SonicDifference Priest

The distinct survivalist tone was kicked started by exhibition curator and conference convener, Nigel Helyer in his opening address where he dwelt on hearing as our most basic sense designed to warn us of approaching danger. Our ears offer 360 degree perception while our eyes are limited to 180, but that in our general perception “the eye is master, the ear is slave.” This sense of embattlement floated through the discussions of the day occasionally escalating to alarmists proportions evidenced by the controversial concept put forward by Simo Alitalo (Finnish sound artist and radio producer) that in sound the audience member is prey, while in visual art the participant is in the position of the hunter.

Garth Paine (Senior Lecturer in Music Technology and Head of Electronic Arts, University of Western Sydney) discussed his Endangered Sounds work included in the Sonic Difference exhibition, deftly continuing the theme of our aural landscape under attack. His villains are the corporations “sound marking” particular audio artefacts rendering the act of reproduction an illegal act. His position on this is that these privatised sounds are being transmitted through public space–the air that carries the vibrations–and we have no control over this. Raising the concepts of Cage’s preoccupation with the impossibility of silence, he extrapolates on the theory that we are still hearing the residue of the Big Bang (captured by NASA scientists) and poses the question as to what will be the residue that makes up the silence of the future. The project consists of asking volunteers around the world to collect samples of these soundmark items in test tubes, or more specifically the air through which these sounds passed, but also for people to contribute to a growing list of “extinct sounds”–those which we no longer hear–milk bottles clinking and horsedrawn carriages. The conceptual territory covered in this presentation was both engaging and perplexing though presents internal contradictions–if silence is made of the residue of sounds do sounds really become extinct?

Spring boarding from ideas of silence, Ed Osborn (Assistant Professor for Digital Media, UC, Santa Cruz) presented his work within the framework of absence. He used his video piece Flyover consisting of areial photos of the Antarctic as a starting point for the idea that something can be defined as a void rather than as a presence. Osborn’s webwork Audio Recordings of Greats Works of Art is a playful exploration of the imagined sonic scape of famous artworks consisting of both a field recording from the galleries themselves and a description of the sound that might be heard if the picture had a sonic element. Most intriguing was his work Vanishing Point comprising 10 drivers attached to the windows of the Berkeley Art Museum emitting shifting sine tones, fading at beginning and end creating a never ending escalation like a barbershop pole. The installation was inspired by Robert Irwins’ Untitled from 1969 (part of the museum’s collection) which attempts to create a painting that doesn’t begin and end at the edges. Osborn’s piece not only investigates absence in the idea of undefined edges–no clear sonic beginning or endings and a blurred line between internal and external space–but also raises the idea of the copy as absence, given the work displayed in the gallery is in fact a copy of Irwins’ original.

Cat Hope (Perth based composer, performer, audiovisual artist) offered a less besieged approach to the use of sound with image offering examples of her work that attempted let the ear guide the eye. She offers the opinion that the visual overload in today’s media saturation provides more opportunities for the sound artists to focus on the audio aspects of a work, and that these can infact manipulate the way the viewer perceives the visual.

Of particular interest was the work of Shawn Decker (Professor in Art & Technology and Sound Departments, School of Art Institute of Chicago). Citing theories of RM Shafer, he is seeking a to rediscover the complexity of sound, arguing that our mechanical and digital machines have created lo-fi aural environments–those which impart far less information than the irregular sounds of nature. His installations, consisting of piano wire in percussive contact with other objects, use mechanical implements, and industrial sounds, but he has drawn the modes and rhythms for these from algorithms mimicking natural emergent behaviours, creating installations that are both sonically, visually and conceptually impressive.

Both Björn Schülke (German Multimedia artist) and Amy Youngs (Assistant Professor of Art, The Ohio State University) defined themselves as artists that choose to work with sound, rather than as sound artists. Schülke is interested in creating objects that interact, with the viewer in which the result of that interaction is sonic. He has created several artworks based on the theremin, as exemplified by Nervous in the PerceptualDifference exhibition (John Curtin Gallery), while his second work on display, Orgamat, is a sculpture that converts visual stimulus into sound through the interpretation of colour saturation on a TV set into a 5 tone pipe organ. Amy Youngs’ work concentrates on areas of communication between insects and humans, her most recent piece involving the sonification of worms, on display in the SonicDifference exhibition.

There is no discussion of soundculture without the debate about sound versus music and it was surprising that was avoided until 2nd last presentation by Simo Alitalo and which then dominated the concluding open panel. While it is frequent and inevitable this discussion was enlightening with 3 very different approaches. Alitalo suggested that if sound can be recorded and then similarly experienced in different contexts then it is music. Shawn Decker proposed that music and sound involved different ways of listening–music requires an exclusive mode in which extraneous sounds are filtered out in order to hear what the composer intended, while sound invited the listener to expand the hearing to take in all influences. Jocelyn Robert (Teacher of Intermedia Art at Mills College, Oakland) who was introduced to the panel as agent provocateur, posed that these distinctions are in fact all politics–that visual art has ceased to be a demarcation and that it should all be viewed as art, not good or bad, but interesting and not interesting, using different modes of expression. This was an interesting conclusion for a conference that was focussed on exploring and glorifying the perceived sonic territory. It is interesting that the themes of any sound-based discussion remain similar–ideas of silence, liveness, and artform demarcation are always at the fore. Fortunately in this day’s discussion the answers were not found, and more finely nuanced questions were posed, ensuring continuing healthy discussion in the future.

SonicDifference: Re-Sounding the World, conference, BEAP 04, Alexander Library Theatrette, State Library of Western Australia, Perth, Sept 10.
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