Gallery Sound - Caleb Kelly. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017
by Zeynep Bulut
How does one listen to a gallery space? And why should listening to its sounds matter? Caleb Kelly’s book Gallery Sound “closely listens”to the sounds of a gallery space (p. 24). It contemplates how sound has been imagined, used, and visualized as well as acoustically and spatially extended within and via this space. In so doing, Gallery Sound underlines a shared history of experimental music and visual arts as well as the role of both in generating cross-genre interventions via the gallery space. Kelly’s critical reading is timely, especially in relation to current debates and practices in sound art.
Sound art is still a contested term that remains underdiscussed. Kelly’s book is not a study on what counts as sound art, not about “sound problems of the art gallery, nor is it about discussing strategies for the curation of soundful exhibitions” (p. 21). However, given the book’s emphasis on gallery space as “a generative architecture in which sound is a continual undercurrent and a place” (pp. 21-22), it is worthwhile mentioning the contribution of the book to studies on sound art. This contribution is no doubt aligned with various readings in experimental music histories and literary studies that contest the notions of sound, silence, and noise. Gallery Sound draws upon these readings; however, it historically and conceptually develops the notions of silence, sound, noise, and music within the context of the gallery space. In three sections, “The empty-sounding gallery,” “Noises in the gallery,” and “Musical galleries,” the book reminds the reader that a gallery space is sounding in multiple directions, acting as a bridge between indoors and outdoors, between music and art.
In the first section, Kelly points to the issues around the “white cube,” which, he explains, is an ideological construction, a fabricated void. One example that Kelly considers is Yves Klein’s exhibition, The Void (1958). For this exhibition, Klein emptied the gallery space and “painted the walls white” (p. 27). Another example is Daniel Buren’s solo exhibition Il s’agit de voir (On Seeing, 1968). Buren sealed the gallery and did not allow the audience to enter the gallery so as to draw attention to what was not seen, or “what was being kept from the audience” (p. 28). Since the 1960s, we have seen a number of similar conceptual and sensory interventions. Kelly exemplifies visually emptied spaces, facilitations of cross-sensory experiences, articulation of silence as a multitude of sounds (John Cage’s 4’33’’, 1952), anechoic chamber experiments where one hears internal bodily sounds in the absence of external sounds, concrete sounds and sine tones being played into the space or dissolving in the space (Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, 1970, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, 1969-), or everyday sounds exhibited without any “visual cues” (p. 77) (Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials, 2004).
In light of these interventions, we are encouraged to revisit what an empty gallery space indicates. The series of experiments throughout the 1960s, Kelly contends, highlights the empty gallery space as an exploratory site of “sonic and experientially focused practice” (p. 22). That is, gallery walls do not necessarily confine a practice but facilitate considering the multi-sensory experience itself, which may go beyond the gallery space. Other examples that Kelly notes here include Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s light and space movement, Michael Asher’s and Bruce Nauman’s articulation of acoustics and inaudible sounds by physically transforming the gallery space, and Alvin Lucier’s inquiry into echolocation and room acoustics in various works. Taken together, all noted examples draw attention to the processes of sense-making – more than simply sound making – by means of the “sensing body” (p. 42) in a seemingly empty gallery space. Further, they reveal how the gallery space is never fully silent; silence can indeed be loud enough to be perceived as noise at different volume levels in different corners of a gallery space. To put it another way, the gallery space is a site where indoor and outdoor noises – be they unwanted, unrecognized, or unidentifiable – can intertwine.
The second part of Gallery Sound, “Noises in the gallery,” amplifies this idea. If “The empty- sounding gallery” questions the physical and social bounds of the gallery space, “Noises in the gallery” expands this inquiry even further. Kelly’s insightful discussion reminds the reader of how gallery walls can be dissolved by both high and low frequencies. Works by Kusum Normoyle, Mark Fusinato, Olafur Eliasson, Bruce Nauman, and a multi-media exhibition curated by Kelly himself are some of the highlights of this discussion. Ranging from loud distortions to interferences with indoor noises of exhibition openings, from acoustically generated sounds to moving sounds, these works encourage a consideration of noises in the gallery and other public spaces as transient, generative, and wide open.
In his performances, Free (1998-2004), Mark Fusinato enters guitar shops and tries out distortion pedals as loudly as possible.In Constellations (2015/2018), Fusinato invites the audience to explore distortion in a gallery space. He instructs audience members to “hit the central wall with a baseball bat” (p. 80). As Kelly argues, Fusinato’s provocations probe “extreme volume in installation, durational noise within music performed during gallery hours, and silent noise,” as well as the limits of “audience and art institution” (pp. 79-80). Kusum Normoyle interferes with random noises in public spaces and music concerts and with “the pinging of the cash register or the art world gossip shared over a glass of chardonnay” (p. 23) in exhibition openings. She amplifies screams and vocal noises and generates feedback using guitar amps during these social occasions. In so doing, Normoyle does not simply make noise for disruption, rather, she interrupts the physical and social containment of a gallery space while simultaneously distorting and amplifying streams of listening during exhibition openings, which are exclusive social gatherings where people seem to be less focused on engaging with works or sense-making. Mistral (2006), the multi-media exhibition curated by Kelly, takes another approach to amplification. Instead of electronic amplification, Kelly features acoustically produced sounds in Pelt, a sound-focused art gallery. Akio Suzuki, one of the artists included in the exhibition, works with sounds of found and handmade objects and instruments. Kelly explains how such works facilitate noticing the exhibition space and environment as well as exploring the exhibition space as part of the work itself. This is why he also encourages paying attention to the value of walking and wandering in an exhibition space.
We do not often treat walking as a creative exercise within the context of gallery space. Indeed, walking is a multi-sensory act that we engage with almost every day. Consider, as Kelly does, how the Situationists’ notion of “dérive” – wandering without a specific goal – informs and contests our mapping of a place. Varied art projects and methods, including locative media works, sound walks, and audio walks, examine and employ such an idea of mapping. Kelly notes Max Neuhaus’s LISTEN (1966), Janet Cardiff’s audio walks, and Christina Kubisch’s Electrical Walks (2004-).Most of these walks take place outdoors. What does it mean to imagine the mobility of walking as wandering within a gallery space? This is a worthwhile question, given that we are often led to visit a gallery or museum in a particular order by means of maps or audio guides.Regardless of maps or guides, we may still wander and get lost in a gallery or museum; nevertheless, we do not necessarily conceive of them as open-ended spaces. Reframing the mode of walking in a gallery space as wandering makes us imagine the gallery space as open-ended.
Relating to this reframing, Kelly exemplifies Sophie Calle’s La Visite Guidée (1994), a display of Calle’s personal items and related personal stories, which was presented in the form of an audio guide, and Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation, A Lot of Sorrow (2013), exhibited in 2015 at Berlin’s König Galerie, a refurbished chapel originally built in the Brutalist style in the 1960s. Of these two works, A Lot of Sorrow encapsulates Kelly’s point. The video installation features an extensive loop of the song, Sorrow, by indie-rock band The National. Kelly recounts how he experienced this work by wandering around the gallery:
Huge and cathedral-like, the sound of the video work filled the gallery and reverberated around the hard, flat concrete and wood structures. In this particular installation the work is projected at the end of the long space, leaving the audience members to scatter themselves throughout it, walking around the gallery, listening to and watching the work from a variety of different vantage points, turning the whole experience into a mediated and meditative concert (p. 97).
For the one walking, the sounds of A Lot of Sorrow unfold and are mobilized. Indeed, the acoustics of the gallery and the contingent sounds within the space become part of the sounds of the video. Further, as Kelly conveys, the experience of both the space and the work turns into “a mediated and meditative concert” (p.97). In other words, the experience becomes musical.
The third and last section of Gallery Sound, “Musical galleries,” focuses on such musical experiences. What makes a gallery musical? Kelly’s discussion no doubt implies this question, however, it does not necessarily deal with why and how musicians utilize galleries in lieu of concert venues. Kelly rather asks “how the use of the gallery space has transformed music and how the art space has itself been transformed by music”(p. 23). This inquiry does not eliminate the cultural context or contingencies relating to the long history of experimental composers’ contacts with galleries and museums.
We can recall the turn of the twentieth century and multi-disciplinary collaborations of early avant-garde art movements. For instance, Erik Satie’s “furniture music” is arguably one of the earliest examples of site-specific musical performances, inspired by Satie’s collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Similarly, take varied international and interdisciplinary hubs where series of everyday acts, sounds, objects, movements, and spaces are incorporated into aesthetic experiments (Black Mountain College, Fluxus Network, and Judson Dance Theatre, to name a few) as well as John Cage’s encounter with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim and the League of Composers’ concert at MoMA in the 1940s (see Nicholls 2007: 29-60).
The ethos of the 1960s, both the musical and social experimentations of that era, further unsettled the disciplinary boundaries. Some of these experiments challenged the conventions of Western classical concert music as well as the conventions of being and listening in a concert venue. Cage’s 4’33’’ can be considered a composition of that kind. Another striking example is Einstein on the Beach, the landmark opera by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs. The fact that Einstein on the Beach was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House had a significant impact on the course of opera as a genre. Some other experiments were accommodated by galleries instead of concert venues. Most of the multimedia events of that time were attended by a crowd that included visual artists, dancers, philosophers, composers, performers, etc. Undoubtedly, one needs to take into account the related economic infrastructure and social networks that have influenced the display of these experiments. The suggestion is that the interaction between musical performances and art galleries is not new.
At the core of this history, Kelly points to 1969 as the peak year of musical galleries. He addresses various contemporary composers and visual artists, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Marco Fusinato, Ragnar Kjartansson, Angelica Mesti, Ari Benjamin Meyers, Marina Rosenfeld, and Anri Sala. However, he primarily highlights early multi-media exhibitions that feature composers and performers alongside visual artists and dancers. Anti-Illusion: Procedures and Materials,curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte in 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is one of these early examples. The title of the exhibition portrays the conceptual approach: a focus on “process and materials-based practices” (p. 114). As Kelly explains, Tucker and Monte were interested in possible similarities between compositional processes and procedures explored by visual artists. Along with visual artists – such as William Bollinger, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra – composers, performers, and film makers were invited to participate in the exhibition. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and James Tenney were among those who participated. The background of this idea, Kelly notes, was related to contemporary debates in the field of sculpture. Referring to the catalogue of Anti-Illusion, Kelly states how Tucker’s account contested the presumed materials and conventional form of sculpture, often understood as “three-dimensional, self-contained, and fashioned from relatively durable materials such as stone, metals, plastics or wood” (Tucker 1969: 25).
Process-based performances enabled composers, performers, and other artists, as well as the audience, to think about sculptural form outside of its conventional constitution and to revisit the notions of permanence, endurance, and the limits of materialization. Together with the exhibition, a series of performance events, entitled “Four Evenings of Extended Time Pieces and a Lecture,” were presented. As part of these events, Bruce Nauman’s Performance Arena featured Bruce Nauman, Meredith Monk, and Judy Nauman engaging with a series of repetitive acts: Each performer “stood in various corners of the Whitney with their backs to the wall. Over the course of an hour they let themselves fall back on the wall, slapping their hands against it as they did so. After thumping into the wall they bounced back to a standing position and repeated the action” (p. 116).
Kelly argues that such performance works have informed Steve Reich’s and Philip Glass’s compositions. Reich’s Pendulum Music, which was premiered at “Four Evenings of Extended Time Pieces and a Lecture,” explored sonic feedback with a series of physical acts, microphones, and loud-speakers. Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, Richard Serra, and James Tenney pulled back dangling microphones – attached by their cords to a microphone stand – and then released them, which resulted in the microphones “swinging across a speaker placed facing up, producing a ‘whoop’ (in Reich's words) as they pass[ed] by” (p. 118). Like Performance Arena, Pendulum Music draws attention to repetitive, generative, and process-based performances. It raises questions about physical space, physical time, and musical composition. Referring to Michael Nyman, who suggested that Pendulum Music could be considered an “audible sculpture” (Nyman 1976), Kelly discusses how Pendulum Music employs “sculptural tools and temporal methods that are not traditionally Western music-based” (p. 119). As noted above, musical experiments that intend to transcend temporal methods of Western classical music have a long history. Once again, Fluxus and Judson Dance Theatre networks come to mind in their association with process-based performance works, which both included and were inspired by composers. That said, arguably, Pendulum Music was not simply informed by sculptural tools, but its sonic feedback questioned the temporal and spatial bounds of sculptural form. This seems to be the reason why the curators of Anti-Illusion expressed an interest in composers and performers as well as in dancers and film makers. And this is also Kelly’s point in this section: sound and music experiments transform a gallery space and are themselves transformed by that space.
Multi-media exhibitions that specifically highlight the exploration of sound in gallery space have been going on since the late 1960s. More recent examples include Sonic Boom (2000), curated by David Toop at Hayward Gallery, London; Soundings: A Contemporary Score (2013), curated by Barbara London at MoMA in New York; and Soundtracks (2017), curated by Rudolf Frieling and Tanya Zimbardo at SFMoMA in San Francisco. These exhibitions brought together a large group of well-known and emerging international artists. As Gallery Sound grounds its story on art and experimental music histories, it shows that bringing sound into gallery space is not new. However, both the scale and institutional visibility of these exhibitions and their re-articulation of the topics such as “durational presence, interferences, provocations, sensory manifestations, acoustic space and sociality of sound” are important to note. Gallery Sound investigates related topics by portraying the histories and practices that the reader needs to attend to. But even more, it contributes to the literature by articulating the role of the art gallery space in building, displaying, and communicating sound and music experiments as well as revealing how such experiments transform the physical and symbolic boundaries of gallery space. In so doing, it also critically revisits so-called sound art.
“One of the things I’ve always said about sound art, or so-called sound art, is that it’s homeless in a way. It’s a very uneasy fit with the art world,” says David Toop (2000). Sound art may not have the same institutional currency compared to music and visual arts; nonetheless, I would consider sound art not as homeless but as an in-betweener. The breadth of examples in Gallery Sound underlines the in-between operation of sound across music, visual, and performance arts. The book makes an important call to listen to the gallery space in varied ways, thus presenting a refreshing way to review historical and conceptual links between music, performance, and visual arts, without confining any of these fields into one single category.
Frieling, Rudolf and Tanya Zimbardo’s (2017). Exhibiting Sound. San Francisco: SFMoMA.
Kahn, Douglas (1999). Noise, Water, Meat. A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nicholls, David (2007). John Cage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Ouzounian, Gascia (2015). “Sound Installation Art: From Spatial Poetics to Politics.” In Georgina Born (ed.), Music, Sound, and Space. Transformations of Public and Private Experience (pp. 73-89).
Toop, David and Christian Marclay (2000). Conversations in the Archive: Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound. London: Southbank Centre.
Tucker, Marcia (1969). Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.