Unsurprisingly, most sound exhibitions, like sound performances, require the listener to engage with a specific work for a fixed time. This style of engagement is typified in the use of headphones, loops and other devices that confine the individual’s experience to a single work in the context of many. This practice of isolating works seems to stem from the presumption that the integrity or experience of sound relies on the preservation of certain conditions associated with the protocols of performance or pure, uninterrupted listening.
Unlike many other sound exhibitions, the works in Potent are played into the gallery space together, so that sound is not restricted to the perceived confines of individual creations, but exists as a whole. The result is not a barrage of noise but a considered interrogation of the relationship between sound, its accompanying visual and physical forms, and the way these elements contribute to the listener/viewer’s experience of sound in a gallery context.
In his exhibition catalogue essay, curator Ben Byrne elaborates that sound cannot be understood as “any kind of stable being”, but rather is “a continual becoming, a potential to be experienced.” The notion of sound as potential (from which the title derives) is central to this exhibition.
Each of the works in this show pays particular attention to the way visual and physical representations inform or direct the act of listening, and the extent to which they determine what is actually heard. Sumugan Sivanesan and Sam Smith’s collaborative work, Plywood Box 2006, plays with the notion of sound as the art object. The work consists of a large plywood box and a video—of the two artists ‘playing’ and exploring the box as an instrument—edited into short clips and projected onto the gallery wall. Here, being in physical contact with the box provides a very different experience of sound and space. Audience members are forced to orient themselves sonically in relation to the box which acts as both an ambiguous point of reference from which the sound emanates, and an artefact of the sound being heard.
Sam Bruce’s Partially Manifest Cube requires the listener/viewer to lean over and touch a vibrating box in order to hear it fully. In Bruce’s work, hearing relies upon seeing and touching, such that the sound itself and the act of listening are simultaneously produced by this complex, sensory interdependence. The top surface of the cube is inlaid with a screen displaying a writhing geometric landscape that threatens to burst open and out of the cube. Touching this work feels like placing one’s hand on the lid of a crucible of movement and sound, giving the idea of sound as potential, a palpable, physical reality.
This experience of sound being bodied forth by the art object is explored in Jasper Streit’s Resonator, where sheets of black cardboard are hung along the gallery wall like a series of modernist canvases. Deceptively, the cardboard sheets—attached to resonators—act as the speakers through which the sound is transmitted and, as such, invite the audience to experience the work more intimately. Resonator, like most works in this exhibition, creates a deliberate disconnect between what is received affectively and signified visually. This disjunction is most poignant in Ivan Lisyak’s You’ll be happier with lower standards. Lisyak presents what can only be described as an unrelenting, epileptic video strobe of blue and red spots that insists on the presence of sound whilst being completely devoid of it. His work, in anticipation of his audience’s frustration, is ingeniously all volume and no sound—a kind of absolute potential that never actualises.
By contrast, Ivar Lehtsalu’s Untitled, Two Channel Generative Digital Audio System, defines the possibilities of sound according to the parameters of technology itself. Here, sound moves through a generative figure eight, oscillating between two computers whilst being played from both at once.
By establishing a context in which works cannot be conceived as temporally, spatially or conceptually discrete entities, Potent makes us rethink the boundaries of the listener/viewer experience as well as the art object itself. In doing so, it breaks the mould traditionally reserved for gallery exhibitions of sound, drawing attention to the way the visual relates to the directed perception of sound, and how the continuity of sound relates to the discontinuity of visual forms.
Michelle Jamieson is an arts writer who has recently completed an honours thesis at the University of New South Wales on the ontology of data and subjectivity.
Potent, curator Ben Byrne, first draft, Sydney, Nov 1-18
RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 49
© Michelle Jamieson; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com