Curating the Immaterial: Histories, Theories and Practices of Sound Art


By Carlos Kong

Sound Art Curating Conferece

Sound Art Curating Conference

“Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” (15-16 May) brought together an interdisciplinary community of curators, artists, and academics to discuss the philosophical, aesthetic, and practical challenges of curating sound art. The conference, held across three days at Goldsmiths, University of London, and The Courtauld Institute of Art and co-chaired by Lanfranco Aceti (Sabanci University), Janis Jefferies (Goldsmiths), Martin Sørengaard (Aalborg University of Copenhagen), and Julian Stallabrass (The Courtauld), fostered interdisciplinary conversations that explored sound art at its curatorial, theoretical, and sociopolitical intersections. Sound art has recently emerged in circuits of public space and art institutions, evident in exhibitions such as Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China (Shanghai, 2013), The Heard and the Unheard (Taiwanese Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale), and Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic (Tate Modern, London, 2012), and Soundings: A Contemporary Score (MoMA, New York, 2013). Despite its ontological absence, sound is accruing a significant presence at the forefront of contemporary art and media culture. Its elusive materiality, unstable objecthood, and relational aesthetics are expanding both the parameters of art historical discourses and the social engagements of curatorial practices, which the conference participants discussed and debated throughout a lively weekend of sonic musings.

The conference featured a variety of compelling sessions and panel discussions, examining diverse audiovisual interstices that ranged from sound art and globalized politics, the spatial considerations of curating sound, writing about sound art, the philosophy of listening and audibility, sound art and issues of conservation and copyright, sound art and the mediatization of the artist, and the relation of sound art to other forms of visual, performance, and digital art. One r session that I found particularly fascinating was “Event Making and Identity Politics Beyond the Dirty A-Word of Authenticity: The Case of ‘Sound Art’ in China”. The speakers, professors and curators from China and Taiwan, problematized the politics of curating nonwestern sound art. Their papers challenged the western, orientalized formation of a distinctly “Asian” soundscape and questioned the possibility of authenticity in the transnational politics of Asian art. Through analyzing various case studies of recent sound art exhibitions, “noise” festivals, and multimedia installations throughout China and Taiwan, the panel participants (one of whom included Dajuin Yao, curator of Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China) concluded that curators of nonwestern sound art must maintain a sensitivity to the geographical and material conditions of the work of sound to prevent the spectacularization of nonwestern culture that pervades globalized networks of artistic exchange. The speakers advocated that the relational intervention and social praxis of curating sound art could potentiate a reversal of the “ethnographic ear” of sonic orientalism- an idea that I found particularly compelling, as sound so potently bears the politics of nationality and identity despite its lack of a representational referent.

Another highlight was a keynote address by Atau Tanaka, Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. As a practicing electroacoustic musician and multimedia artist, a curator of sound and media art, and a scholar of media studies, Tanaka discussed the curatorial instability of sound in his talk, “Curating and Exhibiting Performative Systems”. Tanaka drew on specific examples from his prolific career in electronic audiovisual art to thematize both the risks and richness of sonic performances across networks and spaces, utilizing interactive systems as musical instruments. His anecdotes and artworks emphasized hybridity, complicating the distinctions of physical, virtual, immaterial, and embodied, while collapsing the epistemological divides of data, sound, and image. Tanaka’s virtuoso installations and curatorial projects posit interactivity across geographical cities and continents, and formulate temporal simultaneities of the art event, at once live, re-performed, online, aired on the radio, and networked across galleries and time zones. By expanding and experimenting with the responsiveness of the “embodied audiovisual interaction” of sound with other forms of digital and performative media, the artistic and curatorial practices that Atau Tanaka presented captivatingly gestured towards the redefinition of contemporary aesthetic experience as we know it.

The interdisciplinary conversations at this year’s “Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” reflect the exciting, albeit challenging developments of incorporating sound art into curatorial programs and academic institutions. Sound- its elusiveness, intangibility, and ephemerality- is emerging to the globalized forefront of contemporary art, exposing the productive, transmedial spaces for curating and scholarship. The conference’s discussions signified a stimulating start to the examination and curation of sound art towards its affective, sociopolitical potential.

Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit