Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Put the Book Back on the Shelf 3 - Sound Art: Beyond Music, Beyond Categories - Alan Licht

Writing a book on sound art is a fairly thankless task, in much the same way that summarizing something like “media art” would be; having been in circulation as a descriptive signifier for a relatively short period of time, sound art is a new medium intersecting other artistic practices – music, obviously, but also digital art, video and new media, film, performance art, sculpture, installation work, etc. Sound art negotiates these boundaries with considerable difficulty; in order to maintain its specificity, it must differentiate itself from music or media art, for example, by declaring itself to be not those art forms. (Even, or especially, when it is parasitic on those forms.) On the other hand, and this is a general problem, sound art cannot solidly define its borders as such without someone coming along to transgress them – “oh, sound art is ABCD, well I’m doing ABCDE, whatcha gonna do about it?” Of course, given the nature of boundaries and their transgressions as analyzed by the early Foucault, it might be the only definition of sound art as such is one that is purely negative, that is defined in terms of its status as “not being that”.[1] But then again, this seems unsatisfactory, as there must be some positivity signified by the rubric “Sound Art.”

Alan Licht, as musician, sound artist and frequent contributor to The Wire is in a good position to undertake this task, and he does so with brio. Licht enumerates three necessary conditions before an art work can be taken to be a work of sound art. The work must be:

1. An installed sound environment that is defined by space (and/or the acoustic space) rather than time and can be exhibited as a visual artwork would be.
2. A visual artwork that also has a sound-producing function, such as a sound sculpture.
3. Sound by visual artists that serves as an extension of the artist’s particular aesthetic, generally expressed in other media. (16-17)

One need hardly point out that this excludes a very significant portion of what people generally think of when they think of sound art, notably performance.
[2] But this definition does have the advantage of being at the very least a starting point, the onus on Licht being to make this definition substantive. Which he doesn’t quite do. What we instead get is little more than an annotated list of sound artists/musicians/poets/visual artists who defy easy characterization. The itinerary, moreover, is a pretty predictable one: Varese, Cage, Fluxus, La Monte Young up to Ikeda, Marclay and Lopez – musicians all, you will note. Licht does point out that they are not sound artists either, so why they are in a book about sound art is an open question.

Licht’s book promises more than it delivers. (Again, given the aforementioned hazards, this is possibly unavoidable). He does, however, make an interesting point about the emergence of sound and environmental art which, he claims, happened at roughly the same time. Licht suggests that the two art forms aspire to a mode of ex-human art (he doesn’t use that term) in which the homo sapien artist and audience are compelled to reconceptualize themselves in terms of the terrestrial environment as a whole. Licht’s concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full here:

Sound art, like its godfather experimental music, is indeed between categories, perhaps because its effect on the listener is between categories. It’s not emotional nor is it necessarily intellectual. Music either stimulates, reinforces, or touches n emotional experiences either directly (through lyrics) or indirectly (through melody and harmony). Even electronic or experimental music, which is often thought of as unemotional or intellectualized, still deals with human thought processes, technology and behaviour. …Music speaks to the listener as a human being, with all the complexity that entails, but sound art, unless employing speech, speaks to the listener as a living denizen of the planet, reacting to sound and environment as any animal would (with all the complexity that entails). This sounds dehumanizing, but this appeal to a primal common denominator may, in fact, show human gesture at its most benevolent and least aggrandizing. By taking sound not as a distraction or currency but as something elemental, it can potentially point to a kind of cosmic consciousness that so much art aspires to. (218)

There are several things to note here: 1) sound art is not, in this formulation, a practice defined by production as it is a practice defined by its consumption. At the point of artistic production, it would be untenable for Licht to claim that any human labour had neither emotional nor intellectual component. (Even the most aleatory art works have at least the idea that they are being aleatory.) Viewed from the perspective of the artistic producer, Licht’s claim doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless he is willing to bring in some sort of concept of “instinct” or Spinozist passion, of which there is nary a sight. (And is cosmic consciousness devoid of intellect and emotion? What is this consciousness conscious of??)

2) There is the claim that listening as a sensory intention is different for humans and animals. Or rather, sound art functions by bracketing the conditioned listening behaviour associated with human listening as such. There is a great deal to be said for this point, and it is a shame that it is not foregrounded and discussed more explicitly in Licht’s work. (Also, animals, it seems to me, have a pretty instrumental approach to sound: “Predator? Prey? Mate?”) The claim that sound art, in production and reception, require, create the need for, or respond to the emergence of a new kind of listening, or even an overall re-ordering of the sensoria, is something that is implicit, but should have been pursued more assiduously.

Which is the main difficulty about writing a review of Licht's book: trying to assess, or even articulate clearly, the claims that he makes about sound art is a bit like catching butterflies with a harpoon. (Not that I would ever do such a thing, Gentle Readers). As with a lot of books about sound art (which have a tendency to be scattershot anthologies, for the most part), there is a fundamental incoherence of argument that too often seems associative at best. At then end of Licht's book, I came away with a list of interesting artists who aren't doing sound art and a sense of certain trends in what isn't really sound art anyways. Which isn't a particularly good result from a book whose title is, after all, Sound Art. There are some excellent insights and arguments here, but they tend to be lost in the slush of detail.

Oh, and by the way, Jim O'Rourke's introduction is beyond inane. It would be charitable to call the man an idiot - charitable, that is, to O'Rourke, not to any actual idiots out there.

[1] Two obvious possibilities occur to me in formulating this, both from French thinkers starting with Ba-: Badiou inflected – sound art is the part of no part of art, or the Baudrillardian definition of sound art as the ecstatic form of music. Consider this review as the first tentative attempt at my book on sound art, fragments of which to be published long after I am dead.
[2] Here I must, as they say in British Parliament, declare an interest: the send + receive Festival of Sound (see blogroll on the right) that I have been involved with since 2001certainly involves installations/sound sculptures, and many audience members and participants are artists involved in a variety of artistic practices. However, performances make up the lion’s share of the programming, so it is with some bemusement that I discover that we haven’t been doing sound art at all, particularly when that is how we distinguish ourselves from other festivals (Mutek, for example.) Of well, life, as Celine is reported to have remarked, is full of disagreeable surprises.

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