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Is sound art getting a fair hearing in museums?

25 September 2017

Museums have long struggled with sound. It is now 40 years since the curator Germano Celant exhibited vinyl recordings by Jean Dubuffet, Joseph Beuys, and Lawrence Weiner, at the Fort Worth Art Museum in Texas; longer still since the first exhibitions of such pioneering works of sonic art as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961), Yasunao Tone’s Tape Recorder (1962), and Max Neuhaus’s Public Supply (1966). Celant’s catalogue also cited even earlier precedents like Luigi Russolo’s sculptural intonarumori and Marcel Duchamp’s score fragment Erratum Musical (both 1913).

These earlier works – a set of new concert instruments and a sheet of manuscript score – arguably belong more to the history of music. Little regarded at the time, their full impact would await later reappraisals in the middle of the century.  Still, both represent decisive interventions by professional painters intent on engaging with the sonic arts while tilting at the limits of their traditional forms.

Sound art implies something less bounded by the theatrics of the concert hall than music; less like a show with a beginning and an end, more like a sculpture for the viewer to walk round and digest in their own time, albeit a sculpture made not of marble or stone but acoustic waves. But, all too often, sound is still regarded as a poor cousin to the visual arts, ferreted away in a dark corner or cellar vault, its distance from the main attractions prudently maintained.

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

There are a number of sound-based works in the Tate’s permanent collection, for instance, but the only ones currently on display – Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet (2001) and Susan Hiller’s Monument (1980–81) – are kept down in the Tanks, those rough-hewn former oil-storage spaces in the building’s basement which, rather like MoMA PS1 in New York (another important venue for sound work), are intended as an incubator for the new and experimental. (A museum with stabilisers, if you like.) None of MoMA’s sound works are currently on display. Other major contemporary art institutions, such as SMAK in Ghent, the Museu d’Art Contemporani in Barcelona, and the MCA Chicago, tell a similar story.

It could be argued that half a century or so isn’t such a long time in the slow-moving world of permanent public collections. It is, after all, an instant compared to the history of painting and sculpture – but a comparison with video and installation works may be more telling. The origins of these genres are more or less contemporary with sound art, yet Sweden’s Moderna Museet, for instance, holds over 200 installations and 450 moving image works, but has no figures for the sound works in its collection. The Guggenheim, likewise, is unable to tell me how much sonic art it has acquired.

However things do seem to be improving, albeit gradually. In Helsinki, the Kiasma Museum’s entire top floor is dedicated to Hans Rösenstrom’s installation Her Presence Still (2007), a work in which a Lynchian stage-set of red drapes and a plush green armchair awaits the arrival of an uncanny acoustic ghost, transmitted to spectators, one at a time, via headphones. In Dublin, IMMA has important recent works by Willie Doherty and Daphne Wright on permanent display, providing a small sample of the museum’s impressive 59 sound works out of a collection of just over 4,000.

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

One morning last autumn, I walked across Waterloo Bridge, dreaming of a new dawn for the sonic arts. It wasn’t so much that I imagined that the art world’s longstanding ocularcentrism had been dethroned; more that, finally, sound seemed at least to have a seat at the table. I had just visited ‘The Infinite Mix’, 10 ventures into ‘contemporary sound and image’ housed in the Store, a cavernous ex-industrial space on the Strand. Works by Jeremy Deller, Martin Creed, Kahlil Joseph, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and others were generously apportioned space in their own concrete shells with excellent stereo equipment and plenty of room to prevent noise from bleeding between exhibits – each one intended primarily for the ears of the audience.

Once across the river, I headed for Tate Modern. Buoyed by the show at the Store, I was on my way to check out, for the first time, the new Switch House extension, the culmination of Tate’s long-term plan to forge a more inclusive space for performance and new media in its permanent collection. I had high hopes of finding there a display as richly polyphonic as I had seen earlier in the day. They would be short-lived. Apart from the low hum of Mike Kelley’s Channel One, Channel Two, and Channel Three (1994), the upper floors of the Switch House’s broad, high-ceilinged halls were almost completely silent.

Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery and curator of ‘The Infinite Mix’ explains that ‘There are logistical reasons why museums do not show many sound works and some of these also explain why you don’t see that many large-scale video exhibitions either.’ He’s right, of course. Writing in the journal Organised Sound in 2009, the American author and composer Alan Licht complained that the New Museum’s 2008 survey of collage works, ‘The Sound of Things: Unmonumental Audio’, which played audio montages by Pauline Oliveros, Seth Price, and Keith Obadike in sequence over a loudspeaker, reduced its sound pieces to ‘anonymous background music’. PS1’s ‘Organizing Chaos’ exhibition in 2007, Licht likewise lamented, suffered from the noisy bleed of Guitar Drag (2000), a video by Christian Marclay, imposing itself on all the other works. While, at the 303 Gallery in New York, Jane and Louise Wilson’s installation The Silence is Twice as Fast Backwards (2008) was marred by the intrusion of other sounds, such as idle chat and the tap-tap of a computer keyboard from the gallery reception desk.

With today’s advances in directional audio and sound-baffling technology, these issues are far from insurmountable. Even without getting into parametric ‘sound lazers’, hi-tech ‘acoustic space delimiters’, and industrial ‘echo barriers’, you don’t necessarily need the vast acreage that Rugoff had at his disposal at the Store. Last year, Wysing Arts Centre staged an exhibition called ‘All Channels Open’ in its far smaller main exhibition space. Its curator John Bloomfield conceived the show like a mixtape, with works succeeding each other in time, not space. Each work took it in turns to activate the gallery’s sound system while the clever use of lighting directed the spectator’s attention to video or sculptural elements in different parts of the space which complemented the predominant acoustic element. The result, as Wysing’s director Donna Lynas explained to me at the time, was ‘less like a group show, more like eight solo shows, one after the after’.

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

Many other strategies have been employed in temporary exhibitions, but for some reason the heightened prestige of the permanent display still eludes most sound work. As Rugoff recognises, there’s more than mere pragmatism to the resistance of museums to the aural. ‘There is also,’ he says, ‘a bias against works that don’t satisfy our seemingly insatiable appetite for visual stimulation. As a culture we are generally obsessed with images and museums reflect that.’ Few things demonstrate the arbitary nature of this museological bias better than the fact that it wasn’t always so. Long before Germano Celant – or even Russolo and Duchamp – exhibitions could be polyphonic, multisensory experiences in which diverse sounds and sensations competed, sometimes clamorously, for their audience’s attentions. Taking a longer historical perspective, the typical hush of the gallery proves to be a relatively recent phenomenon.

Before there were public museums, there was the cabinet of curiosity. In the early modern era, the urge to collect, catalogue, and display found expression in these hoards of rarities in private homes. Such collections were initially sequestered in the deepest recesses of noble houses, reserved for the solitary contemplation of their collectors. They were quasi-monastic spaces, purposely kept away from the noise of the world. But with time, there was a gradual opening up of the once-private cabinets towards a more public – if still limited – social sphere, and with this opening up there came a consequent movement from studious silence to sounding conviviality.

These closets of rarities might place a taxidermied tiger next to a nail from the true cross, dubious antiquities and exotic artefacts from abroad beside scientific (or fantastical) marvels from closer to home. Nathaniel Hawthorne is already describing something close to the end of an era when, in his short story of 1842 ‘A Virtuoso’s Collection’, the narrator recounts a visit to a small private ‘museum’ where a mysterious collector-curator shows him the very wolf (stuffed) which pursued Red Riding Hood and upon a dusty shelf, the same lamp once rubbed by Aladdin.

If collections like this were initially the preserve of the nobility, by the end of the 17th century in London at least, there were similarly marvellous exhibitions on display in taverns and coffeehouses (in the rowdy atmosphere one might expect in such establishments). There you might find not just a scrap of tapestry, an Ottoman scimitar, or a dead parrot, but also selections of mechanical contrivances like talking heads, music boxes, and clockwork ducks. The Duke of Stettin, visiting London in 1602, recorded in his diary a visit to a private cabinet where he was shown ‘a globe of brass or steel; when touched it gave forth sound like a triangle’. A popular exhibit in London later in the century was an item called the ‘groaning plank’, consisting of a board of elm which gave off a deep moaning sound when touched with a hot iron.

It seems likely from these descriptions that visits to these establishments would be a feast not just for the eyes. The knowledge here being imparted, no matter how dubious, reached its audience as much by touch and hearing as sight alone. In tribute to the multisensory nature of such embryonic museums, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller created an artwork called The Cabinet of Curiousness (2010). The piece consists of an antique card-file with small loudspeakers in each drawer. Opening the drawers activates a succession of recorded sounds, from spoken words and seaside field recordings to trilling violins. But the operatic arias that burst from some of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s drawers, not to mention the look of the work itself, relate more to an era when this kind of spectatorship was being closed off.

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

Illustration: The Lindström Effect

By the 19th century, seeing was being cast as the unique and privileged path to knowing. To this end, a whole disciplinary apparatus was marshalled to maintain the proper attitude of solemn spectatorship in the first public museums. The art critic Jonathan Crary has written at length about what he calls a ‘separation of the senses’ in the 19th century, which created a mystified relation between the viewer and ‘new objects of vision’ such as photographs, commodities, and museum exhibits. What he speaks less of is the way such a separation is subtly enforced, in a museum context, by the presence of uniformed guards, and by the architecture of the gallery spaces themselves – their typically echoey, reverberant form tends to throw back upon the speaker their own voice as something alien and uncanny.

We can still, to a large extent, recognise the contours of this disciplinary regime in our contemporary museums – the injunctions to shush and not touch, and the many subtle ways we are encouraged to police our own behaviour in the presence of ‘great works’. But art’s ocular bias, its separation of works and senses from one another, can’t help but seem harder to maintain in the light of art’s own development over the last century. Thankfully, there is growing evidence of a change in attitudes. We are already beginning to witness the emergence of a more polyphonic, multisensory, and downright noisy kind of spectatorship. The museum of the future may yet cater to the ears as much as the eyes.

From the October 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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