The End of Radio, There’s No God, and Vessel are all simple-looking sculptures that use basic sound technologies to create a sense of expectation that is undermined by unpredictability. This precarious dynamic is also applied in The Loudest Sound In The Room Experienced Very Quietly (2015).
Made of a soundproof aquarium that houses a microphone, a public address amplifier, and a speaker cone, The Loudest Sound is a communication ecosystem that inflicts its own instability and self-destruction. The installation’s microphone is pointed directly towards a speaker. These components are separated by an amplifier. Together the configuration creates an endless feedback loop that results in a tone that registers at 120 decibels. The sound – which at such a high volume can produce nosebleeds, panic attacks, and hypertension – is measured by a decibel meter positioned within the acrylic case that continually indicates a level above its maximum threshold. Despite the evident ear-piercing noise of the composition, the sealed container only allows a small amount of sound to escape, manifesting as a barely audible high-pitched ringing for the listener. The intensity of the sound is all but entirely dampened by the chamber in which it is contained. This installation enacts a process of futility, wavering between potential and impotence, at the interstice of noise and silence. Basanta conceptualizes this work as a “communication system disrupted and turned against itself” (Basanta 2015).
Artist Nikita Gale employs a similar conceptual mapping in her works associating the repression of sound with subjugation. Within her visual arts practice she subverts common materials, including microphone stands, audio cables, soundproofing foam, and unplugged instruments. Recent exhibitions include DESCENT (2018) and EASY LISTENING (2019), and works like PROPOSAL: SOFT SURROUND SYSTEM(2018) and INTERCEPTOR(2019) include silenced soundmaking technologies that represent the systems that sanction public expression (Lee 2018). Gale is overarchingly concerned with power, protest, and control, as signified by the use of crowd control barriers and concrete, which she interweaves with communication technologies in several of her installations.
Basanta’s series of custom-made earplugs, entitled Plugs (the most important thing) (2016) is perhaps his most extreme response to an over-saturated media soundscape and scaffolds of sonic power. The piece consists of 1200 earplugs displayed in the gallery, each engraved with the phrase “listen to yourself’. Viewers are invited to select a pair, escape the exhibition space entirely and disengage from all external sound sources. Guided by a set of instructions, gallery visitors are led on an internal soundwalk and are prompted to listen especially to the sounds emanating from within the body rather than from external sources. Plugs offers respite from the modern world, facilitating a contemplative, quiet opportunity to tune out. It draws on the practice of soundwalks pioneered by R. Murray Schafer, whose World Soundscape Project originated at Simon Fraser University, where Basanta was trained as a composer.
This evolution of Basanta’s practice demonstrates an ongoing and nuanced investigation of sonic power and the tools through which it can be both resisted and imposed. His various sound-based sculptures and the other works to which they have been compared, exemplify that the aesthetics of noise and silence exist within a spectrum of acoustic strategies that can produce a multitude of effects. As gestures they are at once provocative, incomprehensible, arresting, confrontational, and a mode of critique for the influential power of sound.