Robin Fox has been touring the world for the past almost twenty years exploring the geometry of light and sound with different shows and creating a feeling of ‘mechanical synaesthesia’ in the audience attending them by mixing the two. An unexpected trilogy of artworks for laser beams – “nothing in my life is planned”, he confesses below – has put him at the pinnacle of audio-visual artists. Last week at LEV festival in Gijón (Spain), he proved just that.
I meet Robin the day before his show at the spectacular venue where the festival takes place, La Laboral, a grandiose building including a theatre (where most shows in LEV’s program are presented), a huge square, and a desecrated church (where they placed a magnificent Refik Anadol installation). Our conversation is distended, he’s warm and close, and he tells me all about his life: his mother – a composer of experimental and computer music –, his early days as a heavy metal drummer, ditching law school for sampling flushing toilets, asking for grants and loans to buy lasers and equipment, and a disco show he’s determined to put together in maximum five years.

For the moment, though, he’s been around a while with Single Origin, his newest piece. As he himself explains, all of the elements of his life are there: the music, the laser, the performance – “all the things that I enjoy”. An innovative piece that captures anyone who experiences it live in a sort of ethereal cocoon, a multicolour array of laser beams expanding playfully above, below, and around you. Be delighted by his art, and by his charm as well.
I heard you say that you are a failed heavy metal drummer. When did you realize the drums weren’t meant for you and decided to explore the more technological side of sound?
(Laughs) That’s a good question. I played the drums since I was very young. I loved it but I was never disciplined enough to be really brilliant, that’s why I said that I’m failed – I didn’t practice as much as I should. I played all the way through my teens and then I had a strange teenage period. I actually had children in my teens – very heavy metal, right? – and then I went to law school just after. I spent three years, maybe, studying law and literature, and I stopped playing music for a short time.
What about your family?
My mother was a composer of computer music and experimental music – she made really crazy music. And my stepfather, he ran a computer music department, so there was always music technology in the house, but I stopped for a couple of years. When I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I left law school, took a loan from the bank – they saw my law marks and thought that I was gonna make some money –, bought a drum kit and a kilo of hash, and I went back to music again.
(Laughs) That’s incredible! How did you approach music again though? Right where you left it?
I started playing again and I went through… everybody goes through a jazz phase. Maybe you’re not old enough to have gone through yours yet, but you might go at some point. I wanted to play jazz and I was actually playing a lot of drums and getting really excited about that. But my mother was a very clever woman and she just said to me, ‘you’re not good enough for this. You don’t practice enough.’
She was teaching at an experimental music school and she said, ‘I think this is more for you’. She finally convinced me to go and study there. The first thing that we did was music with reel-to-reel tape machines, like ‘musique concrète’, so we were cutting up tape machines and recording flushing toilets and making sound pieces. I was in heaven straight away! So I thought that that was totally for me.
“When I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I left law school, took a loan from the bank, bought a drum kit and a kilo of hash, and I went back to music again.”
You hold a PhD in composition and an MA in musicology. How important do you feel this academic background is to your current work and practise?
It’s interesting because I partly did this post-graduate work for money. I was on scholarships to do research, which meant that I didn’t have to have a job, which meant that I spent six years just reading and writing about music for the masters, and then just making music for the PhD. The strange thing is that I have a PhD in composition but I can’t read music, which is weird, right? I can write music but I can’t read it, it’s quite strange.
It is, indeed.
But the MA was interesting. I read the history of experimental music in Melbourne in the mid to late-1970s – I was very interested in this period. I got to interview a handful of older artists (maybe one or even two generations older than me) about their work and their life. That was a really great education and I found that really influenced the way that I worked.
And then, when I did the PhD, I spent a lot of time teaching myself programming, sound programming, etc. That’s when I discovered the oscilloscope, which led to the laser works later on. It was a very creative time, and I felt really lucky to be able to spend it just concentrating on this thing that I love so much.
The way you work requires knowledge and skills related to mathematics, physics and engineering – so highly technical, calculated, and rigorous. However, how important are improvisation and experimentation to you and your creative process?
Improvisation and experimentation are central to the process and… (Laughs) I’m laughing partly because my father was a mathematician – he has his PhD in mathematics –, so when I was a teenager, I rejected them completely, I refused to study them. And now, later in life, I love mathematics! I love the ideas and everything about them. It’s just that I can’t do maths, I have a mental block for it.
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But your work is quite linked to them.
A lot of my work engages with these quite complicated mathematical ideas, but I don’t really understand the math behind them. Actually, I don’t understand how electricity works either, it’s still like magic to me! But for me, when I work, it’s very much about music, improvisation and experimentation. I get involved with technology, which means that I have to learn certain things – how to program a computer or working out how to make the lasers work with the sound. Over the years, you develop an understanding of these things, but to me, they’re all secondary.
What really interests me is the immediacy of the work, so when I’m making electronic music, I feel like I’m actually sculpting with voltage. To me, it’s a very plastic thing; it’s something you can feel. I like making the artworks, I’m not so interested in the technicalities – but I have to deal with them because they are a hurdle that I have to get over in order to manifest the work that I want to make.
In 2004, you started a series of works exploring synaesthesia through light and sound, which has ended up as a trilogy. From the first piece, the Monochroma green laser show, to the latest, Single Origin, there’s a fourteen-year-span more or less. How has this trilogy evolved with time? Or is the latest piece exactly as you first envisioned it?
It became a trilogy almost by accident.
Oh, so it wasn’t planned?
No, it wasn’t planned – nothing in my life is planned; never. I was working with oscilloscopes first. I was looking at voltage and making films, and then I was performing live like this on a screen. I became quite frustrated with that format because there was a resolution loss. It was a long time ago, the cameras were quite bad, so by the time it got to the projector and was on the screen, the beautiful image that was on the tiny oscilloscope ended up being like a green sort of smudge. That’s why I ended up working with lasers.
“I spend most of my time making music, but the laser shows have somehow taken over my life.”
So from there…
I never went to a rave in the 1990s. I was at university; I was doing other things like studying and researching. I never saw lasers in this kind of dance music context, but I wanted to start working with them because they were three-dimensional versions of what I was making with the oscilloscope. That’s how the Monochroma show came about. I bought a green laser because the oscilloscope was green. Lasers are phenomenally expensive though. Now, a lot more people are working with them because it’s becoming more accessible as a technology, but at that time, the purchase of that first laser was a big expense – I had to get a grant from the government to do it. 
What did you do then?
I toured that show for quite a long time. When I was making that show, I was making the music first in software and then looking at it on the oscilloscope, and then looking at it with the laser, so it was an extension of this oscilloscope work, which is actually a technique from the 1960s. Back then, lasers were really big and needed to be water-cooled and took a lot of energy, so people making laser shows would actually prototype them on oscilloscopes first.
What I really like is this immediacy of the connection between the voltage that you’re listening to and the voltage that you’re seeing. This is what I started to call ‘mechanical synaesthesia’. It’s like making a mechanical version of a neurological phenomenon that not everybody experiences.
When did the Monochroma show evolve to the second one?
It wasn’t until 2012 or 2013 that I received another quite large fellowship from the Australian Government. When the money arrived, I immediately thought about working with other colours, so I bought a red, a green, and a blue laser – again, really expensive, I spent like twenty-five thousand dollars just on the equipment. So I had three single beams and I wanted to work more on a polyphony, I wanted to be able to have two or three things happening at the same time (the first show just had one laser beam and one source). I made this artwork called RGB, which is a really full-on, crazy piece with lasers and noise. I really enjoyed it and toured it for a while.
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And now, you’re here with the latest part of the trilogy, Single Origin, which has another different type of laser.
I was on a residency in Canada and the laser company arrived with a very small laser projector – tiny, 4 kg, 5 watts, RGB. I was mesmerized. I used it on the residency and liked it, so I asked the guy where could I get one. Luckily, he was selling it second-hand. The funny thing is that the fee for the residency was five thousand Canadian dollars, and the laser was the same price, so I took the cash and I swapped it for the laser.
I went home to Australia and said to my partner, ‘I can’t pay the rent this month but I have this amazing laser’! (Laughs) I thought of doing a show just for this laser because touring with it would be amazing. I could just turn up with a suitcase, set up quickly and set down quickly as well, so it was almost an economic rationale behind this idea.
In the beginning, though, you were making more music.
I spend most of my time making music, but the laser shows have somehow taken over my life. I’m much more known for these laser shows than for my sound. With Single Origin I thought of making a longer piece. I wanted to take a lot of the music that I make – I write a lot for contemporary dance companies –, bring in more sound that wasn’t just this synesthetic element. In a way, the laser becomes an instrument in this piece but it’s not only about it. There are other elements. I mean, the laser is still obviously visually dominant because it just is, you can’t get around that.
Is there a particular reason behind the name?
I called it Single Origin because it’s about all of the elements of my life coming out in this one piece: there’s the laser element, the music element, and I’m improvising as well, so I’m coming back to performance and all the things that I enjoy.
“When I’m making electronic music, I feel like I’m actually sculpting with voltage. To me, it’s a very plastic thing; it’s something you can feel.”
The evolution seems pretty clear: first, you started with only a green laser beam. Then came the RGB, but separately. And now, you merge these three in one, expanding the possibilities of colour to almost infinite. Do you feel that by expanding the possibilities of colour, the effect of synaesthesia is more powerful or easier to feel?
I’m not sure about that. I think the synesthetic elements in the first work were really pure. Even in the RGB piece it was all about that one relationship, the mechanical synaesthesia. In Single Origin, the piece is more expansive itself, but the synesthetic element is actually maybe a little bit diluted. I don’t think it’s less synesthetic, but I don’t think it’s more synesthetic either. That element is still present and it’s still very much part of why the show works I think, but it’s a more pleasurable experience actually.
How come?
I think that the shows before were really intense and energizing, but you couldn’t watch them for more than twenty-five minutes. You wouldn’t want to, you wanted to stop.
As a curiosity, have you ever had an idea for a performance/piece that you still haven’t developed in real life because you can’t find the instruments/technologies to achieve it?
(Laughs) Yes, so many!
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And what do you do with these ideas? Do you have them archived somewhere?
Yeah, I write them down just in case, but some of them I think are just ridiculous and maybe impossible. I did a residency some time ago with the Bionics Institute and I was making music for people with cochlear implants – bionic ears. I was reading a lot about the way that we hear sound and the way that vibrations are interpreted by the ear and then sent to the brain. There’s a muscle in your ear, a membrane, which is sort of curled up with tiny hairs on it. These hairs vibrate in different parts of the muscle when different frequencies arrive at the ear, and that’s how you determine pitch difference.
I thought to myself, if you inject this muscle with Botox, for example, it wouldn’t stiffen and you would actually hear lower frequencies; you would be able to hear sub-harmonics in a totally different way. And if you could excite the muscle, you could hear the internet, for example (laughs). You could hear like a dog. What was interesting to me about this idea, conceptually, is that we don’t know what would the brain do with that.
If we could hear higher than twenty thousand Hz, would our brain experience it as sound? Or would it experience it in some other somatic modality? When I asked the scientist if that was possible, he just shook his head and said that there’s no way. I offered myself as the subject, but he told me no one would ever do that to me (laughs). So that was one idea that will never happen.
Sounds interesting on a conceptual level, but maybe I support the doctor. Any other one that could really end up happening?
I’m making a lot of what I call ‘disco’ at the moment – young people tell me it’s techno, but I call it disco. It’s this chaotic, funky as hell, and sort of chaotic sound… Not experimental, but very randomly generated stuff that is locked together with an incredible sense of grounded rhythm. And there’s a drum machine at the centre that Prince and The Sugarhill Gang used to use – it’s a drum machine from the early 1980s and it swings really beautifully. With that, I want to make something like a disco laser show. It just has to happen at some point in my life.
All this disco music that I make, I make it in a corner of my studio that is the sort of ‘fun part’. Whenever I have a deadline and it’s quite stressful, or I’m doing my tax, email, admin, bullshit or fucking whatever, I go to my fun corner at the end of the day and I just make disco. I actually make a lot of it; I have tracks, and tracks, and tracks of this stuff. Maybe next year, the laser show is a lot more fun and less serious…
You’re also very interested in the physicality of sound, in its geometrical nature. This reminds me of the magic or sacred geometry in medieval art – both western and Arab, for example. Does this interest stem from spirituality or even religiosity?
It doesn’t come from religiosity because I’m not a religious person. I’ve always been fascinated by faith because I can’t experience it; I feel sort of frustrated because I’m not a religious person and never will be. It’s not a hostile feeling, it’s just that it’s not there for me. Actually, when I was studying literature, I did think to myself, ‘what’s the most important piece of literature in Western civilisation?’ Well, the Bible. I read it from cava to cava, and to me, it’s completely ridiculous.
“Faith is interesting to me because it involves this sort of moment where you have to disconnect from reality in a way. You have to have faith in something that you’ll never know.”
Dogma and faith are two different things. Why do you say you’re interested in faith? Just because you can’t experience it?
Faith is interesting to me because it involves this sort of moment where you have to disconnect from reality in a way. You have to have faith in something that you’ll never know. You can’t know what happens when you die and never will. No one knows, right? So you have to have faith. And in my brain, that switch doesn’t flick.
I actually feel the same way when reading about quantum physics. Sometimes, I read stuff and I’m like, ‘Do you actually know this shit? How much are you zooming in?’ (Laughs) I think that there’s also a leap of faith at some point. But I’m interested in the golden section, the Fibonacci series, number patterns and phenomena, etc. The tessellation in Arabic art is related to those and it’s really fascinating.
Let’s go back to the geometry of sound though, since you push it in your work.
When I was working with the oscilloscope, I had a sort of revelation: a soundwave (a pure tone) forms a circle if you take time out of it. And a square wave draws a square, and a triangle draws a triangle – always when you take time out of them. So this idea that the fundamental building blocks of electronic music are actually shapes reminded me of John Adams, the composer, who I believe said that “music is geometry in the air”. Once you realize that, you know that you’re actually transmitting complex series of shapes to people. And if you start thinking about it like that, it gets quite interesting.
When you start looking at the correlation between the audible and the visible in the way that I do, then these geometries become very fundamental to what you’re looking at. What was very interesting too with the oscilloscope when I first started using it is that harmonic sounds – sounds with a harmonic series, like the human voice or the flute – actually looked quite shitty on the oscilloscope. It wasn’t until I started to push waveforms and make them really angular and sort of rectified that suddenly the geometric relationship became much clearer. When the sound was really distorted and nasty, the image would be beautiful. And I like this. I like this cognitive dissonance of noise looking really amazing.
How would you describe your earlier shows, where you used oscilloscopes?
My early shows were essentially noise sets. I’ve been playing in the noise community for a while. Once the visual correlate was there, I noticed that people tended to stay at gigs more. People who wouldn’t normally sit through a noise set would sit through mine because they were looking at this visual thing, they were kind of distracted by the immediacy of this correlation. Its impact is quite interesting because it’s so quick you don’t have time to think about it.
What do you mean exactly?
Sometimes, after my shows – even Single Origin –, several VJs would approach me and ask how did I synch the laser with the audio like that. And really, it’s the dumbest thing you could do: I take the voltage from here and plug it into the mixer, so the synch is the voltage. There’s no software in-between, it’s completely analogue. Usually, they would say, ‘oh, that’s why it sounded so nasty!’ (Laughs) Yes, I’m not trying to make it sound like that, it sounds like that because it’s its nature.
Now, with my new system, I actually draw the voltages and then listen to them. I make the image and then listen to it rather than make the sound and then look at it. That was a technical problem that came about with these more powerful lasers and having to work with safety parameters and having to work with different software; we had to work in the opposite direction. Now, I take the voltage directly out of my emergency stock box, so the voltage that goes to the laser projector also goes to the mixer. I now draw dots and lines and curves, and then animate them and I listen to that sound. It’s a weird thing to do.
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Last one. You’re currently touring with the Single Origin piece, but are you currently working on any new project? Maybe the disco one you were talking about before?
For next year – 2020 –, I’ve been thinking about working on a new set of audio-visual films for the oscilloscope. Every time I go back to it, I realize that there’s so much work I haven’t finished with that format – and it’s a really beautiful format. What you can do with it is actually much more intricate and beautiful than what you can do with a laser projector. The laser projectors are actually quite limited because they can only move at a certain speed. If you send it too much high frequency, it just blows up. When I get back to the oscilloscope, because you’re charging and discharging electromagnets, you can send a ridiculously high frequency.
On the first DVD that I released, there was a piece which I made entirely out of frequencies that you can’t hear. In a digital system, if you send the soundcard a frequency that is above half of the sampling…
…I’m not sure I follow.
Let’s say you’re at 44.1 – that’s like twenty-two thousand Hz. If you send the soundcard something higher than twenty-two thousand Hz, it falls over back into the audible domain, but it falls over without effect. There’s a piece that I made on the first DVD in 2004 called Nyquist Variations because that effect is called the Nyquist fall over frequency, so basically, you can make an entire piece made out of inaudible tones. The visual effect on the oscilloscope is really rich and strange and it’s something that you could never do with a laser projector.
What I want to do now that I have a bit more time and some more resources is spend some time with a proper videographer, for example, to work out a system for filming these things really beautifully and then having them on high-definition. That way, I can still improvise with these things but play more like a video show.
What about the disco laser piece you were telling me about?
I’ve been working with lasers for a long time now and the touring problems with the lasers are getting worse. Across Europe, a lot of the regulations are coming more and more strict, so I’m having to do more safety paperwork. I love working with lasers, but I’d love it also if I took a year off and did this other show. But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna do both. The disco laser show has to happen! I’m 45 years old, and it has to happen before I’m 50, otherwise, it’s just fucking sad. I have to do it, time is ticking.
We’ll be waiting.
Maximum five years.
We’ll be there!
It’s a deal!