Materials of Sound: Sound As (More Than) Sound
Table of Contents
Melbourne-based artist Eric Demetriou’s Bunghole (2013-2014) is an installation with an industrial feel to it. A series of 44-gallon drums are installed on aluminium scaffolding either inside an art gallery or, as occurred once, in an outdoor courtyard. The brightly colored drums have the names of oil companies emblazoned on them – Atlantic Oil, Nynas, Pertamina, and Valvoline – reminding us of their petrochemical past. These neatly arranged barrels sit unassumingly on their shelving until one unexpectedly implodes, causing a deafening bang. A vacuum pump initiates the implosion by sucking the air out of the drums until the physical structure cannot maintain its form, crumpling it in an instant. The dangerous-sounding event that coincides with the collapsed drums has a strange effect on the mind and body, which expects such a sound to produce an outward result, yet the installation is contained physically, if not sonically. Bunghole could be understood as merely a sound installation, yet it is hard not to think about the oil companies whose logos are painted onto the containers. Thus, the materiality of Bunghole is not only physical and sonic, but also political and ecological.
Petra Lange-Berndt begins her edited volume Materiality by stating: “Materiality is one of the most contested concepts in contemporary art” (Lange-Berndt 2015: 12). It is precisely the contested nature of materials that make them a topic of the moment, not just in contemporary art but also in science, philosophy, and theory. Our current relationship to and with materials is of peak interest, and philosophies that deal with materiality are the transporters of many trains of contemporary thought: from new materialism to object-oriented ontology, our theoretical discussions about materials are rife. Matter is at the center of the most significant challenge of our time, since it forms the basis of our planet in crisis. We are reminded on a daily basis of our ecological crisis and that our desperate future is tied to ancient materials in the form of fossil fuels and the elemental practice of burning them. It is clear that in 2018, matter matters.
In the shift of our attention to the sound itself or the sound in itself, it may be that we have forgotten the material origins of that sound. While we listen closely to all manner of sounds in nature and culture, the things that created the sounds have receded to the background. Even speakers are things. They may play digital audio, but they are made out of cardboard, wooden casing, copper wire, and magnets. They are things, and their materials have a history. This paper will look at a series of recent Australian art practices in which materials are sounded. The practices under investigation have emerged from a type of digital fatigue and a longing, from the artists, for a physical connection with the materials of their work. In the 2000s, the prevalence of digital production technologies, especially within the digital studio, led to a schism between artists and their materials, one that has only been further widened through developments in the complexity of digital processes. Few artists have a thorough understanding of how the algorithms behind their post-production software work, and the hardware itself, made from micro-scaled components, is locked within the physical casing of contemporary computing architecture. Thus, makers have become estranged from the means of their practices.
The works addressed here develop from a physical engagement with the materials that produce sound and a hands-on approach to media production. As with media art in general, sound is not often thought of as being material-based. Sound is not an object that can be held and is created by seemingly intangible wave-making events. However, often we have a physical relationship to sound; as with the example of Demetriou’s Bunghole, we can feel it if it hits us hard enough. Sound is understood as always being produced by an event, and that event must always involve materials. As acknowledged by any critique of materials, the materials themselves always carry with them a multitude of histories, stories, cultural or political associations and, in our current global climate, tend to draw us towards an awareness of our ecological and environmental crises. Core to this paper are the questions, “What is a materials-based sound practice, and what can we learn about materials by listening to them?”