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Magazine

09 March 2015
How to listen through discourse?

Sonia Fernández Pan

There are various things I find indispensable when writing about art; one of them is techno music. That a form of music generally associated with the body and movement, functioning almost as the essence of dance culture, be exonerated of its usual functions to become a strategy for the acceleration and ordering of thought, to me seems significant. Because it establishes a relation between art and sound that distorts the customary idea of sound in art as being something that happens in an exhibition space. And because it liberates this music from a dance floor and in doing so demonstrates how the disassociation we make between body and mind is a Platonic error, one that has become a dogma thanks to a history of thought that seems to have forgotten that to think –and to listen– we need a body.

Nevertheless, my listening preferences for the production of texts commit the crime of repeating a point in common with art regarding sound: that establishes a naturalised correlation between contemporary artistic practices and electronic music, a term as broad as it is lacking in definition. The electronic music, that the white box accepts within its four walls, is not dance music, or usually isn’t outside festival appendices. Art pays attention to and promotes what fits within another category, one as frustrating as it is habitual: that of “experimental music”. A predisposition of art towards a certain type of sound that reminds us of how experimental art is (like the improvisation of jazz) has become in itself a value, surviving thanks to the repetition of clichés and pre-established formulae closer to aesthetic numbness than any disruptive attitude. We’ve seen or listened to such experimentation before.

Within some visual arts, where visual is also a murky category, moments occur when sound also gains more or less prominence. Normally it is announced under the–once again problematic– label of sound art, which tends to refer to artistic production where sound is used as a medium, and seems to have become, within a predominantly visual or textual context, an intermittent or sporadic guest, to whom every now and again more or less attention is paid. A guest, that doesn’t need a museum to exist, because it has its own circuits of production, presentation and diffusion. There are few who are surprised or outraged on entering an exhibition that uses such a fragile nexus as ‘sound art’ to uphold conceptually a series of works on the evidence of their medium. Just imagine for a moment coming across an exhibition of “iron art” or “plastic art”. The response of the public would no doubt be quite different from the automatic or unthinking response produced by the category sound art. It seems evident that art (every now and again) likes sound. But sometimes, I ask myself if sound likes how it is assimilated by art. As I also ask myself if art likes music which doesn’t fit within the parameters of its aesthetic taxonomies.

A few years ago I began my PhD in which most of the research revolved around the question of the status of the introduction of sound in contemporary artistic practices. This somewhat limited and naïve investigation traced a historic line between Futurism and club culture, conscious that the latter didn’t fit very well in the history of art. I suppose this audacity derived from the existence of projects such as Lost in Sound (CGAC, 1999), Proceso Sónico (MACBA, 2002), the Festival Zeppelin or the reading of some of the texts by the Orquesta del Caos. In an academic context, that structures art according to a succession of events over time, the elaboration of a partial chronological line became the most operative solution, albeit not the most interesting one. The fundamental reference was located in the Manifesto dei Rumori by Luigi Russolo, a first apology for noise within the most belligerent avant-garde group. The following major milestone arrived decades later with Fluxus and the centrality music played within its broad spectrum of activities. The sound art that would take several years before it appeared, offered within this historical timeline a certain legitimacy to traverse the museum and arrive at dance culture, under the auspices of the texts of Dj Spooky or Kodwo Eshun, and different re-readings of the Deleuzian rhizome that praised the supposed lack of hierarchy in the styles of electronic music. A dose of frustration arises from such conceptual gymnastics that convert us into solitary academic detectives, hunting through texts and authors in search of legitimating quotations that serve to back up ideas that appeared before, not after, those readings. The most paradoxical thing of all was approaching sound through reading rather than listening. To talk about listening situations or sound pieces without having experienced them, incurred continuous, somewhat forced, philosophical stretches. Nowadays I ask myself what does linking the Manifesto dei rumori to club culture contribute. I also ask myself if there is any sense in constantly recurring to visual history to think, or talk, about sound.

Bearing in mind that the best arena for listening is not the museum, what does the museum have to offer sound, beyond a context of protection and cultural guarantees? A priori, sound is equipped to appear in any type of space. To reduce it to only a few is to restrict its field of action. Do those who work with sound feel comfortable within the context of contemporary art? Is it legitimate to work, with a type of production of which neither the history, its technical particularities or needs are known? Although a curator doesn’t need to produce art to work with it, with sound, the conviction that one doesn’t have to produce anything in order to think about it trembles a little, for fear of meddling. As well as the fear of falling irredeemably into the clichés of sound art or into the excessive, gratuitous intellectualization of a self-satisfied discourse. To convert sound into a theme of contemporary art, rather than art into an ally of sound. Or, to understand sound, beyond an experimental cliché. But amongst all these and others doubts there is one that always appears: how to listen through discourse without subordinating sound to this very discourse?

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