SOUND.IT.IS - Audio as New Media


This internship report describes my work at MediaLAB Amsterdam for the iNDiViDUALS project. During the last five months, our team of four worked with the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and The International Soundlings Collective to innovate for the runway during Amsterdam Fashion Week.

MediaLAB Amsterdam

8 February 2013 – 16 July 2013

            As an American with an MBA and a Bachelor in Marketing, finding an appropriate internship was a challenge. What made it most difficult was matching my research interests to any company’s desired capacities. Oddly, the first interview I attended was the least informal of any I’d end up having, as well as the one that would lead to the Skype conversation that confirmed I’d be interning at MediaLAB Amsterdam.
            The process of targeting companies was complicated by visa requirements, as well as in some cases, a need for a higher level of Dutch language than I had at the time. Offerings of most international companies with a native English working environment didn’t exactly match up with the three-month project window. In hindsight, I wish I’d been timelier in beginning the search. What MediaLAB Amsterdam provided was a blank slate and the chance to get my hands dirty.
            It’s rare, I think, to find a corporate environment where work with new media technologies happens in plain sight. I was lucky to have been immersed in a working space that naturally lends itself to collaboration and camaraderie, as well as experimentation. These facts were precisely my motivation to join the lab in the first place – that I could surround myself with technical and theoretical experts from international backgrounds who all know what an Arduino is.   
            This report is an overview of the research activities conducted during the internship period that ultimately rolled into a larger Master thesis work. The documents produced during the internship as deliverables can be found in hyperlinks throughout this document.

The Internship Workplace: MediaLAB Amsterdam
            Ill-defined problems are the most fun to solve - the initial ‘blank slate’ nature of the work at the lab made for an interesting assignment. Each half-year, the MediaLAB hires approximately twenty interns in teams of four to six to work on projects for external assigners in the industry. I was placed by the coordinator of the lab, Gijs Gootjes, in a team with three other Dutch students. Dion Gavriilidis and Marissa Memelink follow the BA Media en Cultuur at the University of Amsterdam, and Myrthe de Smit follows the MA Design Cultures at the VU University Amsterdam. The project’s supervisor Matthijs ten Berge is the director of the (new) Amsterdam Creative Industries Center of Expertise and owns his own agency specializing in interactive light installations. The working roles that team members took on evolved throughout the weeks and the project phases. The manual for this semester’s MediaLAB group, which guided this process, can be found here.
            At the beginning, the shared goals of the team were only loosely defined, whereas at the end they were rigidly defined. With the coming of every major phase, a different team member was assigned a project management (PM) role. This person’s duties included managing external relations, internal planning, quality control of deliverables, as well as prioritizing the group and individual day-to-day tasks. During my short stint time as the project manager in mid-March until the second week of April, I supervised the group’s participation in the Prototyping phase. I cooperated with the workgroup and colleagues and adapted their activities to strategically divide the tasks among strengths. Often, this meant working together in alternating pairs to accomplish specific aspects of ongoing subprojects towards the overall goal.
            Once the sonic artists had been successfully commissioned to produce the low-fidelity prototype of the MediaLAB, Matthijs guided the group to define their own roles and responsibilities per what they’d done and enjoyed to-date. During the last six weeks of the internship, I became the marketing and communications manager to facilitate how the entire experience was shared in person and on the Internet. This involved several meetings with fashion students as well as the artists, and other external parties. This also made me chiefly responsible for ensuring that blogging and documentation were on par, a task I minded throughout the course of the five months.
The Internship Project: AMFI

            The Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI) has existed since 1996 as part of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA). Creative director (CD) Peter Leferink pioneered its in-house reality school brand iNDiViDUALS seven years ago, as a minor program. Approximately twenty-four students participate from the perspective of three “departments”: design, branding and management. The program has a reputation for demanding sleepless nights, yet many alumni state that it’s one of the most valuable experiences that they’ve had while studying. The concept of building and maintaining a retail fashion brand while still achieving educational goals occupies a unique place in the world of fashion education, especially here in the Netherlands. More information about the history and philosophy of the brand itself can be found in the documentation.
            Each half-year this group of third- and fourth-year students produce a collection that is premiered with a professional runway show, namely during the Amsterdam Fashion Week. This presentation serves not only as a marketing outlet for the collection and the school, but also as a procedural milestone for the aspiring fashion professionals as well as their instructors. The Director of AMFI, Souraya Bouwmans-Sarraf, hired our MediaLAB team to develop an innovative way that this reality school brand could use new media to present its collections to the professional fashion industry. The original assignment document she compiled cited specific examples of fashion houses using new media in their catwalk shows but left the expectations decidedly open in terms of concrete project deliverables. An original opdrachtomschrijving I translated to English can be found here.
Internship Activities
            The MediaLAB structure provided a timeline for conducting iterative research that was designed to ultimately lead to the production of a functional prototype that the assigner could implement if desired. What made this internship different from the others that happened this semester at the MediaLAB was that our functional prototype was ultimately implemented as designed. The team was able to make their ideas for fashion show innovation a reality during this collection’s presentation.
Research Phase
            The first week of the internship began by conducting a User, Task and Context Analysis. The goal of the analysis is to produce a list of characteristics of users, a list of the tasks that these users must accomplish, and a description of the contexts in which they accomplish them. The team produced a short movie for peer review that illustrated the results of our analysis. After a debriefing among team members as well as a few supervisory staff at the LAB, it was clear that the assigner’s original question from the assignment needed a reformulation in order to abstract it during the rest of the Research phase. The result: “How can the narrative of fashion culture be revived through digital media in the context of the iNDiViDUALS brand?” Answering such a question naturally involves developing theoretical framework in which to place the context of the design. The use of the term narrative implies that one’s experience of the fashion show is, by design, one focused on telling a story. We chose this particular language partly to represent the intangible magic of the fashion industry, but mostly to cater to the biannual “generations” of AMFI students in the minor and their process of producing the fashion designs.
            This revival of the act of storytelling in fashion culture implicates making use of digital media in a meaningful way. The initial research revealed that these technologies were being used more for their own sake, by name or appearance rather than the potentiality of their function. Despite the fact that this can be effective, the way fashion brands are appropriating media technology is rapidly evolving and must be measured closely.  The team defined a successful revival as using digital media at a fashion show in an entirely new way, specifically to tell a story rather but also to fit in with the ostentatious nature of a runway show. Including the specific context of the brand meant that answering the question must consider the current place that the fashion label occupies in the educational, commercial and artistic arenas, as well as its future desired by the students and staff.  The final research document can be seen and downloaded here.
            A unique and ongoing activity was to compile a collection of links to videos of fashion in a way that would allow them to be reviewed and referred to on future occasions. This became especially important as developing a shared knowledge of what would be considered “state-of-the-art” required knowing what has been done before. The group used social media platform Pinterest to ‘pin’ links to a shared private “board” that displayed thumbnails of the various performances and make comments on the shared links. It can be found here. The team thought that using this type of technique should be called “digital ethnography”.  

Concepting Phase
            After a peer review of deliverables, the team entered the Concepting phase. Peer review involved presentations where each intern had the opportunity to interact directly with all groups, working together and separately to develop specific ideas that would add to or improve on the ideas. What is interesting to remark is that the AMFI students were also involved in these review sessions, as they were simultaneously creatively working out their own designs for the show. Members of the team also conducted six personal interviews of users and produced an informal stakeholder analysis that we discussed with peers during such workshops. More information and documentation of the specific workshops the team received to guide the divergent and convergent thinking processes can be found at the project’s blog.
            Ultimately the fashion institute director and the CD determined the direction of the project, during a discussion after the final three ideas were pitched during a short presentation. Sketches were made of each concept and images were used on the slides that contained minor points of texts. The final three concepts were titled ‘Kenmerk’, ‘Social Media Storytelling’, and ‘Soundscape’. The team came to the realization that this was a milestone partnership, between the MediaLAB and the AMFI, as sister entities of the HvA. The final concept document that documents the methodologies used and the outcomes can be found and downloaded here.

Prototyping Phase
            After having the concept of sound being chosen, the team could decide what exactly they’d do with the 5000-euro budget. A challenge to the traditional MediaLAB process was being asked by the AMFI to keep the plans a secret, but still build buzz around what was being done. There were a number of different technologies and methods of using audio that were examined. We bought Logic Pro and started loading in some samples and playing with effects, but quickly realized the software could do a lot more than we could. We investigated what type of hardware would come standard with the ‘package’ that the AMFI secured with the Amsterdam Fashion Week and realized that it wasn’t usually used for anything but one or two channels of audio played in stereo. After an Arduino Duo workshop with a homemade MIDI controller it became evident to the team that there wasn’t time to acquire the low-level programming knowledge or the nuanced software interface knowledge necessary to build something from scratch that would meet the expectations of the assigner.
            The team visited STEIM shortly hereafter, where we mentioned having discovered the Game of Life system on the Internet while researching innovative sonic field manipulation techniques. They mentioned that it was actually temporarily waiting in the basement, and that we could arrange a demo for the CD and some students. Once the collaborative decision was made that the system would be used, the team sought sound artists that could more quickly master the complexity of the software required to operate the machine. The MediaLAB team worked as a liaison between the AMFI students and the sound artists to ensure the co-creation of the artists’ work as well as the hardware setup that would sonically tell the story of the latest collection. The final design document that details the prototype can be found here.
            The final date for the presentation was determined to be July 12th, 2013. The Game of Life system was booked for testing sessions in Den Haag before being transported to the Westergasterrein in Amsterdam and unloaded and set up on the morning of the show. There were a number of texts, images and films that emerged from various amateur and professional media outlets covering the show. The sound designers provided a special soundtrack that slightly recreates the physical spatialization the audience experienced for a movie compiled of the full twelve minutes of the show, found on the CD’s Facebook page. The MediaLAB team also made a video of the project’s production process to explain the team’s role in the final result.
            On June 26th, the team also participated in the final EXPO where all the MediaLAB projects were shared with family, friends, and colleagues. As we couldn’t say anything about wave field synthesis at this point and needed to reflect the prototype research and final design, we made a POV movie and a binaural recording that was shared in a dark, closed-door office space where visitors wore personal headphones.
Personal Research
            Although heretofore cliché in the world of fashion, new media use has gathered affinity among aspiring artists and industry professionals alike.  The original idea for my personal research in fact stems from my obsession with sound. This environment allowed me to investigate a specific way that new media technology has affected the methods and cycles of its presentation. What should be clear is that I had been mostly considering the visual-specific elements of new media experience, rather than auditory ones. The reliance on this project for a one-to-one overlap of academic research has led to a successful outcome as it regards the production of my Master thesis. During the internship, I practiced conducting personal interviews and transcribing them, which also directly informed the work processes of the MediaLAB. The documents produced during the internship serve as a “fashion foreword” to my personal study.