making with rainbows – towards a philosophy of sound(in)art

Text by Richard Carr originally published in the curatorial publication “Play it by Ear”, for his solo exhibition at Soma Contemporary Gallery, Waterford City, Ireland.

Within recent times ‘sound’ has gained in importance. This could be due to the ever increasing acceptance of ‘sound art’ practice and theory, which has inevitably created a discursive network between the histories of music and the visual arts and ultimately perception, particularly a listening sensibility and everyday living. This has come about with the introduction of texts concerned with the role of sound within the contexts of the arts and the phenomenology of perception, from artists and writers which are highly respected within their own domains. Some of these texts include Listening to Noise and Silence, Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art by Salome Voegelin, Background Noise, Perspectives on Sound Art by Brandon LaBelle and Sounds and Perception, a collective of texts edited by Nudds and O’Callaghan.

Everyday living or experience is full of cross-modal information from the senses so in one way it may be pointless in trying to isolate the senses from one another in theory. However, by doing so has led to interesting observations. One of the main distinctions between the visual and the auditory may well be notions of the ‘visual gap’. What the visual gap suggests is that vision in its very nature assumes a distance between the beholder and the object of attention no matter how close. What this then suggests is that seeing always takes place within a meta-position encouraging stability, monumentality and structural certainty; facilitating the definition of ourselves in relation to these structures.

Throughout this paper, I will endeavour to examine the physical and emotional traces of sound as 2d or 3d ‘things’. To do this I will firstly discuss aspects of listening and its relation to contemporary art practice by speaking generally about the practice of Michael Brewster and dealing specifically with one of Lars Lundehave Hansen’s pieces; Spiderbytes. I will then put forward some of the common debates around the ontology of sounds stemming from empirical and philosophical research that aid in the development of a knowledge around notions of listening and the sonic object.

Michael Brewster, a sound artist based in the USA once said you can’t make sound become hard and solid; but you can make it seem to stand still, as if hovering in place. (Brewster 1998). This statement has become central to the practice of Michael Brewster, a practice most commonly associated with the term acoustic sculpture. Although Brewster has worked using sound with drawing in mind, the physicality and materiality of sound within the sculptural experience is central to his practice. For Brewster sound has physical size, dimensions in feet and meters as well as density, vibrancy, rhythms, textures, volumes, edges, planes, fullness, flatness, roundness and hollows, a medium fully equipped to work with within sculptural experience.

For Brewster, by using the sonic instead of the visual he aims to construct the object of attention around the viewer/listener in a way that does not restrict their presence and movement, where people can experience and listen to the very spaces they inhabit, which Brewster says is like exploring a landscape from the inside, with all of your body and not just from the front with your eyes. This for Brewster is in relation to the visual where the sculptural object will always be experienced as a bunch of sequenced frontalizations, where the object of desire is always over there no matter how close we try to bring it; even with touch he suggests there is an away-ness. What this does, which is important for Brewster is alter the conventional art viewing posture of ‘stand and look’ to an exploratory ‘move and listen’ (Brewster 1998).

This physicality or object-ness of sound that Brewster speaks of is also explored by a more contemporary artist Lars Lundhave Hansen (Denmark) in his piece Spiderbytes, albeit in a much more direct and literal way. Lars has exhibited Spiderbytes in a variety of different forms but the one I was fortunate enough to experience consisted of a table-top plinth covered in a large sheet of paper, with two speakers each mounted on top of four pencils as legs. What Spiderbytes did essentially was use sound to move the speakers and pencils around the page leaving a direct visual trace/picture of the sound/movement on the page (Carr, 2012). For the purpose of this paper Spiderbytes is interesting as it does not only use sound to move other visual objects in space but it also shows that sound can be so physical it can almost exclude other visual objects from its space, creating a tension between the almost known differences between what is object-like or event-like.

Pierre Schaeffer (1910 – 1995) a pioneer in Musique Concrete coined the term ‘Objet Sonore’ or Sonic Object that for him summarises the main achievements of musique concrete. Objet Sonore was the conception that recorded sound was something almost independent from its source, its own entity contained within the tape recorder or phonograph. For Schaeffer the objet sonore created a reduced listening, an attitude that consists of listening to the sound for its own sake, as a sound object by removing its real or supposed source and the meaning it may convey. Another influential practitioner and writer Michel Chion explains that it is not the separation of sound from its source/environment that constitutes the object-ness of sound but the developments of electromagnetic instruments and their means of fixation and reproduction that constitutes its concreteness. (Lopez 1998).

I believe more contemporary practitioners and writers such as Salomé Voegelin who discusses in depth notions of a listening sensibility would believe that the objectness/concreteness of sound would not rely on the sound being contained within the electromagnetic instrument, or as Chion states its means of fixity and reproduction, but that the object-ness of sound would be that of listening, not with a reduced listening but a generative one.

Thinking of the sonic object as a listening engagement of this type turns the experience of listening into a collaborative and generative process and the sonic object into an object that has been created through intersubjective sensation. This is not only important within the discourse surrounding the history of the listener, who has all to often been relegated into a passive role throughout the histories of music, visual art and speech perception, but also for the future development of dialogue. According to Gemma Corradi Fiumaro, western foundations of knowledge and logocentrism are founded on a half logic, a logic of saying and expressing but forgetting to listen (Fiumaro, 1990), and most importantly for this paper the importance and placement of the sonic object in contemporary art practice.

Within the ontology of sounds there is one main disagreement between leading philosophers. This disagreement might be put down to differing views between distal and proximate theories of sound, or wave based accounts such as those from O’Shaughnessy, Sroenson and Nudds and source based accounts such as those by O’Callaghan, Casati and Dokic and Pasnau. The main disagreements between these two views concern the location of sounds, spatial audition and what type of things are sounds. These differing views encourage debate around the nature of sound but also the experience of sound, with wave based theories locating sounds within the medium, saying sounds disperse and occupy various different locations over time. Source based accounts locate sounds at or near their sources; they argue that sounds only travel if their sources do so therefore sounds do not travel through a medium (Nudds & O’Callaghan, 2009).

Many of these questions also revolve around the notions of authenticity of perception. Many distal theorists would imply that if sounds are where they seem to be then they should not travel through a medium unless systematically we misperceive sound, and maintain that in constructing accounts of sound we should not so easily appoint wholesale illusions to the act of experience. (Nudds & O’Callaghan, 2009) They would also argue that auditory perception is akin to visual perception in that sounds are located at a distance and only perceived by reason of a medium. It is this medium which is the carrier of information about the distal sounds / objects, like light bringing information to the eye / brain about distal objects. In this respect sounds would not be waves and would not travel through / with the waves, instead the waves would be a mediator between hearers and sounds. However, there are many differing views on this, and numerous writers and philosophers stemming from the proximal camp would maintain that auditory perception differs from visual perception in that sound as thing is located near the perceiver, and it is sound that bears information about distal objects or events. To put it another way, distal theorists would believe that to hear a sound as located would come about because that is where the sound is located. Others such as O’Shaughnessy would believe that sound is aspatial, located near the perceiver at the time of hearing and it is the perceiver who works out the information about the sounds locatedness. Much debate concerning spatial audition stems from Strawson (1959);

A world of sounds would be a no-space world because sounds are not intrinsically spatial. Spatial concepts have no intrinsically auditory significance, auditions spatial capabilities depend upon its inheriting spatial content from other modalities. (Nudds & O’Callaghan, 2009 p.9)

With regards to ‘what type of things are sounds’, it would be most common to say that sounds are things we hear, and whatever you hear must be a sound (however Sorenson would argue we hear silence which he believes does not involve hearing a sound, which may well be in contrast to the views of John Cage). More traditional philosophers such as Locke would suggest that sounds are secondary qualities similar to colours, tastes and smells whose experience of them would be intrinsically linked to subjects. Pasnau (1999) would suggest that sounds are properties that would be identical to the vibration of things, such as a tuning fork. Recently more and more philosophers such as O’Callaghan believe that sounds are not properties but more particulars or individuals, and would argue that the property theories do not account for the conditional identities of sounds as they change through space-time (Nudds & O’Callaghan 2009). What this does now is raise questions around whether sounds are more object-like or event-like.

There are many experiments, situations and discussions that are debated on by the proximal, wave based and distal followers such as the vacuum experiment, the echo and modes of transmission that are extremely interesting especially in attempting to understand the nature of sound. For me, although I find them fascinating I can’t help but think their approach is all a little to physicalist. It may seem a little non-sensical to some, but others have given accounts of ‘what sound may be’ that does not neglect the experience of listening so sorely. One that comes to mind and one in which I find extremely interesting is Rodger Scrutons theory of sound as secondary object and pure event which he discusses in his text The Aesthetics of Music, 1997. Scruton makes his case for sounds as secondary objects by discussing the varying possible differences between sounds and colours.  Firstly Scruton believes that primary qualities possess the possibility of being perceived through multi-model senses, the shape of a box can be perceived through sight, touch and auditory experiences. Secondary qualities he proposes can only be perceived through one sense-modality like sound and colour. Sounds being objects of hearing and colours being objects of sight. It is obvious that it is possible to recognise sounds through vibrations which Scruton believes would be similar to tactile lip reading, but the important part would be the absence of sound. Through the detection of vibrations the deaf would learn no more about sound than the blind reading about colours through the method of brail. However there is one major distinction that Scruton proposes for the difference between sound and colour and that is that colour is a secondary quality and it depends on the things that possess it. Sound on the other hand is not a secondary quality as it is not a quality at all according to Scruton, things do not have sound in the way they possess colour.

If every sound must have a cause, it does not follow that it must also be emitted by its cause or that it must be understood as the sound of that cause. (Scruton, 1997, Nudds & O’Callaghan 2007).

To get a clearer understanding of what Scruton might mean by stating that sounds are secondary objects and pure events it is necessary to discuss O’Callaghans rainbow in relation to sound. A rainbow I believe is an excellent example of a secondary object, their existence, qualities and nature are all determined by the subject. Rainbows are objects of sight, visibilia. We are all aware of the explanations of a rainbow through the refraction of light through water droplets in the air but this is not the interesting part. What is interesting about the rainbow is not only does it have secondary qualities but it also possesses many primary qualities such as size, shape and duration but it cannot be touched, smelled, tasted or listened to. Its having these qualities depends entirely upon a counterfactual experience. Rainbows take up space but do not exclude any other objects from that space, although from our point of view there is a definite difference between where a rainbow is and where it is not. The explanation regarding the physicalities of the rainbow I believe are similar to the wave theorists explanations of sound, but what is interesting here is that the explanation of the rainbow does not describe any particular object that would be identical to the rainbow; so why does the physicalist insist that sound would be identical to the vibration of its source? As O’Callaghan puts it the subject is free to locate the rainbow wherever it may appear, within the relationship of water droplet, sun and the eye of the beholder (Nudds & O,Callaghan 2009).

Within the ontology of sound, the tension between object and event, a listening sensibility or sounds and perception relates directly back to the history of a visual art discourse and many of its debates and concerns from abstract expressionism, action painting, form/content, installation, happenings, performance, new media to the practices of more contemporary painters, whose work could be said to hover between the terms of abstraction and figuration, concerned with many aspects of provisional painting and conditional pictures. It’s also in conversation with and pushes the limits of what Donald Judd calls ‘Specific Objects’ in relation to 2d and 3d space or ‘real’ and ‘illusionistic’ space. (Kellein, 2002). Many if not all of these concerns, interests or problems are asked of the ‘materiality’ of ‘sound’ before the maker has even used it to make stuff with. This may be due to the common notions often relating a visual sensibility to aspects of knowledge or understanding, it also may be due to the notion that the ‘materiality’ of ‘sound’ is intrinsically characteristic of the contemporary.

However, in contrast to common notions relating to the visual gap and its certainties, hearing is full of phenomenological doubt on the part of the listener, both in regards to the heard and the hearing it. This may be due to views that hearing in particular does not really offer a meta-position in the sense that the sonic object may sit in the ear no matter what the distance of its source. This means that to hear you have to be immersed in the auditory object, not its source but its sound, as sound itself. Due to this aspect of sound it seems to involve active participation from both parties rather than making possible a distanced viewing position. In this sense the object / event under contemplation and the subject become generative collaborators encouraging an aural knowledge and producing subjective meaning through intersubjective sensation, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s world of ‘being honeyed’ (Voegelin, 2010).

It may well be this very nature of sound that has appealed to so many within the arts to utilize it as a medium to make stuff with,  this unstabilising of a perceived certainty that could be said of a visual aesthetic. Many sonic practitioners suggest unstabilising without putting forth a dialectical stance similar to Walter Benjamins Dialectical Image by focussing on sounds potential to bring forth unseen aspects of visuality concerned with a sonic sensibility (Voegelin, 2010). This may also be similar to what the film theorist Christian Metz discusses in his essay ‘Aural Objects’ (1975) where he states that it is in language that sound gets rehabilitated into the visual order, where it takes primary role but in doing so relinquishes its aural quality (Voegelin, 2006).

The history of Western art has been thought about, read and looked at in much detail but rarely has it been heard or listened to. However sounds and sound making have been infused in the arts not only in this century, but from the research of Igor Reznikoff we can now believe we were as aurally sophisticated as we were visually as far back as the Palaeolithic era, (during the time the earliest recorded art work was being made) and that a listening sensibility is quite possibly our most primitive sense. (Reznikoff, 2002) Sound-making has been enriched but also heavily burdened by a paucity of extremely short and fragmented documented histories. Short from the point of listening that we were unable to record sound-making or sound-work until relatively recently in the overall scheme of things and therefore we are dealing with imagined traditions, and fragmented from the point of listening that the ‘sonic’ has never had a history of its own. One that considers, understands and teaches accommodating the soundfulness/noisiness that sound is. In other words sound has been articulated and discussed under the parameters of visual culture by referencing the sonic qualities back to a visual score, object or event, and its relevance or critical validity, or more recently by centering discussion around technological developments and the visual media employed in its production or presentation, but very rarely by beginning with listening.

This is understandable or in fact probably unavoidable as Gemma Corradi Fiumara explains throughout The Other Side of Language; A Philosophy of Listening. Our current methodology of ‘knowledge’, ‘discourse’ or ‘reasoned discourse’ in the western world stems from the early Greek term and noun ‘logos’ which over time has changed but never has it catered for the processes of listening. This for me means that our frameworks of ‘knowledge’ in the western world have been built upon a half language, one that favours ‘simple’ mechanisms rather than deal with the engaged temporality of the listener(s). This notion has also been spoken about recently by Irit Rogoff in her text Turning but in relation to education and curatorial perspectives when she says;

In a “turn,” we shift away from something or towards or around something, and it is we who are in movement, rather than it. Something is activated in us, perhaps even actualized, as we move. And so I am tempted to turn away from the various emulations of an aesthetics of pedagogy that have taken place in so many forums and platforms around us in recent years, and towards the very drive to turn. 

As notions of the dialogical, participatory, collaborative and multi-disciplinarily have become common place it is not unusual I believe for a discourse and history to be emerging more centrally around notions of the ‘sonic’. As a practitioner with a history in the visual arts I believe it is important to learn from the developments within visual culture, one that I believe over time has made the ‘visual’ something that has nothing to do with being able to see. The ‘visual’ in the studies of ‘visual culture’ have become more concerned with the conceptual relationships between objects and images, and their interpretations all too often neglect the sensory registering of sight. I am aware that many students of visual culture and art history discuss the history of seeing; however from my experience of this the discussion usually places the seeing within the image/object, a type of allegorical eye that does the seeing for us; rather than organs of observation situated in the body of the person that is doing the looking. To see has become a process of (re)viewing rather than a generative looking. Ears are also organs of observation and for me it would be a terrible thing to see those holes in the side of our heads becoming stuffed up and permanently sealed with a set of earlids, during the making, listening, comprehension and discourse of future sound-making and sound work. I believe it is important that the phenomenon of sound should be placed at the centre of aural culture and the future of sound-making.

Listening does not offer a meta-position/time to contemplate oneself in relation to an ‘object of attention,’ we are it, producing listening at the nexus of self-hood, performance and objecthood. This is listening as a generative and motile process, once you commit to the listening process you are alone, generating your place of being through your own consent and engaged temporality. For me a listening sensibility unsettles the monumentality and dialectical nature of a visual aesthetic, requires a dissolution of critical distance, invigorates and re-centres the critical ‘I’ in practice and theory, as there is no place where I am where my listening is different from the heard or moment of sound. The listener and the heard are both entangled in place and their sense of the world and of themselves are embodied in this relationship, wholly and partially present at each moment.

As a sound-maker, producing ‘listening objects’ is quite a problematic practice as notions of expression and listening often meet at a complex interface. Expression and Listening are often thought of, or placed at opposite sides of language. Where they intermingle proves difficult to ‘conceptualise’ without the fluidity of intention and receptivity at where they conjoin, and at this ‘intermediary place’ uncertainty flourishes not as thing but as being. Object and subject as ‘sonic things thinging’ exist in an entangled fluid weave as participants occupying each-other in situ. They do not attend to the questions of meaning as a collective, total comprehension but enquire into interpretation as an individual [not a post-modern shared heterogeneity], contingent and solitary practice relying on perception in the moment of listening. This does not make a listening practice critically irrelevant, inexact or irrational. In fact relying on the expectations of a stabilised a priori intention, art historical context or critical discourse would not make the perceived more valid, I believe it would only make it more stable within its own descriptions and because of this ‘producing listening’ cannot accommodate the notion of intentionality as a stabilised a priori, presumably this would be an intentionality too solid to hear.

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