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.