Big Medium seems to be developing a habit for installing exhibitions that explore the idea of the body-as-experience. First notable in Barna Kantor’s show 40hz that ran several months ago, it was then a question of how one’s eyes locate the viewer’s place and understanding within his or her shifting environment. Now, with Greg Pond and Jesse Cahn Thompson’s collaboration Flat Earth Folded, it’s the ears that get the attention.
Still recovering from a bad cold on the night of the opening, my ears were already buzzing a little when I arrived, and I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to appreciate the show. Openings are dangerous for sonic arts. What I mean is, it doesn’t always work, because sometimes, in order to appreciate the work, you need to start from that place of inner ear silence where all you hear is a slight tinnitus you’re stuck with from listening to music too loudly through headphones for years. Head colds interfere with that; so do crowds. But nonetheless, I figured I’d chance it.
Using two speakers, four transducers, and a video projection, the exhibition submerges its viewer into a sonic environment that invokes various moments of bodily meditation. The two speakers are mounted along one wall, and face the opposite side of the gallery where the video projection and two adjacent transducers are located. These transducers are attached to two partially freestanding sheets of metal that are spot lit in blue from nearby projectors thus casting oblong shadows on the walls behind them. The other two transducers are fixed to the gallery windows neighboring the metal sheets and the speakers. As it is, the gallery space is serenated from three different sides by continual sound.
-one of the steel sheets
Apparently, each sonic component (the two speakers and four transducers) is receiving the same input. Yet, due to their different resonating mediums (metal, glass, or plastic) their outputs vary. This difference is subtle, and requires the viewer to almost press his or her ear against the amplifying surface even when the gallery is empty.
On the night of the opening, this need to get up close and personal was essential as the gallery was full Chatty Cathy’s. Standing against the one gallery wall absent of any amplifying medium, one of the gallery staff and I watched different people lean in and cup their ears to the metal sheets or windowpanes, lean away, lean back, and repeat the process several times as if they were trying to understand just what it was they were suppose to be listening to. No, there was no secret message, just a monotonous hum that filled in the gaps of the staccatoed conversations. I took my time, listening to each speaker/transducer in turn, returning to them occasionally when less people were around them. Different areas of the gallery offered different sounds, echoes, and reverberations, and these would rise or fall, depending on if the crowd was drowning them out or not.
Both the staff member and I were very partial to the metal sheets. We felt their resonation was significantly richer than the windows or the speakers. To me, they had the same sensation as an orchestra tuning before a symphony. For the staff member, she exclaimed they “pleasurably moved” her, and she was moved to return to one in particular throughout the evening, cuddling up next to it, and pressing her ear against its surface. However, I spoke with someone else who enjoyed the window transducers more. He appreciated how from either outside or inside of the gallery they could be heard, and how they had a “shiny” sound. He waved off the metal sheets, explaining that they were “to low for me.” These were active innovations of our separate bodies’ inner tunings.
I thought about these personal tastes later that evening as I drove home from a late night dinner with the gallery staff and exhibiting artists. We had wound up at a small Italian restaurant on the east side, and while they were headed for a long night of wine fueled discussion, I checked out early. I still had a lingering deadline over my head, and I figured a few hours of sleep would help with that fight.
What occurred to me on my drive home was how the show brought to life the late composer and sonic artist John Cage’s theory about the ashtray. As he explains in a quote from For the Birds: “[l]ook at this ashtray. It’s in a state of vibration. … But we can’t hear those vibrations. … I want to listen to this ashtray. But I won’t strike it as I would a percussion instrument. I’m going to listen to its inner life, thanks to suitable technology.”
From the side of the object, the inner life of the window or steel emerged due to the sonic pulse that vibrated through them. Each separate object’s unique “inner” voice heard as it spoke the tone that is wired to it: the “shiny” window, or the “orchestral” steel. From the viewer’s side, our personal tuning became in tune with the different sounds. When the staff member and I gravitated toward the steel resonations, others went for the windows, and I’m sure some even preferred the speakers or some ambiguous space in between. This variation in preference comes from a certain how of how we listen. While we all have ears, we do not have the same ears, neither are our two ears the same. This means we listen from an internal space of personal hearing, and therefore, we do not hear what someone else does. Or, as Cardiff explains in Conversations with Christov-Bakargiev, “[t]he way we use audio makes you much more aware of your own body, and makes you much more aware of your place within the world, of your body as a ‘real’ construction.”
My tinnitus is not yours.
Again, the idea of the body-as-experience serves as fertile ground for Big Medium to explore. And I’m sure this exhibition coming right in time for South by Southwest is no accident. But it’s more than just both being a celebration of the eardrum. Instead, it’s nice to know that during the city’s yearly invasion of out of town celebrities, rock stars, groupies, wannabes, and homicidal drunk drivers, there’s a place that puts self-meditation over the staccatoed rumblings of guitars, media hype and trending Twitter feeds. While I hope that Big Medium doesn’t begin to overly rely on exhibitions like this in the future, it’s well worth it right now to stop by the gallery, and lend an ear.
Posted 10th March 2015 by Arnold, H.C.