"Hear Away Closer: Notes on Sonic Sensibility" by Tausif Noor

Added on by Lilly Hern-Fondation.

This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Formula 1: A Loud, Low Hum, curated by Mira Dayal and Simon Wu, on view at CUE Art Foundation from April 4 - May 8, 2019. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.

Details of: Laurie Kang,  Channeller , 2019, steel, conduit, airline cable, unfixed and unprocessed photographic paper and darkroom chemicals (continually sensitive), duratrans, magnets, hardware, dimensions variable; Amanda Turner Pohan,  io or IO or 1 0 or a slow leak  (detail), 2019, metallic bronze alphabet balloons, helium, monofilament wire, 36 x 40 x 6 inches; Nikita Gale,  FIXED LOOP I , 2018, concrete, polyurethane foam, terrycloth, steel, 115 × 22 × 13 inches.

Details of: Laurie Kang, Channeller, 2019, steel, conduit, airline cable, unfixed and unprocessed photographic paper and darkroom chemicals (continually sensitive), duratrans, magnets, hardware, dimensions variable; Amanda Turner Pohan, io or IO or 1 0 or a slow leak (detail), 2019, metallic bronze alphabet balloons, helium, monofilament wire, 36 x 40 x 6 inches; Nikita Gale, FIXED LOOP I, 2018, concrete, polyurethane foam, terrycloth, steel, 115 × 22 × 13 inches.

In 1842, the Austrian physicist Christian Doppler presented a paper at the Royal Bohemian Society of Sciences in Prague. Titled Über das farbige Licht der Doppelsterne und einiger anderer Gestirne des Himmels (On the Colored Light of the Binary Stars and Some Other Stars of the Heavens), the paper demonstrates that the frequency of a wave—such as light—changes as a receiver moves in relation to the wave’s source. Doppler applied this principle to sound, and in 1845, the idea was fine-tuned by Dutch chemist CHD Buys-Ballot to ascertain that sound is perceived as being of a higher pitch when a body is approaching a source than when receding from it. What the Doppler effect establishes is that sound is fundamentally relational; the velocity of sound waves are influenced by the medium through which sound travels. Proximity and material, in other words, determine what we hear.

Fig. 1: General Formula for the Doppler Effect, where  c  is the velocity of waves in the medium,  vr  is the velocity of the receiver relative to the medium, and  vs  is the velocity of the source relative to the medium.

Fig. 1: General Formula for the Doppler Effect, where c is the velocity of waves in the medium, vr is the velocity of the receiver relative to the medium, and vs is the velocity of the source relative to the medium.

By 1848, revolutions were underway across Europe, with national governments in flux from the pressures of the working poor and the tripartite spread of liberalism, nationalism, and socialism. Industrialization and its technological advancements destabilized artisan guilds, leaving unskilled laborers to toil for long hours in unsafe conditions in factories, as the liberalization of trade laws rapidly increased production demands and trade between nations flowed more freely. With their safety and well-being placed as a secondary concern to profit, the proletariat fomented resistance movements across France, Hungary, and the German states. Long suppressed by the capitalist ruling class, their demands for political reorganization and cries for individual rights and freedoms rang and resounded.

This tension between authority and resistance can be read as a struggle between the muffling of defiant voices and their ability to penetrate bodies and borders, undergoing changes in pitch or volume as they are transmitted across time and space. To consider the sonic as a potent political force is to consider the thrum of the everyday, the political potential of pitch as it vibrates and echoes through various mediums and temporalities. The sonic, in its ubiquitous physical and transcendental presence, traverses and mobilizes. As Brandon LaBelle notes, a “sonic sensibility” is an attentiveness to sound as it “oscillat[es] and vibrat[es] over and through all types of bodies and things, producing complex ecologies of matter and energy, subjects and objects,” thereby allowing us to consider the “entanglement of worldly contact, one that extends from the depths of bodies and into the energetics of social formations and their politics.” [1]

What exactly do these sounds constitute? And who, or what, produces them? Theories of sonic resistance often incorporate deep listening, empathetic relations between materialities and subjectivities, or the “energetics of ethics,” as per Jane Bennett’s scheme, between human, non-human, and posthuman agents. [2] It postulates an ecosystem of new modes of being that de-emphasize individual guilt in favor of a collective unity, one that hums with promise, or agency. [3]

By tracing the reverberations and murmurs embedded within this expanded notion of communal force, the artists in this exhibition reach through the realm of the aural and upend formulaic understandings of agency as embodied. Unconstrained by staid, discursive notions of the body, gender, and power, they offer raw materials for intersubjectivities unbound by any given formula or code. In each of their formal and theoretical considerations, the artists render visible, audible, and tangible the political and material possibilities of sonic resistance—afforded by an appraisal of sound, its frictions and effects. The positioning of these works in the exhibition space, and within larger political frameworks, creates an aesthetic Doppler effect, in which the proximity of the viewer’s body to the works determines their level of resonance—the pitch of sonic resistance—as sound is transformed in the artistic process.

For Laurie Kang, the body is a processual, rather than fixed, entity. As an ongoing political project, the body is both enmeshed in and generative of social relations. Kang’s practice utilizes industrial building materials, synthetic polymers, and utilitarian objects to manifest internal processes such as digestion and metabolization. Abstracting the boundaries between inside and outside, Kang’s installations elucidate the porousness between subjects and objects, positing the body as a site of exchange rather than a mere receiver of transmissions. In her installation of photosensitive surfaces, flexible metal tracks, and other “misused” elements spanning the gallery, the artist prompts viewers to navigate within a network of bodies and materials that are constantly shifting and reacting. If installation art’s tenets suggest a relationship between a body and object(s) within the bounds of an exhibition space, and relational aesthetics is based on a holistic view of human relations and social context, Kang situates her practice outside these poles, opting instead to consider the body’s constant negotiation with its environs. A series of sculptures that comprise metal mixing bowls, rubber, cast pewter, and clay reference culturally-specific processes of food production and consumption, echoing Trinh T. Minh-ha’s understanding of “voids” as productive and spiritual spaces of subjectivity. [4] While her works in this exhibition are non-figurative and non-aural, by positioning the body as a fluctuating medium, as both vessel and architecture—a receptacle for internal processes and exterior relationships—Kang choreographs the sonic in a reconfiguration of permeable entities.

Amanda Turner Pohan deploys recent technologies, such as robotics and cloud-based voice assistants, with materials that have been used since antiquity, including copper and bronze, to delve into, and distort, voice. Using Amazon Echo Dot and its embedded cloud-based voice service, Alexa—the nomenclature of both the hardware (Echo) and software (Alexa) being derived from female deities in Greek mythology—Pohan presents a conversation of the acousmatic, or sound without a visible source. Alexa’s metallic shell conducts micro-vibrations in the space, which are picked up by Echo’s sensor and translated into a tonal frequency in real time. Alexa’s programmed voice then becomes a high-pitched hum, the essence of sound as vibrations in the air. In other installations, the word, rather than the voice, indexes the gendered limits of expression, referencing patriarchal structures in the classical period: In ancient Greece, a vibrant oral culture meant that reading was an act of vocal performance, which also positioned the writer as the father, and the writing as the dependent, silent daughter, “mute and waiting for the voice that would read her, take her hand—or her mouth as it were.” [5] Pohan’s recombinant assemblages, tooled from techniques ranging from 3D printing to bronze electroplating, move beyond Donna Haraway’s theorization of cyborgs in their namesake 1984 manifesto—to which we owe the integration of transhuman into the humanities lexicon—and point to the historical contingency of the body and of gender against a futuristic vision of automatons and robots.

Referencing materials directly implicated in the architecture of authority, such as ladders and polymer concrete, Nikita Gale envisions sonic subversion or destabilization as a metaphor of power relations between state and subject. Upholstery foam, steel wall studs, towels dipped in concrete, and steel rungs in wall-bound ladders are forms that belie the impossibility of escape; a tangle of a microphone stand and amplifier cords invite the possibility of augmenting the hum of resistance. Between the dampening and expansion of sound lies the artist’s lucid depiction of power that is maintained with shifting, flexible force rather than as an immobile exercise. [6] Throughout her works in the exhibition, Gale specifically hones in on Édouard Glissant’s notion of the subject’s right to opacity—in this case, the right not to be heard—amid the pressures for transparency under the neoliberal state. Working within and against the frame of industrial architecture, Gale’s works suggest that political subjectivity can exceed the confines that created it.

Hovering beyond Doppler’s parenthetical formula is an acknowledgement of sonic impact across forms, of alternative modes of political subjectivity, travel and transmission. To harness this sonic resistance as a political project—one that defies the discursive constructions imposed by unjust systems of exclusion—is crucial and necessary. In amplifying the many muted, murmuring voices that will collectively reflect our possible futures, the artists demonstrate that sound carries a particular presence. This presence—beyond voice, beyond the body, and beyond legibility—is located within a complex amalgamation of sound and echo, and is left for the viewer to listen closely and register.

[1] Brandon LaBelle, “Unlikely Publics,” in Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 7.

[2] Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 155.

[3] Peter Gratton, “Vibrant Matters: An Interview with Jane Bennett,” Philosophy in a Time of Error, April 22, 2010, https://philosophyinatimeoferror.com/2010/04/22/vibrant-matters-an-interview-with-jane-bennett/

[4] Trinh Minh-Ha, “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference,” in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, ed. Anne McClintock, et. al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 415-19.

[5] Quinn Latimer, “Signs, Sounds, Metals, Fires, or an Economy of Her Reader,” in the documenta 14 Reader, ed. Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk (Kassel: Museum Fridericianum gGmbH, 2017), 271.

[6] “At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it,” notes Michel Foucault, “are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.” See Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd Edition, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 220-1.

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. 

Tausif Noor is a contributing editor at Momus whose writing has appeared in Art Asia Pacific, Frieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Artforum.com among other publications. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Goldsmiths, University of London and was a 2014-15 Fulbright Scholar in India, where he worked with organizations such as the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and assisted at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Noor previously held internships at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the UK-based not-for-profit agency Culture+Conflict. He is currently the Spiegel-Wilks Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mentor Nadine Khalil has worked in publishing for almost two decades, bridging her training in the social sciences with cultural criticism. After her graduate studies in Anthropology and Sociology at the American University of Beirut, she became a Fulbright scholar in cultural studies at NYU (2003-4). Currently, she is the editor of Dubai-based contemporary art magazine, Canvas. She has also authored a series of artist monographs on established Lebanese artists entitled Paroles d’Artistes, worked for non-profit art organisations Ashkal Alwan and Arab Image Foundation.