Stephen O’Malley

Marvin Minsky on Maryanne Amacher

Posted: Oct 29, 2009

by Marvin Minsky

In her earlier work, Maryanne Amacher explored the worlds of different forms of sounds in space. The scientific psychologists had also tried to study sounds, but never with very much success. And for good reason: in the real universe, there are far too many possible combinations of patterns, Only an artist of Amacher's stature could decide which questions should be asked and her answers have become a part of the history of modern art. Many of her pioneering concepts about spatial sound models and perceptual interactions evolved into the sorts of acoustic installations that are becoming popular today.

But Amacher was never satisfied only with sound and, in the 1980's she began to turn toward more ambitious images of immersions in rooms of sound and sight. I see her work as exploring a number of important issues an the boundaries of contemporary perceptual psychology, exploring the ways that subtle environmental changes affect how we see the world from moment to moment. Amacher's work is very concerned with what happens after you see and hear: the after images and after sounds. In fact. although she works in several media, her main concern is with understanding and manipulating the perception of space and duration, with finding ways to make people feel that they are in a different (and usually more desirable) place. As she uncovers these influences she translates them through her art into ways to use the media to make changes in the local world of the watcher/listener. It seems clear that this sort of environment oriented sculpture will become a vital part of the architecture of our living places, if apparent trends continue. To be specific, I will describe a few ways in which this work seems to me important and unusual.

Subjective Transportation. By transmitting sounds from remote locations, one can begin to produce the effect that one is no longer at home, but in another city, in a storm, in some very different place. This is obvious, on the surface, but there is much more to it; the displacements depend a lot on acoustic techniques that can dominate the local background noises in subtle ways not by drowning them out. Amacher has become a master of controlling sounds that are comparatively "faint" yet produce new senses of location and orientation.

Spatial Sound Sculpture. By combining and modulating several remote sources, she can create new environments, exploiting other new effects. Much of art involves attempts at superimposing different structures, but Amacher's work shows that one can do far more with overlays of sound than anyone would have expected. The room becomes new kinds of places, some unlike any past experiences.

Localizations and Difference – Beats. It is possible to create effects like these from the two inch speaker of a television receiver? Workers in psychoacoustics have long known that there are certain non linear effects of certain higher frequency sounds that produce subjective localizations of their sources in surprising places, near or apparently inside the listener's head, for example. It seems very likely that some of the secrets of classical and modern orchestration effects depend on these sometimes subliminal influences which, in her art, Amacher attempts to isolate and then combine again into new structures and textures.

I have the impressions that Amacher has discovered other such effects that are not yet understood by the psychoacoustic community, as a result of her extraordinary care and persistence. Now she wants to
pursue her new ideas in a series of pieces, each a room of more complete experience. There are all too few individuals that possess her power, persistence, courage, intelligence, and sensitivity but the stages she builds will enable the rest of us to experience these same qualities.

February 3, 1988

Marvin Lee Minsky (born August 9, 1927) is an American cognitive scientist in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), co-founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AI laboratory, and author of several texts on AI and philosophy.