Sonic Difference Stephens

Entering the historic Moores Building in Fremantle with its uneven wooden floor, rough hewn, whitewashed walls and exposed rafters takes us back to the 19thcentury. It is most apt as Dr Paine’s apparently silent installation has overtones of both an old-fashioned laboratory and a museum. We step into an era when the enlightenment tradition of describing, collating and displaying phenomena according to categorisation was still intact. Paine is at pains to present not only his research findings but also his methods.

Racks of test tubes on spotlit plinths display the trade marked and patented sounds which volunteers have collected from around the world. Each one has the location, time and date of capture written on a thick cardboard label to minimise error in the laboratory and to give weight to the cause. In the centre of the gallery, in 3 glass vacuum vessels reminiscent of bell jars, Paine replays patented sounds. They are the sound of the famous Tarzan yell; the sound of the word ‘sproing’ which is intended to imitate the sound of a spring reverberating on metal in mattresses manufactured by Pacific Brands Clothing Pty Ltd; and the exhaust sound of a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

In the copious and densely typed notes kept by the artist we learn that the exhaust sound of a Harley Davidson is “often described as ‘potato, potato, potato’ by motorcycle enthusiasts” although this could be interpreted as a disparaging description of their riders. Paine records that “Harley Davidson believes that the sound of its engine has been a distinctive attribute of its motorcycles and therefore believes that protection is necessary.” We learn that since being patented, that registration has been suspended by the company in fear of litigation by those whose peace is disturbed by the roar of the engines and their associated pretensions.

Paine may not ride a Harley but he is an outlaw of sorts. In an act of civil disobedience, he has taken these listed sounds out of their test tubes and in this installation relays them on tiny loud speakers attached to sound reproduction chips hanging in the vessels. The elemental nature of these sculptural objects is reminiscent of Duchamp’s strategy of the readymade in which everyday objects are recast as subjects of artistic contemplation through the magnetism of the gallery plinth. Paine does not take too many chances. Calculated to infuriate the lawyers, he releases the sounds into a vacuum so that they cannot be heard.

Reflecting his anthropological impulses, Paine invites us to “add a sound to the Lost and Deceased Sounds Index.” Viewers record their recollections of sounds such as the cry of the paper boy, the clink of milk bottles delivered by draft horse and the whir of the video player rewinding. Unless these sounds are recorded now they will become extinct so they are written down on yellow index cards kept in a small cardboard portmanteau for safekeeping. Curiosities now, they will never be the cause of costly legal deliberations over passing off, good will or damages. They dwell in our memories where they are open source and resist commodification.

More volunteers are always needed to capture and release trade marked and patented sounds in defiance of intellectual property laws. So far Paine’s applications to arts funding bodies for a fighting fund have fallen on deaf ears. Paine promises to despatch a volunteer’s kit to us as soon as possible.

Dr Paine’s sincerity and scientific credentials do seem beyond reproach. The registering of sound marks must surely be the next stage in the relentless privatisation of other naturally occurring resources and amenities such as water, views and beaches. There is however something unnerving about his fusty, obsessive installation. While I am sure that the open test tube lying on the plinth closest to the window was just an accident, it should not still be there. Disloyal as it may seem I do have lingering doubts that the legal processes he describes may be fictitious and feel sceptical that Dr Paine’s work may be a hoax.

Garth Paine, Endangered Sounds, SonicDifference: Resounding the World, The Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle, BEAP 04, Sept 9-Oct 10

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