In: Beyond Aesthetics. Eds. Christopher Balme & Meike Wagner.

Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2004:
11-20. (= Muse, Mainz University Studies in English 6).

Resonances of Audience Space
Ambience as Interface
Pieter Verstraete, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
This is an extension of environmental staging to a new phase of understanding space, a more
authentically global grasp of space. It makes all the world a stage, if not everyone in it actors.
(Schechner 1973, 30)

In his notion of environmental theatre, Richard Schechner opened up the confined space of the stage by blurring
the traditional boundaries of the territories inhabited by the performers and the audience. Through the
happenings of the 60s, different experiments with performance and space have found a way into contemporary
art and theatre. Today, Schechner’s ideas seem to extend to installation art. Most video and sound installations
respond to our mode of behaving and our dealing with the globalised, mediated world we live in. Moreover, they
most often acknowledge the participatory role of the spectator and urge on an intense engagement with space.
Although the notion of “environmental” still holds today, the term “ambient,” which emerges from the world of
music, tends to extend Schechner’s concept. “Ambient” is derived from “ambience,” but it is rather vague in the
context of theatre and performance. The notion was recently picked up by such performance groups as
Baktruppen (Bergen, Oslo) and She she pop (Berlin), who introduced a new type of environmental theatre as
“ambient theatre.”1 But it is still an umbrella term that resists definition. The main characteristic of an “ambient”
installation, performance or sonic event still seems to be its contribution to a “new” sense of space, as in
environmental staging.
In this paper, I start with a working definition for “ambience” (or the “ambient”). I wish to reconsider ambience
as a mechanism for establishing social space, performativity and the audience’s spatial experience within an
installation. For this purpose, I shall conceptualise space by using ambience as a paradigm. According to my
thesis, ambience is the mediator in the audience’s engagement with space. An installation can create a temporary
contact zone for new experiences of participation where people communicate with the environment and with
each other. In connection with this paradigm of ambience, the second part of the paper will concentrate on
Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance. I wish to explain how this theory can cast light on the
audience’s spatial behaviour, engagement and awareness of presence. The third part connects ambience with the
experience of the body as an extension of Schechner’s environmental staging. By way of conclusion, both
Schechner and Sheldrake are evaluated in terms of how they help to rethink ambience as an interface in the
context of installation art.

1. The sound of audience
In music and popular culture, the word “ambience” is most commonly used to refer to a lifestyle trend. As in the
French sense of ambiance, it might refer to the surroundings or to the mood in which music drenches the
environment. Ambience has become part of our night life, better known as lounge in the Parisian clubs. This
kind of music holds a social function in gatherings such as raves and “clubbing.” In airports, train stations,
shopping malls, restaurants, theme parks, etc., ambient music brightens up the atmosphere, although here one
tends to use the more negative term “muzak.”
Historically, “ambience” became a term in sonic art denoting both a musical style and a way of dealing with
(most often acousmatic) music and sounds in a specific environment, such as in a soundscape. Ambient music
does not demand intensive listening, being just part of the scenery. As a way of dealing with music and sound
material, it was first developed by Brian Eno, who studied conceptual painting and sound sculpture in the 1970s.
Eno supplied the following definition:
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce
original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to

1

building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods
and atmospheres. . . . Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention
without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
(http://www.enoland.co.uk/benoambience.htm)
Originally this music was intended to be heard in the background at the lowest volume, so that it was merely
colouring the atmosphere. Sound was used for its properties at the visual and spatial level, since it inscribed
colours, tints and textures on the environment. One could say that Eno painted in sounds. Ambient music puts
into practice the surrealist dream of a time or sound sculpture. It relates historically to Eric Satie’s well-known
proposal for a musique d’ameublement2 (i.e., a musical scenery or a ”furnishings music”). Satie meant to create a
composition that provided only the atmosphere, while the audience was allowed to talk unimpeded; the music
should always be present, but unnoticeable, like a piece of furniture.
Ambience is then close to the Italian sense of the word, as in the compound “temperatura ambiente” (room
temperature): “ambient” refers to the environment, the atmosphere and its alterability. Ambient music
continually changes the texture within the spatial experience. As listeners walk through a room with ambient
music in the background, they always notice something different, depending on which sound catches their
attention. Ambient music seems, therefore, to be a very important artistic tool for installations and theatre that
intend to experiment with the experience of space. Installation artists tend to work with ambient music in the
guise of soundscapes, affecting the listener with different moods. Ambient soundscapes are sometimes just
acoustic wallpapers, in which the sounds assist the visual imagery. The ambience is then used only receptively.
But ambient sound installations could also have the ability to influence or react to certain gestures within that
space. Sound response systems make it possible to generate audio responses to the participant’s movements. In
this case, the ambience allows for a more interactive use.
Installation art is characteristically time-sensitive, interactive and environmental, and, as such, “ambient.” As a
typical site-specific artwork it makes us investigate, broaden, challenge and question our conventional ways of
perceiving space. An interactive sound installation encompasses and modifies extended space through sound and
music. It stretches the codes of communication and audience participation, allowing the listener/spectator to play
along and to determine his/her own position within the ambience.
In this sense, one also speaks of immersive installations, which enable the audience to be bodily involved by
means of interface sensors. Hidden infrared sensors or gesture control sensors could, for instance, map the
audience’s movements and this information could become the input for algorithms, modifying the sounds.
Moving, performing or enacting particular gestures evoke corresponding sounds in corresponding rhythms and
tempos. Because of the ability to control and to modify the sound and thereby the spatial texture, the emphasis
lies more on the perception, the sense of time and space, rather than the composition. The sense of space is
mediated through sounds and movements, thus calling upon the imagination. Ambient sounds can turn the
installation space into an inner zone, touching on many unconscious levels of imagination, but not without a
heightened consciousness of the individual’s involvement in this environment.
An installation characteristically can incorporate any media, between which the environment functions as one of
the prime mediators. Because of their intermediary and therefore synesthetic nature, installations continuously
play with the experience of perception, or what you might call “the sense of sense.” The experience of each
individual could be a social one, as he finds himself in relation to a crowd, an audience, a group of listeners. But
in contrast to the traditional theatre settings (like the proscenium), the focus is now handed over to each member
of the audience individually. As such, ambient soundscapes contain a contradiction: though they gather people,
they disperse the hearing experience and dislocate space in the individual’s perception. The ambient
paradoxically alienates and isolates the individual within the audience. Although ambience seems to respond to
today’s need for gathering people in a comfortable atmosphere, more than ever we feel the lack of coherence, the
presence of an “audience.” Ambience raises questions regarding the ability to share experiences.
In this context, ambience brings the early experimental performances of John Cage to mind. His concept of
silence and void in music opened up and extended the boundaries of aurality and staging music as a
performance. In his silent piece 4’33” he confronted the audience paradoxically with a silence full of sounds
prior to any mediation. Cage not only made the audience aware that the empty, silent space does not exist, but
the audience was now conscious of its own sound and surrounding noises. The silence only sharpened the
listening. The listener, so to speak, hears himself hearing:

2

When in 4’33” the background (ambience) takes the place of what is usually considered to be the
foreground (the performance of a piano work), the audience is shaken from its conventional modes of
aesthetic appreciation and forced to consider the object, in this case both the performance and ‘silence,’
in its complex richness. (Dyson 391)
When the ambient paradoxically comes to the fore, traditional ways of perceiving are disrupted by feelings of
annoyance, nuisance or boredom. But at the same time, ambient sounds seem to create a space of consciousness,
reflecting both the presence and the absence of an audience. The context of the performance exposes in its
absence and its silence both the individual hearing and the aesthetic preoccupation of a visual representation, as
perceptibility is turned towards itself. John Cage’s silent pieces showcase something similar to the ambience in
soundscapes and sound installations.
Ambience questions the will to hear. As the sounds are omnipresent in the background and reach the ear beyond
its control, the listener could become aware of the ineffectuality of his will. That is why muzak and ambience
could also have the negative connotation of “devilish” music. Ambient music appeals to the uncontrollable,
“floating ear.”3 The floating ear merely captures sounds, which are nothing but themselves. Ambience could then
be quite hermetic. The sounds relate only to other sounds, thus creating merely a network of exchanging
resonances in an empty space. Sound as a meaningful image or a sign is at stake. One could speak here of an
acoustic simulacrum4 in Deleuze’s sense: the sound image is a copy of another sound image, whose relation to
the original sound has become so diffused that it seems to exist on its own without a source. According to
Allsopp, this blocking of all meaning makes intimate contact possible. Allsopp idealistically claims that a
transcultural space, a transit zone for socio-cultural exchange, opens up between the performance, the listener
and the shared environment. He especially sees performance art in relation to its ability of “creating a temporary
zone of coherence” (Allsopp 2). The same holds for installations.
However, this “zone of coherence” is not unproblematic. On the one hand, in the case of 4’33”, the mute, realtime noises of the audience do evoke relations between the listeners who are aware of each other’s presence in a
shared space. The context of the performance elicits a social experience. The sounds move the listeners
collectively into a (perhaps unwanted) action. As a result, space gains performative identity: it makes an
audience perform particular kinds of action. Space is then defined in terms of relations and “proximities”
between the listeners, who become the performers, the “actors” of their experience. On the other hand, the
thresholds of audibility in the ambience tears down the constructs of a coherent audience. The assumed but
impossible silence in Cage’s silent pieces may make the listeners aware of the gaps that alienate them from one
another. Herbert Blau locates the gap itself in our mind and perception:
The additional irony is in the assent to a notion of community that could never be satisfied in the theater
as anything but a fiction. Or to put it another way: in the very space of enlightenment in which the idea
of a public is formed, the community could never be an audience without being, generically, divided
from itself – as the individual spectator is divided in consciousness by the neurological gap, which is,
however you look at it, listen as you will, a metaphysical abyss between the perception of eye and ear.
(Blau 11)
The fissure or the “abyss” that deconstructs the idea of an audience (literally, as a collective of listeners) exists in
the individual listener/spectator between the processes of hearing and gazing. The ambient exposes this illusion
of a community by making the listener aware of the gaps in his own perception of sounds and spaces. Ambient
sounds constitute in this sense a kind of “gap music”: the perception of it as music operates in the gaps between
the sounds, between the audible and the inaudible. Acoustically, the experience of an inaudible silence and the
thresholds of audibility open up the gaps in mediated space. By tearing down all coherence, ambience leaves the
possibility open for the listener to fill in these gaps.

2. Entering the gaps of memory
Ambience plays upon an audience’s levels of consciousness and unconsciousness. In this context, the theory of
the cellular mind by the theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake shows some remarkable similarities with the
paradigm of ambience. Sheldrake introduces the concept of collective memory as an explanation of Jung’s
“collective unconscious.” His theory explains the basis of all form by means of morphic resonance.5 In the
context of my argument, the way form is developed through resonance may be one means of accounting for the
alterability of space and audience behaviour.

3

Sheldrake starts from the observation that the genetic program in the DNA-string cannot solely account for
programming the development of an entire organism. In his model, organisms are shaped by certain resonance
fields that are both within and around the organisms and that contain the information about forms as a kind of
behaviour. These fields have a holistic property, as each of them contains the structure of the whole body in a
kind of in-built memory. Sheldrake assumes that there is a whole series of fields within fields in an organism,
each connected to other, previous organisms. They harbour a kind of template for form through a process called
morphic resonance: “That means that the field’s structure has a cumulative memory, based on what has
happened to the species in the past” (Sheldrake 6).
These ideas, provisionary as they may seem, could supply a metaphor for understanding the listener’s experience
of ambient space and his/her behaviour in it. In line with Sheldrake’s theory, ambience works as a kind of
memory full of resonances, influencing the form of space and the behaviour of the listeners wandering through
it. As ambient space could be defined as a temporary zone of coherence, of relations and of consciousness, the
listeners could be said to find themselves organically linked to each other in space through an interconnected
memory.
Sheldrake also suggests that the forms and patterns of behaviour are shaped by invisible relations arising from
outside the organism in a process of tuning in6 (10). Applied to our notion of ambient space, this would not only
mean that listeners are affected by this tuning process, but also that the surrounding space–its texture–constantly
evolves as a result of both internal organization and interaction with the (morphic) resonances. The ever-present
ambience could then be regarded as the mediator, the interface for these resonances. So metaphorically speaking,
as the listening bodies collectively resonate to the frequencies, space becomes a sound body in itself, not just a
sound box, but a body changing according to the mediated resonances. Sheldrake similarly applies his concept of
morphic resonance to the memory of actual events, when he clarifies: “I am tuning into the occasions on which
these events happened” (12).
This metaphor suggests that ambient space installs a memory or a frame of mind, shared by all listeners.
However, there is a catch in the hypothesis. As already pointed out, ambient music requires nothing more than an
absent mind and a distracted focus, and is much better perceived through moods. So ambience dismantles the
idea of a holistic or coherent mind. The background music (or noise) is a loop of gaps, thus opening the space,
making the boundaries vague. Applying Sheldrake’s theory would too much suggest the existence of a holistic
memory in the surrounding space, whereas ambient music dismantles this illusion.
However, morphic resonance provides an interesting metaphor for the experience of ambient space as a body of
sound and as a room of interaction and interplay. The process of dissolving boundaries creates a room full of
resonating energies. The listener also resonates and reacts to this diffuse but penetrable space or zone. By turning
perception towards itself, the listener’s attention is continuously being exposed and questioned as a fixed form.
The space is not static, but dynamic. As a result, this space full of resonances is more a memory, constantly
subject to corruption and forgetting. The ambient elicits trivial thoughts at random as a stream of consciousness.
The focus is more on the process of performing and composing the experience of time and space, rather than on
the result. The ambient is preoccupied with the how, rather than the what.
Perhaps today’s performers and installation artists do not aim specifically at making holes in our memory, but
some consciously seek these spaces, in which memories like sounds are buzzing into one another as in a
forgetful mind. Therefore, ambience as a process of possibilities could communicate a shared mood of anxiety.
The ambient provides a hologram that in itself refers to the imploding structures of today’s complicated reality,
as Arthur Kroker states: “We now live in a hyper-modern world where panic noise (the electronic soundtrack of
TV, rock music in the age of advanced capitalism, white noise in all the ‘futureshops’) appears a kind of
affective hologram providing a veneer of coherency for the reality of an imploding culture” (Kroker v). Thus
ambient background noise, without becoming a true symbol, is an index for our disturbed and troubled minds.
The wish to go back to a feeling of coherency is then an attempt to escape reality by entering an inner landscape
of alternatives.
But the ambient could also make us aware of the outer space, the periphery, reflecting on its structures as they
exist in the formats of our thinking and perceiving. These formats, which control our memories and our
perception, fold back to themselves during the process of perceiving, when we tune in to the different
frequencies resonating in the surrounding space.

4

3. Between resonating bodies
Space cannot be conceptualised without the relations between people, be it listeners or spectators. Sheldrake’s
theory (his “allegory of the television set”) supplies an explanation of the connection in terms of resonances,
which can be related to the paradigm of ambience: the body surrounded by ambient sounds and noises functions
as a kind of tuner, responding to the mediated frequencies. We could then speak of ambience in terms of its
mediality and its ability of tuning in the body.
Space stands in im-mediate communication with the body by means of the resonances, which can be sound but
(following J.-F. Lyotard) also any kind of “energy.” The ambient room is a matrix of vibrations or energies,
which makes possible a synergetic and synesthetic experience: sounds become visual, as they resonate in the
listener’s imagination and give space its contours. This experience is a fusion of the senses, characterised by
elusiveness and ephemerality. The extended spatiality makes the body remember (as a re-minder), but the
memory is “gapped” and the mind distracted. There is no hierarchy as the listening bodies interconnect
paratactically with space as a sound body in itself. The ambience serves as the inter-face: through the mediation
of resonances, space creates a contact zone for sound bodies facing each other and being aware of their presence.
Richard Schechner experimented with the experiences of body and audience with regard to ambience in his
environmental theatre. As Brian Eno defined ambience as “environmental” music, the link with Schechner is
quite obvious. Schechner sought new ways of performativity and technical design, which, unlike orthodox
theatre, did not mask the presence of an audience:
In the environmental theatre the lighting and arrangement of space make it impossible to look at an
action without seeing other spectators who visually, at least, are part of the performance. Nor is it
possible to avoid a knowledge that for the others you are part of the performance. And insofar as
performing means taking on the executive function, every spectator is forced into that to some degree
by the architecture of environmental theater. (Schechner 1973, 19)
The basic idea of environmental theatre design is its “fullness of space, the endless ways [in which] space can be
transformed, articulated, animated” (Schechner 1975, 1) just as it is in the ambient set-up. The set-up should
encourage audience participation, extend space and make it collaborative, without settled dividing lines between
the audience and the performers (39). The corporeal presence and awareness of an audience also affect the
concept of performativity. According to Schechner, “[a]udience participation expands the field of what a
performance is, because audience participation breaks down and becomes a social event” (40).
The corporeal sense is continuously modulated through the environmental set-up, evoking a “gut experience” of
space, as Richard Schechner describes it:
The audience in environmental theater must look to itself, as well as to the performers, for satisfaction
of visceral needs. This less sharply delineated division of roles, actions and spaces leads not to deeper
involvement, not to a feeling of being swept away by the action – the bottomless empathy enhanced by
darkness, distance, solitude-in-a-crowd, and regressive, cushioned comfort of a proscenium theater –
but to a kind of in-and-out experience; a sometimes dizzyingly rapid alternation of empathy and
distance. (Schechner 1973, 18)
This “in-and-out experience” could be related to the physical workings of oscillation, a synonym for resonance.
Oscillation evokes this “dizzyingly rapid alternation,” a continuous swinging back and forth, evoking moods in
the body (and also the mind). The space opens and closes to the receiving body as feelings of empathy and
distance constantly oscillate. According to Schechner, space is then perceived within the body:
Through a process I don’t understand but accept, the insides of the body perceive space directly. . . .
Visceral perception is related to the actual wash of the guts inside the body. To get at this you have to
let go of sight, hearing, and touching with the nostrils, mouth, lips, tongue, anus, and genitals: those
places where the viscera is on or close to the surface. Visceral space-sense is not about edges,
boundaries, outlines; it is about volumes, mass, and rhythm. (Schechner 1975, 16)
Though idealistically formulated, Schechner’s wish to relate and connect the body to the environment is
significant for the experience of ambience. Space becomes an inter- and an inner zone, in which the boundaries
become vague. It elicits a bodily experience.

5

Although Schechner does not see space in terms of a body or an interface, he points to the interconnection
between the human body and outer space: “Earlier I said that the environment is in some ways an extension of
the body. It is just as true that the body is experienced as an introjection of the surrounding geography. The
human being doesn’t end at the skin; and the outer world is not fenced out by the skin” (Schechner 1975, 91).
Further, he describes the human being as “a dense convergence of energy fields” (91). One could say that the
body becomes a sound body, open to the fields of resonance within its environment. But the body’s
communication with space is still too much an absorption of resonances and not a mutual giving and taking. The
body is still too receptive. Ambience radicalises this idea as body and space become organisms with permeable
membranes, letting through the flow of energy. Because of this oscillating process, ambience connects the bodies
and dislocates the body of an audience, enabling every human being individually to live an experience of close
contact and communication with other resonating bodies.

4. Inter-facing Sheldrake with Schechner
I have made a case for a paradigm of ambience by reconsidering certain concepts of Rupert Sheldrake and
Richard Schechner in the context of installation art. Stemming from his word as a biochemist and cell biologist,
Sheldrake’s theory on morphic resonance has proven most valuable as an extension of Schechner’s
environmental staging.
Although the ideas and terminology of environmental theatre still hold, today’s practise of ambience often tends
to radicalise these ideas. The use of ambience lives through the experiments of John Cage and Richard
Schechner in the ’60s–presumably as a kind of “morphic field,” in Sheldrake’s terminology–and has found an
extension in installation art that characteristically draws upon (the memory of) public participation and
interactivity between body and space. Ambience challenges our experiences and turns them towards themselves.
It questions our formats of perception.
At this point, ambience develops as a contradiction: though ambient music does not ask for an extensive nor
conscious hearing experience, it allows for an awareness in which here and now have become the modalities.
Ambience is all about this constantly oscillating intertwining of awareness and unconsciousness. Schechner calls
it a “dizzyingly rapid alternation with empathy and distance” (1973, 18) experienced viscerally, whereas
Sheldrake focuses on the process of tuning in a collective memory: the body tunes in to the mediated resonances
and this also influences its behaviour. Both Schechner and Sheldrake are hinting at the in-between moment.
Moreover, ambience plays with the notion of “collectivity” and the impossibility of sharing. The surrounding
space opens and closes according to one’s perspective and reaction to the resonances. Ambience brings about
this continuous interplay with in and out, described by both Schechner and Sheldrake. Through ambience, the
listener/spectator is both in and outside of an audience. Morphic resonance is also both in and outside of an
organism. Ambient space becomes a living organism in and of itself, full of resonances bringing about
interaction with the frequencies of each listener/spectator. The ambience creates an inescapable inner zone, yet
ensures the participant is aware of an outside world.
One shortcoming of applying Schechner and Sheldrake to the paradigm of ambience would be the limited
application of their holistic views on the connection between body and mind/space. Ambience opens up the gaps
in mind and space, rather than the experience of collectivity within the resonating room, a network of sound
bodies. The continuous back and forth of memories, imagination, and moods makes the grasping of the spatial
and real-time event highly problematic. It is this moment of not-knowing, not-grasping that opens up a new
“shared” cultural experience. It opens the temples of our minds and creates a resonating space as an interface for
new energies between people.

Notes
1. Knut Ove Arntzen sees “ambient theatre” in relation to the Norwegian performering group Baktruppen.
Following Edgar Jager, he tries to consider ambient music as a model for post-mainstream theatre. (Arntzen,
Knut Ove. “Ambient teater og clubbing.” Cultural Magazine Morgenbladet, Oslo, (5 January 2001), refering to
FTP: datum.org/12DATUM/Jager_Ambient.html and FTP: baktruppen.org).
2. On musique d’ameublement Satie writes: “We urgently beg you not to attach any importance to it and to act
during the intermission as if the music did not exist. [Furnishings music] hopes to contribute to life the way a
casual conversation does, or a picture in the gallery, or a chair in which one is not seated. . . . We want to
establish a music designed to satisfy ‘useful’ needs. Art has no other goal; it fulfils the same role as light and

6

heat – as comfort in every form” (in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York:
Schirmer, 1974), p. 31).
3. In this respect, Arthur Kroker cites George Grant, who distinguished in his Technology and Empire the
“floating” from the “disembodied” ear. According to Grant, the floating ear elicits hearing that signifies “an
‘empty, symbolic exchange’ that specializes in the spatializations of a ‘pure image-system’ . . .” (in Kroker 9394).
4. According to Arthur Kroker, the simulacrum functions through a symbolic reversal. Significantly, he
describes the simulacrum as an “imprisonment in a purely symbolic sphere in which the ‘decline of the real’ is
matched by an endless mirroring of escapes to nowhere” (Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern
Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics (London: MacMillan Education, 1988), p. 110). An ambient
soundscape installs a kind of sonic simulacrum as it tends to blur the boundaries between the real and the
mediated through sounds, mirroring endlessly and kaleidoscopically the real through meaningless and
“sourceless” sound images. The ambience makes the listener fold back to his/her inner zone where there is no
escape possible.
5. The text is available online as a pdf-file. The pagination is mine. Rupert Sheldrake, “Part I: Mind, Memory,
and Archetype: Morphic Resonance and the Collective Unconscious,” Psychological Perspectives (1997),
http://www.sheldrake.org/articles/pdf/44.pdf (3 July 2003). The ideas on morphic resonance were earlier
developed by Sheldrake in A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Los Angeles: J.P.
Tarcher, 1971) and The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and The Habits of Nature (New York: Times
Books, 1988).
6. Sheldrake reinforces his argument by drawing a comparison with a television set (in his so-called “allegory of
the television set”).

Bibliography
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