Simplicity, playfulness and an essential desire for provocation

Most readers will be familiar with the buzzing sound heard in head­phones or over the stereo just before a mobile phone close by starts to ring. This is the sound of electromagnetic interference – annoying to  most, but for Sebastien Noel, an inspiration. When studying design products at the Royal College of Art, Noel made his first Electroprobe – a device that “amplifies really minute electromagnetic fields that are created by all electrical objects,” he explains. By holding the end of the device near different electrical sources and donning the head­phones connected to to the Electroprobe, users can listen in on a huge variety of noises and sounds created by the electromagnetic goings-on of everyday electrical objects.

On graduating from the rca in 2003, Noel joined forces with two of his fellow graduates, Conny Freyer and Eva Rucki (who had both studied communication art and design) to form Troika, a London-based interdisciplinary art and design practice, primarily to work together on a range of personal, non-commercial projects. The Electro­probe, it turned out, was the perfect start to their collaborative work.

“What interested us with this project is that in the technology-centric world we live in, we think we experience a computer when we see one on a desk,” says Noel, “but actually there’s more going on – there’s all this activity happening that we don’t have the senses to perceive normally. So we wanted to make people aware what it means to be surrounded by objects like this. The first time we showed this project, at the Royal Academy, it was interesting to observe people’s reaction to using it. People were fascinated by the sounds made by a wide range of objects from back-lit exit signs to computers. The second reaction people had, after fascination, was fear. People started to ask us if it was dangerous to be exposed to so much electromagnetism.”

The newly-formed Troika realised it could play on this duality of reaction and so created an installation entitled Shit I Forgot The iPod. The studio gathered all the electrical appliances normally found in a small home – from remote control toys, to tv, hi-fi, fridge, fuse box etc – to create a physical soundscape for visitors to explore using an Electroprobe … Electromagnetic melodies emerged from items such as an electric drill and a tv, while interesting sound clashes occurred as the electromagnetic fields of certain objects such as a heater and a neon light interfered with each other, creating various sounds and rhythms.

Much of Troika’s work feeds off ideas formed whilst working on previous projects and looking at their work chronologically it’s possible to trace the way in which thought processes have developed and new ideas conceived.

For example, the idea of everyday objects interfering with each other fuelled Troika’s tv Predator piece – which took the form of a seemingly innocuous picture frame. “As objects around us are imbued with increasing intelligence, we wondered if perhaps such artificial intelligence could spark darker impulses of jealousy or even notions of revenge,” explains Noel. Infra-red sensors in the frame can tell when a tv close by is on and can, on its own, change the channel, volume or even, simply turn it off.  “It functions as if it hates the tv and will attack normal tv activity,” adds Noel. “As the time passes, tv Predator becomes more aggressive, switching the tv’s image to black and white, turning it on in the middle of the night at full volume, that kind of thing.” It could, Noel suggests, be a fantastic treatment for tv addicts, although admits it may be a bit extreme. “I actually gave one of these to my dad as an experiment but it was a disaster,” he reveals. “He called the tv repair man seven times, bought a new tv and after three months I had to quietly remove the tv Predator.”

As the tv Predator beamed messages anon­ymously to any tv within range, so Troika’s sms Guerrilla Projector – on object created by fusing a powerful zoom lens, a projector light source and an old Nokia mobile phone – was devised to beam messages, though this time using light, onto various urban surfaces.

“Our approach focuses on the contamination between the arts and design discipines and is born out of the same love for simplicity, playfulness and an essential desire for provocation,” Troika’s website announces. And it is the exposure gained by exhibiting these projects in gallery spaces and art environments that has led to a host of   interesting and varied commissions, the most recent of which (as reported in last month’s cr) have been for British Airways’ new Terminal 5 lounges at Heathrow where Troika has two large scale pieces.

Cloud is a five-metre-long ‘digital sculpture’ that hangs above the escalators that lead up to the First and Concorde lounges from the shopping mall in t5. Its surface is covered with 4638 flip-dots that can be individually addressed by a computer to animate the entire skin of the sculpture. Flip-dot technology used to be commonplace in the 70s and 80s in train station and airport display systems – one of the reasons Troika conceived the project. “We were fascinated by their materiality, by the way they physically flip from one side to the other,” says Noel. “The sound they generate is also instantly reminiscent of travel, and we therefore decided to explore their aesthetic potential.”

The other piece which is visible at the top of the escalators above which Cloud hangs, is entitled All The Time In The World and takes the form of a 22-metre-long electroluminescent installation which extends the notion of a world clock – with gmt displayed centrally – beyond simply showing the times in capital cities around the world to include places of natural, historic or architectural wonder. The installation is lit entirely by electroluminescent ink which is printed on sheets of a transparent substrate. “For this project we developed a new typology for electroluminescent displays, called Firefly,” explains Rucki, “which relies on a custom-designed segmented typeface.” The numbers and letters in the piece light up when specific combi­nations of segments have current applied to them. The system that Troika developed to run this incorporates five different type styles and demonstrates rather well the group’s ability to fuse impressive graphic design sensibilites and skills with the development of new technologies.

While these two projects are extremely complex  in the way they have been manufactured (the inside of Cloud is a mass of wires and circuitry), Troika’s founders maintain that a lot of what inspires them is very simple, in concept or form.

A commission for a public park in Basildon saw them explore an area that was a particular interest of one of their muses, 17th century German scholar Athanasius Kirchner – sound and its amplification using sculptural or architectural devices. Sonic Marshmallows was installed in the Wat Tyler Country Park in 2007 and consists of two round, two-and-a-half-metre-high sculptural shapes positioned 60 metres apart across a pond. The sculptures are engineered to focus sound at each other – so that someone whispering in front of one, can be heard by a person stood in front of the other. “They work like reflectors to create a precise beam of sound,” explains Noel. “Basildon being so close to the coast, we were also inspired by the huge sound mirrors built between the two world wars as early attempts at detecting incoming enemy planes,” adds Rucki.

As well as art commissions, Troika has been approached by brand managers interested in incorporating some of its ideas and inventiveness. The sms Guerrilla Projector was used during live performances by The Streets, famous for texting whilst actually performing: text messages were beamed around venues using the device as The Streets’ Mike Skinner sent them from his phone during his shows.

“We’re really excited by the idea that, as artists, we can engage with commerce,” says Noel. “For some artists this might come down to some kind of ethical dilemma, but for us it’s definitely interesting to have the opportunity to bring our ideas into a commercial environment.”

So have ad agencies also come knocking? “Yes, but mostly we’ve worked with companies that have contacted us direct, rather than with ad agencies,” says Noel. “We read the piece you guys did on The Glue Society [cr April] and we feel similarly to them in that we do lots of different things and definitely think we can make commercial work that is as valid as an art piece – on certain occasions, and for the right client.” “Of course it’s important for us that potential clients see our non-commercial work,” adds Rucki, “as they might see something in it they hadn’t considered or thought possible but which could work for them.”

Another of Troikia’s pieces (which actually came about as a direct result of them thinking further about projecting messages anonymously), the Tool For Armchair Activists, was successfully incorporated into an mtv campaign in Denmark. It is, says Troika, “a machine for remote rants and protests” and takes the form of an official-looking box and loudspeaker that can be installed wherever a protest needs to be made. Once installed, a protestor need only to send a text message to the device which will then announce said message through the powerful megaphone-like speaker – thus allowing an activist to rant in public, from the comfort of his or her favourite armchair.

Together with mtv, Troika devised a two week campaign promoting the 2006 European mtv awards in Copenhagen. The campaign worked just like a real protest against the awards in which activist style posters and banners placed around the town, displaying slogans such as “Don’t Vote, It’s Fixed” or “Make Love Not Awards” and also a number that passers-by could text with their own messages of protest. All texts went to one of the machines that was strapped on a lamppost in the city’s main square, Radhuspladsen, in front of the city hall, where they were dutifully, electronically, converted into official-sounding, vocal announce­ments. As people cottoned on to the way the campaign functioned, they started to have a little bit of fun and engage with it.

“For example, there was a hot dog stand in the square,” recalls Noel. “And people played on the ‘official-ness’ of the speaker system, sending messages like ‘The health department of the government does not approve this hot dog stand, it uses rat meat.’ The guy on the stand took a couple of days to realise that the machine wasn’t official and he could use it too – so he started sending messages that read like, ‘Buy a hot dog today for your sweetheart.’ People really had some fun with it – in the way we had hoped they would.”

To see more of Troika’s work, visit their website:

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