It’s easy to step into a gallery and imagine sculptures as solid, static objects. They are visually striking, but they can’t really come to life. Or can they? One artist is intent on challenging that very assumption.

With a career that has spanned five decades, the German artist Trimpin has turned his passion for creating sounds through homemade mechanical devices into larger-than-life art installations. Dubbed “kinetic sound sculptures,” Trimpin incorporates materials such as metal, wood, instruments, and electronic components in hopes for an increased interaction between a partially engaged audience and acoustic environments.

The polyphony produced from the pre-programmed contraptions are ultimately a product of a collaborative, multi-sensory experience. Through his intricate, interactive sculptures exhibited in cities like Amsterdam and Seattle, Trimpin builds soundscapes where people are invited to express their creativity and momentarily take on the role of a composer.

We sat down with Trimpin so he can explain more about his fascination with mechatronic arts, opinions on evolving learning methods, and the role of technology in the creative process.

Trimpin, Installation in Shanghai

What do you think audiences are so intrigued by when they first experience a kinetic sound installation?

Well, through my history of actually watching them sometimes, most of the time they don’t have information about what they are exposed to. They walk in a little bit baffled because they cannot figure out why found objects, odd-looking contraptions, or kinetic objects are there. They start to think “what is going on?” and soon they wander around, and they hear the sound maybe coming from different locations. They learn something at this moment that might not explain what actually happened, but they are confronted with this image and with a moving sound, so they come up with their own kind of interpretation of what they just experienced. When they walk out, it’s usually like a different facial expression than what they came in with, like a relief because they experienced something which they couldn’t understand right away, how this acoustical or visual experience impacted their presence.

So that’s kind of what I feel comfortable with sometimes, art without any instruction. With very young children, they respond very similar to adults except the children show more freedom for certain kinds of interactions. They are not afraid to play an interactive instrument. They go and experiment immediately.

How do you feel audiences should interact with your work? What role does interaction play in your installations?

I went through different kind of phases of finding out what the general audience is doing. One of my first large installations, it was in Amsterdam in a theater with a spiral staircase so that the installation was actually hanging inside the spiral staircase on six floors. The idea was to explore what happened when the sound would fall down or move up. So it was more an exploration of moving sound in space in a vertical column, instead of in a horizontal dimension.

Trimpin, Guitar Tower

I had buttons on each floor where the audience could trigger an event. From this particular location, the sound would move in certain directions and speeds and I noticed sometimes that people would push the button and walk away. Not even listening. So I thought, that’s not a good way to introduce a kinetic artwork.

Before the button, I had some black and white keys to interact with. The adults would first look around to see if anyone was nearby, and then they would touch the keys, because they were afraid of not being the perfect pianist. But the idea wasn’t to play the piano, just to trigger musical events. I noticed that only children were not afraid to go on and interact.

After the button experience, I actually replaced them with money, like with a quarter machine so they had to insert a quarter and the installation came alive. I noticed immediately that when somebody is investing 25 cents, they would never walk away until the last note was played.

Speaking of exploring acoustics and spaces, obviously a lot of your work has taken place in either a museum or gallery, even outside at times. How do you think the role or notion of space informs the type of work that you do? Can you talk about how or why you make a work site-specific and the space in which it’s presented?

Well, each different installation is mostly site-specific, built for a particular space. Each installation explores what can go on acoustically by moving sound through space. In one in particular, like Conlon in Purple, I had six different vertical levels of sound objects, so certain kind of percussive sequences would go on the lowest level playing and suddenly it would jump up to the higher level. The regular ear would immediately notice that motion and that’s kind of why each individual room has to be mapped out. I’m midi mapping everything, so let’s say for two objects 30 meters apart, the sound takes a 10th of a second to travel. So it depends on where you are.

Each space is kind of mapped out sonically, acoustically, because what I’m trying to do is give the sound of a dimension, a spatial dimension that we actually feel: we as the audience standing in the center of an instrument, and the sound is surrounded by the audience, and each installation focusing on certain kind of ideas of how to move the sound around.

So with this sort of role of technology and art, a lot of people have started focusing on the idea of “code as art,” or “code as creativity.” Where do you see the role of software in the future of creativity?

Well, the question for me was always: can creativity be taught? I have the opportunities to work with a lot of different students, and I can tell who will make it eventually as an artist or as a composer or whatever, and who brings already this part of creativity to enhance and learn more.

Also creativity means that you have to be introduced: going to concerts, going to theatrical production, going to dance performances, all the arts contribute. That creative process still has to be kind of processed through your brain, looking and finding why you are interested in certain kinds of fields. So creativity probably starts very early on before you learn writing code or learn anything.

Of course every kid is an artist because kids have this ability to be free, to have the imagination and as you get older, you’re focusing more on whatever direction you want to go. So going back to writing code for example, this could be a very creative way to create and to express ideas.

Digital art didn’t exist 50 years or 80 years ago. So when photography and the other disciplines came, and then suddenly film, and slowly it was starting to flow together. It was then that the technology kicked in where it was feasible to combine these different disciplines.

Do you think the internet is helping change this conversation. You mentioned the maker movement—obviously people have been makers for years, and inventors and entrepreneurs. How do you think the internet is possibly changing the maker movement?

Oh yeah, it’s tremendously changed. Before, like in my time, there was no information source, you could only find information going to the library, or finding a book, or maybe somebody mentioned something. In universities you had these opportunities but everything was so, kind of isolated. Now, you can when you work on a project and you have a problem, there’s already a group.

And that’s a tremendous help where people get education online and share education online. It was never possible before, to find an answer or a solution so fast, to finish something up. And that will be definitely even more true now that the internet is faster, you can watch movies and exchange all kinds of different ideas, via film or via YouTube, and that will definitely be getting more and more attractive.

What excites you about the next 10 years and technology that’s coming to the market that might influence future makers, creators and artists?

Well, first of all, looking back, in the 70s and 80s you could see a steady movement. When the record was introduced in the 1930s, suddenly the music machine, mechanical instruments saw immediate decline on production. So there was no innovation, no more experimentation on mechanical musical instruments.

Then in the 60s and 70s, people started again experimenting with certain kinds of instruments or installations. But then in the 90s when the CD was introduced, suddenly everyone was working in one direction: in the digital direction. There was no acoustical interest anymore, building something real with physical kind of components.

So for a while, especially in the 90s, I thought what I was doing the last 30 years came to an end because there was no interest at universities, and the whole education part was only focused on digital arts. And this was kind of working for about eight to 10 years.

Then suddenly, there was again an interest in going back to the physical components to create installations, to create instruments or kinetic objects which are again this technology which is up to 500 years old. It was suddenly reintroduced but not with pneumatics, not with paper, or wheels or vacuum pumping machines. There was suddenly the electromotor, the solenoid, and all these kinds of electromechanical components. I saw that what I was doing for a long time suddenly had a future again. Then the Maker’s Faire, Sparkfun, and these companies now selling this equipment.


So I’m very excited that this movement now with the online teaching, with online sharing, online capabilities of interacting across the world. Before you could only interact across a table to exchange ideas, and now it’s worldwide. Now there are unlimited ways to store information, exchange this information, send it via light speed around the world.

So in your 50 year career as an artist and installation maker, what has influenced you over all this time to keep creating these mechatronic sound sculptures?

Well I grew up in the Black Forest region in Germany and as a young kid, going to a restaurant or a bar, there was always some kind of a mechanical musical instrument installed, which you had to insert 10 pfennig, like a coin, and then suddenly it came to life. So this from an early time on was an influence.

And my grandfather, he had a lot of books about building certain things, how physics, how mathematics, how the universe is actually working. When I saw this as a kid, I was fascinated that this is banging on some kind of parts and moving and this kind of art was very attractive to me and so I learned just by watching, by looking how this actually is functioning, and the interest was always like a mechanic.

I was asking my father once to build a water wheel which had a cork and two sardine cans to hang on the sardine cans. I was always fascinated by timing, watching, you know, how these two hammers would actually play a rhythm on the sardine cans and just experimenting with the water to have them playing fast and changing the rhythm and this mechanics of making music.

So it was more learning through experimentation, and that’s kind of where most of my education came from—just by trying it out.