The audio paper

From situated practices to affective sound encounters.

The audio paper is an academic publication format that seeks to bring together academic argumentation, context and analysis with media, technology and situated, sensory experience in an audio production. This article is a presentation of our conception of what an audio paper can be. As it follows, this conception is depended on and developed within a specific context, both when it comes to how the idea was conceived, how the audio paper takes form in practice and how it gradually is being accepted as an academic publication format. Meanwhile, we bring forth some of the publications we have published so far, we are also aware, that the audio paper is not only a final and fixed format, but is always to be perceived situated to various modes of production, or, to use a concept from Isabelle Stengers (2010): it is always situated in various ‘ecologies of practices’ – whether academic, artistic or practices in between. In the following we will situate the audio paper in relation to how it was developed during the conference, Fluid States, Fluid Sounds in 2015, discuss its current status as a publishing format balancing in-between ethnographic field research and artistic practice, and finally we will discuss its future potentials by revisiting notions of media, technology, ecology, affect and sensation as first formulated in our audio paper manifesto in 2016 (Groth & Samson 2016).


The audio paper format was developed during the seminar ‘Fluid Sounds’ as part of the PSi (Performance Studies international) conference Fluid States in 2015. We will briefly introduce some of the ideas behind the conference Fluid States to contextualize how and why we wanted to develop the audio paper as a fluid format engaging with global and regional questions of knowledge production. The overall concept of Fluid States aimed at working with regional formats of performance and knowledge. Hence, the conference was decentralized into several clusters across the globe for local forms of performances and knowledge to be explored. As our contribution to this fluidity we chose the Danish island Amager, which is part of the region of Copenhagen. In the call for participation we asked, among others, for investigations of the local every day performances, everyday life and the fluid landscape of an islands increasingly being gentrified by Copenhagen urban cultures. It also has the commons, ‘Amager Fælled’, beaches, forests and even farm land, and is the site for Copenhagen’s international airport Kastrup and several major cultural institutions such as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and the University of Copenhagen. Thus, Amager in many ways manifests the fluidity and hybridity of urban-rural landscapes today, and how these landscapes are connected to global infrastructures – through mobile devices, travelling, technologies, economy, design etc. By introducing the audio paper, we intended to explore these landscapes in depth, not only through description and analysis, but also by capturing the hybrid sonic landscape on Amager. The notion - out of space, in this regard, came to mean as out of space from the institutionalized spaces of the academy and the cultural institutions, but also outside what we normally conceive of as established semantic categories. Whereas not all the audio paper in the Fluid Sound publication directly engage with the outside of institutionalized and semantic space, the curiosity for the in-between spaces and the hybridity of non-spaces is a recurrent interest.

To simulate this intension, we conceptualized the 4-day seminar ‘Fluid Sound’ as a two-folded event: The first day, the participants were introduced to site-specific and situated performance lectures in which academics and artists alike presented lectures and performances relating to site-specific issues such as the auditory co-production of local sound cultures and urban sound situations (see Groth & Samson 2017, and the continuum of sensory practices in academia (Schulze 2016). The next three days consisted of an audio paper workshop and a shared presentation. For two days editing labs were provided to support the participants in the process of the making the audio papers. In these situated knowledge situations, the participants developed the audio paper on site during the days of the workshop, by learning and listening to the local soundscapes of Amager. Finally, on the last day, the audio papers were presented and discussed.

© Sharon Stewart
Situated sound recordings – here Sharon Stewart records the sounds of plants in one of the urban gardens on Amager during the audio paper workshops. © Out of Space
© Anne Robinson
Presentations of audio papers on the last day of the conference. © Out of Space

By working simultaneously and by sharing experiences with the situated and site-specific aspects of the knowledge and sound production, the audio paper invited into a material and embodied understanding of knowledge. Later, as the audio papers were published in a special issue of the online journal Seismograf, a manifesto was developed to summarize, conceptualize and proactively define the capacities of the audio paper. In the following, we will give an account of some of the core notions in the manifesto, and provide analytical examples from the audio papers published in the first edited and peer reviewed issue.

Making the audio paper manifesto

Working with the publication of the audio papers, we soon realized, that capturing our intensions and experiences with this new format, would be hard to disseminate in a regular academic preface. The format of the audio paper was not fully defined in the call for audio papers for the Fluid Sounds seminar, but was further developed, and above all, became materialized, during the seminar. When working on the preface for the publication we realized, that even after the seminar, the audio paper was still not a totally fixed and defined concept, but an idea, that was and will be gradually developed among the participants working with the format. The core of the audio paper is, as the regular the academic paper, a defined and well-developed argument or research question situated in a specific academic discourse represented through a bibliography. Meanwhile, the audio paper is also an experiment, as well as it is a subversion of academia. It is a frame for ideas that are present in our time, but that are not yet institutionalized nor settled. After some considerations, we ended up finding the format of the manifesto as the appropriate format for the presentation of the audio papers.

Just like the audio paper, the manifesto by nature is a performative statement in itself that not only encourage action, but is action. The manifesto often has a concrete and site-specific aesthetic – where it is first published and how its mode of production is of importance, but it can also be edited, transformed and remediated along the way and is hereby an organic text – which – just as the concept of the audio papers – is developed and entangled in various practices, movements and tendencies. It is nothing in itself – but finds its value in the actions, and in its engagement with other actions. It is hereby part of greater social ecologies, and never really a thing in itself. These characteristics are also to be found in the audio paper. Besides, in the audio papers, we also found many traces from the avantgarde manifestos and the many experiments of the avantgarde movements in the 20th century – from Fluxus and the Situationists movements to sound montage and radio experiments in Hörspiele, sound poetry, Laut Poesie, and concrete poetry. Also, Murray Schaefer’s thoughts on the soundscape, Barry Truax’s acoustic communication and Steven Feld’s acoustemology combined with contemporary audio walks by sound artist Janet Cardiff and the post-dramatic art collective Rimini Protokoll has formed a conceptual framework for the audio paper. We ended up identifying several co-existing ontologies in the audio papers published, and the manifesto with its short and montage-like format, allowed us to bring heterogeneous and normally not coherent theories together in the same space. Hence, the manifesto brought together ideas from diverse disciplines such as performance, - media,- sound, feminist, and STS studies; likewise theories of performativity, affect and site-specificity co-existed to allow the aesthetic complexities and indeterminacies of the audio paper to unfold within an open ontological framework.

Ex 1 Multifocality, technology and mixed time-space

In the air with the greatest of ease: Phonogenie is an audio paper produced by Scottish performance scholar, Anne Robinson.

The concept consisted of Anne Robinson inviting a wide variety of people to sing a special song they knew by heart for what felt like two minutes. These recording were done in person with Anne Robinson either in a studio, or per distance from among other places the Faeroe Islands. In this audio paper, what we hear is a polyphony of the various voices played simultaneously. To fit into the exact length of two minutes, the voices are either stretched out or compressed to fit the time schedule. Later, in the theoretical framing of the paper, Robinson read her reflections and statements, concerning her exploration of time, and how the experiments with time changes the linear and functional conception of time that is associated with a capitalist mode of production. (Robinson 2016: time 8.40 - 9,34)

This resistance to the predominant mode of production can also be seen in how the paper uses oral history as a technique to open up towards experienced and remembered time. A fictitious space in which many layers and sensations are intertwined. The songs and voices recorded thus tell stories of family and friendship, of remembrance of time passed into time futures. And how distant memories can be brought to the presence through the tonality of the voice, its pitch and affective sensation. In this sense, Robinsons theoretical readings (which undergoes various manipulations throughout the paper) and the voice recordings with its various time manipulations become part of the argument.

In the air with the greatest of ease illustrates multifocality and the role of technology as stated in the manifesto in ad 6-7 (Groth and Samson 2016). In the paper, we find that various protagonists are present, not only the voice act, so does the singing and the various shift in tonality and pitch that the voice undergoes while being manipulated. For instance, the tonality, dialect and materiality of the singing voice in Phonogenie holds the capacity to affect the listener and invoke her own childhood memories.

The editing and manipulation together with both the dialect and the tonality almost suspends any clear subjective or individual voice as multiple voices and times co-exists. This is interestingly also the case when the author states her the artistic statement, but also towards the end, when she runs through the theoretical statements. Here the singing is still present in the background of her voice as a weaving of sounds. In this sense, technology and mediation plays an important role in the audio paper. It is not only the discursive language that speaks, technology performs in and between the semantics of the language. Technology and various forms of mediation become a carrier of aesthetics, it stresses semiotic aspects of the speaking (e.g. when speaking of tempos, the tempo of the speaking is changed), and it helps to create a fictional space that is for instance present in the various reverberations of Robinson’s voice.

To bring this into a broader framework, semantics and semiotics are performed in and through technology, and in this case advanced technologies as the production is made over time, in different places and in a complex process of creation. Not only multiple voices but also multiple recording devices, people and places (skype-recordings from the Faroe Islands, private person’s own recordings, recorded sounds on Amager, Robinson’s own voice) come into play. To quote the manifesto, “In the case of the audio paper, this frame of understanding underlines the awareness that recording equipment, filtering, mixing, mastering and conversions are not neutral processes and tools. They are in themselves expressions of various actors and aesthetic means.”

Ex 2 Affect and sensations

The audio paper Hearing on the verge by Nicole de Brabandere and Graham Flett explores the sensory aspects of listening while in motion. In this audio paper we hear the bodily movement through and in alignment with various spatial coordinates. Through the bodily movements of the two narrators, one male and one female, various sensations and affective relations to the landscape of Amager are performed. As walking along and climbing stairs, we experience an exploration of sites on Amager on both a horizontal and a vertical axis (9:26- 11:07). The movements are accompanied by a mesmerizing, rhythmic voice depicting the geographical coordinates.

This paper relates to affects and sensations and how we experience and navigate space and place through rhythmic bodily engagements. As proposed in the manifesto, “The aesthetic, material aspects of the audio paper produce affects and sensations. What is felt could be the body of the site and place, the soundscape of the place.” (Audio Papers – A Manifesto, Ad. 4)

In Hearing on the verge, the embodiments of cartographic space are rendered audible through the bodily movements through various places and spaces. The felt bodily sensations obtained through walking and listenings is translated into sound effects and materialized in the tone and the rhythms of the audio paper. Hence, the audio paper evokes affects and sensations in the listener. These affective transitions continuously happens in a continuum between cognitive reason and bodily sensations.

In Hearing on the verge, affective mediation is a transition that furthermore makes places re-emerge. Hence, we will argue that a situated audio production can emphasize, augment or even bring forth forgotten or overlooked qualities of places. This relates to the notion of affect in the Spinozist and Deleuzian understanding where a body holds the capacity to affect and to be affected by other bodies.  (Deleuze 1988). This relates to places and to their inherent soundscapes, and to the soundscapes produced in the audio paper. All these layers hold the capacity to affect and to be affected. Or, in the other example, the embodied sounds of the geographic coordinates, the steps on the staircase, the sound of tourist mobilities as bodily enactments of the proximity of the airport in hearing on the Verge’s exploration of Amager, attunes into the listeners own embodied experiences of travelling and moving. Here we see a re-emergence of cartographic space into felt sensation as “affects are transitions that re-emerges from what is already there” (Massumi 2015, 52). In this sense, we can say that the artistic soundscape is an event that re-emerges from the already existing landscape of Amager.

Generally, we can say that the embodiments of a place, the aesthetic materiality of the sound material, holds a capacity to affect the listener by establishing an affective encounter in which sites and places become alive in bodily felt sensations. Such affective encounters are transitional – both for the listener, the sensing body and the places being sensed: as Brian Massumi notes that affects  “governs a transition where a body passes from one state of capacitation to a diminished or augmented state of capacitation.” (Massumi 2015, 48-49). Transitions can here be understood both as how places are in transit in relation to how we perceive them or how they are being re-enacted and performed by diverse bodies – the travelling body of the tourist, the walking body etc. What we hear in the audio paper is thus one (out of many) felt experiences in which quantitative locations comes into being as a qualitative experiences. Hence, the soundscape of the audio paper is a re-emergence of sites and places in an embodied language that takes into consideration the specific knowledge situation of the body in space, and how it the landscape and coordinates are embodied in the situation.

Or, to quote the manifesto, “The aesthetic, material aspects of the audio paper produce affects and sensations. What is felt could be the body of the site and place, the soundscape of the place.”(Groth & Samson 2016). This interrelatedness between situated place and fictional space of the soundscape is further strengthened in the following.

Between ethnographic field work, oral history and artistic research

Looking back on the first volume of audio papers and how they have further been developed in e.g. the Sound Art Matters volume (Groth, Schmidt, Søndergaard and Vandsø 2017), it stands clear that the audio paper is an experimental format that oscillates between and borrows from various existing disciplines and methodologies. One way of categorizing and institutionalizing the audio paper is to see it as an hybrid between 1) ethnological field research in which documentation, orality and a theoretical argument is stressed, and 2) as a creative and arts-based knowledge dissemination influenced by a general affective and artistic turn in social science and the arts. (Seigworth & Gregg 2010, Leavy 2009). New technologies open towards a variety of DIY aesthetics allowing a new avant-garde and a broader audience to experiment and record sounds from everyday life, and from activist and underground environments. In general, we understand the audio paper as an experimental practice that co-exist with such ecologies of practices – whether DIY experiments or arts-based research or ethnographic field work.

A clear definition of the audio paper is thus still in the making and depends of its future manifestations. One challenge is how the audio paper finds a balance between being an artwork and an academic paper. An answer to that could be found in the audio paper as an art-based research methodology allowing academics to experiment and to show the processual aspects of research in the final research stage – the paper. This gives rise to some final remarks regarding the audio paper as situated knowledge.

The audio paper can open the academic paper up towards more experimental methodologies and suggests – according to the insights of Haraway, that knowledge is always situated. Art and humanities do not take place in a neutral space – as it is often suggested with the spaces and places of the university. Knowledge is situated and is affected by the places. Hence, the audio paper opens for a situated exploration of how knowledge comes into being. It holds the capacity to explore places through various sensory and artistic practices (see also Wallis 2012) Furthermore, we see that the audio paper combines the knowledge process and knowledge product. For instance, field recordings, in normal social science considered as empirical data, figures in the academic product as artistic and creatively manipulated material. Means and ends are part of the same continuum, involving embodied engagement in the field. Or, to use the words of Holger Schulze, “The Spacing and the Timing is being explored – which leads you to an almost involuntarily Embodying of this very field of research. Spatial arrangements and time structures become your second nature, maybe you are not going totally native in this field – but you manage to become very familiar with many elements in it” (Schulze 2016). As such ethnographic field research share similarities with arts-based research in the sense that the field becomes a site for exploration of a bodily and spatio-temporal continuum.

This also implies a radical empiricism, in which knowledge, methods and theory are not imposed upon reality but is deducted, grafted or transformed into the soundscape of the audio paper. It can be argued, that sound is first and foremost matter - as pointed to by Steve Goodman in his Sonic Warfare (Goodman 2012). Returning to the initial ideas as proposed in relation to the Fluid States, Fluid Sounds seminars, we suggest that working with sound and its aesthetic materiality deals with the fluidity and processual aspects of knowledge production, and the world as a mobile and material field. Fluid sounds should here not be understood as something that is difficult to grasp or get hold on; rather it should be understood as the material fluidity and processual character of academic knowledge that with the audio paper, gets the potential to come into form through technological and aesthetical mediation. Let it flow.

This article is first printed as: Sanne Krogh Groth and Kristine Samson: 'The Audio Paper: From Situated Practices to Affective Sound Encounters'. In 'Out of Space. Sensory Practices and Placemaking'. Paragrana. Band 28. 2019. Heft 1.  pp. 188-196.


Deleuze, Gilles (1988): Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. City Lights Books

Goodman, Steve (2012): Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Technologies of Lived Abstractions, eds. Erin Manning & Brian Massumi. LondonCambridge: MIT Press

Groth & Samson (2016): The audio paper manifesto. In: Fluid Sounds, Seismograf

Groth & Samson (2017): Sound Art Situations, Organised Sound 22(1), pp. 101-111 

Groth, Schmidt, Søndergaard and Vandsø (eds) (2017): Sound Art Matters. Seismograf 

Haraway, Donna (1988). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599.

Leavy, Patricia (2009): Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice. Guilford Publications.

Massumi, Brian (2015): The Politics of Affect. Polity Press.

Schulze (2016): “Idiosyncracy as Method. Reflections on the epistemic continuum”. In Fluid Sounds, Focus, Seismograf

Seigworth, Gregory J. & Gregg, Melissa (2010): The Affect Theory Reader, Duke University Press

Stengers, Isabelle, (2010). Cosmopolitics I. Minnesota University Press.

Wallis, N. (2012). 'Unfixed Landscape' Is it possible to define 'place' through artistic practice?


audio paper

Diagram for invisibility 

15. november 2017


This article aims to elucidate the nature of the relation whereby an individual is engaged in a situation with regards to sound-based works of art. A sound-based work is here considered as a site of interaction between sonic and non-sonic elements, and could be said to set a frame for a particular relation between the constituent material elements, but also between the situation and the person engaging with it. As an entry point to contemplating this relational aspect, the article explores the notion of the diagram as suggested by Michel Foucault as a way to unfold what could be termed the affective potential of given spatial or medial circumstances. Based on the notion of the diagram, the article suggests a “diagrammatic” reading of the notion of the acousmatic, where an experiential tension unfolds based on what can be seen and what cannot, in relation to what is heard. Suggesting ways forward, the article proposes how one can find the diagrammatic dynamic inherent in artworks by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Morris and Janet Cardiff.  


Artistic works that include sound have often been discussed with regard to the particular nature of the sonic element. From this perspective, a sound-based art is considered in relation to a set of ontological questions with emphasis on sound. However, one might also consider sound as something integral to a particular situation. Considered as a site of interaction between sonic and non-sonic elements, the work could be said to set a frame for a particular relation between the constituent material elements, but also between the situation and the person engaging with it. In so doing, the works render upon themselves an aspect of sonic experience that is remarkably difficult to account for:   

The act of listening does not happen in an empty space by a neutral, unbiased recipient. The significance of the audible is conditioned by a particular set of circumstances unique to a given situation. Thus the significance of a sonic event cannot be reduced to the properties of an audible object as something in itself. The significance of the particular sensorial information, and how this information is understood in conjunction with other information (i.e. between what is heard and what is seen) is dependent on a relation between the individual and her environment.  

A given artwork might relate to this issue in various ways. For example, in a “standard” concert situation, a work unfolds against the backdrop of certain conventions and expectations. The central significance of the sonic musical event is presupposed. The audience is already “in its place” before the work begins.  

In other situations the significance of the sensorial information and the interrelation between, for example, sonic and non-sonic elements and between audience and work may be less apparent. Nonetheless, the logic of how the audience involves itself in the work, must in a way be an integral part of the work.  

The following attempts to address this aspect. The overarching idea pursued here is that the relationship between an individual and her environment is guided by a structural principle. Within a phenomenological tradition, this aspect has been addressed theoretically from various positions. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the structure of behaviour may be cited as something developed by the individual in accordance with the nature of the environment; the notion of ecology in James J. Gibson’s “ecological” approach to perception, is another example (Gibson, 2014).   

In the current article, I will propose the idea that this principle can be understood as a diagram, as implied by Michel Foucault following his well-known analysis of a panopticon. While Foucault’s analysis is intended to elucidate how circumstances determine the behaviour of the individual with regard to a certain organisation of power, the notion of the diagram in the current article will be explored with a more general frame in mind: a diagram of a given situation maps out an underlying functional principle of how particular circumstances affects the individual and her behaviour, encoding sensorial information.  

According to this rationale, auditory perception must be understood with regard to the underlying diagrammatic relationship that implies how the listener potentially relates to her environment or elements within it. An artistic practice involving sound could be seen as an investigation of how to establish circumstances for this relationship to unfold. As an entry point to this, I will briefly outline Michel Chion’s analysis of a range of experiential effects enabled by an inherent audio-visual ‘contract’ in a standardised film-format. I will further suggest a ‘diagrammatic’ reading of the notion of the acousmatic that could be applied in a wider range of art-works. Finally, I will suggest that artworks may be found in which the diagrammatic aspect of how an audience is engaged in a work becomes a theme of the work itself. 

Michel Chion and the audiovisual relation in cinema 

As an example of an analysis of experiential effects within a given format, I will briefly attend to Michel Chion’s analysis of sound in cinema.  

The experience of sound always entails something other and more than what is seen. Normally this causes no experiential conflicts. As Merleau-Ponty notes, the human experience is synesthetic by nature and can not be reduced to what is experienced with a single sense (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, 368). What is seen and what is heard are characterised and differentiated by their individual properties and thus play different roles in one’s total experience. However, the unified experience is rooted in the same surroundings and as such there is also a strong intuition of their shared cause.  

Nonetheless, situations can be generated in which there is a notable absence at the point of convergence of the visible and the audible. There are situations where the cause related to what is heard is outside the frames of the visible, and there are situations where the experienced reality of what is heard and what is seen do not coincide.  

In a number of publications, the French composer and theorist Michel Chion analyses such phenomena as they appear within films. Since its introduction in 1927, the commercially distributed sound-film format is characterised by an implied ambition of simulating the synesthetic experience through a combination and synchronisation of individually recorded audio and visual images. In spite of this ambition to construct an audio-visual realism through synchronised audio and image, occasional ‘holes’ occur when sound and image do not add up. Building his argument on analysis of films by, for example, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick, Chion suggests that the effect of the momentary de-synchronisation is not a breakdown of the experienced realism. Rather, the de-synchronised sound indicates an element that is ‘hidden’ in, or located outside, the visible image. In this way, visible space is augmented with an imaginary space, while at the same time introducing an element of suspense within the narrative regarding the threshold of the visible and what could potentially be visible.  

According to Chion, the de-synchronisation of auditory and visual elements were integrated into cinema’s inventory of filmic effects. But rather than being refined as part of a vocabulary of a sophisticated rhetoric, the effect remains within the frame of a more elementary play between when something is visible or invisible. The effect therefore is essentially different from what was framed with the idea of an audiovisual counterpoint, as was for example suggested by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov in their contemplation of the aesthetic potential of sound in cinema (Chion, 2009, 208)  

It is not my errand here to go further into Chion’s analysis. What is interesting to note with regards to Chion’s analysis is how the format serves as a particular context for the sensorially based experience. The film format presumes a relation between an audience and what is experienced. On the audience side there is, as Chion notes, an “audio-visual contract” underlying the experienced audio-visual unity (Chion, 1994). In a wider sense, the format presumes a relation between an audience, a producer of the film and the actual situation in a cinema-space or in front of a TV in a living room where the experience unfolds. The individual audience is not a neutral instance that perceives the projected image and sound. The experience is made possible due to the circumstances and conventions specific to the format – both medial and spatial.1 

The effect that Chion finds in the de-synchronisation (and resynchronisation) of the visible and the audible leading to an opening of an “invisible” space is dependent on a certain regulated context for the sensorial experience. The effect is related to particular conventions for how a space is represented technically and technologically and a context for a viewing (and listening) situation, i.e. the cinema.   

The diagram 

As such, there is an underlying principle that sets the frame for how to understand what can be seen and what cannot. In order to elaborate on this aspect, I will refer to the notion of the diagram that Michel Foucault suggests as part of his elaboration on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon as depicted in Discipline and Punish. More specifically I will follow architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter’s reading of Foucault in the first chapter of his book Architectures of time.   

As is well known, the panopticon is an architectural idea for a correctional facility. The key to the effect of the spatial model developed by Bentham is the installation of an invisible but potentially omnipresent gaze in an architectural frame. The result is that the individual inhabiting the space feels herself constantly watched. This sentiment serves as motivation to behave as if she was watched even if the actual source of power remains unseen. The idea of an omnipresent yet invisible authority can be considered as a general metaphor for how the individual is always affected or even that the process of individuation is dependent on the circumstances. It also implies that whatever is experienced must be understood against a particular context. Foucault suggests that the principle that regulates the behaviour of the individual that can be abstracted from the panopticon can be summoned in the notion of a diagram. (Foucault, 1991, 205)2 The diagram depicts the functional mechanism based on a rationalisation of space that pre-scripts a correct behaviour against an unwanted one. It is a functional principle that ties the individual to her environment and thereby encodes whatever is sensorially perceived in the light of a relational order.     

Obviously, the Foucauldian analysis is instrumental in a greater critical venture against existing power-structures. However as architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter suggests, the method has potential in a wider application also in terms of alternative strategies (Kwinter, 2001, 15)  

The real benefit of this approach is that it lends itself to an understanding of surroundings not in terms of objects and fixed structures but rather in terms of their affectual potential (ibid 19). Following this, Kwinter proposes thinking of architecture (or architectural objects) as defined by its potential to affect behaviour rather than by its formal structure (as buildings). Kwinter’s account suggests that a relational space could be considered as a dynamic system structured according to attractors. In the light of this reading, the diagram is understood as the map of a distribution of affectual potential in an environment.3  
Thus Kwinter’s reading embraces the complexity governing a given situation and thereby opens up for a general model of the interplay between individual and environment.  

It is following this line of thought that the notion of the diagram is relevant for the discussion in the current article. One can consider the diagram as a model of a given relational pattern that encourages certain behaviour and establishes a backdrop for what is sensorially perceived - for example, how what is sensorially present relates to what is sensorially absent in a particular situation.  

The acousmatic considered as a diagram 

An interesting case of how the presence of the invisible encodes the sensorial can be found in the discussion of the acousmatic. In Michel Chion’s analysis of the effect of the invisible within the film format, the notion of the acousmatic is used to describe the experienced tension of what happens when what is visible does not coincide with the audible. The notion of the acousmatic is inevitably tied to an elaborate discussion of its reception (see Brian Kane’s extensive account of this i.e. Kane, 2014). The historical anchor-point is Pierre Schaeffer’s development of a theoretical background for a musique concrète based on an acousmatic technology and an associated mode of listening (Schaeffer, 1966). This discussion tends to focus on the implied phenomenological account for auditory perception and to what extent a ‘pure’, transcendent and trans-historical auditory object is a valid category. It is beyond the scope of the current article to contribute to this. Instead I will explore a different aspect of what is understood as an acousmatic situation. I will revisit Schaeffer’s often cited historical point of reference: the account of Pythagoras giving lectures to (some of) his students from behind a curtain. Allegedly the situation helped the students focus their attention on what was spoken rather than on the circumstances surrounding it. The curtain was a device that helped guide the listener’s attention by veiling the potentially distracting visible source of the voice.  

One can only guess what effect the situation actually had on the listening students. This article has no intention of concluding anything regarding this. Following the discussion above, an immediate observation is the resemblance between the pythagorean proto-acousmatic and the panoptic situation. The relation between students and teacher manifests itself in its prescription of a particular behaviour rationalised by a scenographic (or technological) device. Beyond the symbolic division of the space, the veiling of the speaker in the situation potentially also amplifies an existing power-relation as the real properties of the one speaking remains unclear to the one listening.4  

From this attempt at a ‘diagrammatic’ reading of the acousmatic, it is clear that the potential effect of acousmatic circumstances extends beyond the encoding of sensorial information within a given context. The situation will potentially affect the individual’s understanding of the relation between her and the environment. As such the acousmatic situation is open for a double interpretation: on the one hand it serves as circumstances for an aesthetic effect triggered through a guiding of a perceptual behaviour away from the circumstances and towards the audible aspect of experience. This is the effect that Schaeffer observes upon listening to a recorded sound apparently dissociated from its cause or source. On the other hand, the situation frames an understanding of what is heard relative to particular circumstances. The lack of clarity introduced through the acousmatic veil potentially opens towards an imaginary space, associated to the auditory phenomenon and finally to the spatial circumstances that are the background for its occurrence. The experiential effects following this is what Chion accounts for in his analysis of the interplay between invisible but audible and the visible in the cinema. 

Within an artistic context, one could suggest that the transparency of the diagrammatic aspect of a situation is a matter of degree. As Kane notes, regarding the acousmatic situation, there is a tendency for the technique to slip into the background of an experienced sonic phenomena (Kane, 2010). However, one also finds artistic strategies where the diagrammatic aspect of the work – how the established situation engages the perceiver – is put into play on a thematic level.  In the following I will suggest three examples. 

Noisy secrets 

One example of this could be Marcel Duchamp’s so-called “assisted readymade” À bruit secret from 1916. The readymade object consists of two brass plates fixed over a hollow twine of string with four long brass screws. Before sealing the ball of twine with the screws Duchamp’s friend and beneficiary Walter Arensberg put a small object into the hollow core of the ball of twine without telling Duchamp what it was. When shaken the secret object will rattle. In Duchamp’s account:  

Before I finished it Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine, and never told me what it was, and I didn't want to know. It was a sort of secret between us, and it makes noise, so we called this a Ready-made with a hidden noise. Listen to it. I don't know; I will never know whether it is a diamond or a coin” (Sanouillet, 1975, 135)  

One can find a number of possible interpretations of Duchamp’s work.5 However, from the perspective of the current article there is a particular logic to the object that calls for attention. The key to this is found in a sequence of letters and periods that is inscribed on the top and bottom plate of the object. These signs that can not immediately be translated to a linguistic message adds up to a kind of riddle. As Duchamp explains in a letter to Arturo Schwarz, this element is an exercise in comparative orthography (English-French). The periods must be replaced (with one exception: Debarrasse [e]) by one of the two letters of the other two lines, but in the same vertical as the period – French and English are mixed and make no ’sense.’ The three arrows indicate the continuity of the line from the lower plate to the other [upper] still without meaning. (Schwarz, 1969, 462) 

In order to ‘solve’ the orthographic exercise by combining and juxtaposing information on the object’s top and bottom, one has to flip the object, thereby making the hidden object rattle inside. In the attempt to solve the textual riddle, another acousmatic riddle - regarding the nature of its hidden inside - is activated. As such, the work can be considered as a conceptual machine encouraging particular modes of reading the object each of which interfere with one another. The noise of the object gains its significance in relation to the impossible attempt to solve or ‘read’ the external features of the object. The diagram in this situation is the way the object sets the circumstances for how to engage with it. It invites a particular mode of perceptual interaction.   

A similar diagrammatic logic applies to Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making first presented in 1961. The work, which was conceived with inspiration from Duchamp, amongst others (Krauss, 1994, 104), consists of a cherry-wooden cube displayed on a stand. The box also works as a kind of speaker-box with a hidden loudspeaker through which one can hear a three and-a-half-hour long recording of the sound of Morris manufacturing the very same box. Through this design an experiential tension is established between the visually present box and the audible activities related to the box. This tension can be conceptualised as a kind of de-synchronisation of the sensorial, perceived elements related to the box in a similar fashion as Chion depicts in relation to the audio-visual aspects of the film or as Brandon LaBelle describes it, a doubling of the presence. 

In this regard, Morris’s Box … is really two boxes: the one presented in front of me as a finished and stable material fabrication, and the other as the continual replaying of its building, as recording buried inside the other. Therefore, perception oscillates between the two, left to wander through the divide created by presence and its reproducibility, between the ”bodily real” and ”reproduction authenticated by the object. (LaBelle, 2006, 83) 

Just as the noise in Duchamp’s readymade, the sonic element of Morris’ box appears as an interference with an “understanding” of the object from a single perspective.6 Rather the work gives rise to an experienced tension in the suspension of the object between the two perspectives. Thereby attention is led to the particular relation of how one engages with it. This attention to how one sensorially engages with an object applies to both Duchamp’s and Morris’ works. They can both be considered as examples of a kind of acousmatic object defined by an experienced tension following the fact that something is occluded, where the tension is what constitutes the identity of the object. 


The diagrammatic aspect of the work is further prominent in situations where the functional aspect of audio-technology is an integral part of the work’s conceptual rational. The reading of the acousmatic situation suggested above opens for an understanding of this aspect. Through the acousmatic technique or technology a relational chain is established between the listener engaging in the situation and something hidden. The interplay between the listener and the circumstances can unfold in various ways.  

An illustrative example of the effect is found in Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet (2001). Cardiff’s works are often characterised by a certain dramatic or theatrical effect, established through the presence of audio-technology, for example in her ongoing series of audio-walks or large-scale installations often co-created with George Miller Burens.  

In the installation 40 Part Motet, a performance of Thomas Tallis’ choir work Spem in Alium from 1573 is heard over 40 loudspeakers organised in the shape of an oval with 5 groups of 8 speakers.  

In the work the installed uniform black speaker boxes play a significant role. The speakers are mounted on stands at the height of a human body and each speaker transmits the sound of a single voice in the choir. The individual mounted speaker thus acquire rudimentary sculptural qualities. Following these strong anthropomorphic connotations each speaker-box reads as an indexical sign of the absent body of the transmitted voice. This absence appears in contrast to the immediate presence and clarity of the audible voice emanating from the speakers. Overall the experience of the transmitted voice begs R. Murray Schafer’s term “schizophonic”.7   

From an audience perspective, the spatial layout of the installation allows the listener to explore the sonic work by moving between the speakers and to shift listening perspectives i.e. by listening to the voices of the choir from a distance, or by putting one’s ear close to a single speaker.  

As such, Cardiff’s work can be considered an acousmatic re-staging of the choir work that opens for a unique listening space established through the presence of electroacoustic technology. In this situation the acousmatic tension invites for a particular exploratory listening behaviour by the audience made possible in the absence of the choir.  

Just as the experiential tension is a defining aspect of Duchamp’s and Morris’ objects, the staged situation in Cardiff’s work is characterised by a notable absence, while at the same creating the conditions for a particular mode of listening.  

The diagrammatic level of the work thus takes the form of an invitation to explore the transmitted sonic material in a certain way. Further it places the audible in relation to a particular spatial and medial context that creates the conditions for the exploration while retaining the tension.  


Beyond the qualitative aspects of given sonic phenomena, an artistic work with sound also entails the frame and conditions for how a perceiver engages with it. While far from fully covering the issues raised, it has been the aim of the current article to open for a reflection on this aspect.  

First of all, one finds a series of questions regarding what role the circumstances play within a given work. In standardised circumstances, i.e. in a concert situation or a film screening, the conditions allow for a focus on the qualitative aspects of the film or the music while the conditions themselves are mere backdrop. Yet as Chion’s analysis shows certain experiential effects such as the acousmatic relies on the frames of a standardised format. In other situations, the work itself might foreground this aspect. Duchamp’s, Morris’ and Cardiff’s works were presented in an attempt to suggest this. 

Secondly, a different question regards how one can account for this functional aspect of the work. The current article suggests the notion of the diagram as a structural principle for how sensorial qualities are encoded within a given situation. Doubtless one can imagine a diagram unfold in numerous ways as well as various types of diagrams. This article has considered the functional aspect of an acousmatic situation as a particular kind of diagram that serves as a way of encoding the significance of a sonic phenomenon in relation to a particular set of circumstances where something is hidden. 

Obviously there are substantial functional differences between how an audience is engaged in the case of a person speaking from behind a curtain, as opposed to the case of a recording of an activity heard at a later time, and further to what extent the affectual potential is determined on historical circumstances.  

The diagrammatic aspect of a situation is something that can be subject to manipulation and variation. It can give rise to an experienced tension and an attention to the circumstances for the audience interaction. 

An interesting perspective of the current reflection is that the notion of the diagram could elucidate how sonic experience is dependent on the particular relationship between sound and non-sonic circumstances. Prominent positions in the current discussions of sound art have promoted the idea of a sonic materiality as something beyond the frame of human perception and suggested an aesthetic potential based on the transgression of the threshold of human perception. In this article, the attempt has been slightly different. It has been the aim to consider a sound-based art with regards to the particular relation between individual and surroundings. Potentially sound based artworks can be an entry to an understanding of how this aspect functions.   

  • 1. Chion’s reflections regarding the voice in cinema (Chion 1999) uses the historical transition from silent (or “mute” as he suggest) film to talking films as a device to highlight how the conventions of a particular mode of presentation is established within the film format and how this new format enables particular effects.
  • 2. Obviously this understanding of the diagram differs from i.e. a Peircian definition of a diagram as particular kind of sign.
  • 3. Beyond the immediate point of reference in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, there are affinities between Kwinter’s notion of an architectural object and what Michel Serres (and later Bruno Latour) denotes as the quasi-object (Serres, 2007).
  • 4. As Dörte Zbikowski notes, Bentham also considered auditory surveillance as part of the correctional facility, but abandoned the idea of installing tubes to monitor prisoners due to the fact that sound would flow both ways (Zbikowski, 2002). See also Szendy, 2007. Within the current perspective, the resemblance is less about whether one can transfer the model from a system of visual to auditory surveillance but rather that the effect ascribed to the situation in both cases is based on the presence of someone (or something) invisible, thereby provoking an imaginary space due to a lack of clarity. As mentioned, this is also the effect that Michel Chion analyses with regard to the voice in cinema (Chion 1999), i.e. HAL in 2001, the mother in Psycho and, perhaps most illustratively, the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz.
  • 5. Claudia Tittel, for example, who suggests that the staging of the hidden noise points to a notion of immateriality found on different levels : 1. the sound as something immaterial, 2. The artist’s immaterial, conceptual idea, 3 the viewer’s immaterial imagined images and sounds. (Tittel 2008, 164)
  • 6. In Morris’ own writing, this tension is found in contrasting a formal and informal (processual) aspect of the object (Morris, 1968).
  • 7. Schafer’s dramatic term obviously suggests a violent separation of the sound from its bodily origin. Schizophonia is related to a sense of unease when modern media-technologies such as the telephone or the phonograph give rise to phenomena that challenge a naïve sense of spatio-temporal causality. In an insightful reflection, Steven Connor suggests that the aesthetication of a schizophonic voice in works today might in fact be less about this modern-era experience and rather entail “something like a vague longing for the unease that we once felt, or that we feel we ought once to have felt.”(Connor, 2012, 5).


Chion, M. (2009) Film, A Sound Art, New York: Columbia University Press. 
Chion, M. (2009) The Voice in Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press.
Chion, M. (1994): Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Columbia University Press, 1994 
Connor, S. ”Panophonia”, manuscript, 
Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin Books. 
Gibson, J. J. (2014) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Routledge. 
Kane, B. (2010) Eight Theses on Sound and Transcendence. Non-Cochlear sound. 
Kane, B. (2007) L’objet sonore maintenant: Pierre Schaeffer, sound objects and the phenomenological reduction. Organised Sound, 12(1). 
Krauss, R. & Krens, T (1994) Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, Guggenheim Museum Publications. 
Kwinter, . (2001) Architectures of Time, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
LaBelle, B. (2006)  Background Noise, New York, NY & London: Continuum. 
Morris, R. (1968) Anti Form.  Artforum 6, no.8, April. 
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945 ) Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Gallimard, 
Sanouillet, M. & Peterson, E. (ed. (1975) The Essential writings of Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames & Hudson. 
Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traité des objets musicaux, Paris: Éditions du Seuil. 
Schwarz, A. (1969) The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, vol.I, Harry N. Abrams inc. Publishers. 
Serres, M. (2007) The Parasite, University of Minnesota Press.  
Szendy, P. (2007) Sur écoute : Esthétique de l'espionnage, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. 
Tittel, C. (2008) Präsenz des Immateriellen. In Tadday, Ul. (ed.): Musik-Konzepte Neue Folge, Sonderband, Klangkunst, November. 
Zbikowski, D. (2002) The Listening Ear: Phenomena of Acoustic Surveillance. In Levin, T.Y., Frohne, U., Weibel, P. (eds.): CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Sound art

Turntable Materialities

15. november 2017


This article considers a history of electroacoustic music from the perspective of modified vinyl records, one of the media through which it has been disseminated and heard. It is argued that the physical alteration of 12” and 7” records attempts to make the materiality of the medium audible, and interrupts the otherwise seamless commerce of music that relies on a functional commodity. By interfering with the flow of music and noise, some of these initiatives show commitment to a negative engagement with sound, whereby its ready appreciation and interpretation are halted in favour of detours, complications, misinformation and uncertainty. These approaches are discussed in relation to the history of the evolving technologies of record production, where it can be seen that experimentation with material properties has been inherent to shellac and vinyl manufacturing.

These strategies of negation develop as legacies of early twentieth-century historical avant-gardes, which themselves find epistemological and procedural precedent in philosophies of refusal that initiate with Diderot, Hegel and Nietzsche, amongst other writers. The argument is made that as historic avant-gardes made visible the destruction of art, so modified records attempt to make audible the destruction of sound.

Making music bad 

The world is fuller than ever with bad music, confirming the fears of Arthur Sullivan,after hearing Thomas Edison’s first wax cylinders and recording his response at a dinner party on October 5th, 1888. In his celebrated address, Sullivan effusively compliments Edison’s invention. Conforming perhaps to the pattern of after-dinner bonhomie, Sullivan remarks that his host may have drunk excessively, and then makes a joke about just how much appalling music will now be ineradicably recorded. The possibility of high-fidelity and digital sound greatly shifts the criteria by which we evaluate audio quality; and yet from the earliest recordings there is clearly awareness of relative good and bad sound, as manufacturers continually experiment with different materials from which to produce something playable. Whereas Alexander Graham Bell’s wax cylinders deteriorate after about thirty plays, Edison is after something more durable, and develops the Blue Amberol in 1908. Comprised of a plaster core coated in plastic celluloid this sounds better and runs for longer than Bell’s cylinders. For reasons of sound quality, Edison holds off from making flat records until he can produce the better-sounding Diamond Disc in 1912, named after the stylus required to play it. The history of subsequent record manufacturing is, predictably enough, determined by factors of cost and material availability. Compromised sound quality, bad music of another category, is an intrinsic concern of commercial innovations with record manufacturing materials. 

Musicians’, rather than manufacturers’, earliest experiments with records show a curiosity for the qualities of recorded sound affected by the material. Where their initiatives use the materiality of records as a variation on the conventions of concert performances and conveyance of musical sound, more recent sound artists and musicians see the vinyl record as a tool to impede sound reception altogether, effectively using it to engage in a negating action. The intensity of this negation may vary from ludic to annihilatory, but in all cases the gesture challenges accepted practices of production and reception, in order to create possibilities for the previously unheard and unthought. 

Although the practice has intensified in the last forty years, musicians have been experimenting with records and gramophones as performing instruments since the early 20th century. There is an account by Mark Katz of Paul Hindemith’s and Ernest Toch’s performances at the 1930 Neue Musik Berlin festival, where records were played simultaneously with live music, their pitch and timbre altered by speed variation. At the time, Toch explained the motivation behind these performances as a wish to reevaluate the gramophone’s application ‘by exploiting the peculiarities of its function and by analyzing its formerly unrealized possibilities…thereby changing the machine’s function and creating a characteristic music of its own’ (Katz, 2010, p. 112). John Cage was in attendance, and had been struck by Toch’s innovations. We might speculate on the stimulus this gave him to push use of the record player to a new threshold as an instrument, freeing it from the roles its manufacture prescribed. 

While repurposing record players and questioning the conventions limiting performance instruments, Hindemith and Toch are intent on making canonically acceptable, if unusual, music. Stefan Wolpe’s 1920 Berlin action with eight Victrola gramophones playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at different speeds is recognized as a vituperative Dadaist sonic assault, the conversion of a nationally affirmative anthem into bad music, and characteristically directed against German institutions. Most likely unfamiliar with Wolpe’s action, Cage nevertheless moves towards a practice of institutional subversion with his experiments using records and turntables in the Imaginary Landscape series that starts in 1939 and ends with ‘No. 5’ in 1952. Rather than modifying the records themselves, Cage alters the record players by swapping the stylus for other sharp items, and by varying the rotation speed. He speaks critically of people treating records as a kind of mobile museum or performance space and feels they should instead be retooled for new compositional functions. In the catalog for a comprehensive exhibition of artists’ records at Berlin’s daadgalerie in 1989, Hans Rudolf Zeller writes of Cage’s initiatives that: ‘Perhaps within that lies one of the roots of the 20th-century development, collage procedure: that every action which negates alienated objects, frozen actions which, as it were, have come to rest, does so by means of an act of liberation: by disassembling them, and combining parts of the material anew’ (Block and Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 5’ enacts this negation of the purpose of records most comprehensively. Cage records two versions, sampling from forty-two respective selections of jazz and classical records where the sequence and duration of samples is determined using chance procedures. To grasp the force of this repudiation, it’s worth remembering Cage’s ambivalence towards jazz, as well as his comments later in life that he would walk out of an Anton Webern concert, as the music had nothing to say to him about his contemporary experience. For Cage, the exigencies of the present make classical music inadequate, and his conversion of records into violently juxtaposed samples expresses his alienation from the idiom and categorizes it as a kind of bad music.

This alienated repudiation of Cage’s echoes a section in Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where the narrator runs into the eponymous musician in a Paris café. This nephew expresses resentment towards his former bourgeois patrons, who have ejected him from their salon for making an ill-timed offensive joke. He responds with anarchical-revolutionary statements and a wild pantomime of musical bricolage. ‘There he goes’, Diderot observes, ‘—losing his wits and working himself up into a scene’ (Diderot, 1964, p. 67). The youth starts singing so loudly and distractedly that everyone in the café gathers round to laugh at him. Diderot continues: ‘He jumbled together thirty different airs, French, Italian, comic, tragic—in every style. Now in a baritone voice he sank to the pit; then straining in falsetto he tore to shreds the upper notes of some air, imitating the while the stance, walk and gestures of the several characters; being in succession furious, mollified, lordly, sneering…he is a priest, a king, a tyrant; he threatens, commands, rages…never overstepping the proper tone, speech, or manner called for by the part’ (Diderot, 1964, p. 67). This explosive externalisation of the nephew’s alienation entails the massacre of the musical tradition on which he has based his livelihood. The narrative so impresses Georg W. F. Hegel that he quotes it in the master-slave dialectic of Phenomenology of Spirit, where it can be read as a discourse on self-alienation, on internal psychic dynamics, as much as a model for analysing social conflict.

However, in relation to the trail of damaged records left by musicians and artists like Wolpe and Cage, it is Hegel’s Science of Logic that offers a second point of origin for the arguments here. Concepts of the negative developed by Theodor Adorno, Alain Badiou and Boris Groys in their writings on aesthetics draw on Hegel’s use of the negative as a dialectical tool in the course of elaborating, or complicating, ‘mind’ in the Phenomenology, and ‘knowing’ in The Logic. In the latter, our thought, instinctual and conscious, engaged with the world or just moving internally, is shown to initiate by oscillation between moments of recognition of ‘being’ and ‘not being’: ‘Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing…Nothing is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being’ (Hegel, 1989, p. 83). Thought acquires understanding of the world, or of itself, by a progressive surmounting of plateaus where negation acts as a means of differentiation. We think of one thing as not being another thing, but then this one thing, so defined, is only itself by virtue of not being that other thing, which is thereby contained within it. Hegel’s term ‘sublation’ entails the dissolving of opposites (Being and Nothing, for example), without their complete disappearance, into a new concept, in this case Becoming. The point made here is that the process of modifying records resists such implied progression from partial to greater knowledge, to fuller integration with consensual discourse and criteria of value. Instead the altered records hold close to the condition of nothing, enjoying the play and implications of a pure negative that will never progress into comprehensible sonic experience.

Another point of origin for this essay occurs in the intensely pessimistic third section of Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book about the origins of art, The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s proposal that Greek tragic drama emerges from a dynamic negotiation between Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies engenders the familiar representation of the former as an aggressively anti-institutional, irrational aesthetic force. This Dionysus, who flaunts social conventions and means-end rationale, is a nightmarish personification of the subject of nineteenth-century anxieties about anarchic and self-destructive artists found in representations by Honoré de Balzac, Cham, Honoré Daumier and Emile Zola. Nietzsche’s narrative of incursive force enables him to present a coherent model for artistic process aligned directly with social and political change and which is ultimately redemptive. The Apollonian mode is stable enough to generate representations of the gods that present the image of a controllable environment whose social relations are fixed, or at least predictable. The actions and outcomes of the Dionysian mode are by contrast in constant mutation, with destabilising effect on the Apollonian. This dynamic structure of two forces, out of whose antagonisms issues a resolution, relies on clearly prescribed terms: the Apollonian individuality principle and the intoxicated, desubjectivised Dionysian. One is stable and constructive, the other is fluid and destructive; one is virtually entropic, the other dynamic energy.

An aberrational moment occurs however, when Nietzsche narrates the story of King Midas’s interrogation of Dionysus’s companion Silenus. Midas’s desire for knowledge and meaning, essentially paradigmatic of the academic models of which Nietzsche is so critical, provokes him to torture Silenus into revealing what is optimal for mankind. The absolute negativity of Silenus’ response is the provocation for these artists of modified vinyl: ‘“Miserable, ephemeral race…why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you—is to die soon”’ (Nietzsche, 1993, p.22). This condition of nothingness, of unrecogisability, is the threshold of acoustic and material presence that interests the musicians considered here. Although the experimental sound artist of radical intent can’t reverse their own birth, they can certainly work to ensure their medium, or their practice, dies soon.

The materiality of nothing

How damaged records configure this nothingness is frequently determined by performance practices, by the sculptural configuration of sound, or by relations between a sound event and its presentation. In his exhaustive taxonomy of the practices of damaging records and turntables, Caleb Kelly starts with the least invasive, such as removable tape stuck to the disc, and ends with what is irreversible: ‘Sound is produced via the destruction of the turntable…smashing the tone arm down on the platter…” (Kelly, 2009, p. 95-7). Yet these only acquire dimension in the context of each modification or performance, and the sound that these generate. It is less, as Kelly writes, that ‘the devaluation of the record as a functional commodity, and as a fetishised object, leads in the end to its complete destruction’ (Kelly, 2009, p. 94) than that unforeseeable new functionalities and material states which seek to poise on the brink of nothing, arise from these transformations.

For example, Scott Konzelmann/Chop Shop records and processes environmental noise to be played through hybrid speakers constructed to correspond to that sound. The artefact Steel Plate RRR-075, 1991, contains two 10” records in tarpaper sleeves and a booklet of photographs of the speakers that share the four titles ‘Spinal’, ‘Speed’, ‘Cobra’ and ‘Hot Box’ with the tracks they broadcast. The records and booklet are bound to a thick steel plate by metal straps. As expected, the densely layered industrial noise of the recordings corresponds to the weight and appearance of the packaging. 

A 1990 7” record, with ‘Piece of Wood’ on its A-side and ‘A Smooth Finish’ on its B-side (Plastikville Records), is the work of New York sound artist Jim Sharpe Project (aka Fabio Roberti). The record comes in a sandpaper sleeve turned inwards, so that the more it is played, the more scratched it sounds. While the A-side is a recording of someone sawing and sanding wood, the B-side is entirely without grooves, causing the stylus to careen across the surface. An enclosed spoof review by a ‘Jayne Austen’ lampoons late-90s theory to highlight the likelihood of critical redundancy for reflexive sound artists: ‘Here, we have entered the realm of active destruction. From the moment we confront the abrasive sandpaper packaging, we have entered another era. For this is not the fin de siècle gesture of a negativity…but active negativity turned within to the surface of the vinyl only the better to leap outward: the record will instantly destroy your stereo needle—the very means of commodified mechanical reproduction—if played uncleaned’. The absurdist self-referentiality and humour of the project retrieves that component of historical avant-gardes that, like Wolpe’s 1920 assault on meritorious music, relishes its disaffirmation in withholding value and purpose. 

In Vinyl Terror & Horror’s performances, Greta Christensen and Camilla Sörensen work with multiple record players and radically altered vinyl records, often used simultaneously. Records are cut up or broken apart and then pieced together in barely playable configurations. Record fragments are sometimes embedded in pools of melted vinyl such that the stylus struggles to hold to a groove for even a few seconds before skidding away unpredictably. Milan Knížák began his Broken Music works in 1963 using similar processes that included melting, cutting, painting, glueing, sellotaping and collaging vinyl records. Broken Music was a mistranslation of his declared objective, ‘destroyed music’. Knížák’s interventions on many of these records render them virtually unplayable, but he has always maintained they are primarily musical instruments made to generate unpredictable sounds. The idea of displaying them like pictures in a grid on the wall was not Knížák’s, although the visual effectiveness of these installations shows an awareness of design decisions made in the modification of some of the records. They may destroy music, but they are reborn as polychrome reliefs. Christian Marclay’s more ludic practice has always taken pleasure in the visual idiosyncracies of his record or film collages, drawing content from the correspondences between image and sound. His early 80s ‘Recycled Records’, which insert parts of one LP into another to generate surprising designs, are used in performances that sometimes involve four record players and elicit rhythmic and sonic patterns from the overlaid fragments of music. This foregrounded performer role references rock-and-roll stagecraft, and also derives from Marclay’s emergence at the origin of DJ scratching in New York. 

While Marclay is visibly engaged as a player, Vinyl Terror & Horror withdraw as individual performers, avoiding rhythmic and melodic citations in preference of a shifting landscape of noise, generated sometimes by tossing fragments of vinyl into the path of the stylus in an explicit courting of sound demolition. An effective way of situating this kind of work in the history of destructive artistic actions would be to repurpose a comment by Boris Groys concerning the impact of the avant-garde on the materiality of the work of art: 

Malevich continually tells the story of the new art…as a history of the progressive disfiguration and destruction of the traditional image…What can survive this work of permanent destruction?
Malevich’s answer to this question is immediately plausible; the image of the destruction of the image. The destruction cannot destroy its own image. (Cox, Jaskey, and Malik, 2015, p.76)

Following Groys, these vinyl performances then reveal the sound of the destruction of sound. They hover near, and at times cross, the threshold of a reinstitutionalisation of the unlistenable and unheard where genres of noise aggregate into finding audiences and venues for their consumption. Yet their fundamental motivation is to shut off, even invalidate, acceptable music in order to work in a realm of previously occluded sound. Obviously enough the modified records negate something in some way, but does this cancellation of sound have anything in common with the models of negation inherited from Hegel? Hegel’s own negative is the oscillation from being to nothing that finally arrives at the determinate being that is not nothing—‘a negative nothing is an affirmative something’ (Hegel, 1989, p. 102). By contrast, the modified vinyl record is not quite the thing (being) that plays sound (as that function has been interfered with), nor on account of its emptiness is it the non-object (nothing), as it still indexes the presence of sound, even if the sound it produces is indecipherable noise. Some of these altered records function in a liminal zone where the negating, the nothing, repeats over and over (like a stuck stylus, perhaps), as they refuse to become anything determinate. Staying in the negative, turning their back, as it were, on the inevitability of acquiring coherence and form, they resist becoming something. That sticking with nearly nothing provides a sense of authenticity. At the same time these records, or sonic objects, make some kind of matter real that was once invisible, transparent, inaudible or absent. The erasure of sound, or sometimes the impeding of conventional ways in which sound is made, introduces qualities that lie outside what is usually acceptable in recorded sound. Here is a kind of arch refusal, a rejecting of appropriate ‘work’, in the sense of research or musicianship.

But what of the lingering musical and formal traces in these negations? If there are recognisable remnants of destroyed musical practices in Marclay’s resculpting of noise sources or Vinyl Terror & Horror’s inevitable accidental concessions to salvaged timbres, does this invalidate their iconoclastic impulse? In two recent books, Alain Badiou has given an account of the avant-garde’s iconoclasm by reformulating Hegel’s dialectic of being and nothing. The chapter on Pasolini from The Age of the Poets broaches two sides to radically innovative artistic acts as affirmative and destructive negations. For example, he considers Arnold Schoenberg’s extraction of twelve-tone serialism from compositional processes of the tonal harmonic system as the destructive side of negation. Here tonality is ignored, if not effectively annihilated. As a counterpart to this concept of erasure, Schoenberg’s affirmative negation consists in creating a new set of rules and practices salvaged from the destruction of tonality. Badiou uses the term ‘subtracted’ to emphasise an act that appropriates what is necessary for proceeding while turning away from the remainder. Practices like those by Knížák, Marclay or Vinyl Terror & Horror repeat such a formula of destructive and affirmative negation by establishing procedures for generating sound, while comprehensively rejecting musicianship and conventional instruments. The socially transformative goals that serve to justify aesthetic radicalisms of early avant-gardes may have retreated, but an affirmative negation nevertheless subtracts and works on the noise, so integral to the representation of the experience of late twentieth- and early twentieth-first century urban life, that lies beneath the superficial content and commerce of music. 

Badiou’s The Century is an extended reflection on aesthetic radicalities, iconoclasms and avant-gardes that applies Hegel’s negative to a compelling reinterpretation of the early twentieth-century intertwining of revolutionary art and politics at their most creatively liberating and ruthlessly purifying. The intense drive for authenticity is conducive to fictions of realness like Josef Stalin’s show trials or Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and to relentless aesthetic purification, as with Kazimir Malevich’s reductive monochromes. There isn’t any reality, Badiou notes, that can’t be suspected of semblance. Therefore the teleology of the century’s art is purification, the bringing onto centre stage of Hegel’s nothing as the one manifestation of the real that can’t be accused of pretence. Yet, as with contemporary reductions of music to indistinct noise, taking this as a straightforward liquidation of sound limits the meaning of the new work. The meaning of the practice always lies in the difference between what remains and what has been destroyed. The musicians hold to the place of negation to resist reincorporation and interpretation, but the difference between what is salvaged and what is renounced, in effect the affirmative negation, inevitably signals towards the old content and prior models. Considering Webern and Stephane Mallarmé, Badiou explains that the most discerning and meaningful art develops ‘not through an aggressive posture with regard to inherited forms, but through arrangements that place these forms at the edge of the void, in a network of cuts and disappearances’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 132-7), and that there are ‘pieces which, in a matter of seconds, graze against the silence that absorbs them; or of certain plastic constructions that are there only to be effaced, or of certain poems eaten away by the white of the page’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 136-7). In other words, for these contemporary sound artists modifying vinyl, the inevitable retention of traces of melody and timbre are fragmented clues to the properties of their negations.

Punk as ‘composition’

The assault on musical norms through interference with the materiality of records is not confined to experimental art and music. In the late 70s, punk rock enacts its celebrated sonic reduction of popular music to a raw core of sound. The startled 70s listener’s encounter with incommensurable qualities of noise and voice began with certain key records released in the last months of 1976 and the first of 1977. Though talking about noise bands from a decade later, Paul Mann accurately captures the epistemological collapse of this kind of experience as ‘intensely material, an exaggerated idiocy, a subideological cocoon, a tear in the fabric of the social world within which it might still be possible to endure it, if one can endure the volume itself. What we must ask then is whether, at its most intense, loud is a thought’ (Mann, 1999, p. 168). Punk, besides being a fulcrum for the invention of all kinds of sonic tactics for making the world tolerable, is also the site of interventions into vinyl records through the brand new culture of self-financed DIY productions with eccentric packaging, improvised labeling, and entertainingly pointless frustrations of the listener. Even though he totally misses punk, this is much what Jacques Attali asks of ‘composition’, his term for radical noise, ‘an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work’ (Attali, 1985, p. 135), and a negation, he says, of prescribed labour roles. Attali praises Cage for giving back to disenfranchised audiences the power to make sounds. For Attali this kind of radicality ends the old system, but without new networks of production and distribution nothing lasting will replace it. However, this is exactly what happens in the late 70s with DIY recording and distribution. It is, as Attali dreams, ‘A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside of meaning, usage and exchange’ (ibid, 137). 

A surprising number of these records list the costs of production on their homemade, photocopied sleeves. This is the case with the first 7” releases by Scritti Politi (Skank Bloc Bologna EP, 1978) and The Door And The Window (Subculture EP, 1979), as also with the second single by The Desperate Bicycles, ‘The Medium Was Tedium/Don’t Back The Front’, 1977. The short third-person statement on the obverse of the latter yields a celebrated instruction: ‘“No more time for spectating” they sing and who knows? They may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your own single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of ‘Smokescreen’ was £153)’. 

In many locations, the communities built up around experimental electroacoustic music prove to be cohesive and mutually supportive. This is the case with New York in the 60s and 70s, with Britain in the late 70s, with Beijing in the early 2000s, and in many instances continues into the present at the same locations. Attali’s claims that for new music to remain subversive it must be played on new instruments would seem to lend credence to the radicality of using turntables and records as production tools. His view that the old instruments, whether violins or guitars, compromise the musician for being the very items that enable music to represent power, as well as encouraging speculative commerce, is one reason he feels that radically innovative musicians like Jimi Hendrix ultimately fail to engender permanent change, and why Attali can’t anticipate the subversion of punk’s sound, nor its appropriation of music recording, product design and distribution. He maintains that ridding music of all that alienates the musician, its exploitative commerce and stabilising of the ruling order, is to restore ‘the unsayable and the unpredictable’ (Attali, 1985, p. 142). 

Some punk bands went further than this by making records that interfered with playability and therefore impeded their commerce. Gerry and the Holograms’ second single, The Emperor’s New Music, 1979, is a definitively unplayable record, as all five-hundred copies are glued into their sleeves. Printed text on sleeve and label caution the listener not to attempt to play it, ‘NO – NO – NO – Whatever you do…don’t play this record…’. The Freshies second single (Straight In At No. 2 EP, 1979) embeds the pretense of a defect in its opening track ‘Johnny Radar’ where the record seems to skip grooves until there is sudden silence and we hear band leader Chris Sievey exclaiming ‘God, there’s a lot of dust on this needle’, followed by two sharp puffs of breath before the record resumes playing, this time flawlessly. In 1877, when Edison tried to raise support for his invention, he had his machine ask the audience at Scientific American how they liked the phonograph. In Sievey’s case, the record-playing process that announces its own faults is a clever reversal of what from the start of recording practices consists in an acclaim of new technologies.

There is criticism that this music - so often capitalised on by the marketing of its qualities - collapses back into Attali’s networks of ‘repetition’ and commercial stockpiling, once its moment of enfranchisement of musicians and audiences has subsided. This is to overlook several incommensurable aspects of punk innovations, including the irreducible qualities of voice and instrumental noise that comprise its incursive force in the first place, and which endure as exemplary negations, regardless of attempts, both in their own time and subsequently, to neutralise them through commerce. And then the vinyl artefacts themselves were issued in quantities too small to be speculated on, and, in cases like The Desperate Bicycles, despite commercial pressures were never rereleased. Furthermore, those first DIY bands inspired successors in a chain reaction that so valued discourse and participation as to annul any prospect of ‘repetition’-  exactly as foretold by Attali at the end of his chapter titled ‘Repeating’: “all of these things herald the invention of a radical subversion, a new mode of social structuring, communication that is not restricted to the elite of discourse” (Attali, 1985, p. 131-32).

The term ‘anti-record’, used by curator Trevor Schoonmaker for vinyl interventions like Marclay’s that take records to the verge of unplayability (Shoonmaker, 2011, p. 18), certainly sustains connotations of the historic avant-gardes. For example, in a reprise of avant-gardist tactics of iconoclasm and dysfunctionality in the degradation of material, Marclay’s ‘Footsteps’, 1989, invites others to contribute to qualities of unplayability by walking over LPs that carpet the gallery floor. Those records, later distributed as an edition, have their recording of tap dancing and footsteps interfered with by the real scuffs and scratches of visitors’ shoes. However, as virtually all punk DIY records are materially just like any other black vinyl records, Schoonmaker’s term obscures nuances of their intentional imperfection. The stranger qualities of late 70s punk music aside, there’s seldom any intervention to the material itself that might throw its reception out of alignment with conventional listening practices. In the end though, far from the stances of aggression and iconoclasm with which it is usually associated, what stands out in punk rock is the profound pleasure taken by musicians in their own unconventionality and inventiveness, as well as their easy resignation towards the likely inconsequentiality of such approaches. This does correspond with Mann’s interest in the possibility of marginal practices that completely turn away from visibility, the ‘stupid undergrounds’ of post-avant-garde milieus: ‘We move from the masterpiece to avant-garde art-against-art to non-art (folk, brut, etc.) to the end of art (autodestructive art, art strikes) to the most vigilant refusal, a refusal that never puts itself on display at all…’ (Mann, 1999, p. 131). Punk’s incandescent non-cooperation is also a reminder of the qualities of Bataille’s engagement with Nietzsche’s writing taken as a tool for living ecstatically, for designing a new kind of intoxicated life. Bataille is critical of ethical claims about the impact of thought being measured according to the extent of its external transformations. For him, the value of Nietzsche’s proclamations also resides in their remaining ‘unfocussed…dazzling radiances…untraceable’ (Bataille, 1992, p. 87), and that is exactly what is notable in many of these records.

Past Future Technologies

What of the future for modified records? There is an emerging DIY culture amongst young artist musicians making laser cut masters or lathes, while reviving the most rudimentary casting techniques for producing playable objects. This suggests that the history of record making is undergoing a kind of practical reexamination. Innovative design engineers such as Amanda Ghassaei are using laser cutters that read algorithms to burn the grooves out of a matrix in ways that resemble inveterate carving processes. Similarly, Kazuhiro Jo laser-cuts circles and spirals of sound in cardboard matrices, in one case transposing the earliest known recording, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s ‘Au Clair de la Lune’, which, as a phonautogram of marks on paper, has remained inaudible until recently. 

At the other extreme of fabrication processes, Michael Ridge and Ian Watson return to casting methods. Ridge, for example, makes objects out of cast glue that play recorded sounds of voices or singing birds, commingling with the more brutal noise of the impact of the record’s imperfections on the needle. These are part of a larger group of discs that he terms Anti-Releases, in part because they are one-off or small edition productions, but also because of frequent interventions, like hole-punching, that reduce their playability. Watson’s 7” Only Surface Noise Is Real, containing his own music, is made from a silicon mould that was itself cast from a vinyl master. He explains how the process appealed to him as a way to make short-run editions without resorting to more lathe cutting. It is expediency rather than iconoclasm that provokes Watson to make a record this way, and although he is drawn to the pops and crackles of the resin’s imperfections he is not making work that engages the potential of those kinds of noises. Those chance sounds and the recorded music coexist on the same terrain held by Ghassaei’s 3D-printed discs, on which she reproduces well-known records for sound comparison. Processes like these may come to be used with more negative intent or more accommodation to aberrant sound. At present, as if they were reincarnations of Thomas Edison, both Ghassaei and Watson approach the sound with a desire to improve its quality, despite their suggestions of interest in the records’ imperfections. 

From wax cylinders onwards, recorded music has always had an unusually intense engagement with materiality, due to the wide range of approaches by which the grooves followed by the stylus can be manufactured. Predictably enough, these manufacturing processes are affected by costs and availability of materials, as well as by new technologies. For example, the record’s core, which at the start of the 20th century was made of cardboard, plaster, or even cement, was then coated in shellac, a brittle secretion of the lac beetle. With the scarcity of shellac, caused by its use in bullet casings in the Second World War, many substitute materials were tried out, including aluminium and glass for record masters (although glass was also used at the start of recording history by Bell for storing his recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’). Alongside many innovative plastic formulas for records in the 1930s, one of the most resourceful experiments in alternative materials was for ‘Hit of the Week’ productions, made of cardboard laminated with durian, an edible fruit from South East Asia. During this time of shellac shortage, RCA developed Vitrolac as an early form of vinyl. The initially slow take-up of the new material was accelerated by radio, as DJs recognised that vinyl records sounded better than what they were usually playing, and when VDiscs—the armed forces records produced from 1943 to 1948—started to be made out of the more durable vinyl to protect them when they were dropped onto ships.

The 7” record was not made until 1949, when RCA Victor introduced colour-coded discs: red for classical, yellow for children’s and green for country music. As companies experimented with mass marketing and low-cost materials, the quality of some kinds of records declined. Taking the technology back a giant step, Columbia Records developed a degradable soft plastic disc as a giveaway promotion to record clubs. It isn’t until 1955 that we arrive at what are now standard vinyl albums, with the raised edge and centre distinguishing the objects used by most of these artists discussed here. One of the most successful experiments with coloured vinyl by a contemporary artist revisits RCA’s 1949 innovation. Jack Goldstein’s 1976 A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records with Sound Effects links colours with sounds—a purple record with a recording of a tornado, for example. For Goldstein, the materiality of the record is crucial: ‘…I arrive at a sound through an image. Through being manipulated the records become sound objects…There should be a direct relationship with the object for it to be effective, not just a sound coming out of a loudspeaker’ (Schoonmaker, 2011, p. 189).

We typically define materiality in terms of human use, but one approach by writers on ontology - including, for example, Martin Heidegger, Francis Ponge and Jane Bennett - considers material properties more from the side of the object, apart from human need. Even Adorno, writing in Aesthetic Theory, makes the unusual proposition that materials, in their inherent properties, offer up a resistance equivalent to the modifications being acted on them: ‘The violence done to the material imitates the violence that issued from the material and that endures in its resistance to form’ (Adorno, 1997, p. 50). Is there a way, then, in which the materials used to make records push back? Adorno suggests there is an intrinsic materiality to things that we are never able to reach, even at our most aggressively invasive. In his recent essay ‘Sonic Thought’, Christoph Cox asks how to counter philosophy’s occlusion of objects’ own volition and voice: ‘How might one challenge this domination, allow the object to speak…permit it to generate concepts rather than solely to be subject to them?’ (Cox et al., 2015, p. 123). In this sense, what else might the record want as material, or object? Think of how Francis Ponge considers the behaviour of objects in light of what he acclaims as the painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s ‘indifference’: ‘There is nothing special, no merit in choosing such objects. / But their way of encumbering our space, of coming to the fore, or making themselves (or appearing to be) more important than our way of looking…That is unquestionably one of the grandest designs’ (Ponge, 32). In exactly what ways might a record ‘come to the fore’? Where records can now be made from resin, paper, glass and metal we expect other material histories to be in play. However, the vinyl record, Dario Robleto points out, is made from fossil fuel, carrying this deep history of plant and animal life within it: ‘Every time a new groove is cut into a vinyl record, we are literally carving our history, our hopes and dreams of today, onto the chest of life of the distant past…The record needs us like we need it’ (Schoonmaker 2011: 196). If that life, those properties of shellac, of vinyl, which allow us to press grooves into the material in a pattern that stimulates the movement of a diamond stylus to generate electronic signals, is a use of material in response to a need for recordings that can address our present-day realities, then what properties of resin or paper might be addressed by Ghassaei or Jo as they use those materials to inscribe sounds? 


In 1934 under the telling pseudonym ‘Hektor Rottweiler’, Adorno published an essay highly critical of the market demand for records, suspecting that the phonograph would sooner alienate consumers from their culture than stimulate any new kind of musical creativity. In his opening paragraph, trying perhaps to figuratively lay bare the dumbness of this ubiquitous commodity, Adorno provides a remarkable account of a record coming to the fore, as if encountering it for the first time: 

One does not want to accord it any form other than the one it itself exhibits: a black pane made of a composite mass which these days no longer has its honest name any more than automobile fuel is called benzene…It is covered with curves, a delicately scribbled, utterly illegible writing, which here and there forms more plastic figures for reasons that remain obscure to the layman upon listening; structured like a spiral, it ends somewhere in the vicinity of the title label, to which it is sometimes connected by a lead-out groove so that the needle can comfortably finish its trajectory. In terms of its ‘form,’ this is all that it will reveal (Adorno, 1990, p. 56).

For Adorno the record, in this case the 78rpm shellac disc, intercedes negatively in life as a mute commodity having nothing to do with genuine human needs and owing its dominance to advertising’s artificial manipulations. The point has not come, will never come he surmises, when we will regain control over this commodity and use records in ways that answer our real needs - that is, in ways where we treat them independently of their mass marketing. In spite of this skepticism, it’s plausible that today’s artists who modify vinyl continue to reverse this loss of control by misusing record players and discs in practices that start with Wolpe, Hindemith and Toch. Theirs is a negation of commerce’s own negation of human needs. As part of this misuse of technology, it is a property of much of this kind of sound work that it turns its back on decipherment to make a stubbornly negative absence of sound, a kind of non-sound, a sound that is so scratched, impure, or unfathomable that it yields very little to interpretation and remains in the realm of the negative. At the same time, if this kind of sound belongs to a subgroup of recalcitrant things, it evidently still has its own circles of appreciation and hierarchisations in terms of notions of quality or interest. Perhaps it’s reasonable to conclude that these kinds of records straddle two realms - one of an absurd pointlessness and resistance, the other of a tentative institutional validation - and that these two realms are themselves interpenetrable, intermittently indistinguishable and blurred.


Adorno, T. (1990) The Form of the Phonograph Record. October, Volume 55 (Winter), MIT Press: Cambridge.
Adorno, T. (1997) Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Attali, J. (1985) Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Badiou, A. (2007) The Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. 
Badiou, A. (2014) The Age of the Poets and other writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose. New York: Verso.
Bataille, G. (1992) On Nietzsche. New York: Paragon House.
Block, U. and Glasmeier, M. (1989) Broken Music: Artists’ Recordworks. Berlin: Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD.
Cox, C., Jaskey, J., and Malik S. (eds.) (2015) Realism Materialism Art. Annandale-on-Hudson: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Sternberg Press
Diderot, D. (1964) Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc.
Groys, B. (2015) Entering the Flow. In C. Cox, J. Jaskey, S. Malik (eds.) Realism Materialism Art. Annandale-on-Hudson: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Sternberg Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1989) Science of Logic. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International Inc.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1977) Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Katz, M. (2010) Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kelly, C. (2009) Cracked Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Mann, P. (1999) Masocriticism. Albany: State University of New York.
Nietzsche, F. (1993) The Birth of Tragedy. London: Penguin Books.
Ponge, F. (1997) The Sun Placed in the Abyss. New York: SUN.
Schoonmaker, T. (2011) The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl. Durham: Duke University Press.


bad music
negative aesthetics

Tears, Fears and Flashes

15. november 2017


Tears, Fears and Flashes considers the relationship between interpersonal understanding and propagandist rhetorics, and speculates on the ethical implications of this difficult but often present relationship. The essay examines the conditions under which different conscious sonic rhetoric may constitute particular interpersonal modes capable of yielding or destroying mutual understanding of one another, as well as exploring the role of sound, language and spatial voyeurism in this process. Related themes, such as power/control, chronotope, interruption, lingua franca, sovereignty, bicamerality, discontinuity and love are investigated and speculated on.


The following text is an integral part of a theory act that additionally incorporates, in this specific case, the artistic mediums of sound and printing. A theory act (Govrin, 2017) is a rhetorical, artistic method of discussing issues of theory in non-theoretical ways. Positioned against the conventional written paper, it does not talk about a certain subject matter, but rather ‘act it’. It is carried out through divergent and complementary modes of presentation and representation, and thus it is experimental in character. A theory act is based on the assumption that in art the acquisition of knowledge is subjected to a rhetorical form of ambiguity. This form can contribute to bridging diverse sensory and affective modes of knowledge generated within aesthetic experience and discourse. Theory is therefore felt, experienced and produced in temporal processes.


There is a charged scene from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona (Persona, 1966) in which we see the patient Elisabet Vogler listen to Nurse Alma as she tells her the truth about herself, only to have, in an unexpected twist, the camera turn around, forcing us to hear the entire monologue again, this time with the focus on Alma. When Bergman was asked about his intention for the scene, which is known as the repeated scene’, he replied that one man's speaking is not the same as another man's listening.

I hear you. I hear you. There it is, repeating, doubling – the sound of a double mirror silently retreats, withdraws ad infinitum, but not without a heroic struggle against inevitable recursion and subjectivity. The song doesn't remain the same. It tries to hold under the pressure of diminishing, keeping still, keeping steel. But suddenly, unwillingly my thoughts drift away and with the clarity of a strange dream I feel myself close to an imaginary place. Hear me. Hear me forever: this is an invitation, an imperative.

Bergman's protagonists exchange personalities. The scene becomes a mirror scene as the monologue comes, so to speak, from two different directions. Over the course of its eight-minute run, this dialectical, repeated scene turns into a chronotope (Holquist, 1981) – a cinematic chrono-event which is constituted profoundly by Alma's voice and by the dazzling understanding that in sound, a return in time is always a return to the present. This chronotope has chronotopic effects as in a drug that changes the rhythm of the heart by affecting the nerves controlling it. We repeatedly witness the primal intensity of sound that is able to transform us emotionally, to reconfigure our rhythm. Sound opens up within us an opportunity that is old as much as it is new, the same opportunity that was opened for Elisabet Vogler, to hear the other and thus to hear oneself.

We read about this intensity in Hegel (Hegel, 1977) and Lacan (Lacan 1966), to name two of the more well known examples. In Hegel, a subject achieves mastery (or self-consciousness) through the recognition of another subject. In Lacan, the infant recognises itself in an (alienated) mirror-image. In both, one goes out in order to come back to a sheltered place within.

What type of space holds sound and opens up for us in a similar way? It is the cave, the resonating, mossy cave, extravagant and dangerous cave, “where stalactites, fossils and rocks come together, and where the animals mad by their own malign nature seek refuge.” (Lispector, 2012, p. 9) I am not alone in this cave; “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) – this is God's answer to Moses in the book of Exodus when Moses asks him for his name. The name that spells out loud, in one's voice, in a sound, is at the same time the name one must not express. I hear you. I hear you forever: this is the reply to the other's invitation, a reply that, similar to the prohibition against expressing God's name, is also an imperative set by oneself for oneself.


A few years ago, I journeyed to Canada's west and arrived at Vancouver Island on a partly cloudy morning. The Pacific Ocean, stretching out and reaching the horizon, glittered in silence. Similarly, the coast breathed slowly and peacefully, attuned itself to the water. On the shoreline I initially heard nothing but faint sounds of propagated waves, which did not differ much in volume, density, timbre or related moments of silence. But given a subtler listen, various nuances unfolded and revealed continuous mini-dramas when different states of matter collided with one another in an unusual way, thus interrupting the shoreline's circular narrative. I thought about the prolonged mutual history those different materials share on the coastline and about the charged dialogue they develop throughout constant cycles of the tide.

The longer I sat there to listen – an insignificant time in geological terms – the better I also realised my part in this dialogue. The complex relationship I have with sound became all the more clear. A constant dialogue is created between our perception of sounds and sounds themselves (if we can assume such objectivity). The characteristics of sounds change as a result of our mutual dialogue and the degree of control we impose on a sound happening. Sound's tendency to acoustically disappear is challenged by our attention to it. Sometimes we are too impatient for attentive listening and thus feel attacked by sounds. We instinctively try to fight backas if engaged in a negative, unproductive dialogue with sound. At some point, however, a certain attempt to control the sonic realm becomes helpless, since sounds fade away, and there is nothing we can do about it but retain them in memory for future purposes. To what degree does the attempt to control a sound scene interrupt its natural, historical unfolding? At the beach, sounds appeared to me when an expectation emerged, and resistance followed. When I expect something to happen, I can prepare to act and to apply force or resistance and thus to create a sound, a change that is both acoustic and emotional. When I resist, the situation is unstable; it rumbles. Calmness arrives through voluntary non-resistance, which perhaps results in silence.

I recall a text by Hannah Arendt which interestingly ties together the idea of interruption, the political sphere humans occupy and her notion of history: “What is difficult for us to realise is that the great deeds and works of which mortals are capable, and which become the topic of historical narrative, are not seen as parts of either an encompassing whole or a process; on the contrary, the stress is always on single instances and single gestures. These single instances, deeds or events, interrupt the circular movement of daily life in the same sense that the rectilinear ßios of the mortals interrupts the circular movement of biological life itself. The subject matter of history is these interruptions - the extraordinary, in other words.” (Arendt, 2006, p. 42-43)

If we juxtapose Arendt's analysis of macro-history with Vancouver Island's micro-history, it perhaps means that natural history is a dominant story told by its great uncontrolled interruptions, whereas human history can also be a dominant story told by only a single person who sought control but decided not to’, which in a final account, is also a form of control. Eventually, everybody wants to rule the world.


We should notice that I'm writing to you today in English. This should not be taken for granted, as the supremacy of English these days in academic publishing is not an innocent issue. English today is supposedly what Latin used to be in early medieval Europe - somewhat of a lingua franca - but this is a misleading equation since Latin was not associated with a specific nation or country, whereas English is.

The fact that I'm writing to you today in English, which is not my mother tongue, means that something will be missing from our dialogue. True, perhaps any dialogue is somewhat based on its missing details, misunderstandings, latent assumptions, guesses, mimic interpretations and lapses more than it is based on what was actually said. But the minor, so to speak, detail which makes an important difference is that, to a large extent, our dialogue was forced upon us. We are forced to communicate, to be in contact, in a very specific manner, by using a very specific language. We are, if you will, prisoners of a language that is not our own, of a language we never owned but had involuntarily thrown onto us, and thus we are bound to a particular absence.

This could perhaps be tolerable if, for example, the economic dimension that characterises, among others, interpersonal dialogues was brought to the front and became the dominant mediator of interaction. In such case, the monetary value becomes the lingua franca as it indeed once was the main language of commerce. Then, what is missing was never really meant to be found.

But when we speak to one another we are also, first and foremost, in the domain of ethics. We tell a mutual story by listening, by singing, by loving each other unconditionally – why are we forced then to make love particularly in English? Like vagrants, against our will, we wander in exhaustion around the bends and curves of the English language, throughout its alleys and bridges. Like in Leos Carax's film The Lovers on the Bridge (The Lovers on the Bridge, 1991), in which we meet Alex and Michèle, two young Parisian vagrants bound to a love story that takes place on the Pont Neuf – Paris's oldest bridge that crosses over the river Seine. The film portrays the harsh existence of homelessness as the lovers try to get their lives back together and overcome their own difficulties – addiction in Alex's case, and in Michèle's, a deteriorating eye condition for which she becomes increasingly dependent on Alex. Fearing that Michèle will leave him if she receives a new medical treatment, Alex attempts to keep Michèle practically a prisoner. Tragically, he fortifies the bridge to keep her in, to keep her away from a redeemable home inside their own home which eventually becomes a lovers' gilded-cage. Why shouldn't we resist, escape and make love in a different language, a language with no alphabet? Won't we find that it is the language of music that makes love most openly? Music is the purest lingua franca. But what if, unexpectedly, like Alex and Michèle, we find on the bridge what we were looking for or whomever we were listening to? Then, we are no longer in the domain of ethics but that of magic.    


One's voice can be loud, confident, strong, secure, unique, individual, stable, definite, lucid, powerful, special, extraordinary, impressive, leading, guiding and so on. It can as well be the opposite to all these, or most radically, one's voice can simply be silenced. We all become familiar, at some point in our lives, with the petrifying impact of a silencing force that issues from some foreign, violent body. When this supposedly undefeated force is speaking, one listens and obeys. Then we call it totalitarianism. But this possible totalitarian aspect of an external voice, as we have come to know it throughout history, perhaps was not always perceived as something negative or threatening, but rather religious or natural.

In what still seems to be a controversial book, titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Jaynes, 1976), the late American psychologist Julian Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise in humans prior to language, but is a learned process that is based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues, humans operated under a mentality he called the bicameral mind. In place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers or gods. In other words, people in ancient civilisations were guided in decision-making situations by commanding voices that today we would call auditory hallucinations; schizophrenia is a vestige of this earlier mentality. Daily life in bicameral civilisations was probably largely habitual, with occasional voices directing behaviour in novel situations. Put simply, where today people deliberate over a decision, in the distance past the bicameral person would have experienced a guiding voice. This voice was based on the same unconscious problem-solving processes that modern introspective decision-making often relies on. In ancient civilisations, a person would likely have grown up with their (‘hallucinating’) guiding voice, or ‘personal god,’ referred to as one's Ka in ancient Egypt or one's Genius among the early Romans. Jaynes believes that people in ancient civilisations experienced auditory stimuli emanating from their right temporal lobe, and that these people misinterpreted (so to speak) these auditory hallucinations as the voices of their dead relatives, chiefs, kings, and eventually ‘the gods’.

To support and bring evidence to his theory that ancient humans did not have meta-consciousness or the self-awareness that characterises consciousness, Jaynes focuses on ancient Greek culture (although the transition from bicamerality to consciousness, he argues, took place at different times in different places around the world). Jaynes focuses on Greece because the oldest reliable writing, the Iliad (usually dated to around the 10th century BC), comes from there and depicts information on the lives of the early Greeks. The Iliad does not exhibit any kind of cognitive process such as introspection, even though it contains many myths, legends and historical accounts. Later works, even by Homer himself, such as the Odyssey (a sequel to the Iliad), already shows indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality or early form of consciousness.

Subsequent non-literary works that deal directly with the concept of voice or sound perhaps already show the completion of the process that Jaynes suggests. One of these works, for example, is Aristotle's treatise De Anima, written around 350 BCE. In the second part of the text, Aristotle writes that the voice, produced by the soul, is associated (from the materialistic aspect) with the heart and (from the formalistic aspect) with the imagination. Because the soul resides in an area of the heart, the voice is produced there as well as in the windpipe that leads directly to it. “Not every sound made by an animal is voice” (Aristotle, 1907, p. 27): when voice is produced, “that which does the striking must have a soul and there must be a certain imagination (for voice is a particular sound which has meaning).” (ibid.) Thus, at the time when Aristotle writes, one's voice is already completely understood as an internal, cognitive process of the mind. In order to fully realise the Aristotelian voice, we should also understand something of the early conception of the body. The body was seen as a semi-permeable, vulnerable object, receiving impressions from the outside (impressions are envisioned since Aristotle as a process analogous to how a seal imprints soft wax). Illness, for example, was perceived as the penetration of ambient miasma through the skin (this is why Early Moderns took few baths). So, even when the mind-body conception is of that kind – when the body is not understood as a completely independent, objective object – still the voice is conceived as being generated internally and un-forcefully. In this sense, the formation of the limits of the body followed that of the mind.

In our times, for a voice to be conceived as natural and subjectively our own (even though it may in fact be oppressive, totalitarian and enslaving), it had to reappear in a sophisticated way. While pretending to operate externally from oneself, within the real world that we aloofly experience, as constrained rhetoric, it cunningly succeeded to reconfigure itself internally in a way that made it more than simply rhetoric. Now, we call it capitalism, the free market and the free world.


That night we talked and talked, and I had a feeling of isolation and of being misunderstood. The language did not suffice to hold what emotionally discharged itself from my peelable self. Then the language started to crumble, always threatening to collapse into a porous matter not thick enough to crystallise a thought or a feeling, no longer capable of capturing me within itself. I could hear no connections any more. Sentences dismantled themselves into a series of separated words, the words into random, sonic fragments, the sonic fragments into disjointed syllables, and those emissions into a glowing trail, excreted and left behind by some crawling creature that was my tongue.

Then, silence... and a sense of discontinuity that could not be darned by soniferous exchange. The longer we paused, the heavier it grew, enigmatically bringing with it a waiting which measured the distance that could not be reduced. After we let go of the continuous force of our coherent conversation, there emerged a need to emancipate a certain stage of language: a stage in which we would not only be able to express ourselves in a disruptive manner, but would also be able to let the pause speak in an un-unified manner – a manner that would reconcile itself as being nothing but a bridge or a passage, an indecisive speech capable of crossing our discontinuity without trying to fill or unify it.

Then, suddenly, a connection was made, followed by a sense of surprise and gratitude. How did it happen? A word either touches another person or it doesn't – I could not understand it really. In Clarice Lispector's words: “The question of understanding is not about intelligence, it is about feeling, about entering into contact.”  (TV Cultura, 1977).


Arendt, H. (2006) Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin Books.
Aristotle (1907) De Anima, trans. R. D. Hicks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Hegel, G. W. F. (1977) Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Holquist, M (ed.) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. C Emerson & M Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Govrin, I. (2017) Theory Acts [Accessed 28 October 2017].
Jaynes, J. (1976) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 
Lacan, J. (1966) Écrits, Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Lispector, C. (2012) Água Viva, trans. S Tobler, New York: New Directions.

Persona (1966). [Film] Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Sweden: Svensk Filmindustri.
The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) [Film] Directed by Leos Carax. France: Films A2.
Torah. Exodus 3:14.
TV Cultura (1977) Panorama, video recording, YouTube, [Accessed 28.10.2017] 



The Im/mediate Noise

Sound Art in the Algorithmic Culture 
15. november 2017


Sound has been argued to be a more immediate mode of perception, affording a methodology of understanding distinct from that which has been shaped and cultivated by visuality, the latter often linked with the totalising and objectifying tendencies of the Western rational subject and knowledge. It might be framed as more embodied, affective, and experiential. But what about some of the other qualities of sound, such as the way it eludes the linguistic register and operates on the peripheral? Given the claim of the sonic to immediacy and immersion, how does it figure as a ‘medium,’ especially within scholarship on mediation and technology? How might sound be utilised in an age governed by the disciplinary logic of information and communication technology (ICT), a field and way of thinking that perhaps link the objectification of the visual with the tacit operations of the sonic? This paper seeks to explore digital media polemics in relation to the usage of sound in ‘algorithmic culture’, and to examine sound’s relationship to immediacy and mediation, via scholarly writings from the fields of sound, digital media, technology, and art, and it concludes by looking at the author’s most recent sound installations.  


As early as 1976, Jacques Attali had argued that, contrary to the focus Western thought has placed on vision, it is through the sonic that one comprehends the world. Vision had been linked to a totalising tendency, abstracting phenomena into decontextualised statistics. Noise, on the other hand, is what permeates all, and offers an alternative understanding. In Listening to Noise and Silence, Salomé Voegelin (2010) opens with a similar dichotomy. Likewise, she defines visuality as a drive for total and objective knowledge/truth, a propensity afforded by the ‘gap’ between the seeing subject and the seen object. On the other hand, aurality possesses no such gap, for hearing is everywhere, and the sonic offers a more contextual and inter-subjective methodology. For her, “sound […] is always the heard, immersive and present” (Voegelin, 2010, p.xiv). Unlike the seen object, which is purportedly stable and cohesive, the heard is constantly unfolding in time, dynamic and contingent, allowing listening to function as a generative and active mode of apprehension. As she describes the act of listening, Voegelin reminds us that sound is perpetually present, shaping reality, regardless of our conscious perception: “listening produces a sonic life-world that we inhabit, with or against our will” (Voegelin, 2010, p.11). Sound, for her, is pure experience, phenomenological and beyond the linguistic and rational order, which is signified by visuality. Frances Dyson makes a similar point in Sounding New Media, noting that “sound is the immersive medium par excellence” (Dyson, 2009, p. 4), and that its distinction from visuality negates the Western binary of subject and object. It is sound’s claim to immediacy and immersion that I wish to focus on for this paper.  

Voegelin’s contention rests on a polarised understanding of vision as passive and distant analysis, and the sonic as active, embodied and immediate. While I appreciate her formulation of the sonic subject as an experiential mode that resists abstracting rationality and challenges a visual (by extension, administrative and capitalistic) dogma, I have three issues with this distinction. First, it presupposes the possibility of separating the visual from the sonic, and ignores the existence of media such as film and digital media. Second, it possibly overlooks much scholarship that has taken place within art history and cultural studies that has centred around questioning the visuality perpetuated by the dominant ideology (such as those outlined by Martin Jay in Downcast Eyes), as well as maxims of postmodernism that all meaning is contingent. Third, unlike Attali, she does not acknowledge the danger of the sonic methodology becoming appropriated as a tool for the dominant power regime, despite her conceding that “every sensory interaction [is] always already ideologically and aesthetically determined” (Voegelin, 2010, p.3).  

This paper has no intention of reifying the binary forged by the sound scholars noted above between the sonic and the visual, but uses it as a springboard for further discussion. Navigating through two scholarly directions, specifically media and technology theory on the one hand, and critique of post-Fordist immaterial capital on the other, the paper seeks to explore the ways in which some of sound (and other media)’s qualities may be implicated in the wider operation of contemporary information capitalism, and offers the presence of noise/medium as a subversive tactic (noise defined here not in the sonic sense, but rather in the information sense), a specific form of deviation, remainder, and undesirable excess in the capitalist machine – something that philosopher Michel Serres would refer to as ‘parasite’. The paper concludes with a look at two of the author’s most recent sound installations, not as empirical evidence or application of the theoretical stance proposed by the paper, but rather simply as examples of the author’s engagement with some of the ideas to be outlined below.  

Algorithmic Culture 

Speaking of the imperative to focus on noise, Attali contends that “its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political” (Attali, 1985, p. 6). As an artist and scholar whose primary interest and practice lie in digital media criticism and sound installations, I would suggest that his proposal is especially timely in the contemporary age, where the legacy of cybernetics and information theory is the dominating logic, realised as the post-human capitalist enterprise of data-mining and algorithmic quantification – what cultural theorist Ted Striphas (2015) has termed “algorithmic culture”. Various media scholars have utilised different terms for framing this state of affairs, such as cognitive capitalism, the knowledge economy, the attention economy, etc. For Jodi Dean (2005), the term is “communicative capitalism”, designating a state where communication is a commodity, rather than a liberating act of agency. Maurizio Lazzarato (1996) articulates a similar idea in his theorisation of immaterial labour, and argues that communication and other social and cultural acts are now subsumed under the production circuit. Matteo Pasquinelli (2009) has also outlined in detail the ways in which Google’s PageRank algorithm leverages the population’s general intellect and capitalizses on users’ attention and knowledge. Nicholas Carr (2012) has described this system as “digital sharecropping”, Web 2.0’s core means of value-extraction, which exploits the free labour provided by the masses by granting them the means of production but then retaining rights over that which they produce, accumulating economic surplus for the providers of such ‘tools’ and platforms, while ensuring that the labourers do not see themselves as working, but rather as ‘users’ who are socialising.   

The assumption underscoring all of this is that being may be cognizable by undergoing codification. For Striphas, ‘algorithmic culture’ involves the conversion of all patterns of relations, expressions, associations between objects, people, locations, and ideas, into quantifiable informatics. As media theorist, philosopher, and programmer Alex Galloway has suggested, “informatics is what Marx would have called a real subsumption […] of the visual […] espiteme handed down from the Enlightenment” (2007), referring specifically to the relation between seeing, reason, and knowledge, and drawing this line of thinking all the way to software development and algorithm deployment. Galloway’s formulation echoes the distinction outlined by Attali and Voegelin, linking visuality, totalising knowledge, decontextualisation, numeric quantification, and cybernetic control. But what role does sound play in this information-political landscape? 

Medium / Mediation 

In the essay “Noise and Exceptions”, Stephen Crocker (2007) opens with the observation, following Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s double logic of ‘remediation’, that our innovations and advances in media have always been driven by an intention to be more immediate, leading to a paradox whereby the more we try to escape mediation (the same way that a painting or virtual reality or video conferencing efface themselves to achieve realism and presence), in order to be more immediate with the content (thoughts, reality…etc.), the more mediated we become. He urges for a McLuhanesque focus on the medium itself, “the process of making a means visible” (2007). Drawing from Michel Serres, Crocker goes on to emphasize the persistence and ineradicability of the medium. Utilising communication between a sender and receiver, he illustrates how the conception of a perfect signal transmission is impossible (something that mathematician Claude Shannon had already noted in his landmark paper on information theory in 1948), that the noise of the medium always exists, and that immediacy is an illusion. As he argues, “the medium in which our actions take place affects what we can be and do” (2007). The medium, then, exhibits particular qualities, here conceived by Serres as the ‘noise’ in signal-processing. “We can never eliminate the space of transmission. There is always a context of communication,” he writes. This emphasis on the persistence of the medium and its effect being a significant feature to be examined, is rendered evident when he says, “the user is used by the medium” (2007). 

Talking about a specific form of mediation – technology, media ecologist Neil Postman has noted that “technologies change what we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like” (Postman, 1992, p. 12) and that “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias” (ibid., p. 13). This is very much the focus of philosopher Andrew Feenberg’s (1999) book Questioning Technology, where he illustrates how technologies are not neutrally self-determined and autonomous entities, but rather they are imbued with very specific socio-political implications and intentions right from their conception. As the critical pedagogue Ivan Illich says, “surrounded by omnipotent tools, man is reduced to a tool of his tools” (Illich, 1971, p. 165). 

So what about sound, if one considers it a medium, and a technology? 

Sound as Mediation 

While philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s (1998) writing has been used by proponents of post-humanism, it might be helpful here to think about his idea of ‘originary technicity’, the idea that humans have always been technological and mediated. Taken with the arguments of the medium by Crocker and Serres, one can propose that sound (or aurality, to be specific), too, is a form of mediation, and that immediacy and mediation are not mutually exclusive, but are simultaneous qualities of sound. As Dyson notes, “audio has naturalised […] the disembodying effects of new media technologies, and […] paved the way for further mediation” (Dyson, 2009, p. 3). Even if one concedes, for the moment, that there is indeed some distinction between visuality and aurality, and that sound is more immediate than sight, what is the cost of this ‘immediacy’? How does it function simultaneously, as mediation? 

As Dyson notes, “immersed in sound, the subject loses itself” (Dyson, 2009, p. 4). In 2015 I attended a conference on Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and one speaker, Alois Sieben, talked about the character of Samantha, the operating system, in the movie Her by Spike Jonze, and how she successfully occupied an ambivalent and entangled space between the human and non-human, using the humanness of her voice. However, for me, what was more intriguing was how Samantha’s voice signified the phenomenon of how sound is being used to condition, control, and indoctrinate the population, through its expert deployment and complicity in creating an immersive and ‘interactive’ everyday experience. Speaking of adapting Samuel Beckett’s work for film, artist Stan Douglas writes that “the advent of the sound film is exactly contemporary with […] its formalisation of how a new cinematic space would be constructed” and that “these innovations made it possible for a film to yield a greater impression of subjective experience” (Douglas, 1988, p. 16). This ongoing quest for further, deeper, more realistic immersion, which sound assists in constructing, is precisely what many scholars are wary of. In a chapter titled “What Does Simulation Want”, Sherry Turkle answers her own question by proposing that “simulations want, even demand, immersion” (Turkle, 2009, p. 6) and that “simulation makes itself easy to love and difficult to doubt” (ibid., p. 7). There has been much development in cultural studies, art history, visual culture, film studies, and other disciplines in the humanities for the past century focusing on visuality and semiotics in the examination and criticism of popular culture, mass media, language, colonialism and capitalism. Sound had been referred to in the context of mass media, its role in creating propaganda and advertisement obliquely acknowledged (here I am thinking mostly of the Frankfurt School), but much more emphasis has been placed on the visual. I would argue, in the contemporary context of the ubiquity of information and communication technology (ICT), that sound plays a crucial role in creating a fully technologically-dependent and machine-governed existence. Sound design, sound effects, sound cues, phone messages, phone voices, voice recognition, ringtones, notifications, etc.; an entire society undergoing a Pavlovian experience. Contrary to thinking about Samantha’s voice as a machine-becoming-a-Subject, I am more interested in thinking about another character played by Scarlet Johansson, that of the alien in Under the Skin, who, in the beginning of the film, ‘practised’ speaking by making various fragmented phonetic sounds, training herself to abduct humans: the voice as a technology, and in this case, a tool for colonisation. 

As an addendum to this thought, a few days after the above conference I received a phone call where I did not realise until a minute in that I was speaking with a machine. The programme was expertly engineered to emulate a real person, with pre-recorded messages and a sophisticated word-recognition software programmed to respond intuitively to all my answers. It was not until I became irate and snapped at the ‘telemarketer’ that the program malfunctioned, exposing its opaque machinic self, by replaying certain segments of the pre-recorded phrases. Perhaps this is the cost of immersion and immediacy. 

How might artists cultivate spaces for alternative understandings and resistance? 

Techné, Art, and Noise 

In The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger (1977) discusses in depth technology’s propensity for constructing worldviews by tracing the etymology of the concept to techné, the activities of craftsmen and artists. He contends that while traditional technology is meant to reveal and bring forth, modern technology – through the process of gestell (enframing) – constitutes an apparatus that positions the world into a particular order of revealing: that of the standing-reserve. As Heidegger notes, enframing “banishes man into that kind of revealing which is an ordering [and] where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 27). This particular construct induces an understanding of the world as discrete and calculable blocks, as marketable resources, as capital, ready to be abstracted, ordered, and privatised. Emphasising that technology is not driven by rational functionality, Feenberg follows Bruno Latour in noting that “technical devices embody norms” (Feenberg, 1999, p. 85), and that after certain technological innovations have been black-boxed in a process Latour calls ‘closure,’ the norms and social values they embody become the “unquestioned background to every aspect of life” which “seem so natural and obvious they often lie below the threshold of conscious awareness” (ibid., p. 86). Heidegger’s conception of technology as a deterministic and autonomous entity that seems inherently geared towards control and oppression has been heavily criticised by Feenberg, who approaches the question in a much more considered manner, synthesising the Frankfurt School, postmodern critical theory (i.e. Foucault), as well as thinkers like Latour and other contemporary sociologists. Nevertheless, perhaps Heidegger’s theory has something to offer here in terms of a counter-strategy.  

If we accept the aforementioned claims that 1) the medium persists and exerts its own forces, effects, truths, and norms, that 2) sound is also a medium/technology with immediate and mediated qualities, and that 3) the nefarious operations of ICT-facilitated capitalism function, at least partially, through its immersive and clandestine qualities (as do all technologies), then how might artistic gestures be mobilised in response? Here one returns to the paradox of mediation, being reminded once again that immediacy is always already a form of mediation in itself, and that noise will always persist.  

In Being and Time, Heidegger (1962) applies his analysis to tools and the two states of readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) and presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) to elaborate on the idea of transparency of the medium, noting that a tool only emerges from the hidden operation of readiness-to-hand when it is broken, and becomes presence-at-hand. This suggests that, in the realm of technological mediation, a critical investigation of our relationship to the dominant technology can only occur through the breakdown or displacement of the normative function, such that the medium itself and the state of mediation can be revealed, foregrounded, and emphasised. The concept of examining the medium has similarities to Marshall McLuhan’s (1994) idea that it is the medium itself, usually hidden from users’ awareness, that needs to be examined in order for a critical understanding of its psychological and social effects to be possible. As Terence Gordon explained, McLuhan championed artists to create ‘anti-environments,’ such as James Joyce’s Finnegan's Wake (which, for him, highlighted the inadequacy of print and linear language through unsettling the reader), for their potential in making “a visible environment of media effects intended to jar us awake” (Gordon, 2010, p. 86). This can also be likened to the estrangement effect of the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. A literary device that originated from the Russian Formalists (ostranenie), Brecht took estrangement into a politicised realm of theatre spectatorship in order to self-reflexively break the fourth wall and disrupt naturalised but invisible cognitive and social tropes. By doing so, he aimed to highlight and destabilise the constructed nature of theatre, representation, and by extension, meaning and society (Foster et. al, 2004). This language of examining the hidden mechanisms of technics is reminiscent of Latour and Feenberg’s argument noted above. Like Heidegger’s notion of presence-at-hand, the medium only becomes visible and transparent for consideration when something out of the norm has occurred, such as breakdown of its intended function (in this case, immersion, identification, illusion), accentuating the device.

Similarly, in calling for an unveiling and breaking of the illusions normatised by reigning modes of mediation, Feenberg also proposes that “a critical theory of technology can uncover […], demystify the illusion […], and expose the relativity of prevailing technical choices” (Feenberg, 1999, p. 87). Although he only suggests an investigation from a social sciences perspective, and does not mention art, his theorisation of the necessity to examine the ‘technical codes’ that have become invisible and self-evident, can be very beneficial in thinking about a strategy and space where this alternative thinking can occur. 

In an essay titled “Noise versus Conceptual Art,” improvisation musician Mattin lists several characteristics of noise, one of them being that “noise exceeds the logic of calculability” (Mattin, 2010), and that it operates in opposition to capital. As Crocker (2007) reminds, the medium, the noise, always persists in signal-processing. If noise is an ‘other’ to signal, as Joseph Nechvetal (2011) notes in his book Immersion into Noise, then it is through noise that one should begin to formulate a strategy of countering the signal-processing of communicative capitalism. 

So, is the role of the artist to reveal the medium/technology through noise? At the conference Sound Art Matters held at Aarhus University in 2016, Jamie Allen and Morten Søndergaard spoke about the idea of revealing. Unlike some scholars, such as Heidegger, who believe that revealing/transparency is imperative, Allen is of the opinion that revealing alone is not enough, and to counter what he calls the infrastructure (or perhaps ‘protocol,’ in Galloway’s terms) one needs to engage it directly, to couple, to modulate, and to generate new information. I can agree with this perspective, especially in the wake of Snowden. The general public seems to be living in a state of outraged passivity; surveillance is common knowledge, but beyond agreeing that it is ethically suspect, it does not automatically lead to widespread public unrest and demand for change. An artistic operation that focuses solely on revealing may be accused of ignoring the persistence of mediation, in presuming that there is, beneath all the layers and after all the phenomenological bracketing, an authentic and unmediated truth or essence to be revealed, and once that is done, oppression ends and a process of subjectivisation ensues. Furthermore, Jodi Dean has pointed out the irony in the use of transparency rhetoric of  by the ICT industries to justify the incessant digging for information, so that we may at some point reach the democratic utopia of full publicity, “the ideology of technoculture” (Dean, 2003, p. 101). However, I do also wish to express support and admiration for hacktivist groups such as Anonymous and Wikileaks, and also believe in the potentiality and significance of simply revealing information that was hidden, in the important tradition of artists such as Hans Haacke and Mark Lombardi. That being said, the proposed tactic is not merely a call for transparency of the machine, as many interpret Heidegger and Brecht; what I am suggesting is rather a form of revealing beyond simply the revealing of information (ie. Wikileaks) or revealing as information (ie. techné), but rather one characterised by the production of something that exceeds the discrete unit, through an appeal to the medium’s persistence.  

Commenting on artist Char Davis’ practice of virtual reality-based work, media art historian Oliver Grau also speaks to the danger of immersion when he says that “the more intensely a participant is involved […] the less the computer-generated world appears as a construction.” (2003, p. 200) And he goes on to caution that the apparatus of VR, with the aid of audio, effectively hides itself from scrutiny, creating a lack of distance which is needed to critically analyse art. “Immersion is produced […] when the message and the medium form an almost inseparable unit, so that the medium becomes invisible.” (2007, p. 148) But if one follows the arguments noted above by Crocker, Serres, and Stiegler, then this lack of distance is an illusion, as the medium of VR itself still exists. The imperative, therefore, is not to advocate for some mythical objective outsider’s critical analysis, but to expose and examine the medium, while understanding that we are always mediated. Grau seems to point to this obliquely when he says that “obviously, the relation between critical distance and immersion is not a simple matter of either-or.” (Grau, 2007, p. 154) Art educator Maxine Greene’s (2001) theorisation might be helpful here, as she insists on the simultaneous different phases of the experiential and the detached knowing (or, the immediate and the mediated). 

Recent Work 

As attempts to engage with the explicated ideas above, I will briefly talk about two recent sound installations, both funded by the Canada Council for the Arts Media Arts program.  

The first project, titled sonic prostheses, was completed in late 2014. Taking the form of a spatial bar graph, the sound installation utilises sound recordings of user-computer interaction and the sculptural form of bar graphs to scrutinise the ubiquity of machine administration/quantification through the data-mining of users.  

It consists of 9 steel pipes (placed roughly 4’ apart) protruding out from the wall in various lengths. A speaker is mounted at the end of each pipe. Playing from each speaker are sound recordings of computer-usage from a group of users, such as keyboard-typing, mouse-clicking, chatting, gaming, streaming, etc. These recordings have been quantified according to a set of personal measurements determined by myself, and the results are reflected by the lengths of the pipes. The categories of measurements were intentionally arbitrary, nonsensical, and situated, ranging from whether the artist ‘likes’ the voice of a user to how satisfied with their life the artist thinks the users are. The artist, in turn, takes on the role of the ‘analytics,’ a fact that is more significant than the specific qualities being ‘measured.’ The result becomes a counter-graph, where the categories measured by the artist are not of conventional marketing use, but are idiosyncratic and based on spontaneous arbitration, inducing an obsolescence that becomes a disruption of capitalist signal-processing.  

In this way, each user has been profiled through the data derived from their computer-usage, emphasising their reduction to just an indicator on a graph, disembodied and anonymous. The capitalist process in which all cognitive/social attributes are subsumed into the production circuit is made ostensible through the representation of each user as a pathetic and minimal Beckettian humanoid, constituting part of larger statistical graph, repeating through the mouthpiece only the sounds of digital immersion and mediation, simultaneously. There is perhaps a resemblance to the play Not I by Becket, where all the viewer can see and hear is a mouth spouting out some barely intelligible speech very rapidly, highlighting this unfathomable desire to keep communicating, to keep disclosing information. In this case, sound is used on several levels: as an indication of the computer-user relation, as a quality utilised to measure and represent subjects, and as an index of the body, fully complicit in the operation of capitalist abstraction and digital immersion. 

Like some of my previous work, this installation seeks to emphasise both the disembodied nature of reducing being to information for instrumental purposes, as well as the persistence of the medium/body/noise, what Crocker calls ‘medial noise,’ through a deliberately embodied spatial installation and obsolescence. As Galloway has said, the human body is “the most emblematic media system” (Galloway, 2012, p. 9). In this case, the audience will be able to experience the graph spatially, walking in between the pipes/humanoids, with the lengths corresponding to the quantified traits of the users, and the speaker acting as both the last remnant of their bodies, as well as an insistence on the presence of the medium/body in general. The noise ruptures through via a deliberate exacerbation of the quantification machination, an emphasis on foregrounding the medium, but also through a deviation from its normative function, a role reversal in which the artist becomes the analytic, and the quantifying function is rendered obsolete. 

The most recent project, before z axis (feedback loop of commensuration), is a large floor-based interactive sound installation that spans roughly 30’ by 30’ and consists of 49 small 4” by 4” wooden blocks composed in a 7 by 7 grid, placed roughly 4’ apart. Situated on each block is a speaker unit consisting of a micro-controller, a battery pack, and speaker. A computer and a webcam are situated on the side, collecting and measuring certain traits from the audience members. Like the previous project, the exact data to be extracted (most likely traits such as density, movement, and height) is less relevant than the act of extraction itself. The calculated result from the data-mining will take the form of X and Y coordinates, which are transmitted by the computer wirelessly to one of the speaker unit blocks, plotted on the grid via sounds emitting from the speakers. This process repeats every thirty seconds to a minute as audience members walk through the installation, continuously having their data collected and directed towards various coordinates on the grid. 

In such a way, the viewers/users experiencing the piece will be subjected to the compulsory and clandestine operations of surveillance and the machinic abstraction of distilling human subjects to quantifiable traits that will come to determine their identity, regardless of how decontextualised and inadequate this process may be. The grid, like the bar graph above, comes to stand in as an emblem of ICT and its capitalist function. As the machines calculate and represent the users by mapping their data on the grid, the users’ own bodies are being mapped as well, as they navigate the grid to locate their own ‘coordinates’, where the sound will be emitted. Through the process of experiencing the piece, the users’ bodies become abstracted and reduced to a single node on the grid, while they themselves are spatially mapped on the grid as well, repeatedly, as they navigate through the piece. The process emphasises the ways in which they ‘become’ the data that has come to represent them, blurring the line between subjects and their data representation. In this sense, technological knowing, machinic abstraction, and data-based representation all mediate the users through an ever immersive and immediate operation, facilitated by sound, attesting once again to sound’s simultaneous properties of immediacy and mediation. 

My work is often influenced by the linguistic and existential absurdity of Beckett. This project attempts to create a Beckett-esque scene in which subjects without agency navigate a nameless space monotonously and repetitively. Through pushing certain elements of the contemporary human condition to the extreme and minimal, the work of Beckett utilises a strategy that Gilles Deleuze (1971) characterises as a method to reveal the vacuousness, absurdity, and political agendas of normatised underlying structures. In a similar vein, this project intends to spatialise a minimal form of quantification – that of a grid – while capturing information from the viewers and inducing them to navigate the space in a way that might resemble de-subjectified humanoids wandering through a maze akin to lab mice, repeatedly towards their coordinates, their data representation. The sounds might induce a Pavlovian response where viewers are compelled and summoned to voluntarily approach the source, foregrounding the agency that communication technology has in determining and priming human behaviours/responses. Once again, the medium of algorithmic culture, of ICT-facilitated capitalism, is foregrounded for scrutiny, while its function is displaced in an absurdist exacerbation in which what emerges is not instrumental signals, but a surplus of dysfunctional non-information (or, new information): noise. In creating a situation in which the viewers wander about a grid chasing their data in the form of generic beeping sounds, the installation will attempt to highlight the contemporary phenomenon of surreptitious yet coercive data-mining, the alarming prevalence of data-based representation, and, as this paper attempted to demonstrate above, the fraught relationship between sonic immediacy and the potentially subjugating mediation.   


The paper has attempted to sketch an examination of sound’s claim to immediacy through a reading that combines media and technology theory and socio-political concerns of the digital, via cultural theory and post-Marxist thoughts, and proposes noise as an artistic tactic that deviates from the normative function such that the apparatus may be foregrounded and examined. Sound’s currency via its claim to immediacy, embodiment, and the experiential is questioned by examining its potential complicity with the operations of algorithmic culture and digital immersion, fuelled by an understanding through techné. The simultaneous immediacy and mediation are argued to be characteristic of all media/technology, including sound and sight, and the paper challenges sound’s privileged position against visual rationality and totalisation. The proposed artistic tactic for dissent is not simply to celebrate sound’s formal claims but rather to lean on the noise of the medium, noise as that which is inherent to the medium and facilitates slippage from the dominant mode of being and knowing, allowing the normative machination to be revealed such that an alternative mode may emerge and new or counter-information may be produced. There is a need to acknowledge the accusations of technological determinism when referencing Heidegger and McLuhan, as well as the descent of Brecht’s currency on the political aesthetics hierarchy. (Whether or not these may be reasonable arguments will need to be taken up elsewhere). Like other scholars, I too view ‘transparency’ as a narrow-sighted argument to offer within the polemics of technology and media criticism. However, my reading of the above scholars does not limit their contributions to a simple call for ‘revealing’ the machine, but rather one for possibilities of the alternative, through a focus on noise, the ‘other’ of the information-capitalist assemblage. 


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big data
ICT (information and communication technology)
sound installations

A Temple of Sonic Haecceities

Enduring Richter, Ryman and Neuhaus at Dia:Beacon
15. november 2017


Dia:Beacon is a large contemporary art museum in upstate New York that exhibits minimalist, conceptual and post-minimalist art by significant American and European artists, who were most active in the second half of the twentieth century. This paper investigates sonic and durational experiences that formed a major part of my encounter with three artworks: Gerhard Richter’s 6 Gray Mirrors (2003); Robert Ryman’s Installation at Dia:Beacon (2010) and Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon (2005). I explore how framed experiences of sound and duration (which I qualitatively endured) enable experiential insights not readily available through spatial and visual modalities.


Dia:Beacon is a large contemporary art museum in upstate New York that exhibits minimalist, conceptual and post-minimalist art by significant American and European artists, who were most active in the second half of the twentieth century. These works, with their framings of reduced content, caused spatial and durational encounters that emphasised different acts of experiencing. The title of this paper alludes to my perceiving of sounds and pure durational experiences that were surprising, occasionally disconcerting and even distracting to me. In retrospect I consider that my endurance of these temporal encounters opened up an awareness of the role of sound in durational framing within my experiences of the artworks, and thus within experience itself.  This essay considers insights revealed through durational and sonic experiences of the Dia:Beacon artworks that might not be available through spatial and visual modalities. The artworks are Gerhard Richter’s 6 Gray Mirrors (2003), Robert Ryman’s Installation at Dia:Beacon (2010) and Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon (2005). 

Fig. 1. Gerhard Richter, Six Gray Mirrors, 2003. Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Louise and Leonard Riggio and Mimi and Peter Haas. © Gerhard Richter. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York 

Richter’s 6 Gray Mirrors is situated in a single room in which six large gray mirrors hang as rectilinear repetitions on the four walls. They have a uniform, gray, industrial finish, perhaps reminiscent of a Donald Judd artwork. The forms are called mirrors but also reminded me of paintings. As gray mirrors, their opaque surfaces reflected portions of a gray world beyond their two-dimensional surfaces, including reflections of the viewer and the opaque clearstory windows within his space. Their large forms appeared minimalist and monumental. With the absence of anyone else in the room, seeing myself in the mirrors I felt that I was the focal point of an omnipresent and unknowable panoptic gaze.

After some time, I became aware of sounds coming from beyond Richter’s room. These were sounds of other visitors moving in unseen spaces, the constant hissing of air vents, doors slamming and sounds emanating from other artworks throughout Dia:Beacon. I also heard the rumble of trains passing close by.

While encountering Richter’s installation I became aware of a small stone lodged in the tread of my right shoe. Without thinking, I quickly scuffed my foot on the floor to free the stone. This barely-considered action propelled the stone across the polished concrete floor at great speed. The stone hit a thin metal skirting board along the wall’s edge with unexpected force, causing a sharp, loud snapping sound that reverberated off all the hard surfaces. Initially, I was not sure what had happened. It was as though the room itself had produced a moment of self-articulation.

Robert Ryman’s Installation at Dia:Beacon

Fig. 2.Fig. 3.  Fig. 4.

Figures 2,3,4. Robert Ryman, Installation at Dia Beacon, installation view, Dia:Beacon. The Greenwich Collection, Ltd. ©Robert Ryman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy the Greenwich Collection, Ltd. 

Robert Ryman’s Installation at Dia:Beacon is spread over five rooms, variously sized, that can be visited in succession. Thirty-two predominantly white paintings hang on white walls, individually and in groups. One large painting sits on the floor. Ryman’s title suggests that the artwork is an installation in its entirety, but it nonetheless consists of an installed collection of paintings. For a naive visitor - that is, someone who (like me) was relying on intuition rather than any prior knowledge of what to expect - it was apparent that many of the paintings surfaces had no discernible figure, symbol or expressive content. Their framed spatial voids caused confusion. The ‘empty’ paintings appeared to be collectively surveilling me. It was unnerving.

The experience of whiteness was immersive. Ryman comments in a 1986 interview in Art News that, “the white is just a means of exposing other elements of the painting … White enables other things to become visible” (Colaizzi & Schubert, 2009). The colour white, then, allows the viewer to look through and beyond or into the paintings’ surfaces, in search of these “other things”. For me, the effect of this whiteness was both spatial and durational. It suggested the experience of noise; ‘white noise’ in particular, which, technically, is a type of sound comprised of all possible frequencies heard simultaneously, over a given bandwidth (Brown 1983). White noise can be compared to the colour white, which itself contains all possible frequencies of the visual spectrum. The quality of white noise as sound is experienced as a featureless thick hissing that appears to surround the listener. White noise is omnipresent because, by its very definition, it contains no information, and so provides no sonic perspective, direction or sense of depth. It is uncoded. Noise does however contain duration and creates sensation.  

Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon 

Fig. 5. Entrance to Dia:Beacon. Photo: David Chesworth

Later in the afternoon, just as I was leaving Dia:Beacon to catch the train back to New York City, I became aware of a faint continuous sound emanating from somewhere inside the Dia complex. The droning sound was lurking quietly in the background. Its location or cause was hard to pin down. While the drone had some musical characteristics, it did not resemble the sound of any musical instrument or sound-making device I was familiar with. It was gradually becoming louder, and appeared to follow me as I walked around. I couldn’t tell whether the sound was from a single distant loud source, or from many sources close by. I didn’t want to miss my train, so I left the building to make my way to the station. As I walked outside the building and through the landscaped gardens I could still hear it, now apparently leaking out from the building. As I walked further away, the sound appeared to become even louder. It was as though the whole building was emanating sound. I walked from the grounds, out of sight of the building, and could still hear the sound. Then the sound suddenly stopped, creating a gap in my experiencing of the world round me. There was a sense that something was missing. As I listened and looked at the world, it was as though it was being revealed to me for the first time.

Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon occurs seven minutes before each hour, when a drone, designed to blend in with its surroundings, is gradually introduced throughout the Dia:Beacon complex and surrounding gardens. The idea is that as the sound imperceptibly increases in volume it remains unnoticed by the public, until, after a few minutes, the sound abruptly ceases. Visitors, who have become accustomed to the sound without actually consciously noticing it, experience its sudden absence and instantly become aware of the foregrounded ambience that remains. It is therefore the silencing of the sound that activates the visitor.

One factor that links these three works is their framing of apparent ‘emptiness’. Philosopher Henri Bergson argues that gaps in our experiencing concern us as they impede our knowledge of our surrounding world and its potential threats. We, and all animals, have developed brains that exploit this centre of indetermination. The brain occupies this gap as our thinking empowers us to make nuanced responses in order to act and adapt to new circumstances that will guarantee our survival. When encountering these three artworks at Dia:Beacon, the lack of translatable content within my framing of each artwork created such gaps in my experiencing. In order to maintain experiential continuity I searched elsewhere for content, looking and listening beyond the ‘empty’ surfaces of the artworks.1 In my encounter with 6 Gray Mirrors, after looking at and into the reflections in the mirrors, which I contemplated as virtual spaces, my attention turned to ambient sounds that were entering Richter’s room from spaces elsewhere in the Beacon building. In Ryman’s Installation at Dia Beacon, painting forms were perceived as empty. Individual ‘blank’ paintings loitered in groups and became threatening, as they appeared to stare back at me. I imagined hidden depths behind their voided surfaces and a feeling that the whiteness of the exhibition had turned into a persistent sonic noise. 

Both Ryman’s and Richter’s deployment of minimal content has the effect of foregrounding the framings themselves, rather than what is framed. In the case of Richter’s installation the mounted forms, each orientated slightly differently, were clearly alluding to an art exhibition. However, as there was no obvious difference between the forms themselves, there was little to be gained by viewing each one independently. Even in their capacity as mirrors, I could only make out dim gray reflections. Collectively, the mirrors were like membranes through which I felt the artwork was sensing and surveiling its own space. 

Richter says, of his gray mirrors: “I’m trying to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom. No paradises" (in Buchloh 2009, p.34). Thus, Richter’s “freedom” avoids any transcendent trajectory or outcome. This denial of outcome consigned my encounter to a kind of perceptual limbo. It was as though all three artists weren’t so much interested in content, but rather wanted make me aware of my own act of experiencing. 

Bergson’s Space/Duration Composite

Bergson, in Time and Free Will, suggests we perceive experiences as a composite, where the two essential components of experience: duration and space, are blended, so that we don’t really notice them as separate components (Bergson 1913). Within this composite, Bergson argues, duration, which is qualitative, and space, which is quantitative, can be confused, whereby we tend to treat duration (in which we have time to feel a succession of differences in kind) in terms of space (which can only be measured). Bergson suggests that the advent of clock-based time is one example of this, where the minutes and seconds are seen to pass as arbitrary yet standardised movements in space on the clock dial. Thus, the clock dial quantifies, spatially, our qualitative sensing of pure duration.

Perhaps then, my self-conscious feelings that the artworks were surveilling me— together with my brain’s search for meaningful content that took me beyond the artwork frames into imagined voids and virtual spaces—was my imaginative masking of my endurance of the artworks’ empty screens and their lack of content. My time spent within the artwork experience was sensed qualitatively but misrecognised quantitatively via spatial imaginings of depths, voids, and virtualities. (Here, the term ‘virtual’ is not referring to cyberspace but to an imaginary, speculative space or place that exists in effect or essence, if not in fact or actuality). Differences in kind experienced through duration became confused within the experiential composite and were translated spatially as imagined extensities (hidden spaces) within the artworks’ site.

Bergson’s theory may also be applied to our understandings of sound within experience. Sound lives within a duration and frames duration with its material presence. Several sounds when occurring concurrently score duration’s inherent plurality. Most sound that I experienced at Dia:Beacon was via acousmatic listening, where I felt the effect of a sound without necessarily knowing its source or cause. Brian Kane in his book Sound unseen: acousmatic sound in theory and practice (Kane, 2014, p. 147) refers to a sound’s “acousmaticity” in which a sound’s source or cause is “underdetermined”.  This opens up a gap between a sound’s effect and its source or cause can be unsettling, especially in relation to the spatial and visual world that we are simultaneously perceiving. This can lead to experiential antinomies, where what we see and what we hear don’t necessarily correlate. There is a human desire to close this antinomic gap by searching for possible sources and causes. Kane suggests:

The security at work in territorial listening depends on the rapid reduction of a sonic effect to its potentially predatory source, but acousmatic underdetermination forecloses the easy attainment of such security. There are always degrees of acousmaticity. (Kane, 2014, p. 149) 

Kane appears to echo Bergson’s theory of a space/duration composite when he points out that we sometimes draw on our imagination to invent a sound’s source or causes when it is not visually apparent to us. One historical example Kane provides is of the ways in which the noises that accompanied natural events, like earth tremors, “often embellished natural events with ominous forces and supernatural causes.” (Kane, 2014, p. 4).

In Sound Unseen, Kane refers to Michel Chion’s theory of the cinematic acousmetre, which is sometimes employed in films, and which exploits the anxiety arising from the gap of understanding that ensues through acoustic underdetermination. The acousmetre is a sound, often a voice, that “floats or drapes itself around the on-screen characters” (Kane, 2014, p. 149).  According to Chion the acousmetre has three powers and one gift:  

First, the acousmetre has the power of seeing all; second, the power of omniscience; and third, the omnipotence to act on the situation. Let us add that in many cases there is also a gift of ubiquity—the acousmetre seems to be able to be anywhere … (Chion, 1994, p. 129-130)


I suggest that the acousmatic nature of certain sounds that leaked into the Richter and Ryman artwork frames—in particular, the sound of Max Neuhaus’s drone, which can be heard within Richter’s artwork—operated as a kind of acousmetre. However, these ideas don’t quite explain my experiences at Dia:Beacon. For while I felt surveilled within these artworks and sensed affect, I don’t think these feelings can be explained away by referring to lurking phantoms and the acousmetre.


A Temple of Sonic Haecceities

The three Dia:Beacon artists create antinomic experiences through their use of  objects that are simultaneously painting-like and mirror-like, also through experiences where temporal and spatial realms do not correlate, and where the actual competes with the virtual for attention. These complex artwork framings are nested within the larger frame of Dia:Beacon itself. Dia:Beacon opened in 2003 and is housed in a large single story building that was formerly a box-making and printing factory for Nabisco. Its floor and basement area, covering almost thirty thousand square meters, has been transformed into showrooms for artists. Landscaped gardens surround the building (In the West Garden we can experience Louise Lawler’s Bird Calls (1972), a soundscape of bird sounds derived from the names of famous contemporary male artists). Artist Robert Irwin, together with architecture firm OpenOffice, is credited with the overall design. According to Dia’s former director Michael Govan, who oversaw Dia:Beacon’s construction, “Irwin helped Dia consider the design of the Beacon project in experiential and environmental terms as a totality” (Govan, 2015). In another discussion Govan suggests that “the result was intended as a series of immersive experiences of individual artists installations surrounded by Irwin’s mediating exterior” (Cook & Govan, 2003, p. 39). The idea was “to not control the path of the visitor but to provide tools and clues to keep them oriented” (2003, p. 38). As a “totality” Dia:Beacon demonstrates that it is also an installation with similar intensions to the installation artworks contained within. For, as Claire Bishop (2005, p. 6) reminds us, “in a work of installation art, space and the ensemble of elements within it, are regarded in their entirety as a singular entity”.

Dia:Beacon’s architectural spaces and the artworks they contain appear to activate each other as the Dia:Beacon site engages with what Miwon Kwon (2002, p. 13) describes as Minimalism’s challenge to the “hermeticism of the autonomous art object” and subsequent deflection of an artwork’s meaning to its space of presentation. Here the site perhaps goes a step further in neutralising what Kwon calls the “idealist hermeticism of the space of presentation itself” (2002, p. 13).This neutralization is apparent in the use of open-plan design and by a reliance on sunlight, which enters all gallery spaces via factory skylights plus new large windows retro-fitted to the existing perimeter walls. Rooms and objects are bathed in sunlight from a realm beyond the artwork’s frame. Dia, in fact, is a Greek word meaning ‘through’ or ‘conduit’ (Merriam-Webster dictionary).

Dia:Beacon is a quiet space, exhibiting stillness. Its visual and sonic ambience reminded me of being in a church or a museum. Its long galleries serve as ambulatories that enable temporal, processional contemplations of large minimalist artworks, often spread out across the floor, by artists such as Dan Flavin, Walter De Maria and Robert Irwin. This church-like ambience is no accident. Dia founders and original benefactors had ties to religion, some to Catholicism, others to Sufism, a form of Islam. Religious artworks were purchased and commissioned by Dia benefactors (the Rothko Chapel paintings, for example). In 1980, the Dia founders opened a Sufi mosque in a Chelsea building, originally intended as an art gallery, complete with Dan Flavin light works. Dia’s idea was to use art to provide a kind of religious experience, to transform the world. These connections can be explored further in Bob Colacello’s Vanity Fair essay, Remains of the Dia (1996).

Many artworks at Dia:Beacon have their own dedicated, chapel-like rooms that separate them from other works and the world-at-large. This includes the Richter and the Ryman installations. Cultural theorist Claire Colebrook writes: 

A picture in a gallery or even a stained glass image in a cathedral may well have been isolated from the world of functional action and knowledge so that art in general is expressed in distinction from the world of habit, connections and work. [T]he power of art [is] to stand alone, to be released from the human eye’s tendency to synthesize its experiences into a world of its own. (Colebrook, 2006, p. 65)

Often though, when visiting individual artist rooms within Dia:Beacon, I was aware of distant sounds whose reverberation sonically rendered the whole building’s voluminous form. As visitors congregated in various parts of the building, their noisy expressive presence was dynamic and sometimes chaotic. Instead of perceiving these sounds as individual quantified events, I sensed them collectively as a singular, heterogeneous susurrus. As this susurrus leaked into artwork spaces, through gaps and doorways, it denied the artwork its complete isolation. The susurrus reframed my experience of the artworks as it introduced the sonorities of a lurking world into the artwork’s frame.

Not everyone noticed the susurrus, but it was present in all the Dia artwork spaces. I wasn’t always listening to these sounds; they didn’t preoccupy me. If anything, I sensed them as a quality, which is to say, I heard them, but as they were judged as non-threatening, I did not consciously listen to them. They did not attract my conscious attention as quantifiable events. However, they were nonetheless sensed as part of my artwork encounter, and contributed to a particular kind of durational framing; a ‘becoming’ that implicated the temporal flux of a surrounding evolving world. These framings can be called haecceities. In A Thousand Plateaus under the heading “Memories of a Haecceity”, Deleuze and Guattari explain:  

They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected. […] not defined by the form that determines it nor as a determinate substance or subject nor by the organs it possesses or the functions it fulfills. […] Tales must contain haecceities that are not simply emplacements, but concrete individuations that have a status of their own and direct the metamorphosis of things and subjects. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 304)

Within Dia:Beacon some of these haecceity “individuations” had a sonic component that was literally “molecular”. For example, sound comprises air that is excited into pressure waves of “movement and rest” that I sensed with my eardrums. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that haecceities are not things in themselves; rather they result from a “metamorphosis of things and subjects”.  Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 304) suggest that a haecceity, as an individuating composition, possesses “a perfect independence lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject”. Haecceities are non-personal: “a season, rainfall, wind, an hour, air polluted by noxious particles” (1988, p. 304). Perhaps, to this, I can add the sound of a refrigerator motor as it softly permeates the house.

I suggest that an engagement with any artwork, if framed durationally, can be considered as a haecceity that has “capacities to affect and be affected” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, p. 304). As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, temporal and spatial encounters with haecceities take place through sensing “concrete individuations that have a status of their own and direct the metamorphosis of things and subjects” (1987, p. 304). At Dia:Beacon, these “things” and “subjects” are the artwork components and the building itself. I suggest that the susurrus that leaks into the artwork, whether quantitatively listened to, or sensed as a quality, became an important component of Dia:Beacon’s haecceities. These sounds, as I have described, include the collective noises of human gatherings, but also, the periodical noises of Dia:Beacon’s air-conditioning systems that individually turn on and off throughout the day, or the sounds from distant artworks that leak into the frames of an artwork.

These sounds possess ‘acousmaticity’, where their identity is underdetermined. Thus, they can sometimes be sensed as panoptic, omniscient, and omnipotent, like an acousmetre. One artwork that demonstrates these qualities is Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon, both when Neuhaus’s sonic drone is listened to, or when its quality is felt as it leaks into other artist’s rooms. It was in this sense that my experience of Neuhaus’s artwork, and even the sounds of air-conditioning, sometimes combined with artwork components to form haecceities. The only difference between Neuhaus’s sonic drone and air-conditioning is their respective qualities and intensities of air movement. Thus, haecceities, while often quite subtle, can contribute provocative and ambiguous qualities and affects to an artwork experience.

I suggest that haecceities, especially those that included a sonic component, actively reframed my experiences at Dia:Beacon, as their added underdetermined acousmatic sounds imparted qualities and implicated invisible territories outside the artwork’s frame. It can therefore be argued that it wasn’t each artist’s space that registered as a whole unit of experience, but rather, Dia:Beacon itself, which behaved in its entirety like an installation artwork, just as its designer, artist Robert Irwin had intended.

The question then, is how did antinomic experiences that resulted from the breaking down of Bergson’s space/duration composite, and which were delivered through a sound’s acousmaticity, the acousmetre and the haecceity, impact on my experience of each of the three artworks? How did each of the three works embody one or more of these concepts?

Neither/Nor/Is - Richter’s 6 Gray Mirrors

While enduring Richter’s artwork and its reduced content, my attention (or rather, my brain’s search for content) shifted from the virtual spaces reflected in the gray mirrors to the virtuality of Dia:Beacon’s sonic ambience that entered Richter’s space via its two large entrances. Within Richter’s room, hard surfaces focused and resonated this susurration. Thus Richter’s room reverberated its own spatiality, and within this focused ambience I could also discern the susurrus marking the larger institutional expanses of Dia:Beacon that were unfolding beyond the artwork. The soundscap subtly scored two worlds, where one spatial/durational composite was enfolded within the other.   

This antinomic perception sonically replicated (and literally echoed) the functioning of Richter’s six monumental mirror/painting forms, whose visual reflections created virtual spatial images situated beyond Richter’s actual room, whereby the room had two extensities: an actual one and a virtual one. Thus, in my experience of Richter’s work, my perceptions provided overlapping composites of duration and space, rendered in different experiential modalities: one in the visual realm and one within the sonic. This sensory (and conceptual) disjunction is precisely what made Richter’s artwork so engaging for me. 

Additionally, the sonic event caused by the stone caught in my shoe scored the complex susurrus persisting in Richter’s room. When the stone hit the metal skirting board of Richter’s room, in an instant the room’s extensity lived within the sound’s duration, framed in a beholding moment until the intense, short reverberation faded. The unexpected sound, heard acousmatically, interrupted established auditory and visual framings—real and virtual—creating a perceptual confusion and an exciting temporal space of presentness and unknowability. The artwork’s prior staging of coherence and authority was destabilised as Bergson’s experiential composite of space and duration was further split into realms of antinomic uncertainty.

Richter describes his gray mirrors dialectically as “a cross between a monochrome painting and a mirror, a ‘Neither/Nor’ – which is what I like about it” (Elger, Obrist, & Richter 2009, p.272). The stone’s sonic outburst however was an event of undeniable certainty that was apparent to me in the present moment. I had no recourse to images in memory that might explain the event. The previously existing virtual worlds within the susurrus had now been replaced by a more urgent need to negotiate the threat of the sudden sound’s intense presence and the underdetermined acousmatic gap that had opened up. The stone event’s immediacy destabilised Richter’s balanced contemplative dialectic of “Neither/Nor”, to which I might now add the word “Is”: Neither/Nor/Is. 

There are several antinomic positions in play here. As it was me who inadvertently released the stone, I was thus present both as the proxy agent of the event but also as the recipient of the event’s agency. The stone’s ‘sounding’ against the skirting board became an avatar of my own objecthood, as the stone’s impact on and subsequent reflection off the artwork’s surface sonified my own agency within the artwork. The materiality of the stone’s acousmatic sound (as well as the stone’s actual materiality) refuted the ephemerality of the post-object artwork encounter. The stone event revealed the coexistence of duration and space, and the coexistence of theatrical and beholding moments. All these registers were simultaneously available to me within my encounter of Richter’s artwork.

Becoming Noise - Ryman’s Installation at Dia Beacon

My lack of interest in the content of Ryman’s paintings during my ‘naïve’ walkthrough caused me to experience them as what Deleuze (1986, p. 109) calls ‘any-space-whatevers’, whereby I lost my grip on the coordinates of the paintings’ surfaces. Deleuze develops the term in Cinema 1: “Any-space-whatever is not an abstract universal, in all times, in all places. It is a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations or the connection of its own parts, so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways. It is a space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible” (Deleuze, 1986, p. 109). The paintings, as any-space-whatevers appeared as anonymous screens, thresholds or sensing membranes, which I looked through, beyond or within. I imagined extensities of concealed presences, sensed surveillance and fabulated spatial voids. Thus, my endurance became spatial.

The whiteness of Ryman’s paintings, together with their reduced symbolic content persisted throughout my encounter, causing my awareness to shift from individual, quantified spatial framings to a single, spatial and durational framing that encompassed all his paintings and the white rooms that contained them: a haecceity. I remembered my experience of Ryman’s artwork, strangely, as a kind of noise.

Paul Hegarty (2007, p. 3) in his book Noise/Music: A History, suggests; “Noise is not an objective fact. It occurs in relation to perception–both direct (sensory) and according to presumptions made by the individual”. A determination of noise is thus highly subjective. The concept of noise is problematic, for to assign it a label causes noise to become a recognisable thing, and so it is no longer a noise. As Douglas Kahn (1999, p. 25) eloquently states; “Noise can be understood in one sense to be that constant grating sound generated by the movement between the abstract and empirical”. This process of ‘becoming noise’ activated the whole of Ryman’s artwork as a single any-space-whatever, whereby virtual noise replaced my initial sensing of the artwork’s emptiness and silence. I remembered (or imagined) this noise as a sensation where signaletic and symbolic information was absent. I could no longer perceive depth, nor could I sense external temporal flux. What remained was a pure form of sensation in which I only sensed my internal durational and spatial being. Thus, within my encounter of Ryman’s artwork were encounters of various ‘any-space-whatevers’: the individual paintings, the overall whiteness of Ryman’s rooms, and my qualitative sensing of ‘becoming noise’, which all became components of a haecceity.

But did my experience of ‘becoming noise’ manifest virtually or actually within this any-space-whatever? It is worth taking the time to answer this in two different ways. In 1968 an unnamed art critic in the magazine Time, spoke of how Ryman’s paintings made people “laugh outright” (1968, p. 70-77). Art critic Robert Storr has also commented that Ryman’s white paintings can be “a trap … for those made chatty by silence” (Storr 1986, p. 74). Both anecdotes are perhaps trivial, however, they do illustrate that Ryman’s paintings succeed in problematizing engagement and confusing ‘naïve’ visitors. In these two brief examples, the visitor’s vocal expressions are possibly attempts to mask the confusion of their encounter; where a painting’s frame, perceived as empty of content, has confused subject/object relations. The Ryman viewing experience was not passive and spatial as the visitor might expect; rather the paintings’ perceived lack of content caused the visitor to experience an active durational engagement, and whereby sensing an experiential void, they contribute their own expressive vocal content in order to ‘fill’ the void. Such utterances are effectively attempts to reterritorialise the perceived spatial and temporal lacunae. Could it also be that at Dia:Beacon, my own encounter of Ryman’s paintings’ whiteness, which left me searching for content, and the noise I seem to remember as being present, was my attempt to reterritorialise the durational experience of the any-space-whatevers of Ryman’s installation; not with chatter or laughter, but with a memory, a haecceity containing a virtual ‘becoming noise’? If so, then my experience of noise can be thought of as my translation of the emptiness of Ryman’s white paintings from a qualitative, durational experience into quantitative white noise.

The second answer to the question regarding whether the noise was a virtual or actual thing became apparent when I revisited Dia:Beacon in 2016. Encountering the Ryman rooms again and listening more intently this time, I became aware of the actual presence of noise. Indeed, there was actual ‘white noise’ that slowly increased in intensity as I walked through the spaces. On investigation, I discovered noise emanating from a large air-conditioning duct located just outside the southern entrance to Ryman’s spaces. What I had hitherto considered as a virtual ‘becoming noise’ was, in fact, an actual ‘becoming noise’. For the noise of air conditioning (which is actually occasionally quite intense in certain parts of Dia:Beacon) had been sensed qualitatively as a compositional element of an individuated haecceity. My Ryman experience thus included sonic and durational components that were situated outside the artwork’s physical framing, and which had become components of a haecceity that composed and persisted within the artwork experience.

 Fig. 6.

Large air-conditioning vents outside the southern entrance to Ryman’s exhibition spaces. Photo: David Chesworth.

Before, During, After - Neuhaus’s Durations

Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon is heard just before each hour and is experienced throughout the Dia:Beacon complex and gardens. The work is remarkable in how it caused me to negotiate spatial and durational framing. Christoph Cox, writing about Time Piece Beacon draws on Michael Fried’s critique of minimalist art, in which Fried accuses Minimalist artworks of having a theatrical and durational presence within the space of the encounter (Cox 2009). Cox also makes interesting comparisons between Max Neuhaus’s and John Cage’s compositional methodologies, by discussing how Cage’s 4’33” also problematises Bergson’s durational spatial composite, including the title, in which the duration of the work is quantified. Cox considers the Neuhaus artwork a prime example of the type of installation artworks starting to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s that transition beyond a reliance on the art object, and that these works instead emphasise ephemeral occurrences within duration and space, artists like Dan Graham, Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman, for example, and conceptualist artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. This is also apparent in Richter’s experiments with framings of glass and mirrors begun in the 1960’s, which culminated in his Gray Mirror artworks. For Cox, this ephemerality is particularly apparent in Time Piece Beacon, where, “[the] temporality and ephemerality of sound allow it to bypass objecthood and the instantaneity of opticality” (2009, p. 122). Time Piece Beacon primarily engages not with objects and our gaze, but with our sense of lived time and duration.

Memory is crucial to our experience of duration, for we are aware of duration’s persistence as it passes from our present into our past. However, in Time Piece Beacon I found that my memory could not be relied on, and this was disconcerting. In my experience I never actually heard Neuhaus’s introduced drone begin, rather, the sound became apparent to me at some point as it became louder and registered on my conscious sense of hearing. I suggest that prior to consciously listening to it, the sonic drone, as a seemingly innocuous compositional element, was, in fact, being sensed as an affecting quality. Even as the sonic drone became louder I didn’t necessarily perceive it as a discrete thing. That the sound was present to me, even if I was not consciously aware of it, only became evident when it suddenly ceased and I noticed its absence. Or rather, I noticed the absence of something, and I could not say what this was. Only retrospectively was I aware of the sound’s existence, although I had previously felt its affecting force within a haecceity. Thus, I was left with a memory of something through a perception of its absence, not its presence. 

With the sudden removal of Neuhaus’s introduced drone, I had a new sensation individuated within a new haecceity. A durational void emerged as Bergson’s experiential composite broke down into its component parts of duration and space. The spatial realm suddenly provided me with a confusing quantitative expression of the qualitative sonic void. As well, I was left with a memory of the previous haecceity (when the sonic drone was sounding). 

Thus, in Time Piece Beacon duration was experienced in two ways: Firstly, where I retrospectively contemplated one haecceity that had passed in relation to another that remained; and secondly, once Neuhaus’s continuous sound ended, I lost my sensing of the continuum provided by the drone and, perhaps for the first time, became aware instead of my immediate spatial surroundings and relations to the unfolding flux of durations articulated through different sounds (outdoors at Dia:Beacon this included sounds of unseen cars, birds, voices, insects, wind, and train horns). 

When Neuhaus’s introduced sound ceased, I became troubled by the removal of a sonic element that was subconsciously contributing to my territorialisation of the surrounding milieu. The perceived sonic void that followed the drone’s removal suddenly deterritorialised and foregrounded heterogeneous sonic unfoldings in the surrounding environment, and I was also left anticipating some future change that might explain my present and past experience, and perhaps provide closure to my current and on-going temporal frame. Within this encounter, different perceptions dialectically oscillated between different kinds of audition: qualitative hearing/quantitative listening, presence/absence, knowable sound/acousmatic sound. It also called on different ontological framings: space/duration, musical sound/non-musical sound. These oscillations contributed to an awareness of having experienced two separate and different haecceities. 

The two temporal haecceities that occur within Time Piece Beacon caused antinomic experiences of past, present and future. In doing so, the artwork was able to frame pre and post-cognitive moments of sensation. As there was a pre-cognitive sensation that was not consciously sensed by me, I had a memory of having a sensation but I could not access what that sensation was.

While Neuhaus’s drones are certainly minimalist, their status as music is contestable. Neuhaus’s makes choices of sound qualities in his drones (which he says he carefully composes) that seem to question its own ontological status. For, in Time Piece Beacon, his introduced sound exists as and within a perceptive threshold, where it is barely audible as an event in itself. The sound starts so quietly that it could be argued that there is no beginning but rather the sound is noticed as already present and already territorialised within the surrounding sonic environment. The sound therefore doesn’t present as a foregrounded, deterritorialising event, which might be case if the sound were perceived as musical. However, when I listen to his drones carefully, I notice that they contain rich interior harmonic unfoldings that are undeniably musical. This is apparent both in his Dia:Beacon artwork and also in his New York-based installation artwork Times Square. His drones therefore have an ambiguous quality that exists on the boundary between a sound’s territorialising capabilities and music’s deterritorialising effects.

Concluding Remarks

The staging of antinomies is a core experience of these three artworks. This occurs through each of the artists’ strategic deployments of forms and forces that initiate paradoxical perceptions and meanings through dialectic that never synthesises. Within the spatial/durational composite articulated by Bergson I confused durational experience with spatial experience. Within Chion’s audiovisual complex I listened (and sensed) acousmatically. Both durational and spatial confusion and acousmatic listening resulted in the fabulation of surveilling extensities.  

While acousmatic listening and its relation to frame is deliberately exploited in cinema, at Dia:Beacon it occurs inadvertently by listening to sounds leaking in and out of framed sites. Listening acousmatically to sounds entering the artwork frames from outside problematised my framing of the artworks. This is because acousmatic listening enacts relations between the framing of the artwork and a world existing outside the frame. The outside world, through the sonic realm, becomes implicated in the artwork experience.

Ultimately, these artworks demonstrate that we are constantly constructing the world around us as we reconcile different perceptions, thoughts and actions. These processes are complex and tenuous, and can easily become challenged and undermined by antinomic framings of experience. What my research has shown is that in my experience of these three artworks many antinomic framings occurred through the temporality of my encounters and through the sonic materialities that became part of a durational framing of these artworks. 

Haecceities compose with things—objects or subjects—but are not those things; rather they contribute subtle, affecting framings of experience. Haecceities created moods that contained and directed affects and forces. These haecceities were (and persist) in the virtual, as memories of what occurred, and it is in this way that they most successfully frame duration: as individuated memories of sensed durational experience. 

Speculative Realist philosophy posits an approach to analysing experience that favours respect for the agency of objects within the world and their shifting qualities, as an alternative to experiences of objects described through their direct consequence for human subjective and objective relations. For speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, (2008), human subjectivity is a symptom of what he calls correlationism. His term describes a propensity for the world in all its facets and complexities, to be seen, described and so ‘known’ solely through human perception and interaction. We know things via our perceptions and subsequent reasoning. The Richter, Ryman and Neuhaus artworks play out through this correlational circle, where, as a visitor, objects and ephemeral experiences that Michael Fried derides as “objecthood were oriented towards me, or, in the emptiness of the frames I imagined what was deliberately withheld.2 

This desire to rediscover and project objects (and indeed objecthood) is possibly a strategy that is imbued within the minimalist roots of these Dia artworks. They are, for the most part, post-object works, where the ephemeral has replaced the object. As I experienced at Dia:Beacon, the sound object, once it is injected with agency, can quickly undermine the ephemeral. This can happen via the materiality of sounds leaking into frame from ‘elsewheres’, and also, as in my experience at Dia:Beacon, by an object-on-object encounter, such as the ‘stone in shoe event’. 

The small stone caught in my shoe gets accidently flicked against the gallery wall making a sudden sound that scores the artwork’s surface. The source and cause of this object-on-object event is the stone and the artwork acting on each other. That I happened to experience it as a sonic event is inconsequential to the action itself. Many sounds we experience have a non-human causality (such as the sound of wind, heard as moving air acts upon the leaves of a tree, and ocean waves), but where the sound of wind and ocean is imbued with meaningful affect for humans, the sound of the small stone hitting a metal surface withheld both ontological and ontic meaning from me. What the ‘stone in shoe event’ did do, however, was to emphatically introduce the materiality of the unknowable acousmatic object into the ephemeral artwork encounter. 

Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon possibly goes further in revealing a non-correlationist realm of ‘experience', for when his introduced drone abruptly ends, I am left with a memory of 'something' that existed only through my perception of its absence. Only retrospectively then, am I aware of the existence of the artwork, not as an artwork framed from the world, but as a component of the world experienced as a haecceity. As such, Neuhaus’s drone is potentially an un-correlated sound that exists in the virtual without ever being accessed as an actual thing. Thus, in experiencing Time Piece Beacon, I felt the sense of loss of something that I never was able to subjectify or objectify. In doing so, Max Neuhaus’s ‘silent alarm clock’ provides a wake-up call; alerting us to processes, existences and trajectories that by-pass human subjectivity and objectivity.

  • 1. This search for content can also be evidenced in visitor behaviour within Richter’s space. Often, when visitors sat to rest on the bench provided for contemplation, they pulled out and gazed at their mobile phones.
  • 2. Fried’s term “objecthood” refers to the “situation” of experiencing a minimalist (or Literalist) artwork that he argues, has shifted from belonging to he “beholder” who contemplates the object internally, to the theatrical encounter with the artwork itself in space and duration and via its ephemeral “objecthood”. See FRIED, M. 1998. Art and Objecthood - Essays and Reviews, University of Chicago Press.


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Buchloh, B.H,D. (ed.) (2009) Gerhard Richter: Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 
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Cooke, L. & Govan, M. (2003) Dia: Beacon, Dia Art Foundation.
Cox, C. (2009) Installing Duration: Time in the Sound Works of Max Neuhaus. In: Cooke, Kelly, & Schröder (eds.): Max Neuhaus: Time Square, Time Piece Beacon. Dia Art Foundation.
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Beyond Matter: Object-disoriented Sound Art 

15. november 2017


Can ‘sound’ be ‘exhibited’ as an artistic object? Is the notion of exhibiting sound not a fallacy, considering the nature and characteristics of sound, predominantly emerging as an ephemeral and immaterial phenomenon? This question problematises the positioning of sound art in the contemporary field of artistic and curatorial practices, demanding a new set of theoretical approaches and methodologies. Addressing this fundamental question from a conceptual leaning, in this article I will try to examine sound’s specific subjective inclination as artistic experience beyond the material object. 


Intense discussion within the art world about the perception and interpretation of the notion of ‘sound art’ followed a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled "Soundings: A Contemporary Score" (2013). It was a collection of sculptures, video pieces, installations and work on paper with audio components1. Rather than framing sound as medium, event or corporeal vibration, this show, a first of its kind at MoMA, explored sound with a strong emphasis on its material and object-based visual dimension. To artists, critics and thinkers alike, this show accelerated the otherwise dormant debates around sound art’s position within gallery- and museum-dominated mainstream public showcasing of contemporary art. 

This debate suggests a deep confusion and uncertainty about how sound art is defined. From the perspective taken in this article, however, the central question is: Can ‘sound’ be ‘exhibited’ as an artistic object within a gallery? Is the idea of a ‘sound art exhibition’ not problematic, considering the nature of sound as a predominantly ephemeral and immaterial phenomenon? This very question complicates the positioning of sound art in the contemporary field of artistic and curatorial practices, demanding a new set of theoretical approaches and methodologies. In this article the question will be addressed within a conceptual reformulation of the notion of the sound object in relation to sound art, shifting the focus to listening experiences.    

The somewhat contradictory attitudes reflected in the comments made by artists and critics after the show at MoMA explain why the so-called ‘exhibition’ of sound art triggers serious thoughts about the matter of the artistic object concerning sound. Let us make a brief review of the development of 'sound art’ in the historical tradition of Western art. The idea of sound art moves from Luigi Russolo's noise intoners and subsequent experiments by Dadaists, surrealists and the Situationist International, to Fluxus happenings and environments, forming a trajectory that leads to what Seth Kim-Cohen terms “the conceptual turn” (2009) in the post-war period, following John Cage’s works with sound-in-itself on the one hand, and the emergence and sporadic inclusion of sound in the gallery- or museum-based arts on the other. Because of the apparent diversity of what is termed ‘sound art’, there are debates about whether sound art falls within the domain of visual art, experimental music or new media – or whether it falls between the categories. There has been a definite surge in the cultural production and dissemination of sound art in the last few years, which has garnered intense attention; but these intensifying activities have occurred rather “tentatively and ambivalently”, as artist and writer Brandon Labelle claims (2006). 

Where do you belong, sound art? Are you a misfit everywhere?  

This ambivalence surrounding sound art history stems from the fact that, more often than not, sound art has been ‘framed’ within the practice, production and showcasing of the visual arts. The problem in this taxonomy lies in the fact that there are basic and fundamental differences between aural and visual representations that we cannot ignore. ‘Sound’ can be perceived as mysterious and ineffable, transient and ephemeral, or immediate and indeterminate in comparison to its implied visual counterparts – the artistic objects that are visible in relation to diffusion of sound in space. Therefore, ‘sound art’ as a term cannot exist in a representational vacuum, due to its inherent characteristics. LaBelle states, “it seems sound art continues to hold an unsettled place within artistic institutions, which could be said to unearth the impasse between an overtly ‘visual’ institutional structure with an intensely ‘sonic’ medium” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 153). He mentions in this respect the comments of curator Bernd Schulz2: “The inexpressibility and cognitive impenetrability of the phenomenal experience make it difficult to secure for sound art the place it deserves in the art world” (2002)3.    

Kim-Cohen describes sound art as the unwanted child of music (2009). He has pointed out the boundaries, tendencies and specific shifts in post-war sound art practice after Pierre Schaeffer’s experiments with musique concrète and John Cage’s experiments with silence, paving the way for a conceptual turn. Following the established research and scholarships in sound and site, such as Murray Schafer’s work (1994) at Simon Fraser University, terms such as soundscape and acoustic ecology were used to describe specific sound practices embedded with a strictly environmental aesthetics. I have argued elsewhere (2012, 2014, 2016), however, that these practices were inherently constrained within predominantly musical structures and ecological concerns. These practices with recorded and composed soundscapes do not substantially contribute to the so-called conceptual turn that the emerging sound art would subsequently experience.   

Sound art seems “less esoteric” in the contemporary “new media art” environment, because of our “newfound comfort with the immaterial world of pure data and information flowing through the cyberspace” (Dayal, 2013). The “new media” allow for the separation of sounds from their locations, and facilitate their travel across globally dispersed networks as digital data and information. Sound that is disembodied from its locational specificity falls within multiple layers of mediation across multiple levels of reception and interpretation outside of place, time and context in the new media environment, whether in an audio-streaming network on the internet, a multi-channel sonic environment, a telematic performance, or an exhibition in augmented space of an interactive installation work. It is evident that, in this space of constant and itinerant flow, the production and reception of sound over greater mobility and interactivity lead to its interpretation as a fertile and more alive auditory situation, rather than being posed as static material of a ‘sonic artefact’. Hence, I may assume that sound art is more comfortably discussed within the object-unspecific, essentially immaterial and multiply interpretative ‘new media art’ paradigm. Such positioning of sound art within the contemporary art context is necessary to comprehend my following conceptualisation of what I term an ‘object-disorientation’ of sound.  

The case of the object-disorientation  

Often we become absentminded, or experience a trance when listening to certain sounds. These sounds can be as mundane as everyday occurrences — we usually do not attend to them in our daily activities. However, some of these sounds may quite randomly induce us to elevate ourselves to some other perceptual planes perhaps not directly related to the object, source, signification or site of these sonic occurrences. These sounds open the doors of the layers of reality into another world beyond their intended immediate meaning or sonic object-hood. It needs to be understood why these sounds manage to unsettle us in such a way that we experience an elevated state of contemplation and meditative mindfulness. It seems these sounds are not the specific cause of our becoming thoughtful while enjoying a sense of poetic detachment from immediate reality; rather, somehow a fertile ‘auditory situation’ unfolds around us as the sounds occur. The subtle formation of an auditory situation transcending the sonic object or the material is the point of curiosity in this article.   

This fluid world of sound, as impermanent as it might seem to the ears of a listener, may open hidden doors and obscure entrances that invite further perceptual meanderings, disrupting the epistemic object with an immediate meaning that the sounds would otherwise embody. The epistemological problems and ontological questions embedded in an expansive mode of listening suggest an object-disoriented behaviour of sound, which manifests itself in an explosion of multifarious meanings, interpretations and mental states dispersed outside the sonic object. Let me elaborate on what I mean by this ‘object-disoriented’ behaviour of sound. To do this, we need to go back in time and excavate the term ‘sound object’. Pierre Schaeffer, arguably the founder of musique concrète, coined the term ‘sound object’ (objet sonore), paving the way for a new kind of perception — “acousmatic listening.” To Schaeffer, the ‘sound object’ was an intentional representation of sound (Demers, 2010) to its listener. With the rise of new audio technologies, the ‘sound objects’ recorded on magnetic tape or other media no longer referred to a sound source, hence the musical exploration of the ‘acousmatic experience’ of sounds that one hears without seeing the causality behind them. The emphasis here was on the reduced listening state instead of causal listening, if we borrow Michel Chion’s terminology (1994). The problem here was the imposition of the word ‘object’ over ‘sound’. The intrinsic flaw in reduced listening, as Schaeffer conceptualised it in Treatise on Musical Objects, was that it assumed that sound had an “a priori ontological foundation” (Demers quoting Kane, 2010, p. 43) separate and distinct from any cultural or historical (or even personal) association it might have subsequently acquired. According to scholars such as Joanna Demers, this assertion is problematic on both practical and theoretical counts. Listeners indeed have difficulty hearing sounds divorced from their associations; but at the same time, it is nearly impossible for the human listening faculty not to ascribe a multiplicity of causes to a single sonic phenomenon. In practice, the listener is almost certain to simultaneously create imagined gestures or link a sound to its illusory myriad of sources, evoking some kind of contemplative and thoughtful imagery in this process of mental resonance and mindful personalisation of sounds into poetic-contemplative listening states.  

Likewise, sound scholar and early phenomenologist Christian Metz expressed serious doubts about the object specificity of sonic phenomena in scholarly thinking, thereby challenging Schaeffer. Metz focused instead on the ‘characteristics’ of sound, emphasising the problematic aspects of locating sound’s object-oriented or location-specific meaning. He stated that “Spatial anchoring of aural events is much more vague and uncertain than that of visual events” (Metz, 1980, p. 29). In classical sound studies, scholars such as Rick Altman have already underpinned the issue of sound’s problematic relation to its object or source, emphasising its interpretative nature following its means of production: “Sound is not actualised until it reaches the ear of the hearer, which translates molecular movement into the sensation of sound” (Altman, 1992, p. 19). Altman speaks here of a sound event as defining the trajectory of the essential production and subsequent reception of sound. Its narrative, as Altman terms it, is hypothetically bound to the source that produces it. These sound sources, or the sounding objects when producing sound, are spatially defined or connected to a site, but are not rendered until and unless they are carried by a medium (such as a tape recording) to reach the point of reception and subsequent interpretation. By the same token, a sound is remediated whenever it is digitally converted from its analogue recording source into the digital format. Digitisation further dislocates sounds from their sources, turning them into discrete data. Sound contents enter the domain of constant travel, flexibility, and flow at different stages of digitalisation towards reaching a saturation state of an assumed ‘post-digital' ecology, during the process of which they are freed from the object or source. Sounds thus, in the contemporary post-digital condition, imply mobility and subsequent object disorientation. The process of interpretation is, however, more complex than it appears at the perceptual level. Contributing to this discourse, new media scholar Frances Dyson argues, concerning the ‘sound object’,  “first—find a way of discussing and representing sound unhinged from the visual object, second, find a device (the tape recorder) that will somehow enable such a representation, and finally, mask the mediation of that device by arguing for an ontological equivalence between the reproduced sound and the original sonic source” (Dyson 2009: 54). This ontological equivalence might be difficult to achieve for a wandering listener for whom a specific sound presents a multitude of amorphous listening states, leading to a sonic explosion of object-disoriented but mood-based streams of contemplation in a nomadic condition. These listening states are not rooted in the immediate sonic reality; rather they transcend the mere recognition and knowledge about the source or object of sound. They move towards a realm of fluid thinking processes that unsettle the epistemic and ontological structures of sound. This problem of ambivalence prompts Christoph Cox to investigate sound’s unsettling behaviour outside of the object. Jean-Luc Nancy has aptly called such transcendental behaviours of sounds “beyond sound” (Nancy 2007: 6) in similar arguments with Cox, who maintains his perspective on the mobile and virtual world of sound: “[A] strange world in which bodies are dissolved into flows, objects are the residues of events, and effects are unmoored from their causes to float independently as virtual powers and capacities” (Cox, 2013, p. 6). This mobile and contingent world of sound originates from corporal sites, evolving spatially and temporally, but becomes illusory, turning into disorienting auditory situations. Deleuze and Guattari use the notion of nomads and nomadology (1986) to think through such states of de-territorialised experiences. These perspectives suggest disruption in the sense of site-specificity or object-hood of sound in the perception of an unfolding auditory situation for an individual listener. 

The Situationists, whose ideas have attracted the deep interest of urban theorists and artists, employed the concept of “psychogeography” to describe a certain experimental practice of subjective and mindful exploration of (urban) places (Sadler, 1999; Coverley, 2010; Self, 2007). Expanding their ideas into sound studies, we can examine how acoustic geography engages the mental construction of space by an object-disoriented and de-territorialised mode of listening, to perceive everyday sounds for urban navigation as fluid auditory situations. It is no surprise that Nancy has also thought about listening in similar ways. In his work Listening (2007) Nancy underscored how sonic phenomena outline certain situations or contexts. 

I would argue that such situations unfold around a sonic phenomenon (or a number of sounds occurring together in a certain place), but, for the wandering listener, the sound may seem to cease signalling its origins as it moves further away from its locative source into the as yet formless ‘auditory situation’ brought on by a contemplative state of mind. In my recent works, I have discussed the ways in which such situations might unfold spatiotemporally, resonating towards a stream of thoughts and poetic contemplation and creating ripples in the consciousness when a nomadic listener mindfully navigates from one place to another in a psychogeographic, rather than physical, fashion. What I emphasise here is a shift in attention to sounds and their resonating, affecting qualities—in short, a listening to the process of ‘how’ rather than the immediate ‘what-is' of sounds. This special attention can be achieved by being mindful of sound’s fluid movements from one state to the other, which produce an elevated experience involving the contemplative state of the listener rather than seeking an immediate meaning for epistemic knowledge. This particular emphasis on the poetic attributes of an expanded mode of listening provides us with a context for exploring the unexpected splendour of everyday sounds and their transcendental potential as artistic ingredients, such as the materials for multi-channel compositional developments. This emergence of contingent moments in the listening experience expands the Cagean idea of chance composition towards a context of fluid interactions with and navigation through ephemeral and ineffable everyday unsitely sounds in the contemporary post-digital condition. As explained earlier, sounds are remediated whenever they are transformed to enter the digital realm. Digitisation further dislocates sounds from their material source, turning them into elusive data. Sounds embrace constant travel, flexibility, and flow at different stages of digitalisation towards reaching a saturation state of an assumed ‘post-digital’ condition; in the process, they are freed from the object. In the contemporary condition, sounds thus imply unsitely aesthetics of perception and subsequent object disorientation. A non-Western perspective on sound, such as ancient Indian philosophical aesthetics, indeed emphasises subjective resonance as perceived by the listener beyond the material objecthood of sound.  

In addressing this fundamental problem of an object-disoriented behaviour of sound while perceiving works of sound art, in this article I underscore sound’s specific subjective inclination as artistic experience beyond material objecthood. In order to examine the problematic relationship between sound and the artistic object, I draw attention to the work of a number of Indian philosophers who have divided the sonic discourse in terms of dhvāni (sound heard by the ear) and sphōta (sound grasped by the intellect). They recognised sound’s many possible interpretations beyond the material object or source of occurrence. This perspective helps theorise streams of contemplative states that are potentially generated inside the mindful perception of the listeners experiencing works of sound art. Emphasising the sonic subject’s essentially withdrawn, inward-looking and contemplative capacities, I pursue the claim that sound is less closely tied to the Kantian category of substance than vision, and therefore any attempt to frame sound as an artistic object or artefact with which to materially tie the viewer, poses serious problem of a philosophical nature.  

Sonic subject  

What I listen to and what you listen to may differ from one another at the perceptual level. Based on my own artistic practices with sound as well as a series of community art practice-based workshops titled “Hyper-listening: praxis”4, I have arrived at the concept of what I would like to call the sonic subject or ‘sujet sonore’.  

In Indian aesthetic theory, the topic of ‘subjectivity' and ‘selfhood’ being embedded in sonic phenomena has been highly discussed. From S. S. Barlingay’s writings, we know about the concept of sphōta, which indicates, “A sound changes into (subjective thinking) and language, and acquires meaning only after a certain explosion of sounds” (Barlingay, 2007, 27), as part of a self-involved mental association in listening. He states in his work A Modern Introduction to Indian Aesthetic Theory

We not only utter sounds, we can imagine sounds. A man can sing a song silently, i.e. he can make a mental division of time without it being perceived by any other person (Barlingay, 2007, 29) 

It is no surprise that my experiments show why a given auditory situation appears to a drifting individual listener as liquid and amorphous; newly heard sounds are juxtaposed with sonic memories, triggering the aural imagination. The individual listener becomes elevated from the physical location, and epistemic knowledge about the sound events that occur within the situation becomes open-ended, contributing to an unfixed, malleable and evolving relationship between sound and the implied object when perceived in the listener’s mind. Nancy has rightfully asked, “Why, in the case of the ear, is there withdrawal and turning inward, a making resonant, but, in the case of the eye, there is manifestation and display, a making evident?” (Nancy, 2007, p. 3). Brandon LaBelle has expanded his discussion on listening in this line of thinking, “toward the context in which interpretation must always take place” and pointed out “its potential to foster subjective intensities, from listening to living” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 5). 

The answer may be found if we set aside epistemic and ontological issues of recognising the source or ‘object’ of sound and focus instead on the phenomenological, and inward-looking subjective perception of sound within ‘selfhood’ as the listener's mindful perception; thus we can examine the way memory, imagination and the personal experience of the listener alter the character of sound in its mindful perception. I refer here to the proclamation by the visionary composer John Cage: “Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind” (Popova, 2013).  

The assumption of subjective propensities of listening, emphasising the essentially self-contained nature of sound as an artistic experience, leads to sound-based artworks being construed within individual, private or personal contemplation. This position may, I admit,  ultimately be idealist; moreover, if I begin with the subjective and then try to move towards the external world and toward other listeners, I face a question: is sound in any way public before it is private? This conceptual positioning further problematises the negotiation of the role of the listener in relation to an artwork. If listening is fundamentally subjective, then what is the point of making art – that is, curating a public object or event involving listeners other than the artist him/herself? 


Taking a clear point of departure in object-oriented sound art, and shifting the focus to the individual listener’s own personal experience of encountering and interacting with sound in an artistic context, I propose in this article an alternative methodology of sound art curating, which I term “auto-curating”. Addressing a practice-based approach, I refer to the recent sound art exhibition “Escuchas” (Listenings, 2015 – 2016) at the Museum of Modern Art Medellin5. The 12 multi-channel sound artworks included in this major group event, including my 6.1 channel work A Day in the Life of a Listener6, were played in loop in a completely dark room of the museum, where visitors were asked to enter and experience the works without any visual reference. This kind of acousmatic auditory situation incorporates the concept of “auto-curating”, which means that I situate the curating of sound art in the higher-level cognitive thought processes between the source of sound and the listener’s mind that apprehends it, framing an experience of situational and immaterial phenomena that are peculiar to sound’s subjective nature of emergence and unfolding at the listener’s end. This method operates, perhaps, in the way artist Yolande Harris puts it in her doctoral thesis: “To create situations where sound can affect and activate people’s experiences in a personal way”. Central to this process is the role of the listener in making an artwork complete. Scholar Tom Rice underlines the personal inclinations of listening: “[l]istening is often described and experienced as a solitary and individual practice, sometimes deeply personal and private” (Rice 2015: 102). My coinage of the term “auto-curating” is based in such private modes of individual listening in the context of sound art, and highlights the participatory and collaborative aspects of listening rather than posing a fixed object in a strictly exhibitory context.  

What I term “auto-curating” was already planted in earlier practices of sound art that considered sound as phenomena and did not construe its object-hood in the artistic mediation of the production and showcasing of what Kim-Cohen has termed “gallery arts”. An emphasis on the acousmatic experience of sound may shed more light on this method. Take, for example, Francisco Lopez’s performance installations, which are usually set in dark rooms in which he situates himself at the centre instead of the podium. Audiences sit in concentric circles with their backs to Lopez and are blindfolded. The surround speaker arrays are arranged across the perimeter of the room and kept invisible. Audiences are forced to minimise any actual associations with the visual parts of the performance. In the programme notes of his performance Buildings [New York] (2001), Lopez writes: “Every listener has to face his/her own freedom and thus create”. Although Lopez’s “passional [sic] and transcendental conception of music” (Kim-Cohen, 2009) and fetishist attention to the purity of sound inhibit the freedom he keenly desires for the audience, he nevertheless opens doors to the negotiation of the role of listener in relation to the artwork by revealing the process of “creation” in the listener’s mind. This process also finds resonance in Luc Ferrari’s works such as the Presque Rien series in which he posits a natural social situation for the listener, by denaturalising in the recording what is to be re-naturalised at the listener’s end as a creative process. Kim-Cohen has spoken of Ferrari’s work as providing “raw, phenomenological data” (Kim-Cohen, 2009), a foundation from which “thinking and doing” (Kim-Cohen, 2009) proceed. On the one hand, this process explores the personal or private nature of listening; on the other, it engages with the public and social ramifications of sonic phenomena. We find resonance of this methodology in the work of artist Brandon LaBelle. He records room tones in his apartment and sends it to different architects, asking them to develop an imaginary plan of the apartment. Creating a participatory atmosphere, these practices accentuate the potentially raw subjective behaviour of the listener in relation to a situation.   

Auditory situation 

What I mean by auto-curating is, then, an extension of the process of extracting and deciphering what happens in the listener’s mind while listening to a fertile auditory situation. This process may perhaps be partially quantified by the listener’s behaviour. This practice expands Don Ihde’s notion of the post-phenomenological realm. Ihde has talked about “auscultation” and similar contemporary acoustic constructive technologies for detecting and representing all sorts of bodily phenomena and giving voice to things, the silent and unheard (Ihde, 2009, p. 69-70). Within the theoretical framework of post-phenomenology, Ihde has given a number of examples from contemporary data-sound-image convertibility, by picking up signals from a range of instruments. I would mention the accelerometer that I have used myself to transduce the signal a listener makes. 

In a sound art project, The Well Tempered City (2010 - 2014)7, I employed the ingenious accelerometer to allow the listener’s emotive sonic inputs, such as touching, tapping and hitting the surfaces of things and built spaces, to be heard. The work is intended to help understand the emotive quotient of city-dwellers' everyday interactions with pervasive urban structures. The project was conceived as ubiquitous computation of subtle vibration-contents generated by ordinary citizens through everyday interactions such as walking, resting, touching, tapping or hitting the structural surfaces of the city, such as the streets or walls. These surfaces served as the physical interface for citizens’ affective interactions with their personified everyday environment. The project employed participation and performative intervention of city-dwellers in the built spaces of the city to generate sonic artefacts, which functioned as the reflections of citizens’ immediate emotional situations and the affective context. The Well Tempered City: Book I was conceived, produced and exhibited during a fellowship-residency at Jaaga, Bangalore, where the work was installed on-site in a 10-channel live set up8

The following instalment of the project The Well Tempered City: Book II was a commission for Museo Reina Sofía Radio, Madrid, featured in November 20149. It formed part of a series of podcasts entitled Modernity and Transduction. The Well Tempered City: Book II looked at the concept of transduction in relation to the Indian city of Bangalore and also at the concept of hypermodernity generally in today’s cities. The work, which involved a listening mediated by the use of electronic devices, such as the arrays of accelerometers and contact microphones, transduced the vibrations produced by interaction between citizens and the city’s architecture into sound sequences. This method created a texture of sounds, which, as it progressed, became denser and richer in variations. Listening to this piece’s transformation of listener-generated vibrations into audible sounds revealed a whole spectrum of transfers of individual activity to urban spaces. Something like an artificial respiration of the context, the presence of citizens in the city of today becomes the impulse that gives life to architecture, which as a living body responds with slight movements that convert city spaces into vibrant and geological structures. The work was explicitly based on the participation of the citizens in producing the sound contents,  thus contributing directly to the development of the work as an ‘auditory situation’ (Chattopadhyay, 2013, 2015, 2017) – an open-ended context for public participation and multiple reinterpretations. 

My more recent work Exile and Other Syndromes (2015 – 2018) also intends to create a 'situation' rather than an ‘object'. The work considers mindful aspects of the private mode of listening experience, and explores its introspective capacities for transcending the barrier of immediate meaning to touch upon poetic sensibilities. The work was produced during an artist residency at Kunstuniversität Graz, between September 2015 and January 2016. The pilot version (for 24-channel sound and 4-channel video projection) was premiered at Kunstuniversität Graz, on 19th January 201610. In essence, the work transmutes the urban space to reorient the navigational mode of listening involving the listener's contemplation. The work incorporates multi-channel projection of sound-generated text-visualisation on the screens as moving images installed at a venue11. This specific method of intervention can examine the way in which the memory, imagination and subjectivity of an itinerant listener elaborate the character of sound. The work relies on intuitive capacities of listening, rather than the ontological and epistemological reasoning involved in deciphering the immediate meaning of sound. This belief in inward contemplation and subjectivity available to wandering urban listeners enables the work to explore the poetic-contemplative possibilities embedded in everyday listening in the city for countering the neurosis of contemporary urban living. The particular emphasis on the poetic attributes of an expanded mode of listening provides a context for exploring the unexpected splendour of everyday urban sounds and their transcendental potential as evocative and unfolding situations beyond their site-specific static object-hood. Emergence of contingent moments in the urban listening experience expands the Cagean idea of chance composition towards a context of fluid and nomadic interaction with everyday sounds in contemporary cities. The fuller version of the project will be exhibited at the Screen City Biennial 2017 to be held at Stavanger, Norway, throughout October 2017. 

I am currently involved in developing a new project entitled Expanded Object (2017 – 2019), in which I intend to trigger a shift in perspective from 'object' to ‘situation' in sound art. Through my artistic practice I am departing from the idea of 'sonic object’ considering the object-hood of sound in an exhibitory context as an uncertain and mobile ‘framing' through which sounds may experience manifold spill-overs to create fluid situations12 

Critical listening  

The artistic consequences of some of these methodologies (e.g. The Well Tempered City) can be explained as the acoustic presentation of data collected from subjective sonic perceptions that are manifested in bodily phenomena: what Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook call in their book Rethinking Curating, “behaviours and contexts with a post-medium emphasis” (Graham and Cook, 2010, p. 5). Following Ihde’s notions of post-phenomenology, and examples showing that all data can be turned into acoustic phenomena, I believe that auto-curating can be a framework within which the curating of sound art can be situated by higher-level cognitive thought processes in the listener’s mind. By exploring the listener’s behaviour, in the way he/she orients him-/herself within a given auditory situation of a sound art event or context, the process essentially involves mental computation that can be divided into early or low-level perception and advanced or higher-level processing or cognition. The sense modalities provide audio information, which the listener can process creatively in the way what I call “auto-curating”, allowing the listener to make sense of the artwork and behave according to the sound data available from navigation and perception of the unfolding auditory situation. It would be worthwhile following what the listener responds to the artistic experience of sound. Young Indian curator Samrridhi Kukreja recalls13 her first encounter with sound art in India:  

My first encounter with Sound Art was weird, I had never encountered something of this sort; it was strange and yet gripping. It made me experience things that were almost scary but very much required. ‘Required’ because as a spectator I have felt things as a result of visuals, but when I felt things as an outcome of sound, it was alarming and an unknown sensation waking me up to experience something new - knowing what sound alone can do (2016) 

Having the listener at the center, a work of sound art would question the materiality, site-specificity and object-hood of sound, and address aspects of contingency, contemplation, mindfulness and transcendence inherent in listening. Such perspectives in artistic practice would intend to shift the emphasis from 'object' to ‘situation' in the realm of sound art. In this context, a sound artist would intend to create contemplative auditory situations as fluidly sonic sculptural forms using multi-channel diffusion of sound for the listener to navigate by privately making mental and psycho-geographic mappings of the unfolding aural space of a sound art event.  

In my own work as a sound artist, i.e. in the projects I have mentioned above, sound is spatially organised to intervene into a given space, disrupting the notion of the 'aural objects' or the 'sound object’, in order to investigate what I have earlier termed “object-disoriented behaviour of sound’ involving generative composition of imaginatively fertile auditory situations as a fluid aural architecture. My compositional and artistic practices instigate such inquiries with a research-based approach to sound creation. I prefer to explore the ephemeral and transcendental nature of sound. The fundamental role that I play as an artist is to intervene in a given situation, incorporating spatial sound practices to alter the perception of the situation by disrupting the sonic navigational mode at the site. This process operates between dissemination of sonic artefacts and exploration of the perceptual and cognitive realm of listening through the creation of multi-channel sculptural situations that are contingent in texture and form, so as to change with the interaction of the listener and the situational contexts. Taking the ontologically questionable experience of the sound object as a critical juncture, I intend to radically reorganise the conventional form of the composition towards a situation for self-reflection and participatory engagement. It is my contention that sound as an artistic medium pertains to this end. 

This artistic practice is built on the consideration that sound art is inherently perceptual and participatory, and arguably proposes a new set of hypotheses. I suggest that the given auditory situation of a traditional exhibition or public showcasing of sound art appears to a drifting listener as liquid and amorphous, triggering and driving the aural imagination further away from the intended artefact or artistic object posed in the foreground. Therefore, it is important to create fertile auditory situations where sound can affect and activate the personal listening experience through a multiplicity of interpretations, contemplations and moods at the listener’s end, rather than trying to devise a material object or artefact in its so-called ‘exhibition' within a visually constrained framing. Taking the ontologically questionable space of the exhibition as a critical juncture, sound artists may process or radically reorganise the conventional form of the exhibition as a space for self-reflection and participatory engagement.  


The sound artist transforms him-/herself from the always already ‘being’ into the gradual ‘becoming’ of an interlocutor and operates between the listener and the artwork by keeping the listener at the centre of an artwork. The ambition to dissolve the gap between the artist as sole active producer of meaning/truth and the listener as passive consumer, substantially informs “auto-curating” as an appropriate methodology for sound art creation and curating. This process provides a speculative and experimental framework for revealing some of the paradoxes in contemporary thinking about technologically informed sound-based artistic practice for further discourse. As this article indicates, sound art is potentially suited to direct the listener towards the personal or subjective unfolding of an auditory situation, rather than representing a sound object. The listener engages with the situation through memory, imagination and contemplation, possibly creating meanings that are different from the intention of the artist or other listeners experiencing the same artwork. This position explains the inherent attributes of immateriality, ephemerality and contingency embedded in sound art experience.  


Altman, R. (1992). Sound Theory/ Sound Practice. New York: Routledge. 
Barlingay, S. S. (2007). A Modern Introduction to Indian Aesthetic Theory: The Development from Bharata to Jagannåatha. New Delhi: D. K. Print World. Chattopadhyay, B. (2012). Sonic Menageries: Composing the sound of place. Organised Sound, 17(3): 223  229. 
Chattopadhyay, B. (2013). Auditory Situations: Notes from Nowhere. Journal of Sonic Studies 4.  
Chattopadhyay, B. (2014). The Well Tempered City. RRS Museo Reina Sofía Radio. 
Chattopadhyay, B. (2014). Object-Disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-Digital Condition. A Peer-reviewed Journal About, 3(1) 
Chattopadhyay, B. (2014). Budhaditya Chattopadhyay’s Object Disorientation. NY Arts Magazine, April. 
Chattopadhyay, B. (2015). Auditory (Con)texts: Writing on Sound. Ear │ Wave │ Event 2. 
Chattopadhyay, B. (2017). The Well Tempered City: participation and intervention in sound art. Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 21(2), The Cybernetic Issue (forthcoming). 
Chion, M. (1994). Audio-vision: Sound on screen. Translated and Edited by Gorbman, C. New York: Columbia University Press. 
Coverley, M. (2010). Psychogeography. Herts: Pocket Essentials. 
Cox, C. (2013). Sonic Philosophy. ARTPULSE Magazine.  
Dayal, G. (2013). Sound Art. 
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986). Nomadology: The War Machine. Translated by Brian Massumi. Cambridge: MIT Press. 
Demers, J. (2010). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music. New York: Oxford University Press.  
Demers, J. (2009). Field recording, sound art and objecthood. Organised Sound, 14(1): 39-45. 
Dyson, F. (2009). Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture. University of California Press.  
Graham, B. and Cook, S. (2010). Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media. London: The MIT Press.  
Harris, Y. (2011). Scorescapes: On Sound, Environment and Sonic Consciousness. PhD thesis, Academy for Creative and Performing Arts, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University.  
Ihde, D. (2007). Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany, NY: The SUNY Press. 
Ihde, D. (2009). Postphenomenology and Technoscience: The Peking University Lectures. Albany, NY: The SUNY Press.  
Kim-Cohen, S. (2009). In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.  
LaBelle, B. (2006). Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 
López, F. (2001). Buildings [New York]. V2 Archief (V2 32). 
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auditory situation  
sonic subject
Sound art

Idiosyncrasy as Method

Reflections on the epistemic continuum
30. august 2016

Kastrup Søbad

Dancing is an epistemic practice. Walking is an epistemic practice; eating is an epistemic practice. Drinking is an epistemic practice. Smelling is an epistemic practice. Touching is an epistemic practice. Listening: is an epistemic practice. These practices are not only restricted to their elaborated and formalized appearances in the sciences; in the medical field, in the field of craftsmanship or food design; of urban planning or fashion – of the design of perfume or of soundscapes. All of these practices (and many more I did not mention in this little series) are research activities: they actually form a genuine – I'd even dare to say: a crucial – part of the history of humanities. Without which we simply could not be working in research at all.

This article consists of six brief sections. In these, I will try to explore some more specific, sensory practices in research. These six practices do not represent a complete or even teleological system of sensorial enhanced inquiries; they constitute an open collection, a loose selection of which you may have only encountered one or five until now – in your own research or inquiries – or to which you wish to add two or six more to it. In my following reflections on these practices, I will try to contribute to their further refinement, to a kind of training, and an exploration of their biases and focuses. Idiosyncrasies therefore will guide my investigation. The practices that I will be reflecting on are the practices of:  spacing, timing, embodying, intervening, performing and: transmitting.


Where are we now? We have gathered together in this location, at a certain point in time, under rather specific conditions of work, of work assignments, of individual work budgets and with particular individual goals and wishes related to this activity today. Right now it is round 10 o'clock in the morning; it is a cloudy yet warm and quite agreeable summer day here in Amagerbro, in the city of Copenhagen, in Denmark. Scandinavia, Europe. We can sense the strong and quite wet wind around here, maybe stronger than we are used to it. We hear the waves of the sea rolling and crashing in. And as this morning is rather rainy and cloudy-grey we sense the raindrops, the rain curtains on our hands, our forehead, through our pants and shoes, we hear it landing on our raincoats, our umbrellas. I can hear and you can hear, very distinctively, also the sounds of you: your movements, your whispering; your simply being here. I try now to project my voice in the best way possible across this open environment – with support of this audio technology. I have to apply a certain higher pressure on my larynx and take more care of my breathing than in the usual lecture hall. This open scene here at the Kastrup Søbad obviously does not support my speaking by the reflections and resonance we would experience in a closed building.

Researching – and we might see even lecturing as a crucial part of researching – researching is spatially quite a peculiar activity. It is peculiar in all its materials, its locations, its time structure and its rather limited and predetermined dynamics and situations where it takes place. Nevertheless, the history of research institutions – their programs, their overarching projects as well as historically documented monographies – tend to compare rather ahistorically, more noble research practices like reading, counting, calculating, drawing or interpreting visual or textual documents to other less noble, less reasonable, less reliable or even acceptable research practices: like kinaesthetic sensing, dancing or walking; eating or drinking, smelling, touching, internal sensing – like listening. Right now, again it is not too easy to focus my personal listening activity on only this specific place – though I do try hard; in combination with all of my efforts to project my voice in an adequate way and to perform a corporeally functional and focusing posture. As I am moreover focused by your very attention as the audience – I try to take this awareness and refocus it to our shared listening environment in this very location.

According to an implicitly underlying hierarchy of the senses, some practices like reading or interpreting came out in the history of science as presumably much more precise, much more stable; and therefore they are regarded as sources for much stronger arguments: techniques of evidence. But, if you take a look around here and draw or read, if you calculate or count anything around here in this Sødbad, it will become quite clear that all of these practices are far from being infallible as such.


Time keeps on slipping into the future. This moment in which you or I might actually be able to sense something right here – it is rather small. It is actually an incredibly tiny, a very brief epoché as it was called by Edmund Husserl a century ago: a moment of focused and reluctant existence, not hastily judging, but almost in a contemplative form of highly aware presence. In this moment, humanoid aliens (quite similar to us) are maybe even capable of at least getting a certain, if not vague idea of something – and then it is gone. As researchers, we learn to practice timing for this presence as an epistemic strategy. It is quite well known for practitioners of research that the quality of research activities such as reading or calculating lies not in themselves – but in their refinement: in their intense and extensive, highly arduous and recurrent and massively time-based training in academic culture. Only by means of timing, by synchronisation and resynchronisation, by breaks, syncopes or pulses, by beats and rhythms, by loops and quite controlled escalations, we become capable of understanding our own peculiar biases and focuses: as researchers. It is – if you will – a sort of self-analysis, a self-research; officially and quite wordily neglected and maybe even destructive to some more strategic career moves.

To prefer one research practice – be it reading – over any other practice qualifies therefore more as a representation of an unfounded claim: historically and culturally such a preference would be quite arbitrary. But it is a claim, which historically has laid the foundations to our research cultures of today – a quite generative, prolific activity in cultural history. It stays nevertheless a claim, which at present times we would find quite hard to give the status of an objective, a transcultural, and a timeless truth of how to do research. Referring to recent studies on epistemic practices such as reading, calculating, drawing and interpreting we dont actually find convincing evidence for any such objectivist assumptions. Readers really do jump from line to page, back and forth, they ignore complicated new words they might not dare to look up in the glossary; they take their time – or they are even panicking; disturbed and distracted; right now for instance I am deeply curious about how you and the other participants in this conference will respond: how you will react now and later on – and how all the other presenters and my colleagues at this conference will relate to these reflections. How will my fellow keynote speaker Brandon LaBelle react to this?

Nevertheless, readers (and lecturers, and listeners) do remember selected passages of a text more vividly than others. They are more impressed by some descriptions or arguments they feel inclined to – and less by others they reject or simply do not understand. Timing in reading, timing in speaking, timing in research is never stable. It moves on, time actually keeps on slipping – and so what sounded, in this location, a few seconds ago is not anymore so present, so vivid now. It is lost. It might still be very vividly present in some of your memories. These skills in timing are therefore also skills in time-travelling: jumping between past and present and future moments, between possible and parallel worlds, is part of our epistemic practice too. Memory culture is time-travelling culture.

Timing here and now might not anymore be the same as it was maybe a few minutes before. In your minds, in my mind. It is transforming – just by us gathering here in this wooden architectural structure. Just by making those mouth-pitched noises. Ideas about stuff.


Body moving. Your individual body and all the bodies of other humanoids, aliens, creatures, things and assumed or imagined entities round here in this location: we are occupying this location. We are embodying this place. More and more, the longer we are staying here. The location is in us then. As time goes on, it might also become more and more difficult (or does it become easy?) to hold our collective concentration: as the by now quite familiar ambient sounds, the noises of the sea, the rushing of the wind, distant noises from the beach are awashed here. These sounds are now our experience of listening, standing, reflecting, sensing. Though each of you and all of us might be digressing into truly idiosyncratic memories and imaginations – future tasks and recent troubles – most of you might be able to enter a conversation and an argument on selected bits, crucial parts and not so relevant elements in this keynote lecture, later on. But still we might disagree on many, many aspects.

As in such familiar discourses on language: Nothing is clear. Nothing is simple and linear. No experiential situation in the sciences or in the humanities has ever been presented as a concise and simple algorithm, formula or concept of interpretation – from the beginning: but it is this overall contamination and seemingly incommensurable character of, well, any phenomenon around us, that might motivate one to start a further, an earnest inquiry. Then – the story begins. Not with a neatly ordered result – but with irritations: being annoyed and disturbed, not understanding, not knowing, not having any clue what to do now. But maybe, a vague and an unsettling idea; a fragile starting point. A first tiny practice just to try out – quite unsure if this really could work.

In harsh contrast to science journalism’s fascination with cleanrooms, with strict methodologies and the mannerisms and hypocrisies of rationalism even what we call experimental sciences is fundamentally a joyfully dirty, a messy and a deeply troublesome activity – like research always is or should be. Any next step will follow then. We start in these bodily confusions. Confusions, which demand a quest for clarity; confusions which actually generate our efforts to obtain a more precise, a more complex and a more enlightening result.


Check the technique. Our actions as researchers are interventions. We disturb a given and maybe worrying process. Entering these situations and processes we make an effort to construct and to analyze a portion, a transcript, an experimental model, a diverting narration or calculation, a new description of this very situation – in order to understand that it may be better in certain aspects. To do so, we need a sense for spacing, timing, embodying – to find the right moment, an interesting angle, an adequate aspect, the right time bracket to intervene. Practices such as calculating and reading, reading articles or reading numbers on a measuring instrument, they rely in quite a similar way on an individual's sense for this right moment to capture, for instance, a static number out of the constant, shivering flow of data, out of the trembling needle or the rapidly jumping visual display, out of the constant discontinuum of actions, sensations, utterances that humanoids might be performing in an ethnographically observed situation. Such situations – be it of apparatuses or of humanoids – are sensible constellations. We might just crush them with our mere presence, and our rude ignorance as outsiders, as creatures who intervene.

To intervene properly, to intervene in the ever present Black Box of every single moment we live in, it is crucial for us as researchers to get a certain idea of the thing going on here right now. Who is doing what? What happened before that? Who might be intending to do what next – or might he or she just be pretending to, or hiding from this? Or what outside frameworks, what dispositives or forms of habitus do predetermine this situation right now? We listen, we sense, we taste. We cherish our idiosyncratic sensibilities. The individual researcher's training and his or her particular, idiosyncratic focus in refining and critically reflecting their skills is central to any research practice. But in contrast to common, self-proclaimed images of objectivist and almost dehumanized research robots: none of our biases, our idiosyncratic foundations or our ambivalences are missing in common and uncommon epistemic practices – be it reading, calculating, eating or touching. The age-old phrase There's no accounting for taste is actually wrong: if there is an accounting that is really necessary or demanded – it is always at a certain point referring to taste, to individual development, to experiences and biography. An account for the obvious would be rather useless.

We intervene – and how we intervene is something we learned more implicitly, more tacitly in continuous contact, exchange, in talking and imitating, in trying and failing: we learned this like we learned any other skills of sensing. 


Speak and spell. While doing nothing and saying nothing – we are still: performing. We are also doing things without any words – sometimes without any actions. As researchers, our actions take effect even if they seem marginal or even superfluous: even more so they take effect. And any sound we emit is proof of our action – and every reflection is even more so. In any research situation, within any more specific context we do operate as researchers in an expanded continuum of epistemic activities. This epistemic continuum is not something alien or far away. It is actually present in everyday life. This vast empire of sensory subtleties in research is, by the way, not at all restricted to research-wise seemingly underestimated practices – such as eating, smelling, listening. Isn’t it true: we smell the dust and the aging of an older archival source? Don’t researchers walk around and mingle with some other humanoid creatures, possibly even becoming friends in ethnographic fieldwork – just in order to fulfil the guidelines of a participatory observation? Gustatory tasting is part of activities in chemistry as well as kinaesthetic senses contribute to various activities in drawing and drafting sketches – be it in mathematics or in the engineering sciences. And finally, the activity of listening is pivotal and elementary as Science & Technology Studies have recently shown us in a wide variety of mechanics, of electro-mechanics and electronics, of early information technology and not the least in various branches of anatomical research, of zoology, of medicine. 

Any hierarchy of the senses in epistemology is at least as unfounded and as alien as any other hierarchy of the senses or of some particularly addressed bodily organs; I like to compare the status of such a sensory hierarchy to, well, a hierarchy of daytimes, of weekdays, or of seasons in a year, of landscape structure or to any semiotic preferences. While we all surely do love a good shamanistic and privately superstitious ritual now and then in our individual lives: not one of us would probably be found seriously claiming that for instance research activities should always or should never be executed, let's say, on Fridays or on Mondays, on years that can be divided by 3 or on days in which the moon appears to be in a certain shape in the sky, or while we are thinking of this or that semiotic concept. We all might have – nevertheless – very good reasons for all of these shamanistic, non-intelligible idiosyncratic categories; yet we would never ever erect these as general and objectivist, transcultural and ahistoric truths. And this is exactly what happened to our hierarchy of the senses: it is a wild, shamanistic superstition that we mistake today as an institutional truth. Though we are just performing the senses. We are performing idiosyncrasies – in presenting, in manifesting, in materializing our results. These idiosyncrasies – as individual developments – I would prefer to follow; and not, frankly speaking, follow those assumed as being generalized and objectivised ones.

Individual idiosyncrasies make it possible for us to explore more thoroughly the status, the effects and the importance of personal approaches in research – and this might actually lead to new insights. We would then focus on a reflected and more complex set of idiosyncrasies – across cultures, across various materials, diverse practices, and heterogeneous narrations.


Can you feel it? Our idiosyncrasies are present. They are with us all the time. Though most of the time we do not address them. We might feel more inhibited, even ashamed by them. But after a process of refinement, of exercise and training concerning a thorough use of these idiosyncrasies – this might change. As soon as we leave an alltoo narrow idiosyncratic corpus of writing and reading and counting and calculating lightheartedly behind, we enter a new, far more inspiring, demanding and generative, vast realm of plenty and multiple idiosyncrasies. Idiosyncrasies which we do actually care about. These truly expanded sensibilities we might be using as techniques for research, also provide us with new forms of presentation: as soon as we switch from traditionalist, arbitrary preferences to a more reflected, specific and a selected set from a wider range of idiosyncratic preferences – we can then also claim to explore the whole of the epistemic continuum of practices, senses, substances, concepts in a profound way. We can then – also in presenting our findings – select our preferred idiosyncrasies according to individual issues in research: What practices or sensory activities could provide the most interesting, the most inspiring, the most insightful, and – hopefully – the most irritating outcome at a certain end of our research? Research in touch, in taste; in dance, smell or sound.

How can we, how can you, apply those idiosyncrasies as a method? Actually, I would guess many of you already do your research in this very way. The following summary therefore might only be a redundant memorizing; but as for some others: Maybe the following rules of the game could possibly lead to surprising new mutations, unknown specimens of research? Research in a specific sensory or non-sensory field requires a basic orientation at first, a sensible and maybe unconventional but always highly individual account of what is actually there: What is here, what do we have now? A state of this very moment. This multisensory constellation. The Spacing and the Timing is being explored – which leads you to an almost involuntarily Embodying of this very field of research. Spatial arrangements and time structures become your second nature, maybe you are not going totally native in this field – but you manage to become very familiar with many elements in it. You can almost foresee, it seems to you, the next actions in it. Then you take action: you can cut out elements, sections, aspects, things or situations, forms of action or of utterances, practices or personae. Now you are able to scrutinize these. Now you can start Intervening in this sensory field. You might be doing this as an artist, as a researcher, as an artist researcher, or as a researcher on artistic processes. In Performing you take new and different, exploratory and analytical, disruptive or harmonizing actions. You provoke new situated events; you generate dissent and consent, ruptures and new experiences, new conclusions and new, unfounded claims. Finally, you go for Transmitting: You present to others – not familiar with this sensory or non-sensory field you were researching in – you present what happened to you. You tell moments and insecurities, doubts and euphoria, excess and boredom. You make artefacts accessible that were generated in the course of your research. You give your collaborators in this field a voice: you give them a chance to contradict your observations, your assumptions, your claims. You give a certain insight into a maybe secluded and secretive aspect of contemporary cultural life.

Generativity. Idiosyncrasy is a method.


Holger Schulze’s keynote presentation took place at Sneglen at Kastrup Søbad on 18 June 2015. It was the opening lecture for the site-specific conference, Fluid States, Fluid Sounds. During the keynote presentation, Holger Schulze referred to and literally pointed at the site-specific situation of his oral presentation. For instance: at the site, the weather, the social context and at the thoughts of his participating colleagues. In the written text, these gestures in the embodied situation are omitted. The text is thus just one approach to the epistemic continuum (of for instance sound, space, place, performance, participation) investigated at the conference. 



Audio Papers – a manifesto

30. august 2016

With this special issue of Seismograf we are happy to present a new format of articles: Audio Papers.

Audio papers resemble the regular essay or the academic text in that they deal with a certain topic of interest, but presented in the form of an audio production. The audio paper is an extension of the written paper through its specific use of media, a sonic awareness of aesthetics and materiality, and creative approach towards communication. The audio paper is a performative format working together with an affective and elaborate understanding of language. It is an experiment embracing intellectual arguments and creative work, papers and performances, written scholarship and sonic aesthetics.

For this special issue of Seismograf, the guidelines for authors and peer reviewers mainly focused on the format. Topic-wise we encouraged dealing with site-specificity and topics related to the island Amager, but other topics were welcomed as well. From our experience with the development of the concept, the workshops, the peer reviews and the editorial process, we suggest the following statements as a germinal manifesto for the audio paper:


  1. The audio paper affords performative aesthetics.

  2. The audio paper is idiosyncratic.

  3. The audio paper is situated and partial.

  4. The audio paper renders affects and sensations.

  5. The audio paper is multifocal; it assembles diverse and often heterogeneous voices.

  6. The audio paper has multiple protagonists, narrators and material agencies.

  7. The audio paper brings aesthetics and technologies together in mediation.

  8. The audio paper is a constituent part of larger ecologies.


Ad. 1 The audio paper affords performative aesthetics

The audio paper is experimental in character and is positioned against the conventional written paper. The audio paper insists on awareness during the dissemination of the academic argument; it is performative, and it is acutely aware of its own means of presentation and representation.

The academic field of performance studies can contribute to bridging diverse knowledge disciplines and shaping them into experimental yet coherent forms. As formulated by American ethnographer Dwight Conquergood (1949-2004): “The constitutive liminality of performance studies lies in its capacity to bridge formerly segregated and differently valued knowledges, drawing together legitimated as well as subjugated modes of inquiry” (Conquergood 2002:151).

Similar to Conquergood’s definition of performances studies, the audio paper as an academic discipline has the potential to assemble heterogeneous and segregated knowledge disciplines. For instance, it combines the rationality of language and speech with the sensation and affective materiality of the voice, or it incorporates the sound aesthetics of various environments, landscapes and spaces to underline and strengthen the academic argument. In several ways such performative aesthetics of the audio paper are related to 20th century avant-garde aesthetics. Techniques of Verfremdung, awareness of materiality, and everyday aesthetics are all drawn upon to develop means of expression.

The performative aesthetics of the audio paper are closely related to technology. Technology and mediations create a new subject of knowledge. Jon McKenzie addresses the notion of performative objects: They do not occupy a single “proper” place in knowledge; there is no such thing as the thing in itself. Instead, objects are produced and maintained though a variety of socio-technical systems, overcoded by many discourses, and situated in numerous sites of practice” (McKenzie: Perform or Else, p. 18).

Audio papers as such can differ from the ones presented in this issue and are not to be understood as an establishable format. As the audio paper is performative and its proper place always differing, it must continuously be renewed: When the present audio papers become conventional, the audio paper will once again reconsider its format and move towards new investigations, once again bringing in new awareness to the work. In this sense, the oral and the soundscape can make language perform in differing ways. In this regard, the audio paper draws on the performativity of language in the broadest sense. English linguistic J.L Austin notes how language performs through contexts. Thus, meaning is intrinsically bound to the situation. In the audio paper, sounds and soundscapes become frameworks in which language performs. Recorded sonic environments, the aesthetics and materiality, serve as a contextual situation in addition to the tone, physicality and timbre of the recorded voice. Such contexts support the narration or operate on their own, in contradiction to the presented statements and arguments.

By applying performative aesthetics, the audio paper recognizes and realizes both representation and presentation. On the one hand, the audio paper represents semantics: topics of listening, nature, new labour, cultural places and even interpretation of works of art. On the other, the audio paper presents itself in mediation. Mediation contributes to the performative gesture and is self-referential. The mediation reveals meanings through, for instance, the physicality of sound or the dramaturgy by which the soundscape, voice and theses are put together. Or, as Holger Schulze states in his lecture, “in performing you take new and different, exploratory and analytical, disruptive or harmonizing actions. You provoke new situated events; you generate dissent and consent, ruptures and new experiences, new conclusions and new unfolded claims. Finally you go for transmitting.”

Ad. 2 The audio paper is idiosyncratic.

While academic knowledge often tries to avoid the idiosyncratic, the audio paper is deeply rooted in idiosyncrasies. It investigates environments –  the social, the material and the sensorial – by taking several dynamics of the perceptual and analytical process into account. The audio paper welcomes this. Inventions often occur in attempting to formulate or mediate through a media. The researcher always makes choices, also when writing, but this process of experimenting and choosing becomes palpable when transferred into a new format.

The audio paper is related to genres such as reportage, montage and feature. Reportage, as it relates to a certain place and the issues related to it; montage, through its awareness of mediations and any meta-reflexive components; feature, as it proposes a subjective and sensory approach to an issue. But the audio paper differs from the above three genres through its concern with the idiosyncratic: formal, auditory, inventive, experimental and investigatory idiosyncratic. The audio paper is an answer to Schulze’s rhetoric question, as it does “identify our respective, individual and sensory idiosyncrasies as the actual core elements in any historical as well as future research methodologies.”
Ex: The New "Amagerkaner", Between Maps and Territories, Hearing on the Verge

Ad. 3 The audio paper is situated and partial.

As an academic format, the audio paper can contribute with its “partial and situated truths” (see Haraway, 1988), a knowledge production that is qualitatively attentive to the various situations of research and their inherent aesthetic and sensory potentials. Situated and partial knowledge also implies that the production is restricted by its means of production: technologies, tools, media, places and contexts. The audio paper draws attention to the knowledge situation by, for instance, reflecting on the means of production. As sound material is visceral, the audio paper also is aware of different modes of expression and the aesthetic potentialities of sounds. Situated implies that the sound work is composed with sound [technologically extracted] from the environments with which they engage: the radio studio, the harbor front, the island of Amager, or an imagined future.
Ex. "Like Sitting inside a Phone", Mountain Meets Urban Waterfront, A Sound Factory on Amager

Ad. 4 The audio paper evokes affects and sensations.

The audio paper works with sensory and affective modes of knowledge. Sound has a material quality. Language is rendered through the voice with its attunement (Massumi 2002) to the surroundings, its rhythms and pace. Feelings and sensations are present in the audio paper and work side by side with the semantics of language and sound. The aesthetic, material aspects of the audio paper produce affects and sensations in the listener. Affects are felt. What is felt could be the body of the soundscape, the body of the voice, or the feeling and sensing body of the listener while listening.

The tone and timbre of the voices used in the audio paper makes the narrator present. It affords feelings and sensations. Voice and tone thus perform meaning in the broad continuum between cognitive reason and bodily sensations.

Like affects, the audio paper is productive and emergent in the sense that it does not represent lived processes so much as it participates in actively shaping processes to help constitute them as facts. The audio paper works with affects and sensation to give the listener a bodily felt and sensed experience.

Academic knowledge in the audio paper is therefore felt, experienced and produced in temporal processes.
Ex. Through the Air with the greatest of Ease, Hearing on the Verge, Place Time (Sounds)

Ad. 5 The audio paper is multifocal; it assembles diverse and often heterogeneous voices.

The audio paper is – like 20th century avant-garde radio art, drama, literature and poetry – not necessarily narrated from the perspective of a one-dimensional protagonist. The audio paper’s research questions and arguments are developed within academic frameworks, while the presentation can take various forms. The audio paper hereby continually opens towards an integration of dramaturgical complexities that not only functions as a representational and performative tool, but also integrates the overall academic argument in the presentation itself.
Ex. The New "Amagerkaner", Between Maps and Territories.

Ad. 6 The audio paper has multiple protagonists, narrators and material agencies.

The audio paper is not limited to narrations performed by human beings. Not only humans act, also landscapes, objects, technologies and politics are rendered active agents (Latour 2005) in the audio paper. Austin’s concept of performative utterance, “speech acts,” (words are more than just words, they are causal actions with consequences depending on the context they are presented within), is not only a[n operating] principle reserved for language, but can be identified as operating within all other sounding agents as well (Salter 2010).

Ex. Mountain Meets Urban Waterfront, "Like Sitting inside a Phone".

Ad. 7 The audio paper brings aesthetics and technology together in mediation.

The audio paper is produced by means of digital audio technologies. With the field of Art and Technology in mind, technology – its function and dysfunction and the development and investigations generated – have demonstrated that technology is in itself a carrier of aesthetics (e.g. Klüver 2004). With reference to Bruno Latour (1999), Chris Salter explains it this way: “Technology does something in and to the world by modifying existing relations and constructing new ones between humans, tools, processes and the environment in which all are deeply entangled. ‘Techniques are . . . not means, [...] but mediators, means, and ends at the same time; and that is why they bear upon the social fabric’ (1999: 197)” (Salter 2010: xxxv).

In the case of the audio paper, this frame of understanding underlines the awareness that recording equipment, filtering, mixing, mastering and conversions are not neutral processes and tools. They are in themselves expressions of various actors and aesthetic means. 

Ad. 8 The audio paper is a constituent part of broader ecologies.

The audio paper depends on diverse sound environments and human practices in its attempt to assemble aspects, narratives, phenomena and sensations of the world. Its dissemination and production depends on technology, which becomes a part of the expression and a key to information itself: “Technology does something in and to the world by modifying existing relations and constructing new ones between humans, tools, processes and the environment in which all are deeply entangled” (Salter 2010: xxxxv).

The audio paper is never conventional, as it always incorporates an awareness of the processes of research and technological production. It not only reflects its own research question/s, but reflects the reflection itself: the process of knowledge-production, the presentation and representation of language and voice, the narrative and dramaturgy, and the aesthetics of sound.


audio paper
material agency
sonic environment
sound situations

Extracts of the audio paper reviews:

“This audio paper is a very qualified and unusual composition (montage of samples) of recorded singing voices with the author´s own speak. The concern is to explore the relations between songs remembered, performed (and exchanged live) and our sensory perception: which emotional affects do they/we create through our singing and listening to other´s singing, and how do those fluid sounds both create and repeat our perception of “fluid time”, memories attached to our own and other´s history and as an alternative to the capitalist and rationalist clock time? (…) it demonstrates audio-wise what it wants to explore and wants to “tell” about the connections between song/singing, memory, fluid time, song and history.”
Review: Through the air with the greatest of ease 

“The piece complicates the reproducability of sound, and urges people to listen to the sounding of the world: it is neither transparent nor un-mediated. It is listening as performance. But this produces in the end a paradox: the way in which to grasp this argument in the audio paper is only through the act of listening.”
Review: Place Time (Sound)

“The paper has a clear Research Question relating to the use of the future archeology of Amager as a metaphor more generally for exploring social/political conflicts and how these may materialize in change of accents, new artifacts, modification of consumer goods etc.. In using a consistent methodology to explore this, the paper furthermore raises the normative question of how designers reflect on their own (political) role in the design of artifacts and sound. In doing this the author provide an original and imaginative experiment with how we may use sound as a way of exploring political--material struggles (i. e. production/modification of artifacts)”
 Review: The New "Amagerkaner" 

“This academic audio paper explores the sensory aspects of listening while in motion. The papers focuses on the situated and corporeal listening experiences in selected and personal moments. The authors manage to create an inspiring flow between the enveloping sound recordings and the two speaking voices(…). The difference between a more logocentric speaking and a monotonous litany of numbers, gradually changing and providing movement contributes to the intriguing character of this piece”
Review: Hearing on the Verge

”As a piece of audio, the paper has its strength in its experimental format, in its surprising dramaturgy and abrupt ending and in its use of mixed sound sources”
Review: A Sound Factory at Amager

“The authors show an excellent expertise of the techniques and tools needed to create a convincing audio dramaturgy and the aesthetic choices work well to highlight the theme. The topic is clearly defined, both in the written text and the production itself, and the production wraps up elegantly using the staging of audio (rather than words) to highlight the point. In that sense the audio production shows the potentials of the audio paper format.”
Review: "Like Sitting inside a Phone"

"The audio paper “…explores the artistic and scholarly potential of contrasting two different soundscapes (…) in a single sonic composition. The experiment is interesting and, as demonstrated in the audio paper, it shows good potential from artistic as well as academic perspectives." 
Review: Mountain Meets Urban Waterfront

“The overall argument is presented in an engaging and experimental aural form that simultaneously demonstrates a strong conceptual clarity and a good sense of performative enactment and dramaturgical progression. In addition, the production is flawless and inspired throughout, allowing for a stimulating listening experience in its own right.”
Review: Listening is never alone


Music, sound art and context in a post-Cagean era

18. Februar 2015


Over the past 70 years, the idea of a stable relationship between the musical work of art and its context has been a key problem. The question of autonomy has always been at the core of the discursive practices of music (Loesch 2004), but since the 1950s, the matter of text versus context has been explicitly debated and negotiated in both art and the theories of art, and the opposing positions are still more radicalized.

On the one hand, we see a cementation of the ideas of autonomy in this period. This can be seen, for instance, in the theoretical positions within high modernism which praise the idea of music as an ‘absolute monade’ (Adorno 1974: 26). It can also be observed in the institutionalization of music analysis as an autonomous category that requires a strict distinction between 'the music itself' and 'external factors' (Bent and Pople, "Analysis") and in the development of different, formalistic analytical approaches such as the 'Schenker analysis', 'set-theory analysis' etc. (Samson 2001).

On the other hand, in the same period we see an overwhelming amount of avant-gardistic experimental music and sound art that constantly challenges the idea of a stable threshold between the artwork and its context. In electroacoustic music and sound art, sonic contexts are collected via field recordings and integrated in the sonic texts, either with a focus of the objet sonore (Schaeffer, 2004) in itself or in an investigation of the sociality of those sounds (Kim-Cohen 2009)1. And, many artworks are disseminated into a situative context as seen in happenings, events and social experiments within sound art (Nyman 1974; Foster 1996).

Since the 1990s, this tension between music and context has resulted in numerous academic considerations regarding the status of the musical work of art (e.g. Goehr 2002; Middleton 2003; Talbot 2010). The rise and institutionalization of popular music studies, sound studies, performance studies etc. have also challenged the idea of autonomy from within the academic disciplines; both the autonomy of the work of art, the autonomy of the field of music and accordingly, the autonomy of musicology as a discipline (Middleton 2003).

If we look at the current field of contemporary music, the relationship between music and context seems to have developed into a fruitful area for creative practices. For instance, in 2013 the theme of the Danish SPOR festival for contemporary music and sound was: “.... the relationship between sound and context – between sound, and those things that surround the sound itself, such as silence” (SPOR webpage: theme_2013). In accordance with this theme, the festival presented a variety of, more or less, open works that involved their immediate contexts in different ways. 

This article asks: What are the consequences of this naturalization of the open work? How can we understand the current situation in relation to the tradition for open artworks, happenings, events etc. in the avant-garde? The article claims, that with SPOR, we see a transition to a post-Cagean aesthetic where the open work is no longer primarily a negation of the conventional work category, but instead a positive horizontal expansion into the social situation. The notion of 'post-Cagean aesthetics' has been introduced prior to this article (Kotz 2001). However, in this article I wish to try and narrow down a more specific definition of what such an aesthetic entails. The following analysis investigates the specific dispositions at SPOR that have lead to this post-Cagean aesthetic, which reformulates the correlation between text and context. In other words: How can a festival for contemporary music and sound art not only reflect, but also actively change the field it represents? Finally, the article attempts to conclude how this post-Cagean aesthetic changes the ontology of music: what is a musical work when it is inseparable from its context? Is there any difference between music and sound art, when music is something that constantly opens up to the world of sounds around music? And if not, how should musicology respond to this development?

I. SPOR festival

SPOR is an annual festival that takes place in May in Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark. Aarhus has hosted an annual spring festival for contemporary music since 1978. The NUMUS festival (1978-2002) preceded SPOR and was organized by the Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen. SPOR emerged in 2005, with some of Rasmussen's students as the primary initiators: The Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen was the administrator, while the first curator was the Danish composer Niels Rønsholt. The profile of the NUMUS festival was to present music from both internationally renowned composers and younger, local or national not yet established composers. SPOR continued this profile. It presents both the international scene for contemporary music and the cultural growth layer (SPOR webpage: 'ABOUT SPOR'). It has even enhanced contact with the non-established layer by introducing an ‘open call for works’. But despite the affinities to the NUMUS festival, many things changed when SPOR became SPOR. 

In general, there is a significant change in the indefinable parameter one might call the atmosphere: At the NUMUS festival, the audience was a small, secluded segment including musicology students, student composers from the academies, composers and regular concertgoers connected to the local concert hall Musikhuset2. The NUMUS festival took place at Musikhuset and presented a programme with musical works.  The SPOR audience represents a broader segment. There are still a lot of students coming from musicology and the music academy, but there are also students from a wide range of departments such as art history, aesthetics and cultural studies, plus a more diverse group of sound artists. Another significant change is that the festival has moved away from the local concert hall Musikhuset and now takes place in the urban environment of Aarhus. The streets are used for sound walks and performances; alternative urban spaces such as galleries or venues for performance theatre are used for concerts. Finally, SPOR is not just a festival for contemporary music but also a festival for sound art. 

SPOR’s overall aesthetical profile is in line with the avant-gardistic tradition of John Cage. In 2013, the thematic headline was simply 'TACET!' – the Latin word for silence – and with this slogan the curator, Juliana Hodkinson made a subtle reference to Cage's seminal silent piece 4'33'', because 4'33'', in the most well-known score version from 1960 (Edition Peters), is simply notated with 'TACET' as the only instruction. Cage’s idea with 4'33'' was that the silence from the instrumentalist(s) would allow the audience to listen to all the accidental noises and sounds that are present around them (Kostelanez 2003:70). It is the 'art without work' (Duckworth 1999:13) as Cage himself describes it. From this perspective 4'33',' is an investigation of the border between the musical piece and its context, between sound and silence. The reference to 4'33'' was in other words in line with the overall festival theme that year, which was the investigation of the relationship between sound and context.

As the apex of his otherwise diverse oeuvre, 4'33'' encompasses Cage's general ideas on music and art, which he presented vigorously in his many writings, lectures and interviews. Cage celebrates the open, undetermined artwork that orientates itself towards its surroundings. Art that is “an occasion for experience” (Cage 2004:31) rather than an autonomous object. This seems exactly to match the overall aesthetics of SPOR: a Cagean aesthetic that celebrates the open artwork as an occasion for all kinds of experiences.

SPOR presents a wide range of open works: Both performances in the tradition of avant-gardistic happenings and events, sound art installations, sound walks and pieces using conventional musical instrumentation.

As examples of avant-gardistic happenings, one could mention that in 2013, a number of pieces by the Swedish Fluxus artist Sven-Åke Johansson were presented in a concert where Johansson also performed on stage. In 2010, Cage's 4'33' was performed in an unannounced version for accordion, which was however quickly recognized by the audience who afterwards politely nodded to the piece by applauding3. As an example of instrumental music, one could mention the British composer Benedict Mason's Second Music for a European Concert Hall (1993- ), which was performed at the opening concert in 2007, in an old military building in the centre of Aarhus. This composition for symphony orchestra (which is actually a series of works made for different concert halls) presents pre-composed music. However, this piece is still an open work. It explores the specific site of the concert, as the instrumentalists play while walking around the concert hall hereby articulating the specific space. Another example of a piece that explores the specific site of the performance is the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen's Run-Time-Error (2009), which was performed at SPOR in 2011. However, this piece does not feature traditional instruments. The instructions for this piece are that the performer (who is the composer himself) is to strike objects collected from the specific concert venue, and that he is only allowed to strike each object once. In order to fulfil this requirement, the collected objects are placed in a long row that leads the performer from space to space, down stairs, up stairs, through doors etc. etc. in a route that depends on the specific location. A small video-recorder attached to the performer's clothes documents the percussive performance. At the actual concert, the composer replays the recorded video in two tracks while remixing them with a specially designed joystick that determines both the speed and the direction of the video tracks. This results in an audiovisual, percussive fugue where the same audiovisual material is played and remixed.

Simon Steen-Andersen performs Run-Time-Error at SPOR 2011 (Photo: Anette Vandsø)

As an example of a piece that comes closer to what we normally perceive as sound art, we can mention the Swedish sound artist Åsa Stjerna's installation Subaqua (2011), which presents sounds from a number of streams in Aarhus. This installation was placed in front of the local art museum AROS. The audience had to walk from pipe to pipe in order to experience the sounds. The movement of the audience and the social situation of the act of listening was therefore not the context but a part of the piece, as a comment on the city where it was presented and in that sense the context and the text were woven tightly together.

II. The open artwork and the neo-avant-garde

When I claim that the open artwork is a fruitful and playful investigation of the context, it is an interpretation that differs from the standard descriptions of the potential effects of such open pieces. If we try to subsume the many different theoretical understandings of the avant-garde we will find that there are three typical, but fundamentally different approaches to the open artwork: one claims that its main effect is the negation of the institution of art – as anti-art, another that it is a rejection of art as a metaphysical category or anti-modernism, while the third argues that the open artwork is not mainly a negation, but instead a horizontal expansion into the social situation.  

The open artwork as anti-art
The German avant-garde theorist Peter Bürger (1980) argues that the historical avant-gardes from the beginning of the 20th century (dadaism, surrealism, futurism, constructivism, etc.) no longer attempted to develop the trajected methods for representation. Instead they tried to break away from the institution of art all together via an institutional 'self-critique' directed at the institution of art (Bürger 1980:70-74). Bürger mentions Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, where pre-fabricated objects are exhibited as art, as an example of such self-critique. When the artist's signature is added to objects that are not made by the artist, the individual production as a category – and thereby also the entire work category – is questioned (Bürger, 1980: 78). 

A similar analysis could be, and indeed has been, made of 4'33'. In 4'33'' the singular sounds are also not individually produced. Instead, the composer's signature is added to a timeframe with random sounds, and the autonomous artwork is replaced by the provocative act itself. 4'33'' has often been described as 'anti-music', which primarily negates the bourgeois institution of art (e.g. Watkins 1995) and as an artwork that questions the privileged position of the artist in an attempt to escape work categories and in stead reunite art and life (e.g. Goehr 2002).

Bürger's analysis has a negative conclusion: the historical avant-gardes do not succeed in their negation of the institution of art. Instead the institution of art includes them and turns them into art. In time, the shock effect is no longer shocking, but instead is turned into yet another artistic effect. In this process, art is denied any real effect on the lived lives of the audience (Bürger 1980:78). 

Cage’s aesthetical project is developed and formulated in and by the larger 'neo-avant-gardistic' movement during the post-war period. In the neo-avant-garde, the ideas and aesthetic strategies from the historical avant-garde were rearticulated and reused (Bürger 1980:80). Cage’s own art is often described as neo-dadaism (e.g. Watson 1995: 564). Cage himself embraced the term 'neo-dada' in an acknowledgement of his heritage from dadaism although he also stressed that there is a difference between historical dadaism and his projects (Cage 2004: xi). 

In Bürger's point of view, the neo-avant-gardes are just an empty repetition of the original avant-gardistic movements as a further cementation of their status as art (Bürger 1980: 80). It is common to evaluate Cage’s aesthetical projects in a similar way and to conclude that his art is a failed attempt to break away from or negate the institution of art. Lydia Goehr (2002) claims, for instance, that with 4'33'' Cage attempted to challenge the authority of the composer but failed: “Cage had obviously not succeeded with 4'33'', and other such 'works', in undermining the force of the work-concept within the musical institution” (Goehr 2002: 264). 

There is one problem with this kind of analysis: By focusing solely on the critique of the institution of art it overlooks the other potential effects of 4'33'' (and other such open artworks). It also overlooks that some of these critical potentials are in fact constituted not in spite of institutional framing, but because of it. 

Theatrical art
A different understanding of the neo-avant-gardistic open pieces is seen in the art historian Michael Fried's (2003) description of anti-modernistic art from 1967. 

According to Fried, all the parts of a modernistic work of art refer to the same unity. It is therefore present at every moment in its totality and appears to the spectator as an entity that is independent of actual time and space. Rather than being placed in the mundane space-time, the backdrop of modernistic art is, according to Fried, the ideal category of Art (Fried 2003). Contrary to this, anti-modernistic artworks insistently point out the social dimension and the mundane time span of their own reception. Fried refers to John Cage, among others, as an example of 'anti-modernistic art'. According to Fried, such artworks do not appear to be a manifestation of 'Art' (With a capital A) or 'Music' as a metaphysical transcendental category. Instead, they come across as mundane things or objects in a situation. They are therefore not primarily a negation of the institution of art, but a negation of art as a transcendental category4. They only explore the theatrical meeting between artwork and recipient and not the ideal category of modern Art (With a capital A). 

This critical interpretation of 4'33'' is also common. For instance, the British philosopher Stephen Davies begins his book on the philosophy of music with the question “John Cage’s 4’33’’ Is It Music?” (Davies, 2003, 11-29). He argues that since 4'33'' does not limit itself from the situation in which it appears, it cannot be music (Davies, 2003, pp. 11-29). Instead of investigating how 4'33'' and other similar artworks change the field of music, Davies simply constructs a category of music that does not include such 'difficult' pieces. As a consequence, such a position cannot grasp the changes in the current field of new music and sound art, because it simply leaves out that which challenges the conventional definitions and categories. 

Inclusion of the situation of the artwork
Fried's understanding of Cage's art is in fact not so far from the ideas we see in Cage's own writings. Here, neo-avantgardistic art is understood as an attempt to include the social situation in which the piece is perceived. This is however, a good thing in Cage's point of view. In 1957, he gave this description of the 'openness' of the contemporary art of his time:

For in this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment. This openness exists in the fields of modern sculpture and architecture. The glass houses of Mies van der Rohe reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation. And while looking at the constructions in wire of the sculptor Richard Lippold, it is inevitable that one will see other things, and people too, if they happen to be there at the same time, through the network of wires. (Cage 2004: 7-9).

The 'theatrical' inclusion of the horizontal, social dimension is in Cage's point of view not just a gesture that negates the institution of art, nor a negation of art as an ideal metaphysical category. Instead, it is a gesture that in a generous way opens towards a broader field of sounds and multimodal events. 

Even though the negation is not the primary effect of the open work, according to Cage, the effect is still that this development within the arts undermines the idea of art as a metaphysical category. For instance, Cage directly suggests that we should stop using the word 'music' altogether and instead talk about 'organized sound' (Cage 2004: 3). He also writes:

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot (Cage 2004: 30)

This statement can be taken literally and read as a statement emphasizing the noisiness of the world. But, it can also be interpreted as a statement saying that the perceptual background of music is not the neutral, empty or silent space of Art (with a capital A), but the noisy, actual social situation – and read as such, the paragraph is a radical break with the metaphysics of the high modernism, which was quite outspoken among Cage's composer colleagues in the 1950s. Such an interpretation is in line with Cage's statement that art is simply an 'occasion for experience' (Cage 2004: 31), which is also a radically different understanding than the idea that music is a metaphysical category.

To sum up, Cage's aesthetic favour an open work-concept: the artwork's ontological basis is the situation and not the pure category of 'Art'. And because the artwork is always situated it is an event or process rather than an autonomous object. 

4'33'' – three potentials
These three understandings of the neo-avant-gardes can be understood as different potentials of the specific artworks. If we look at the reception of 4'33'' it obviously has all three potential effects: it can be – and has been – experienced as institutional critique, it can be anti-modernism that negates the metaphysical category of music, and it can be experienced as sound art that includes the entire situation in which the piece is perceived. How we experience 4'33'' depends on our perspective. One understanding is not more 'correct' than the other and all understandings are seen in the current field of music.

III. The aesthetics of SPOR festival 

At SPOR, the open artwork is the norm and yet this festival does not come across as a provocative negation of the institution of music. Instead it appears as a permanent expansion of the social, horizontal dimension in accordance with Cage's own aesthetics – as it is expressed in his own writings. The overall aesthetical profile of SPOR can therefore be described as a post-Cagean aesthetic in the sense that Cage’s aesthetic is the naturalized, hegemonic background for thinking about, listening to, curating, writing about, doing music and/as sound art. 

In his book Musicking (1998), Christopher Small argues that music is not something 'out there' as a mass of objects. Instead, it is something that we do. We perform, talk about and listen to music and in this performance we constitute what music is. According to Small, it would be more correct not to use the word 'music' but instead talk about 'musicking', in order to stress the performative quality of this category. Small analyses how we 'do' music in the traditional concert setting, but using his line of thought we could ask how SPOR embraces Cage's aesthetics. How is this perspective on music performed or constituted? How does SPOR act as an agent that 'does' music or performs this 'musicking'?

If we are to understand how SPOR establishes its post-Cagean position we have to discuss at least four different aspects: the paratexts created by the festival, the choice of locations, the organizational strategies of the festival and the selection of artworks presented. 

The paratexts
At SPOR festival, there are many framing statements or paratexts (Genette 1997), such as the curatorial statements, programme notes, presentations at the concerts etc.

The webpage serves as a platform for specific information about, for instance, time-schedules for the planned concerts, prices etc., but it also gives the audience a guideline as to how these artworks can be understood or experienced. 

In comparison, one can think of the Fluxus concerts that toured Europe in the 1960s and visited Denmark in 1962. Before or while attending these concerts people were not given any guidelines as to how they could understand the happenings presented. For instance, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins played La Monte Young's Composition nr. 7 for over an hour to an audience who had no idea how long the piece would last or how they were supposed to react (Pedersen 1968). Composition nr. 7 is a minimal composition where a specific interval (a quint) is to be held for a not specified 'long time'. At this specific concert in Nicolaj Church in Copenhagen, it was played on an organ. Later on, Dick Higgins directly stated that he attempted to drive the audience out of the concert hall. The general public was of course shocked, provoked and offended by these happenings (Pedersen 1968).

At SPOR, there are many experimental works of art that are very close in nature to the Fluxus happenings. As already mentioned, in 2013 there was a performance by Sven-Åke Johansson, who was involved in the Fluxus movement. As part of his performance, Johansson cut a cucumber on the sharp side of a cymbal, which was a performative action that could easily be interpreted as absurd 'anti-music'. However, the presentation on the SPOR webpage offered a very different interpretation. 

On the webpage, there was an introduction to Johansson with a small bio that stressed his importance in many different musical environments. The concert was therefore not just a performance of Johansson's music but also an experience of him as an important historical agent or character and a tribute to him and his achievements. The webpage also gave the reader an explanation of Johansson's work: 

By deconstructing the traditional systems in music - in his work, new aspects of the production of sound are presented, often leaving a very sensual and visually narrative impression for the observer. (SPOR; webpage, artists Sven-Åke Johansson, no date)

This description does not stress the anti-art-potential, but instead enhances the sensual and visual dimensions. According to Genette, such a paratext is not a context on the 'outside' of the work. The paratext is rather a threshold […] an ’undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside (Genette 1997:1) because we cannot avoid the paratexts when meeting a text and once read, the paratexts condition our interpretation of the text. According to Genette, paratexts are empirically made up of 'a heterogeneous set of practices' (Genette 1997:2) and at SPOR, the webpage is just one practice, other dominating paratexts are the programme notes and the oral presentations in the welcome speeches, for example. 

Returning to this specific concert, I had read the description in the programme and on the webpage, and I for one did experience the concert as a sensuous display of sounds with visual and narrative impressions. There were also humouristic elements in this concert, where the audience giggled. There were elements of making fun of the conventional roles of the composer, performer and audience, but still the overall gesture was not a negation of the conventional institution of art. 

When comparing SPOR to Fluxus, it is obvious that SPOR does not attempt to be a provocative, anti-music festival. It includes the audience instead of exposing them. 

Choice of venues
The idea that music is an autonomous work of art that can be appreciated, evaluated or understood 'in itself' is not just something that is constituted through our language(s) about music. It is also an ideology that has structured both the ritualistic presentation of music in the concert halls and the architecture of concert halls (Small 1998, Thompson 2004). The rituals of the concert hall dictate a certain type of behaviour from the audience. There is for instance a strict distinction between the way the audience is allowed to act in the foyer and in the concert hall itself. When the music plays the audience focuses on the sounds from the stage while they ignore the sounds around them. 

The acoustic design of the concert halls is also ideological. They are built so that they leave out the noises from the surrounding world and instead emphasize the sounds from the stage over the sounds from the audiences. This gives the impression that the musical work of art we encounter in the concert hall is in a different category than everyday soundings (Thompson 2004). Through the architectural and interior design and the ritualistic behaviour, the ideology of music as an autonomous object is constituted. 

When SPOR began to include the urban space of Aarhus by involving a number of different concert venues, exhibition spaces or urban sceneries, it not only changed location, but also moved away from specific social, acoustic and ideological places that favour the autonomous work-concept. The audiences were no longer placed within the institution of Art Music. Due to this development, the negating aspect of the open works was down-toned: When we are on a sound walk in urban space, ­ no one will think of this as 'anti-music' or a negation, simply because it is not framed as 'Music' (with a capital M). In other words: by moving out of Musikhuset and instead choosing the smaller stage and a place for an experimental dance company, Granhøj as a main venue, SPOR opened the doors to investigations of other kinds of contexts than just the immediate acoustic, ideological and social context of the musical work in the concert hall. 

With the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s statement (1991:59) "that new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa" one could say that also new relations between listener and artwork demand a new space or the new spaces ‘afford’ (Norman 2013) new relations. In the case of SPOR festival, the change of location made it possible for the open artworks to be something else than (just) a negation.

The way we behave during the act of listening is not just constituted by the concert hall but also the concert setting: the placement of chairs facing a scene for instance. This became obvious at a presentation of the Danish electronic composer and sound artist Ole Jørgensen's loudspeaker installation TON8 (2011). The installation was presented in the concert venue with chairs facing a scene. In order to experience Jørgensen's piece the audience was supposed to walk around the large loudspeakers and experience the differences in sounds depending on the unique listening position, but instead the majority of the audience sat down on the chairs that were facing the stage. By and by, the audience realized the mistake and some went down to listen to the sounds as intended by the composer, while others remained seated5. This situation demonstrates that the institutional framing or contexts that dictate our behaviour and approach to the singular artwork are not dissolved in a festival such as SPOR. However, they are also not invisible as a naturalized way of engaging with art. They are visible, debatable, exchangeable and 'real' – although they are also contingent and discursively constituted. They are conditioning the listening act and are a dimension of the listening act.  

Organizational strategies
Even though it is reasonable to claim that SPOR has an ideological position based on the trajectory from Cage – a post-Cagean position – it is also a heterogeneous festival that gives the impression that the artworks are not selected, evaluated and presented from one coherent ideological or aesthetical position.

First of all, SPOR consists of a variety of very different events: There are concerts, sound installations, sound performances (for instance sound walks) and different combinations of the three. There are also talks, seminars, workshops etc. In 2014, there was a 'hackathon' where people could develop their own 'hacks'. In other words, the audience is involved in very different activities. These activities give an impression that contemporary music and sound art are a proliferating activities that has no specific limits, rather than a homogenous field or system with set borders and distinctions.

Furthermore, SPOR is a curated festival. It is run by two directors, Anna Berit Asp Christensen (b.1971) and Anne Marqvardsen (b.1977). Every year, a new curator, selected by the board on the basis of a curatorial proposal sets out the programme in collaboration with the two directors. Consequently, the programme is specifically conceptualized and presented not as 'THE current scene of contemporary music and sound art' but as the scene perceived from one specific perspective, namely that of the curator. The chosen artworks are presented as part of a curated programme and not as a direct representation of a homogenous art scene. The curators have mostly been younger composers such as Niels Rønsholdt (b. 1978), Juliana Hodkinson (b.1971), Joanne Baillie (b. 1973), Jennifer Walshe (b. 1974) and Lars Petter Hagen (b. 1975) who were all under or close to 40 when they took on the role as curator. The only exception was Bent Sørensen’s participation in 2009, as he is one of the established Danish composers. However, curators have also been other agents in the field of contemporary music and sound art. In 2011, the curators were three institutions from Berlin: Kammerensemble Neue Musik, Singuhr Hörgallery and the concert venue Ausland

Due to this heterogeneous character, the linking of sound art and contemporary music does not appear as a composition between two different elements belonging to distinct institutions, scenes or systems of fields. Instead, the festival appears to be a festival for a heterogeneous or expanded field of sounding arts, where no one tries to define whether a chamber orchestra composition is sound art or music, or a sound walk is music or sound art. 

Choice and presentation of artworks 
The festival is curated in a way that links these different expressions together in a very direct manner. For instance, in 2011 a composed sound walk led the audience to a performance of the British composer Joanne Baillie's Analogue (2011) for amplified string trio and tape. This concert took place inside a completely darkened room with a small hole in it where light from the next room could enter, and therefore it functioned as a large camera obscura. The musicians were placed in the opposite room and as they started playing, their image slowly appeared on the dark wall inside the camera obscura. This example shows us how the festival juxtaposes very different sonic acts. One example is closer to what we normally conceive as sound art, namely the sound walk, while the other is closer to what we call music, since it uses conventional musical instruments and live performance of a material notated in a score (albeit in an unconventional installation). However, the sound walk audiences were blindfolded and thus the aesthetical listening act was enhanced, while Baillie's composition was a very visually and conceptually orientated total installation. A pre-recorded voice discussed the possibilities of taking sonic pictures in the same way that we take a photo while the audience was sitting inside this large camera obscura. Even though it was a performance piece, performed on conventional instruments, the dark room and the slow appearance of an inverted image of the musicians on the rear wall gave it an atmosphere closely resembling some of the American artist Bill Viola's audiovisual installations. 

In effect, Baillie's composed piece of contemporary music resembled an audiovisual installation in its expression, while the sound art walk emphasized the act of listening and potentially allowed the audience to experience the musical qualities of everyday sounds. With the juxtaposition of these two artworks the line between sound art and contemporary music was impossible to draw. 

Instead of juxtaposing fundamentally different sonic expressions, the curators and directors could also have chosen to group the artworks and present all the more conventional pieces of contemporary music on one day and present the typical sound art installations on another day or at another site. But instead, the festival chooses to mix and blend these categories. Consequently, the festival does not create an impression of stable genres and categories, but instead celebrates sonic art as a heterogeneous field. The festival does not create one new style for examining context but presents a very differentiated line up of ways of examining different contexts.  

Although I claimed that institutional critique is down-toned due to the choice of venues, institutional critique is still part of the festival, as some pieces examine and expose their own institutional context. In 2010 for example, the Norwegian composer Trond Reinholdtsen performed his 13 Music Theatre Pieces. In one part of this assembly of works, the composer himself gives an expressive talk using a power point show about the piece he is about to compose. The whole piece evolves around this music that struggles to become music, and focuses in particular on the role of the composer.

In Jeppe Just Christensen's Der Jäger presented in 2011, the composer is also on stage. Christensen plays on a homebuilt percussive rag where metal objects hang from strings while a computer plays music that goes up and down in intonation and tempo. Throughout the piece, the composer struggles to bring the two very different parts of the piece together. As he pulls the strings of the percussive rag it is clear that he cannot control this device, and at one point, some of the metal objects simply fall off the rag. 

In these two compositions, we are not listening to music in its finished form, but to music in its ‘becoming’. In Reinholdtsen's work, the role of the composer as creator invades the piece that never gains a form, but is constantly presented as an idea. Christensen's piece emphasizes and problematizes the act by which the composer appropriates a specific materiality in order to create music. Here, it is as though the material resists such an appropriation. It does not want to or cannot be controlled. Both pieces question the category of individual production and the idea of the musical work of art as an autonomous entity, and in that sense they both present a 'self-critique' (Bürger, 1980) directed at the institution of music, to which they themselves belong.

Other pieces examine quite different contexts in completely different ways. Simon Steen-Andersen's Chambered Music (2007) for chamber orchestra investigates the borders between 'insides' and 'outsides' as spatial, sonic and conceptual phenomenon. The transparency of the composition makes it impossible for the listener to hear the sounds as one self-reliant, autonomous form. Instead the see-through instrumental texture functions as an openness that leads us to experience the immediate social and sonic context around the music. The piece establishes several layers of such surrounding contexts, of 'insides' and 'outsides': A small box is at one point opened and then closed. We will never know what the world sounds like inside this box – it is a secret; a place the audience cannot enter. Outside the box, is the specific scene and audience seats, which is a room shared by both audience and musicians – another 'inside'.  The fragile musical texture does not fill the room with a musical object, but creates an intimate small sphere around the musicians. A trombone player begins to play in the room next to the stage, which indicates that there is an 'outside' to the room of the audience and the musicians. This enhances the feeling of being 'inside' a room, or perhaps even inside 'the black box'. At one point, a bus drives by on the street next to the concert hall, and it could be heard very clearly through the thin windows of the concert venue Granhøj Dans6. With the sound of the bus, a third space was added, namely the outside of the building. The bus sound revealed that the concert hall as a whole is also a box, with an inside, that is sonically very different from the outside. The latter effect was powerful because of the thin windows of the unconventional concert venue. At the local concert hall, Musikhuset, the scene is larger and removed from the audience and one cannot hear the sounds from the outside world. If Steen-Andersen's piece had been played at Musikhuset these delicate differentiated feelings of insides and outsides would not have been present in the same manner. This example demonstrates that when it comes to these open pieces the actual sonic, social and institutional contexts are of importance to the specific potential experiences and meanings of the artwork. 

A third example of how different contexts are explored is the German artist David Helbich's sound walk, Aarhus SoundWalk, 2010. Århus SoundWalk took place in the urban environment of one of the deprived city areas in Aarhus, Gellerup-parken. With very specific instructions, Helbich led the audience on a listening walk that allowed the audience to experience a part of Aarhus that is otherwise often stigmatized as a problematic 'Ghetto' area. Aarhus SoundWalk did not investigate the immediate context of music but instead our actual, social environment. The sounds were not composed, but the act of listening was. The sounds were framed, presented or brought to our attention via the collaborative performance between composer and audience. 

As a final example, I would like to mention Kirsten Reese's installation No Voice Audible but that of the sea on the far Side (2013). Here, we are presented with the voices of fish. This installation was placed inside a cofferdam in Aarhus harbour. The cofferdam is a prototype construction built to reduce the noise level during offshore wind turbine pile-driving. This installation allowed the listener to listen to a non-human context we cannot understand and that we can never enter. The framing paratexts, such as the curatorial notes and title are of key importance to this investigation of a non-human context. The paratexts connected to this piece are very specific as to what it is we are listening to while the sounds themselves are very open. This encounter between a determining title and an open or under-determined sound is a characteristic of Reese's installation, but also to many other sound art pieces that use field recordings (Vandsø 2011).

These very different examples are all examples of sonic art that investigate their context. However, it is impossible to subsume them all under one new genre or style. They are simply 'occasions for listening' (Cage 2004) – they instigate acts of listening. In these acts they investigate their contexts, but they are also conditioned by these contexts: by the institutional, sonic, non-human, para and intertextual contexts.

IV. Conclusions: Epistemology: work-concept and the music/sound art distinction

The post-Cagean era

Even though we can trace an aesthetical position that favours an open work-concept back in time, for instance, back to Cage’s (2004) numerous statements and lectures from the 1950s or perhaps even further back to the Italian Futurist Luigi's manifest Art of Noise from 1913 (Russolo 2005), it is only in more recent years that this position has become a hegemonic, naturalized way of talking about, experiencing or presenting sounding arts and sound art in particular. This can be seen in the many festivals, exhibitions and publications that discuss sound art as an art form in constant dialogue with its context (e.g. LaBelle 2007; Voegelin 2010).  

The art historian Hal Foster claims that it was the neo-avantgardes' rearticulation of the historical avant-gardes that made them what they are today: 

Did Duchamp appear as ‘Duchamp’? Of course not [...] The status of Duchamp as well as Les Demoiselles is a retroactive effect of countless artistic responses and critical readings, and so it goes across the dialogical space-time of avant-garde practice and institutional reception (Foster 1996:8).

The same might be said about John Cage and the neo-avantgardes. His aesthetics were also not fully realized in its own time. It was not until the 1990s, that a general reorientation towards the 'relational' (Borriaud 2002), the 'open work' (Eco 1984), 'performative aesthetic' (Fischer-Lichte 2004) and towards 'sound art' (Motte-Haber 1999; Licht 2007) made it possible for a wider acceptance and understanding of Cage's ideas as something more and other than a counter-position that only served to consolidate the naturalized ideas of what music was.  

Music/sound art in the expanded field
Even though we can see evidence of a post-Cagean position in the field of sonic arts, the Cagean aesthetic are not the naturalized norm in all institutional contexts. Although the more culturally orientated parts of musicology no longer subscribe to a conceptualization of music as an autonomous object (Middleton 2003), a large part of musicology still adheres to a rather strict division between text and context. This applies particularly to the academic sub-discipline that describes and analyses music. In the renowned work of reference New Grove, the British Musicologists Ian Bent and Anthony Pople directly describe analysis as an activity that “takes as its starting-point the music itself, rather than external factors” (Bent and Pople, n.d.), which according to Bent and Pople includes the “interpretation of structures in music, together with their resolution into relatively simpler constituent elements [...]” (Bent and Pople, n.d.).

Such an autonomous work-concept falls short when applied to the contemporary music presented at SPOR festival. In this new post-Cagean era, we require other and more adequate modes of inquiry. Here, the naturalized hegemonic offset cannot be that music is an autonomous structural object. Instead music is process, it is relational. It is not media-specific – dedicated to exploring its own medium of art (for instance "Music"), – but 'post-medial', because it uses any available media (Krauss 1979). In Rosalind Krauss' (1979) analysis of the changing conditions of sculpture, she claims that: “sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things that it isn't. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities” (Krauss, 1979:38). Based on the analysis of SPOR, music also seems to be part of an expanded sonic field and not the privileged middle term. This is already suggested elsewhere, by for instance Seth Kim-Cohen (2009:155). The recent developments within the field of contemporary music therefore not only require that musicology rethinks its work-concept, but also that it rethinks the nature of its subject area. If we want to understand the conditions of contemporary music, we have to understand contemporary music as something that exists in an expanded sonic field, where there are no clear-cut borders between music and sound art.  

The sonic artwork as an act of listening
Based on the analysis presented above, we can suggest a few conclusions with regards to the ontology and epistemological consequences of a post-Cagean aesthetic.

First of all, the musical work seems to be an occasion for listening or an act in a situation rather than a structural object. However, these acts are not 'pure' listening acts dissociated from the discursive, ideological, social, para and intertextual contexts. Such contexts are not the neutral background for the act of perception, but instead conditioning – and consequently a part of – the unique and singular act of listening. 

A new performative work-concept, and a new approach to analysis should therefore not be focused solely on listening as a pure event or on sound as a non-linguistic, non-discourse medium. On the other hand, the act of perception is still essential and therefore not at all irrelevant to the understanding of these artworks. 

I therefore suggest an approach that is in between the two predominant positions in the current field of sound art studies: The one emphasizes the pure phenomenology of the act of listening (Voegelin 2010) and the non-discursiveness of sound as an artistic medium (LaBelle 2007), where as the other emphasizes the linguistic, symbolic and intertextual dimension of sound art while down-toning the act of perception (Kim-Cohen 2009). According to the material presented in this article, a combination of the two positions seems more adequate, which means that we should understand the act of perception as something that is always already conditioned by the discursive formations. In other words, the singular act of perception is a performance that is performative, following Judith Butler's (1993) distinction between the two concepts.  Performance is, according to Butler, a 'bounded act' while performativity consists of a "reiteration of norms which precede, constrain, and exceed the performer and in that sense cannot be taken as the fabrication of the performer’s 'will' of 'choice'.” (Butler 1993:234). One way to regard the above mentioned artworks and their interrogation of context is that they investigate these conditioning discursive contexts that in one sense reduces them to a reiteration of existing norms. However, at the same time, such artworks also investigate and unfold the singularity and uniqueness of their own becoming or appearing. An investigation of such artworks (as events) should therefore take into account the uniqueness of the aesthetical performative act while keeping in mind that this performativity rests on the reiteration of norms and not on the singularity of the events – which is a paraphrase of Jaques Derrida's (Derrida 1988) critique of J. L. Austin's description of the performative utterance. 

Conclusively, the relations between the sounding material inherent in the artwork are just one set of relations conditioning the act of listening. The act of listening is also conditioned by the social, discursive, material relations etc. it is a part of. 

Secondly, 'music' is not an absolute category out there. Instead, it is something we do (Small 1998). This act is not just carried out by the artwork or the listener, or the interaction between the two, but by a multitude of performative acts. The festival is also an agent that does not only present music, but conditions what music and sound art are. Furthermore, the question of categorization or institutional framing is not rendered obsolete with a festival such as SPOR. Even though there might not be stable borders between music and sound art, the categories are still functioning. They still have an effect, because when we assume that we are listening to music, we act differently than when we think that we are listening to sound art, which for instance was the problem in the exhibition of Ole Jørgensen’s loudspeaker installation. Due to this relational condition, we cannot conclude one new ontology of the work of art, or present the new and adequate definition of 'music' or of 'sound art'. Instead it seems as though there is a multitude of local ontologies in the field. Such conclusions call for what Georgina Born (2010) refers to as a relational musicology that is “alert to the diversities of the musical ontologies of the world” (Ibid: 38).  

  • 1. While Schaeffer’s (2005) idea of an acousmatic music can be said to separate the objet sonore from it’s source and therefore also the sonic text from its context, it also constitutes a new aesthetic sensibility that allows us to listen to the world in new ways. This acousmatic sensibility transcends the singular musical piece and therefore the line between text and context is again challenged.
  • 2. Based on my own experiences as a regular participant at the NUMUS and SPOR festivals since 1995. In the article "Exit Numus" (Information 2007) the audience is described as 'senior citizens'.
  • 3. Based on my own observations.
  • 4. Such an understanding of Cage is also quite common, for instance, see the British philosopher Stephen Davies' (2003).
  • 5. Based on my own experiences.
  • 6. This is based on my experience of the concert in 2011.


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Borriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon. Les Presses du réel. 
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Davies, Stephen.2003. Themes in the Philosophy of Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Duckworth, William (1999). Talking Music, Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, New York: Da Capo Press
Derrida, Jaques. 1988. Limited Inc, Northwestern, Illinois: University Press.
Eco, Umberto. 1984 [1979]. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 
Fischer-Lichte. 2004. Ästhetik Des Performativen, Frankfurt Am Main: Edition Suhrkam
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Fried, Michael. 2003 [1967] "Art and Objecthood" in eds Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000, pp. 835-846.
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Kotz, Lis. 2001. “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score,” October No. 95, Spring 2001, pp. 54–89.
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contemporary music and sound art
post-Cagean Aesthetics
SPOR festival
text and context

Review I:
The content of the article on SPOR is as a whole on the one hand extremely interesting, and thus it definitely should be published. The discussion on the changed position and place of “cagean” aesthetics, and the slightly but crucially different perspective this also gives to the materials presented, makes the discussion highly thought-provoking, and is likely to spur continued discussion on the subject.

On the other hand the general structure of the text definitely can and should be improved. It starts and ends in the guise of a sort of promotion text for the festival, while the salient discussions on sound and aesthetics are sequestered in the middle.

The text starts out as being a rather conventional and moderately interesting overview of a number of performances and/or artworks at the SPOR festival in Aarhus since 2005, reiterating selected discussions on cagean aesthetics in a very competent but not very original manner. The text however changes tracks and suddenly becomes full of critical and original thought, finally taking issue with the quite fundamental themes and statements that has much too fleetingly been touched upon in the first half of page 2. The reader who has stayed on this far gets rewarded and possibly provoked and certainly will keep on reading.

The discussion from hereon makes excellent use of both Cage and SPOR as levers to wage a more generally salient and critical discussion on the position of the artwork, on the dimensions of performativity in staging the act of listening, on several earlier discussions on these matters, and on the historical changes in the conditions for different aesthetics positions – and it does so in a manner that at the same time also manages to vitalize the discussion on Cage and to highlight values of various positions taken at SPOR. This is the obvious core of the text; this is what makes the text important reading and it is the major part of the text also in length. Also the internal structure of this part of the text is mainly coherent and clear, and it leads up towards a concluding discussion on p. 16 – although this discussion unfortunately is not really conclusive but mainly presents a reiteration of the statements hinted at already on p. 2.

The highly interesting and well-structured discussion is however not really what the introductory pages (including the short abstract) give the impression of leading up to. I therefore recommend a slight reworking, primarily of the introduction (with a more throughout presentation of the actual aim of the article without giving away conclusions before they have been grounded in the discussion), with a slightly stronger emphasis on presenting the conclusions at the end of the article, and with an abstract that better mirrors the qualities of the text.

The discussion sometimes comes across as a little bit provincial (who is the author e.g. really addressing while claiming that it would be “a misunderstanding to say that SPOR [or NUMUS, for that matter] is the first festival for new music where Cage is taken seriously”?), and sometimes the strict limitations to the traditional “art” world appears a bit strange in an article that among other things obviously sets out to problematizes the concept of art (was there for example no popular music at all present in the social and sonic context of Gellerup?). This might be due to the texts external guise as a promotion text for SPOR.

In short: rework the introduction, straighten out the language a bit, and put more substance to the concluding discussion. The substance of the discussion is more than worth the trouble.


Review II:

This article argues convincingly that the Danish SPOR festival takes up the aesthetic project of John Cage and “naturalizes” the position from which new musical works become an occasions for experience of context. Taking Cages pivotal work 4’33 as a radical moment in the history of music, the article investigates 1) the historical and institutional framing of SPOR 2) a number of sound related works displayed at SPOR and 3) the reception of John Cage’s work within a discourse of the neo-avantgarde. There is an underlying argument that SPOR and other related artistic and curatorial initiatives form a model from which academia and the more general field of contemporary music can learn.


Though it is hard not to agree with the author that SPOR has proved to be an important institution in new music and sound art and that Cage is a defining force within this, I will take the chance here to raise a few points to be discussed in relation with the arguments made. First it seems there is a displacement in the beginning of the text from the theme of SPOR 2013 "the relationship between sound and context” and Cages investigation of ” the border between music and noise, between artwork and its context”. One might ask if investigations of sound/context does not allow for a wider field of investigations than the work-based aesthetic that is found in Cage? Secondly it seems that the second area of focus for the SPOR festival, namely sound art, remains somewhat enigmatic in the text. It would be interesting to see a discussion of how the two different disciplines (mew music and sound art) are kept in dialogue through the display of works and in the organizational and conceptual (paratextual) framework of SPOR. It could be argued that the break with the containers of music (spatial, institutional and conceptual) is already realized within fields like sound art, sound studies and soundscape studies – and that the theme for SPOR 2013 opens up towards that. On the other hand the institutional and conceptual liberation of sound may to some extend have been reterritorialized within the confines of visual art in sound art. Furthermore it could be asked whether the orientation towards a contextual aesthetics in the article – though functional as a critique of high modernism – downplays the potential political implications at play in works mentioned. These questions are not raised to undermine the validity of the arguments made, but only to add further perspectives to the interesting discussion.