By Rosemary Heather
Shown at a number of locations in Berlin, The Sonambient Festival of Hearing and Seeing took place within the wider context of the 2006 World Cup. This was a circumstance that found its most tangible expression at the Brandenbrug Gate branch of the Akademie der Kunst. Situated next to the Gate, on the Pariser Platz, the Akademie also happened to be at the start of the so-called ‘fan mile’. Running along the tree-lined boulevard that connects the Gate to the city’s Victory Column, the fan mile saw audiences of up to 700,000 people congregate to watch live football broadcasts on giant TV screens and bleachers temporarily erected for the occasion.
Two basic assumptions framed the event. The first is that sound art is somehow intrinsically populist. Acknowledging that it sat at the doorstep of an uncommonly powerful global event, the Akademie offered fans the ‘Public Viewing World Cup Sound Art Lounge’, which bracketed screenings of each game with various sound art events, most of them themed DJ evenings. Presumably the idea was to offer fans a gateway to the appreciation of other types of sound-based phenomena. The second more interesting premise is that the festival would in effect provide the context to enable an experience of the city of Berlin as “an actual work of sound art.” By stating its desire to make a connection between “urban experience and sound experience”, the festival organizers reveal a preference for cultural sounds, as opposed to those found in nature – if one can put it like that? It is a distinction made if only for the purposes of shedding light on a deeper bias: that is, in favour of the synthetic character of urban sound experience and its innate connection to spectacle.
The idea that sound based art may lead on to thoughts about spectacle proves useful when considering the artworks presented by the event. It suggests criteria for evaluating the work that is otherwise lacking in the catchall category of sound art. This is especially true because, as a mode of art making that is about aural experience but is not music, sound art has long operated as a subgenre of modernist art practice. Dedicated to experimentation with volume and the spatial, durational and physical effects of sound, it falls within the larger modernist project of finding ways to give tangible expression to a medium’s formal properties.
Much of the work presented by Sonambinete adhered to this proto-modernist formula. Austrian artist Bernard Leitner’s Kaskade (2006), a sound installation in a kidney-shaped stairwell, provided one of the more stellar examples of this type of practice. Six tweeter-fitted parabolic bowls mounted in the 12-story stairwell created cascading effects of sound that changed according to where one was standing. As with the best of these types of experiments, the aural effects had tangible physical and almost visible correlates to create a physically embodied experience of the architectural space. However, most of the artworks in this mode presented by Sonambiente were far less compelling, if only because this type of experimentation seems irrelevant to those aspects of contemporary experience that the best sound-based art can offer a critical perspective on.
A large portion of the show was devoted to works of sculpture with a sound component, and this had the inadvertent effect of exposing the weakness of sound art as a category. For what may be good examples of audio art can also be just middling examples of artworks generally. Belgian artist Kris Vleeschouwer’s Glassworks, a+b (2005), consists of 10,000 glass bottles sitting on a mechanized industrial shelving unit. Connected by an ADSL line to five glass-recycling containers around Berlin, the shelving moves every time someone throws a bottle away, displacing the bottles in the gallery so that they smash to the floor. Although breaking glass always brings with it some residual excitement, the work never quite escapes the banality of its conceptual framework: people recycle and accidents happen, whether casually connected or incidental, both are unremarkable occurrences in everyday life.
Like Vleeschouwer’s piece, the German Robert Jacobsen’s Skulpturelles Theater Nr. 4 (2006) easily falls within the genre of kinetic sculpture. A drum and large symbol are balanced on either ends of a microphone stand that hang’s from the ceiling by a single chain. A small fan next to the symbol causes the sculpture to spin languidly but with enough velocity to activate a drumstick attached to its other end. Although there is a nice economy of materials used, and a kind of semantic equivalence between elements achieved, the sculpture is of a type that could have been made any time in the last 50 years. The historical particularities that gave kinetic pioneer Jean Tinguely’s work its playful and bracing relevance belong to his time; as mechanical devices are themselves an almost outmoded format of our interface with the world, art about machines are also look as if they are speaking to us from another era.
Addressing the disjunction in timeframes that are always a part of the historical condition is Opera for a Small Room (2005) by the Canadians’ Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Viewers look through the windows of to-scale built cabin into an interior filled from top to bottom with old fashioned record players, 24 antique speakers and almost 2000 long playing record albums. Over the course of 20 minutes, a scenario plays out. Animatronic activation of the record players, and light and audio elements evoke a tale about the opera-obsessed individual who retreats to this cabin to play music and reflect on his life. A voice distorted as if speaking through a megaphone, and dreamy as if lost in thought, provides the basic elements of a narrative. Orchestral and pop music, arias from operas, and ambient sound effects such as the thunderous noise from a passing train are layered together to create a fully immersive art experience. So persuasive is the mise-en-scene of this work that one has to stop and remind oneself that what they are watching is happening but is not actually there; no one sits in this cabin playing records. Existing in the imagination in some melancholy Canadian back wood, far from the urban milieu that creates opera and even history, the work sat in fact in an art gallery in Berlin. The Sonambiente festival provided no better example of our susceptibility to the seductions of virtual experience. Perhaps it was the work’s dislocation of locales and implied historical timeframes (record albums are a thing of the past) that helped to make tangible the synthetic nature of the world it creates. The artists had no need to avail themselves of futuristic metaphors to make visible the fantastic virtual character of the reality that comprises much of contemporary experience. Instead they made use of a slight historical time lag to give sharp focus onto the world of the present. Creating an awareness about not the content of that experience but the form that enables its expression is what made this work most relevant to the spectacle of the World Cup that was occurring all around it. In such a large and varied event as Sonambiente 2006, it might seem odd to say that one work more than all the others fully met the event’s ambitions to provide a critical context for a sports event with an unprecedented media reach, but this would only be to point out just how elusive critical reflection on the present can be.
This text originally appeared in The Senses and Society Vol 2, Issue 1.