The iPhone as sound art technology

From the inside of any field, little differences seem like big differences.  Particularly with the way that academic fields and areas of expertise are organized (and the way that tenure is “earned” or provided), knowledge production and consumption are designed to be ever-more cantonized.  We can get so focused on Cage or post-cage, on the difference between music and sound art, on a thousand other familiar debates and points of stasis that we don’t notice when something changes our art around us, almost all at once.

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So here’s a easily defensible claim: the most significant piece of sound art technology in the 21st century (and probably in the history of art) was (and will be) this:

iphone

For why, hit the jump.

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Volkswagon as UI

I’m fascinated by user-interfaces.  Art that reacts dynamically to its environment (of which the user is one element).  I saw the following video on Everyday Listening and was just delighted:

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What’s really wonderful is the integration of sensor data (either accelerometer data from the phone or any data communicated by the car itself) with the sounds being played.  The user interacts with the car which interacts with the physics of motion and all of this dynamically tweaks the created sound.  Really delightful.

More at Everyday Listening.

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The function of antistrophe

Elsewhere I’ve made the argument that in a mixed-media piece in which there is some physicality to the work, sound can serve as the antistrophe of the physical element or elements of the piece ( or, in the case of Artists like Philipsz, sound serves as the antistrophe of the physical environment in which the sound occurs).  Here I want to take a little more time and detail some of the ways in which the artist can make this work.  For more detail, hit the jump.

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Lewitt, Krauss, and the Enthymeme

Sol Lewitt was a complex artist with a varied career.  I’ve put a link on the top nav of this site to his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” not because I think the work is gospel, but because my own work can’t be understood without having some sense of what Lewitt was up to.  In this post I want to examine his Incomplete Cubes series, and argue that, past the enjoyable critique of his work offered by Rosalind Krauss, Lewitt can be taken to explore both completion and incompletion and that his project can (weak claim) be advanced by sound or (strong claim) be completed by sound.  For more, hit the jump.

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Sound art and galleries

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.

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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.

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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.

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Nice to haves:

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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.

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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 as the antistrophos of the image

At the very beginning of Rhetoric, Aristotle uses an odd word to describe the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic.  In the original Greek, the word he uses is ἀντιστροφή, — antistrophos or “a turning back,” and the word has been giving philosophers a headache for the last 2400 years.  The term’s original context is from Greek drama, where (as I understand it), the chorus would “turn back” the main thrust of the ode, and create something larger and more complex as a result.  So if the drama were about heroic bravery, the chorus might warn of the fault of cowardice, and a richness would enter the drama — two counter-balancing voices, an emotional and narrative figure and ground.  Antistrophos is a way of saying, “yes, but. . . ” or “yes, and. . . ”

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One of the goals of my work is to — under exactly the right circumstances — make sound serve as the antistrophos of the visual image.  A balance is struck between what they eye sees and the ear hears, and for a moment the works create a dizzying synesthesia — the ear seeing and the eye hearing.  This is possible because eyes and ears are just sensors and if you have some glimmering of the firmware that governs the sensors, you can create art that loads up two or more channels at once, knowing that the brain will integrate these data flows into a single experience that packs a good artistic punch.

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When it works, its wonderful.  Like I’ve said before, the Greeks forgot more about sound art than we will ever know.

Sound Art Before the Platonic Fall

I’m re-reading Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato (and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy) and I’m excited by the implications of their work for sound art.  Havelock’s thesis is that the attack on poetry in Plato’s Republic only makes sense as an attack on what was an oral educational system in which what today would be called poems served as the primary vehicle to carry Greek culture from generation to generation.  Everything from how to tie knots to the appropriate definition of male and female conduct was conveyed in specific epic “poems” with rhyme and song and cadence and tone, ritualized, memorized to preserve the frail fire that was Greek culture.

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Which would fall nicely into any definition of sound art.  I like the idea — and it is a literal description, not an analogy — that a piece of sound art served as the binding mechanism for an entire culture.  Half poem, half song, half something that doesn’t even exist anymore, because our minds have been restructured by 2400 years of professional and general literacy.  That our debates about, “is it music;” “is it poetry;” “is it sound-as-sound” are simply us picking at the shards of what was once something whole.  Practical, beautiful, emotional, educational, critically important sound art.  We’ll never go back, of course, but it is comforting to know that there was a world before the fall.         

Silence, Sound, and Pause

What is a pause? Such a simple question, of course, but not.  Because a pause isn’t about sound at all.  4’33” didn’t pause, and Cage wasn’t trying to.  His silence is active.  Loud.  In the silence he creates he wants to (and he wants you to) take a step up and out of time and understand background noise as foreground.  He wants you to accept this new foreground without evaluation, without judgment.  As I’ve said elsewhere, Cage’s project is noble, beautiful, and doomed.  4’33” is the opposite of a pause.  Because a pause is the embodiment of an expectation and an expectation only makes sense within context.  A pause is a pause because it follows something or it precedes something or both.  It is an emptiness that is always filled by the context of the elements surrounding it.  A pause is an element of grammar, a sensory comma or ellipsis.  Watch those two things work in your mind.  Here, take a comma,          — see?  you follow the small curve of the notation down and swirl around a bit, waiting until you see the horizontal line which bring the pause to a close.  Or perhaps I might ask you to see. . .

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How long would you wait?  An ellipsis is three dots.  Here’s one: (. . . )  Asking you, demanding that you wait because something is coming or hasn’t quite ended.  A comma and an ellipsis are differently shaped pauses.  Imagine though, either without context:

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Semantic sound art is not about sound in-and-of-itself.  It is about the grammar of sound and the synecdochic relationship of sound to the experienced world.  For a brief moment, a pause lets you see the shape of yourself — not your physical shape but the shape of your own expectations, which is all you are, and all you’ll ever be. . . except for maybe a soul, or love, or fear, or the breath of God.  Maybe there’s something other than the shape of your expectations, but only by understanding those shapes can we discern the negative — to deduce from the shape of our expectations what we consist of beyond and apart from those expectations.

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Period.

Funding for Local Sound Artists

As I mentioned in a previous post, we’ve secured a small amount of funding for new or established sound artists in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll be taking at least two small steps toward encouraging innovation in sound art practice. For the first, we’d like to solicit inquiries from local artists for a $500 grant for what this site calls “semantic sound art.” As a first suggestion, we’d ask that interested artists read the various posts to get a sense for what we mean by the term. We welcome inquiries and would be glad to answer any question (time permitting). We’d then like a one-page summary of your intended project. If we’re interested in your proposal, we’ll suggest a meeting to discuss the opportunity further. Once we’ve had a chance to meet with the interested artists and gain a sense of their goals, methods, and hear them describe their project in greater detail, we’ll make a final decision. We’ll accept inquiries between now and the end of the month (November 30, 2013)

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For the second opportunity, we’re in discussions with local art colleges and departments to offer similar small prizes for juried competitions administered by the faculties of the schools or departments.  These discussions are in early stages, but we expect the opportunities to take shape in the Spring semester of 2014.

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If interested, please contact Robert Tucker at rob at soundartlabs dot com.  Please feel free to pass this call along and we’re excited to do our small part.