that is held, a mental capacity for retaining and reviving, or is it in fact separate from the corporeal body entirely, and is instead merely the length of time which recollection extends – implying that it is recollection itself that forms the boundaries of the corporeal body.


6. Consequently, as I write, I am constantly thinking on the very instance of writing, evoking the tendency of the human system to maintain a finite internal stability, making it increasingly more ambitious to differentiate between the biochemical weave of the body writing and the surface of page. Which makes this set of propositions in itself a physical sphere, a terrain of inquiry, aiding in demonstrating the blurring of boundaries.


7. The concept of a permeable boundary, the escaped contents of which can exist between and go on to inhabit that of another, when applied to sonic realms, brings to light Guglielmo Marconi’s proposed immortality of sound waves. That sound may appear lost to the human ear but that these eternal frequencies exist nonetheless. Marconi and Ruskin alike refer to the traces of time as ‘waves’, the very matter of memory itself. Though these ‘waves’ would need to be picked up by a then completely imagined device to tap into the littered lost sounds, lying in wait, to be revived by the right antenna.


8. Today in an era of pervasive sound recording, the resurrection of old sounds is at our disposal, made new again each time with each play, shaped by the ambience, history and dimension of new landing sites.


9. The nature of the ever-changing allotted space that these past vibrations inhabit acts as a filter, sieving out all frequencies, except the resonant ones. So it is not in fact by and through the recorded sound, but instead through the interaction with space that holds the key to unlocking them–feeding sounds back into the environment, in different states of time. So in essence vibration is that which filters itself, as the fabric of said ‘allotted space’ is the very same thing. This allows the physical dimensions and acoustic characteristics of the space to bring the flattened sounds back to life, providing a method which can be utilised to directly impact an occupant’s understanding of the architecture they inhabit and their experiences within.


10. Thinking on the third space between two known things, between translations and transitions by architectural means, could ‘immortality’ then instead be achieved by exploiting the physical notions of space via the imposition of corporeal matter, which allows the lost frequencies that whir within walls to take on a new form in a new time? Their resonance, as in the natural occurrence of vibrating mass at a specific frequency, suggests that in order to successfully revive a note adrift, a physically external sound source must interact with the properties of the architecture and the bodies within the space, which will inevitably undo such architectural properties to conceive a new variant.


11. So to challenge the tentative symbiosis that Gins and Arakawa speak of, between body and architecture in a bid to live forever, could it be that it is not through our mere corporal receptors, but instead through the sounds they emit, that we can truly live forever? It is apparent that the relations between the sound source and the space destabilise, making one much more aware of the other through the now shared vibrations between them, holding both accountable for an eternal sonic output.



12. This could generate a self-referential loop between form and context, critiquing the stability of meaning itself, as the matter at hand is constantly in a state of change. Gins was concerned with such a multiplicity of communicational modes with great distances of space, but also small distances, such as the space between a nucleus and electrons, distances which are not ordinarily related to the form of communication used. It is within these states that methods of communication through space can be questioned.


13. This leads me to 1848, a year in which the walls I sit within were realised, and how through this structure and the evocation of sonic memory spatial vibration can, in a sense, break down the boundary of mortality. Using the walls as a means of filtration of the stored sounds enclosed to converse through time via space. Picking up Marconi’s lost erratic sounds, defying geographical origin, incorporating the imposition of the historic sonic remnants of the building and the occupant bodies that shaped them.


14. Notation which has passed through one’s bodily boundary into the shared in-between, now relayed through exact prescribed instructions. Dionisio Aguado’s New Method For Guitar, also actualised in 1848, is introduced to the space, opening the composition up to new determinative architectures. Aguado’s composition is deconstructed into single prolonged notes and played into the building’s old gated lift shaft, an ascending room of sorts.


15. The elevator is a space that Max Neuhaus studied in order to understand an occupant’s movement through vertical space. He eventually concluded that such spaces should be fitted with a combination of colour and sound to mark the elevator’s position from floor to floor. This idea of understanding and interacting with space is seemingly at the core of everything discussed here and the inclusion of motion is a nod to the grounding theory of Architectural Body.


16. A thing in motion will always defy a thing at rest when it comes to immortality, as that which is static immediately begins the process of decay, while that which is in motion is seemingly eternal.



17. The recordings take place at three intervals of the staircase which spirals around the lift itself, the performer ascending, the sound escaping from the lift onto the surrounding stairs. The inclusion of colour in the form of colourfield lighting assigns each level a primary, in order to fulfil Neuhaus’s instruction of dedicated zones for spatial understanding, indicating to the listener that these sounds exist as separate from one another.1


18. According to Frank O’Hara, coloured sound comes from a feeling of corruption, in the sense that the obscurity of emotion is simple but simultaneously very definite, a dark and purifying wave, and much like a space, can appear empty but with the promise of refilling. This experience is local and intimate, and within it phrases of old romance are repeated and constantly renewed, locked away for the future revival of the captured time of our being.


19. It seems the foundation of these notes essentially stems from the poetics of space rather than the physics of it, though it would seem that no actual space can satisfy the poetic imagination. Instead, architectural sites with a phenomenological significance exemplify states of unconscious lives; the house for example, which in the same way as those that inhabit it, will be subject to alteration, evolution and decay.


20. My recordings seek to examine the lived space as a significant artefact of, and tool for, the future of human thought, in the same way that the house shelters these possibilities. Once collected they are then played through a series of speakers, which sit at the same intervals that the recordings themselves were conducted. Rather than absorbing sound from the central lift shaft, the steps emit it to a listener, now in the place of the absent performer within the elevator.


21. As the body travels through the structure of speakers, a sense of spatial presence is questioned as the sound lines in the work alter one’s sense of space and it becomes uncertain whether sounds are being stalked or abandoned. The sound space itself is defined not by the structure of speakers, but instead by the travelling boundaries of the sound, which alter existing physical fields, suggesting that sound architectures are not concerned with the actuality of space, but the somatic factors that conceive new arenas of sonic presence.


22. Bodies do not exist outside of sound, they instead move through, against and with sound space, extending through physical embodiment. A crossing of boundaries in order to concurrently sustain and augment, and in this extension, a nuanced version of what it means to defy death emerges.



23. Gins and Arakawa died in New York at the ages of 73 and 72. Their aim to out-design death was a position of action, a longing to dismantle and redefine the logic of architecture, of whom and what it serves. Though Gins and Arakawa’s bodies, any body for that matter, have not achieved deathlessness, when their intentions are applied to sound, its fate appears divergent to that of the human body. Perhaps the symbiosis of site and occupant is not the death-defying aggregate, but is instead the marrying of sound and space, activated by mortal passers-by who mobilise history through the sounds they leave behind. These sounds are a spatial event that holds an ephemerality, both in existence and definition. Aiding in the commitment that all art has to acknowledge its own conventions, one which questions perception and ultimately makes one more aware of, connected to, or even confluent with, their environment.



1. Max Neuhaus, Program Notes. Primary Information. 2015.



Shusaku Arakawa & Madeline Gins. Architectural Body. University of Alabama Press. 2002.

Gaston Bachelard. The Poetics Of Space. Penguin Classics. 2014.

Frank O’ Hara. Why I’m Not A Painter. Carcanet Press Ltd. 2003.

Wyatt Papworth. Museums, Libraries and Picture Galleries. Book on Demand Ltd. 2013.

John Ruskin.  The Lamp of Memory. Penguin Books. 1849.




Ascending Rooms

(for online installation)


Necessary Equipment

// 3 devices capable of digital sonic output (for example, a computer, an iPad, a mobile phone)

// 3 recordings of drone notes played on prepared guitar (‘Ground Floor’, ’Level 1’, ’Level 2’)

// Furniture of differing heights that the devices can be placed on to create the illusion of a spherical listening environment. The dimensions of furniture should be chosen to relatively mimic intervals of a spiral staircase.

// A room of sonic possibilities of which you would like to evoke.


Choose three pieces of furniture, one which will sit close to the floor, a footstool perhaps; one which will occupy a central space, possibly at eye level, maybe the middle shelf of a bookcase; and finally one which will allow the device upon it to feed sound into the realm above ones head; a standing ladder or a tall wardrobe.


Place the three devices on the respective pieces of furniture.

From the lowest height play ‘Ground Floor’

From the middle play ‘Level 1’

From the highest point play ‘Level 2’


Now precede to sit, central, within the sonic sphere of your own making.

Artist biography:

Return to: