Beginning this month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is running it's first ever dedicated sound art exhibit, dubbed Soundings: A Contemporary Score. Sound art is like music's equivalent of sculpture, often installation-based, often conceptual. It mainly differs from contemporary classic music in that music is not the goal. Music can be an incident of sound art, with no real versa to that vice. Soundings is floated on the premise that sound is a radical medium, or at least as an artistic mountain yet to be fully strip-mined. Perhaps out of a need to showcase a wide variety of voices within the field—14, to be exact—the exhibit itself came off as something of a high art science fair. Each installation had its own discreet space, its own placard with the artist's name, the materials used, what to make of this thing that people these days consider art.
Such placards are standard in museums and are useful in guiding the random museum-goer through a battery of differing eras, styles, and ideas. If you're trying to figure out why Dali is so different from Picasso, despite their shared nationality and general time period, such information is important. But in Soundings, the placards seem to dictate how to experience the work, which feels a lot like instructions to "pour vinegar into the volcano to watch it erupt." You get the impression that Marco Fusinato's work [above] is just taking some Xenakis scores and drawing lines connecting the notes to a vertex; Richard Garet is using a turntable and a marble, most certainly to evoke Sisyphus; Christine Sun Kim is deaf, and that informs how she draws about sound. This is a situation where imposing meaning undercuts the fact that sound can just be experienced, needing no specific meaning to be enjoyed.
So what, right? Just don't read the cards mounted on the wall. Well, this speaks to a major issue of presenting so many sound pieces in such a small space, in an institution like MoMA. Sound, like taste or touch, is one of those senses that experiences the least mediation between reaction and cognition. By nature, sound art differs from visual art in that you just understand it. Perhaps this makes it a purer form of art than mundane, dynamically lit photographs of male prostitutes. That kind of art demands thought and questioning, while Soundings simply presents a big heap of id candy. For this exact reason, the Museum of Modern Art ended up producing one of the most engaging, fun exhibits you'll have the chance to experience between now and November.
What was most consistently satisfying across the spectrum of pieces was how intricately these artists crafted the audience's experience. Take Jana Winderen's Ultrafield, in which sixteen channels of sound covered a dark room literally from floor to ceiling. Using pitched-down field recordings of ultrasound-range animal noises, Winderen created a peculiar sonic space uniting oft-inaudible sounds in geographically impossible unison. She was so successful in her immersion that many of the spectators I saw there just plopped down in one spot, missing the near-infinite number of sound experiences that occurred with each small step. Except for a very young boy, everyone sat facing the same direction, sufficiently conditioned by the cinema and television, observing this crafted universe in the exact same manner as the next guy over. Weird habit, right? It's not like you stare at the coal oven while eating pizza.
The collaboration between Luke Fowler and Toshiya Tsunoda was basically a Sergei Eisenstein cream dream. First, you had a single white sheet, with images projected onto it from each side, as well as a fan on each side blowing at the sheet, facing each other, disrupting the shape of the projected, interfering images. Then you had all the sound: the sound of the fans against the sound of the film projectors, the sound of the fans in and out of phase with one another, the soundtrack itself in contest with the din. Even more reverent to Eisenstein's dialectical montage was Hong-Kai Wang's beautiful double screen video work, with footage of retired Taiwanese workers exploring factory spaces with sound recorders. The industrial soundscape was mesmerizing as these labor spaces mutated into worlds of sonic wonder.
Then, of course, there were the tensions that existed between the installations themselves. Compare the two whose prominent visual component was the speaker cone. Tristan Perich's Microtonal Wall is the first thing you encounter walking in, a literal wall of 3-inch, exposed speakers, each emitting a tone at a slightly different frequency. Stand away from it and you hear pleasant noise, but put your ear against it and you hear a single pitch or, even more excitingly, the sound of two very near frequencies phasing. Quite the revision of Tony Conrad-style minimalism for the DSP age. The other piece with speaker cones was by Susan Philipsz, in which bare speakers were stuck to a wall, each a different string voice from a piece composed by a jew in a concentration camp. The artist situated seats at the far end of the room, asking that the spectator keep the same distance he or she would from a real string ensemble, and in turn, the same reverence. Mirroring the conditioning at play in Ultrafield, many indeed kept that distance, missing out on the fortuitous buzz of a vibrating speaker loosely mounted against the wall.
Indeed, the most palpable tension of the exhibit was the relationship between the museum-goer and the museum-institution. Feel free to go to the contemporary art section to get yelled at for standing too close to a Koons sculpture. But in Soundings, you are blowing it if you don't get your ear lobes nice and dirty. An exhibit like this is an invitation to break through the invisible wall that normally separates the spectator from the spectacle. Marble sculptures decay over time if people keep touching them, but sound art only becomes richer the more directly that people use their senses. This institution full of very expensive masterworks practically begs you to touch your face against that unguarded Mondrian that's nestled inside of Hiroon Mirza's sound-proofed alcove.