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Volumes and Territories

by Sean Higgins

In the first installment of his new column Volumes and Territories, Sean Higgins parses the growing debate over the nature and duty of a developing non-musical sonic art.

Until recently, a vast majority of the work on sound in a theoretical or artistic context has come from within the realm of music. The precursors of contemporary sonic artistic practice, for instance, were often operating either within a musical paradigm—Luigi Russolo wrote of leveraging industrial noise to re-energize the orchestra, Pierre Schaeffer wrote of crafting recorded sonic objects into a radically concrete music. Even John Cage operated largely within the purview of music, or at the very least in response to it.

A sonic art distinct from music in its practical and theoretical bearings is only just beginning to develop. The immaturity of this young art lends it a great deal of promise, but also causes one major problem: deep theoretical engagements with a non-musical sonic art are rare. They are frustratingly so, especially since the particulars of sound as phenomena (invisible, physically felt, and in constant flux) put the sonic arts in a unique position to engage the issues of the day. This is seemingly the only point on which most can agree, excepting the belief that even the most experimental branches of music had only begun to really explore sound’s extensive potential.

This new art is, it follows, hotly contested. The greatest question seems to be that of trajectory. Should we push the development of sonic art in the direction of the conceptual, drumming up the Duchampian strains in its past and drawing them forward into the future? Or, on the other hand, should we choose a less humanist path for sonic art by emphasizing and extending its naturalist roots? Consideration of this question will inform the future of sonic art by defining not only its practice and theorization, but also the way it fulfills its particular moral, social, ethical, political, ecological, etc., potentials. Clearly quite a bit is still at stake.

The question of trajectory is at the crux of a debate between theoretician/practitioner Seth Kim-Cohen and theoretician Christoph Cox. In his book, In The Blink of an Ear, as well as in a piece printed in Art Forum, Kim-Cohen has made a case for conceptual sonic art—what he calls a “non-cochlear” sonic art—that, like the gallery arts of the 20th century, accepts reality and all phenomena as presented to the human always already mediated by culture and semiotic grids. All that is, he holds, is re-presentation—we have no access to an underlying “real.” The implication is that he believes acting with this understanding will allow sonic art to calibrate itself practically and theoretically to explore questions of politics, among others, in the contemporary world.

Cox, in a response to Kim-Cohen, argues for an approach to sonic art that would emphasize its past as having more in common with philosophical naturalism and realism, two schools of thought which would hold that nature is not given meaning by culture but instead that the human and culture are already “of a piece” with nature. All that is—culture, the human, art, even the most purely representative—is already the “real.” From this standpoint, it is apparent that sonic art is presented with a radically different set of practical and theoretical questions, as well as different ethical and political responsibilities, not least among which is an engagement with ideas of representation.

The two further explored this issue in a live debate, held at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room on July 7th 2010, which I have used to flesh out the viewpoints presented in their articles. Their disagreement, though extensive, can be read most clearly in the topic of their Art Forum pieces centered on their contrasting readings of Doug Aitken’s project Sonic Pavilion.

First the project itself: Sonic Pavilion is art on a grand scale. In a remote portion of a Brazilian forest, Aitken has built a pavilion over a hole about a foot in diameter that has been carefully drilled one mile into the earth’s crust. He has lowered microphones into this hole at various depths, the signals from which he then amplifies into the pavilion after transposing them into the audible range of the human ear. The listener is thereby given an electronically mediated access to the unheard vibrations of the earth—the friction of tectonic plates and settling rock, the shifting of geological strata. Kim-Cohen quotes the project description as stating “this artwork strives to provide a new relationship to the earth we constantly walk upon and occupy, revealing its mysterious and living dialogue.”

Kim-Cohen reads Sonic Pavilion, in its presentation of the earth’s “mysterious and living dialogue,” as illustrating a few of the lesser tendencies of sonic art. Not the least among these tendencies is its dependence on a foolish essentialism, or a belief that “a phenomenal entity, like the earth, possesses immanent, essential properties that are consistently expressed across different sensory manifestations.” This essentialism can be clearly found in, for instance, the work of Pierre Schaeffer and his “sonic object,” or in the more common readings of John Cage’s “sound-in-itself.” Aitken’s project, Kim-Cohen writes, mistakenly “equates the facticity of sensory experience with truth,” as if transposing the movement of the earth has granted the listener an access to its essential character as a thing-itself, or made audible its hidden metaphysical spirit.

This essentialism, Kim-Cohen holds, has brought artists working with sound to a cul-de-sac because he believes that it implies, in the manner of Rilke in his famous piece “Primal Sound,” that “phenomena can be “solved” and that experience can be completed by filling in the blanks in our senses,” or by revealing that which was previously unavailable to us. The fallout is a pervasive sense “that there is a wholeness out there and that any feeling we may have of insufficient understanding is merely a product of our inadequate perceptual faculties in here.” He argues that sensory experience alone, no matter its rarity or obscurity, cannot present meaning—sound, like any other sensory phenomenon or thing, has meaning only as a site for friction between discourses, or semiotic structures. “The sound itself is nothing special: Only the suggestion of its source solicits our attention and grants it meaning. […] Like every medium, sound derives its meaning from context, from intertextuality, from the play of difference in its conceptual and material strata. Meaning is only ever produced by frictions between things. It is the worldly, rather than the earthly, that presents the possibility for meaning.”

He believes that only with a focus on the worldly—the framing of the artwork, the warp and weft of the thing as it is pulled by its various symbolic situations—is sonic art in a position to comment on, problematize, and produce systems of ethics and politics. Sonic Pavilion, then, fails to take the needed conceptual turn and refer to discourse, and so it is a total abdication of responsibility and waste of sonic art’s potential.

Christoph Cox’s reading of Sonic Pavilion argues that though Kim-Cohen has undertaken a useful critique of essentialism, it is one that is “chauvinistically idealist and humanist.” It is one in which nature, being, earth, and non-human are lesser than their binary opposites and, “for all intents and purposes, noumenal, unavailable to knowledge and discourse, and certainly anathema to artistic practice.” It is a too-narrow view of sonic art’s scope.

Cox believes that Aitken’s project is an elegant illustration of a naturalist and realist—certainly not essentialist—strand within sound art that attempts to locate the human and human culture in the wider system of the natural world, as a piece of that world rather than the singular lens through which it comes to have meaning. He gives, as an example, The Theatre of Eternal Music, who “sought a music that would reveal the fundamental affinity of human beings with the natural forces, rhythms, and durations which precede and exceed them.” Thus Cox believes that Sonic Pavilion suggests, in the words of Manuel DeLanda, that humans and our culture are simply “one among many natural flows, the slowest and oldest of which are the geological flows that form the rocky crust of our planet.”

The value of Aitken’s piece—but not quite its discursive meaning—is in its presentation of the perspective that there is nature beyond discourse, that humans may escape the closed area of the discursive frame and, through the body’s sensory experience, “have unmediated access to the natural world that, after all, we are a part of.” Thus, to Cox, Sonic Pavilion typifies a productive tendency of sonic art since it “short-circuits the aesthetics of representation and mediation,” by engaging and communicating “an aesthetics of force, flux, and resonance.” Or, to flip Kim-Cohen’s formulation on its head: Cox reads Aitken’s piece as having earthly meaning far in excess of its worldly meaning. It seems that by affirming such a perspective that sonic art would be in a position to comment on and problematize existing systems of ethics and politics, but also to produce radically different—and maybe unprecedented—new ones.

Look for the second part of Sean Higgins’ assessment of sonic art next week on BOMBlog.

Sean Higgins is a writer and cultural critic living in Portland, ME. He blogs on sound, Gilles Deleuze, music, literature, and other nonsense at http://ghostisland.wordpress.com.

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