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Carsten Seiffarth: About Sound Installation Art

In the 16 years that I have been active as a curator and producer in the vast field of sound art, my focus on this young art form has increasingly shifted from music to the fine arts. The term «sound art» is mostly used as an overarching generic term for practices as diverse as sound installations, sound sculptures, radio art, sound poetry, sound performances and, at its most extreme, even computer music or auditive net art. By contrast, the sound art I focus on in my curatorial work is primarily what Bernhard Leitner once labelled «sound-space-art».

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Paul Panhuysen, voltaic memory space, lydinstallasjon, 2011 singuhr sound gallery berlin, Kleiner Wasserspeicher, Prenzlauer Berg Foto: Roman März / singuhr

 

The singuhr sound gallery has been the main venue for sound art in Berlin since May 1996. The nationally and internationally unique project has realised at least 80 audio-visual art exhibits. The gallery's programmatic spectrum stretches from sound objects and kinetic sculptures to pure sounding spaces; from audio-visual productions to physically tempered and artistically designed rooms. The conceptual parenthesis nurtures the aspiration of presenting installative sound art - works that are conceived for a certain space and are also realised there. The Parochialkirche in Berlin's Mitte district provided the space for this artistic endeavor over a productive eleven years. Since June 2007, the two historic water reservoirs in Berlin´s Prenzlauer Berg district, have provided both a source of inspiration and a new home ground for the singuhr gallery. A catalogue titled «singuhr sound gallery in parochial – 1996-2006» was released in 2009 at Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg. 
Carsten Seiffarth, the singuhr sound gallery's founder and director, is a very significant figure in the context of international sound art development.

Turning space into place

In my understanding, the term sound art primarily covers sound installations and sound sculptures that can be experienced in a unique physical space that cannot simply be replaced. «Sound is a medium of representation and a medium of perception at the same time», writes Claudia Tittel in the sonambiente catalogue of 2006, «and as such, changes all given spatial settings and creates new spaces of perception».[i] Space itself becomes a medium of creation, and due to an artistic engagement with it and in it, turns into a place. This corresponds with how Max Neuhaus put it in an interview with Ulrich Loock in his book Sound Works (1994): «In what I do the sound is the means of creating the work, the means of transforming the space into place».[ii]

Of course, space as a fundamental category of an artistic work is not new in art history, and, ever since the Middle Ages, has played a central role in music as well. In the installation genre, however, it is the relation between the artwork and the space that is essential. As early as 1958, Allan Kaprow introduced the term environment for his spatial works – a term he used to designate both the material surroundings of his «happenings» and any combination of objects in one or more spaces. A precondition for this development was the expanded notion of sculpture resulting from the dissolution of the boundary between sculptural works and the space surrounding them. Later, in 1967, Dan Flavin came up with the term installation, applying it to his neon works, in which he staged the room itself as an artwork.

Sound installations can be defined as a special category of installation art because of their distinct reference to sound and space. According to Volker Straebel (inMusik-Konzepte: Klangkunst, 2008), «sound installations are determined or influenced by the acoustic properties of the spaces in which they are presented. They are place- or site-specific in picking out these or other architectonic dependencies as their major themes or (…) in referring to the historic or other cultural implications of the space.»[iii]

Helga de la Motte-Haber gives an apt definition of sound installation and sound sculpture. She is one of the few German musicologists to intensively explore the phenomenon of sound art for a long time now.

Single sounding objects that offer the viewer a visible material opponent can be referred to as sound sculptures. Sound sculptures can be hung in different rooms, meaning they are not necessarily dependent on a site. In contrast, the sound installation is site-specific. Sound installations normally form an arrangement or environment that surrounds the recipient, covers him or her with sound, or only connects with the recipient when it is in motion. Material objects do not necessarily need to be present. Sound technical equipment that emits either sound synthesized on the spot, or sound recordings via loudspeakers, might need to be present. Hybrids of sound installations and sound sculptures are installations in which numerous sound sculptures or objects are fitted together and installed in one place.[iv]

Andreas Oldörp 2_pendulum, lydinstallasjon, 2012 Kunstmuseum Bonn, bonn hoeren Photo: Andreas Langen / bonn hoeren
Andreas Oldörp 2_pendulum, lydinstallasjon, 2012 Kunstmuseum Bonn, bonn hoeren Foto: Andreas Langen / bonn hoeren

Evolution

The term sound installation was coined by the renowned American artist, Max Neuhaus in 1971. In 1974, Neuhaus described his working style as follows: «Traditionally, composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time.»[v] This description can be seen as applying to sound art as a whole. Neuhaus first developed and realized his idea of a sound installation in 1967 with his Drive-In Music in Buffalo. In terms of sound, this was a complex work that did not impose itself on the passerby or recipient. In the trees along a wide, tree-lined street, he installed a large number of radio transmitters with very limited ranges, all sending on the same frequency. The transmitters’ different sounds and antenna configurations allowed car-drivers passing by with tuned-in car radios, to experience an individualized sound development depending on their speed and travel direction.

Sound installations and sound sculptures allow for the visitor to leave and come back at will – the classic form of response in the fine arts as opposed to a concert, where such behavior would be considered as offensive.

An important aspect of this work – as of most sound art works – was the principle of observing the visitor’s own time. Sound installations and sound sculptures allow for the visitor to leave and come back at will – the classic form of response in the fine arts as opposed to a concert, where such behavior would be considered as offensive.

Max Neuhaus was, of course, not the first to make installations using sound. Earlier examples include: Mauricio Kagel’s Música para la torre, which was realized in 1954 in Buenos Aires, Nicolas Schöffer’s spatio-dynamic constructions in 1954, the Poème électronique by Edgard Varèse for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World Exposition in Brussels, John Cage’s Variation VII at the «9 evenings» in New York in 1966 or Maryanne Amacher’s City-Links, started in 1967, a series of installations with sounds transmitted in real-time from outdoor places to indoor spaces.

Generally, the removal and shifting of boundaries in the arts can be seen as a precondition for the development of sound art and the concomitant explosive expansion of the concepts of work and material, as well as synaesthetic efforts in the arts. Another important factor for the evolution of sound installations and sound sculptures was the development of technologies for recording and replaying sound. Granting independence from performing musicians and allowing for constant mechanical repetition via auto reverse technology, they first made it possible to permanently install tones, sounds and music in a set space. But there are also sound art pieces that manage without any sound technology. Their sound sources are natural resources, such as wind, water or fire. Works of this kind, point to another historical origin of sound art: aeolian harps, fire organs and even juke and music boxes.

Gordon Monahan A Piano Listening To Itself - Nordheim Variation, lydinstallasjon, 2012 Oslo Rådhus, Borggården. Ultima Festival & Atelier Nord. Foto: Gordon Monahan
Gordon Monahan A Piano Listening To Itself - Nordheim Variation, lydinstallasjon, 2012 Oslo Rådhus, Borggården. Ultima Festival & Atelier Nord. Foto: Gordon Monahan

Curatorial practice

The yearly openings at the singuhr sound gallery in Berlin, each with around 400 visitors in the underground water reservoirs in the Prenzlauer Berg district, shows, for example, that sound art completely goes under at such events. The sound material of an installation is drowned out by the many visitors and can, simply, no longer be heard. In a short contribution about sound art in the Handbook for Curators published in 2004, both Bernd Schulz and I emphasized that vernissages should not take place in the exhibition spaces themselves. This, of course, does make a difference. But, regardless of the vernissage as a social event, the necessity of being alone with the artistic sound art work in a space, is a rather special situation within contemporary art. The locations taken over by sound artists off the beaten path from the classic temples of the muses, are more congenial to individual engagement.

But, regardless of the vernissage as a social event, the necessity of being alone with the artistic sound art work in a space, is a rather special situation within contemporary art.

In the past years, I have curated various exhibition projects above and beyond the singuhr sound gallery exhibits. In addition to works in interior spaces, curating site-specific sound art projects in public spaces repeatedly presents a special challenge for me. These are usually spaces where silence, or at least an atmosphere that promotes perception, hardly dominates. In addition to the architectonic space, a substantial foundation for installative sound art, the social space is mainly at the centre of the respective artistic dialogue. Also, how an artistic intervention transforms and charges the in situ condition, using sound or the idea of sound can clearly be experienced. The concept of atmosphere developed by the German philosopher, Gernot Böhme, probably best describes the aesthetic charging of such everyday situations. In my experience, sound art in public spaces tends to only function when it forms a service and enables the recipients a different perceptory space. Didactic affronts and indoctrinations, or mock battles with the acoustic everyday world, are usually met with destruction.

The process of the curatory practice in sound art can generally be quite easily described. It distinguishes itself from visual arts curation in its study of acoustic spatial characteristics and in the question of the imagined collaborative hearing of multiple sound works.

Usually, a commissioner first issues a contextual target, for example, for a group exhibition. As soon as an overarching idea has been developed, it needs to be tested at a real exhibition space. At the first on-site visit, I look at the available spaces, document them with photos and video and test their acoustic characteristics. At the same time, I expand my already pre-researched knowledge of the historical and social facts of the exhibition space. Following this first investigation, I develop a more concrete concept, thinking about which artists, with which focal points, could work in which spaces. The following on-site investigations are now undertaken with the invited artists. In doing so, I try to suggest as concrete a space as possible for each artist. Before working with him, or her, I always try to experience a live installation or sound sculpture from an artist. Only through this experience, can I gain an understanding of the artist’s working methods and style, and it is a precondition for my curatorial activities.

The invited artists then develop artistic concepts and budgets for the selected spaces. These are summarized and presented to the commissioner. Following approval, the practical realization takes place in two phases. The first begins in the studios of the invited artists, where they partially construct and create exhibition pieces and sounds. The second phase, then involves the concrete realization on-site. The third phase comes after the opening – the briefing concerning the everyday exhibition of the works. In the everyday life of an exhibition, a common occurrence is that the sound installations do not work properly due to missing instructions or operating procedures. I can recall many exhibition visits where I had to ask the exhibition staff to turn on amplifiers or press auto-reverse buttons. By the way, not sounding sound installations are often «overseen» or turned on or off according to the subjective sensitivities of the security staff. My curatorial activity ends with the organization and production of a documentation. Formats such as photo, sound, video and text are natural modes of approaching this type of art. I am aware that these modes of documentation can only be approximations of the ephemeral character of the object. In my opinion, video documentation is the most dispensable form of documentation – but the most convincing, in order to focus one’s perception on moving images.

As already stated, sound art does not tend to be about finished works of art, that only have to be brought from a studio and staged in a museal space. The on-site realization then shows how well the exhibition has been researched and prepared. Especially among group exhibitions, a lack of knowledge of the qualities of sound as a material, can partially lead to absurd constellations, such as a deep sub-frequency sound permanently existing in all of the other sound installations, or that high-frequency sounds penetrate suspended ceilings, thereby involuntarily acoustically connecting spaces that had been separated with great effort. And, it is often forgotten that an unplanned sound presence can also negatively influence the perception of visual art works.

With these few examples, I wanted to show how many particularities have to be observed when curating sound art exhibitions or projects with installed sound material. Works with sound, and their presentation, need time, sound and spatial imagination, and empirical experience.

 


[i] Claudia Tittel, «Das flüchtige Material der bildenden Kunst», in: sonambiente berlin 2006. klang kunst sound art, ed. by Helga de la Motte-Haber et al., exhibition catalogue, Akademie der Künste Berlin, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg 2006, p. 224-230; here p. 225.

[ii] Max Neuhaus/Ulrich Loock, «Interview [Milan, 1990]», in: Max Neuhaus, Sound Works, Cantz Verlag Ostfildern 1994, Vol. 1, p. 122-135, here p. 130.

[iii] Volker Straebel, «Geschichte und Typologie der Klanginstallation», in: Musikkonzepte, Sonderband Klangkunst, November 2008, edition text+kritik p. 24-46; here p. 43.

[iv] Helga de la Motte, «Klangkunst. Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume», Laaber 1999 (Handbook of Twentieth Century Music), p. 95.

v Max Neuhaus, «Program Notes», York University, Toronto 1974, in: M.N., op.cit., Sound Works, Vol. 1, p. 34.

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