This book asks you to breathe and resonate without words
Salomé Voegelin’s new book, Uncurating Sound: Knowledge with Voice and Hands, is by far her most honest, personal and also most difficult to read. Difficult, in the sense that you need to find the »right« way to read it, in-between academic categorization towers and artists’ desperate search for new sensibilities in a world in deep crisis. Constantly, I found myself stopping to reread and reflect, making my small academic (i-am-so-clever)-notes in the note tool on my impersonal tablet. Simultaneously, I was feeling increasingly uneasy, a gap was growing, and I realised I had to read the book in a completely different way. Horisontally and emphatically. Reading with care.
There is a real sense of »staying with the trouble« and a deep inspiration from Donna Haraway’s book Staying With the Trouble (2016) in Voegelin’s book, which could be said to pay tribute and mobilize Haraway’s method in sound studies. It is a brave attempt, indeed.
And reading it, I faced a scaling down of me, as a reader, licking the conceptual windows of sound studies
The word »descaling« seemed to reappear in my notes. Meaning, on the one hand, the book is an actual and effectual processual removing of the residues of decades of artistic and intellectual encrustations, self-imposed (false) regimes of critique and systems of »curating« meaning. On the other hand, Voegelin is confronting the very scaling of a carefully calibrated system (measuring the space and dimensions of the space of listening), the hierarchies (the spectrum of listening to a crisis), the ratio (the map – actual and imaginative landscape of the crisis), and finally the ways in which to communicate the spread and magnitude of the sense of crisis.
And reading it, I faced a scaling down of me, as a reader, licking the conceptual windows of sound studies, instead of reading – as Voegelin herself is licking her windows instead of writing this book during the Covid lock down:
»Ensconced in this way, the sonic world became smaller«. (p.2)
»Focused on my own body, my breathing, my movements, my sounding with walls and windows and other more than human bodies increasingly took on a more central role«. p.2
A rule of care
So, »uncurating« is about the sonic world in a more than human situation, and how the artist and how the audience, which are both unwell according to Voegelin, are situated here.
Finally, it is about instating a rule of care as an alternative to the encrustations and call for a reorganization of »power«.
»… the reorganization of power as a matter of care, working through as yet invisible but plural gestures of interaction and responsibility, off the line, to build a different solidarity«. p.11
As the title of the book indicates, it is dealing with curation – as a role and as a metaphor of the »power« Voegelin wants to reorganise, well »uncurate«.
The real aim of Voegelin’s book is mainly to descale the existing art world
The curator is part of a larger cultural system of human actants, what Dickie and Becker (and others) named an »art world«. You may find good arguments to counter Voegelin’s claim that the power of repression relies ONLY on the curator since it is too reductive to put so much weight and power into one figure or »role« … but that said, just like the art works being exhibited in any exhibition, the curator is entrenched into the art world. Entangled in this way, the cultural production to some extent is under the purview of the curator, but it would not be operational if it was not safely within the expectations of the existing art world.
But, the real aim of Voegelin’s book is mainly to descale the existing art world, which is based on domination and exclusion (according to Voegelin), and form or formulate a de novo artworld poised to »descale« the more than human world. In the words of Voegelin:
»In the context of the gallery space, this implies a solidarity between curators; curators and artists; curators, artists and exhibition visitors, with the work, the institutional architecture, its infrastructure of human and more than human things: generating a different communality of the (art) world that is not governed and legislated but practised, and that presents its asymmetries as part of the artistic process and for debate«. p.11
(Putting on the »academic« curator googles on for one paragraph) there might be a problem in Voegelin’s argument in reading of curation from a genealogy of curare without considering the setting of the priest being the curare that guides the souls of his (always male!) flock so the STAY WITHIN THE ACCEPTED BOUNDARIES OF RELIGIOUS laws and repression of the individual and society at large – to the benefit of real conservative powers like aristocrats or kings.
The modern curator
So, the curare indicates a repressive society and culture where the individual is unfree.
The modern curator could in this context be said to be part of a rebellion, socially, culturally, politically, racially, decolonial from this repressive culture of curare. In so many ways, it is EVERYTHING that Voegelin wants to counter.
(Taking academic googles off) It is however saying a lot about the book that it is not to be read as a genealogy or critique, with a set argument, but as an invitation to the readers to encounter a shared condition, reading as a struggle, so to speak. Reading as an act or process of licking the windows of your spaces and start over, descale the world sonicaly.
So, to put it this way, the book itself is a struggle to read and to »understand«, because the meaning of it is not in any strict sense, »discoursive«. As Voegelin writes, »it is in the struggle, the process, the doing with of art as joint gardening, digging and planting, that we might get to recognize each other in our shared condition.«
All of this taps into a overlayered conversation Voegelin has in the book with critique and truth. She states that, »i am not interested in critique« as it is »overrated« to the »detriment of feminism«. Further, according to Voegelin, »truth is not found as evidence, but as present memory, that witnesses from plural orientations the sense of contingent interactions.« p. xi
Uncurating Sound is really about everything unsound
This is the descaling actively at work where the aim is to »find meaning and intelligibility in plural voices, that materialize, that sing and hum and listen, simultaneously« by »divest ourselves of theory’s structure and deviate from its aim of legitimacy which is confirmed through reference, historico-geographical evidence and a mute voice«. p.xvi
The book is one long descaling process, a performative exercise in undisciplinary and disordered search for the contingent interactions and present memories demonstrating the codependency with »the world«.
The crisis framing this descaling process in the book is first and foremost Covid, which made »…inter-being codependency apparent while sound makes it thinkable.« (p.2)
With this epi-crisis as a backdrop, the book itself is staged as a kind of textual breathing, or sonic scoring or singing »without words until you are out of breath«. p. xvi
Uncurating Sound is really about everything unsound, and how to »ponder the normal through the notion of a post normality«. And the method of this descaling of the human body and normality consists of »textual rhythms that try to uncurate sound and uncurate knowledge with ears and hands and an idiosyncratic voice.«
A paradox of sorts, since writing and language of course is closely associated with the dominant power structures Voegelin seeks to descale. But Voegelin succeeds with her project, despite almost all odds you can say, since after all the post-covid world does not want to remember Covid or the lock-down, or the immense pain and suffering it really caused. We want to forget. But if we forget, we do not understand no matter how intellectual or critical we are.
Salomé Voegelin, »Uncurating Sound: Knowledge with Voice and Hands«, 136 pages, Bloomsbury Academic