Sound and Video Installation: Existence as a state of immanence.
“Dr. Bruce Mowson's Exegesis 'Sound and Video Installation: Existence as a state of immanence'.
“Dr. Bruce Mowson”:http://www.artabase.net/artist/693-bruce-mowson is a Melbourne based sound and video artist who has completed a Ph.D in Media Art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, creating installations to research the phenomenon of absorption in audio-visual media.
The 25-thousand word essay is available on Artabase in its entirety, however you can purchase a .pdf of the thesis for $2.00 AUD on “Licensd.com”: http://licensd.com/?p=78
NB: Bruce will be making the audio-video files available on his website.
Sound and Video Installation: Existence as a state of immanence.
Bruce Mowson PhD MA RMIT
An exegesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
School of Art
Design and Social Context Portfolio
RMIT University, Melbourne
I would like to acknowledge the input of my supervisors, Philip Samartzis, for his unflagging support throughout my studies, and Elizabeth Grierson, for her insight into my topics and pithy engagement with my written texts. I would also like to thank David Thomas for his informal and valuable contributions. My thanks are also extended to Lesley Duxbury, Sophia Errey, Kathryn Wardill, Joy Hirst, Bronwyn Hughes and Alan Roberts in the School of Art, and the staff and students of the Sound and Media Arts disciplines of the School of Art, who have provided comradeship, context and insight. Particular thanks also to James Geurts for his encouragement and photography, and Cat Hope for her curatorial contributions.
I’m deeply indebted to my wife, Anna Liebzeit, for her support during my candidacy.
2 Significance of the Study
3 Scope, Aims and Limitations of the study
4 Researcher’s Speaking Position
5 Methodology for the study
6 The Literature: visual/sound and textual
7 Key theorists and artists
8 Project works: Introduction
9 Pink Slides
13 Melting Moments
16 Shifts of position
17 Implications for further research
APPROPRIATE DURABLE RECORD
Curriculum Vitae of PhD for Bruce Mowson
Reviews of projects
Project documentation: contents and instructions
This project aims to produce new material and understandings about audio/visual installation art and immanence. Immanence describes a subjective state that emphasises an embodied sense in time and space. It is explored in the project artworks by using materials and techniques that heighten one’s sense of being a receptor – of seeing and hearing, rather than being an identity formed in language. The research works through the derivation of my notion of immanence from my environmental listening experiences. I have used artistic and philosophical material to aid and extend these concepts in relation to their investigation through the practical works.
The research is conducted using non-linear audio/visual technologies to create installation art works that elude narrative sequencing through generative techniques. Typically this involves a computer generated image and sound, projected into space in ways that seek to heighten the audience’s sense of embodiment. These works are non-repetitive, and close attention to the materials reveals a structure of non-hierarchical variation, and of continual change. Philosophically, this emphasises immanent notions of the self as being in a state of becoming – of being simultaneously complete in the present moment yet continually in change.
The research explores and reveals a number of outcomes and shifts of position. At a technical level, a number of ways of combining generative sound and image are explored, and methods for creating variation within a continuum are implemented. A number of presentations of the works are made in installation spaces, and these document the tension between the framed format of video and the immersive and surrounding embodiment which is activated in installation practice.
In this research project I have engaged with two research questions. They are: “in what ways can immersive sound and video installation practices manifest existence as a state of immanence”; and “in what ways can poststructuralist theory situate this subjective state?” The research has been conducted through a series of audio/visual artworks, which are documented and discussed here with the intention of extending them through writing, enabling processes of reflection and interrogation. Throughout this exegesis I have set out and defined the project’s key terms, scope, aims, significance and methodology. I have also conducted a literature review that encompasses visual and sonic media, and have engaged with relevant theoretical and philosophical texts. The individual project works are discussed in detail, and a number of conclusions are drawn and commented upon in relation to the project outcomes.
Immanence comes from the Latin immanare, “to remain within”. I have linked immanence with embodiment and immersion, focussing on ways that space and time are subjectively experienced. It has been a significant topic of the philosophers Giles Deleuze and Martin Heidegger, and is related to the work of Henri Bergson. James Williams makes the following interpretation of immanence in philosophy:
Are the privileged relations in a philosophy of the form of a relation “to” something, or of a relation “in” something? If it is “to” something, it is a philosophy of transcendence. If it is “in” then it is immanence. Deleuze is radical about immanence, that is, his philosophy is to be thought strictly in terms of relations “in” (Williams 2005, p.126).
I have approached immanence from the point of view of aesthetic experience within a perceptual field, and questioned how art can situate the experiencing subject in time and in space.
Sound and listening
My point of departure for exploring this subjectivity is my experiences of perceiving within a living environment, in sound: listening to the energies of various environments, from the resonance of air in a space, to distant sonic presences such as traffic or crowds which announce the unseen, and from the heightened embodiment of singing, to the erosion of bodily boundaries in noise. Through the research I will be arguing for the way these experiences situate the subject within time and space, through connection with the exterior world. In the research, I have worked at encouraging the audience’s senses within sound, video and space, and significant to this has been a study of phenomena that are inherent in those media. To this end I have meditated upon what it is to experience, for instance, sound:
We do not in a sense read painting, nor do we hear music with any of the attention reserved for oral recitations; this is why the more advanced and rationalized activity can also have its dream of the other, and regress to a longing for a more immediately sensory, wishing it could pass altogether over into the visual, or be sublimated into the spiritual body of pure sound. (Jameson 1990, p.2)
Though I would question Jamesons’s somewhat pejorative terminology and hierarchic positioning of activities, his words are evocative, and describe a subjective experience of sound that resonates in my practice and in the research artworks.
Following from this, the state of immanence that I am exploring would manifest in an embodied way, wherein one is not only aware of one’s physical form, but also engaged in extending that bodily awareness, in concert with expanding one’s awareness of the objects of their attention. A pragmatic example of this type of extension is a listening and awareness exercise conducted by composer Pauline Oliveros (1932-), as part of her Deep Listening™1 practices, wherein the participants warm up through a series of stretches, before standing with their eyes closed, hands by their sides. They are told to focus their perception from a part of the body, say within the head, and for that perception to move down, transforming into an imagination of roots growing from their feet, deep down into the ground, travelling miles within the surface of the planet. Through this process, one’s awareness becomes embodied and extended – the scope of embodied awareness in not limited to the body.2
Sensation and Embodiment
The simple pleasure [of motion] is fully exploited in the roller coaster ride. It’s a thrill of visceral movement, of being moved. But our soft, squelchy viscera don’t need to be flung along wavular paths in order to be mobilised. It happens while sitting still at the movies; in gut lurching fight scenes and car chases and in the less violent but no less physically wrenching scenes of love, sex, tragedy and soaring joy. (Ednie-Brown 2003, p.1)
The production of sensations is a key objective of the project works, though not through identification as Ednie-Brown describes above, but through the abstracted technique of touching the body by sound or the stimulation of the optic nerves by the panels of colored light. It is my contention that it is in sensation that we can become immanent, as the outside world calls to us, reminding us of its constant presence, and calling us from our reveries. In this project, sound, video, visual and installation components are to be assembled with the aim of manifesting immanence. These components are diverse, and as we shall see, putting them to this use reveals differing outcomes formed by their differing constituent matter and energies.
In this project I have worked principally with digital sound, focussing on the computer as a machine for generating audio. In this, I have been working with audio synthesis, utilising the flexibility and programmability of the computer as a synthesiser. My direct influences are minimalist composers working with drones, including Eliane Radigue, Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, and I have referred to their work in order to describe and differentiate my own. The discourse of active listening that I have referred to has been discussed by John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer and R. Murray Schafer, and I have derived my thoughts about sound with and in reaction to theirs, and also with a different emphasis upon the acoustic and embodying dimensions of sound as an installation art.
The type of video used in this project is abstract, with lineages to experimental film, structuralist and poststructuralist film and video art. Like sound, video is used here as a material that is formed by the artist, through plastic techniques of repetition, duplication and transformation, in contrast to the photographic imperatives of maintaining the representative content of a captured image. Colorfield, monochrome, minimalist and Op Art painting are also reference points for the imagery, though the project artworks use animation of the compositional elements in real-time, using digital and non-linear means of production.
In the research I am particularly interested in how media is deployed at a physical site of presentation, and how this is significant in offering the audience ‘a state of immanence’. I describe the state of immanence as having an immersive quality: the meaning of immanence in Latin, ‘to remain within’, is similar to immersion’s literal meaning of being within a fluid body, such as being underwater. In order to explore this, I have engaged with installation art art as a discourse that deals with the audience’s being within an artwork. In the context of sound and video art, however, installation has often meant the adaptation of the exhibition site to best facilitate video projection and sound monitoring, focussing upon locating the video projector, speakers, seating and playback equipment within the space, often in a manner that emulates or recreates the cinematic apparatus. In the research I will deal with tensions that arise between the ways that cinematic and installation practices shape subjectivity through embodiment. As part of this, I will also address audio/visuality in terms of sound/image relationship theory, drawing upon the work of film and soundtrack theorist Michel Chion. Here I will focus upon the ways that the materiality of sound and video differ, and can be juxtaposed.
The contemporary positioning of my work is challenging, as I have elected to work in an area and with methods that are strongly informed by the reductive approaches of the 1960s and the post WW1 period of European Modernism, that sometimes risk appearing simplistic, but for which I will be arguing. In broad terms, my use of digital audio/video technology resembles contemporary practitioners such as Ulf Langheinrich, Farmers Manual and other practitioners from the Austrian synaesthetic video ‘school’. On the other hand, the aesthetic I have used also resembles the video wallpaper found in the backgrounds of live television such as Australian Idol.3 What might distinguish my practice from these is that I do not use the “synaesthetic” approach, which is the linking sound and video by shared data/control streams, as is a feature of the aforementioned Austrian School. My opposition to this practice is that it homogenises the potential difference of the audio and video, whilst my project is interested in exploring those differences. Conversely, I am not intending that my video appear as an aesthetic backdrop, but rather that it be the focus of attention. Indeed, my approach does draw upon the modernist notion of challenging the audience with its lack of ornament. This ‘minimalism’ is a conscious strategy, not designed to be didactic, but based upon ideas about materiality, and conviction in the affective value of the minimal approach.
In sonic terms, minimalism has been a significant influence upon the 1990s and 2000s wave of sound art, as chronicled by the U.K. based magazine The Wire. Contemporary sound practice is populated by many artists influenced by minimalism, including Ryoji Ikeda, Carsten Nicoli, Oren Ambarchi, Sunn O))) to name but a few of the highest profile practitioners. Again, however, the reference points for this research are in the 1960s, with practitioners I will later discuss. Contemporary generative sound practice is perhaps best described as yet to come of age, and the works of Iannis Xennakis, a leading computer music composer of the twentieth century, could be argued to remain the high water marks with regard to the use of the generative processes of the computer in terms of articulation, vision and sophistication. Since Xennakis’s time, however, the potential of real-time computational generation has been realised, and it is in this context of a computer creating material ‘in the moment’ that the sound and video of this project is produced. In distinction to purely generative techniques, process-based approaches in which the artist interacts with loops, chance procedures, sequences and visual data streams are arguably common in contemporary practice. The Max/MSP/Jitter software language, and similar packages including Supercollider and Pd are popular with emerging artists, and the near future may see an increase in visibility of the practices I am discussing.
Becoming and technology
My art is initially produced on a computer. The quality that interests me about computers is their ability to be configured in the manner of a machine, to enact processes. By using the computer as a type of machine that generates sound and light in real time, using random variables rather than specifics, a continuum can be created, in which the artwork is never defined by what it is at any given moment, but by the evolving processes in which it is constituted. The audience member, then, can be offered the sensation of manifesting potential by the transition of virtual potential into the actual as performed by the machine. My intention in creating these indeterminate and ambiguous generated texts is aimed at opening up perception and awareness of life, rather than of aesthetics in art, and I will discuss this further in relation to my reading of poststructural philosophy.
My reading of poststructralism has drawn upon the writing of Giles Deleuze, and to a lesser extent Martin Heidegger. I have engaged principally with a reading of Deleuze as a radical empiricist, and with his notion of Aion and ‘the instant’. In Deleuze I find a philosophical articulation of a consistency that I attribute to life, and with which I engage in my art. By this I mean to say that I engage with the external world, but do not seek to represent it. Rather I seek to shape the material with which I work, so as to reveal rather than form it. I feel I have arrived at a similar place as Deleuze through a different modality, and that his writing speaks well of what I find there.
2 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
The significance of this study is the way it positions subjectivity as a state of immanence, found in aesthetics and sound, and through practicing art returning it to subjectivity within the world. My intention here is to engage the subject’s manner of being, or becoming, in the world. Jameson speaks of something similar from the context of critiquing global capitalism:
The commodity sheds its independent “being” and intrinsic qualities and comes to be an instrument of commodity satisfaction… the American tourist no longer lets the landscape “be in its being” as Heidegger would have said, but takes a snapshot of it. (Jameson 1990, p.11)
What Jameson speaks of here is an intertwining of sense perception and consumer consumption, in which the object is valued over the experience. Australian academic Warwick Mules discusses a similar situation by closely linking immanence with aesthetics, pointing out that an immanent interweaving of observer and the object of their attention is integral to the original meaning of aesthetics – aesthesis, or “of the senses”. He also proposes that modern aesthetics has used sensory experience as “merely” the starting point for a process that is fulfilled by reflection (Mules, 2002). Following from this, my practice-based research into immanence investigates how sensory experience can be situated as the site, rather than pathway, to meaning.
In this project I am using technologies to explore immanence, and as I discuss in the project work descriptions, have engaged with diverse fields of music, sound installation art, video art and cinema, abstract painting practice and installation art, around the key terms of sensation and embodiment. In the discussion of individual projects, I address the specific ways that I have engaged with the contexts of these practices, as I discuss how they might be used in relation to the research questions, particularly the manifestation of immanence. I argue that in doing this, I am offering the audience an experience that is of, but not restricted to aesthetics, and which proposes a different subjective engagement with the world to that described above by Jameson.
3 SCOPE, AIMS AND LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY
Throughout this project, I will be arguing for a connection between immanence, understood as ‘being in time’, and sound. Sound, heard acoustically, is only and always ‘in time’, and following from this it might be said that sound manifests an immanent subjectivity. Further to this, I am particularly interested in how sound might offer the subjects a powerful sense of their own embodiment within a site. In this discussion, I am responding to recent moves to open up sound to other contexts and spaces, as has been seen in the increased appearance of sound installation art and sound sculpture in visual art settings. Important survey shows such as Sonic Boom (London, 2000), Sonambiente 2 (Berlin 1996/2006) and Sonic Process (Paris, 2002) have featured artists seeking alternatives to composition and performance for sound works, and often these incorporate interactivity and site-specificity as strategies for extending the audiences engagement with sound, and the textuality of sound itself. As Philip Samartzis argues, installation is a contested form for sound (Samarztis 2007, pp.43-4), and one that is somewhat in formation as galleries and the visual art systems are asked to accommodate its presence, either for sound installations or for the sonic component of video installations. This research is part of the working through of some salient issues about the textuality of sound in that context. Further to this, I am specifically questioning sound’s immersive capacity.
In addition to arguing for the significance of establishing and exploring links between immanence, subjectivity and sound, I wish to engage both visual media, principally video, and visual space, through installation art. It is my intention that by working across these disciplines, juxtaposing materials and affects, I will be able to test and report on the scope and limitations of those media, in relation to a range of outcomes constructed in the practical works.
My engagement with sound, video and space, and the way these are framed by the research, has a strongly material character, and is intended to argue for the importance and potential of materialist practice. My reading of Deleuze argues a philosophical position that can be used to interpret the project works, and is one that engages with art and philosophy, and also ‘life’: the primary text here is Deleuze’s final work, the essay Immanence: a life (Deleuze 2005). My objective then has been to work with and think through art, creating machines for becoming, which affirm a way of being in time and space.
4 RESEARCHER’S SPEAKING POSITION
I describe my objective as a practitioner and researcher as diversifying and expanding the inputs to my practice, be they philosophical readings, technological processes, and approaches to art practice. In order to do this I focussed upon engagement rather than critique. As Elizabeth Grosz points out “critique is a negative exercise… it is an attempt to remove obstacles to one’s position” (cited in Kontturi 2007, p. 255). In my research I have worked to avoid what I describe as an input-output/artist-critic research model, in which the artist positions herself or himself as creator of input that is fed to the critic for interpretation. The issue here is the potential for self-obstruction and feedback, as the artist struggles to keep each ‘hat’ separate, second-guessing his or her creativity, and applying the often intuitive creativity of artistic production to the analytic role of the critic. Instead, it has been my intention, as an artist researcher, to engage with inputs in the manner described above, proceeding intuitively, logically and positively. Grosz puts this position well, proposing, “the way in which the new world is created… is precisely through revelling in the affirmation of the strengths that art gives us” (ibid, p225). Following from this, I position myself as an artist researcher as positively re-territorialising existing territories in an experimental way.
In my research, that re-territorialising has occurred through engaging with texts across film, music and musicology, philosophy, literature, listening theory and phenomenology and my own experience, juxtaposing and incorporating them through the works and exegesis. In this subtle distinguishing of negative and positive processes, I am pursuing an alternative to means-end models of production, and affirming notions of becoming, which are significant to my research, in which knowledge as well as existence is always in process.
5 METHODOLOGY FOR THE STUDY
The making of art and the writing about art are processes and materialities that at first might appear separate, but are densely interwoven in the research process. What I wish to draw attention to here is the complexity of interrelations in the research process, which includes experimenting with technologies and materials, assembling versions, editing and reconfiguring works, thinking, discussing, reading, writing and imagining. Throughout this exegesis I have turned to the geographic metaphor of ‘the territory’ in order to site my research. It is my intention, then, that this written exegesis, together with the project works, describes the territory the research has traversed, by marking out its key terms and situating it within areas of practice and theory. The exegesis itself is a machine for achieving this description, for its assembly is a way of thinking through my practice as much as my practice is a way of thinking through art.
Following from this, the use of juxtaposition is a poststructuralist methodological position adopted in the project. In her catalogue essay entitled Juxtaposition, Elizabeth Grierson proposes the term as meaning “to lay side by side”, and signifying co-existence, and explaining that this approach opposes the Hegelian dialectical model of knowledge production, which uses the conflict of ideas, between thesis and anti-thesis, in order to arrive at synthesis. Poststructuralist critique of this process identifies the suppression and loss of minor terms as a highly problematic outcome of synthesis. Conversely, poststructuralism has been concerned with maintaining the minor, by thinking through juxtaposition, which allows difference to coexist and to inform its neighbouring terms (Grierson 2008, p. 8-9).
In creating the project works I have assembled sound, video and architectural/spatial/sculptural components, not with the intention of resolving them, but in order to generate complex texts, with the objective of achieving the project aims described in the prior chapters. I have used juxtaposition as a key technique of the research, and it is one that has emerged from the multidisciplinarity of my artistic practices themselves. Here I am referring to the complexity created by the simultaneous use of sound, video and installation techniques. My thinking about the creative processes appropriate to this complexity are indebted to discourses around sound/image relationships (Brophy 2008, Chion 1994) wherein juxtaposition is discussed with close reference to interdependent materiality, affective capacity and the texuality of sound and moving image.
To describe how this juxtaposition of media might function, I turn to a passage from philosopher Michel Foucault, who finds in a passage by Jorge Luis Borges “a certain Chinese Encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”, in which animals are divided into:
(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, © those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classiﬁcation (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very ﬁne camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a ﬂower vase, (n) those that resemble ﬂies from a distance. (Foucault 2001, p.10)
Foucault’s reaction was “laughter and astonishment at this taxonomy which demonstrates at the same time the “exotic charm of another system of thought”” and “the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that” (ibid). In my discussion of the project works, I have described how the affects of the different media I have used are of differing orders, and how the thinking described above is useful in understanding how they are connected.
This returns to my objectives, of manifesting existence as a state of immanence, and I regard this as manifesting conditions for becoming, rather than identifying a type of being. Deleuze articulates his philosophy in terms such as flow, event and transition, and I have found these appropriate to describing and thinking about my research. The type of motion that I am describing is one of coincidence and contingency, and also of improvisation and necessity, and is a ‘hands on’ or heuristic process, in which knowledge is the result of tracking and reporting on a dynamic, creative process.
6 LITERATURE: VISUAL/SONIC/TEXTUAL
In the script to the film Adaptation (Kauffman, 2002), a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, Orlan, playing the part of author Susan Orlean, ingests a drug extracted from a rare orchid, and in doing so depicts a state of immanence, albeit in a theatrical fashion. She becomes absorbed by surroundings – the view of stars through her window; the smears of oil her forehead leaves on the window; the sensation of brushing her teeth; the close detail of the carpet; the dial tone of the telephone. She calls the operator, asking about the musical note in the dial tone, and moves seamlessly to propositioning him, and when he declines, dials her friend Laroche. Laroche and her do indeed make love. Afterward she says, “I’d never had sex before. Not like that, anyway. I wasn’t guilty about my marriage, or fantasizing about someone else. I was just there. Alive. Adapting. You will not take this away. I won’t go back.” Orlan does not wish to live there – she wishes to live here, and only in the here, forever. Her condition is characterized by immersion in the present, a sense of embodiment displayed in an exaggerated attention to sensory stimuli and an acceptance of indeterminacy in her reactive but interactive responses to stimuli. This last character is seen in the horizontality of her valuations of phenomenon. Carpet and lovemaking receive equal attention, and while Orlan at first appears uncommitted in her sliding from one phenomenon to the next, she is in fact very committed, as is seen in the way that each phenomenon receives her full attention. Within this context, then, immanence is manifested in an idealised, imaginary way, which nonetheless communicates something about the topic.
The engagement with one’s immediate surrounds is central to the thinking of writer, naturalist and spiritualist Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). Thoreau was a pantheist, a believer of an immanent God that is in the world. One of his most important texts, Walden: or, Life in the woods, is a journalistic and pragmatically philosophical account of his experiment of living alone in semi-rural seclusion for two years and two months. Thoreau spent his time in the woods around his cabin, exploring for hours every day, watching the behavior of flora and fauna over many months. In Walden, he argues passionately for the richness of his experience, and bitterly against the bureaucratized lives, or perhaps he would say living deaths, of his neighbors.
In the opening sentences of the text, Thoreau states that he will, against the conventions of the day, be writing in the first person, for there is no other subject that he knows so well. Here Thoreau locates himself, and particularly his own perceptions, as the source of authority in the text in an empirical fashion, yet at no point does he extend these to generalizations of the human condition. Thoreau uses his knowledge to construct arguments against the consumerism emerging with the industrial revolution. Notable in Thoreau’s text is his opposition to hierarchies of being and perceptions: the observation of a plant over months is not designed to gain mastery over the plant for cultivation or exploitation, but to see what knowledge is offered. There is a sense of intuition in his actions, and Thoreau embarks upon his experiment speculatively and in response to the changing, industrializing conditions about him. The relationship of Thoreau’s text to this project is that while Walden seeks to describe and explore the author’s experience of immanence, the works of this project seek to manifest it. And while the natural environment is the site of Thoreau’s immanence, I have attempted to locate that affect in audio/visual installation.
Interestingly, American composer La Monte Young (1935-) may have experienced something of the environment that Thoreau chronicles, growing up in a log cabin. Tony Godfrey, in his text Conceptual Art, notes Young as an originator of both Minimalism and the Fluxus movement, with his 1958 work Trio for Strings. The work itself comprises three notes, one per instrument, and the instruction “to be held for a long time” (Godfrey 1998, p.101). Young was arguably the leader of the group called the Theatre of Eternal Music, and referred to as The Dream Syndicate by violaist and group member Tony Conrad (1940-). Their history is long and contested, but their influence is extraordinary and deep – viola player John Cale’s sound in The Velvet Underground is unique to that group, which in turn became one of the most influential bands of rock music. Their relevance to a discussion of immanence can be seen in Conrad’s description of their music.
In his revisionist history of Minimalist music, Early Minimalism: Volume One, Conrad described the group as “working ‘on’ the sound from ‘inside’ the sound” (Conrad 2002, p.20), and says “We lived inside the sound, for years” (Conrad 2002, p.24). The group created music around extraordinarily sustained notes, over extended periods, at high volume. Conrad’s statements describe a spatial-temporal location inside the sound both literally and psychologically, as the musicians focused upon being within. This within, however, is a double within, as the music is also inside of them. This immanent relation of music to audience and musicians is put well by Walt Whitman, who comes very close to the elusive description of music, saying “all music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.” (Conrad 2002, p.43).
The sound Conrad describes is immersive, due to the increased ability of audio amplification to saturate a space in the early 1960s. The group worked with electrical amplification at a time when amplifiers were becoming more powerful and more affordable, and their use of drones allowed for higher volume levels, due to the technical handling of a sustained, rather than transient, audio signal: an amplifier can create a louder ongoing volume level through drone than any other shape of sound that can be input. Increasing this volume, and further physicalising the sound, is the phenomenon by which sustained notes can saturate the acoustic space in which they are heard, and at a much lower volume level than other sounds, with the result that immersive affects are enhanced.
The compositions they played centered around the extended intonation of single or dual notes, and Conrad explains that he performed a ‘fifth’ interval with the singer, but after playing this note for a month or two, suggested to the group that he sometimes play another note (Conrad 2002, p.21). The question of notes and intervals was highly significant to these musicians, who held extensive discussions around any proposed new notes. What is significant to my research is the extremity of attention paid to the material in question: the group slowly moved toward tuning systems that vary from Western standard tuning by as little as a few percentage points of a frequency. Their enterprise records a process of increasing attention, leading to increasing perception, which reveals more phenomenal material, which in turn demands further attention. Further to this, their focus upon so few sounds suggests to me that they were less interested in expression through sound, and more interested in something they perceived in the sound, performing a practical phenomenological survey, not articulated in philosophy but in their music.
The way that the group configured sound, through composition and in performance, might allow them to be re-conceptualized as a machine for producing affect along the lines of the state of immanence that I am investigating here. Whilst the frequencies performed were selected, the durations over which each player sustained a note was based upon maximizing that duration, rather than sequencing with other players. This produces a texture of indeterminacy in the music, as changes of bowing direction, or the ending and beginning of sung notes create small accents. Such music lacks a pulse, or central tempo against which time is delineated. In this way, the music is detached from a human reference point, as the audience is unable to entrain, or fall into time with the music. Instead the listener is presented with a complexity. It is this type of temporality and texture that is explored in my project works Barney and Melting Moments.
Immanence and listening to the natural world.
In the midst of my research project, while walking along the Merri Creek, a nature reserve near my home, I experienced a compelling version of the state of immanence. The experience was characterised by a feeling of absorption with my surroundings, and on reflection seemed augmented by the complexity of forms and phenomena produced by the natural structures within which I moved. Here I wish to explain my position in regard to nature, and how it does not posit a philosophical dualism between nature and the artificial.
My previous research in recording and shaping sounds has led me to the understanding that the natural world offers a great variety of sounds, often presenting sounds that are not heard in artificial sound, and surprisingly, offering examples of sounds I had previously considered to be only achievable through artificial means. Phasing, for instance, is an effect produced when a sound is duplicated, slightly altered in speed, and replayed together with its original, and has been a popular use of recording technology. I have heard it produced, however, at a waterfall in a rocky gorge, by standing near the rocky (acoustically reflective) stone face, with the white noise produced by the water crashing into the pool being heard both directly from the fall in one ear, and also from the reflection from the wall through the other. The slight delay caused by the difference in distances between the sound arriving directly and in reflection produces phasing effect. Experiences such as these have led me to the belief that the natural, rather than artificial world offers a greater variation of sounds, through the complexity of processes at work in the world, when compared to the process of a human. I have extended this thinking into my studio practices, leading me to employ reductive art-working practices that allow the complexity within materials to come forth. For example, in manipulating sounds in the process of composition, one uses tools that I believe ultimately homogenise the result.
This approach to creating forms informed my observation and reflection upon how the Merri Creek environment stimulated the sense of immanence – the complexity of forms and elements, derived from the multitude of forces acting within the environment, led to a vast amount of data being available to perception. The principal way that I adapted this understanding was to find ways to create complex, even chaotic processes, in the formation of artworks. As I have intimated previously, this decision was not based upon romantic notions of nature, but upon phenomenological evaluations of the environment. I have discussed the ways that I put this thinking into practice in the discussions on project works.
7 KEY THEORISTS AND ARTISTS
In this chapter I will discuss how my notion of existence as a state of immanence has arisen from active environmental listening practices. I also briefly relate this to Heidegger’s phenomenology and Deleuze’s radical empiricism, his philosophy of Aion, and of pure immanence. These philosophical reference points have assisted me to become clearer about my listening experiences, by way of addressing them from a different perspective. They are used here to contextualise my thoughts within a broader intellectual discourse. In most cases, I have undertaken these philosophical readings subsequent to the production of artworks, and it retrospectively that I use these thoughts. At the end of the research process, however, both works and thoughts come together in a point of departure for further practice led research.
The approach to active listening that informs the project derives from two dialogues central to sound art practice. The first of these is the phenomenology of listening developed by Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1955), the French born originator of the art form ‘musique concrète’, which is based upon making music with recorded sounds rather than from instruments. In his writings about musique concrète, Schaeffer developed ‘Acousmatics’, a phenomenology of sounds which are heard without visible sources, and that includes four modes of listening (Schaeffer 2004, p.76). The first of these is “pure listening”, in which a sound is listened to without its visual counterpart, which serves to isolate what is sonically present. The second is listening repetitiously, in which a sound is repeatedly audited to increase our familiarity with it as a content of our perception. The third is “variations in listening”, wherein the auditor, listening repetitiously, also becomes aware of the variations in listening introduced by their own perception. Lastly, the “variations in signal” that can be introduced by replaying the sound in different ways: in parts, at differing speeds and through different filtrations, which allow us to be familiar with the sound in extension. The procedures described here are basic techniques of listening that are useful to those working with sound, in the capacity of composer, designer or engineer, affording them perhaps more extra sensitivity and awareness than they previously possessed. As part of this training, the listener often becomes more aware of their sonic surrounds, by virtue of paying attention to the sounds that are in general filtered out of conscious attention. In this way, the capacity to be ‘in’ the world via sound may be enhanced.
The second of these dialogues is the practices of soundwalking, formalised by Canadian composer, writer and theorist R. Murray Schafer (1933-). Schafer originated the soundscape genre of composition, based around active listening experiences and recordings made in natural environments. Sound walks are formally organised around walking through a geographic territory that is defined by sound marks – significant and/or interesting sounds heard within that space, such as fog horns, species of birds or waterfalls. Schafer’s discourse contained a political positioning, strongly opposing sound that he considered noise pollution, such as aircraft, cars, heavy industry, air-conditioning and other “harsh” impositions on the natural soundscape (Schafer 1994). Schafer’s position of distinguishing the natural and artificial is inimical to my own, but his ideas about listening in the world do provide a background to my position.
Embodiment: visual and sonic space.
Visual space structure is a production of the Western civilization created by Greek phonetic literacy, and is space seen via the minds eye when abstracted from the other senses: infinite, divisible, extensible, and featureless; connected, homogeneous and static. Acoustic space is the natural space of nature in the raw, inhabited by non-literate people. It is non-homogeneous and discontinuous; its resonant and interpenetrating processes are simultaneously related with centres everywhere and boundaries nowhere (McLuhan 2004, p.71).
McLuhan’s ethnography is taken out of context here, and his mention of non-literate peoples appears to be generalised. However, I have used this quote as part of an exploration of ways that sonic space might offer a different subjectivity to visual space, and how this might be useful in exploring immanence. The spatiality that McLuhan describes is one that I find useful in communicating something of Heidegger’s phenomenology, and the way that my reading of it has informed my thinking.
Heidegger’s role in my research has been a shifting of perception of the way I am located in the world, and in a differing conception of how the world is constituted. I have found Heidegger’s phenomenology to be highly sympathetic to a sonically oriented perception of the world, perhaps because of his interrogation of forces and entities that are not comprehensible through the visible, but only through questioning the relations of things within the world. Rather than the centred, Cartesian model described above by McLuhan, of continuous and contiguous visual space, Heidegger’s space is similar to the sonic space, discontinuous and non-homogeneous. Whilst the term embodiment is not explicit per se in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926), many relevant questions and propositions that are related to it may be found there. My reading of Heidegger reveals a way of re-interpreting being in the world as becoming in the world, through his observation of the dynamic energies and forces present in it. For example, a broken piece of equipment stands forth within the environment, calling attention to itself (Heidegger 1962, p. 105). In this way of being, the perceiving entity and the equipment are part of the same connected structure of existence, and this is subtly different from the notion that they are separate entities. Heidegger’s thinking can be described in terms of his dismantling of the metaphysics of presence, in which he argues against being having transcendent ‘beingness’, and for being’s construction within the contingencies of life (White 1996) as a becoming.
Empiricism “holds that knowledge derives from the senses alone, and stresses the importance of observation and experience in interpretation rather than theoretical constructs.” (D’Alleva 2005, p.12)
My artworks might be read in relation to empiricism, and by using texture, excessive repetition, and immersion via loudness and visual saturation I have sought to provoke “observation and experience”, rather than references to theoretical constructs. I have also used techniques of abstraction, including negation, displacement and reduction of figurative signification in order to frustrate the audience’s processes of reading and interpretation such as through the application of theoretical constructs. A question that I have formed about my work, however, is whether there can be a form of empiricism more acute than that defined above, wherein meaning might be located in the sensory itself. To explore this further, then, let us return to the phrase “knowledge derives from the senses alone” in the quote above. Here we can see an inference that knowledge is derived through a transmission process, from the artwork, through the senses, to the audience.
As an artist, I do not set out to create meaning, per se, but rather set out to ‘make art’. As artist-researcher Lesley Duxbury remarks “the reasons for making [art] work are many and various, however it generally materialises through “doing”, through a physical engagement with materials and often reveals the unexpected” (Duxbury 2007, p.17). The question I put to myself as an artist is: who creates the meaning in my own work, myself as the artist or myself as the audience for my own work? Taking this further, I have tried, as an artist, to situate myself in the same place as the audience, and have done so via strategies that modify and erode my presence in the art-making process. Here I am not suggesting that I am not responsible for my works, but rather I have focussed upon working intuitively with the media to create sensations. The artworks I have made have tended to be processed by the question of how can I present this sensation, which I locate in the medium? My objective here, though, is not to establish the nature of the medium, per se, but to render sensations from it for the audience. Therefore, I have set out to create machines for abstract sensation. The value of making machines is that whilst writing a book or recording a piece of music or producing a film will produce abstract sensations, a machine will emphasise process.
The functionality that I am ascribing to my work can be further clarified and explored by again returning to the D’Alleva’s definition of empiricism, specifically the phrase; “stresses the importance of observation and experience in interpretation rather than theoretical constructs” (D’Alleva 2005, p.12). Here we find an overtly oppositional construction, of “observation and experience” against “theoretical constructs”, referring to the valuation of perception over theoretical reflection. There is, however, a covert opposition in the text, wherein meaning is located in interpretation, whether it be based upon observation and experience or theoretical constructs, rather than sense experience itself. As I have said previously, my work emphasises the sensory experience and questions about how meaning might be positioned within that experience, and it is for this reason that I now turn to philosopher Giles Deleuze’s ideas of empiricism.
In The Logic of Sense (Deleuze 1969, pp. 61-5), Deleuze outlines a form of radical empiricism through his division of time into two types: Chronos, the eternal past and future; and Aion, the moment of the present. In contrast to D’Alleva’s interpretation of true empiricism given previously, Deleuze is working toward a radical empiricism, which rather than favouring the interpretation of knowledge gained through experience, points toward an existence of pure experience in time, superseding secondary processes of interpretation. Suggesting that Aion is infinitely subdivisible, but never actually infinite, and contrasting this to the notion that the instant, by running through all of time, is also the largest category, inclusive of all instants along the line of Chronos, Deleuze draws attention to the instant of the present as an important site. It is this conception that can be used in the thinking though of aesthetics and aesthetic experience.
The Deleuzian sense of becoming, a self in constant motion, can be contrasted to ontological notions described as being: becoming as suggestive of process and change, being alluding to an eternal essence. What is significant about this as a philosophical position is that Deleuze is not arguing that one can actually exist in the pure present, but rather that one might work toward existing in it (Ramey 2006, p.96). I have used this notion to argue for the value of the aesthetic in art, as appealing to the senses in the first instance. This is the underlying logic of this project’s artworks and is drawn from reflections on listening itself. It is a conception of ‘the world’ that promotes art as a site for experiencing the instant of the present as we slip through it.
Existence and the Plane of Immanence
Deleuze has described the site of these formations as a plane of composition and a plane of immanence, the site of pure immanence (Deleuze 2006, p.27). Whilst that which exists forms on this plane, he differentiates if from consciousness, pointing out that consciousness is of an object by a subject, and this distorts the plane of immanence by stepping outside of it. We cannot, therefore, talk of immanence as pure consciousness, for this makes an object of consciousness. Deleuze says that we can speak of and thus access pure immanence only as A LIFE. This life is not the life of the individual, but rather something else, which he describes through a quotation from Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend (1989):
A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found, as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviours turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. (Deleuze 2004, p.28)
Here we can see life divorced from individuality, and in this way conceive of a life as a singularity, distinct from transcendent relations to other beings, and immanent within the possibilities and actualities that compose that life. Deleuze’s pure immanence of “a life” is significant to the first research question of this project: “in what ways can immersive sound and video installation practices manifest existence as a state of immanence”. I have worked with materials to create artworks that manifest a state of immanence as existence, not as immanent objects, but machines or processes that create conditions under which immanence might be perceived and experienced. In the project work I have configured the computer as a machine that generates sound and light (video) in real time, based on random processes and ranges of variables. In doing this, I am creating a continuum in which the artwork is never defined as a form, but by the processes in which it is constituted.
8 PROJECT WORKS: INTRODUCTION
Over the course of the research I have documented six practical projects, undertaken at the rate of roughly one for each of the six semesters. The works sit within the larger picture of my practice as a gradual transition of working as a composer with sound to engaging with audio/visual media in a gallery setting. Immediately prior to this period of research I had undertaken a Masters of Art by research entitled Current and Emergent Practices in Sound Installation art (2004), which featured audio focussed installations; The Shower (2002-4), a ‘walk-in’ interactive sound/architecture artwork; Pink Balls (2004), an illusory video and surround sound work, and; The End of the Tunnel is now approaching (2004), a public-space sound installation work with existential puns. During this period I also served as Artistic Director to the Liquid Architecture International Sound Art Festival, and with the M.A., this was a period of high activity and public visibility.
My activity during the PhD research has a more meditative quality as I have sought a rhythm of working in which artworks emerge in the studio in a more controlled fashion. It must be said, however, that a sense of overarching agency as the creator of works is elusive if not illusory. In the Dialogues, Giles Deleuze says, “the abstract does not explain, but must be explained” (Deleuze 1977, p.vii), and this is an apt description for my artistic process, as the art emerges through working and I have used the exegesis as a way of interrogating the works in hindsight, which in turn informs works to come. What is remarkable in the artistic process is the implacable emergence of themes and concerns, and I have often found myself discovering aspects of works that accord closely with ideas of which I became conscious after the time of production.
At the beginning of the research I embarked upon learning the software language Max/MSP/Jitter, which I have subsequently used in several of the works. This software enabled the construction of non-linear audio/visual work at a more sophisticated and articulated level that had been previously available to me, particularly in regard to the simultaneous use of sound and video. During the course of the research, then, I have undertaken extensive self-training in using that software, and whilst it underpins the works, I have not documented this in detail. In contrast to my engagement with digital audio/video, I decided to delimit the degree to which I engaged in installation practice. As I will be discussing, the suitability of architectural and construction practices to the sonic aspect of my practice is an outcome of the research. During the research I decided to exclude the pursuit of this in order to complete the original scope of the project in a timely fashion. The sculptural underpinnings of installation practice require a research and development period of their own.
I have worked systematically through practices of installing sound and video artworks, composing them with the paradigm of the machine in mind, in order to explore abstraction and immanence. Though I have worked in a visual art context, my work proceeds from a close engagement with sound and sound culture, where materiality is a central concern,4 in contradistinction to the degree that it is de-emphasised in some areas of visual arts criticism such as that of the influential North American October group.5 As I have previously discussed, I have sought to undertake a philosophical reading that opens up aspects of my experience of being in the world, particularly in relation to sound and listening, and to manifest this through the artworks discussed herein.
9 PINK SLIDES
Pink Slides (2005), installation view. Mirrors, swivels, fishing line, custom slides, slide projectors, lighting gels. Dimensions variable.
Introduction and Description.
Pink Slides is an audio/visual installation work of variable scale. In this work I was making a sensory survey of the affects of light and motion in contrast to related video phenomena. Motion and kinetic energy were key elements of this multi-component work, which can be understood as an aesthetic machine comprised of sound, lights, mirrors and lighting gels. It comprises a minimal music soundtrack in accompaniment to the visual elements depicted above and in the support material. The work, never formally exhibited, was constructed in a project studio space and experienced by a few art school students and staff. This work shows the trial and error process of research, wherein material ideas persist across iterations. For example, mechanics in this work, such as the suspension and rotation of objects, reappear at other key points in the research.
The piece is based around reflectors and lenses hanging from the ceiling. Though the movement of individual components is to some extent predictable, the events caused by interactions, such as light glinting from mirrors and gels, or shadows passing one another on the walls, tend to come as surprises born of complexity. The visual materials include color gels (sheets of colored polycarbonate used in theatrical lighting), mirrors, slides and slide-projectors, swivels and fishing line. The set out for the work includes slide projectors with colored slides, positioned to create a broad yet intense wash of light. Within this wash a number of mirrors and gels are hung, so as to create reflections and silhouettes on the surrounding walls. These suspended objects are hung from the roof using fishing line and swivels, giving them a free range of rotation so that any motion of the air in the space causes movement. In order to affect the speed of rotations, I hung weights from the gels, allowing me to broadly determine the pace of the work.
Pink Slides (2005), installation detail. Mirrors, swivels, fishing line, custom slides, slide projectors, lighting gels. Dimensions variable.
My aesthetic objective was not so much the exposition of indeterminacy or chance, as in the music of John Cage, but to experiment with the workings of interrelated systems, in the way of a machine. The distinction drawn here is between chance, which in Cage’s music was designed to produce surprising and unpredicted listening experiences, and notions of becoming, wherein change signifies the interrelation of shifting flows and forces in time. The spatial motion of this work was caused by air pressure and air movement, and whilst there are sculptural works from Kinetic art6 that use similar means, my reference points were musical, from the phase/process works of Steve Reich, which were also adopted by Brian Eno.
In order to work in sound with this approach, I have used the phase space. Phase pieces in music are based upon repetition and difference; for example, two sound loops play in close synchronisation, until one is slightly slowed. At first the events in the loops are closely matched, and the listener can track the emerging differences. Increasingly, the juxtaposition of events complexifies the overall topography, with new composite sounds emerging from the union of the copies. If this process continues, the loops will gradually come back into time with one another, and will at some point play in unison. This music bears similarities to Western music forms such as the round and the fugue.
Steve Reich’s early work Pendulum Music (1968) is not his earliest exploration of phase and process, but its use of mechanics makes it a useful example. The work is created by suspending four microphones above four speakers, into which the microphone signal is being sent, creating a signal feedback loop of microphone into speaker into microphone. The piece begins with the microphones being set into motion so that they swing back and forth, over the speakers, in their own time. As they begin to swing, the audio signal is opened up, and the microphones produce a note of feedback each time they pass over the speaker. The piece continues until the microphones come to rest.
A phase space is created in Pink Slides through the interrelating motion of the mirrors and gels. Its progress is inexact, as the motion of air in the space is irregular, and the weights and tensions, the exact physics, of each mirror or gel vary. I conceptualised this arrangement as a manifestation of potential, both from the point of view of actualising the kinetic energies of the air in the space, and also the possible permutations of motions that could be observed and inferred by the observer, as they predict how potential events form into actual events. The speed or pace of the work was carefully manipulated to fall within a medium tempo range, between the very slow and the very fast. My intention here was to synchronise with a broadly ‘human’ pulse, such that the speed of the work did not challenge the observer’s body, which would draw attention to the limits of the body, but rather draw attention to how the human body could fall into sequence with an environment.
My intention here is to engage the audience’s attention through spatio-temporal operations on the observer’s body, by literally moving elements around them. The context for this is my questioning of the spatial embodiment of the observer in video and cinema, in comparison with that of spatial audio. Spatial audio composition techniques, such as are commonly used in electro-acoustic music and in film soundtracks, often use the placement of speakers around the audience so that sound can be projected at the audience from multiple directions. In contrast, cinema and video are stubbornly frontal media, due to the mechanics of their framing. This work, which used projected light, and as such has a relationship to video and film, was a way of breaking through the spatial barrier of frontally displayed video to explore what might be possible through projected visual media.
In contrast to this, the audio explored ‘the event’ in sound, also using minimal techniques of repetition and variation, but with a focus on ‘becoming’ and temporality. In Pink Slides, I explored the temporality of the sound event in terms of tensions between singularity and continuum. My approach recalls 1-100 by Michael Nyman (Nyman 1976), in which a chord is struck on a piano and allowed to decay into silence, at which point the next chord is struck. The sounds heard in Pink Slides occur sequentially, one sound event at a time. Nyman’s music, however, was structured around the destination of reaching the hundredth chord, whilst I was interested in exploring each event as a tension between stasis and continuity, wherein each event was experienced as both a repetition and a progression of time. In this sense, I relate my work to guitarist Link Wray’s 1958 hit Rumble, in which Link, an originator of the distorted guitar, structures his performance around the sensation of the sound, striking and sustaining chords for the longest possible duration. Wray’s approach emphasises the sensuality of the sound, by exploring each sound as an end in itself. As such his approach accords with the embodied sense of becoming I am exploring.
In assembling this collective of elements I sought to create a complexity, and by juxtaposing sound and the different visual phenomena, I began to establish my ideas and sense of becoming, as each of the elements formed relations of varying degrees of intensity and duration. The motions of these elements were not orchestrated with a singular design in mind, and remained separate or co-existent. This concept is common to audio/visual relationship theory after Michel Chion, but is able to be extended through the audio/visual installation assemblage, as sculptural/architectural space offers different differences from those between audio and video.