Uncurating Sound: Knowledge with Voice and Hands - Salomé Voegelin. New York: Bloomsbury 2023.

By Ben Byrne

I initially found Salomé Voegelin's Uncurating Sound: Knowledge with Voice and Hands (2023) elusive, as I have her previous books. In it she offers uncurating as a way of escaping the sonic arts canon and its accompanying racism and sexism. However, the book does not offer an alternative to dominant curatorial practices, as I might, by way of pluralist do it yourself (DIY) or do it with others (DIWO) approaches to organizing. Instead, it frames particular sonic performance practices as methods by which to share knowledge and create more diverse histories, bodies of work, and critical perspectives. It was only when I realized this that the book and what if offers coalesced for me.

Voegelin's position is staged against dominant curatorial practices, to which the author assigns responsibility for the construction and perpetuation of a sonic arts canon. Although she does not clearly delineate the canon or curatorial practices she is describing, it and they are clearly recognizable to me from my experience in the sonic arts. This canon, she finds, has been deeply colonial and exclusionary in its logic and practice. This, in turn, delimits the scope of fields of practice, thus reinforcing itself in the way hegemonies do. “Whose order counts?” she asks rhetorically in the Prologue (xiii). 

Ironically, as I have found in her earlier work, Voegelin's poetic and affective articulation of sound and its possibilities strays into totalizing statements. “Sound is the decolonial, feminine, minoritarian, the marginal” (50), for example. Sound, wonderfully poorly defined as it is, is not always these things. Nor is the marginal, as she puts it – the decolonial, the feminine, the minoritarian – reducible to sound. This might sound pedantic – and I suspect such statements, with their clarity and conviction, might draw many readers to Voegelin's thought just as they, conversely, operated as a barrier to my engagement with her work – but the detail of argument hidden in expression is important. Sonic practices can confront colonization, misogyny, and the tyranny of the majority and maneuver in contrast to all of these, as Voegelin attempts to help us hear, but sonic practices are also caught up with colonial and patriarchal power, as she suggests, and the diversity she seeks to champion exceeds sound and the sonic.

Describing the book as “a deliberation between art, politics, knowledge and normativity” (4), Voegelin sets out in the introduction that “uncurating is not a rejection of curation, but is a reconsideration of the curatorial as an aesthetic, material and political as well as a knowledge project” (4). She finds that the history and ideology of dominant curatorial practices “stretch along straight lines to confer legitimacy and reliability but omit care and plurality” (4) and aligns herself with Donna Haraway, as well as Lina Džuverović and Irene Revell, in calling for collaborative and response-able approaches to curatorial practice (18).

After contextualizing the book and its writing as taking place during the pandemic and lockdowns in the introduction – “Taking a breath together” – the book is then structured as a series of further breaths. The first addresses the politics of gallery spaces and the role of curating in those politics, and the second begins to conceptualize alternatives, drawing in particular on Karen Barad's figure of diffraction. “Curation as performance”, Voegelin proposes, can manifest “curatorial care as political care and voluminous practice” which in turn “can pluralize what counts as art and in meaning and can expand what gains validity” (39).

The breaths are then interrupted by a performance score – “Listen across to uncurate knowledge” – that began as a score that Voegelin herself delivered as “Uncurating Sound”, in 2021 as part of the Être à l'écoute symposium at the École de design et haute école d'art du Valais in Switzerland. Here Voegelin explicates uncurating by putting it into practice, a performance practice articulated by way of the score and photographs. She addresses knowledge as “a matter of curating” (42) and seeks to “pluralize its paths” (43), as she expresses herself in the performance. She describes this as a kind of “being with” (43), with herself/her body, the audience, and readers, as well as with the work of others. The performance includes, along with reference to Barad, both a field recording from Kate Carr and a recording by Ellen Fullman, the latter of which turns inaudibly on a record player until eventually being given volume, performatively revealing sound previously hidden.

Breaths 3 and 4 then flesh out Voegelin's uncurating, accompanied by two short text scores. “Breath 3: With voice and hands” addresses two further examples of feminist performative curatorial practice as Voegelin hears it: Marguerite Humeau's Weeds and Manon de Boer's Think about Wood, Think about Metal. “Breath 4: Postnormal” attempts to offer continuity more than conclusion, seeking to embrace a postnormal that is “‘unnormal’” (99). “It keeps breathing” (81), as Voegelin phrases it, proposing a “feminist sonic physical optics” inspired by Barad's presentation of diffraction as a “feminist physical optics” (91). Voegelin's goal is to add “the relational and connecting logic of sound to the feminist effort against reflection and its parameters of distance, measurement, standards and norms” (91).

Uncurating Sound: Knowledge with Voice and Hands does not clearly present the dominant curatorial practices it seeks to go beyond, but perhaps it doesn't need to at this point, when the ingrained Anglo-European and male dominance of art canons has become so stark. When I let go of my own expectations of a book about anti or new curatorial practices, the subtlety of Voegelin's offering revealed itself to me. The book simultaneously embodies and illustrates an approach to performing and listening to sonic practice as knowledge sharing, with the hope that this can disrupt hegemonies and pluralize discourse. Voegelin's feminism is more evident than her gestures toward “decolonization”, as her context and examples remain noticeably European. However, she offers her knowledge intertwined with that of others and with clear hopes for an onwardness that would position her take as only one amongst many. Hers is a timely gesture.