There is a clear and present danger of climate change, whether or not we pay adequate heed to the facts and figures that are lurking and loitering around us. Perhaps we are yet unmindful of the reality. Perhaps our fear and anxiety lead us to avoid the matter and escape into various amusements and pleasantries even when we cannot completely disengage us from the onslaught of information about climate change and its devastating consequences for all of our lives. And then, there are other pressing issues, such as the insensitive handling of incoming migration in Europe with its social and intuitional failure to provide adequate support to the war destitute of its own making. These issues need in-depth critical attention, a wider public discourse, and action.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of climate change and other current cataclysms seem to be slowly casting a longer shadow over artistic production. A number of recent artworks directly respond to the issue with an environmental concern. An unprecedented number of artists gathered in Paris for the “conference of creative parties” – ArtCOP21 in the last climate change summit. Through such participation, a global network of cultural engagements with climate change was created. This engagement sheds light on how artists may contribute to the discourse, and what their contribution means to the local and global communities and the society in general. There is certainly a growing sense of disenchantment in the institutional status quo, and a need to further involve concerns for these issues, such as climate change, rising racial discrimination and ultra-nationalistic hate facing the mass migration in the artistic practice is gaining momentum to affectively engage the public sphere. One cannot afford to indulge in the lazy and numb inaction for long in the face of grave and urgent crises.
This ardent need to trigger more public engagement, awareness, mobilization, and action through art also opens up a debate about the apropos methodologies of artistic practice in an attempt to appeal to the yet uninitiated towards the burning issues. How can sound artists contribute in this context? Sound art often seems to possess less power in instigating societal change due to its lack of actual penetration in the art world till yet. The problem is also due to the immersive and pleasantly enveloping qualities sound-based works often tend to produce failing to infuse discursive and questioning faculties of its audience. In the light of this problem, we need to reconsider the aspects of immersion embedded in sound art.
Immersion is a much-loved word in the domain of film and media art. The audience often encounters the artwork, especially those involving multi-channel surround sound, video and spatial practices, through immersion. The rapid emergence of VR and augmented reality was possible due to its reliance on the medial dispositif of immersion to please the audience. In these works, immersion operates as a context for realizing the production of an illusion of non-mediation where the presence of the technology and the medial devices appear as unobtrusive as possible. This is a make-belief fantasyland where the real is always hidden in order to create more pleasure. The main concern here, however, is whether the audience tends to become a “passive and non-acting guest” (Lukas, 2016) within the immersive space often constructed by a pro-capitalistic and authoritarian consumer-corporate culture. In this mode of non-activity, the audience may lose the motivation to question the content and the context of the work by falling into a sensual and indulgent mode of experience, therefore rendering the consumerist-corporate powers to take over the free will of the audience. As a result, the audience may succumb to the enveloping and engulfing power of a fantasy world created by the creative industry with “economic, political or other hegemonic intentions” (Lukas, 2016). From the position of a socially and environmentally conscious sound and media artist myself, I will argue for producing a more discursive environment, rather than an immersive one. In contemporary sound art, I will fervently demand a discursive space where the individuality and the questioning faculty of the audience are carefully considered, encouraged, and taken into account as a parameter for a successful dissemination of the artwork. Here a discursive situation is a term that underlines the contemplative processes triggered by an artwork to interlink the artistic object and the listener’s mind that apprehends it. In such a discursive mode, a sound or media artwork can be more socially committed, responsible, responsive and respectful towards the aware subjectivity of the audience and the mindful context within which the artistic experience is formed. However, most of the recent media artworks tend to glorify a primacy of immersion. This, I argue, is quite unfortunate.
I will give a very recent but random example from the world of mainstream cinema to show how a commercially rendered immersive experience conceals historical truths in order to produce a hegemonic narrative. A recent British-American film Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017) claims to be a reference work and a benchmark in creating an immersive experience in its sound work. The sound designer Richard King further claims that the film uses “historical sounds as a reference” to produce “historical truth”. The film is currently “garnering critical acclaim for its stunning and immersive soundtrack”. However, a number of mostly non-European critics pointed out how, inside this pleasantly entertaining immersive experience, a major historical fact was manipulated. “Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s empire in South Asia fought in World War II” and helped Britain to survive the war, but none of these nonwhite soldiers were audible and visible in this claimed to be a historically accurate film. The entire gamut of the South Asian cordon was whitewashed to project a white supremacist image where the contribution of the nonwhite other was deliberately silenced. Nevertheless, the box-office of the film swells worldwide, while the aurally immersive experience is posed as one of its primary marketing strategies.
What can be the example of a superlative future sound experience? Can we imagine a soundwork of discursivity and dissent? Sound artists “have been recording protests around the world to create a sound map that reflects today’s political environment”. What these recordings mostly contain are the shouts and screaming made during protests on the streets against government inaction toward climate change, migration crisis, and widespread racism. Yes, it is a scream – a loud earth-shaking scream – this is how the future ideally could sound like. That is when the pleasurable and indulgent reverie of immersion can be broken, through which some light may come in.
10th August 2017.
Lukas, Scott A. (2016). “Questioning “Immersion” in Contemporary Themed and Immersive Spaces,” in Lukas, Scott A. (Ed), A Reader in Themed and Immersive Spaces (pp. 115-123). Pittsburgh, PA: ETC Press.
Tharoor, Shashi (2017). Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. London: C. Hurst & Co Publishers.
 see: http://postperspective.com/richard-king-talks-dunkirks-sound-design/
 see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/dunkirk-indians-world-war.html
 see: http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/inglorious-empire/
 see: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/sounds-of-protest-trump-brexit-sound-map