This paper situates the work of installation artist Bartholomäus Traubeck at the crossroads of sonic materialism (Cox 2011) and recent debates among new media theorists concerned with the nature of mediation (Kember and Zylinska 2012; Grusin 2015). Picking up on what Richard Grusin has called “radical mediation," I examine how expanded theories of mediation jeopardize medium specificity, and I do so within an exhibition of Traubeck's works. The latter carefully constructs assemblages out of easily identifiable objects. But once turned on, these installations produce ambient soundscapes that quickly blur the borders between their constituent elements. Their processes slip by auditory perception, generating slippages between media devices along the way. However, these instances of ambience do not elide the necessity for returning to the devices undergirding them, a move Traubeck's pieces constantly encourage. Insisting on the importance this return, and in a corrective to radical mediation, I look simultaneously to neurophysical accounts of auditory perception and Félix Guattari's Chaosmosis (1995) to place sonic media alongside the latter's axiological appraisals.
Traumatic Ruins and The Archeology of Sound: William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops
This paper traces the relationship between art and atrocity, materiality and decay, and the aural possibilities of hospitality in a time of terror. There is one site in particular that seems to speak so poignantly to the complex workings of trauma, ruin, and memory, and it is the use of sound in this place that I wish to draw attention to here. The September 11 Memorial and Museum may not appear, at first, to signal the ways in which sound might usher in a new way of thinking about the philosophically complex concept of hospitality nor the promises of decay. Yet, one installation in particular manages to do just that. Located in the Museum’s Historical Exhibition, and evocative of death, mourning, and haunting, William Basinski’s sound and video installation, The Disintegration Loops, offers a fitting yet unique elegy to the loss of the towers and nearly 3,000 innocent people. Additionally, this work also carries within itself far more: layers of meaning and spectral traces that are often missed during singular visits by museum guests and that recall aspects of memory and materiality crucial to the question of what it means to live alongside others. I want to suggest that, while existing as a differentiated work in its own right, it is through its in-situ role – a ruin in a place of ruins – that The Disintegration Loops recalls one of the most complex and contradictory paradigms for thinking about loss and for mourning alongside strangers. It initiates, I argue, a philosophy of hospitality that is, defined in this context, uniquely preoccupied with ideas of strangers, belonging, home, and homelessness and an ethics concerned with “das Unheimliche” or something odd that is not quite at home yet nonetheless present in that space. In this paper I will discuss the significance of Basinski’s work to aural and material memory and explore the concepts of ruins and dust to arrive at one of hospitality’s most startling and uncanny figures, a figure of autoimmunity that is powerfully raised in Basinski’s work, making it one of the most compelling pieces of art in the Museum.
“Step by Step” Reading and Re-writing Urban Space Through the Footstep
This paper explores the materiality of sound by focusing on the interaction between the walker and urban space established by the most “basic” form of soundmaking on the move – the sound of our footsteps. It considers the presence of footprints and empreintes in the contemporary arts and surveys a series of projects by artists and composers – Peter Ablinger, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, katrinem, Dennis Oppenheim, and Jessica Thompson – highlighting the interplay between body and site established through the footsteps. By drawing on an interdisciplinary body of literature on city walking and on sound studies, I consider the step as the fundamental bodily contact with the environment while walking as well as a sound signal that generates a sense of presence, activates the surroundings, and locates us in space. Therefore, I interpret the footstep as a primary auditory event, allowing us to “read and rewrite” (Augoyard 2007) urban soundscapes, to explore and perceive – but also to reshape and participate in – acoustic spaces, establishing a material, embodied, situated, and mutual relationship with our context.
Materials of Sound: Sound As (More Than) Sound
By examining the materials that produce sound within contemporary art, we can approach sounding works not only from the perspective of “sound as sound” or “sound in itself” but rather as “sound as more than sound.” Sound can never be without a history, culture, or political situation, and by approaching sounding practices in the same manner as we critically approach contemporary art practices, we allow matter to matter.
Silviphonics: Sound in timber
Vincent Wozniak O'Connor
The unique mechanical and conductive properties of wood have made it the material of choice for making musical instruments from antiquity to the present. Ancient lyres, rattles and slit drums all rely on the acoustic properties of timber to convert human actions into sound. While wooden instruments are used to produce sound, trees themselves make sound without human intervention. This essay focuses on the material connection between timber and sound. It examines sound outputs derived directly from timber, considering multiple methods for deriving sound from timber. By examining the connection between instruments and timber, the role trees play in physically shaping instruments is highlighted as having direct influence in coloring the sounds they produce.
Artists engaged with the relationship between sound and timber include instrument builders and sound and installation artists, who have chosen timber as the basis for making sound as a transmission medium or in field recording interventions involving live trees. Artists Laurie Anderson and Doug Aitken use the physical properties of timber, such as acoustic velocity, as a basis for their sound sculptures and installations. Research into the qualities of timber reveals shared histories between bioacoustics, instrument building and the sonic arts. The Xylophonic phonograph experiments of the 1960s, including John Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), connects early plant bioacoustics with a shared history in hardware hacking and experimental sound. Recording directly from plants and living trees, Patrick Farmer and Robert Birch contribute to a framework of Silviphonic instrument building focusing on the vibrational quality of living trees. Developing from Farmer and Cage’s piezoelectric experiments, my own recording projects are considered here as they highlight the readymade acoustic qualities of forestry grown pines, relating silviculture to sound. The musical aspects of trees in the wind will also be examined, as they possess similarities to Aeolian instruments. The basis of these sonic practices relies on the qualities inherent to wood that enable it to radiate and transmit sound. This essay explores these practices as they expand the variety of sound outputs produced by timber.
Len Lye’s Kinetic Experiments: Sounds of Sculpture
When New Zealand artist Len Lye branched out into kinetic sculpture in 1958, his conceptualization was intimately connected to music. In the same way that some dance can enhance the music that accompanies it, Lye proposed that his kinetic sculpture was also naturally suited to this function as, like dance, its foundation is movement (Lye 1958: 7). Witnessing Lye’s steel sculptures in motion is a highly corporeal experience, with the sounds produced by their movements a key element in their sensory impact and appeal. To further strengthen the affective qualities of his sculpture, over a span of ten years Lye carried out numerous experiments incorporating various techniques and technology from both music and film, culminating in the idea to record and make these new sounds available to musicians and composers as source material for their compositions (Smythe 2006: 2). Focusing on a number of key events and a set of audio recordings held in the Len Lye Foundation Archive, this paper considers how, through such experiments, Lye was able to situate his motion composition outside the visual arts and within the field of music composition, to be viewed as “musical instruments rather than visual kinetic works of art” (Lye n.d.-a:8). When considered in relation to Lye’s achievements as a filmmaker and a sculptor, the audio recordings are easily dismissed as an interesting but isolated experiment. Driven by extensive primary research material, my aim here is to revisit and reappraise Lye’s experiments with sound, placing them within a critical framework informed by consideration of his working across the disciplines of experimental film, sculpture, and music.
Bodies and Energy, Circuits and Sound: Rethinking and Listening to Leon Ernest Eeman’s Relaxation Circuit with a Bio-synthesizer
Pia van Gelder
Leon Ernest Eeman’s Cooperative Healing: The Curative Properties of Human Radiations (1947) documents decades of the author’s experiments with bio-circuits, beginning in 1919. Detailing the many configurations and uses of Eeman’s Relaxation Circuit, the book proposes that these circuits promote muscular relaxation, counter fatigue and disease, and stimulate activity by harnessing and circulating radiant energy from within the body. Using only electrical conductors and copper wire, the circuit connected subjects to themselves, redirecting energies internally, or in parallel with a number of subjects, sharing energy collectively. Eeman’s work explores the body as a kind of battery, working with configurations based on polarities—from head to toe and left to right. Although writing on Eeman is scarce, recent literature examining historical conceptions of energy and the body, including the work of Carolyn Thomas De La Peña, stress the importance of examining similar practices of energetic healing using bioelectricity as they inform our present relationships with technology, medicine, energy and the body.
This paper will introduce Eeman’s work and discuss my artistic reenactment of the Relaxation Circuit as a participatory installation. This work, also entitled Relaxation Circuit, was presented in 2015 at Underbelly Arts Festival on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. The work recreated Eeman’s circuit for five participants with the addition of a bio-synthesizer, which included five oscillators modulated by the conductivity of each participant’s skin. In this reworking, participants were asked to lie in the circuit and listen to the amplified sounds of their collective bodies. This paper examines people’s experiences with bioelectricity in the work, both embodied and sonified.
Not at Home: The Uncanny Experiences of Radio Home Run
In this paper, I attempt to better understand the Japanese media artist Tetsuo Kogawa’s concept of radioart by examining the relationship of this concept to movement. To do this, I focus on the Japanese term ika, which can be used to describe the uncanny feeling that results from aesthetic strategies, such as Viktor Shklovsky’s artistic techniques of defamiliarization or Bertolt Brecht’s alienating tactics of Verfremdungseffekt (V-Effekt). Discussions of ika not only circulated through and around the intellectual and artistic communities that Kogawa participated in during the 1970s and 1980s, they also influenced the practices of the very low-powered FM radio stations, Radio Polybucket and Radio Home Run, established by Kogawa’s students in the early 1980s. By discussing the emphasis of ika and physical movement in Radio Polybucket’s and Radio Home Run’s practices, I begin to trace a central element in Kogawa’s concept of radioart, which I call a kinetic interaction with the material conditions of radio. Through this kinetic interaction, Kogawa makes the material aspects of radio phenomena—its technology, its electromagnetic waves, and its sonic content—perceptible in a new way and thereby reveals previously hidden possibilities.