Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play

By Elina Suoyrjö (Independent curator, PhD candidate at Middlesex University)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

On a late Friday afternoon on June 17, a bunch of us gathered at the entrance of London College of Communication in order to be escorted to a private view at the Museum of Portable Sound. The current exhibition at the museum is Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play, guest curated by Dr Irene Noy who runs What Sense is there in Art? series at The Courtauld. After a short round of introductions, we were guided through the labyrinths of the school into an auditorium, where the museum and the artist awaited.

Jessica Akerman’s practice focuses on processes of drawing, through exploring different kinds of materials and gestures. She works with a vast range of materials from playdough to mud to song, as the work takes shape as sculpture, installation or collaboration. The exhibition at the Museum of Portable Sound presents excerpts of three of Akerman’s earlier works focusing on sound, and especially song. After a presentation from the museum director John Kannenberg, we got to listen to Akerman’s works. This was followed by a discussion between Akerman, Noy, and the audience. During the talk central topics in Akerman’s practice were brought up, such as exploring relations between gender and labour, sound and song as material of work, and working processes with different kinds of communities.

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

While the exhibition focuses on Akerman’s sound based work, a certain sense of tactile materiality appears to push through her practice even in these pieces. Two of the works, Songs of Salt (2010) and Waulking song (2014) deal with traditions of song functioning as part of labour; as part of working processes where song, gestures and rhythms enable people to work together, and in synch. The songs and sounds are entangled with physical movements of the singers, and their handling of physical materials. The third piece, Darlinghurst playground songs (2013), features play songs the artist composed in collaboration with pupils at Darlinghurst Primary School in Southend. The recording is a lively playground soundtrack, which transmits not only the sounds of the playground songs, but also the echoes of acts and movements synchronized by the children along with the singing.

The Museum of Portable Sound is a project by John Kannenberg. The museum has collections consisting of sound as well as physical objects, an exhibition program, a gallery guide, and a board. The museum doesn’t exhibit artworks only. The collections present for example animal sounds and soundscapes from different museums. The immaterial sound collections of the museum are located on an iPhone. Despite its portable character, the museum does not exist online, but on one portable device only. In practice, you get to visit the museum by booking an appointment. Visiting the museum becomes an experience in itself through scheduling an appointment, arriving at a given place, encountering the space of the museum one on one, within a certain kind of intimate setting, through headphones.

4As a curator, I can’t help but think what does it then mean for an artwork to be exhibited in this museum? Is there a difference to how artworks are presented in non-portable museums or white cubes? In the case of Akerman’s work, all of the pieces presented are parts of larger installations. During the discussion we got to hear in more detail how, and in which kind of settings, the work has been exhibited earlier. Presenting the sound of the work can thus be seen as presenting one part of the work, not the work as a whole. In the case of Heave and Flow, I do not think the presentation of the work exactly takes anything away from the work, while on the other hand, it doesn’t show the work in its whole richness either. The encounter with the work is very different from their original settings, and through this the museum might offer new entrances to the work. The Museum of Portable Sound seems to offer interesting possibilities in terms of distribution of sound based art, and different and engaging visitor experiences. There exists a slight danger of diminishing the work into this peculiar encountering experience, but through careful curation, as in the case of Heave and Flow, this too can be avoided.

Close Encounters: Perceptions of SoundArt

On Tuesday 14th June 2016, the Sackler Research Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art hosted a talk by Dr Kersten Glandien (Brighton University), which was part of the What Senses is there in Art? series organised by Dr Irene Noy (The Courtauld). Two artists/curators responded to the talk and the issues raised in the discussion that followed.

By Dr Matt Lewis (Call & Response)

Dr Kersten Glandien begins by charting a neat trajectory through the key points in the development of our relationship with artistic endeavour. However a temporary interruption occurs when our speaker gives a Cageian nod to the presence of the fountains outside the seminar room. We are then launched from the starting point of 15th Century art and architecture into 17th Century western art music, journeying through Dadaism to the Avant Garde, before touching down in the later half of last century. Here we arrive at the point where we inevitably scramble around trying to find the roots of what we call Sound Art. Missing from the journey are explicit references to key political and social movements and struggles associated with the above historical points of reference.

Berhard Leitner, Sound Chair (1975)

Berhard Leitner, Sound Chair (1975)

The talk then holds a temporary gaze on our contemporary relationships with digital culture in general and throws up some extremely important issues. The use of the term ‘compression’ in relation to our digital experience is well chosen and reminds me of Jonathan Sterne’s work around the MP3, which he uses as container to explore the issues of our digital generation.

Glandien’s critical stance in relation to an online and device fixated society is important as it tacitly prepares us for some of the later artistic examples that point to ways in which artists might test new possibilities for technology and remind us of our historical connections with these tools. This history of our relationship with the development of technology is one of constant feedback. For Matt Fuller one of the tasks of media ecologies is to carve out unaccounted for potentialities from “standardised media-objects” such as the MP3 and i-pod. The “affordance of possibilities” (Gibson), offered to us by standardised media-objects, systems and processes, reflects and reveals our differing relationships to listening itself. TFL, for example, may typically transport both middle-class commuters, who choose to listen to MP3’s on their i-pods and young people who “spit” “bars” over MP3’s, played out through the small speakers of their phones. The later practice is sometimes referred to by some academics with the derogative term “sod-casting”.

Kersten very usefully acknowledges the multi-modal/sensory nature of Sound Art and the second half of the talk turns our attention in four interconnected directions:

Seeing Sounds

Feeling Sounds

Spatial experience of with sound through Installation Art

Interaction through Sound

Historical examples include Bernhard Leitner’s Sound Chair (1975). This piece connects us to an important group of other works that embrace the haptic qualities of sound. Examples include the Music For Bodies project by Kaffe Matthews:

Kaffe’s Sonic Bed, part of this project is most interesting in that it was designed as a musical instrument, which can be played live, or pre-automated through a software interface using JavaScript.

For me the sited work with the greatest potential to offer new affordances of possibilities across our multi-sensory, digital practice is the final example of the talk, Jon Rose’s Giant Ball 2011.

Jon Rose, Giant Ball (2011)

Jon Rose, Giant Ball (2011)

By encouraging communal interaction with a physical interface in the form of a ball this project both looks forward to the potentials of digital interaction and backwards to the social nature of sound based creative practice. Most importantly it reminds us of the unbreakable nexus between sound art and music; way before humans were producing closed experiences in bourgeoisie palaces of fun we were getting together in rooms and fields and making the air move.

The final question from the floor brought us right back to the opening Cageian acknowledgement of the sound of the fountains outside the seminar room. The questioner commented on the importance of understanding the effects of sounds on our health. Fountains, yes a long established form of Sound Art, way before such conceptions existed are also an easy go-to for developers looking for a seductive way of diverting our attention away from the dangerously high levels of construction noise. Fountains! Surely we can do better than that!

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By Evgenia Emets (poet and artist)

Dr Kersten Glandien presented a brief overview of specific moments in Western history when a perception shift in culture occurred. According to Glandien, these developments made us re-tune our senses to specific new ‘harmonies’ which are mirrored in art from those periods. She describes three shifts:

1) the arrival of bourgeois mind-set in the 15th century, 2) the avant-garde and the new industrial society at the start of the 20th century and finally, 3) our own time of hyper connectivity in all spheres of life and a globalised world. She showed how these shifts feed into the development of the human psyche, society and are reflected in art practices, Sound Art in particular.

Ryoji Ikeda, Test pattern {100m version], Duisburg, 2013

Ryoji Ikeda, Test pattern {100m version], Duisburg, 2013

15th century shift in architecture fostered by Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective connected with developments in mathematics, pushed the shift in artist’s perception towards rationality as a dominant value and realism as its expression. In music, a new system of temperament was implemented in the 17th century and continued to develop into the beginning of the 20th. This created a transition from music filled with natural harmonics and dissonances to an equal temperament system with its mathematical, ‘correct’ spaces between notes. This lead to new developments in instrument building and music development, imposing a set of perceptions governing classical music up until today. That established a specific way of listening to music, which was widely supported by the institutions; there was an increase in separation between audience and professional musicians.

In the early 20th century avant-garde art saw the next shift in perception – away from object based to process based works, including an emergence of works which engage multiple senses, involve spontaneity, chance and wider audience engagement. Hence a growing interest in visual music, haptic art, interactive performance and technology based work, with new forms emerging in the crossover between traditional genres.

Douglas Henderson, Fadensonnen (2009)

Douglas Henderson, Fadensonnen (2009)

It feels as though we are undergoing another shift in perception under the influence of constant media penetration into our lives – growing confusion, shrinking attention spans and inevitable and largely forced media interactions, which are common markers of our daily reality. Art and especially Sound Art addresses these issues via a set of tools available in new art forms. These offer us experiential and immersive situations and question the way we interact with the environment created by the hectic media world.

The physicality of sound alone gave rise to a whole number of adventures, a lot of which have been focused on sound as a phenomenon prone to interpretations via sensory apparatus. Haptic inaudible vibrations and visual sound through the science of cymatics activate two more senses beyond hearing – tactile and visual (see for example the installation by Thomas McIntosh, Ondulation).

It is possible to reproduce recorded or generated sound in space through geometric mapping. This creates immersive spaces, which addresse directly the field of perception (Bernhard Leitner’s sound spaces). Sound sculptures by many artists, including Douglas Henderson, present sound as an object with active tangible presence in space rather than ephemeral abstract music. Artists have even used amplification of inaudible waves in the environment of the cities to make us aware of what is going on around us in the electrical field (see electrical walks by Christina Kubisch).

So are we facing another shift and if so what will this shift feel like? I thought of just a few aspects, which could be part of this shift in perception and perhaps deserve further investigation:

Jeppe Hein, Appearing Rooms, SBC London, since 2007

Jeppe Hein, Appearing Rooms, SBC London, since 2007

  • Life in cities forces us to deal on a daily basis with noise pollution. This has become political and environmental issue, which adds to the stresses of a city life. How can Sound Art help, and can sound artists contribute with new ideas to help with this issue?
  • How exactly does sound affects our mind, body and emotions. Sound used thoughtlessly can have detrimental effects on the health of the audience (in an art gallery/museum/concert). How many sound artists are aware of these effects and use sound consciously and responsibly?
  • The modern system of equal temperament could be an interesting field of exploration, questioning the institutional base of most of the music composition and performance. How does Sound Art relate to this system?

It would be interesting to see how in other cultures shifts in perceptions happen in relation to development of thought, economic conditions and how it is supported and reflected in the arts. I believe there is great deal of examples in both aboriginal cultures and some industrialised societies, which preserved older musical traditions, where sound and music are seen from wider perspective as a medicine, a carrier of knowledge or core of spiritual practice.

 

Opening Art History to Science and the Humanities: How and Why

By Julia Secklehner (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

On 1st June 2016, Professor Whitney Davis asked ‘What would a post-culturalist art-history look like?’. ‘Post-culturalist’ in this context is concerned with an inclusive art history and study of world art that can be simultaneously multi-, inter- and transcultural. It can focus on the decentring of one narrative over the other in what Davis has compared to post-colonial trains of thought. It is thus possible to understand culture as ‘shared sense-making’ in relation to ideas developed by Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Using this as a starting point, Davis interrogated existing approaches to non-cultural art history in an attempt to bridge the nineteenth century divide between Naturwissenschaften (the sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities). As such, he aimed to show that our understanding of art history can be broadened with the inclusion of Naturwissenschaften into art historical theory.

The example used in the talk to visualise these abstract theories was the so-called ‘Mondrian stimulus’, a neurological experiment Edwin H Land developed in 1971 as part of his ‘retinex theory’, which questioned why we can see colors consistently even if light levels change. In the experiment, test subjects were shown a display resembling paintings by Mondrian, checking which brain cell complexes were activated by looking at certain patterns. The cell complex V4 (an area tuned for colour in the visual cortex) ‘lit up’ with all the test subjects. As Davis highlights, regardless of whether the subject was an ‘avant-gardist’ or a ‘philistine’, V4 would have been stimulated. This is because the experiment was not about cultural understanding, but the physical activation of particular cells by looking at colour patterns.

Mondrian Apparatus

Mondrian Apparatus

What does it mean, then, that cultural differences (the avant-garde philistine dichotomy) are not registered neurologically? As Davis suggested, this result had a series of implications. From a scientific point of view, the question ‘but is it art?’ turns out to be less significant when it comes to looking at art objects – creating an opposition between what can physically be seen of a work and what can be seen in it (interpretation). Meaning thus can be differentiated from our physical experience of seeing colours and structures: while the former is culturally conditioned, the latter is physiological. As such, a consideration of scientific methods for a new art historical understanding shows the simultaneous value of different interpretations. This helps to forge an art history that is no longer limited by the constraints of ‘seeing culturally’, which means that our understanding of an object is restricted to the ways we learn about it in our cultural environment.

Undoubtedly, there is still some resistance to the closing of the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften divide, given how entrenched this split has become over the past few centuries. Yet, the important point to highlight here is that any inclusion of ‘neuroarthistory’ does not replace conventional forms, but adds to them and provides a broader perspective that is no longer solely reliant on cultural understandings of art, which are always conditioned by social aspects as well.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

In a way, Davis’s approaches seem, crude to ‘avant-gardists’. This is not surprising. By approaching artworks from an opened-up perspective that embraces naturalistic and universalising sciences, the hegemonic status of art that is often ascribed to it by avant-gardists is diminished. With this new approach, art objects have to withstand scrutiny not only from cultural interpretations, but also scientific ones, which liberate them from the ‘sacred’ space of art and white cube institutions and place them into an all-encompassing worldview, where art is just one of many things that provokes physical reactions. There is a clear politics behind this, namely that of embracing multiplicity and of decentring hegemonies (be they humanistic or scientific). Davis suggested ‘post-culturalist’ positioning, which opens up art history to a non-cultural discourse. This becomes much more than ‘a new way of looking at objects’: it encourages a multi-dimensional way of seeing the world and supports diversity – which is just what we need at times that toy with a return to nationalism and conservativism, like today.