Thursday, August 04, 2005

Sound: The Next Big Thing?

"Sound art" as "fine art" has been around for a while now, but it continues to suffer from a fundamental failing: "fine art" is a category of the visual arts, and most sound artists don't successfully resolve the "visual" part of their projects. Before you think I'm being unduly hard on sound artists, please note that I don't think most video artists resolve the essence of their medium very well either.

Still, the buzz about sound art lately suggests that as a medium it's getting ready for its close-up. At least it feels that way. (Excuse the awful mixing of sensory metaphors please...I can't help myself.) I'm of two minds about this.

First, I'm excited about the potential of a new(-ish) medium. Seriously, the reason I love the art world is it affords me a vehicle through which I am constantly being exposed to new ideas. Often I feel like a kid bounding down the stairs to the tree in the living room on Christmas morning when heading to a studio visit. What new wonderous thing shall I learn/see/hear today? What new world will be opened up for me? (OK, so it's not always so wonderous, but the potential is there.) Starting with a comparatively blank slate, sound art stands poised to teach me things I had no idea I didn't know.

Secondly, however, most of the sound art I've experienced to date has awkwardly, if not miserably, resolved the visual aspect of the experience.

In what feels like a sincere effort to deal with the essence of their medium, some sound artists are placing a focus on the speakers through which you hear the piece. Among artists doing this are Stephen Vitello (see image at top), Jennie C. Jones, and David Moreno, whose piece in the "Greater New York" exhibition "Stereomo," was described by the NYTimes as "two simple speakers on slender poles that slowly rock back and forth to minimalist music" (can't find an image...sorry). At the other end of that line of reasoning are artists who hide the speakers and leave the "viewer" nothing expect the empty gallery walls to focus on (too many to list, and why pick on them?). Both of these approaches eventually fail for me though. The speakers, in and of themselves, are generally hideous, and only distract me from the sound. The empty gallery approach, regardless of how well engineered, always leads me to focus on other people in the room or, sadly, my own hands or shoes, and unless that was the artist's intent, again, it's for me a failure. What can I say? I'm a visual person.

One artist who's been getting a good deal of attention for having found another way is Candian-born Janet Cardiff. There's a review of the piece the Hirshhorn commissioned from her in the Washignton Post, and there's a good description of her most famous piece---"Forty-part motet"---by Greg Allen. The Hirshhorn describes her piece for them as follows:

Cardiff has developed a 20-minute multisensory audio walk artwork, "Words drawn in water," in which the artist’s layered sound effects merge to evoke a blending of history and memory. [...]To begin the walk, visitors will start out individually from the Hirshhorn's lobby with an Apple iPod shuffle that delivers audio directions instructing them where to walk. Led by an anonymous narrator-which is interspersed among enhanced recordings of ambient sounds, a cappella music, excerpts from historic speeches and snippets of interviews with individuals who recount their Washington, D.C., experiences-participants will pass through the Hirshhorn plaza and Sculpture Garden, along the National Mall and through other Smithsonian museums. Cardiff's voice-over also includes instructions and references to specific artworks, buildings and vistas as visitors approach them on the predetermined route. The work is designed to be an individual experience.

Giving the art "viewer" something other than walls or speakers to look at is a good start to resolving sound art's problem. I say "start" because I think Cardiff has just begun to tap the transcendental potential of her work (although clearly, magical coincidences can happen while listening to one of her walks, they don't always), and there's the problem of filling up the time that leads to criticisms like this one from the Post critic:
The worst bits of "Words Drawn in Water" are those in which Cardiff puts on her storytelling voice and goes all poetical and pseudo-philosophical on us. At those points, the piece recalls an overwrought dream sequence from Hollywood.
Still, more and more graduate art students I'm talking to are experimenting with sound, so we will hopefully see some innovations and resolutions that help the medium mature in the coming years. Stay, er, uh, tuned.


Anonymous anonymous b said...

You forgot Nadine Robinson. The very fabulous work of Nadine Robinson.

8/04/2005 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm sure I've left out a number of talented artists, anonymous. Nadine had a piece in the same exhibition at Smack Mellon as the image of Jennie C. Jones' piece (Christopher Ho had a piece that incorporated sound in a great way in that exhibition as well). It's always that way, but you're right, Nadine's an artist of note in this medium.

8/04/2005 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

While your thoughts regarding speakers seem like good rules-of-thumb, David Moreno's "Stereomo" was actually one of the pieces that I thought stood out in "Greater New York." However, I was much more interested in it as a kinetic work (the speakers swinging back & forth is due to the sound vibrations) than for the sound itself.

8/09/2005 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Good point, ethan. Moreno's piece stood out in my mind as well.

But it was crowded when I was there and even though I leaned in close to listen, I can't tell you much about the sound, so clearly that wasn't what stayed with me.

8/09/2005 01:29:00 PM  

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