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Co-sounding: Towards a Sonorous Land
For the project Polyphonic Landscapes
“Co-sounding: Towards a Sonorous Land” (2023 - 2024) is an artistic research contribution to the project Polyphonic Landscapes. The research delves into issues of sound and ecology, and facilitates a sonically empowered unpacking of the ‘landscape’ and its art historical position. Considering it a construct of the Anthropocene, the research aims to destabilize and reconfigure canonical Dutch landscape paintings by Sonic Interaction Design as a participatory method to decolonize the static paintings. Co-sounding disseminates into an exhibition, publications, and a series of presentations on the critical issues of sound, ecology, listening and coloniality. The exhibition consists of custom-built framed canvasses equipped with sensors, code, and field recording; the audience interaction is computed to build participatory sonic narratives that are inclusive, situational, and artistically malleable providing the audience with a creative agency.
More information about Polyphonic Landscapes project
Project background and context:
Western culture has upheld a visual order as the dominant sense modality in which the definition of landscape is framed by the visual reference. This visual thrust manifests in the suffix -scape in the word Landscape, which denotes “an extensive view, scenery,” or “a picture or representation” of such a view of land as perceived by humans. In the hierarchy of the senses in the anthropogenic realms, particularly in Western cultures, sound has often been considered a subdued and minor sensing of the land, though listening is proved to be a revealing socio-political force. How does land sound? How can we shift the perception and imagination of land from silent pictorial representations to an embedded and composite multisensory experience? Whether the shifting of the order of the senses helps to counter the hegemony of visual mediation and rendering of land into aesthetic objects for consumption and commodification, for example, in the form of landscape painting, a prevalent form of fine arts in Europe? How can the foregrounding of the ephemeral and ineffable aurality may give voice to the unheard?
In The Netherlands, landscape painting has been one of the celebrated genres in 17th and 18th century art making. The growth of capitalism and the wealth of the independent Dutch Republic needed a new national identity that would lead to a revolution in painting, known as the Dutch Golden Age, in which landscape painting was in abundance. Many Dutch painters were known for their realistic depictions of lands that were distinctly different from earlier periods. Dutch landscape painting is generally characterized by dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, cold and warm colors, and marked by an aesthetic representation of land with human affordances.
However, when these landscape paintings were authored with care and craft, parts of the world outside of the European fortress, now coined Global Souths, were teetering under the violence perpetrated by European colonialists and imperial regimes, Netherlands was also a stakeholder in these enterprises. The Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company—in the early seventeenth century were considered the largest and most extensive maritime trading companies at the time and held a monopoly on strategic European shipping-routes enabling colonial expeditions to expand through East and Southern lands and territories well known to Europe for their abundant natural resources. The companies’ domination of global commerce and colonial trades contributed greatly to a commercial revolution and a cultural flourish in the Netherlands of the 17th century - the Dutch Golden Age – a time when landscape paintings took hold in the realm of the fine arts. But this is also the time when the greater parts of the East and Global Souths were slowly getting occupied by the European colonizers through extraction of land, manipulation of natural as well as human resources, and exploiting labor. The strategic and forceful extraction of land caused three major and many other famines in India alone, the notorious Bengal famine of the 1770 caused more than 1.2 million deaths. These famines were largely caused by the colonial policies of land use by East India company.
Back in The Netherlands, the flowering of the Golden Age stood on the conquest of the East and the Global Souths, causing an abundance of wealth and a resulting opulence. The lush and rich landscape paintings that we encounter hanging on the silent walls of the rich museums today, did not reflect these otherworldly acts of violence in the colonized lands far away. Their aesthetically gorgeous exteriors frame a sense of contentment and complacency, which disturbs me. The silencing of the colonial realities in these paintings urges me to uncover the layers that are not heard. How to sonify an inert painting by listening in between the shades and make it speak out the hidden truths? How to rethink the acts of radical listening and co-sounding as gestures of decolonial intervention and collective action? How to consider sound as a transgressive force that reveals layers of silenced realities: colonial extraction and plunder of land, displacing and dispossessing human and non-human life forms ingrained in the land?
In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski wrote: “Among the many relationships that define the human condition, the individual’s connection to the environment is primary. (…) We aspire to leave our mark inscribing our observations and gestures within the landscape, attempting to translate and transgress the space within which we find ourselves” (1973). The sonified landscape may function as a mirror and a lens to uncover spaces transfigured by excavation, extraction, mining, among others, as well as colonial rendering such as landscape paintings, in which the plurivocality of the land with human, non-human and more than humans are reduced through objectification and aesthetic framing for privileged consumption. Through these human interventions and actions, landmasses on the Earth have entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic era, defined by unprecedented human-made impacts over earth’s environment and ecosystems. In this era, ecological integrity of natural lands is made severely unbalanced through an imposed nature-culture binary as Bruno Latour underscored in his work (1991).
Plurivocal co-sounding and situated listening as resistance:
In the field of contemporary art, materiality and object-hood have been contested topics after the advent of digital technology in artistic production from the late 1990s. In my artistic research trajectory “Expanded Object” I have been trying to respond to a central question: whether “sound” can be “exhibited” as an artistic object - and whether this is problematic considering the nature and characteristics of sound predominantly emerging as an invisible and immaterial phenomenon spilling over any artistic object framed within an exhibition setting. This question complicates the positioning of sound arts in the gallery or museum-based curatorial practices and in the history of art, demanding a new set of theoretical approach and methodologies. In addressing the central question from a historical perspective and a practice-based approach, in this research, I examine how sound can negotiate materiality and objecthood by emphasizing the unfolding inter-subjectivity embedded in listening act and opening the art object enclosed within an exhibition, to be more participatory, responsive, alive, and active. Sounds, when they are plurivocal, collective, situated, and supportive of a sense of social multiplicity, can have socio-political agency to disrupt the status quo and reveal injustices.
Brandon LaBelle in his book Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (2018) underlines sound’s invisible, disruptive, and affective qualities, and questions whether the invisible but embodied nature of sound can support political transformations. He argues for sound’s role in creating alternative “unlikely publics” in which to foster mutuality and dissent.
Salomé Voegelin, in her book The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening (2018) discusses possibility of the political power of sound and listening that includes creativity and invention, imaging a politics that desires to embrace a connected and collaborative world.
In this context, “Co-sounding: Towards a Sonorous Land” is an artistic research that delves into an sonically empowered unpacking of the landscape, focussing on the site of Amstelpark, in The Netherlands, which is a man-made nature, much like the landscape paintings this project focusses on. The project intends to inculcate a dialogic context within which an intersubjective approach to the perception of land as an equitable habitat of human and non-human lifeforms is developed. This mode of reciprocity and intersubjectivity helps to counteract the nature-culture binary with an ambient and environmental aesthesis. The complacent and stagnant landscape paintings of the colonial era are reread and animated sonically, thus making them susceptible to questions of decoloniality, Anthropocene, rights of nature and ownership of land.
I will pursue the claim that sound is less closely tied to the Kantian category of substance than vision, and therefore any attempt to frame sound into an artistic object or artifact to materially tie the viewer with it poses problems of a philosophical nature. In order to respond to this problem in my earlier writings I have been developing an idea, termed “Mise-en-sonore” which denotes the spatial dynamics of the sonorous space of the mise-en-scène of an exhibition. The concept is built upon the consideration that sound- and listening-driven arts are inherently perceptual and participatory, and bridging the gap between an artistic object and the listener’s mind is necessary in any public showcasing of such works. Therefore, it is important to create fertile auditory situations where sound can affect and activate multiplicity of interpretations, experiences and moods at the listener’s end than trying to devise a material object or artifact in its so-called “exhibition” in situ. Taking the ontologically questionable space of the exhibition as a critical juncture, I would like to take a practice-based approach to consider reorganizing the conventional space of an exhibition as a fertile context for self-reflection and participatory engagement by withholding the visual information on a photographic canvas, instead leading the listener’s attention to the many layers of situated listening to Earth with a decolonial and interspecies plurivocality that essentially spills over the frame in question. As an approach to subvert the artistic object of the exhibition, sound is positioned to spark an object-disoriented experience that encourages evolving inter-subjectivity and revealing multisensory engagement.
In my book The Auditory Setting (Chattopadhyay, 2021), I have taken a critical attitude towards the idea of Soundscape and Soundscape Composition in which sounds can be mastered and composed as a durational object, mainly for the aesthetic pleasure of privileged humans. Instead, I underscored the situationism and flux in a moment of environmental listening. Drawing on this approach against soundscape, I will develop a series of participatory and responsive situations in the contribution Co-sounding: Towards a Sonorous Land transgressing and transforming the historical landscape paintings into context-aware portals to read problematics of colonial, human-centric perception of land by opening a landscape by sonic ruptures that generate horizontal situations of equitable participation and plurivocal narratives.
The methodology of Co-sounding will unfold in its first phase of research as a study of the some of the historical paintings depicting the rich lands and prosperity of The Netherlands, at state museums (e.g., Rijksmuseum) and other repositories or archives. The second stage of the methodology is to locate sounds on site of Amstelpark in relation to some of these iconic landscape paintings through in-depth and contemplative listening. The third stage will be to gather sounds from the site through extensive field work. Following up with this is an exhibition of these sonic menageries in an interactive and responsive environment in custom-build empty canvasses equipped with sensors and computing for audience engagement with the sonorous lands. The contemporary sonic imaginaries of the historical rendering of land will endow the project with a temporal coalescing in which unheard voices can be made audible, particularly those of the non-human presences, to provide an inclusive polyphonic sonority.
In this methodology Sonic Interaction Design will be explored as a tool to building horizontal, participatory narratives. Sonic interaction design is understood as an emerging area of sound practice in which sound is perceived as relational by expanding the scope of audience interaction with sounds with the help of technologies. Digital technologies, such as sensors and coding facilitate this process of opening everyday sounds for interactivity and reciprocity, instead of keeping sounds in the form of soundscapes, much like a fixed, inert, and stagnant landscape painting. In Sonic Interaction Design, ‘sonification’ has been coined to associate novel approaches to sound design that conveys information, meaning and aesthetic qualities in spatial and interactive context of media environments, empowering the audiences to have a voice in intervening into the experiences with an active agency of participation and reciprocity.
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay (Project leader and artistic researcher)
Tobias Lintl, Vienna (project system developer, production support)
Bidisha Das, KHM Cologne (electronics, testing, exhibition assistant)
Christoph Kummerer, Vienna (programming development, testing)
Yann Patrick Martins, IXDM Basel (coding support, testing)
Objects: 9 canvases framed within antique frames
Sensors: proximity (capacitive) sensors, ambient sound sensors, and light sensors
Computing and interfacing: Raspberry Pi and Arduino Nano/ESP32
Storage: SD cards
Format: multichannel sound playback
Technical concept - drawing:
Objects: 9 canvases framed within antique frames
Outputs: 5.1 Speakers for each frame + 2 common Subwoofers
Computing logic: take inputs from sensors (light: pitch, ambient sound (with electrode microphone): freq response, distance or proximity: volume), filter each according to set thresholds, to change the arrangements of flies and contingent compositions based on changes of 3 parameters: 1) Pitch, 2) Volume/amplitude, 3) Frequency response/EQ
Computing platforms and applications: SuperCollider, Python, and PureData