plate tectonics, plastic money, and soundculture 96


Silent Forest (1996)
Nigel Helyer

Eve of the Future
Kazue Mizushima

Chaotic Jump Rope (1996)
Paul DeMarinis

Sonoran Desert Ants
Richard Lerman

SoundCulture 96, the third in a series of trans-Pacific sonic art festivals, took place in the San Francisco Bay Area during the first part of April of this year. The festival included 17 exhibitions, 10 panels, and 55 performances and other events held at 33 sites throughout the region. Co-presented by 32 arts and culture organizations and including the work of 228 artists from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, SoundCulture 96 was easily the largest sound art event ever held in the United States. Focused on the creative use of sound outside of the field of music by practitioners based in the Pacific region, the festival included representations of a number of differing areas of sound practice: sound sculpture and installation, radio and telephonic works, performance, acoustic ecology, noise, cultural theory in relation to sound, appropriation, high- and low-tech activities, educational events for kids, homemade sound instruments, sound works for public space, sound for film, and so on. As the director of the festival and one of the participating artists I dispensed with objectivity about SoundCulture 96 long ago; this is an overview of the event from someone who knows far more about it than is good for anyone's health. Covered here are some of the broader themes that emerged from the festival illustrated by a few of the many events that occurred over the course of eleven days last April.

 

One aspect of the festival that received much comment was the wide diversity of kinds of work represented. What has been common knowledge to practitioners in the field was made clear to even casual observers here: sonic art work by its nature doesn't fit well into established categories of art or artistic practice, hence artists working with sound employ a wide variety of strategies in using it. While advances in sound work have often been facilitated by technological progress and the development of sound art can be read as a mini-history of electronic innovation, these advances have left a rich trail of methods and practices of harnessing sound, and many of these were in evidence in the festival. While Ron Kuivila worked with the latest in surveillance cameras, crackling wires, and custom digital signal processing and Negativland employed a cryptic array of subversive electronics in conjunction with a pair of techno DJs, Julaine Stephenson rewired a washing machine to play clean a 7" vinyl disk and Phil Dadson drew sound out of hand-operated stones, some of which dated back to the Paleolithic era. And where Ian Pollack and Janet Silk's Museum of the Future was driven by computer and heard over telephone lines, Kazue Mizushima's Eve of the Future employed silk thread and paper cups to deploy a vast array of string telephones across an outdoor lawn space in which she performed by stroking, scraping and occasionally breaking the threads. This wide array of kinds of work was matched by the variety of circumstances in which the work was found. It was possible to venture to find SoundCulture events in museums, universities, non-profit and commercial galleries, performance spaces, warehouses, on a beach, on radio waves, in a shopping mall, in a harbor, in a cinema, on a public transit bus, on the internet, and in nightclubs.

 

Given that the geographic scope of SoundCulture is centered on the Pacific's Ring of Fire, it was no surprise that fire showed up literally and metaphorically in a number of works. Scot Jenerik gave an energetic and reductive performance in which he pummeled a pair of flaming wood and metal structures wired for sound. Tony MacGregor and Virginia Madsen's Cantata of Fire broadcast on KPFA looked at the audio culture of the siege at Waco, Texas and the fire that concluded it. In Richard Lerman's Changing States, a tiny flame was used to heat metal strips attached to contact microphones. As the metal deformed in slow and unpredictable ways under the heat, its eerie transformations were heard greatly amplified. Evoking at once the micro-world of the grain of metal and the macro-reality of plate tectonics, the piece served as an allegory for the process of generating sound itself: sound like fire is simply an artifact of the transfer of one form of energy into another, expended in an instant and then gone. Later in the evening, Lerman showed a videotape of a swarm of desert ants crawling over a pair of microphones. The high gain on the recording devices again reversed the micro and macro, and as these tiny creatures produced enormous sounds their energetic activities seemed to be asking us to consider how much these microphones were in service of our intentions and how much we instead worked to fulfill theirs.

 

Several events highlighted the functions of sound as it plays out in a social landscape. Don Wherry's Harbor Symphony, played on the horns of a number of boats moored in the Port of Oakland, kicked off the festival with a noontime performance for an intrigued audience of tourists, office workers, and SoundCulture participants. Kazue Mizushima's outdoor performance brought automobile traffic on a nearby road to a crawl, and Kathy Kennedy's piece gently undid a shopping mall. Ann Wettrich's Aviary Commute took over an unsuspecting mass transit bus with a flock of performers equipped with tape players and recordings of bird calls. While most of the audience of regular commuters took it in stride, the imposition of these sounds into this mobile public space apparently upset the normal order of authority: the bus driver repeatedly threatened to eject all the participants unless they turned off their recordings. Fortunately for all concerned, everyone arrived at their destination before the situation reached the breaking point.

 

Later that day in an old and now-converted military building north of San Francisco which houses the Headlands Center for the Arts, a panel session on the subject of acoustic ecology touched on some of the issues raised in Wettrich's piece: control of social space, preservation of quiet, the harnessing of natural sounds for artistic and commercial purposes. Hildegard Westerkamp, one of the foremost figures in the field of soundscape studies, gave an eloquent talk on listening, sound, and silence in relation to personal, local, and global well-being that provided an encompassing view of the way soundscapes can be used to monitor engagement with and connection to our surroundings. Her talk provided a refreshing and well-considered perspective in an area that is often marked by simplistic cultural assumptions about our relation to nature; the spirited discussion that followed the panel presentation centered around these issues. Fortunately for all concerned, dinnertime arrived before the panelists and attendees became unduly spirited.

 

The acoustic ecology event was only one of many panels on aural culture presented over the course of the festival. Other presentations focused on the relationships between sound and literature, the use of sound in scientific practice, legal issues around sound and copyright, sound in architecture and public space, and sound as it is used to identify social and cultural location. Kent Howie's Non-Native Species, was a comparison of the altered soundscape of San Francisco's Mission district due to a population of feral parakeets and the cultural changes brought about there by the growing Hispanic community. Negativland's Don Joyce discussed some of the legal and ethical issues surrounding the practice of audio appropriation and some of the well-publicized problems his group has encountered with the commercial recording industry. Architects John Randolph and Bruce Tomb talked about the utilization of sound in their large-scale works, Douglas Kahn traced the use of sound in William Burroughs' writings, and Frances Dyson presented a detailed and thoughtful meditation on the psychological and cultural effects of sound recording. In the midst of much reconsidering, recasting, and recoding of auditory experience often in terms derived from visual culture, it was fascinating to find the reverse described in Michael Buckingham's research into visual imaging in underwater environments by using the behavior of sound as a model for data acquisition (Acoustic Daylight). While the occasionally opaque language used in some of the papers undoubtedly lost some listeners, the underlying ideas and issues being dealt with were rich with insight and invention. The fact that a detailed investigation of the sonic life of such a wide variety of cultural practices could be made speaks to the relevance of the sonic arts to current critical discourse and to the larger social fabric from which that discourse is derived.

 

On another part of the audio continuum, the presence of noise artists was very apparent in SoundCulture. Several local warehouse spaces served as performance venues for high-volume and high-energy performances from Hijo Kadian, C.C.C.C., Crawl Unit, and others. Trading mostly in aural texture and sheer sonic impact, these events were either exhilarating or alienating - but rarely anywhere in between. These were the only performances in SoundCulture that contained the kind of numb macho posturing so often found in more standard musical or visual art contexts; its presence in these events served as a clear contrast to the relief at its absence elsewhere in the festival. While the noise events seemed at first to have little in common with nature sound and soundscape activities, their side-by-side placement in SoundCulture revealed more shared ground than might otherwise be assumed. The search for natural quiet and the pursuit of immersion in overwhelming sound are each a response to living in a machine-deafened culture, enough time spent in either area results in a change of consciousness, and the desire to lose oneself in a sonic environment is exactly the same.

 

At several points during the festival, discussion among the participants turned to finding the components of the Pacific sensibility that informed the work presented in SoundCulture. Though no definite answers emerged, it seemed to have to do with existing on a number of physical and cultural margins, the presence of those margins being central to a particular geographic psychology (that the field of sound art also occupies a marginal space goes without saying). Whether found in the illusion of instant communication to the future or past across the international date line, the constant consciousness of the distance between here and somewhere not here, or the (fading) presence of a string of natural paradises along the Ring of Fire, the pleasures and tensions that are shared among Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Vancouver, San Francisco, and the islands in between have to do with the concurrent experiences of splendor and impending displacement. In California the presence (and promise) of Silicon Valley and Hollywood isn't enough to completely mask the strain of infrastructure decay, rapid cultural and economic change, and - of course - seismic peril. The constant seduction of the next big thing combined with a very short collective memory here ensures that there is no end to the (re)building of highways for data, automobiles, and everything else: new space for old accidents.

 

A possible glimpse into this state of mind was offered in Paul DeMarinis' work, Chaotic Jump Rope, shown at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery. In it, a latex tube is connected between the shafts of two small motors running off the same electric current. As the speed of the each motor varies slightly, the tube is sent into a shifting and alluringly unsteady oscillation as it tries to compensate for the difference in rpm's; the system only briefly succeeds in stabilizing before faltering again. The resulting fluctuations in motor speed are used to generate a series of tones that vary in tandem with changes in the rates of rotation. Pleasurable on both intellectual and sensory levels, hypnotizing and perpetually uncertain, the piece seems to contain much of the Pacific sensibility without settling in any one part of it: instability and intrinsic beauty, technological acuity and hazard, border space and physical force.

 

These themes were further articulated in Wang Po Shu's installation, Hidden Music of the Golden Gate Bridge, in which a small gong tuned to one of the overtones of the natural resonant period of the bridge is placed to the north and in sight of the bridge itself. Currently undergoing a substantial seismic retrofit, the bridge will, in a few years, have an entirely different natural resonant period and, presumably, remain in place when the earth shifts beneath it. As it stands now, an earthquake of sufficient strength and correct periodicity - the pitch of the gong transposed down a half-dozen octaves - will vibrate the bridge right into the bay. Quietly illustrating the relative scales of the structural, geologic, and social resonances of the Golden Gate, the piece evokes both an unsettling reminder of the natural forces under our feet and a sense of uncertain technical advance mixed with approaching loss (the gong's tuning will be meaningless once the retrofit is done and, retrofitted or not, one day that bridge will fail).

 

A trip to Oakland across a different bridge (one that partially collapsed several years ago) found a pair of Julaine Stephenson's repurposed home appliances at the Pro Arts Gallery. In TV Dinner Scratch-O-Matic a distressed fork serves as a stylus that bumps along a cooker lid set on a revolving microwave turntable producing a set of scrannel metallic tones as it goes. Across the room a washing machine-turned-turntable agitates a small vinyl record under a stylus, the futility of attempting to make the record clean again is heard through a speaker placed inside the machine's water hose. Elsewhere in the gallery, Tracey Cockrell's language based-sculpture and explores the slippage between words and meaning, sound and body. A series of molds taken from the inside of the artist's mouth as she pronounces various phonemes and arranged inside a velvet-lined case, the piece makes solid the shape of words as it alludes to a common and cryptic taxonomy of physical language. And Eiko DoEspirito-Santo's interactive audio installation designed for people of varying physical abilities was notable for its smart interfaces of polyps, pendulums, and pattable tables. Further into the East Bay, Ellen Band's installation at Walnut Creek's Bedford Gallery focused on subtle, psychoacoustic trickery: specially blended sheets of pink noise evoked either the intended auditory hallucinations or the occasional unintended physical distress in listeners.

 

At the Catharine Clark Gallery (the only commercial space brave enough to join forces with SoundCulture), Jack Ox presented her stunning visual score derived from Kurt Schwitters' influential text-sound work Ursonate. A dynamic live performance of one section of the piece from a late-arriving Miguel Frasconi during the opening reception for the show demonstrated the continuing strength of the performance version as well as an unusually clear and powerful connection between sound and image found in the Ox's interpretation of the piece. It was later reported that at least one member of the audience there had some sort of life-changing epiphany during the performance (good luck, and keep those credit cards handy).

 

The largest SoundCulture event in terms of audience size was Negativland's performance at the Trocadero, a San Francisco nightclub known for its weekly "Bondage A Go-Go" soirees. Drawing close to one thousand clubgoers and other nightcrawlers (the usual SoundCulture crowd was in short supply that evening, probably due to attending concurrent events), the group performed with the Hardkiss Brothers (a pair of turntable wizards) under a projected-image environment provided by filmmaker Craig Baldwin. Known for their free-form radio shows and theatrical gigs, this performance was somewhat subdued by comparison. Although all three elements of the evening's proceedings displayed an expected and voracious appetite for appropriation and culture-jamming, the Hardkiss Brothers' techno orientation never quite gelled with Negativland's grab-bag knobs-and-sliders approach - and neither of them could match the inventiveness of Baldwin's visuals. Perhaps it was an off night for the performers or maybe it was an experiment that looked better on paper than it sounded in the flesh, but the performance served as a reminder that, for all its currency, the cut-and-paste strategy only works as well as the brains and instinct controlling the scissors, mouse, or needle in the groove, and that a room full of appropriators doesn't necessarily make for a brotherhood of thieves.

 

Ron Kuivila's installation, Parsable, shown at the LAB's funky and cavernous Mission district gallery, created a space in which the movements of visitors were tracked by a surveillance camera mounted high overhead and registered by a set of servo-controlled sunglasses that followed any nearby activity. Motions were also translated into sound via a set of pivoting ultrasound sensors and their signals modified in part by the video feed from the surveillance camera. Elsewhere bare wires sparked intermittently and wall-mounted sheets of foil shuffled at random. Visitors were held in limbo as the tenor of the piece shifted around them from an engaging you-don't-have-to-be-a-star-to-be-in-my-show ambiance to an uneasy feeling of being caught in the crosshairs of an unknown technological assailant. The performance version of the piece in which Kuivila activated various parts of the installation and performed on an auxiliary set of custom electronics was notable for its rapidly changing audio contours and the high technical and conceptual quality of his relentlessly hacked sounds. Recalling both the aural textures and compositional strategies of David Tudor (the piece was, in part, an homage to the soon-to-be-late composer), the performance demonstrated a clear sense both of the history that informed it (specifically the pre-computer era of electronic music) and of the marks that that history has left on contemporary sound practice - even as that practice spirals and morphs into new guises.

 

Among the many other noteworthy exhibits in the festival was Nigel Helyer's Silent Forest, shown at the San Francisco Art Institute. An installation comprised of beautiful sound horns modeled on the air raid sirens mounted on the Saigon opera house and glycerin-immersed bonsai arrangements, the piece drew parallels between the use of dioxin defoliants during the Vietnam conflict and the culturally defoliating history of French colonial rule there. Deployed in a set of carousel formations, the horns broadcast distended abstracts of opera music and were among the most visually striking elements of the entire festival. New Langton Arts presented PHFFFT, a large installation by Trimpin in which sound was generated by computer-controlled bursts of air through specially tuned pipes. The piece was both visually and sonically engaging but, given the context of the festival, it had surprisingly conservative musical aspirations. My own work, Parabolica, was shown at the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens. In it, a model train engine circled a suspended, serpentine track while dragging a rolling speaker behind it. Constantly varying its course across many possible routes as it went, the train illustrated with its motion the statistical form of the bell curve as it broadcast sounds referring to individual determination, confidence, and certainty.

 

The performance component of SoundCulture also had many rewards in it. Brenda Hutchinson's Every Dream Has Its Number elegantly blended a half-spoken, half-sung narrative about her mother's penchant for gambling with a delicate, audio-verite soundscore and fragments of melodies played on her Giant Music Box (an enormous version of the device often found under tiny twirling ballerinas and bears). By turns touching and painful (her mother was a handful, to say the least), the performance revealed an exceptionally rich, personal, and clearly articulated artistic vision that was free from the sentimentality that usually marks pieces built from such private histories. Local group Citizen Band presented a surprisingly stately performance using a blend of old and homemade electronics mixed with incidental parts for acoustic instruments. Employing a focused and unhurried approach, they rewarded close listening by shaping a slowly evolving mix of sound that was at once both languorous and grimy. New Zealand's Phil Dadson performed at New Langton Arts where (among other things) he managed to draw a wide variety of sounds out of manually-operated pairs of stones. A careful exercise in attentive listening and corporeal engagement with materials (literally) at hand, the performance brought to mind recurring truth that for all the wonderful gizmos found throughout the sound world (and certainly present in SoundCulture), it's difficult to top the skillful striking of one object into another.

 

At the Pacific Film Archive, a series of events examining sound in film included (among other events) an evening of sound works by film makers played entirely in the dark, a lecture by Douglas Kahn on sound and audio art relating to film in the first half of the twentieth century, and an illustrated talk on the development of film sound by Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. And a listening room located in the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery allowed visitors a chance to hear a wide variety of recorded sound work from around the Pacific (lots of comfortable chairs and big cushions were provided to enhance the auditory experience).

 

Locally, the festival has resulted in an improved profile for the sonic arts among presenters and audiences; most of the events sold out completely and the exhibitions were uniformly well attended. In addition, the chance for so many organizations to work together (something normally difficult to arrange in these parts) was welcomed because the context of the festival provided a good chance to generate new audiences; in the current abysmal funding climate it may prove to be a workable (if labor intensive) model for future events of this size. Already in its wake have come a several smaller sound-oriented events, usually based around the audience-drawing noise end of the spectrum. The festival also generated the curious sight of a number of local visual artists and musicians quickly trying to recontextualize themselves as sound artists (an economically ill-advised move if ever there was one, though perhaps bouyed by the incessant offers of credit that arrive daily in the mailbox). Press coverage for the festival was uneven at best. All but ignored by the local dailies (no surprise there, although one large article appeared in the Bay Guardian, an entertainment-oriented weekly), SoundCulture 96 generated coverage in elsewhere in the United States and in Canada, Europe, and Japan. Reviews have also appeared in the nationally-distributed magazines Artforum, Sculpture, Art Papers, and P-Form; the West Coast's monthly visual arts trade paper, Artweek, devoted the August issue to sound art - a topic it has never covered before in such depth.

 

The scope of the festival greatly belies the size of its resources. Working with a minuscule budget, no office, a volunteer staff, and a great deal of goodwill from everyone involved, SoundCulture 96 managed to flourish under extremely difficult conditions. However, with the small amount of funding that exists for the arts in the United States dwindling quickly, it is unlikely that an event of this size based around a lesser-known field like sound art will occur here again in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, SoundCulture 96 provided a detailed and varied look at and a listen to some of the activity that is taking place in the fertile area of the sonic arts. It demonstrated the strength, influence, and viability of the field and served notice that in all its forms, sonic art warrants the same kind of attention normally reserved for more established art and culture practices.

 

Ed Osborn
Oakland (October, 1996)

 

Previously published in Essays In Sound, Vol. 3, December, 1996 (Contemporary Sound Arts, Sydney, Australia) as "Creaking Grounds: Tectonics and SoundCulture 96." An earlier version of the article appeared in Sound Arts, Vol. 8, Summer, 1996 (Xebec Corporation, Kobe, Japan).