I spent two months in the United Kingdom inundated with sound. This wasn’t sound as pure physical experience—the immersive noise of modernity or the multi-media buzz of the contemporary mediasphere—rather, this was sound defined and delimited as a knowable entity, an object of study, even a work of art.
Of all my sound experiences, including exhibitions at the Tate Liverpool, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Southbank Centre, only the work of artists/musicians Carsten Nicolai and Janek Schaefer, presented in London, in two unrelated solo exhibitions, featured meditations upon the nature of this medium, or rather, sense. Questions emerge: what defines sound, and how do listeners experience and understand it?
Observatory, Carsten Nicolai’s expansive three-floor exhibition at Ibid Projects in Hoxton Square, provided one possible answer. In video and installation, Nicolai uses sound to signal a metaphysical realm beyond the limitations of human perception but made visible and
audible through advances in technology. In short, Observatory is a science museum display without the spectacle, at times a bit cold and didactic, and only subtly mesmerizing.
The video “future past perfect pt. 04 (stratus)” (2013) pairs still images of vast landscapes of stratus clouds with Nicolai’s minimal electronics (he has had an almost two-decade career as a musician, playing under the Alva Noto moniker, and also runs the Raster-Noton music label). The images dissolve into one another and pass across the screen, in and out of sync with the pulsing soundtrack. As they intermesh, they become something else entirely: close-ups of material surfaces, shots of an icy tundra, crystals of salt. This microscopic/macroscopic collapse (or confusion) references a visual tradition, beginning with Russian Constructivism, that celebrates the camera’s futuristic capability. Housed in an expertly-designed monitor, this once-utopian aesthetic is given a striking, capitalistic hi-tech finish fitting for a Harman/Kardon advertisement.
However, Nicolai’s work might still possess that utopian spirit in its presentation of the suprahuman capabilities of technology. Witness “particle noise” (2013), which uses a Geiger counter as its sound source. Radioactive particles that would otherwise be undetectable are given a physical presence via sound. The direction and speed of the sounds across the installation’s four speakers also change according to the instrument’s readings, making the listener highly aware of the effect of the invisible activity which surrounds her. Here, the listener is loosened from her senses, disembodied, simultaneously more aware of the limitations of her perception as well as her dependence upon tools to make conditions perceivable. The camera is one such tool, and the Geiger counter is another.
Sound technology, as a tool, can also help forge social bonds, engaging listeners in relationships with one another. In contrast to Nicolai’s aesthetic—cold, disembodied, scientific—most sounds in Janek Schaefer’s exhibition Collecting Connections at The Agency possess a physicality and directness that reveal their human origins. “Love Song” (2003-13) requires the listener to don a pair of headphones weighted by a pulley and adorned with a bouquet of heart-shaped mylar balloons. At first, the sound composition appears to be a shimmering minimalist drone; then, the quivering imperfect quality of the human voice becomes recognizable, and next the familiar “v” phoneme. In creating the work, Schaefer layered the sounds of seven different women singing the word “love”—the women represent seven generations of the same family—stretching and repeating them so they bleed into one.
“Love Song” unfolds in the listener’s ears at a slow enough pace that the overly-sentimental concept driving the piece is overshadowed by the experience of the sound itself. Once the listener recognizes the mechanical tone as human, the piece transforms completely—the inhuman pulse becoming bodily and physical. In “Love Song,” sound shuttles the listener back into her own body. This embodied experience is not without a recognition of the psychological difference between hearing a synthetic tone and a voice—and how making this distinction is itself a learned behavior.
Collecting Connections focuses on the psychological dimension of listening, the negotiation between brain and body that occurs in the apprehension of sound. “That Was the Year That Was 1979” (2013) interweaves the #1 U.K. singles of 1979 to create a dense soundscape that works on the listener’s memory bank of pop culture, swirling and humming like a nostalgic nerve center. Schaefer produced “Recording Drawing” (2013) using his own body, wearing an earpiece fit with a stylus and recording his listening experience onto paper. The piece transforms the seemingly passive reception of sound into an activity. Because the drawing resembles a stave, this recording could even function as a musical score.
These two exhibitions each present distinct ways of framing sound and its relationship to the listener. While Nicolai’s work uses sound and its technological apparatuses to gesture at the limitations of listening, Schaefer’s sonic sculptures rely upon the mnemonic component of audition. Above all, Nicolai and Schaefer both emphasize the importance of the body to the listening experience; both seek to highlight the physical connection between sound and listener. What these exhibitions make apparent is that listening is a physical, participatory act; and that while listening can reveal sound, sound can exist without being heard.
ANDREW CAPPETTA is an art historian, educator, and writer. He has taught at Parsons the New School for Design, Hunter College, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art.