Exploring the Sphere of Sound - an essay + website

CDL member Alessandra Pearson shares her critical design project, Sphere of Soundwhich explores sound as a multi-sensory experience .

-Alessandra Pearson-

 

“It is perhaps not premature to suppose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active and more spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively than anyone else to an extension of the several sense fields…”

 – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Just as the nightingale sings in order to define its nest and mark out its territory, so do we occupy and at the same time empty out the universe with our thunderous techniques. Like the submerged cathedral of old, the earth is engulfed by noise.

– Michel Serres

 [Image description: screen shot of website landing page with a cropped ear in the background, overlaid by white text saying “Sphere of Sound: Explorations of Aural Perception”]

[Image description: screen shot of website landing page with a cropped ear in the background, overlaid by white text saying “Sphere of Sound: Explorations of Aural Perception”]

What makes sound meaningful? Sound helps designate our place in the world. In Sphere of Sound, I wanted to explore creative representations of the aural dimension and how they help inform our understanding of hearing. Via sound-based installations and performances, artists such as Tarek Atoui and Christine Sun Kim have deconstructed our existing idea of what it is to experience sound. Keeping embodied differences in mind when creating art challenges how we understand perception and the senses with which we process information. As a response to the works discussed in this essay, I’ve begun a video vignette series that asks viewers to shift their embodied understanding of meaning creation. To view the videos and videos of the following artists’ work, visit the accompanying site (here.)

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Philosophers since Aristotle have defined the five senses and the process of sensing as going from potentiality to actuality, from perceived to applied meaning.  While Jean-Luc Nancy reduced the body to “that in which sense is given and out of which sense emerges,” others such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty have more thoroughly unpacked bodily experiences via a grasp of the chain of physical and physiological events. I want to understand the body as more than just a signifier. Merleau-Ponty stresses that we are conscious of ourselves and our body via the world, and the senses are primary facilitators of this experience. We surge towards objects/entities in our search for their meaning/the meaning of their surroundings. This resulting, subjective meaning can in turn be influenced or supplemented by these very objects. With this in mind, we can look towards future instantiations of how the body will play a role in our interactions with the digital (and in this case, artworks that incorporate the digital to deliver their messages), particularly from a posthuman standpoint.

In her seminal work, How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles pushes this idea of subjective meaning creation further: “The posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate,” she claims, meaning that extending the body or replacing certain functions is inevitable (Hayles, 3). If the necessity for embodiment in order to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings is decentered in such a manner, more value is placed on external tools that assist with cognition and the application of meaning. From here, couldn’t we legitimize artistic approaches to new constructions of subjectivity and cognition in general?

Tarek Atoui is a hard of hearing Lebanese artist and sound composer. Since 2012, he has worked with Al Amal School for the Deaf in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates to gain knowledge about the Deaf experience of interacting with sound (Council, 2014). This collaboration lead to a long-term project known as WITHIN, which culminated in musical performances and instruments with and for Deaf people. Infinite Ear continued this research and provided a multi-sensory and exploratory haven for Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing visitors alike.

The exhibition was part of the 2016 Bergen Assembly, Norway’s triennial, for which Atoui was one of the Artistic Directors. It included several films, videos, artwork installations, sonic experiences, and innovative instruments all collected with the intention of providing an entirely new aural experience for visitors.  “Infinite Ear is an exercise in inhabiting hearings edge, hearings ‘other’ from without, and in inhabiting that which remains in excess of sound. It displaces, attenuates and substitutes the organs and sounding apparatuses normally responsible for hearing and speaking. Instead, Infinite Ear versions hearing, denaturalizes it, and creates a conceptual morphospace composed of multiple kinds of ‘hearing knowledges,’” Emma Goodhart writes in the online documentation of their explorations that led to the exhibition (Council, 2014).

While the auditory brainstem works with the inner ear to localize sound sources and parse out frequencies, people who are hard of hearing have reduced frequency selectivity and seek other, external resources to aid in perception of noise.  By choosing to work with the Deaf community, Atoui uncovered creative, novel methods for interactivity and sensory mediation. The materials in the exhibition (such as the instruments, the environment) are the what create this ‘hearing knowledge’ - revealing that how we perceive auditory information is relative, adaptable, and fluid. Council, a curatorial group that worked with Atoui on the exhibition, contributed an experience called White Cat Café, where visitors could choose from a menu of drinks paired with recordings of normally inaudible sounds ranging from a snowy landscape to the gravitational waves emitted from colliding black holes. Another collaborator, artist Thierry Madiot, created sound massages that visitors could experience by lying on designated tables and feeling carefully curated series of vibrations (Council 2016).

On her blog, We Make Money Not Art, Régine Debatty describes the benefit of these instruments created with D/deaf individuals, “By working together on the instruments, which appeal to both the hearing and deaf public, the aim is to convey to visitors from the perspective of deaf people how instruments and the sounds produced by them are perceived by the D/deaf community and how the instruments can be played in these circumstances.” These experiences flip the script by putting the nonhearing individual first, as they rely on vibrations and touch before audible noise.


 [Image description: still from video by Alessandra Pearson. Blurred image of the side of a face and an ear mixed with light-flesh toned distortion]

[Image description: still from video by Alessandra Pearson. Blurred image of the side of a face and an ear mixed with light-flesh toned distortion]

Similarly, artist Christine Sun Kim transcodes sound and meaning to produce unique artworks. Born deaf, Kim began her career making paintings. However, she wanted to “reclaim ownership of sound” by putting it into her art practice. Particularly due to her experiences navigating a world that is not build for her deaf body, Kim has considered how she has to adapt her own behavior to fit into a world of sound. She views sound as “social currency,” and by harnessing it in her art, she pushes back against normative exchanges of this currency.

Kim works with gestures, visual cues, sound, and other traditional 2-D media as foundations for creating her work. In Game of Skill 2.0, which was presented as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition in 2015, the artist hung a handheld device from lines hung across the ceiling.  Visitors are prompted to hold the device and move forwards and backwards in order to play the audio. However, the need for ‘skill’ lies in the fact that the handheld portion must be held in a specific manner for the audio to play in a decipherable message.  As users walk through the physical space to experience the sound, Kim provides a literal expansion of their auditory fields.

Game of Skill 2.0 requires both users and technology to work together to create meaning, a way of emphasizing the “mutually constitutive interactions between components of a system rather than on message, signal or information,” like Hayles wrote decades prior (Hayles, 11). This deemphasizes abilities or inabilities of components of the system and requires all parts, biological and mechanical, to work together to decipher information. And, just like the new forms of communication that emerged with the phonograph or the later, vibration-based instruments exhibited in Infinite Ear, such novel interactions with technology can bring about new understandings of how the senses enable those forms of communication. “It is through instruments that transformed perceptions occur and new ‘worlds’ emerge, but any new world is itself a modification of life-world processes,” Don Ihde mentions in his book Bodies in Technology. (Ihde 2002)

Historically, such artistic interpretations of auditory signal processing have not always been possible without what Ihde called ‘instruments.’ Technological inventions in the twentieth century such as the phonograph revolutionized the transmission of sonic information. Despite the apparent need for hearing to acknowledge its utility, this mechanism owes its genesis to Thomas Edison, who was deaf in one ear. In 1877, Edison’s original impetus for his work in recording sound was to increase the speed of processing Morse telegraph messages. The machine ended up recording frequencies, or, vibrations per second (Kittler 1986).

Initially, the phonograph was a way to simply record sound, but it provided the foundation for later, more modern data streams and recordings of everything ranging from psychoanalytical sessions and government propaganda to music and radio. In his discussion of the transmission of senses, Friedrich Kittler references Rainer Maria Rilke’s essay, “Primal Sound.” Here, Rilke mentions his first experiences with recorded sound, and how they have informed one conception of the senses that he illustrates as a sort of sphere. “If the world’s whole field of experience, including those spheres which are beyond our knowledge, be represented in a complete circle, it will be immediately evident that when the black sectors, denoting that which we are incapable of experiencing, are measured against the lesser, light sections, correspond to that which is illuminated by the senses, the former are very much greater" (Kittler 1986). These “abysses” between functioning senses seem to offer some sort of extrasensory potential for Rilke. This suggests that the way Infinite Ear or Game of Skill 2.0 bend prior notions of sound are very fruitful, for there is content and room for possibility in the ‘abyss’ between one activated sense and another.

         A few decades later than Rilke, scholar and philosopher Don Ihde explored the idea of the auditory field as shaped like a sphere even further in his book, Listening and Voice. “Were it to be modeled spatially, the auditory field would have to be conceived of as a “sphere” within which I am positioned, but whose “extent” remains indefinite as it reaches outward toward a horizon. But in any case as a field, the auditory field-shape is that of a surrounding shape" (Ihde, 1976). We are surrounded, immersed, penetrated by sounds such as symphonies and other forms of music. This ‘surroundability’ of the auditory field is what places us within it in order to find meaning in Rilke’s sensory abysses. The ambiguity of this field, or sphere, is what leaves it open to interpretation: Kim’s and Atoui’s artworks communicate the experience of the self, silence, and sound via non-normative means. Both artists convey this ‘surroundability’ of our exchange with environmental sounds, and take advantage of the ‘abysses’ between senses by requiring audiences to create meaning from their artwork in ways that might not be obvious.

 [Image description: screenshot of video by author featuring a cropped image of the profile view of a face and ear. White text overlaying the image says: “Silence in the great theatre,"

[Image description: screenshot of video by author featuring a cropped image of the profile view of a face and ear. White text overlaying the image says: “Silence in the great theatre,"

From a biological perspective, our ears transduce sound vibrations into electrical energy that can be translated into meaningful information. These artists use external tools to supplement this flesh-based, biological process to illustrate just how fruitful understandings of our posthuman relationship with technology and tools can be. In deprioritizing the able, un-aided body as key for the delivery and perception of sensory information - boundaries between the five senses can be broken down in so as to guide us further into the sphere of sound.

 

References

Atoui, Tarek, interview by Stephanie Bailey. 2014. The Art of Resonance: Tarek Atoui in Conversation with Stephanie Bailey IBRAAZ, (May 8).

Bergen Assembly. 2016. Infinite Ear. September. Accessed October 1, 2016. http://bergenassembly.no/en/tarek-atoui/infinite-ear/.

Council, Forms of. 2014. Tacet. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/30_tacet.

Debatty, Régine. 2016. We Make Money Not Art. September 8. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://we-make-money-not-art.com/infinite-ear-on-the-practices-of-un-or-para-hearing/.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. 1999. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, Don. 2002. Bodies in Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ihde, Don. 1976. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Kim, Christine Sun. Artist website. Accessed February 27, 2018. http://christinesunkim.com/work/game-of-skill-2-0/.

Kim, Christine Sun. “The Enchaning Music of Sign Language.” TED Talk. August 2015.  Accessed February 24, 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/christine_sun_kim_the_enchanting_music_of_sign_language

Kittler, Friedrich A. 1986. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: The Humanities Press.