Atmospheric Railway at the National Portrait Gallery

An Interactive instrument – digital and mechanical

Sound Travel Engineered by Di Mainstone and Adam Stark Performance by Hollie Miller
Commissioned by Re-Animate for the National Portrait Gallery and funded by Queen Mary University of London.

The NPG’s wig-heavy halls also provided a great space for happy discoveries like The Atmospheric Railway, a dance act involving the wearable instrumental creation of Di Mainstone and Adam Stark. Curious, interactively noisy and compelling, it was exactly the right thing to stumble upon around one of the many corners on the first floor. Art Desk

Di Mainstone and Adam Stark were commissioned to create this performance for an event at The National Portrait Gallery. This wearable interactive electro‐mechanical instrument titled ‘Atmospheric Railway’ was inspired by a portrait of 19th Century civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was famed for constructing engineering icons such as Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway.

Whilst investigating his portfolio of work, the duo were mesmerized by the mysterious and unresolved Atmospheric Railway. This novel mode of travel involved carriages propelled by air pressure in pneumatic tubes. Brunel’s visionary design was blighted with problems and was eventually closed after rats nibbled away at the seals that kept the carriage‐cylinder airtight. Sadly, this was the end for Brunel’s ‘atmospheric caper’ a project that many felt was too costly and outlandish.

Aside from the novelty of this concept, Di and Adam were drawn to the word combination ‘Atmospheric Railway’, which they felt conjured up a contrast of heavy industry versus otherworldly magic. Inspired, they began the construction of an electro‐mechanical instrument of the same name. This device creates atmospheric soundscapes, which are activated by the journey of traveling objects (ball bearings) through a system of tubes. The bearings ricochet off bells causing them to chime. The resulting sounds are harvested (via microphones) and fed back into the room as a series of atmospheric echoes. The user (or movician) can then sculpt the pitch, mood and intensity of the resulting soundscape through the manipulation of a soft module, which is embedded with movement sensors. The performance promises to provide the audience with an unforgettable and enthralling journey through sound. For more information on the Atmospheric Railway performance contact Di and Adam.

During the performance, our dancer Hollie Miller will be inhabiting the work. Using travel as a metaphor for the life cycle of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the performance will take the audience on a visual and sonic journey. The adventure begins from birth and the opening of a traveling wardrobe. Strange otherworldly objects are extracted one by one, each representing a different vital organ and memory in Brunel’s life cycle.


  • Aug 2011 ReAnimate! National Portrait Gallery
  • June 2011 Wilton’s Music Hall


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