Composer and sonic performance artist Cat Hope (WA) is inspirational. Her works encourage the listener to hear sound anew, creating a magnified soundtrack to a mundane world and giving sound equal status with the visual and encouraging sound to train the eye. In Unravelled, worms are delicately loosened from luxurious hair to the nightmarish sound of lubricous worm activity and in Drive a subwoofer pulses a moist kangaroo skin to the disintegrated sound of a fatal car crash. My sonic environment will never be the same.
Garth Paine (sound artist and Head of Program, Electronic Arts, University of Western Sydney) invites us to imagine an astronaut leaning out of a spacecraft with a test tube, scooping up the newly archived 2001 NASA sound recording of the Big Bang. This image is the inspiration for Paine’s Endangered Sounds artwork. I know that some sounds such as milk bottles clinking are becoming extinct in our world, a ‘silent spring’ forced on us by corporate homogenisation. I didn’t know however that sounds such as the Australian Football League siren are being legally ‘sound marked’, copyrighted and removed from the public sphere. This is despite the fact that these sounds inhabit public and private space. If unknowingly imprinted on our personal digital soundtracks and played in the public sphere, the individual could be liable for prosecution. In a brilliant Duchampian twist Garth subverts the ‘sound mark’ concept by asking volunteers to illegally collect these sounds in test tubes and return them to him for future release. Paine preaches the “freedom of sound”, examining the privatisation and commodification of our sonic tapestry and asking why there are no rights and responsibilities in respect of sound.
I learn there is no such thing as total silence and that even silence is collectible: the NASA astronaut gathered the residue of the Big Bang, which is the noise that makes up our so-called silence. Paine recalls the frightening story of John Cage searching for silence in an anechoic chamber only to be finally confronted with 2 sounds, one high sound of his own nervous system and one low sound of his blood circulating.
On the theme of silence, Ed Osborn (Berlin-based artist and Assistant Professor for Digital Media, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA) declares that he is going to talk about nothing and that his works are about nothing, and that there is a sonic difference between the idea and the practicality of silence. Aerial pictures of Antarctica taken in a USA mapping exercise possess an aesthetic whiteout that is so foreign that it fills the void of how silence can be imagined. The soundtrack is conceptual not digital. As in so many works highlighted at the conference there is a simultaneous absence and presence of sound; silence defines the sound.
Another proposal put forward during the conference is the need for an acoustic ecology. Multimedia artist and composer Shawn Decker (composer, School of Art Institute of Chicago, USA) respectfully acknowledges R Murray Schafer’s descriptions of a post-industrial landscape of natural and industrial rhythms and a post-electric landscape with its tyrannical loudness and insidious 50/60Hz drone. But he proposes a post-digital landscape, one to supplant the current flat-lining of sound and disconnection from nature. He puts out a challenge to all designers to build machines and design spaces that are more like nature by using emergent processes, constructing open-ended and unpredictable systems and using natural surfaces to spatially distribute sound.
It becomes obvious that the rich sonic tapestry available to me is being threatened with a monocultural sameness, exemplified by boring audio-visuals flowing from our TV sets. This fear is made three-dimensional with the dynamic sculptures of Bjoern Schuelke (multimedia artist, Cologne, Germany), Nervous and Orgamat, which vibrate, shake and perform with the theatrical wit and intelligence of Monty Python meeting Truffaut. I realise that a biodiversity of sound is essential: Save Our Sound. Part of this ecology of sound is ‘liveness’ and a possible dichotomy between sound installation and sound performance is quickly avoided with the joke about a radio broadcaster. He says he doesn’t care if he has an audience of one, only to hear his boss retort, “Then why don’t you just call him!” It is noted that the difference lies not in the form or the technology but in communal experience, the human ritual of sharing; this is why cinemas are full.
At the last panel session a discussion emerges about the distinction between sound and music and where they belong in the taxonomy of the aural. I am reminded that my mode of listening is critical, that sound might be made into music merely by the very act of listening. John Cage said, “When you are not listening it becomes noise.” An exchange about the distinction between sound and visual artists threatens to degenerate into a discussion on funding bodies and the politics of arts departments. Guest panellist Jocelyn Robert declares exclaims that there is no visual art as such any more, that since the postmodern rupture of the late 1970s the arts has become an inclusive term that incorporates all artists, and that we should not be ruled by power and politics. The panel accepts this philosophical harmony for the moment and notes the possible restrictions of the exhibition and conference title.
I’m left with a new, passionate awareness of sound and an appreciation of the artists working with it. I listen intently both to noise and the silences in between, becoming a conscious part of a sonic ecology.
SonicDifference, Re-sounding the world, conference, Alexander Library Theatrette, Perth Cultural Centre, BEAP 04, Sept 10
*copyright RealTime; http://www.realtimearts.net
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