Michael Davis: My Role as a Responsible Installation Artist

Bio-Resin, reusable metal in bar chimes… these are just a couple of materials that are surprisingly part of the illumaphonium, a musical structure that stands tall, colourful, entrancing and strong at the I Light Marina Bay 2018 festival in Singapore. Gaia Discovery’s Mallika Naguran gets on the same bandwidth as its British creator Michael Davis as he speaks about his musical interest, beliefs, style and role as a responsible artist.

SINGAPORE, 18 March 2018. Singapore’s i Light Marina Bay is a celebration of not just art fused with light, but also sound, touch and ideas, as illustrated by one display in its 2018 edition – the illumaphonium, that stands tall over three metres near below the Esplanade bridge (far end next to Starbucks on One Fullerton). The creator Michael Davis seeks out new experiences and renders them through carefully chosen (and exhaustively tested) materials for his art forms that include plant-based, reusable and recyclable matter. It is quite hypnotic to stand or sit while observing the installation where changing colour, sound and rhythm dance through the hundred odd illuminated chime bars.

Michael Davis experiments with materials that are bio-based and reuseable metal in Illumaphonium. Courtesy of Press Association 2017

Michael Davis experiments with materials that are bio-based and reuseable metal in Illumaphonium. Courtesy of Press Association 2017

More importantly, Davis tells Mallika Naguran in an exclusive interview with Gaia Discovery, that while everyone is creative, the available instruments, media or instructions as avenues for expression are more often than not, inadequate. Hence the illumaphonium that has also been displayed at Lumiere and the Glastonbury Festival stands out as one that breaks down barriers, allowing anyone to strike a note, playfully or musically, even angrily, against the electro acoustics background. 

How and in what ways does music fit into your notion of art and creativity, and what are the fundamentals of participatory music that you try to project in your work

First what is 'art' anyway? Art could be considered to be the creation of artifacts. Objects, tactile and physical, or intellectual; memes, ideas, songs and rhythms. The point being that these artifacts survive over time, living beyond the deaths of their creators. By experiencing a piece of art, singing a song, playing a rhythm we are able to connect back in time with all the people who have done the same – people who have shared the same belief, people to whom this same thing was important. This simple process is at the basis of cultural identity and has been vitally important in human social evolution.

Music differs from painting or sculpture in that it is a real-time activity carried out in this present moment. It seems to me that in the playing of music that there are two paths we can take: We can play what has been played before, what has been handed down through the generations, the music that serves to bind us to our ancestors, that gives us our identity as a people. Or, another way to approach the ritualistic activity of music-making is to create music now, from scratch, without forethought. This is the approach that interests me the most and that which my installation work is most geared towards.

Responsible installation artist Michael Davis showcases the illumaphonium in Singapore's i Light Marina Bay 2018 festival. Image courtesy of English Heritage

Responsible installation artist Michael Davis showcases the illumaphonium in Singapore's i Light Marina Bay 2018 festival. Image courtesy of English Heritage

When a piece of music achieves public acclaim and becomes important socially it is easy to forget that there was a point in time when this was made for the first time, when the words were first sung or the rhythm first composed. This initial moment of inspiration is so important, so powerful, so life-changing. This understanding that 'creativity is a thing that can happen to you' is what my work is all about and finding ways to share this most empowering of experiences is what motivates me to create.

We are creative beings at our very core. It is more a question of ‘What is it that I choose to create with this life?”
— Installation Artist Michael Davis

My belief is that all humans are inherently creative, although sadly, some (or most) of this creativity is often drummed out of us in early childhood. We are encouraged to believe that creativity is something that only other people do. This idea is strengthened by music and film industries that offer an image of artists and musicians presented on an unobtainable platform, something to admire from afar, but not to aspire to yourself.

My work challenges this deeply limiting idea head-on. I create a space of creative equality where all persons of all backgrounds, irrespective of gender, race, financial standing, physical, mental or social disability can come together and experience the joy of creation/co-creation in a safe and rewarding space. The physical, rhythmic and harmonic design of the Illumaphonium is such that the potential fears that so called 'non-musicians' may often encounter when presented with a musical scenario have been removed and replaced with a system of 'safety-nets' thus allowing freedom to create intuitively, without instruction and without fear.

What was the very first instrument you played and how many kinds of instruments do you play?

I am a primarily a percussionist (although I have also gone deeply into the visual arts and also computer coding). My journey into the vast world of percussion began at the age of 10 where I was incredibly fortunate to become the student of veteran classical percussionist James Blades (O.B.E.). I studied all aspects of European orchestral percussion, tuned and un-tuned i.e. Snare drum, drum kit, timpani, xylophone etc. Around age 20 I first encountered the West African Djembe drum. This became my passion for many years and took me to The Gambia, West Africa where I was able to live the family of the renowned Wolof (Gambian) percussionists, Musa and Yusupha M'boob. They introduced me to the amazing M'balax drums (Sabar) of the the Wolof people. I also fell in love with the Balafon - a pentatonic wooden xylophone instrument was much of the inspiration for the Illumaphonium which is currently being exhibited at I Light Marina Bay 2018, Singapore. As well as acoustic percussion, I have worked extensively with electronic music, sequencing and rhythm programming. My current interactive work is a fusion of all of these varied influences.

The illumaphonium at i Light Marina Bay 2018 stands at the far left of One Fullerton, a light-sound-play participatory installation by Michael Davis. Image by Gaia Discovery

The illumaphonium at i Light Marina Bay 2018 stands at the far left of One Fullerton, a light-sound-play participatory installation by Michael Davis. Image by Gaia Discovery

What is the range of materials that you have experimented with in creating structures with low environmental impact?

Before illumaphonium, my sonic installation works have not used lighting, making the construction much simpler. In my early pieces I opted for traditional methods and materials, using hardwoods such as teak and mahogany for resonating bars. About ten years ago I began using aluminium to make chime bars, sonically these have the advantage of being their own resonator in that they contain a volume of air inside themselves which resonates in harmony with the metal. Aluminium is of course widely recyclable and wood is biodegradable.

The move into kinetic lighting two years ago has brought me into a world of semi-transparent resins that I cast myself after taking molds from 3D printed originals. I encapsulate low-energy addressable LED inside these resin castings. Being new to the process of casting and being self-taught, I experimented with many types of resins and composite materials before I settled on the plant based two-part epoxy I use now. All of these materials have different mechanical and optical properties and I have worked to find a balance between the different needs of the artwork. For example, it is possible to boil a banana skin, add some common household chemicals and end up with a kind of translucent plastic substance that will allow light to pass through it, but submit this material to the kinds of physical stresses that exist in the Illumaphonium and the structure will collapse instantly, whereas a robust and durable piece of art will reach the most people and so be able to effect the most change in the world.

The resin I use now has been selected as it provides the best balance between physical strength, translucency and environmental impact. One extra feature of this resin is an added U.V. pigment that gives a beautiful pearlescent quality in sunlight - this isn't initially what I was looking for but I consider it a great bonus for finding the right material!

Why use the materials such as biodegradable resin and recycled rods in illumaphonium? Can you describe the extent of trouble that you went through to secure them?

I believe we should all undertake our work to the very best of out ability, and in this case, selecting one material over another is part of that. It is not really anymore difficult to use 'this material' or 'that material' it is just a matter of making the decision to find out what is out there.

You just have to strike at these colourful chime bars. Here's the opening day reaction.

 What happens to your artwork post events and festivals?

 The illumaphonium has a very busy tour schedule and currently is being shown in two continents. After an event it comes in briefly for any maintenance and is then back out for the next event. I have an ongoing prototyping process where I look at upgrades and designs for new pieces; any worn-out parts from the touring pieces often feed back into that. Used metals are put back into regular recycling channels. If the time comes when the works can no longer tour, then I will look for permanent homes for them so that people can continue to enjoy their music-making experience.

 How can artists respond to the call for action against global warming and toward responsible design?

 Artists can use the public platform that their work provides to bring awareness of such issues to the public in accessible ways. Due to the non-verbal nature of many art-works, the message can be given in a fun, subtle and positive way that can be very effective. This is why an event like 'i Light Marina Bay' is so important as so many pieces of international art with an underlying message of sustainability are being presented to such a large global audience.

 Are there opportunities for young artists and musicians to take a leaf from your brainwork and art form to create something amazing, either independently or collaboratively?

 Yes, definitely. I think it is healthy to try to de-mystify this notion of 'creativity' as much as we can. For what do we ever do but create? Every decision we make is a creative decision – 'Should I go left?' or 'Should I go right?' is no different in nature from 'Should I choose red?' or 'Should I choose blue?'. It is just a matter of responding to your immediate circumstances in an unbounded manner.  We are creative beings at our very core. It is more a question of 'What is it that I choose to create with this life?”

Another thought that has helped me to realize this piece of work, and to fully embrace my role and responsibility as an artist, is to understand that there is no one on this planet better at being me than me. We are all absolutely unique and by being at peace with our uniqueness we can find our true vocation.

So, to finish I would like to offer this:

Be inspired by each other but do not try to emulate each other; rather embrace all the individuality, embrace everything that is unusual, that sets you apart and then, without hesitation, begin. Do not be afraid. The universe can only be in balance; when you find your place within it, as yourself, you and the rest of creation will be in balance and just as you (through your creativity) are providing, it will provide for you. And most importantly, be thankful that this is what you find yourself to be doing.

Singapore’s signature lighting art festival runs from 9 March to 1 April 2018 with sustainability as a major theme. The showcase of 22 local and international installations takes place in Marina Bay and Esplanade Park in Singapore. Organiser: The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore.

Keen to read more about sustainable art on Gaia Discovery?