A convergence of three senses: Di Mainstone introduces Soundpit

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Friday, February 8, 2019 - 09:28

Can you hear colour? Can you feel sound? These are just two of the questions posed by the sensory Soundpit, a pioneering, boundary-blurring interactive installation for the 21st century, which returns to Southbank Centre from 23 November 2019.

‘So’, you’re probably wondering ‘what is it?’ Well, in essence, it is a sand pit, or rather a collection of sand pits, that anyone can play, like an instrument. But realising our own bumbling attempt at an explanation may not be helpful, we spoke to the creator of Soundpit, artist Di Mainstone, to get a better understanding of this remarkable installation.

Di, thank you for speaking to us, and for bringing your work to Southbank Centre. How would you describe, Soundpit?

Soundpit is an immersive experience, where the audience get the chance to create sounds and visuals by playing with sand. Soundpit is about the convergence of three of the senses - sound, vision and touch, exploring the effect this sensorial mix has on our thoughts, mood, creativity and well being.

Sound is integral to many of your works, what drew you to create sonic sculptures?

I initially trained as a fashion designer at Central Saint Martins, but left the fashion world 14 years ago to explore how technology might be integrated into wearables. I did this at different future labs around the world; in Banff, Montreal, New York, Boston, Rotterdam and more. I began by embedding motion sensors that tracked your movement into wearables and worked with dancers, musicians and coders to transform physical movement into sound. 

Over time these wearable musical instruments became more abstract and began to look less like clothing and more like body-centric sculptures or sonic prosthetics. I found that the way I could make more of these crazy instruments was by doing artist residencies, and so I became an artist as well as a designer. 

I see Soundpit as a body-centric musical instrument - one that melds and moves with your body as you trail your hands through the sand or lie down and wave your arms like a sand angel - you should definitely try this for yourself by the way, in our giant new dune pits.

This image: a child interacts with Soundpit. Main image: artist Di Mainstone with her installation. Photos by Pete Woodhead.

How did you arrive at Soundpit as a piece? Was there something in particular that inspired it’s creation?

I was curious about the phenomena of synaesthesia, which is when a sensation in one of the senses triggers a sensation in another. I wanted to see if we could create a musical machine that would allow people to see and touch sound as well as hear it. Sand seemed to be the perfect tactile interface.

Obsessed with finding a way to make music with sand I found a golden opportunity when I was awarded the position of Artist in Residence for the European City of Science, Manchester 2016. I formed a cross-disciplinary team and Soundpit was developed in a live laboratory during Manchester's Science in the City festival, with input from musicians (Architects of Rosslyn), coders (Wetgenes), neuroscientists and members of the public. The final Soundpit installation was shown during Manchester Science Festival at the Salford University's Science Jam. 

I wanted to see if we could create a musical machine that would allow people to see and touch sound as well as hear it.
Di Mainstone

Did you have any expectations as to how people will interact with Soundpit?

Everyone has their own idea about how Soundpit can be played. Soundpit opens up the art of music making to all, regardless of age and ability. It would be nice to think that the experience may be therapeutic in some way. Perhaps Soundpit will be a new kind of immersive musical instrument for the 21st century.

Of course you’ve already seen Soundpit in situ in Manchester and Bradford, before bringing it to Southbank Centre, what’s the most interesting reaction to the piece you’ve seen?

One of the things that struck me during the first installation at the Manchester Science Festival was the intimacy of the experience. People would gather around each sandpit and talk in a philosophical way. Groups of children would delve into the sand and discuss how the combination of texture, sound and light made them experience a certain sensation or emotion. I repeatedly overheard the phrase “this makes me feel like…” Often these thoughts would trail-off before reaching a conclusion as the philosopher was struck by a new idea, sensation or audio-visual shift that they had not yet seen.  

My all-time favourite feedback was during the Soundpit installation at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. An octogenarian couple would visit regularly during the afternoon and were often seen taking their shoes and socks off, rolling up their trousers and playing in the large floor pit.  



Soundpit by Di Mainstone returned to Southbank Centre on 23 November 2019, and will be here until 19 April 2020.

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