Sound art is one of those amorphous terms that can confuse even a very sophisticated art audience. The fact that it is referred to by so many nicknames – sound art, audio art, sound poetry, sound sculpture, etc. – indicates the extent it can encompass. Loosely defined by the Tate Museum in England, it is “art that uses sound both as a medium (what it is made of) and as a subject (what it is about).”
A great way to understand it more fully is to visit “Acoustic Resonance” (until December 11), an exhibition sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art (ICA at MECA). Curated by Julie Poitras Santos, ICA Exhibitions Director at MECA, and Steve Drown, Bob Crewe Program Coordinator in Art and Music, it features works that may clarify the term, as well as others that may lend more of confusion. But it’s still interesting.
Several sources attribute the first work of sound art to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 film about his “noise intotonators”. It could be, however, that the genus extends centuries earlier, possibly to a cave system in Malta dating from 3000-2400 BC which would indicate a very early human understanding of acoustics. Whatever its origins, it exploded onto the art scene in earnest in the 1970s and continues to chart a vital course through artists such as Janet Cardiff, Florian Hecker and Tarek Atoui.
The best sound art is deeply moving, while less accomplished examples can just seem random and dissonant. The vast majority of them are also very conceptual, which makes it an exhibition that requires time, and also some strategic planning (one work plays on a quarter of an hour, another on three quarters). The required admission time slots are 30 minutes, but it took me over an hour to fully absorb the show.
“Air” by Audra Wolowiec testifies to the extraordinary psychotropic power of which this art form is capable. She mounted loudspeakers on beams at one end of a gallery and dotted the three walls around it with commas. These were all that remained of the US Constitution after the words were removed, thus signifying a sequence of visual pauses. In music, commas function as signals for performers to catch their breath. Thus, she invited yoga and Lamaze practitioners, as well as actors and singers, to interpret this “score” of pauses using their breathing. Each speaker emanates the breath vocalization of a particular person.
As I walked through this installation, I suddenly found myself hyper-aware of what was happening with my own breathing as I passed each speaker. It kept changing, sometimes struggling to maintain its rhythm in the presence of individual vocalizations, other times adapting that rhythm to be more in line with them, still other times stopping altogether. At times, I have perceived the commas as invitations to pause and take a healing breath from the contemporary maelstrom we live in. At another point, they seemed to epitomize the way we hold our breath when we anticipate another, often calamitous, eventuality. The panoply of emotions aroused by this installation was spellbinding.
Some exhibitions deny us the sound they produce or that inspired them. In the same gallery is “Inhale Exhale Volume 2020” by Julianne Swartz, a pouch-like form made of copper wire and suspended from the ceiling. The sculpture is connected to electronic components that emit sounds at frequencies that humans cannot hear, but which cause the metal sleeve to vibrate at irregular intervals. In this way, he invokes synesthesia, a term that varies according to the field to which he refers. Generally, this means that we can experience one sense through multiple other senses. In Swartz’s work, we “see” sound rather than hear it. Neurology views synesthesia as an aberrant condition, while art simply interprets it as a deeper, more layered form of perception. Spiritualists consider it proof that perception goes far beyond mere intellect (which, of course, it does).
Andrea Ray’s “Aspirational LPs Series” also produces no sound, instead featuring laminated digital c-prints on album covers. Each represents music that – in the words of the late Cuban-American Queer Studies author José Esteban Muñoz – “isn’t there yet” or “will have been”. For example, one is titled “She will have been president”. The nonexistent LP inside is supposed to be performed in an alternate reality by “Shirley Chisolm and the Equal Rights Party Chorus”. We can only contemplate what music this will eventually be (or would have been), but my mental soundtrack kept playing Nina Simone.
A very scary work is “In the Fury!” a video by John Fireman that uses the 2018 “sonic attack” on the US Embassy in Havana as a way to explore the history of sound weaponization. It illustrates the many disturbing ways in which sound has been deployed in wars and other conflicts: from Native American “death whistles” to a crowd control tool called LRAD that a promotional clip boasts “fills the gap between megaphones, tear gas, tasers, rubber bullets and pepper spray.” I noticed how grateful I was that LRAD, which can cause deafness, was not inflicted on protesters across the country in our present very busy reality.
“Fury” is one of those works that might create mental confusion around the term “sound art”. Sound is indeed the subject of the piece. But because it is not the medium, can it be considered more than video art? And its documentary format might have us wondering if it’s art or just a video thesis on in-depth research on a controversial topic. The same confusion could come from “Layers of the City,” another video that features a song written by its writers, Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere, which is sung by a group of Latinx men, women, and children. The work is ostensibly about the transformation of a place, but to me it felt more like filmed performance art than true “sound art”.
Beyond the question raised about what exactly constitutes sound art, however, the show has a problem – that of sound bleeding. As incredible as Wolowiec’s “Air” is, I found the sounds emanating from other works to interfere with my experience. This is where an ironic strategy comes in; you will have to come back to it in rare moments when the other galleries are actually devoid of sound art sounds.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.