Two very different art shows concerning themselves with sound have opened in Manhattan—Soundings: A Contemporary Score at Museum of Modern Art (curated by Barbara London and Leora Morinis) and The String and the Mirror at Lisa Cooley Gallery (curated by Lawrence Kumpf and Justin Luke). Based on the kinds of works these curators have chosen to present, it is obvious that there is a bifurcation in the hard-to-define field of sound art between works that use sound as a material and seem committed to medium specificity, and works that use sound as a poetics and are not committed to the materiality of sound-in-and-of-itself. But this bifurcation is complicated. So perhaps it makes a bit of sense to begin with a question: What is sound art?
In a broad sense the term “sound art” is used—correctly or incorrectly—to describe a range of practices that produce or are concerned with sound and can cover most any mode of visual-art production like sculpture, drawing, and installation. The term can also include modes such as performance, musical composition, field recording, and sound walking. Sometimes there is sound in the work, sometimes there is not. The earnest task of trying to define it has been going on for at least 14 years, with the first prominent work specifically about sound in the arts being Douglas Khan’s book, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (1999). Since then, many artists, critics, and writers have penned their own versions of the history and trajectories of sound in the arts, and have generally traced its origins in Western art culture to the Italian Futurists, through Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrète, to John Cage, and back again to Marcel Duchamp, with many interesting side-routes along the squiggly path. The essay collection Audio Culture (2004) edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noises (2006), Alan Licht’s Sound Art (2007), and Seth Kim Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear (2009) are among the best of these works to date. Parallel to this is the media/cultural–studies related field of sound studies; when adding these writers and theorists (including Jonathan Sterne and Michael Bull) into the already complicated discourse of sound art, a very colorful and complex Venn diagram emerges illustrating the ways the fields of artistic, critical, and academic production overlap.
Importantly, Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear defines the bifurcation when he asserts the Marcel Duchamp-inspired idea of non-cochlear sound. Based on Duchamp’s idea of non-retinal art, Kim-Cohen throws down a gauntlet of sorts in the midst of the field for artists, curators, critics, and academics to navigate. He asserts that if gallery-based sound art is to be taken seriously, then it needs to move beyond the phenomenological cul-de-sac of Cageian “sound-in-and-of-itselfness” and move on toward the non-cochlear, toward conceptualism, and toward the complex discourse of contemporary art for the field to have any chance of being taken seriously in the art world at large. And, as an artist and a writer in the field myself, I tend to agree in principle with Kim-Cohen’s argument.
So it is with all of these complications in mind that good curators go to work. And these two shows, at MoMA and Lisa Cooley, seem to capture both sides of this argument, with MoMA exhibiting works that predominately fall into the realm of the phenomenological and Lisa Cooley exhibiting mainly conceptual work. It is a great boost to the visibility—and audibility—of the field that these shows are happening at the same time, and one should see both in order to get a more direct sense of the current discourse in the field of sound art.
One thing, among many, that MoMA has done well here is that they have not exclusively subscribed to Kim-Cohen’s ideas of what sound art should be. (According to his blog, he had conversations with Barbara London in the leadup to this show.) Despite, or perhaps because of, this consultation, the curators did not shy away from sound as material. Rather, London and Morinis have truly attempted to assemble a group of works that cut across the broadest—and perhaps more traditional—definition of the field by including works of mainly (sonic) material concern by the artists Florian Hecker, Tristan Perich, Susan Philipsz, Sergei Tcherepnin (who also has work in the Lisa Cooley Gallery show), Stephen Vitiello, Jacob Kirkegaard, Hong-Kai Wang, Luke Fowler and Toshiya Tsunoda, and Jana Winderen. In all of these works, sound as material predominates, while many reach for historical, scientific, or social content in order to politely complicate their pieces. By this I mean that sound as material drives this work and that the “content” elided to it feels adjunct, like there is nothing at stake. Nonetheless pleasant, all of these artists’ works aim to be subtle, sonic essays on listening and how we encounter sound, memory, and space, both architectural and social. And while these cochlear works are favored at MoMA, there are several that could be classified as non-cochlear, and this is where I feel the show has traction.
The first work in this boundary-pushing category is the piece by Camille Norment, “Triplight,” where the electronic innards of a vintage microphone are replaced with a light bulb of varying brightness that casts a shadow reminiscent of a ribcage. This work is silent, but touches on these themes: presence/absence of the voice and performer, breath, the microphone as a tool of broadcast and control, and the physical aspect of electronic sound production and vibrating bodies. With a simple sculptural gesture, Norment opens up many avenues of interest beyond my abridged list; the piece works on several levels at once.
Another non-cochlear work is the very finely wrought “Wellenwanne Ifo” (2012) by Carsten Nicolai. This silent, sculptural work is a large, freestanding rectangular box that reflects/projects the images of what appear to be two large seismographic-type needles that are suspended to just touch a plane of water that is responding to low and other vibrational frequencies that are present, but not necessarily audible, in the space. This reaction of vibration and touching of needle to water causes a pebble-drop-in-a-pond ripple effect in the water. The projection/reflection is accomplished through the use of a large mirror tilted at a 45-degree angle inside the industrial and boxy construction. What is powerful about this piece is its non-utility in actually measuring something quantitatively. Nicolai manages to visually aesthetisize vibration.***
Other works pushing the boundaries of sound art include Haroon Mirza’s “Frame for a Painting,” and Christine Sun Kim’s four drawings: “All. Day.,” “Pianoiss…issmo,” “Feedback Aftermath,” and “All. Night.” Mirza’s piece is a kind of collaboration with Piet Mondrian’s painting, “Composition in Yellow, Blue and White, I,” and one might even say hints at a bit of institutional critique. In this iteration of his installation, Mirza has a small, shotgun-shaped room where one wall is covered in large, pyramid-style acoustic foam. At the end of the room is the Mondrian that Mirza has surrounded with strips of variable-color LEDs. In the middle of the room opposite the acoustical-tiled wall is a small end-table upon which sits a flashing bicycle light connected to a hidden sound-producing device inside it, and two speakers that are playing back the modulating bleeps that are synchronized with the LEDs and the bicycle light. Confounding and slightly grating sounds—some would say very grating—pulse in a relentless pattern that comes and goes in the space, seemingly mocking the Mondrian. It is as if the painting has been converted into a cheap flashing advertisement for the super-valuable commodity of Modern artworks.
Christine Sun Kim’s drawings take up concepts related to American Sign Language (ASL) and traditional Western music notation in a playful expression of word, symbol, and line. Combined, these drawings form a thought-provoking series of meditations on deafness and hearing, communication, the body, and gesture.
Lastly, the works of Marco Fusinato and Richard Garet express their ideas through very different means and materials. Fusinato’s series of “Implosion” drawings pay homage to composer Iannis Xenakis’s iconoclastic music and architectural drawings. They bring to mind Xenakis’s hyberbolic parabaloid drawings, which were on display at the Drawing Center in 2010 and suggest the kind of simultaneous mass of sound that what one might expect to hear upon the collapse of a star. Garet, on the other hand, expresses ideas of frustration and futility through setting in motion an amplified marble that, sadly, cannot make a rotation around the spinning turntable on which it finds itself. Suggesting the suspension of the present moment, the work somehow elicits a feeling of empathy (for the marble?) in the way that it finds itself to be trapped and rolling in place, ad infinitum. I wonder too if Garet is being a bit cheeky, perhaps suggesting that some “sound art” can be trapped by its technological media.
The String and the Mirror at the Lisa Cooley Gallery collectively registers a much lower level of decibels (dB), literally. Alan Licht’s piece, “How Loud is This (Gallery),” consists of several dB meters mounted to the gallery walls in various places, which are measuring, in real time, the ambient noise level of the gallery itself. And if one stays in the gallery long enough, it becomes very apparent that the noise-polluting sound of the HVAC system serves to color the space and fill it with white noise.
Overall, there are only two works out of 23 at Lisa Cooley that use speakers to produce sound, but even these works are more conceptually complex than most of the works in the MoMA show. The others rely solely on sound as a poetics, as a mode of investigation to drive an inquiry and constitute the work. This type of curatorial focus makes for a very quiet and contemplative sound-art experience on the whole. From the sculptural object-based works of Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson, Dave Dyment, Rolf Julius, Christof Migone, Matthieu Saladin, Akio Suzuki, and Stefan Tcherepnin to the conceptual/text-based works of Seth Cluett, Lawrence Abu Hamadan, James Hoff, Mattin, Ultra-red, and C. Spencer Yeh, and on to performative and photographic works of Marina Rosenfeld, Essex Olivares, and Hong Kai Wang, this show captures more of the sound-as-poetics mode of sound art production.
While I was inspired by this show overall and should perhaps not single works out, I feel compelled to mention a couple that stood out to me.
First is the Lawrence Abu Hamadan piece “Conflicted Phonemes” (2012). In this work he takes up the complicated and “scientific” (read: arbitrary) system employed by some European states for categorizing immigrants’ dialects/accents in order to validate requests for political asylum. The posters and documents that constitute this work present a befuddling, actual method for the determination of the veracity of these requests. The dystopian reality of sound profiling is no longer something out of a bad Will Smith movie, and Abu Hamadan lays bare this strange method of sonic “fingerprinting.”
The other work I found to be one of the most inspiring pieces was “Negative Press Release” by Mattin. Here the artist negates every sentence of the actual press release for the show, turning it into a farce, oversimplifying the aims of the curators, and lowering the expectations of the viewing public. This is the version you will find on the gallery’s website. So if you want to know what the curators are really up to, just re-read it aloud in the positive.