Thursday 3 November 2011

Hearing art

Boxed Tunes: Self-reflexivity in Sound and Art, ICA, London, 19 October 2011

There is something inherently paradoxical about the notion of sound in the ‘visual’ arts. Not only because sound-based art is traditionally the domain of music, but also because attention towards the auditory is surely at least as likely to distract a ‘viewer’ away from the visual as it is to focus his or her attention on it. While multimedia artistic projects have become very common, there may still be a sense in which the visual and the auditory are two distinct realms; mixing them destabilises things and leaves everything up for grabs.

The starting point of the talk on this subject at the ICA last week was Robert Morris’ 1961 work Box with the Sound of its Own Making, a wooden box which contains a recording of the sounds made during its assembly. Artist and writer Salomé Voegelin was the most eloquent of the four speakers on the significance of this work. She described the box as representing a break from the reverential silence of the traditional gallery, a jolting away from the idea of the purity of the finished product. While a silent, modernist work demands that the viewer’s scrutiny be directed exclusively to the complete, perfected artwork - thus idealising the process of artistic creation - Morris’ box points the viewer/listener towards the banal reality of its creative process. By putting the sound in the box, Morris also calls attention to its actual absence: the making of the box can still only be imagined, as the outcome (even given its contents) cannot constitute its genesis.

Interpreted thus, sound becomes an intrusion, its addition casting doubt and uncertainty into the viewer’s mind. Voegelin played us an extract from one of her own sound pieces, which through extreme incongruity and apparent shifts of time and place challenged listeners to construct a coherent visual scenario: again, sound acts to destabilise, to disconcert.

Voegelin was not the only speaker to reflect on sound as intrusion. The artist and writer Tim Etchells described a project called Hour of Noise, which had involved leading a group of residents of Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, through the streets in a directionless tour of pure cacophony, embracing sound as noise and for its own sake. A key aspect to this work, Etchells suggested, was the complete pointlessness of the sound created; he deliberately chose a sleepy, quiet mountain town to maximise the impact of sound as something alien.

In a different way, Aura Satz also asked her audience to reflect on the strangeness of sound. She played several extracts from videos which deal with the strange ways in which image and sound can coalesce: close-up images of gramophone grooves, and a machine (an ‘Oramics’ machine) that produced weird sounds through being fed squiggly lines. Though as in Hour of Noise sound is unambiguously celebrated in these pieces, there is still very much a sense in which it is the foreign element; that the sound is an immanent aspect to the visuals, the same as them in substance yet still so unpredictable, is what gives the films their otherworldly atmosphere.

All the artists who spoke, in other words, treated sound as something other. As a musician, I was surprised by this - perhaps just because I am used to putting sound first, but also perhaps because the visual element of musical performance is and always has been a firmly established part of music: any musical experience always involves seeing things. But the difference is that the reverse is not the case: a traditional visual-artistic experience involves no sound whatsoever. One consequence of this distinction may be that merging visual art into a musical setting is a lot less controversial or problematic than merging sound into visuals. This, at least, was the impression I was left with after the talk. That said, I am looking forward to having to reassess this conclusion at the ICA’s Cut and Splice festival, which again engages with sound art, next month.

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