On the Sight of Sound

by Misha Lepetic

“I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I'm frightened of the old ones.”
~ John Cage

Howdeepisyour2003_1_1040Not long after moving to New York around 2000, I picked up an odd little side gig, as a gallery sitter at a space called Engine 27. Taking its name from the decommissioned TriBeCa firehouse which housed it, Engine 27 wasn't your usual art gallery, but rather one that focused exclusively on sound art. It achieved this by meticulously renovating the ground floor of the firehouse into a nearly perfect acoustic environment. Floors, walls and ceilings were treated with rugs and acoustic paneling. Speakers were strategically situated throughout the roughly 2000 square feet; they could be found lurking in corners, or hanging from the ceiling. If you weren't careful you might stub your toe against a subwoofer squatting on a seemingly random patch of floor. Pretty much anything that wasn't already black was painted so, and the lights were kept low. Feeding all the speakers was a basement full of amplifiers, computers and other hardware. It was, to put it mildly, a sound nerd's paradise.

Engine 27 was the brainchild of Jack Weisberg, a self-taught sound engineer who earned his nut innovating approaches to both arena-scale sound and smaller, more high-brow projects. As an example of the latter, he worked with artist-composer Max Neuhaus on the 1978 MoMA iteration of his “Underground” project, which projected sound into the Sculpture Garden from beneath a ventilation shaft. (Neuhaus' Times Square version, sponsored by the Dia Foundation, ran from 1977 to 1992, then was reincarnated ten years later, but, befitting the fragility of sound, is currently ‘temporarily unavailable due to construction'.) Jack was a curmudgeonly fellow and used to getting things done his way. This is perhaps why Engine 27 became an extraordinary space for practicing what some people call “deep listening”, which for me is just a tacit admission that we don't listen very closely to much of anything anymore.

Part of what makes good sound art so fascinating is exactly this prerequisite. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, though, since our culture, and especially what we consider to be ‘art', is so biased towards the visual. And for the purposes of the current argument – ie, I am sidestepping the question of what differentiates sound from music – the visual bias provides us with the dispensation of a quick scan. The people who speed-walk their way through an art museum will later on assert how great the museum was. They may even have the selfie to prove it. In some minimal way, they would be correct to say that they saw the art, but this is no different from saying that you “saw the grass” while driving down the freeway at 80mph. In this manner a viewer is entirely justified in dismissing an Ad Reinhardt painting as ‘just black' (although ‘none more black' might be more accurate). What else could he or she do, without spending the time needed to let the painting actually unfold before one's eyes, as was Reinhardt's intention?

Sound art does not really allow for this kind of aesthetic speed-dating. Nor can it rely on the conventions of concert-going, hence one indication as to how ‘sound' differs from ‘music'. A deep and complex installation, like the kind that Engine 27 sought to encourage, requires time and attention. It also requires movement, which is what one would expect when a work is spread over such a large space. One example was “Drift“, a 2002 gamelan-inspired piece created by Christopher J. Miller, which explicitly leveraged the potential of Engine 27's 16-channel system. Some listeners would stroll around the space, while others would root themselves to a single spot. As the sampled swirls of Javanese gamelan – timbrally far less metallic and abrasive than the better-known Balinese counterpart – waft across the space, the immersive qualities of the piece began to make themselves felt. But in order for this environment to be successful, a certain modicum of patience is required from the listener, and a willingness to submit to experiences that, unlike the visual, may not have easy verbal, let alone visual, equivalents.



The ephemerality of sound art is also disadvantageous when it collides with the established tropes of the art world. Consider for example the time-honored Art Opening. Let's be honest and admit that no one goes to an opening to see the art. You go for the free booze and the mystery cheese cubes. Maybe you know the artist, or know someone who knows the artist. Of course, one hopes that the artist will be there, along with others – gallerists, collectors – who actually have some skin in the game, but they are generally difficult to recognize without a good deal of insider knowledge. If you do possess that knowledge, chances are that you are the one looking askance at the hoi-polloi rushing the bar.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to see the art at an art opening. It may be noisy, but the act of looking isn't generally impeded (unless the bar stays open too long). Not so for sound art. Without the explicitly visual cues of things-hanging-on-walls, you may not even realize you are at an opening; you may rightly ask yourself, Who are all these strangers having drinks in an overlit space? I had this experience recently when I went to the opening of David Tudor's “Rainforest V“. Now, I should note that Tudor, a giant of 20th-century avant-garde performance and composition, passed away in 1996. But “Rainforest” stretches back to a 1968 Merce Cunningham commission; the fifth incarnation of the installation was realized by the collective Composers Inside Electronics.

Rainforest V is a complex installation that, according to one of the collective's members, takes “a simple idea of feedback and modulation that gives rise to monumental structure – the crafting of howls into symphonies. The act of folding input to output gives rise to expansive new worlds.” This is obviously a somewhat grand claim, and illustrates the difficulty in translating sound art into description. Would a person reconcile these words with the experience of the installation? In more mundane, physical terms, a bevy of suspended objects are connected to one another and to a central computer that issues acoustic impulses, which are amplified via the resonant properties of those objects by means of attached vibrating units. Furthermore, these objects interact with one another through a deliberately inscrutable set of feedback loops. Despite the fact that the gallery provided us with stethoscopes so that we might engage in some close listening, the noise of the opening crowd rendered the entire installation as more sculptural than anything else.

“Displaying” sound art is problematic even without the crowds. An obvious advantage of visual art is the ability to cram many different pieces into close quarters, whereas the acoustic monopoly created by sound implies, at the very least, an uneasy co-existence of works, and at the very worst, an unmanageable cacophony. Anyone who has been to the end-of-semester show put on by students of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program has had this experience. While not strictly sound art, many of the works have audio components, and these works, and the students explaining them, are jammed into a few rooms with little regard for the space that these works require. It's the unholy love-child of a thesis show and a trade fair, and is just as exhausting as it sounds.

The more general concern is how to make sound art a part of the art world mainstream. If sound art is to be regarded as more than just the eccentric step-sister of the visual and plastic arts, certain conditions must be met. In the first place, we need artists! But artists don't just spontaneously generate. It is true that the indefatigable efforts of people like Douglas Repetto have led to the creation of the Sound Arts MFA program at Columbia University, but more is needed. There must be a critical mass of gallerists willing to promote these artists and their works. As David Krasnow wrote about Engine 27 in the Village Voice:

Showcasing electronic and electroacoustic music as the last bastion of experimentalist formalism is some pretty high art, and its timing couldn't be better. Big sellers this year were Caipirinha's Early Modulations and Ellipsis Arts' Ohm, both compilations of electronic-music classics—which means there are electronic-music classics. And classics need institutions. Difficult Music meets scrappy DIY art space: a heartwarming tale of Old Tribeca.

On the other end of the feedback loop, there must be a sense among buyers that these works are in fact collectible, and that it is desirous to do so. I don't really know what this means, since ‘displaying' sound art at home retains the same problematics as doing so in a gallery. Nevertheless, given the ongoing, extraordinary bubble in the art market, there will almost never be a better time to strike. Finally, museums and other institutions need to grant their own imprimatur via well-curated retrospectives and group shows. In 2013, MoMA took a step in this direction, but unfortunately wound up creating a case study in how not to curate sound art, or for that matter, anything else. As a last resort, having a rock-star artist who almost single-handedly establishes the genre's credibility might do the job, but I'm afraid sound art still awaits its Bill Viola.



Setting aside these vexing questions, what would a compelling work of sound art look like today? I had a chance to experience one at the beginning of 2014 when I chanced across an installation entitled “The Sea Is A Big Green Lens”. Installed at Studio 10 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, brothers Douglas and David Henderson respectively divided the auditory and sculptural labors to create a magnificent environment. Inspired by the Paul Celan poem “Whitesounds“, the installation asks what a message in a bottle can convey, if it were told from the point of view of the bottle itself.

The principal physical form of the installation is lenticular, but this shape is actually negative space. These contours are implied by the presence of several dozen ‘stems' of varying length, which look like golf tees that have been connected at the sharp ends. Half are rooted to the floor, while the other half are suspended from the ceiling. To add to the dynamism of the work, the stems are not vertical in relation to the room, but lean in one direction, as if they were being nudged by an ocean current. For its part, the negative lenticular space is also at an angle, further increasing the sense of motion. (Or, if that description didn't make any sense, just watch this video.)

Built into a dozen of these stems are speakers, which project Douglas Henderson's carefully composed soundtrack. Consisting of hundreds of maritime-themed samples that were recorded around the world, the piece ranges from incredibly detailed recordings of water splashing gently at close quarters, to the massively reverberant noises of a car ferry being unloaded after landing on a Greek Island. The recordings are pristine, and reproduced with exceptional clarity. The continuity of the fifteen-minute loop is seamless, and manages to be simultaneously abstract and perfectly logical (you can listen to an excerpt here). But the most compelling aspect of the piece is the deep integration between the physical forms and the sounds. As a listener drifts through the installation, there is the unmistakeable feeling of being drawn into a kelp forest. Time itself seems to slow and the rhythm and flow of the sound infuses itself into that of the physical objects, and vice versa. Despite the fact that the gallery's floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light, one soon acquires a distinct sense of being elsewhere. It is an achievement of great beauty, executed with craftsmanship, restraint and impeccable instinct.

It is works like “The Sea Is A Big Green Lens” that give me great hope for the future of sound art, simply because it succeeds in not being self-consciously about sound art. There is no hipster irony of obsolete technology that has been smirkingly repurposed. Nor is it tempted into attention-seeking by bludgeoning the listener with the abrasive potential that sound offers. While you can look away from an ugly painting, it's more difficult to look away from an ugly sound; also, the latter is infinitey more irritating. In the Hendersons' work, the medium melts away, privileging the experience itself. Like so much else, sound art will have found its stride when this experience merits placement alongside other mediums, in the same way that visitors to the new Whitney Museum can see painting, sculpture and video all in the same room, and not think anything of it. But there is still a long way to go.