The first artist talk I ever attended was David Rokeby’s at the Carleton University Art Gallery in the first year of my undergraduate degree. While I had no past reference from which to measure the turnout, I remember that the size of the crowd impressed me. Using video surveillance technology, synthesizers, a sound system, computers, and image-processing software, Rokeby’s piece translated the movement of visitors into sound. He described how a surveillance camera transformed a portion of the gallery into an invisible, three-dimensional grid. Within that grid, each cube was assigned a pre-recorded sound. When the camera perceived movement in a given area, that sound was activated and relayed through the speakers. As the curator described, this created an interesting inversion wherein “the movements of the body actually produce the music and orchestrate the piece,” rather than “the body responding to music.”i
CUAG’s 2011 installation of Rokeby’s Very Nervous System (1986-2004) was also my first experience with sound art. The newness of the exchange between artist and viewer and of the interactive, technologically-complex work made me excited. Very Nervous System marked my first encounter with art that deals with sound and space in mutually constructive ways and I have been drawn to similar explorations ever since.
Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet is one such example. Placed around the perimeter of the National Gallery of Canada’s Rideau Chapel, 40 speakers play 40 separately-recorded voices. Together, the choir sings a version of Spem in Alium by a sixteenth-century composer named Thomas Tallis. At the beginning of the recording, voices are heard whispering and children heard giggling. Angelic and transporting, the ascending performance is sonically breathtaking. Unlike other venues, the installation permits and invites movement; whether in a concert hall or on home speakers, a typical choir performance is nothing like the one Cardiff creates in Forty-Part Motet. On this matter the artist remarks, “[only] the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing a different harmony. I wanted to be able to climb inside the music."ii Strolling around the room, with an ear tilted towards the speakers, visitors are able to immerse themselves in the sculpture and relish every note.
Cardiff is also well known for her sound or audio walks. With her longtime collaborator and husband, George Bures Miller, Cardiff has produced numerous sound tracks or audio guides that narrate pre-determined routes and sculpt a soundscape evocative of that place and the imagined story. These works and Forty-Part Motet are both illustrative of the multisensory possibilities of the acoustic genre; they engage touch, sight, and even smell, either directly through immediate experience or indirectly through memory. Think of Will Robinson’s sound sculpture. For me, it evokes not merely the sounds of a chapel, but its whole ambiance, from the warm colours of stained glass to the flickering light of candles to the perfume of incense. The tones that emit at a constant, monotonous rate from the speakers also make me more aware of the way sound waves “touch” the inner structures of my ear; it’s the echoes, the vibrations. (Photo below courtesy of Matt + Steph.)
Perhaps it seems strange to highlight the non-aural aspects of a sound-based art, but I have been thinking about sound art from a new perspective this summer, one that has prompted me to consider the ways sound is seen or felt, rather than heard. In June, I started a ten-week introductory course in American Sign Language (ASL) and have been combing the Internet for information on Deaf culture and reflecting on the ways I might unsettle my own assumptions about my relationship to sound and my understanding of deaf experience, especially as it relates to sound.
I have discovered one artist in particular who has challenged my understanding of sound, and specifically, how it relates to individuals who are deaf. I will introduce you to this artist in my next post – so stay tuned.
i. Jesse Stewart, “Curator’s Statement,” David Rokeby: Very Nervous System at the Carleton University Art Gallery, 22 November 2010 – 30 January 2011, http://www.cuag.ca/index.php/exhibitions/70.
ii. Janet Cardiff, quoted on the National Gallery of Canada website: https://www.gallery.ca/whats-on/exhibitions-and-galleries/janet-cardiff-forty-part-motet-0.