Sound + Vision

As media art comes home, designers and acousticians collaborate on finely tuned spaces
Above Image: A still from Ragnar Kjartansson’s installation The Visitors, currently on view at SFMOMA. Photo courtesy of SFMOMA.

As residential spaces become platforms for media art, homes are undergoing audiovisual transformations.  We spoke with Robert Gilligan, Senior Technology Advisor at Amplified Lifestyles, a San Francisco–based firm specializing in high-end residential A/V home technology—Nicole Hollis, Ken Fulk, and ODADA are among the company’s clients—about cutting-edge developments in media art, seamless sound, and acoustic aesthetics. 

Let’s begin with home audio, which evolves so rapidly. Would you give us a snapshot of what’s current?

Yes, in our world, every six months or so there can be a disruptive technology introduced into the marketplace that supersedes everything that came before it. And in audio of late, it’s been a shift from using analog-based signals to using digital signal distribution, which means moving toward self-powered speakers rather than using amplifiers and speaker wire running to passive speakers.

To facilitate this change, were now starting to use technologies like Dante, which allows us to send hundreds of channels of audio over Ethernet data wire, so you can have self-powered speakers getting digital signals with near perfect fidelity.

Has the pandemic, and working from home, had an impact on audio?

During Covid, everybody suffered through bad acoustics while trying to educate their children or do business on Zoom in highly reverberant dining rooms, kitchens, and guest rooms. Background noise is also something all humans are now keenly aware of in a way that we weren’t before. I think we’ve all had a very visceral experience of both good and bad sound over the past three years.

The room is actually the most important part. It’s as important as the speaker, as important as the content. And that’s why a lot of people in my industry are now trying to collaborate with architects and designers to make sure that dimensions, materials, and construction are thoughtful in terms of creating spaces that aren’t highly reverberant.

“A lot of people in my industry are now trying to collaborate with architects and designers to make sure that dimensions, materials, and construction are thoughtful in terms of creating spaces that aren’t highly reverberant.”

Turning to media art and its installation, which incorporates both audio and visual, what are the considerations designers should keep in mind?

First and foremost, to prepare for the upcoming media art wave, it’s about making sure there’s power and data to all potential end points. A digital-art end point can be a video device, a speaker, a microphone. Sometimes it’s a camera, because of the interactive nature of a lot of these installations.

In terms of preparing the space, you’re making sure there aren’t other things like a heating register exactly where you want to mount that speaker. Then we need to talk about ways of concealing and beautifying all these end points. Because unless an industrial aesthetic is required by the artist or desired by the homeowner, most of our clients are looking to conceal the back-end technology as much as possible.

Sometimes that means recessed displays, so you don’t see video panels or a video wall sticking out—making sure they’re flush with the surface of the wall. Same with speakers; you want those to be flush mounted, sometimes with trimless grilles, to create a uniform ceiling. All this helps to focus the viewer or listener on the art rather than the mechanics of the art.

In the sixties and seventies, when video art was emerging, the mechanics were part of the aesthetic—those wonderfully tactile sensory experiences of a slide projector clicking, or the power cord as part of the installation. Do you feel like that’s a lost emotional or aesthetic connection? Or are we just in a different period now in terms of what we expect to see?

Wanting to see the technology and embrace it is something of a retro desire, and I can point to two-channel turntable systems and tower speakers making a huge comeback in the past five years. But from the architecture and interior design community standpoint, concealment continues to be the focus when working for high-net-worth clients, because you don’t want a pair of tower speakers competing with the Basquiat.

“You don’t want a pair of tower speakers competing with the Basquiat.”

So when you work with a collector who is acquiring, for example, a Christian Marclay or Matthew Barney, how are they living with these works? Do some want the piece projecting at all times so they’re really coexisting with it, or is it off unless someone is going to tour the home?

We see it both ways. Often they’re in interstitial spaces like hallway galleries, and our clients tend to have the space designed into the home specifically for that purpose. Or they’re off entry foyers. They’re definitely meant to be seen when entertaining. Serious collectors often have a separate gallery on site in an ADU, or sometimes they’ll buy the property next door and build an art gallery.

How can a design team anticipate and accommodate media art?’

They need to be aware and ask the question: Are there any spaces in this house that you foresee having media art? From there it becomes a question of power and signal—and signal these days primarily means an Ethernet data wire. If you have power and data wire to an art wall location, even at traditional outlet height, you have the flexibility you need later to extend that wiring up behind a piece of artwork. It’s no different than talking to the client about where they might need a Wi-Fi access point. It’s part and parcel of the work we do during the discovery phase of a project, and that gives us the flexibility to embrace digital art.

Once you’re wired, what’s next?

If the client has an artist in mind or owns work, the next and most important step is engagement with the artist: How do they require their art to be presented in a gallery space? Most digital artists have very exacting instructions for how their work should be shown, down to the height of the display, the type of speakers, microphones—they have a rider, much like a touring musician, which stipulates how the art should be presented.

Is there a work you saw recently that inspired you?

There are a number of really compelling digital-art installations at SFMOMA, like Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors. To create it, a group of video artists and musicians inhabited a mansion in upstate New York and played music for an hour. In the installation, you move around the video projection of each individual musician, and each has a slightly different mix that brings their instrument to the foreground. So people in the gallery can move around and decide the instrument or musician that interests them most.

What do you see coming up next on the horizon?

It’s about to be full-immersion—essentially creating holodeck-style aural experiences. When you couple that with video, you can have a complete experience where every wall, ceiling, and floor surface is a digital display. Then artists and creators can transform those rooms.

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103