Secret Noises


Let’s return to the actual sounds and movements the concealed object inside With Hidden Noise makes in the small dark space inside the work: a sparky ricochet against metal plates, syncopated with the unsound as it bumps the felted hollow of the column of twine. Whatever is inside has been resilient enough to withstand the commotion: solid and hard, it revels in its agitation. The circle of friends gathered around Arensberg in 1916 was noted for its energetic partying: costume balls, bohemian entertainments, all-night jazz, etc.[23] It was, after all, alongside this atmosphere that With Hidden Noise was “completed” that New Year’s Eve and perhaps, we may wonder, on that first night paraded around between dancers listening to music, passed from hand to hand, jiggled like a cocktail shaker or maraca among laughter and happy rumpus: crossing between the two meanings of “play” in an environment where noise (pace Jacques Attali) might for a moment signal nothing but the performance of pleasure.


If we think of With Hidden Noise as an instrument, or imagine Duchamp’s satisfaction at his now completed piece endlessly rehearsing the first sound of Arensberg dropping the object in its chamber, then we must also admit that as a sound object the work seems now consigned to the realm of speculation: in a vitrine, nothing can awaken an aeolian harp or an “unhappy” readymade. Does this mean that With Hidden Noise has been definitively silenced? Rather, we might propose, it has joined the ranks of Migone’s unsound objects: those sounds that relate precisely to that which is still active, present and concrete in the many kinds of silence. This is the realm of potential sound, or of “a sound where there is none, a sound despite itself, a sonic state of silence” (2012: 78 and 238).[24] Migone’s interest centers on the diverse practices of a sound art that is less art form than art informe and one that might gravitate around the key notion of play: “As a marker of resistance and opposition to the Law, play is audible, but not necessarily with the ears. Sound art [that privileges play] indicates a flight into thinking which should not be taken as a retraction into the safe confines of the cogito.” The realm of the unsound is intended not so much to be heard as thought, a shift from listening with the ear to listening with the mind (2012: 4 and 14-15). The apparent betrayal of Duchamp’s intention for With Hidden Noise – to activate the performative and the aural against the tyranny of the visual – turns out to have returned it after all to the world of intellectual reflection. More than this, as Migone points out in relation to that master of silence, Duchamp’s friend John Cage, the unsound lies in wait for all sound, for all meanings: “Cage taught us that silence is chimerical. Its purity is conceptual, it is an impossibility. As such, silence haunts all creative acts, its negation provides the constitutive ground for these acts” (2012: 18).


So With Hidden Noise is not so much silenced as at rest: tacet, tacit – an instrument played by the brain as much as the hand. Flitting between the visible, the audible and the conceivable, the work’s text is visible but unspeakable, while its secret object, at first audible but unnamable, rattles its enigma in the chambers of our head. In an extended note of 1914 devoted to dictionaries and atlases, Duchamp floated the idea of a kind of shorthand language that would translate between French and other languages, to be written out on card index system, but he also asks: “Sound of this language, is it speakable? No” (Sanouillet and Peterson 1975: 77). This proposal for a language of the in-between, in the space of resonance, is a silent or interrupted one: a cutting out of sound that we also find precisely in the inscriptions on With Hidden Noise, with their ellipses and aporia of an “unspeakable” language curtailed by elided letters, and that returns in Duchamp’s stumblings as he tries to “speak” With Hidden Noise in the interview of 1956.


Was this possibility of sound always already silent, or has it been silenced? Part of this story lies in the small but significant shift opened up by the work’s title in two different languages: With Hidden Noise in English (the work being made in New York), À bruit secret in French.[25] As happens more than once with Duchamp’s word-play or bilingual titles, and as an echo of the stereoscopic photography experiments and shifts between 2-, 3- and 4-dimensionality that fascinated the artist, it is with such tiny and apparently insignificant changes in orientation, observing something from two adjacent but distinct positions so as to produce a bifocal understanding, that an object begins to gain depth. “Hidden” noise / “secret” noise: where in the first iteration an active process has concealed sound, has located it and then removed it from normal perception (yet anticipating the possibility of its disclosure), in the second the sound itself gains agency: a covert, never-to-be-revealed actor announced as absent from cognition as well as perception, one whose very naming threatens to violate a taboo.


What kind of noise might be secret? One that is suppressed or unwanted, maybe – just as Migone emphasizes the unruly sonic eloquence of the body, of the “plumbing” that is another of Duchamp’s domains: the gurgles and aural secretions. One perhaps that is inaudible to normal hearing – that comes out as a different kind of vibration. This would be the place to re-emphasize that in both languages, With Hidden Noise’s title specifies not music, not sound, but the (generally pejorative) term noise. Noise is usually seen as a kind of unwanted excess of agitation or meaning: it is disruptive, disorderly, polluting or insistent. Noise is mis-directed or out of kilter: it is, to borrow a formula from Mary Douglas, “sound out of place.” A term already loaded with avant-garde credentials for its machinic-aggressive potential (as in Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises manifesto of 1913), noise is anomalous and mobile, as Migone points out, “a leakage occurring at various levels” (2012: 5). This begins to give a sense of how noise might also be figured as a conceptual incursion with potentially political force: as Jacques Attali writes, it is “a transgressive agent engaged with the power grid” (1985: 6). It emerges where there is power: “A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission. […] Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed” (1985: 26). For Attali, noise attacks existing structures as “the source of […] mutations in the structuring codes”; it reorganizes meaning:


first, because the interruption of a message signifies the interdiction of the transmitted meaning, signifies censorship and rarity; and second, because the very absence of meaning […] frees the listener's imagination. The absence of meaning is in this case the presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, a construction outside meaning. The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network. (Attali 1985: 33)


If this isn't quite the register of the hand-held conviviality of With Hidden Noise, converging concerns can be registered all the same: the activism of resonance, the occupation of structures, the gaps between meaning and its others; a communication, but also its scrambling and jamming that is more fertile than expected. In an echo (delay) of Duchamp, of Schaeffer, Attali offers: “With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. […] In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men” (1985: 6). These disordered relations are at one level Duchamp’s slippages between registers and paradigms, making his work a machine for an experiment with meaning. In With Hidden Noise, of course, it isn’t so much the noise that is secret – to pick it up is immediately to perceive it. What’s hidden, then, despite the work’s title, is the object making the noise, a slippage from sound to object that Douglas Kahn sees as inherent in language’s tendency to privilege the visual and conflate (audible) sound and (visible) object (Kahn and Whitehead 1992: 4).


This small but significant bipolar instability, flickering like a 3-D novelty postcard, seems to mimic the whole work’s sense of undecidability. Labelled in plain sight by phrases containing gaps where complete words are expected, playing with its participants’ expectations, revealing and withdrawing in the same gesture, With Hidden Noise puts sound where a solution to a puzzle should have been. What might the intricate equation be between sound, performance, absence and meaning? A note by Arensberg discussing the shortcomings of avant-garde writers, drawn from conversations with Duchamp around February 1916, a few months before With Hidden Noise was begun, observed that


Marcel dislikes the element of taste […] in the writings of all these folk – also in the work of Picasso. They weigh the words – + choose accordingly – weigh for sound, also for sense – to get a sort of balance. (Nesbit and Sawelson-Gorse 1996: 156)


For Duchamp, then, a kind of equivalence might have suggested itself between language, sound and sense, where the rattle of noise as the object is picked up and tested in the hand might either substitute itself for meaning or provide an echo signaling the moment meaning is withdrawn, just as Duchamp’s word-game works from late 1915 and 1916 specifically employ a strategy of rejecting or deleting a word every time it might start to mean something, every time taste threatens the sovereignty of indifference. With Hidden Noise’s interrupted inscriptions invite its player to rattle the object whenever a word stalls so as to banish taste and judgment, to fill in (or defy) the blanks with a “secret” sound that both stands in for signification and testifies to the futility of seeking one out.


One might from here read the work as a critique and polarity switch of what has traditionally been seen as art’s job: to channel emotion and experience into the visual. Is the artwork always in fact so obliging? In terms that resonate with With Hidden Noise’s absences and substitutions, Darian Leader considers the sense of the failure of the image’s visualization, of the way in which desire’s gaze always misses its aim and forces a need to shift representation to another register. Considering the representation of screams in the paintings of Francis Bacon, for instance, Leader proposes that


What the psychoanalytic approach [to the work of Bacon and other painters] suggests is that visual reality is based on an exclusion that is less the result of a prohibition than an impossibility. The world can retain a consistency for us not because society says that certain things need to be covered up or taboo, but because they actually cannot pass to the level of visualization or even ready imagination. […] And if the look is profoundly disparate from the field of the image, it has to be represented in another register – such as sound. (Leader 2002: 154)