Kunstjournalen B-post's temporary editorial offices look out over the harbour in Bergen. Outside, one can see boats both small and large. A two-stroke engine chugs past the open window, two men in high-vis outfits are repairing a mast of some sort or other. They are making vague scraping sounds, which are almost drowned out by the cries of gulls. The harbour is buzzing, a kind of low-frequency rumble that one feels in the soles of one's feet. The sound of a hosepipe becomes distinct against the hum. Distant hammering sounds interspersed with the whirr of traffic find a place in the middle range. From behind comes the gurgle of a coffee machine. Someone's phone is ringing out in the corridor.
The acoustic space is a dense collage of audible stimuli, an intricate and complex atmosphere where different sounds carry different meanings and require different types of attention. The exercise described above calls for «deep listening», a method developed by Pauline Oliveros, which invites us to regard listening «as a potential channel for communing with the entirety of presence that fills the earth and the sky». Listening implies an active presence. When we listen, we take in the world – collecting information, registering things, sorting them and orienting ourselves. We also turn ourselves outwards. To listen is to be mentally connected with the world. In his contribution to this issue, Brandon LaBelle analyses what this active listening entails and what strings it sets in motion. He also takes a closer look at how audio art relates to the smooth transition between hearing and listening, and how an awareness for the difference between the two can increase our understanding of sound.
The works of Finnbogi Petursson stretch the realm of sound beyond what we can hear. In 2hz Surface Drawing 2012, we can only see the sound waves – a sound wave of 2 Hz is much lower than the ear is able to perceive. Mahlet Ogbe Habte confronts us with a similar situation; in print, the sounds of grief can only be represented as symbols. But in her installations and films, the artist also opens up an acoustic space, allowing us to come into contact with the voices that transport the emotional content.
The fact that sound is able to arouse emotions is something most of us have experienced directly. Musical works, the crying of children, laughter. Sound can also warn of danger; the screech of brakes, a car horn, gunfire. All in all, sound has considerable influence on us. The world is composed of a great wealth of sounds; noise, squeaks, hissing, tones, buzz, talk, rumble. Some of these sounds may only be audible to certain groups of animals, or they occur in environments to which we normally have no access – as Jana Winderen reveals in her sound recordings from underwater. Sounds are not just something we hear; we are permeated by sound waves; they are part of our bodies as much as of our surroundings.
At Moderna Museet in Stockholm, freq_out 8 bathed listeners in sounds ranging from 0 to 12,000 Hz. The human ear can detect frequencies between roughly 20 and 20,000 Hz, although the higher frequencies become inaudible with age. Below 20 Hz, sound is transformed into a physical experience, something we «hear» with our bodies. In addition to the sound surging through the halls, freq_out 8 also bathed us in light of seven different colours. As Carl Michael von Hausswolff writes in his article, we could «immerse ourselves in the sonic components of this work».
Carsten Seiffarth, curator and head of singuhr sound gallery, also focuses on the spatial and physical aspects of sound art. Seiffarth specifies a couple of principles that help sound art to be experienced positively. One is time, «the principle of observing the visitor's own time»; the second is the opportunity to experience the work undisturbed. As a curator, he finds it crucial to have a deep understanding of acoustic spaces; inadequate knowledge of what sound art requires can produce absurd outcomes.
The introduction of sound art into public spaces is a sensitive issue, as many artists who work with acoustic material can testify. Works get hidden away, their volume turned down to the barely audible, or turned off completely. Most sound installations that are planned as long-term features of public spaces tend to have short lives. We seem to be more tolerant of sound works that are conceived as temporary events. It is also easier to live with works that have a clearly limited physical range.
Perhaps we experience sound as more intrusive than visual stimuli since we have fewer possibilities to block out the impressions. This sensitivity is a major factor in shaping our response to sound art. In certain situations, it is a phenomenon that gets exploited, as for example in public rituals such as national parades or memorial services. In these settings, acoustic works have a major impact by «filling» the communal space while at the same time stimulating the individual emotional response.
In contrast to this somewhat overwhelming musical tradition, sound art has introduced principles of chance, which open up the world of everyday soundscapes in the form of «sound walks» and concerts based solely on ambient noise or radio interference etc. John Cage is mentioned repeatedly as an important figure, almost a doyen of the field. Of course, the gallery of ancestors contains many other highly inspirational names, a broad selection of whom are introduced in the article by Jørgen Larsson. In his survey of the historical development of sound art, Larsson lays out the diversity of traditions that have evolved over the past hundred years or so. From its tentative and obscure beginnings around the turn of the 20th century, sound art has gained public acceptance and now reaches into every corner of the traditional field of visual art. No self-respecting biennial could be without a few sonic works; experimentation is everywhere, from public spaces down to personal, portable formats; and the work of promoting awareness for the medium takes place as much on the internet as it does in small galleries. Sound is frequently on the agenda at Lydgalleriet in Bergen, which recently hosted a major international conference on sound art – Ephemeral Sustainability – which brought together dedicated researchers, curators, artists, writers and many others.
With this issue, Kunstjournalen B-Post presents an introduction to audio art, sonic art, sound art – art that makes use of sound in one form or another. We wish to inform about and reflect on sound art, both as a phenomenon and a tradition. By featuring a handful of artists with visual presentations of their works together with other works that can be listened to – available in our online edition at www.kunstjournalen.no – we invite our readers to join us in pondering the phenomenon of sound.
Kunstjournalen B-post #1_12: Sound