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.
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 With the impending publication of previously unpublished Heideggerian texts, a more comprehensive picture of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is emerging, and it is deeply troubling.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 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’m not much of a rabble-rouser and I think the current system for the discovery of new artists, the ways in which their careers are built, and the supply chain that leads from the gallery to the patron to the museum to the auction house (or any combination therein) is reasonably effective. It may not work to everyone’s tastes, but its the best we have. For sound art, this poses something of a challenge. Many galleries have no interest at all in sound art and for good reason. Two of the more prominent distribution systems for sound are called iTunes and SoundCloud. One of these sells a sound for somewhere between $.99 and $1.29 and the other gives sounds away for free. If, as a business (and galleries are businesses), you’re looking at an ASP (average sales price) of < $1.00 on an infinitely reproducible digital product, you’re going to be reluctant to proceed. One of the corollaries of the law of supply and demand is that an infinite supply means zero demand (or at least a price point of zero, which for a business is the same thing). Add to that the fact that most sound art doesn’t play well with its visual brothers and sisters (clamoring for attention next to the visual works and making it harder to concentrate on them) and its easy to understand the reluctance of the gallery to embrace sound art.
So, some very modest (and not all-inclusive) suggestions for sound art that we’d like to be effective in a gallery setting:
1. Physicality — the sound should be embodied, held, enclosed, triggered, or otherwise related to a discrete physical thing. The more unique this thing is, the rarer it becomes and the more sense it makes for a gallery to take the risk of carrying it. Supply. Demand. Value.
2. Variable volume — it should work in either a range of volumes appropriate to the circumstances (30 dB – 70dB is a good starting point), or it should be designed for a specific context where such restrictions could be lifted (Susan Phillipsz’ work is a good example here). Not all displays will be solo shows, and just like we wouldn’t want to be forced to observe a visual piece while looking directly into a strobe light, I think its reasonable for gallery owners to ask that our works be capable of effective artistic expression at a conversational volume.
Nice to haves:
1. Interactivity — The work should be quiet when no one wants it to be loud (there are exceptions to this, of course, and we’re not trying to make everyone happy with our art). It does seem reasonable to say that a particular piece will make a sound or sounds when someone wants it to make those sounds.
Again, I want to be very careful in exactly what I am saying. These are not the rules for good sound art. These are suggested guidelines for sound art that want to fit within the conventions of the current distribution system for contemporary art called the gallery.
Sound is significant (among other reasons) because of its perceptible embeddedness in time. Paintings feel timeless because the brain hides the workings of the eyes in time from the user — you, me, everyone. When, as artists, we express ourselves in tracks we lose some of this embeddedness. We ask our listener to be passive and to accept our work on our time — 1 hertz — 1 second per second. When we do so, we commit the same perceptual and conceptual slight of hand as our visual artist colleagues. We bury time in the expectations of the work. We step up and out of time to create an abstract entity called the work. A unitary thing, or a plural thing achieved by looping a unitary thing, which is the same thing.
Five sounds. Each triggered by the action of the user. They control the time. They can make the first sound three times or four. They can choose to skip ahead and not make it at all. The work becomes a dialogue — as an artist I try to create a very focused experimental field. My goal is to explore the conditions of art’s own comprehension. They can feel the gaps in the work. They can feel how 1+1 sounds doesn’t quite equal two or equals much more than two. Again, every work I make is interactive. Buttons, sensors, threshold conditions. The user is always in control of my art and I am always in control of my art and neither of us could ever control the art. It is a happening in time, frozen by things that move at the speed of light.
I try to (paint)* in sound — I use the asterisks and the parentheses to say that I can’t get close but I miss with impact. Pop sounds are like brush strokes. Like the user controls his eye when he looks as a visual piece, he controls his fingers when he works with one of my sound pieces. Permutations, ambiguity, open-ness, space, transgression. this is what we can provide to of users. Each work is designed to rise up and out of the work. People pick my works up. The fondle them. They push buttons. They destroy the distinction between the viewer and the viewed, the listener and the listened to.
Sound Art means three things:
1. It means art that has sound as a significant component of its experiential impact. As an artist, sound is different. It has a different relation to time than optical stimuli. As an easy example of this, imagine a group of twenty people gathered around a painting. They each come upon the painting at different times but their experience of the painting takes place in time. They don’t notice this because the eye is wonderful at hiding its time-embedded nature. Their eyes dance around the painting for a few seconds, the image stays static during this process and they feel that they have seen a certain thing — an objective and physical reality that exists independently of their observation. Which they have, in one sense. The painting does exist as pigment on canvass. But the path their eyes take and the meaning drawn from the optical stimuli — those are guided by and take place within the brain and the mind. The painting is not a thing “out there.” It is a process that takes place “in here.” Vision, as a sense, makes it difficult to remember this.
Sound, on the other hand, makes it easy to remember this. Imagine the same 20 people who happen upon a sound clip of 15 seconds in duration. Some will be there from the beginning. Some will join as the clip is already underway. Sound is embedded in time. By its nature it is a thing that has a duration. It’s form takes place not just in space (in the physical compression of molecules into waves of various wavelength and frequency), but in time — patterns of change from second-to-second. A spoken sentence or a known or unknown sound are — quite by their nature — things that change in time. They are thus more like happenings — unique artistic events connected in some essential way to when they happen. But with technology, we can also go a little way toward taming sound. We can make it behave a bit more like the viewer’s expectations regarding the “thingness” of a work of art. If we so choose.
2. It means art that rests upon a firm foundation. When we say a person has “sound judgment” we mean that her behavior is the predictable outcome of a set of ideas and principals that work. When, in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurt’s methods are said to, “have become. . . unsound,” we know that he is being described as unmoored, adrift. That he has crossed the threshold into madness. Can art be sound? Should art be sound? Are there principles and expectations we have come to share which define a new sense of sound? These aren’t questions with easy answers, but they are questions at the heart of our search for Art today.
3. In a (perhaps) more trivial sense, it may mean art that I find or create near Puget Sound, the body of water that defines the city of Seattle. Is there a difference that makes a difference when art is made by “local artists?” I want to keep an open mind on the subject — I’m predisposed to say no — that the thing we are looking for is the right art, the best art, the art that makes the difference. I am ecumenical in my search. The glory of the time that is right now is that I have the whole world to drink from. That being my bias, I also recognize that art is defined by community, that just as Chelsea is a physical location in space and time, so too is Seattle. Is there something we have in common as a community? I’m not sure, but I’ll approach things as if there was some such discoverable commonality.