This article was first published for Artery on 4 October 2013
Audio-visual artist Robin Fox has an engaging candor. He’s jovial, open and fiercely intelligent; a man who thinks deeply about science, who tinkers with technology and who makes sound and light dance with one another. He also has a really great beard.
As he makes us very strong coffee in his narrow kitchen, Fox’s partner choreographer Stephanie Lake passes through gathering her keys. It’s a homely scene a long way from the extraordinary spectacle of Fox’s live performance and public art projects such as his seven metre tall Giant Theremin or his White Beam project, which premiered this year at Dark MOFO shooting a high powered white laser beam through the trees on Salamanca lawns.
Currently Fox and Lake are in rehearsals for their co-directed dance and sound work, A Small Prometheus, which will premiere this month as part of the Melbourne Festival. Drawing from the Promethean myth the work will feature fire-driven kinetic sculptures activated by the dancers. ‘It’s still a dance work,’ Fox explains, but there is a heightened sculptural and musical aspect to it due to their collaboration.
Over the past 15 years Fox has also collaborated with some of the world’s leading improvisers and directors, released numerous sound works on labels across Europe, Australia and the US and extensively exhibited his video and photographic work. His work on Chunky Move’s groundbreaking Mortal Engine contributed to the work receiving a Helpmann award for best visual production and his recent sound work Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear, was shortlisted for a FutureEverything award in 2011 and was selected by the Paris Rostrum of Composers in 2012. He also holds a PhD in composition from Monash University.
Fox was drawn to electronic music as it gave him the means to experiment and test ideas and receive immediate feedback in a way that traditional composition could not. But he was also fascinated by the way sound, and our perception of it, works as a physical system. When you think about sound, you can’t separate it from the physics, he explains, the music of a violin is all about transferring energy and vibration from strings to wood to your ear itself. In electronic music your instrument is the speaker cones. You get very intimate with the idea of sound vibration, and how you can combine different tones to make, for example different psycho-acoustic effects.
As well as working on A Small Prometheus this month will see Fox heading to Mexico , to perform his work Laser Show; a jaw dropping immersive sound and light performance designed to resemble a synaesthetic experience, where you see the sounds you’re hearing. He has been touring the work extensively over the past five years, and performed it in over 50 cities worldwide.
Laser Show utilizes a single green laser but later this year Fox will begin developing a multi-colour version to premiere at MONA FOMA next January. It’s something Fox has wanted to do for some time but only recently has it become possible, thanks to receiving an Australia Council for the Arts Established Artist Creative Australia Fellowship. It has given him the financial means to make the necessary capital investment.
Fox describes receiving the Fellowship as a ‘shoulder dropper’, a sudden release of some of the cumulative fatigue that inevitably accompanies a career as a freelance artist. The Fellowship is allowing him to invest time and money in his practice, make it more sustainable, and provides the means to take some risks and develop new work.
Fox will in part use his Fellowship to develop a set of installation and public art projects working with sound beams, which he was introduced to by scientist Kyle Slater when in residence at the Bionic Ear Institute. A relatively new technology, sound beams, as the name suggests, are highly focused non-dispersive beams of sound that have many fascinating properties.
The Fellowship will also assist with the development of a collaborative work between Fox and Lake and dancers Kyle Page and Amber Haines around a relatively new area of neurobiological research, the purpose and function of mirror neurons.
The Fellowship came at a really interesting point in his life, Fox says chuckling. ‘It came just before I turned 40. So I was like…’Okay, now I’m officially middle aged, mid-career and middle class. Right, I’ve got all the middle things covered.’
But more seriously he notes, that while many people think $100,000 is an enormous amount of money, in just about any other field it would be a reasonable annual salary for someone with his qualifications and experience. In a sense, he says it’s a reward, for working for so many years on a very sub-standard professional salary.
‘What it gives you is a feeling of a year where you’re getting paid a proper professional salary.’ And, he laughs, ‘it’s probably going to happen once.’
Melbourne Festival Co-Commission
Tue 15 Oct at 7.30pm
Wed 16 , Thu 17* & Fri 18 Oct at 7.30pm
Sat 19 Oct at 2pm, 7.30pm
Sun 20 Oct at 5pm
*Includes post-show Q&A
1 hour, no interval
More information: www.melbournefestival.com.au