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Art and Technological Sound: TheRevival of Experience

Summary of M.A. Thesis


My interest in sound and art comes frompersonal experience. I worked as an artist for several yearsproducing experimental videos and found myself concentrating moreand more on the soundtracks of these tapes. The 'immaterialpresence' of sound struck me; sound affected the way the imagewas 'felt'. As I experimented with video installations I becameaware of sound's spatial attributes; a small speaker emitting aquiet noise could fill a whole gallery with sound.

My own work led me to investigate the worksof other artists using sound. I found the instances when artistsintroduced aural elements into otherwise visual works mostinteresting. It was as if these artists could not express theirintentions with images alone. The sounds gave their work anotherdimension, both spatial, as sound fills space, and temporal, assound implies duration. These characteristics of sound wereparticularly pertinent when the works addressed conditions ofmemory and presence, when they affected the individual experienceof the viewer.

I wrote about five recent art works whichuse and/or refer to technologically reproduced sound. I havechosen, works that not only illustrate my theoretical frameworkand support my thesis, but also, works that I have actually heardas I find it important to experience this work beforeinterpreting it. I analyze 'sound works' by artists active today,by Stan Douglas, Joey Morgan, Bill Viola and Michèle Waquant, aswell 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 alarge oblong room lit solely by the lamp of a single filmprojector. The image, projected on a screen hung in the narrowend of the room, is a grainy and damaged view of a railway trackthrough the mountains taken from the locomotive of a movingtrain. The image becomes dark as the train enters a tunnel andwashes out as it exits into daylight and crosses a trestle bridgestraddling a mountain chasm. After a few minutes this hypnoticblack and white film loop repeats itself. An amplified man'svoice speaking in French resonates through the space. As onebecomes accustomed to the darkness one perceives the largespeakers from which this voice emanates attached to the two wallsperpendicular to the screen. The simple combination of the singleresonant voice and the ethereal projected imagery has anevocative effect as the voice seems to lure one in and out of thedarkness of the tunnel. One of the texts we hear in theinstallation tells of an invalid who confuses night from day andmistakenly believes that the sun has risen although it is onlymidnight. The spoken texts are all taken from Marcel Proust's Àla recherche du temps perdu. They are specifically chosenpassages which speak of the transitory moments between a wakingconsciousness and the sleeping unconscious. In the aforementionedtext Proust demonstrates how sleeping and sickness distort ourawareness of time passing. Clarity of perception clarifies ourmemory.

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

Fugue – Joey Morgan

In the last week of February 1984 JoeyMorgan exhibited a project called Fugue in Vancouver. Forthis piece Morgan placed microphones in two houses on PacificStreet that were to be demolished and, during the demolition ofthe houses, transmitted the live sound to an abandoned warehouseon Hamilton Street where it functioned as an element in theinstallation Morgan had constructed there. House numbers, whichwere recuperated from the houses on Pacific Street by Morgan,were embedded in wax, placed within wire cages and arranged on awork table. Morgan played back the sound of the houses'destruction over loudspeakers. A very quiet recording of Hammonexercises being played on a piano was played over tiny speakerssuspended inside the cages, evoking the possible activities ofpast inhabitants of the houses.

Also mixed in to the soundtrack, but barelyperceptible over the demolition noise, was a recording of a pianobeing destroyed. Ann Morrison describes this sound in thecatalogue for Fugue StateMent as, "...a jerkedsporadic series of whacks and grinds, of stretched wires twangingas the sounding board was forcibly separated from strings andhammers." Memories of past domestic activities, evoked bythe piano exercises, were being demolished symbolically as theinstrument of these musical activities was suffering a dissonantdestruction.

The Contemporary Art Paradigm

These works can fall under divergingclassifications in the art paradigm. Some could be referred to asvideo art, others as conceptual, political, photographic, processart, etc. These works, in their variety, are fragments of thepluralistic state of visual art in the late twentieth century.

In its formal autonomy, its use ofnon–conventional art materials, the work I discuss descendsfrom the historical avant–garde. Dada and other movementssought to liberate art from its institutionalization by exploringnew forms and materials. By pushing the form art could take theybelieved that they would make it available to more people. And,the use of new technologies was part of the avant–garde'sstrategies. Even if the explicit project of the avant–garde(to reintegrate art into daily life) failed its effects live onin the possibilities of form and content it has made available tolater artists. In theory, contemporary art has no formalconstraints; it may take radical form. The expanded palette firstused by the avant–garde is not only available to today'sartists but it is often expected of contemporary artists toexplore new media.

The artworks I discuss have more in commonwith Dada, with an earlier avant–garde's use of technologyas a form of backhanded social critique than with the utopianismof the Art and Technology movement of the 1960s. In both thepost–modern era of the 1980s and the period of thehistorical avant–garde there is an engagement by artistswith technology. But in both cases the shortcomings and defectsof technology are also foregrounded as if to question theside-effects of technological image and sound reproduction thenand now.

Technology and the Transformation ofAesthetic Experience

Marshall McLuhan recognized a shift inexperience when he spoke ofthe transformation of aural to visualculture, with the printing press, and back to aural culture withthe development of electronic media. In The Gutenberg Galaxyhe stipulates that the concept of unconscious was born with thedevelopment of movable type. This rationalization of experienceinto a rigid linear structure did not allow for the moreephemeral and inexplicable instances of one's life to betranscribed. Thus these moments were said to occupy another, anunconscious, place in the individual. McLuhan notes that ourawareness of our unconscious is in part due to the rationalauthority we ascribe to the printed word. "Paradoxically,then, the first age of print introduced the first age of theunconscious." (McLuhan 1962, pp. 244–245)

McLuhan looked to the audio–visualtechnologies of this century as conduits for latent forms ofexperience, for the unconscious, for memory, to enter into themainstream of collective identity. With the audio–visualmedia of television, radio and film, McLuhan's thesis held thatthese interior experiences could be communicated more directlythrough the electronic media than they previously could bethrough writing. The soundtrack heard through the headphones ofBill Viola's installation is intended as an electronicreconstruction of an individual's inner thoughts, of theunconscious of someone else. This reconstruction is successfulbecause it is aural, because, through hearing, we are led tobelieve we are experiencing another's unconscious.

Walter Benjamin, on the other hand,maintained that technological reproduction effaced the experienceinscribed by the hands of an artist in a work of art. Originally,according to Benjamin, the experience of an artwork was one ofcontemplation; we waited for the object of contemplation (theartwork) to reveal itself to us and we always maintained adistance from it. The aura of an original art object wasmaintained by 'the unique phenomenon of a distance' between theobserver and the artwork. With mechanical reproduction, thatdistance is eliminated by bringing the object closer throughmacro photography, cinematic projection, and modern reproductiontechniques which allow for multiple copies of the object ofcontemplation. To further Benjamin's thesis, with the electronictechnologies of radio and television, experience becomesimmediate, contemplation has also been eliminated.

I posit that contemporary artists often usetechnologies of reproduction to resuscitate experience, bothcollective and personal, in post–modern society. The conceptof art as an experience, as a ritual event, is defended byBenjamin. He saw pre–modern art as a synaesthetic event, a Gesamtkunstwerk,like Mass, or a procession, where the individual subsumed him orherself to the community and was taken away by the diversity ofsensorial stimulation. Thus a painting in a church could not beconsidered as an artwork when it was isolated from theexperience, from the sights, sounds and event of the churchservice.

Benjamin understandably lamented thedisappearance of ritual in modern society. I contend, however,that the ritual is not gone; it has just changed its form. Thetechnological art that I examine combines audio–visualexperiences with self–reflexive content to resurrect theritual in another form in our post–modern society. InWaquant's installation the viewer walks into the piece and isenveloped by video projections on two walls and loud speakersdispersed across the floor and suspended from four walls; like atMass the viewer is confronted with a multiplicity of verbal andvisual signals and sensations.

Benjamin claims memories, specificallycollective memories, have become the product of mass–mediarather than the product of individual and communal experience.But the artists that I write about reclaim personal memorythrough the use of reproduction technology. It is not thetechnology per se but the way it is used that determines itseffects. All of these artists reuse communication technologies tocreate personal reflections of their social and 'communicational'environments. With Douglas it is a film projection and audioamplification, with Morgan audio transmission, with Viola andWaquant, video playback with multitrack sound. All of thesetechnologies have their applications as mass–media but theseartists subvert them to expose the specificities of the diversemedia 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 ofconjuring up past memories. But certainly all non–visualsensations, including sounds, can resuscitate past experiences.Sounds can induce us to recall certain memories. The temporalityand lack of presence of sound can stand for the absence of thatwhich is being remembered. Often, when we rehear sounds we areprojected back to the moment we first heard them without knowingwhy. Sound recording technology affects this phenomenon by makingit possible to rehear indefinitely the same sound by artificiallyreproducing it. Recorded sound in a multi–media artworkjuxtaposed with the here and now of the visual elements oftenfunctions to suggest, or call up, a past experience.

The experience of an audio–visualartwork can not only cause us to remember our own personalconscious past but can also cause us to experience a past that wewere previously unaware of and that is shared by others. Artistswill use sounds specific to their own experiences along with moreculturally present sounds to invoke an identification on the partof the listener while evoking an experience unique to the artist.For example when the viewer experiences Joey Morgan's Fuguehe or she is incited to recall the modern 'event' of urbandemolition – something that all of Fugue's audiencewould have been aware of – through the tremendous sounds ofbuildings being destroyed. Vancouverites, like residents of anymodern city can not remain oblivious to the ubiquitous urbansound of the wrecking ball. The viewer is also induced intoremembering the domestic lives that this activity affects asMorgan also added the sound of piano exercises, something thatmany of us recall hearing in our childhood homes.

The Voice

The most prevalent form of technologicallyreproduced sound is the voice; it has been reproduced viatelephone, television, and radio systems in magnetic, optical andphonographic forms. In an essay entitled "La voix"Guy Rosolato stresses the importance of voice in analysing thesubject's psyche. It is his or her voice, 'la voix', andnot what is said, 'la parole', that reveals the origin ofthe individual. This is because voice represents that phasebefore the separation of body and the senses from language; voiceis both a corporal emission and the fundamental element of humancommunication. Stan Douglas refers to, and makes use of, thisseparation in Overture. In a darkened space the viewerwitnesses the projected image filmed from the locomotive of atrain passing through tunnels in the mountains. No visual humanpresence is discernible as any movement on the screen is due to acombination of the mechanical workings of the ciné–cameraand the locomotive. Douglas pairs this imagery with avoice–over of a man reciting a literary text. The experienceof hearing the aurally resonant voice amplified over two largeloudspeakers, despite its lack of visual attributes, evoked aphantom corporal presence in the exhibition space. Douglas'installation indicates how nineteenth–century technologieshelped us imagine our unconscious selves with the new experiencesof mechanical movement, real (with the railway) and illusory(with cinema), and of the disembodied voice (with thephonograph).

The Technologies of Mass Communication

With Overture, Douglas shares anapproach towards mass communication with the other artists Iinvestigate. They take mass media devices, television sets, filmprojectors, audio amplifiers and speakers, and use them for otherpurposes than mass communication, for a more personal, intimateeffect on their (limited) audience.

It is important to note that the media ofdistribution for this work are not its component apparatusesdrawn from mass communication technologies (tape players or filmand video projectors), but, the distribution media are rather themuseums 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 servea small informed public.

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

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

The Recovery of Experience

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

Benjamin saw mechanical reproduction asreducing the distance between the artwork and its viewer thusdiminishing the work's aura. Through reproduction, art worksbecame available to anyone, anywhere. But these 'installation'works could be said to reverse this trend as the complexity oftheir mise–en–scene demands that the spectator be therewith the work to fully experience it. As the works areconstituted mostly by sounds and projected images the viewercannot touch them, cannot 'consume' them and isleft only toexperience them in their fleeting temporality. Here these workscould be said to recover Benjamin's concept of the aura. Theycannot be reproduced in the sense that a photograph or video tapedoes not do justice to what the viewer experiences when seeingthis work.

If we return to McLuhan's concept thataudio–visual technologies had the potential to send 'latent'forms of experience, to transmit memories, the unconscious into alarger social paradigm we are led to consider these artists'approaches to communication technologies to understand betterMcLuhan's thesis. With all of this work what is being conveyed isa 'latent' form of experience: the semi–consciousness ofwaking in Overture, the state of fear, created by live,loud noises in Fugue, by the quiet noises of anotherperson'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 evokedthrough sound in all of these works. These are all experienceswhich, although they may be described, cannot be 'felt' throughthe visual media of text or images. The use of non–verbalsound in these works questions our dependence on language andcommunication to understand and experience our environment. Theseart works recall another level of communication which, Benjaminthought was lost with mass reproduction and McLuhan wouldmaintain, disappeared with the proliferation of the printed word.

Paul Landon, 1995

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



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