There is a clear and present danger of climate change, whether or not we pay adequate heed to the facts and figures that are lurking around us. Perhaps we are yet unmindful of this reality. Perhaps our fear and anxiety lead us to avoid the matter even when we cannot disengage us from the onslaught of information about a climate breakdown and the unavoidable and devastating consequences for our lives. There are other pressing issues, such as the insensitive handling of migrating groups of people in Europe with its social and institutional failure to provide adequate support to war-destitute that was Europe’s own making. These issues need more public discourse.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of climate change seems to be slowly casting a longer shadow over artistic production. A number of recent artworks directly respond to the issue with an environmental concern. An unprecedented number of artists gathered in Paris for the “conference of creative parties”, ArtCOP21 in the last climate change summit. The recent Madrid climate summit, however, has yet been unsuccessful in providing a consensus among nations.  Currently, we witness student protests on the streets all over the world, from Beirut to Delhi, from Hong Kong to Santiago, questioning the political status quo, and its inadequacy in responding to a climate breakdown as well as to the rising conservative-protectionist regressive forces across the globe; artists and scholars are joining forces. Through such collective participation, a global network of cultural engagements with climate breakdown and other crises has been created. This engagement sheds light on how artists and practitioners may contribute to the current social and political discourse, and what their contribution may mean to the local and global communities and humankind in general. There is a growing sense of disenchantment against institutional stagnancy, and a need to further involve the issues such as climate change, global warming and mass migration in the artistic practice to affectively engage the public sphere. One cannot afford the lazy and numb inaction in the face of grave and urgent catastrophes.
This ardent need to trigger more public engagement, awareness, mobilization and action through art also opens up a debate about the apropos methodologies of artistic practice in an attempt to appeal to the yet uninitiated towards the burning issues of climate change. What can sound artists and practitioners do in this context and how can they make committed contributions to the world’s crises? Sound art often seems to possess less power in instigating societal change due to its lack of actual penetration in the public art venues and institutions till yet. The problem is also due to the immersive and pleasantly enveloping qualities contemporary sound, audiovisual and interactive media experience generally proliferates often failing to infuse the discursive and questioning faculties of its audience. In the light of this problem, we need to critically examine the sonic experience of immersion, particularly in the context of producing and discussing sound art, in order to speculate if more environmentally, socially and politically aware works can be produced in the future.
Immersion is a fetishized term in the domain of contemporary sound art, experimental music, audiovisual, and interactive media art, e.g. VR. It is through immersion that the audience is often made to engage with the artworks, especially those involving multi-channel sound, visuals and spatial practices. The rapid emergence of multichannel surround sound in film and media art was possible due to its reliance on the medial dispositif of immersion to surround the audience sonically. In these works, immersion operates as a strategy to realizing the production of an “illusion of non-mediation” where the presence of the technology and the medial devices are made to appear as unobtrusive as possible so as to sustain a smooth, and engaging entertainment. Sound scholar Seth Kim-Cohen levels such an immersive space as a “soft space of light” (Kim-Cohen 2013: 151) to provide a pleasant ambience with a “disarming tendency to lull (…) within which sound envelopes and centres us” (Schrimshaw 2018).
Etymologically, the word immersion suggests a plunging or dipping into something or an “absorption in some interest or situation,” and, when applied to sonic space, offers the idea that a person who enters such a space will be transformed. Immersion suggests the idea that a space through its multitude of architectural, material, performative, and technological mediation may wrap up or envelop an audience within it. The ability to immerse an individual who opens up the ears to its environs is related to its multi-sensorial modes in terms of the constructed narratives that are involved often in a suppression of a conscious subjective formation. For the subjectivity of the spectator /listener to emerge, there must be an opening, or a rupture in the experience, through which a plurality of personal thoughts can be encouraged to explode. However, as film and media scholar Whittington notes, immersive effect is established “through an imaginary emplacement of the spectator in the world of the film achieved through textual strategies such as the placement of the camera in the literal position of the character” (Whittington quoting Constance Balides, 2013: 67). Such fixity of positioning, and defacing of the spectator in favor of the character and the narrative experience, closes the experience itself for the spectator to intervene and make multiplicity of meanings, sensations and from maintaining a critical distance.
In this contribution as an artistic research exposition, I consider the immersive spaces that inherently involve contexts of a consumerist nature, such as sound diffusion in a live multichannel performance in a commercially funded festival or a commissioned interactive sound artwork, or sound design for a commercial film or VR work. There is a dangerous power relationship between the producer and the consumer of the immersive works that are mediated and purpose-designed so as to overwhelm and overpower the audience in order to convey and transmit directed information and knowledge of a consumerist nature. This is a fundamental problem, given the times we live in, when the analytical faculty of a subject is most needed for awareness to contemporary issues. If we approach immersion emphasizing the often-glorified design- and experiential side of a space and disregard the research-analytical capacity of an individual experiencing it, we might err on the side of open thinking and discourse. In fact, we should ask critically why immersion is viewed as a positive entity in a philosophical and conceptual sense. This is a make-belief fantasyland where the real is always hidden in order to create pleasure. The main concern here, however, is whether the audience tends to become a passive and non-acting guest within the immersive space often constructed by an authoritarian and technocratic consumer-corporate culture. In this mode of non-activity, the audience may lose the motivation to question the content and the context of the work by falling into a sensual and indulgent mode of experience, therefore rendering the consumerist-corporate powers to take over the free will of the audience. As a result, the audience may succumb to the enveloping and engulfing power of a fantasy world created by the creative industry with economic, political or other hegemonic intentions. From the position of a socially and environmentally conscious sound and media artist myself, I will argue for producing a more discursive environment, rather than an immersive one. In the contemporary sound art and the artworks that will be conceived and produced in the future, I will fervently demand a discursive space where the individuality and the questioning faculty of the audience is carefully considered and encouraged, and taken into account as a parameter for a successful dissemination of the artwork. Here discursive situation is a term that underlines the contemplative processes triggered by an artwork to interlink the artistic object and the listener’s mind that apprehends it. In such a discursive mode, a sound artwork can become more socially committed, responsible, responsive and respectful towards the aware subjectivity of the audience and the mindful context within which the artistic experience is formed. However, many of the previous and current sound works tend to glorify immersion as a dominant mode of production, diffusion and experience.
I will give a very recent but random example from the world of mainstream cinema to show how a commercially rendered immersive experience conceals historical truths in order to produce a hegemonic narrative. A recent British-American film Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017) claims to be a reference work and a benchmark in creating an immersive experience in its sound work. The sound designer Richard King further claims that the film uses “historical sounds as a reference” to produce “historical truth”. The film is currently “garnering critical acclaim for its stunning and immersive soundtrack”. However, a number of mostly non-European critics pointed out how, inside this pleasantly entertaining immersive experience, a major historical fact was manipulated. “Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s empire in South Asia fought in World War II”  and helped Britain to survive the war , but none of these nonwhite soldiers were audible and visible in this claimed to be a historically accurate film. The entire gamut of the cordon was whitewashed to project a white supremacist image where the contribution of the other was silenced. The box-office of the film swells while the immersive experience is posed at its market value.
Not only in the commercial films and popular media, but also in the contemporary sound art scene, such examples of a less thoughtful and more indulgent sonic experience are more than ample – experiences that are produced by sound works with a fetishized use of the idea of immersion. Take for example the audiovisual performances and installations by popular sound artists like Ryoji Ikeda, and Alva Noto. Among numerous other similar artists working today, both produce pure sensorial experiences via large-scale multichannel sound projection along with live or preprogrammed visuals. Their notoriously abstract and spectacular immersive soundworks often drown the potent subjective contemplation of the sensitive listener to foreground the entertaining spectacle itself. There are many noise artists performing regularly in the festival circuits as well as in the club scene, promoting a popular kind of immediately immersive sound works that are made to move the body and chill out.
What can be a better future sound art experience? Can we imagine a sound artwork advocating discursivity and dissent? As Cities and Memory  informs, field recording artists “have been recording protests around the world to create a sound map that reflects today’s political environment”.  What these recordings mostly contain are the shouts and screaming made by the protesters on the street. In the current state of inaction, it might be a loud earth-shaking scream that is what the future could sound like. This is when the pleasant mode of immersion can be broken through which sounds may enter, creating a fertile premise for a condition I term “post-immersion”.
To understand the term post-immersion, I underscore a disjunctive moment in a medial experience, where the alert subjectivity of an audience is encouraged to take form. Here I refer to the philosopher Vilém Flusser’s notion of “homeland” and “homelessness” - which are central to his thinking. Flusser suggests that only when a person is removed from their home he or she becomes aware of the ties, which reveal themselves as unconscious judgments. The idea of homelessness is useful for my argument. The non-immersive/discursive situation I am trying to defend here is based on the awareness of the spectator about the possibilities of loosening the ties between the sited experience and a subjective formation. Sound scholar Joanna Demers notes, “Discursive accent, then, exists in a state of ambivalence (…) discursive accent resituates the phenomenal qualities of voice (or sound, taken broadly) into an artwork, and divests sound of its signifying properties so that it can conceal, rather than reveal meaning” (Demers 2013: 149). Drawing on her perspective, one can argue that a discursive situation in an artistic experience occurs when the spectator/listener is free to detach him/herself from the experience to open it for multiple possible interpretations, rather than being fixed in an ontological relationship with the experience, as it takes over the phenomenological freedom of the spectator/listener.
This disjuncture is crucial in my own sound art practice as a mode to personalize an immersive sonic experience for a self-aware critical faculty to emerge. Inspired by Flusser and Demers’s idea of a discursive accent, I propose three primary approaches to disrupt the pleasant immersion, for this critical discursive moment to be triggered:
Intrusion of noise, or a sudden loud scream, as an alarm mechanism
Asynchronism – a divorce of sound and image in an audiovisual experience (analogous to the asynchronous mode of cinema as proposed by V. Pudovkin )
Disrupting the narrative flow with some discursive elements, such as critical commentaries, contemplative moment in a stream of thoughts or poetic utterances
Each of these three proposed approaches facilitates a momentary split from the experience itself using three specific methodologies – for the first approach, it is a sudden noise, such as in an experimental sound art and noise performance; for the second, it is a out of sync moment in an audiovisual media art experience; and for the third, using extraneous elements, such as critical commentaries, textual slides, voiceover monologues or poetic intervention in a screen media experience, for example. Such disjunctive moments in a narrative flow creates a sense of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari term “deterritorialization”, a notion that resonates with Flusser’s “homelessness”. Deleuze and Guattari used the term “deterritorialization” (1972) to describe the condition of the disembedding and re-embedding of social relations from various objects and sites. The term describes the process that decontextualizes a set of relations, rendering them remote and virtual outside of the constraint of the enveloping here and now, and preparing them for more actualizations outside a fixed local territory. Many anthropologists use the term to refer to a “weakening of ties” between culture and place, site and self; meaning the removal of cultural objects from a certain location in space and time for new subjectivities to form. In the context of a closed immersive medial experience, both the ideas of homelessness and deterritorialization will help opening up the experience for personalization and subjective intervention through this weakening of the ties with the immersive space; and through this rupture the individual audience may regain his/her discursive faculty.
In this context, I would like to describe three of my sound art projects where I set out to find ways to disrupt the pleasant immersion in order to create a discursive moment.
Echoing Field (2015 – 2020) is a sound installation and performance involving the Virtual Reality platform. The work stems from Decomposing Landscape – a project that offers an in-depth listening to the transfiguration of rural landscapes in the Global South, undergoing environmental decay and destruction due to an economic development model that often ignores the environmental balance and greener ecology in favor of rapid growth and profitmaking. We have arguably entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic era, defined by unprecedented human disturbances over earth’s environment and ecosystems. In this era, climatic integrity of natural landscapes in re-emerging economies of the Global South e.g. India, is endangered. The audiovisual installation and performance Echoing Field creates a discursive situation for critical as well as affective engagement with these environmentally and ecologically troubled sites. The work has been developed through a meticulous collection of materials from various environmentally affected sites in extensive fieldworks supported by Prince Claus Fund, Amsterdam. By exhibiting the on-going work, the project intends to sensitize the public consciousness about the devastating consequences of a profit-oriented development model on humans and nature. Using field recordings made on the site as compositional material, and diffusing sound live in Ambisonics, the work is conceived as an exclusively multi-channel experience creating the premise for an immersive experience. The work has been developed through a meticulous collection of sounds from a number of SEZ (Special Economic Zone) in India during extensive fieldworks over several years. The fieldwork has been forming a digital archive that was instrumental in realizing the work, which was composed, and produced at ICST, Zurich University of the Arts, during an artist residency (2015). The composition was released by Touch (UK) in both Binaural and Ambisonics mixes. The performance and installation of the work incorporates VR platform of 360-degree video and live multichannel sound diffusion in wireless headphones where the video and sound responds to the audience asynchronously – as the audience moves the head-tracking moves both sound and video. Through this performative and asynchronous interaction between video projection and live surround sound diffusion, the work intends to create a discursive situation within an immersive space in which a decaying landscape can be experienced contemplatively. This discursive-interactive methodology is an attempt to challenge and disrupt the accustomed immersive experience of the VR with a moment of personal awareness.
Audio excerpts from Echoing Field 2017
Video excerpts from Echoing Field 2018
Another recent work Exile and Other Syndromes (2016 – 2018) also intends to create a discursive situation within an immersive space of multiscreen live visuals and multichannel sound diffusion. The work considers mindful aspects of the private mode of listening experience, and explores its introspective capacities for transcending the barrier of immediate meaning to touch upon poetic sensibilities. The work was produced during an artist residency at Kunstuniversität Graz, between September 2015 and January 2016. The pilot version (for 24-channel sound and 4-channel video projection) was premiered at Kunstuniversität Graz, on 19th January 2016. In essence, the work transmutes the urban space to reorient the navigational mode of listening involving the listener’s contemplation. The work incorporates multi-channel projection of sound-generated text-visualisation on the screens as moving images installed at a venue. This specific method of intervention can examine the way in which the memory, imagination and subjectivity of an itinerant listener elaborate the character of sound. The work relies on intuitive capacities of listening, rather than the ontological and epistemological reasoning involved in deciphering the immediate meaning of sound for mere utilitarian and navigational purpose. This capacity for inward contemplation, and poetic rupture through a formation of subjectivity available to wandering listeners traversing the urban environments enables the work to explore the transcendental possibilities embedded in everyday listening. Such capacity helps to counteract the neurosis of contemporary urban living. The particular emphasis on the poetic attributes of an expanded mode of listening provides a context for exploring the unexpected splendour of everyday urban sounds and their transcendental and emancipatory potential as evocative and unfolding situations beyond their site-specific and static object-hood. Emergence of such contingent moments of positive estrangements in the urban listening helps to keep a poetic distance from the immersive city experience expanding the Cagean idea of chance composition towards a context of fluid and nomadic interaction with everyday sounds in contemporary cities. The full version of the work was installed publicly during the festival Nacht van Kunst & Kennis, Leiden in September 2017, and exhibited (3-channel live visuals) at the Rogaland Kunstsenter as part of the Screen City Biennial, Stavanger, Norway, 12-31 October 2017, and was included in the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, India, in a group exhibition in December 2018.
Exile and Other Syndromes, Screen City Biennial, Stavanger, Norway, 2017
Exile and Other Syndromes (sketch), Screen City Biennial, 2017
Exile and Other Syndromes, live at 3ZEM, Rabat, April 2019
Exile and Other Syndromes, live at Irtijal festival, Beirut, March 2019
Machine Poetry (2019) is a generative sound installation that searches for poetic openings in the machine-induced sound-world and advocates for poetic contemplation involving pre-cognitive association, impromptu flashes and explosions of memory, sensitivity and perceptiveness of an altered and subjective reality as the crucial parameters for an augmented intelligence. The work responds to the currents of ultra-capitalism that is manipulating our understanding of the social and environmental realities by proliferating numerous delusions like growth, urban expansion, development, consumption, difference and competition as natural. The main question the work intends to raise is: how can we deconstruct these naturalizations that are imposed on our perception? Can we consider poetry as the tool to subvert the intentionality of the contemporary machine society that is based on control, surveillance, fear psychosis, and driven by AI? As many scholars have argued, there is a stronger link between sound perception and the human faculties of imagination and contemplation, making any sonic experience more private, intimate, and subjective than other sense modalities. Using humanly spoken words within a site-responsive and generative sound environment at the methodological core of the work, the argument for a deep necessity of a poetic rupture in contemporary human condition is provided an entry-point, developed, and substantiated in this participatory and discursive installation. Machine Poetry was exhibited as an 8-channels sound installation with single-channel live visuals at Helsinki-based Akusmata gallery between August and September 2019.
Machine Poetry, Akusmata gallery, Helsinki, 2019
All of these above-mentioned artworks aim to disrupt the pleasant immersion of sonic experience in order to create a discursive moment for engaging with the context and content of the work using different methodologies. In the first work, it is the asynchronous mode of audiovisual relationship creating a disjuncture between sound and moving image, and in the second the use of information recurrently in the foreground as textual visualization disrupting the narrative flow with these discursive elements, such as critical commentaries, contemplative moment in a stream of thoughts or poetic utterances. As Joanna Demers states, these discursive elements move the artworks “(…) into the realm of poetry, of poiesis, where sound can be free to exist without being grounded in a particular meaning or image" (Demers 2013: 151). The intention of these socially, environmentally and politically sensate artworks is to make the audience alert, through a production of subjectivity, about the thematic of the works and the discourse as well as awareness the works like to trigger around contemporary urgent crises from the climate breakdown to an emergent machine and surveillance society, from ecological catastrophe to mass migration. As potent examples, these artworks suggest that sound art practice for the future may not be stuck in entailing a mere enjoyment and mindless entertainment in their constructed environments with an immersive-consumerist approach, but may aim to generate a more socially and politically aware and committed space that invites critical discourse within an open-ended post-immersive experience for generating debates, and action.
Chattopadhyay, B. (2019). Echoing Field. http://budhaditya.org/projects/decomposing-landscape/
Chattopadhyay, B. (2017). Exile and Other Syndromes. Rogaland Kunstsenter, Screen City Biennial http://www.rogalandkunstsenter.no/2017/10/12/exile-and-other-syndromes/
Chattopadhyay, B. (2018). “Orphan Sounds: Locating Historical Recordings in Contemporary Media”. Organised Sound 23/2: 181–188, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chattopadhyay, B. (2017). Against Immersion. Sonic Field August issue.
Chattopadhyay, B. (2016). “Ambient sound: presence, embodiment and the spatial turn”, Sonic Field, June.
Chattopadhyay, B. (2015). Decomposing Landscape. Digital Download (binaural and Ambisonics b-format files). London: Touch.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1986). Nomadology: The War Machine (Translated by Brian Massumi), Cambridge: MIT Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1972/2004). Anti-Œdipus (Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane), London and New York: Continuum.
Flusser, Vilem (2002). Writings. Minneapolis / London: University of Minnesota Press.
Demers, Joanna (2013).“Discursive Accents in Some Recent Digital Media Works” in Vernallis, Carol; Herzog, Amy and Richardson, John (Eds.).The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grimshaw, M. (2011). Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments. Hershey: Information Science Reference, IGI Global.
Lukas, Scott A. (2016). A Reader in Themed and Immersive Spaces. Lulu.com.
Schrimshaw, Will (2018). “Writing Out Sound: Immersion and Inscription in Sound Art” In Aceti, Lanfranco; Bulley, James; Drever, John; and Sahin, Ozden (Eds.). Sound Curating. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press.
Kim-Cohen, Seth (2013). Against Ambience. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Reiter, U. (2011). “Perceived Quality in Game Audio”. In: Grimshaw, M. (ed.). Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments. Hershey: Information Science Reference.
Whittington, William (2013). “Lost in Sensation: Reevaluating the Role of Cinematic Sound in the Digital Age” in Vernallis, Carol; Herzog, Amy and Richardson, John (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
See: https://science.gu.se/digitalAssets/1671/1671867_world-scientists-warning-to-humanity_-a-second-notice_english.pdf ↩︎
See: http://theconversation.com/the-madrid-climate-conferences-real-failure-was-not-getting-a-broad-deal-on-global-carbon-markets-129001 ↩︎
A global collaborative sound project: https://citiesandmemory.com/ ↩︎
See: http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/~mma/teaching/MS114/readings/EisensteinEtc.pdf ↩︎