Fig. 15 : Rotor Plus. 3-20 NOVEMBER, 2004

catalogue essay by Sally Mcintyre
All ears to the wall: the gallery reconsidered as a listening space

“The ear finally comes into its own. But not the old ear attached to a living head. That has already disappeared… what is necessary is not the recovery of the ear as a privileged orifice for the nostalgic return of oral culture, but the growth of new ears – digital ears – as a sign of nostalgia for the future”.

Contemporary practices of art-making and display have done much to alter the traditional perceptive logic of galleries, which, as cultural formations, belong to the hegemony of the eye, and where, inside the white cube, objects are suspended, ‘glazed’ in an aesthetic timelessness, sealed into a visibility characterised by the privilege of Apollonian clarity, precise definitions, and “transparent” representations. In the past few decades, new, richly differentiated artistic forms have developed that integrate space, time, and sound. These artistic forms are more than just aesthetic innovations in that they fundamentally challenge the role of the ‘spectator’ and assumptions brought to the ‘viewing’ of art. With the introduction of temporality and its associated sensual register (odour, tactility, sound) into the gallery, as well as the associated move toward site-specific art in unbounded spaces of social exchange, the light-reified, Cartesian visual schema of the historic gallery space cannot help but break down.

Modern building technology, in its disregard for space with good, ‘live’ acoustic qualities in favour of the ‘dead’ acoustics of the suburban box, has contributed to the withering and repression of the experience of hearing. It is clear that cultural attention to sonic space is sorely warranted. One particular contemporary art form, which has developed on the frontier between the visual arts and music, has seen sound reconceived by artists as material within the expanded concept of sculpture. Sound Art’s introduction into the formerly silent space of the gallery adds a dimension, which, in effect, renders the confined space of the gallery splintered and permeable, introducing more immediate, phenomenological, timely events into its permanent, partitioned world. In focusing on the ear, distinctly different relationships to space are created, and different forms of aesthetic experience are offered up, which focus more on the relationship of sound, space and body. If the eye’s tendency is to disembody, objectify and give distance, then hearing is connected to corporeality. Whereas a picture or object requires us to gain distance in a clear spatial orientation based on left/ right, up/down, the space of listening is characterised by fluidity, immediacy and unboundedness. In our predominant visual culture, space sometimes seems ‘empty’, but the ear puts us at the centre of a dynamic and energy-filled realm. The mortifying spatialisation of the eye is destabilised by the inherent uncontainability of sound, antithetical to being bounded by walls, and with its inclusion into the visual arts the gallery’s sterile enclosures become permeated, punctured by leakage.

Working in the thick of such issues, Rotor + has temporarily transformed the High Street Project’s gallery spaces into two very different spaces for listening, in which the recipient is called upon to interact with everyday physical and sonic phenomena in distinct ways. Fig.15d {the artist’s way}, and Fig.15e {Piece for wooden box in Am.}, foreground communicative sound-space and contemplative sound-space, respectively.

From the outside in, or “If the recording of a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it…”

“The fact that the "world is sound" isn't just a widespread myth or legend. It is confirmed in the established findings of fundamental harmonic research and many other disciplines. We have found the world's tonal character confirmed in DNA genes and electron spins, in the solar wind and geomagnetism, in the weather and in the "song" of flowers and plants”.

During the twentieth century, the development of sound recording and reproduction technologies changed not only the ways in which we listen to music but, on a more fundamental level, how we communicate with each other, and the very way we perceive the sounds, and by extension the sensory reality, of our everyday environments. The technologies of sound reproduction and playback, including speakers, sampling, and synthesized sound production, all serve to make sounds of every conceivable sort independent of their source and able to be available anywhere. The sounds of birds, for example, taken away from their generative presence in the avian larynx and vocal chords, evoke complex referential sonic tapestries. It is worth noting the radicality of such a situation for Western listening paradigms, and the importance of recording technologies for the art of sound.

The history of sound in art begins with the emancipation of ‘noise’ from ‘music’, largely via sound-reproductive technologies, and is generally regarded to have begun with the work of the Futurists F.T. Marinetti and Luigi Russolo. Prior to this, ‘noise’ was the hidden Other of ‘music’. This separation of ‘music’ from ‘noise’ is crucial to Western artistic paradigms; in fact, the classical, western musical tradition could be fundamentally conceived of as the systematic filtering-out of ‘noise’ in favour of privileging ‘purified’ sounds. Noises, in this paradigm, are the sounds that are discarded as being unmusical, which music traditionally expurgates as sonic ‘dirt’. Noise however belongs to the same pool of sounds from which music stems, and music is thus defining itself by a detachment from its origin. This is abjection, using the term coined by Julia Kristeva. The abject, in Kristeva's sense, is the body and it’s associated waste. Bodily cleansing processes, as a way of avoiding the abject, are a way of upholding one's individuality, fearing the blur between the objective surroundings and ourselves. Interestingly, etymologically speaking, ‘noise’ comes from Greek nausea, referring not only to powerful sound phenomena in nature such as storm, thunder and the roaring sea, but also to seasickness.

Much of the work that is characteristic of sound art has historically been either situated outside, within the sonic fields of urban or natural spaces, or has the capacity to bring the outside inside, in this case, into the gallery. Sound strongly suggests context, connoting the events happening outside, through the wall, round the corner and through the floor. In a world where the ‘where’ has increasingly become less relevant, sound can ground us back in ‘place’. Field recordings, with their integrity of time, function as aural snapshots which bring a flowing, time-based sense of place to us. Accordingly, the isolated, sonically ‘empty’ box of the modernist gallery space itself is changed, re-contextualised and thrown open: the wall becomes a window. According to R. Murray Schafer, Western music has done everything it can to retreat from this exposed or open-air condition. Observing how many languages have no separate words distinguishing ‘music’ from ‘noise’ (or sound in general), Schafer suggests that the status of music in European cultures has a strongly architectural determinant: in the special kind of sound we call music, time and duration thicken and congeal into frozen representations of space and place. Sound art, by contrast, has typically sought to expand beyond the gallery, to ventilate the gallery with the sounds of what lies outside it, or to temporalise place.

Rotor + conceives of his work as spatial, in the sense of a collaborative improvisation with the outside, with the sonic, living spaces of the natural world, utilising their potential for unpredictability: “More and more it is the extraneous sounds that are happening around any rotor plus work that I find interesting, sort of like the earth jamming with the rotor plus sounds… unexpected patterns and responses emerging”. In recognition of the performance of sound as temporal and site-specific, he writes, “all the rotor plus performances I see as a sound installation occupying a certain place for a certain time to create a certain environment, that could only exist on those particular vectors”.

With Fig.15e {Piece for wooden box in Am.}, however, the consideration is more what it is to situate Nature (and ‘noise’) in the gallery space, on the other side of a divisive binary in which the gallery (and ‘music’) is the converse. He writes: “Western Utopian ideas of control predominate at the expense of that other, in this case nature. Nature is compartmentalised and sanitised to form the perfect "view", the perfect picture in a frame”. Utilising technological systems by which recorded sounds can be distributed in space with precise timing, with the introduction of the listener into the space, the formerly blurry, ‘noisy’ sounds of nature in Fig.15e are now functioning on the side of ‘music’, as ‘notes’. These notes predicated by the listener’s presence are isolated – one per speaker – in an artificially precise and delineated sonic schema, an ‘architecture’ of sound. The illusion is of a structurally clear acoustic space with the listener at its apex. This references the way in which the art historical tradition creates visual space through perspectival geometries. Single notes are pared out from the rumbling natural hubbub the way a gallery wall isolates elements of the visual: “15e is setting out to create a specific environment that is especially gallery orientated as it intentionally uses the gallery’s own aesthetics (lots of white space) to comment on some utopian ideas around cleanliness, control, and space itself”. In effect nature is now there for the spectator, in a mere substitution of ear for eye. Nature is putting on an orchestrated concert ‘just for you’, the human listening presence, who ‘activates’ Nature by putting money in the slot, turning on Nature just like a CD player. The ensuing samples are undamaged, clear representations, isolated in near-museological sonic space like the name tagged calls of extinct birds on Radio New Zealand. This recalls the kind of nature documentary where the presenter sits in the bush ‘alone’ (the home viewer being largely oblivious to out-of-shot camera crew, sound recordist, etc) and the birds sing out ‘in concert’. Fig.15e reveals, through these strategies, just how much the ear of our culture still has to learn.

Nostalgia for the lost continent of the sonic object, or “please, steal this album!”

“If the ear can be so stunted today, if hearing can only be accomplished through the medium of the specular, if music today must be mediated through the imaginary overdrive of MTV, it is because everything now functions to repress the ear. For the ear is politically dangerous”.

With the development of the portable Mp3 player, and (record-company-driven lawsuits aside) the prevalence of free-distribution internet music sites, the days of the musical artefact as standardised medium of sonic consumption, seem fairly numbered. Such evidence suggests we are on the cusp of an era in which the sonic object will be relegated largely to specialist use, and more fluid paradigms will dominate our popular listening practices. The internet world of broadcasting and sharing has similar qualities to radio, in that it both destabilises the object status and retail commodity worth of the audio artefact, and transcends the limited distribution borders of the packaging of audio as product.

The rise of MTV in the late 20th Century has also seen popular music become a predominately visual medium, with the increasing, spectacular, subordination of the ear to the eye. This situation has given rise to alternate forms of audio visual collaboration than the music video, in which festivals of experimental sonic/visual work fuse both media, and musicians (such as Germany’s Kreidler) self-release imagery integrated on a more structural level with their complex sonic textures, which, full of ‘glitch’, suggest the stutters and fragilities of digital media, and harness the image as conduit to the sonic.

In response to the immersion in such contexts, Rotor+ poses two quite different aesthetic commentaries. The first, a line of flight which lands to earth as Aileron, the CDR he released in 2000, is an attempt to reclaim the sound-object’s lost aesthetic status. In marked contrast to the tongue-in-cheek title of the artist’s more commercial side project Epsilon Blue’s CD We have a Responsibility to our Shareholders, Rotor +’s Aileron, goes beyond pandering, ironically or otherwise, to the music industry’s conceptualisations of ‘packaging’, to envisage the sonic object with an attention to detail more at home in ‘art’ contexts. Part specialty publication, part aesthetic manifesto, part audio visual document, Aileron sees the musical artefact shrugging off its mass-produced status to become a new hybrid medium, one which projects the possibility of a different, less mass-produced and standardised world. Fusing with the tradition of the artist’s book, and harking back to the history of the multiple, the only thing it has in common with standard jewel-case packaging, in concession to retail norms, is its size.

Further investigations into the ramifications of sonic object-dissolution and distribution have resulted in the sound installation Fig.15d {the artists way}, which on the surface of things also seems to be about revelling in the stance of the ‘artist’ to promote, via an innate fascination for low-grade communications technology and a turn to ‘consumer electronics’ rather than sophisticated digital equipment, the rarefied aesthetic beauty of the unique object, and the wilful preservation of the technologically obsolescent. But on second glance it is also clear that, as most of the sonic content consists of plagiarized snippets of sound, Fig.15d {the artists way}, is in fact as much about questioning the idea of authorship in the age of the ‘sample’. What, indeed, here, is the ‘artist’s way’? And what of the audience, when the viewer/listener’s agency is limited to the blind selection of a track at random, like a CD player on shuffle function?

As an avenue for sound art, the telephone’s unique possibilities are strongly suggestive of the intimacy of personalised communication, but here the apparatus is instead colonised by a selection of looped broadcasts. The telephonic space of Fig.15d becomes more like the semi-intimate experience of radio, or the internet, or connotes the sonic-wallpaper listening experience of being put ‘on hold’.

Providing the listener with a variety of sonic elements, which include looped portions of popular music (tracks by John Lennon, Michael Jackson, and Nelly), as well as rally speeches by Hitler, and a weather forecast, fragments which never settle in place long enough for the listener to reflect. Fig. 15d is both an examination of the effect of hearing well known tunes and lyrics in fragments, a situation characteristic of all areas of contemporary life from city walks to internet downloading, and an engaging, inclusive and reflective conduit of dialogic criticism that comments on the increasing impersonality of our shared experience, and putting those elements to play resonating, intermingling and recombining with the listeners own associations and shards of memories. With the deft recontextualization and juxtaposition of individual elements creating an alchemical space of sublime and satirical transformation, Fig. 15d weaves a revealing nether-narrative to accompany popular culture’s monolithic straight telling of its own history, the reality of which is columned by the sinister underpinnings of rapacious consumer culture and empty marketing.

Coda: learning to listen

“if we could truly listen to the sounds of life, there would be no need for music in films at all.”

It is debatable whether, in a world so sound- and image- saturated, anyone is really listening very carefully, something that Rotor+, who has made soundtrack recordings for both narrative films and nature documentaries, probably knows all too well. It’s fitting, then, that he announces, in the liner notes to Aileron, a spiritual kinship to a deeply sonically attuned filmmaker, for whom film was never an entirely visual medium, and whose highly poetic work questioned the dominant film music paradigms where the soundtrack is condemned to be merely an enhancement of or accompaniment to the image.

In rejecting traditional conceptions of the gallery as sterile visual utopia, Rotor +’s combining of sound with visual forms in Fig.15d and Fig.15e attempts something similar for the gallery: it seduces the eye to listen, creating a transitional zone between hearing and seeing, and suggesting it is now possible to realise alternate utopian ideals of sonic spaces whose inhabitation is characterised as much by the sense of hearing as by the sense of sight. It is important, nevertheless, to remember that works such as these are pointers, and that this story is still only partial. Listening space still, usually, remains subordinate to visual space in the conventions defining the framing and display of the fine arts. Experiencing sound work in the gallery often makes us all too aware of the continuing emphasis upon division and partition that continues to exist, even in the most radically revisable of gallery spaces. This often manifests itself in practical issues around the spatial containment of sound, which has been a consistently problematic factor in the curation of sound arts, but also exists on the level of dialogue, in the fact that there is not yet an adequate way of discussing sonic art, or a body of criticism grounding it in its historic basis. The latter can only be compounded by the fact that a constant discrepancy exists between the essentially indescribable sonic object and any attempt to verbalize or write it. And this essay, then, is part of my own ongoing attempts to find forms in which to inscribe my listening.

Sally Ann McIntyre