Jan Nieuwenhuis

Upon entering the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), I wander around beneath the numerous speakers that float above me in the large entrance hall. I try to figure out where the sounds around me come from. There are definitely sounds emitted from the speakers, but they are interfered by sounds from the café, the register and people walking in and out. The interference of these different sounds gives me a keen ear. I wander around and remain listening for quite some time, but my direction is clear: there is one door leading to the sound art exposition.

When I walk through the door, the sounds around me change immediately. Different sounds from different directions attempt to grasp my attention. In contrast to exhibits whose sound art is offered through headphones, these sounds glide through the museum, hover past each other and penetrate my ear, proposing me a direction, a way into the exposition.

In Dutch we call an exposition tentoonstelling. This term is widely used in the museum world, which, with few exceptions, predominantly emphasizes the visual. The noun tentoonstelling comes from the verb tentoonstellen, which is constructed out of two words: tonen and stellen. The first means to show something, to display or to expose. Tonen is etymologically related to the Gothic ataugjan – which contains the German word for eye, auge – literally meaning to bring before the eyes.[1] The second word, stellen, can be traced back to the Greek word stellein, meaning to set up or erect something. Thus we might think of a tentoonstelling as a (museum) space where something is put into place for the eye. A place where certainty is established concerning what is seen, because “[seeing] always happens in a meta-position, away from the seen, however close. And this distance enables a detachment and objectivity that presents itself as truth” (Voegelin 2010: xii).

In the context of my listening to the sound art exhibition in ZKM, however, this definition is highly unsatisfying: when (re)considering the word tentoonstelling as applied to this exhibition, an auditive aspect comes to the fore, one lost in its common museum culture usage, with its visual imperative. However, this time, a musical connotation arises with the word toon. A toon is also a musical tone, and a toonzetting a composition, or more literally an arrangement of tones. And tonen does not only bring something before the eyes, but is also used as a verb that means to sound or resound. Furthermore, a stelling is not only the certainty of something put into place, but also a proposition, not an undisputable statement that presents itself as truth, but rather the uncertainty of that which I propose to you. Thus, we can think of a tentoonstelling as a (museum) space where a sound is proposed to the ear. A place where there is the uncertainty of what I hear, because “hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener about the heard and himself hearing it” (Voegelin 2010: xii).

Thus this ambiguity, this double meaning, emerges in this exposition where the auditive and the visual meet. It is not the one or the other, but rather both at the same time. And as concerns expositie, the Dutch equivalent of exposition, the museum becomes a listening space, a place where I become exposed to sound. Sounds that grasp my attention establish relations between themselves and me, and in the context of the museum, question the silent white cubes of aesthetic contemplation. Sound art in the museum poses questions about sound and silence in the museum space and the established (visual) norms of the practice of exhibiting. In most – but not all! – museums, sound art is confined to headphones or listening booths, while the visual dominates. The exposition in ZKM can be listened to as a different approach to sound in the museum, as a different arrangement of the museum space through sound. The double meaning of the word tentoonstelling can be used to rethink the museum space, and our experience of art, by allowing sound into its space.



Van Dale online woordenboeken. Retrieved March 28, 2013, from www.vandale.nl


Voegelin, Salomé (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum.


[1] Retrieved March 28, 2013, from www.vandale.nl.

Marcel Cobussen

15 December 2012, first anchorage. We are on the square in front of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe. Against a dark blue background, indicating an approaching downpour, stands out Benoit Maubreys installation Temple, made of loudspeakers, amplifiers, radios, and other electronic components. ZKMs exhibition Sound Art: Klang als Medium der Kunst must be entered through a replica of Delphis most wellknown edifice; its consecration seems guaranteed, a sanctified place to communicate with the sonic gods is safeguarded.


Maubrey's Temple produces cracking and crackling sounds, white noise from radio receivers and the hiss of distorted voices. Slowly walking around it, one can experience the richness of these noisy sounds, its nuances, its layeredness, its rhythms, entering the ears from various angles, now from above, then from below.

(P.S. As Roland Barthes already observed, sounds are difficult to describe; we have only some generalizing, inadequate adjectives at our disposal.)


A second hors doeuvre. Inside the ZKM building, but not officially belonging to the exhibition, one finds the interactive sound and light installation Resonate. It is a project of the master study course in interior design Kommunikation im Raum at the Mainz University of Applied Sciences and has emerged from a cooperation with the master study course Klangkunst-Komposition of the School of Music at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.


The work consists of sound strings, LED lights, and seven round surfaces. When the strings are plucked, the change in tension and vibration of the ropes signals a program to generate new sounds. The lights make the acoustic resonances of the strings visible. Structure and form, light and sound thus vary according to the audiences input, except for a perpetual drone underlying the varying sounds.


Third stage, inside the actual exhibition space. A nail, a metal string, and a magnetic field. The magnetic field attracts a nail and makes it vibrate, at certain moments touching the string, sometimes fast and frequent, sometimes slow, but each time producing  the same, specific, metallic sound.

The Greek-French artist Vassilakis Takis created this sound sculpture called Musical Hannover in 1974. Many more of his musical sculptures are based on the same simple concept: the use of magnetic waves produced by electricity are a means to activate repetitious sounds. From 1963 on, the year in which Takis, together with composer Earl Brown, created his first sonic works, the concept of repetition in music and sound characterizes his work. Here, his penchant for repetitive sounds becomes audible each time when the nail, attracted by a magnet, touches the string.


It is evident that humans live in a world which is also audible. We are surrounded by sounds: biotic, abiotic, and anthropogenic sounds; urban, natural, and musical sounds; electrical, mechanical, and acoustical sounds. John Cage, also present at ZKMSound Art exhibition, made this very clear: reflections on his stay in an anechoic chamber as well as his most famous 433 are but two examples through which he informed us about the inescapable presence of sounds. Silence does not exist.

Through more than 115 different works, Sound Art introduces us to this sonic world, to the versatile amalgam of sounds. Hence, the exhibition first of all invites us to listen; to listen to electronic and acoustic sounds; to listen to radio plays, sound installations, and pre-recorded electro-acoustic music. It invites us to listen to the unsound, the inaudible sounds of ice, sun, and insects as well as historical and contemporary sound art. It invites us to listen to TempleResonate, and Musical Hannover. In this exhibition  better yet: by being part of an exhibition  all collected sounds achieve an aesthetical value. Irrevocably, I would say, as the aesthetic pleasure I got from some of the works was sometimes quite limited. Musical Hannover is interesting on a conceptual level but less attractive to listen to. Resonate is interactive, however only to a certain, limited extent: the various sounds can be combined, that is, heard simultaneously, but they cannot be altered, which decreases the desire to play with them. And Temples white noise is not really the acousmatic teaser I was looking for. However, perhaps these works were first of all meant to make us aware of the sonic environment in which we are always already enveloped. Perhaps the sounds were just meant as a wake-up call to start listening, to give precedence to the ear.

Sound Art: Klang als Medium der Kunst. Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe (March 17, 2012 – Januari 6, 2013).

Condensed compilation of all sound files found below.

However, unlike the unhampered enthusiasm of my young self, my current self is encumbered by questions of ownership/authorship. Who has the rights to these sounds? How will I distort and disturb their ephemeral, imminent thinging within the context in which I encounter them, including all ambient resonances and spatial influences in the exhibit space, a context which has been authorized and, if not designed, at least condoned by the designer(s). Does removal also inevitably announce contextual poaching, the illegal capture and removal of sounds from their protected habitat, to be served up for consumption on a digital tray?


As I move toward the entrance of the exhibit Resonate, project of Mainz University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with the School of Music at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, I detect and am sidetracked by faint sounds coming from an unexpected source: an audio rack close to the door of the exhibit space is slightly open, and through the crack on the back side I hear (I discover later) the miniature version of the sound that is being produced inside the large exhibit space.

I am transfixed by these residual sounds, these sonic leftovers. In the unexpectedness, adventure and secrecy of the moment, I begin recording, and they become magic sounds, occupying my psyche to the extent that the full-blown experience, commencing moments later, seem a postlude.


Three other moments of intense pleasure derived through the intensifying and isolating effect of my handheld stand out: swinging with the delicate beeps and buzzes of Peter Vogel’s Römischer Turm,

Third approach

Every museum visit becomes, for me, performance (art). I engage and am engaged. Every exhibit holds the potential for interactivity, becoming a theatrical space in which I claim my right to design my own private or shared performance, moving through the space, approaching, sensing, responding, observing, withdrawing, creating multiple and singular dramatic structures of engagement (unfortunately often limited by the strict codes of the exhibit space). As stated in Laurie Carlos’s introduction to Performance: live art since the 60’s: “The term ‘performative’ has come to describe this state of perpetual animation” (Goldberg 10). Fortunately sound art lends itself well to this “state of perpetual animation,” and even the objects that I am forbidden to touch, touch me, their vibrations entering my ears and pulsing within the tissues of my body. Embodying themselves, Sartre-like, in revealing me to myself, “as posited upon me without distance and revealing my flesh by means of their flesh” (Sartre 1958: 392) or, stepping outside ensnarement and duality: the sounding objects and I manifest ourselves in a “vibrating-with.”


Two moments in which I realized the performative and interactive potential of particular works in their exhibit space stand out in my memory. One was wandering with closed eyes around the space in which Bruce Nauman’s Für Kinder was being projected through speakers hidden in the wall, the repetition of the words somehow speaking to my knowledge of my German great-great grandparents’ emigration to the United States as well as my own immigration, and subsequent geographical separation from my family, to a place twenty minutes from the border of Germany.

The other was when I asked Vincent and Jan to “play the plants” on Scenocosme’s (Grégory Lasserre’s and Anaïs met den Ancxt’s) Akousmaflore. By moving around and gently touching the Sensitive and interactive musical plants, they performed an improvisational jam for me to record.

Fourth Approach

My response to the overwhelming nature of museums and large exhibits for visual art is to become slow and snail-like, engaging in a rather tactile and detailed engagement with objects. My eyes glide slowly over surfaces or objects with ‘Do Not Touch’ signs. When I am in this state, I experience objects primarily as referring to the movements and actions performed by the artist/maker. At the Francis Bacon exhibit in the Tate Britain museum some years ago, I leaned so far into the thick layers of paint… smelling the fumes, feeling the brush and its resistance, seeing how the glossy blobs transfer from the hairs of the brush to the rough layers of dried paint on the canvas… that I could sense the tensing of the muscles of the guard standing in my peripheral vision. As the type of person who obtains much information and pleasure from the world through touch, I like to think of sound in terms of texture, pressure, stroking, and contemplate how this passage by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, referring to Renu Bora’s “Outing Texture,” might apply to sound and listening.


As Bora’s essay shows, I haven’t perceived a texture until I’ve instantaneously hypothesized whether the object I’m perceiving was sedimented, extruded, laminated, granulated, polished, distressed, felted, or fluffed up. Similarly, to perceive texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous to grasp, to stack, to fold, to shred, to climb on, to stretch, to slide, to soak (Kosofsky Sedgwick 2003: 13-14).


Hearing a sound also, often, activates an instinctive attempt to determine what material is sounding as well as the technique/material used to make it sound. We tap a window to hear if it is made of glass or plastic. We estimate the hardness and substance of the shoe sole by how it ticks, flaps, or squeaks against the floor. We might even hear the structure of leaves, moist in the spring and dry in the autumn, or their type, the clear slap of an aspen or the hazy rush of a pine, as the wind blows them against each other.


When my ear-brain comes in contact with purely synthesized sound, I catch myself making involuntary attempts to connect the sound with a certain material and sounding techniques. Slowly, if desired, I can abandon these attempts, and the music works within me, generating an inner motion rather than an outer projection or fantasy as to material and/or playing technique.

The crunch buzz of Alvin Lucier’s Sound on Paper, where common material releases its sounding properties to the hum of loudspeakers; the bizarre effect of Werner Reiterer’s Life counts Death in which a drum pedal hitting a wooden box releases a gigantic bonging electronic bell sample (listen above, in the audio for Peter Vogel’s Römischer Turm or Bernhard Leitner’s StahlFederWellen); the chattering sounds muffled by and resonating in the layered cardboard box of Bram Vreven’s untitled,

and the sonification of magnetic fields in Christina Kubisch’s electromagnetic sound installation Wolken are just a few examples of the hybrid sound sources that were available in this Sound Art exhibit.

Sounds only became audible through induction headphones available at the installation. I placed these headphones on the camera, which meant that I did not directly hear the sonic result as I was filming.

I realize that, reminiscent of Dick Raaijmakers’ search for the “distinctive voice” of the microphone, “purely synthesized sound” does not sound in the absence of physical material, and the qualities of the materials used and material of the surrounding space always shapes the realized sound. And, reciprocally, sound will always bring out certain resonating characteristics of the material through which it is generated. However it is produced, sound cannot “Do Not Touch”.



Bora, Renu. (1997). “Uiting Texture.” In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (ed.), Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction (pp. 94-127)Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldberg, RoseLee (1998). Performance: live art since the 60s. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve (2003). Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. London: Duke University Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1958). Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. London: Routledge Classics.

Sharon Stewart

Sound Cannot “Do Not Touch”


First approach

We advance upon the Temple (2012, artist Benoït Maubrey, 3000 recycled loudspeakers and assorted electronic parts, 10 recycled amplifiers, 10 recycled radios/tuners, 1 mixing board), standing in the tiled courtyard outside the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM). It is monumental and provides a spectacular backdrop for photos. In general, I find monuments pathetic, in the classical sense of the word. I search the sculpture for signs of its suffering and am richly rewarded. Old electronics submitted to ten months of outside weather, unprotected, are decaying, fraying, bleaching, splintering, hissing, revealing all the fragility and vulnerability of our pampered household electronics. Somehow I expect and hope this exhibit will not take itself too seriously or try to recreate its own monument(al canon).


Second approach

One of my more vivid childhood memories is when I was ten years old, on vacation with my best friend in Florida. We would sneak out of the hotel at 5 a.m. and set off in the cool morning air to collect shells on the seashore. The thrill of a treasure hunt, the pleasure of anticipation: unique shapes, colors, textures, patterns, forms, waiting to be found, examined, touched.


It was with somewhat of the same feeling that I approached the ZKM, armed with handheld recorder, camera, and headphones. Siphoning vibrations into my digital receptacle, collecting sounds for later examination and inspiration. Remnants, materials, scraps, and gems for my own artistic creations. Having spent years working with children and being privileged to witness them in rapt, absorbed, saturated states of listening, I experience pleasure fantasizing that I am collecting sounds to serve them up in one or the other composition: strange, funny, invigorating, disgusting, eerie, comforting, disarming sounds.

an intimate moment with Rolf Julius’s Singing II, amplifying the barely audible sounds of dancing pigment on vibrating speaker membrane,

and following the floating sounds of the large hall, like so many fish drifting in an aquarium, as they (re-)resonated within the brass shell of Bernhard Leitner’s sound space sculpture, StahlFederWellen.

Vincent Meelberg

Many contemporary sound artworks can at the same time be considered new media artworks. New media artworks can be characterized as being open-ended, interactive, dependent on instruction, indeterminate, being dependent on technology, and allow for random access to the work.[1] Indeed, many sound artworks share these characteristics: they do not have a clear beginning and ending, in contrast to for instance music and cinema, the observer can interact with the works, often after being instructed how to “properly” interact with them. Partly because of this interaction, the way many sound artworks will sound or act cannot completely be predicted in advance. There is always a chance that something unexpected will happen. This is also caused by the fact that many sound artworks can be accessed at any given moment. One does not have to wait until the “appropiate” time to engage with the artwork. The work is open: open to interaction, at a moment of one’s own choosing, an interaction that, in theory, could continue indefinitely.


At the sound art exhibition in the ZKM Karlsruhe many sound artworks attempted to incorporate interactivity and/or indeterminacy. Sometimes, however, to a fault. Some artworks turn interactivity into their main theme, and in doing so overlook other aspects that make art valuable, in all senses of the word. Those works appear to have interactivity as their sole focus, and every characteristic of these worke seem to serve this ultimate goal, at the expense of for instance complexity, problematization, wonder, surprise... In short: art becomes mere play.[2]


A case in point is resonate (2012), a project of the master students from FH Mainz and the Hochschüle für Musik Johannes Gutenberg, Mainz University. This work consisted of a darkened space in which wires were hung, spread throughout the room. Visitors could walk through the room and pluck one or more wires, which triggered a sequence of sounds. This work thus is clearly interactive, and, to an extent, indeterminate as well, since visitors could pluck the wires at will.


The indeterminacy was extremely limited, however. The wires weren’t velocity sensitive, which meant that no matter how fiercely or carefully you plucked them, the resulting sound stayed the same. Moreover, after a short while it became very easy to predict what would happen when you plucked one or more wires that it soon became rather boring to continue fiddling with the wires. The sounds themselves did little to reduce this feeling, as they were not particularly interesting, either. The work as a whole simply lacked a degree of complexity which could have made it far more fascinating. Now, it seemed as if everything stood in service of interactivity, an interactivity that in itself lacked complexity, too.


In a way, this was symptomatic for many of the sound artworks I saw (and heard) at the exhibition. They incorporated new technologies in order to facilitate interactivity, but in doing so became rather predictable and, as a consequence, far less interesting than they could have been, if more attention was given to aspects such as complexity. An artwork should never be simple, unless simplicity itself is problematized in this way. Unfortunately, such artworks remain rather rare.

[1] See for instance Hansen, Mark B.N. (2004). New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, and Paul, Christiane (2008). Digital Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

[2] I do not want to imply that art cannot, or should not, be playful. Many great artworks are. Playfulness, however should not come at the expense of other characteristics that make art great.