Sound Art as a Medium in Art History
What remains of an art genre when digitization calls into question even the art object itself? A major exhibition in Karlsruhe entitled “Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art” offers an answer from merely an art history perspective.
There are certainly no half measures when it comes to these sounds: in front of the ZKM, the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, stands a nearly original-size reproduction of the Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, that well-known circular temple at Delphi in Greece which was once used for communication between gods and man. Today, the ruin on the forecourt of the ZKM, erected temporarily between the attorney general’s office and a multiplex cinema, is intended mainly to allow communication between the museum and the city’s public.
As a prominently visible element of the Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art exhibition at the ZKM’s Media Museum, this commissioned work serves rather as a symbolic reflection of the exhibition’s dimension. The aim of the exhibition, no more and no less, is to present works – a third of them new productions – by over 100 international artists with a view to charting “the history of sound art in the 20th and 21st centuries”.
“Palace of sounds”
It aims to allow people to “experience sound perceptions” and explore their own ability to hear – in other words, the ZKM wishes to take a stand in defence of an art genre whose specialization may have fallen into a historic crisis as a result of the production of artistic sounds a million times over on home computers and on the Internet.
To this end, the exhibition gathers together, in two atria of the ZKM and around the city of Karlsruhe, a whole host of historical and contemporary works which were relevant to or are ground-breaking within the genre of sound art.
History of sound art
Only little floor space is given over to the classical, in some cases interactive “sound sculptures” which since the 1970s have heavily influenced the genre of sound art, e.g. Peter Vogel’s filigree sound objects comprising loudspeakers and photocells or Douglas Henderson’s electric guitar embedded in concrete (2007), which serves as the exhibition’s advertising motif. Even room-filling installations and environments equipped with more technology, such as Edwin van der Heide’s Sound Modulated Light 3 (2007), in which a portable device converts the flickering of a room full of light bulbs into audio signals, tend to be the exception.
Typically, the exhibition presents works which use various media to explore why sounds are perceived in a specific and sometimes deceptive manner and how visual effects can support or undermine such perception: Gordon Monohan’s loudspeaker box from his Music From Nowhere series, for example, in which the audible sounds do not represent recordings or transmissions that have been amplified by the loudspeaker but are actually generated by small mechanical apparatus inside the loudspeakers, or Timo Kahlen’s Dance for Insects, in which dead insects placed on vibrating loudspeakers not only appear to levitate as a result of the oscillations of the diaphragm, but also cause additional irritation due to the clicking sounds made by their hard, shell-like bodies.
Communicating with the dead
The fact that documentary material is featured, including even entire archives, is characteristic of this exhibition, which offers not only an extensive programme of accompanying events but even its own app. For example, documentations of works by the musicians and audio artists Daphne Oram and Maryanne Amacher are given their own space; Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Friedrich Jürgenson’s audio tape archive of radiophone communication with the dead is set up, as is an archive collection of the experimental concert and performance room “Het Apollohuis” in Eindhoven (1980–1997).
Given all these different exhibits, the fact that the individual works do not interfere with one another, as is so often the case in exhibitions involving sound, is testimony to the clever and well-thought-through exhibition concept and design. If there is one thing about the exhibition in Karlsruhe that is surprising, however, then it is the matter of fact manner in which the genre of “sound art” as such is presented, without any thematic emphasis or limitation, as if major exhibitions such as Sonambiente (Berlin 1996 and 2006), Crossings (Vienna 1998), Sonic Boom (London, 2000) or Sonic Process (Paris, 2002), or indeed exhibitions with specific and thus all the more interesting themes such as the relationship between gender and sound (such as Her Sound, London, 2005), had never existed.
lives in Berlin, where he works as a freelance author and teaches visual communication at the Berlin University of the Arts.
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
Any questions about this article? Please write to us!