A collection of 15 of my works have been selected for inclusion in an exhibition at Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art. The link to the exhibit is here and I’ll write more in the days to come.
“We live in a time when all of the ‘isms’ are now ‘wasms’ except for one: Capitalism.”
“In the 1980s, Capitalism conquered communism. In the 1990s, Capitalism conquered democracy. In this new millennium, having nothing left to conquer, Capitalism settled into a perpetual process of self-consumption.”
If you don’t have an art theory today, then your art theory is probably Commercialism. You may not intend for this to be the case, and this is not the same as me saying that you are crassly “commercial.” We are living, though, in an era of truly unprecedented conceptual homogeneity. Every last thing you can say or think or feel or do has been thoroughly colonized by the idea of money. Even those who rail against money are adopting an heretical stance toward what they tacitly acknowledge to be the dominant God. The Catholic church at its height would have wept had it had the chance to convert a tenth as many people as now believe most fervently in money. The key tenet of Commercialism as an artistic school is that artistic merit is financial — art is great if it costs a lot. The more it costs, the better it is. The contemporary masters of this school (Hirst, Koons, etc.) are candidly open about this fact.
As forceful as the paragraph above sounds, I’m not saying that Commercialism is bad. As a consumer of art (see how subtly the vocabulary of the School creeps in?), I’m intrigued by Commercialism — by its internal logic and by its ability to subsume and subtly undermine all other theories of art. I acknowledge its power and recognize its masters.
Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Spengler: It would be bad.
Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Stantz: Total protonic reversal.
Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.
Not a bad description of what I want my work to accomplish — I want to cross the streams of sensory data. To take, in the work below — emphasis, 2014 — the rich stream of visual data represented by a recognizable “word” and mix it with variable sound data which problematizes the visual stream (each button corresponding to the pronunciation of the word with an emphasis on a different syllable) and then throw one more semantic stream in there — a spatialization of semantic content in the placement of the buttons. It would have also made sense to call the work “Presence” or “Being in Time (and Language)”. You have to hear it to understand how the work functions, but this at least points in the right direction.
Over the last fifty years, it would have been difficult to read and think about phenomenology without an engagement with the thought of Martin Heidegger. As Husserl’s most famous student, and as a thinker who had an enormous influence on Merleau Ponty, Derrida, and too many others to mention, he would be significant even if it was just for the historical role he played in philosophy. His Being and Time was original, insightful, and bold. It has long been known that Heidegger had affiliations with the Nazi Party in the 1930s and 1940s and there has been a very fair controversy about what this means for our understanding of his work. With the impending publication of previously unpublished Heideggerian texts, a more comprehensive picture of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is emerging, and it is deeply troubling.
I need to read through the material and form my own conclusions, but we should be very clear about what is at stake. The Holocaust was an historical singularity. For a modern industrial democracy to descend into the wholesale dehumanization and industrialized slaughter of more than six million human beings is grotesquely unique. It is the singular nightmare of the 20th century (a century with no shortage of nightmares). It dispels any notion we might have that depravity is no longer possible, that evil is something we’ve grown out of. Remembrance of the Holocaust may be the single most important signpost to guide humanity through the perils of the centuries ahead. In the shadow of the Holocaust, we should always feel in our bones what is still there — our human capacity for complacency in the face of horror. This isn’t to deny that there are other evils, it is just to say that a rich and genuine remembrance of the Holocaust is our best defense against the next (and probably last) holocaust.
So what to do about Heidegger? I don’t know. Ideas aren’t always systematic and Heidegger’s loathsome racism may have little to do with some of his keener observations about phenomenology. But even if that’s the case, at some point we need to start looking for those same observations elsewhere. There are at least three “strains” of rich thought about phenomenology: The Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and meditation, the Continental exploration of phenomenology running from Kierkegaard through Derrida (and after), and the American tradition of phenomenology of William James, and G.H. Meade, leading a winding path to modern cognitive science. With all of this rich thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to find everything that was vital in what Heidegger said somewhere else. At some point it seems appropriate to reduce Heidegger to a footnote — to transform him into an historical cautionary tale about the consequences of hatred, even when you are otherwise brilliant. Genius is no guard against evil, nor a reason why evil should go unpunished.
No easy answers, but its worth forgetting a thousand Heideggers to unflinchingly remember the Holocaust.
I’m working out some of the details of antistrophe in my own work. It has been very helpful for me to experience how the works I’m making function — they are teaching me as much as I am making them. For more detailed observations with an emphasis on the hard-to-get-at aspects of the theory, hit the jump.
I was having some tech issues with the “slider” for the site — the set of three images of some of my current works in the exhibition space. I think I have it fixed now, but if anyone sees that the format is still broken, I’d really appreciate a note
I ran across an interesting paragraph from Yasunao Tone in which he discusses his manipulation of paratext to change the audience’s expectations regarding his Parasite/Noise (2001).
Tone writes of,
“paratext, defined as ‘that by which a text becomes book and offers itself as such to its reader and more generally, to the public [quoting Genette]. Paratext is midway between the inside and the outside of the book, found in such places as the title, preface, note, blurb and dedication. These are the locations where the interaction between text and readership occurs. In other words, this is a study of literary institution. . . My installation piece uses audio headset guides distributed at the entrance and installed throughout the entire exhibition space. At first sight, they are similar to the audio guides museums distribute for information about the exhibited work. However, my headsets play a text read aloud, which has nothing to do with the exhibited work themselves. Accordingly, the text in Parasite/Noise is not exactly paratext in the terms that Genette implies, because it does not immediately mediate between the audience and a work.
My headsets are, so to speak, pseudo audio guides. Audio guides have a performative function. And just as the perforations dividing a sheet of stamps invite the user to ‘detach stamps here,’ my headsets invite the audience to expect a commentary on the works exhibited. . . . But the text in my headset installation neither informs about nor refers to the works in front of you. The audience will soon realize that the two names, the paratext, of the artist/authors, mean no more than a juxtaposition of two works. Parasite/Noise does nothing more than show the impossibility of the decodification or deciphering of a work. Instead, my headset makes the audience interpolate between listening from the headset and seeing the other works. Then the audience is no longer a passive observer and finds the headset to be a tool for use. . . this is a case in point for an artistic apparatus I call paramedia. [. . .],
What Tone is calling paramedia (media semantically or chronologically adjacent to the “main” media) here (or what would be the closely related idea of meta-media — media about the main media), can be seen as a sub-set of antistrophe — counterpart theory. Things can be counterparts as paramedia, as metamedia, or as parallel media. Tone is right that this involves the audience, driving them to integrate the streams of data into a unitary sensory whole or showing them the difficulty or the impossibility of the task.
Maybe then, another way of speaking about sound art is to talk about “counterpart art?” Paratextual art. Meta-textual art. Antistrophe. We wouldn’t be new to discover this (missing that distinction by a couple thousand years), but it offers a new way to frame contemporary art with a sound element with productive implications for practitioners and critics. How does the audio paratext work with the “main work?” What is the balance between the two? What is the phenomenological whole created by the synthesis (or at least unresolved juxtaposition) of the audio paratext and the visual stimuli?
Very helpful and interesting to see how Tone describes the issue (as one which shows the impossibility of deciphering or decoding). Not sure why he would jump to this nihilistic end-point — all perception is juxtaposition, integration, and the creation of a meaningful figure from a phenomenological ground. Life is a constant crush of paratextual elements, and yet we at least experience the illusion of an integrated and meaningful whole more often than not.
Sound Art Labs is pleased to announce the opening of our new exhibition and performance space in Bellevue, WA (near Seattle). We have a display area for works which integrate a physical component and a small performance space for sound art without physical embodiment. We’d welcome visitors — just drop us a line and we’ll make arrangement to open up the space at a time that works. Our plan is to host quarterly evening events (discussions, showings, lectures, &c.) which we will post as we finalize our arrangements. Below are a couple of shots of works in the exhibition space. Drop us a note and come on by — this being the Pacific Northwest, the coffee is on us!
Various works on the “Wall of Voices.”
Lewitt & Incompletion:
After a couple of months of talking through theory, I’ve posted a couple of sample works on the “My Works” tab above. They are, of course, sound works so they’ll feel and perform quite a bit differently on your computer speakers than they sound in person, but they’ll at least give you concrete examples of the path I’ve been describing. I’ll be posting more videos in the next few weeks and be referring to them as examples of the concepts of form, synecdoche and antistrophe I’ve been exploring. Questions or feedback is welcome — either at the contact info or on the pages themselves.
I was reading a very interesting article by Andreas Engström & Åsa Stjerna about the different things people mean when they say sound art. Engström & Stjerna do a great job pointing out differences between the German sense of Klangkunst and the English concept of sound art, and that got me thinking about all of the various things people mean when they use the phrase. Very roughly (and at considerable theoretical peril, I know), here is a rough taxonomy (provisional, draft, straw-person, &c — I just want to make sure my intent is clear: not hegemonic, merely helpful):
1. Experimental or Avant Guard Musicians
First, and probably the largest camp would be what I would call experimental or Avant guard musicians. These are artists who find the traditional theory, structure, performance expectations (or some other feature) of traditional music (whatever that is) too restrictive and are looking to explore the edges and beyond.
A couple of “sub-camps” within this group:
- Digital Experimentalists — artists experimenting with sound and technology but still taking the rough conceptual framework of music. The art form produced has conventional duration, tends not to be associated with a particular physical manifestation, object, or space and is the kind of thing that you would easily post on SoundCloud. This can be everything from retro 8-bit sound to mapping techniques (the “sonification” of data sets, for example) but for these artists, the emphasis seems to be on an integration of sound, technology within the framework of musical expectations.
- Traditional Experimentalist — like the digital experimentalists but working with sound created by traditional or modified traditional instruments. On the most familiar end of this spectrum even someone like Schoenberg could be called a “sound artist” instead of a musician. Works can be either improvisational or based upon some notation/score. Again, the reason I’d lump these in with the experimental music crowd has to do with the avenues and expectations surrounding performance. The pieces tend to be built to feel like music — its hard to precisely define this but you have the intuitive knowledge that the artist sees her work consisting of “tracks” or longer compositional pieces.
- Found Sound Experimentalists — Same thing as the digital and the traditional, but with sounds found or created in the environment. The main difference between this group and the “field recordings” crowd below tends to be the amount of structure added. If there’s a lot of sampling and mixing and compositional structure to found sound, I’d say the person is working within this tradition.
A branch of the musical tree is represented by the work and the followers of John Cage. I’d give him his own branch (as opposed to lumping him in with the traditional experimentalists) because of his emphasis on what he calls “silence.” This concept (most clearly exemplified by his work 4’33”) serves as the bridge between the experimental musicians and a form of sound art which breaks from the music camp. 4″33″ wasn’t about silence — it was saying that the work of art was the sound being created in the venue during the 4’33” and thus it was as much a piece of conceptual (performance of fluxus) work as anything. Cage himself, obviously, was a musician, but he went further than most of the traditional experimentalists and thus gets his own branch.
2. Field Recordings
Elsewhere I’ve referred to this tradition as “acoustic Ansell Adams,” and I want to make sure I’m not being seen as dismissive with this description. Theoretically, the field recordings crowd seems to have much more in common with photography as an art form than with traditional music. You’ll hear the word “phonography” used a lot in these contexts and that is the way in which it should be understood — as a direct parallel to photography.
3. Sound and Space
I’m on my weakest theoretical ground, here but there does seem to be a distinct sub-genre of artists working in sound and space. Philipsz pops to mind here and much of the artistic effect she seeks to pursue is not the sound in isolation but the sound reflecting (or not reflecting) of elements of the environment. What does it sound like when sound echoes between buildings? What does it sound like when sound is absorbed by muffled hedges or interacts with the waveforms of passing traffic. The conceptual difference here seems to be the creation of a sound and its subsequent interaction with the environment. This is neither field recordings nor experimental music, and thus gets its own category.
4. Semantic Sound
I’m a partisan here and I want to be clear about my agenda: I want what feels to be an under-represented camp — the semantic sound crowd — to have an equal seat at the table. Two artists who might fall (occasionally) within this tradition I’ve written about on this site are Vladan Radovanovic or some of the work of Robb Kunz. In this tradition, the artistic impact of the sound comes from its meaning. This makes it conceptually similar to “word art” and shares some of the synesthetic goals of concrete poetry.
Taxonomies shouldn’t be procrustean beds, but they do help us to understand who shares which assumptions and goals and, hopefully, encourages a healthier dialogue between a group of people who share a passion about a fascinating phenomenon: sound. Other taxonomies might work better and many might prefer to work with no taxonomies at all. For those of us who have their studios ordered into neat rows, they provide comfort.
It makes for a wonderful party.