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Art and Technological Sound: The Revival of Experience

Summary of M.A. Thesis


My interest in sound and art comes from personal experience. I worked as an artist for several years producing experimental videos and found myself concentrating more and more on the soundtracks of these tapes. The 'immaterial presence' of sound struck me; sound affected the way the image was 'felt'. As I experimented with video installations I became aware of sound's spatial attributes; a small speaker emitting a quiet noise could fill a whole gallery with sound.

My own work led me to investigate the works of other artists using sound. I found the instances when artists introduced aural elements into otherwise visual works most interesting. It was as if these artists could not express their intentions with images alone. The sounds gave their work another dimension, both spatial, as sound fills space, and temporal, as sound implies duration. These characteristics of sound were particularly pertinent when the works addressed conditions of memory and presence, when they affected the individual experience of the viewer.

I wrote about five recent art works which use and/or refer to technologically reproduced sound. I have chosen, works that not only illustrate my theoretical framework and support my thesis, but also, works that I have actually heard as I find it important to experience this work before interpreting it. I analyze 'sound works' by artists active today, by Stan Douglas, Joey Morgan, Bill Viola and Michèle Waquant, as well I refer to an installation by the late Joseph Beuys. Following, are brief descriptions of two of the works.

Overture – Stan Douglas

In Overture the viewer walks into a large oblong room lit solely by the lamp of a single film projector. The image, projected on a screen hung in the narrow end of the room, is a grainy and damaged view of a railway track through the mountains taken from the locomotive of a moving train. The image becomes dark as the train enters a tunnel and washes out as it exits into daylight and crosses a trestle bridge straddling a mountain chasm. After a few minutes this hypnotic black and white film loop repeats itself. An amplified man's voice speaking in French resonates through the space. As one becomes accustomed to the darkness one perceives the large speakers from which this voice emanates attached to the two walls perpendicular to the screen. The simple combination of the single resonant voice and the ethereal projected imagery has an evocative effect as the voice seems to lure one in and out of the darkness of the tunnel. One of the texts we hear in the installation tells of an invalid who confuses night from day and mistakenly believes that the sun has risen although it is only midnight. The spoken texts are all taken from Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. They are specifically chosen passages which speak of the transitory moments between a waking consciousness and the sleeping unconscious. In the aforementioned text Proust demonstrates how sleeping and sickness distort our awareness of time passing. Clarity of perception clarifies our memory.

Douglas echoes the transition from night into day, from obscurity to lucidity, with the cinematic image of the train passing through a tunnel. In the dark we lose both our spatial and temporal bearings. Shifts from darkness to light, independent of the time of day, are experienced frequently by train travellers and cinema goers. The dark/light dichotomy explored in Overture, a technological phenomena, presupposes the psychological states of consciousness and unconsciousness proposed by psychoanalysis in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Fugue – Joey Morgan

In the last week of February 1984 Joey Morgan exhibited a project called Fugue in Vancouver. For this piece Morgan placed microphones in two houses on Pacific Street that were to be demolished and, during the demolition of the houses, transmitted the live sound to an abandoned warehouse on Hamilton Street where it functioned as an element in the installation Morgan had constructed there. House numbers, which were recuperated from the houses on Pacific Street by Morgan, were embedded in wax, placed within wire cages and arranged on a work table. Morgan played back the sound of the houses' destruction over loudspeakers. A very quiet recording of Hammon exercises being played on a piano was played over tiny speakers suspended inside the cages, evoking the possible activities of past inhabitants of the houses.

Also mixed in to the soundtrack, but barely perceptible over the demolition noise, was a recording of a piano being destroyed. Ann Morrison describes this sound in the catalogue for Fugue StateMent as, "...a jerked sporadic series of whacks and grinds, of stretched wires twanging as the sounding board was forcibly separated from strings and hammers." Memories of past domestic activities, evoked by the piano exercises, were being demolished symbolically as the instrument of these musical activities was suffering a dissonant destruction.

The Contemporary Art Paradigm

These works can fall under diverging classifications in the art paradigm. Some could be referred to as video art, others as conceptual, political, photographic, process art, etc. These works, in their variety, are fragments of the pluralistic state of visual art in the late twentieth century.

In its formal autonomy, its use of non–conventional art materials, the work I discuss descends from the historical avant–garde. Dada and other movements sought to liberate art from its institutionalization by exploring new forms and materials. By pushing the form art could take they believed that they would make it available to more people. And, the use of new technologies was part of the avant–garde's strategies. Even if the explicit project of the avant–garde (to reintegrate art into daily life) failed its effects live on in the possibilities of form and content it has made available to later artists. In theory, contemporary art has no formal constraints; it may take radical form. The expanded palette first used by the avant–garde is not only available to today's artists but it is often expected of contemporary artists to explore new media.

The artworks I discuss have more in common with Dada, with an earlier avant–garde's use of technology as a form of backhanded social critique than with the utopianism of the Art and Technology movement of the 1960s. In both the post–modern era of the 1980s and the period of the historical avant–garde there is an engagement by artists with technology. But in both cases the shortcomings and defects of technology are also foregrounded as if to question the side-effects of technological image and sound reproduction then and now.

Technology and the Transformation of Aesthetic Experience

Marshall McLuhan recognized a shift in experience when he spoke ofthe transformation of aural to visual culture, with the printing press, and back to aural culture with the development of electronic media. In The Gutenberg Galaxy he stipulates that the concept of unconscious was born with the development of movable type. This rationalization of experience into a rigid linear structure did not allow for the more ephemeral and inexplicable instances of one's life to be transcribed. Thus these moments were said to occupy another, an unconscious, place in the individual. McLuhan notes that our awareness of our unconscious is in part due to the rational authority we ascribe to the printed word. "Paradoxically, then, the first age of print introduced the first age of the unconscious." (McLuhan 1962, pp. 244–245)

McLuhan looked to the audio–visual technologies of this century as conduits for latent forms of experience, for the unconscious, for memory, to enter into the mainstream of collective identity. With the audio–visual media of television, radio and film, McLuhan's thesis held that these interior experiences could be communicated more directly through the electronic media than they previously could be through writing. The soundtrack heard through the headphones of Bill Viola's installation is intended as an electronic reconstruction of an individual's inner thoughts, of the unconscious of someone else. This reconstruction is successful because it is aural, because, through hearing, we are led to believe we are experiencing another's unconscious.

Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, maintained that technological reproduction effaced the experience inscribed by the hands of an artist in a work of art. Originally, according to Benjamin, the experience of an artwork was one of contemplation; we waited for the object of contemplation (the artwork) to reveal itself to us and we always maintained a distance from it. The aura of an original art object was maintained by 'the unique phenomenon of a distance' between the observer and the artwork. With mechanical reproduction, that distance is eliminated by bringing the object closer through macro photography, cinematic projection, and modern reproduction techniques which allow for multiple copies of the object of contemplation. To further Benjamin's thesis, with the electronic technologies of radio and television, experience becomes immediate, contemplation has also been eliminated.

I posit that contemporary artists often use technologies of reproduction to resuscitate experience, both collective and personal, in post–modern society. The concept of art as an experience, as a ritual event, is defended by Benjamin. He saw pre–modern art as a synaesthetic event, a Gesamtkunstwerk, like Mass, or a procession, where the individual subsumed him or herself to the community and was taken away by the diversity of sensorial stimulation. Thus a painting in a church could not be considered as an artwork when it was isolated from the experience, from the sights, sounds and event of the church service.

Benjamin understandably lamented the disappearance of ritual in modern society. I contend, however, that the ritual is not gone; it has just changed its form. The technological art that I examine combines audio–visual experiences with self–reflexive content to resurrect the ritual in another form in our post–modern society. In Waquant's installation the viewer walks into the piece and is enveloped by video projections on two walls and loud speakers dispersed across the floor and suspended from four walls; like at Mass the viewer is confronted with a multiplicity of verbal and visual signals and sensations.

Benjamin claims memories, specifically collective memories, have become the product of mass–media rather than the product of individual and communal experience. But the artists that I write about reclaim personal memory through the use of reproduction technology. It is not the technology per se but the way it is used that determines its effects. All of these artists reuse communication technologies to create personal reflections of their social and 'communicational' environments. With Douglas it is a film projection and audio amplification, with Morgan audio transmission, with Viola and Waquant, video playback with multitrack sound. All of these technologies have their applications as mass–media but these artists subvert them to expose the specificities of the diverse media technologies (Douglas, Beuys) and our physical, psychological and social reception of it (Waquant, Morgan, Viola).

Sound, Experience and Memory

In À la recherche du temps perdu. Marcel Proust identified smell as the sense most capable of conjuring up past memories. But certainly all non–visual sensations, including sounds, can resuscitate past experiences. Sounds can induce us to recall certain memories. The temporality and lack of presence of sound can stand for the absence of that which is being remembered. Often, when we rehear sounds we are projected back to the moment we first heard them without knowing why. Sound recording technology affects this phenomenon by making it possible to rehear indefinitely the same sound by artificially reproducing it. Recorded sound in a multi–media artwork juxtaposed with the here and now of the visual elements often functions to suggest, or call up, a past experience.

The experience of an audio–visual artwork can not only cause us to remember our own personal conscious past but can also cause us to experience a past that we were previously unaware of and that is shared by others. Artists will use sounds specific to their own experiences along with more culturally present sounds to invoke an identification on the part of the listener while evoking an experience unique to the artist. For example when the viewer experiences Joey Morgan's Fugue he or she is incited to recall the modern 'event' of urban demolition – something that all of Fugue's audience would have been aware of – through the tremendous sounds of buildings being destroyed. Vancouverites, like residents of any modern city can not remain oblivious to the ubiquitous urban sound of the wrecking ball. The viewer is also induced into remembering the domestic lives that this activity affects as Morgan also added the sound of piano exercises, something that many of us recall hearing in our childhood homes.

The Voice

The most prevalent form of technologically reproduced sound is the voice; it has been reproduced via telephone, television, and radio systems in magnetic, optical and phonographic forms. In an essay entitled "La voix" Guy Rosolato stresses the importance of voice in analysing the subject's psyche. It is his or her voice, 'la voix', and not what is said, 'la parole', that reveals the origin of the individual. This is because voice represents that phase before the separation of body and the senses from language; voice is both a corporal emission and the fundamental element of human communication. Stan Douglas refers to, and makes use of, this separation in Overture. In a darkened space the viewer witnesses the projected image filmed from the locomotive of a train passing through tunnels in the mountains. No visual human presence is discernible as any movement on the screen is due to a combination of the mechanical workings of the ciné–camera and the locomotive. Douglas pairs this imagery with a voice–over of a man reciting a literary text. The experience of hearing the aurally resonant voice amplified over two large loudspeakers, despite its lack of visual attributes, evoked a phantom corporal presence in the exhibition space. Douglas' installation indicates how nineteenth–century technologies helped us imagine our unconscious selves with the new experiences of mechanical movement, real (with the railway) and illusory (with cinema), and of the disembodied voice (with the phonograph).

The Technologies of Mass Communication

With Overture, Douglas shares an approach towards mass communication with the other artists I investigate. They take mass media devices, television sets, film projectors, audio amplifiers and speakers, and use them for other purposes than mass communication, for a more personal, intimate effect on their (limited) audience.

It is important to note that the media of distribution for this work are not its component apparatuses drawn from mass communication technologies (tape players or film and video projectors), but, the distribution media are rather the museums and galleries in which these artists exhibit. And these, if we wish to borrow a term from McLuhan are decidedly 'narrowcast' media; contemporary art galleries and museums serve a small informed public.

Thus, the effects of the work I refer to are best defined through the reception of the individual viewer. This is why I focus primarily on what happens to the individual viewer (myself) when confronted by this work in a gallery, museum, or video screening room. The technologically enhanced experiences provided by Morgan, Douglas et al. are not simply a states of contemplation but constitute, rather, corporeal and psychological effects on their viewers.

Unlike the historical avant–garde, these artists have no illusions about a direct transformation of society through their art. Instead, the artists I study turn technology inwards to reflect the effects of the media on the mass. There is no 'technicism' at play here, no drive to use the 'cutting edge' of technology. This is why Stan Douglas uses a film projection in the age of digital video and Joseph Beuys a piano in the age of the compact disc. The technology, rather than the image it projects or the sound it emits, becomes the art object.

The Recovery of Experience

This art recovers the collective experience, the ritual, that Benjamin saw as being lost to technology. This ritual returns in different ways. The art is an event that the viewer must enter, like a Mass or a spectacle. And, like attending a ritual, like going to church, we must make that journey from where we are to another place, in most cases the museum or gallery, in order to live the experience. Once there, we can identify a synaesthetic aspect to all of this work; it addresses several of our senses simultaneously. These are all works one has to experience as multi-sensorial event.

Benjamin saw mechanical reproduction as reducing the distance between the artwork and its viewer thus diminishing the work's aura. Through reproduction, art works became available to anyone, anywhere. But these 'installation' works could be said to reverse this trend as the complexity of their mise–en–scene demands that the spectator be there with the work to fully experience it. As the works are constituted mostly by sounds and projected images the viewer cannot touch them, cannot 'consume' them and isleft only to experience them in their fleeting temporality. Here these works could be said to recover Benjamin's concept of the aura. They cannot be reproduced in the sense that a photograph or video tape does not do justice to what the viewer experiences when seeing this work.

If we return to McLuhan's concept that audio–visual technologies had the potential to send 'latent' forms of experience, to transmit memories, the unconscious into a larger social paradigm we are led to consider these artists' approaches to communication technologies to understand better McLuhan's thesis. With all of this work what is being conveyed is a 'latent' form of experience: the semi–consciousness of waking in Overture, the state of fear, created by live, loud noises in Fugue, by the quiet noises of another person's interior in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, and, memories, collective in Impression Débâcle and Fugue, personal in Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House.

These 'latent' experiences are evoked through sound in all of these works. These are all experiences which, although they may be described, cannot be 'felt' through the visual media of text or images. The use of non–verbal sound in these works questions our dependence on language and communication to understand and experience our environment. These art works recall another level of communication which, Benjamin thought was lost with mass reproduction and McLuhan would maintain, disappeared with the proliferation of the printed word.

Paul Landon, 1995

Summary of M.A. thesis in Media Studies deposited in the library of Concordia University, Montréal.



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