Tundra: Counterbalance of Forms

Based in St. Petersburg, Russia, Tundra is an artist collective made up of musicians, sound engineers, programmers, and visual artists in service of creating immersive audiovisual experiences. Their work appears primarily in the form of multimedia installations and performances, which have been shown around the world from Houston to Seoul.

With their work My Whale, for instance, rippling light passes through a long room lined with hexagonal lights, triggered by the rhythms of whale songs playing over the speakers (one iteration of the work was shown on a renovated ship in Moscow). Their 2016 piece Outlines, on the other hand, manipulates a network of dramatic, jittering red laser beams to completely transform the space it inhabits; in their words, this represents “the idea of stepping out of an initial grid and rising above the fundamentals, by trespassing your imaginary boundaries.”

Tundra’s latest work, ROW, is a holographic installation in which LED blades have been hacked to create a holographic row of light, resulting in a range of abstract patterns within this array. These discrete units are thereby no longer seen by the viewer as individual displays, but rather their depth and synesthetic animation build a larger sense of cohesive motion and distance from these piecemeal components.

For our Visual Arts feature series, Evan Shamoon spoke to Tundra about the hybrid nature of their approach, the importance of cross-pollination to their creative work, and how they attempt to impart both meaning and emotion through abstract means.

Tundra “Nomad Live”
MUTEK Festival 2018 (Montreal, Canada)

How did you all find one another and decide to collaborate? What are your respective backgrounds?

Tundra started as a collaboration between visual artists and electronic musicians. We met each other in the “Taiga” coworking space in St.Petersburg (2011-2017), where Alexandr Sinitsa’s visual studio and the band D-Pulse’s music studio were located. It was a multidisciplinary coworking space full of DIY stores, designers, developers, typography, and many others. So our background was working with and learning from absolutely different, amazing people.

How does the combination of skills break down and balance out within the group? Do you collaborate with others outside the core trio, or is it easier to keep the ideas coherent with a smaller team?

We do collaborate with other artists on bigger projects, or when it comes to delegate tasks that we are not 100% familiar with—it’s always interesting to explore other points of view and expertise. 

As for our core abilities, basically, it’s visual, audio, and its interactions. For each new installation, it’s the programming of a new control environment for generative audiovisual algorithms; this can be done by everyone sitting together in the studio, and being responsible for their software and hardware tools. So it’s like each time creating an instrument that controls light and sound, in the context of an installation space. When visual and sound parameters are synced, we start to fill the narrative with forms and shapes, adding a character and composing a storyline based on a concept. All these elements and abilities are being cross-pollinated and can transform during the experiments and creative sessions, so we never know what the final result will be and what we will end up doing.

Tundra “The Day We Left Field”
Farol Santander 2018 (Sao Paulo, Brasil)

Where does inspiration for a project come from, typically? Is there generally a technical process that becomes particularly interesting for the group, or is it usually something more conceptual? 

Inspiration comes from everywhere—typically it’s nature, science, space, music, and new technologies, but in fact, it’s always about physical excitement from actual experiments with new technologies, in the studio or anywhere else.

Lately, we’ve been hugely inspired by sound experiments of the last century and the development of modern advertising technologies, but these are just the tools. It’s about how you use them in space in contact with people, and how this combination makes you feel.

As you’re focused quite a bit on physical installations, how have you been fairing for the past year-plus of lockdown? How do you expect the post-COVID world will change, specifically in terms of how your art engages with it?

During the first waves of Covid, we became able to do a remote setup of our installations and this was a huge leap forward for our team. I guess post-covid social anxiety will drive huge attention to shared experiences, which our installations actually are.

There is a dramatically rising demand for multimedia art around the globe. For some it has become a rapidly growing industry, for others, it’s therapy and a tool for reconnecting with space and people, along with the activities that we have lost in a moment. So yes, we are looking forward to new, exciting perspectives that multimedia art will bring to the table.

Is there a particular aspect of living and working in St. Petersburg that you believe lends your work and/or creative life something special?

Saint Petersburg is a tough city full of creative people. A city with an unbelievably dramatic history, full of contrasts that challenge and inspire. If you survive St. Pete’s windy winter that starts in October and ends in April, you will likely survive everywhere else.

Tundra “ROW”

Can you describe the process and concept behind your new work, ROW?

ROW is a hologram illusion of abstract audiovisual objects floating in the air. Technically, it’s a row of individually controlled led-fan screens, which creates a parallax effect while you shift your point of view and observe it from different angles.

Compared to AR (augmented reality), this thing is like real augmentation—when you have a strong feeling of physical presence, with glowing and sound-generating objects floating in front of you and trying to communicate with the surrounding space. So it’s about dialogue between you, the installation, and space.

Conceptually, we tried to visualize the idea of data floating in the air every second, which can be converted into different signals, pieces of dialogue, music, and any kind of abstract information that your brain is capable of interpreting in the context of the surrounding space. Kind of antenna that can visualize all the chaos of radio signals permeating the air and our bodies every second.

I’m sure it varies quite a bit from project to project, but what are the key pieces of software/environments/hardware that you feel most at home working with?

Our main software instruments are Touchdesiger and Ableton Live, but we are not attached to particular tools. We use keyboards and mouses (wired). Click, Double click, etc. Our studio is a combination of an acoustically-treated sound-recording studio full of different hardware gear and a visual studio with dedicated space for mounting different devices, controllers, projectors, sensors, screens, etc. You never know what will be the next thing appearing in the studio. Looking forward and waiting for different robots to become affordable for art purposes. So if you’re a robot manufacturer reading this and/or have any connections, please contact us.

Tundra Live Visual Installation

It seems your work incorporates many generative aspects—what are some of the things you’ve learned about incorporating these kinds of procedural processes with more “intentional”/composed elements?

Composition is the last stage of bringing ideas from the chaos of variations to some kind of order with minimum interventions. Generative algorithms give us freedom and the ability to hard sync visual and sound, to make it feel more realistic in terms of perception, so we can move to more complex behavioral parameters letting software and hardware do their job.

From the very beginning of Tundra, when we sat down and started to compose light and sound behavior of installations, it was about the counterbalance of forms. For example, if it’s straight and edgy geometry of light, we balance it with organically generated and soft field-recorded sound textures in order to have the right balance of analog/digital, human/synthetic, warm/cold, etc. And it’s also important to get rid of any associations, so you can actually believe that these particular light objects can sound like this because you have nothing to compare them with. And this approach gives visitors absolute freedom in the interpretation of a sort of unknown light phenomenon or light ritual happening in the installation space.

Tundra “My Whale”
D Museum 2016 (Seoul, South Korea)

Finally, how do you guys go about balancing the purely internal/personal projects with client-driven, work-for-hire gigs? 

It’s always about finding the right balance. The circumstances are always changing, so you have to find an instrument to work with it. This instrument can be your personal experience and practice in the field of your interests. There’s no point in agreeing on a very high-budget client-driven proposal if the result won’t bring you closer to your personal artistic goals, and deliver the best possible result for the client.

For example, work-for-hire can give you access to expensive technologies and useful contacts. You’ll never know whom you’ll meet next. It’s all about connections, responsibility, people, and the way you make them feel. That afterglow is what will be remembered, no matter if it’s a client-driven big-brand project or a small indie festival.