The Aesthetic Potential of Sound – Julia Gerlach

Everyday, Enigma, Experiencing the World
Each car door has its special sound, every sound system its own background hum. Chalk squeaks on the blackboard. Artistic approaches to sound consider, reflect and shape precisely these common cultural and social ways of dealing with sound – the global acoustic environment of urban, natural, and musical sounds that permeates us. Sound art is an evolving historical art form whose material is sound in all its ramifications. Sound art unites silence, tones, sound, and noise, and at the same time resonates beyond the solely sonic dimension through its intimate links with other sensory and intellectual worlds as expressed in the visual arts, literature and media art. The themes of sound art frequently involve people’s listening habits as well as hearing itself, which often transpires unconsciously. To this extent, sound art is both audio culture (dealing with sound) and aural culture (dealing with hearing): the encounter with sound art entails an exploration of both the artwork and one’s own ability to perceive sound. Works of sound art are characterized by the historical or contemporary storage and replay mediums they employ as well as the generative or interactive technologies they use. These not only have an effect on the sonic result, the artwork itself, but also, as media with objective and functional qualities, are in themselves subject matter for artistic appropriation and reflection on media. Audio mediums such as records, tapes, and loudspeakers, and including telephones, electric guitars and sound rods, are objectified as sculptures or even mounted as murals; they carry meanings and memories whose reading is in turn modified by the genuine sound. Sound and image, the aural and the visual, are often inextricably intermeshed and integrated within a complex spatial scenario. Constellations of diverse media emerge in which no medium takes precedence: video and sound reciprocally communicate and interpret each other or coexist as discrete elements. Through the visual or spatial components of sound art works, complex perceptual scenarios arise in which, in addition to hearing, the sense of sight, spatial awareness, and the visitor’s physical movement or participatory behavior also become meaningful. The wide-ranging cultural significance of sound also informs the spectrum of works in the exhibition. Visual artists as well as musicians, composers, performance and media artists and those working in radio have shaped sound art into extremely heterogeneous currents. This is reflected in the show, whose exhibits encompass works of visual art, sound installations and sound sculptures, documentary material, and reenactments of historically significant developments, as well as constellations of media, radio art, and sound experiments. The overriding concept behind the exhibition is to reinterpret the history of sound art, to reinvigorate the form. So it became essential to articulate the core artistic discourse around sound art over the past fifty years by including influential works and positions, and to situate these for the first time within the context of media art. The exhibition reflects the discursive appropriation of the aural from various points of view. The following five perspectives and readings offer an initial orientation to the elements comprising the show.

Archives and Collections
Sound Art invited artistic, private, and scholarly collections whose subject matter consists of everyday products, art, or the legacies of sound art events. For instance in Klangpost 4 [Soundmail 4] (2012), artist Kalle Laar composes 420 items from his collection of Sound art postcards into a rainbow-colored tableau, creating a monumental visual work from a common audio-cultural practice especially popular in 1960s Poland. Behind the eloquent title Broken Music lies Ursula Block’s collection of works of visual artists who continue to think about, honor, and the transform the vinyl medium in the most disparate ways, making records into objects and sculptures or designing unusual covers. Media artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff presents the bizarre private collection of the Swede Friedrich Jürgenson (1903–1987), tapes with acoustic recordings of ghosts whose messages only Jürgenson himself could decipher. The Het Apollohuis Archive, acquired by ZKM in 2011, is a collection with documentary character that depicts the twenty year history of a unique venue for events and exhibitions run by Paul and Hélène Panhuysen in Eindhoven, the Netherlands – at the same time illustrating twenty years of sound art history. Unheard Avant-gardes in Scandinavia, the archive curated by Morten Søndergaard, rehabilitates activities such as POEX, an unknown artistically interdisciplinary event that took place in Copenhagen in 1965. Also on exhibit are collections of radio art and field recordings, noise and electronic music (electronica) as well as intermedia and site-specific concepts. On a “radio-walkway” that connects the media museum’s two atriums, essential compositions from these various genres are assembled and arranged under thematic headings, opening the door to a very different world of sound. Visitors can borrow iPads and access the compositions at curated listening stations in this interactive augmented reality installation developed by Bernd Lintermann at ZKM.

Sight and Sound
From the beginning, the interaction of audio and visual components played a formative role in sound art, equally with regard to the perception and reception of the works. Sound art is situated between the aural and the visual, subtly linking the two. The roots of its methods go back to the synaesthetic and Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art] approaches that were formulated around 1910 by artists such as Alexander Skrjabin and Wassily Kandinsky (Der gelbe Klang – The Yellow Sound). In fact, sound artists are often artistically multitalented persons. Rolf Julius, whose work Backstage (2008) is presented in the show, is a good example of this. Backstage is a quasi true-to-life replica of the sound artist’s studio, in which bowls of pigment, stones, and loudspeakers lie around as tools and/or materials of equal value, and no fundamental distinction is made between things visible and things making sound. The works of Max Eastley and Ulrich Eller touch on the proximity of drawing to sound. With Eastley (2000), one hears only the sound of wires – moved by motors – that lightly and intermittently scratch invisible sound drawings onto white paper. With Ulrich Eller (2012), drawings are notations that directly produce sound and are transmitted to snare drums via loudspeakers. In ki – no (1963–1967), Dieter Schnebel generates “music in the mind,” so-called imaginary music, via projected linguistic instructions. In his work Sound on Paper (1985), the sound experimenter Alvin Lucier transmits sound to paper by mounting paper panels on loudspeakers, enabling the different frequencies to be read from the papers’ vibrations. Anestis Logothetis paints sound movements; Iannis Xenakis, the composer and architect known for his notations resembling architectural drawings, developed UPIC, the first computer-based audio-visual musical composition system. In contrast, British composer Daphne Oram worked in a thoroughly analog manner, applying ink directly to the audiotape material. Beyond those modes, the installation #tweetspace (2011) by Nehls/Barri visualizes and sonifies Tweets. Michael Saup generates a mathematical visualization from the sounds of visitors’ movements on a bed of gravel in which contact microphones are concealed; and with his G-Player (2004), Jens Brand employs satellites to play the earth’s topography like a vinyl record. Increasingly, new constellations of the most disparate materials, depictions, media, ideas and memories are being developed as, for example, in Haroon Mirza’s The last tape (2010), where transformational aspects take a back seat to a combinatorial artistic approach.

Hearing, Self-Experimentation, Body
Many early works of sound art are muted, reduced, almost minimalist and conceptual, sometimes even purely visual. The preoccupation with silence, with hearing “nothing” – vitally formulated by John Cage with far-reaching consequences for art and for music – led to new sound qualities and to a reformed notion of music. In his text Silent Environment, Cage describes his experience in an anechoic (acoustically dead) room. The acoustic isolation led him to concentrate fully on the sounds of his organs and to his realization that as long as life exists, sound exists. The absence of a sound hones one’s attention to a softer, unknown sound. Titles of works such as Silent Music (1994) by Robin Minard and Bernhard Leitner’s Pulsierende Stille [Pulsating Silence] (2007) promise a renewed sense of hearing through silence, but nonetheless generate sound. However in 4’33” (2010), Ryoji Ikeda actually visualizes John Cage’s eponymous work soundlessly through the time code on framed strips of film. Christina Kubisch’s Wolken [Clouds] (2012), Edwin van der Heide’s Sound Modulated Light 3 (2004/2007) and Paul DeMarinis’s RainDance (1998) also seem to be silent. The vibrations they generate are audible only when special devices transform frequencies inaudible to the human ear. With Kubisch, induction headphones translate the electromagnetic voltages previously recorded with special microphones near the ZKM servers. Edwin van der Heide’s headphones sonify the light frequencies of light bulbs arranged in space; and with DeMarinis, simple umbrellas serve as resonators to decode the songs modulated in a stream of water. Physiological auditory thresholds are philosophically and artistically explored and transmuted until they are finally just visible frequencies on loudspeaker membranes or in a time code, or until they become artifacts (viz. Maryanne Amacher’s Ear Sounds, which occur first in the ear), or vibrations that the bones transmit to the ear or that the body perceives in a tactile way. Some works in the exhibition palpably elaborate on these physical components of hearing. Bernhard Leitner’s Ton-Liege [Sound Chair] (1975) is the earliest work presented that was created in the context of artistic research into body, architecture and sound transmission. The Sonic Bed_Scotland (2005) by British artist Kaffe Matthews is an invitation to intensive tactile sound experiences; in Hanna Hartman’s Acoustic Catacombs (2010), the contact of the soles of the feet with a floor that transmits body sounds creates a semantically loaded listening experience; and Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag’s modern minimal disco 5 (1995–2012) combines the aural illusion of Escher’s stairs with a powerful physical experience.

Analog and digital
After some sixty years of sound art history – not including the historical precursors – in retrospect we can already see a change in the use of media and technology. While artists in the 1960s and 1970s used the then prevalent vinyl records (Broken Music archive) and tapes as material objects in themselves, or used analog audio media as the vehicle for conceptual statements – viz. Bruce Nauman (6 Day Week – Six Sound Problems for Konrad Fischer, 1968), Peter Weibel (Ichmasse.Massenich [IMass.MassI] 1977/1982), and Christian Marclay – today digital logics control the artistic constellations. In digital praxis, the materiality of elements as objects dissolves in favor of an immersive conglomeration of sound-images that, in media art, often comes equipped with an interactive interface for visitors’ participatory interventions. Open interactive structures, such as the reacTable by Sergi Jordà, Marcos Alonso, Martin Kaltenbrunner and Günter Geiger, as well as Götz Dipper’s Mozart-Würfel [Mozart Cube] and Hör-Memo [Audio Memo], facilitate playful access to sound art. In Moids (2011), Soichiro Mihara investigates emergent structures and the borders between analog and human/machine perception; Carsten Nicolai (2009) simulates immersive spaces in scale models. The loudspeaker has made the evolutionary leap to become the media art symbol par excellence for (reproduced) sound. Sound art assigns the loudspeaker a twofold function. On the one hand, it is indispensable for creating a complex immersive sonic space; on the other, its sculptural qualities are also emphasized. The loudspeaker thus manifests the aesthetically interesting polar complementarity of space and sculpture. Benoît Maubrey’s installation Temple (2012) in the forecourt of ZKM, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House (1989), installed in the ZKM_Subspace, are examples of works that can be categorized from different perspectives, both as immaterial motion of sound waves in space and as concrete spatial sculpture. The Dream House of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela represents one of the exhibition’s core aesthetic positions and is an immaterial space of sound and light where spectral colors and so-called standing waves (sine oscillations) generate a constant but instable state that visitors modify and shape through their movements. Dream House was also the site of the concert by La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela & The Just Alap Raga Ensemble on April 7, 2012 as part of their German tour. Temple by Benoît Maubrey is a monument to the concrete, in which the loudspeaker, the core element of the contemporary acoustic world, materializes as the Greek Temple of Delphi. Maubrey has reconstructed the ancient site of cult ritual using thousands of discarded loudspeakers.  What now can be heard are not the prophecies of a medium in trance but the sounds of rebuilt devices relaying like a “mega-megaphone”, live and in concert, the transmissions of sonic messages and utterances supplied by callers to 0721-81001818. Shilpa Gupta’s work I keep falling at you is also sculptural in essence: the Indian artist has assembled thousands of microphones into an impressive cluster resembling a beehive and installed it in a dark room with high ceilings, creating an intimate dialogical situation for the visitor. Bundles of loudspeakers, a cloud of wires, an electric guitar embedded in concrete – the first of the two atriums of the ZKM | Media Museum are filled with sculptural works like these, while in the second atrium, the exhibits foreground media and immateriality. For example, in aoyama space no. 4 (2009) Carsten Nicolai simulates an endless, and irritating immersive space in a scale model.

Urban Aural Space
Public space has always been, per se, an acoustically demarcated space full of noises, as well as a projection screen for sound artworks that, in turn, bring controlled sound back into the quotidian world, thereby altering the hue of the acoustic dimension, intervening in daily processes, or simply drawing attention to the acoustic situation in urban locations. One of the pioneers of site-specific sound art was the U.S.-American Max Neuhaus, whose oeuvre is showcased in the exhibition with drawings and films. The previously mentioned works installed on the ZKM forecourt actively engage with this public area and link the museum’s exhibition space with Karlsruhe’s urban space, where four additional works intervene. Works by Georg Klein (Der gelbe Klang² [The Yellow Sound2] 2012) and Kirsten Reese (Zoobrücke [Zoobridge], 2012) deal with the acoustic reality of the places they inhabit, playing with reality and virtuality or noticeably reshaping the locations. TONSPUR, curated by Georg Weckwerth, uses public space as a locus for special awareness. Weckwerth selected five pieces by renowned artists working with voice and language for the passageway of the Orangerie in Karlsruhe. Peter Ablinger’s central idea is to draw attention to hearing itself. At six sites around the city, he has installed the work Sitzen und Hören 1–6 [Sitting and Hearing 1–6]; no sound is added, but the audience seating familiar from the concert hall now graces urban space. You can take a seat and listen to the city. Early on, Nam June Paik dissolved the contradiction between time-based arts and those that weren’t with his Exposition of Music – Electronic Television (1963); he spoke instead of “time-art” and called for more transfer between aural and visual perceptual modalities. Paik not only made use of all the components of intermedia, he also explored the simultaneity and parallelism of sounds, media, and modes of reception in the exhibition context – a challenge that every sound art exhibition must address on its own terms. A unique architecture has been developed for the exhibition Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art that not only facilitates separation through the construction of new spaces, but also creates intentional transparencies and permeability. In this way, works are arranged to complement each other and to engage in time-coordinated sonic dialogue in the spaces. Since many of the works are purely visual or have interactive elements, visitors themselves will often direct this dialogue, and unpredictable participatory behavior will create the ambience. We hope you will enjoy the experience.