Sound art has an identity crisis. Trapped between experimental music and traditional art mediums, it suffers from inaccessibility and an elitist, academic “cost of entry” requirement in order to connect with works in the contemporary art canon. With the recent passing of sound artist Alvin Lucier, the only hope for the future of sound art is in uplifting the outliers who push towards creating new conceptually rooted work rather than continuing to reward artists who glorify technology at the expense of providing approachable entry points.
Part of the issue is an internal lack of understanding of what the medium even is. The works that continue to be regarded are works that teeter on the edge of technology fetishism and experimental composition. One of the more prominent genres within sound art is what I call “laptop sound art,” which can be described as experimental ambient laptop music that often incorporates a visual programming software called Max.
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The laptop sound artist can be recognized by their posture: slouching over mixers perched on foldable picnic tables with wires haphazardly thrown across the floor. They compose with their surroundings; their expressionless faces illuminated only by the glow of their screens. There is never a scarcity of contact mics, transducers, or field recordings present whilst the sound artist twiddles knobs and uses feedback to bathe listeners with controlled frequencies, producing a style of work that to fully appreciate, the audience may have to commit as much time as a feature-length film. If you don’t get “it,” then the assumption is that you must not understand the practice of “deep listening.”
These performances have developed into exclusive, self-congratulatory listening sessions in basements or lofts open only to the who’s who of the sound art community and its most eager apprentices who foam at the mouth for a chance to catalog a closet full of rotting cassettes and audio equipment in unpaid internships. These works exist as a form of experimental music and instrument building worthy of the same acknowledgment that a stream of C++ code deserves for its artistry and progressiveness. That is to say, it is the kind of work that can only be appreciated by the privileged few who understand it.
There is no scarcity of White and European voices within the sound art world who gain institutional support through their masterful manipulation of technological terms like “data sonification” and “max algorithm” because how the work is made unfortunately tends to hold more value than the work itself. Take “Rainforest V (variation 1)” (1973–2015) for example, which was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, in 2019, conceived by David Tudor and realized by Composers Inside Electronics Inc. The most obvious absence from the installation was any mention of the actual rainforest. Headlines at the time were full of information about how rainforests in Central and South America were being burned to allow for the mining of metals used in many of the electronic products that make the installation possible. This begs the question of why? What is in it for the listener to devote such time to experience an installation that doesn’t even acknowledge how its title relates to an ongoing natural crisis?
Elaborate soundscapes billed as performances that are indistinguishable from bourgeois sound bath events sponsored by an Equinox gym aren’t pushing the medium forward. There is hope for the medium though. “The Instrument of Troubled Dreams” (2018) by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller was presented at the Luhring Augustine gallery last fall. The installation consisted of a hacked mellotron presented alone, illuminated by a spotlight and surrounded by chairs for viewers to sit in. Each key of the mellotron was labeled with descriptions like “cats fighting” or “nuns” that triggered corresponding samples and field recordings that could be played alongside other melodic keys labeled “cello” or “quartet #3.” Anyone without musical skill could sit down and compose a flawless cinematic piece, demystifying the idea of composition altogether. The placement of everything in the installation (including the speakers) felt intentional and thoughtful. Visual aesthetics were considered as much as the sonic possibilities, which made for a profound interactive experience.
I wish Xandra Ibarra would describe her “Nude Laughing” (2014) work as a sound art performance, if only to set the bar higher for the medium. Ibarra’s performance begins with a walking pilgrimage through the halls of a gallery lined with onlookers, wearing nothing but stilettos and a breastplate while dragging a sinew-like bag full of “White lady accouterments”: shawls, ballet shoes, blonde wigs, and pearls. She disrupts the sanctity of the museum by giggling into an explosive crescendo of uninhibited, chilling laughter and wreaking havoc on the expectations we place on how one should behave in the presence of art. Of the work, Ibarra says she wants to “enact a union between sound and gesture that can’t be captured within a painting.” She can’t be categorized as yet another sound artist using childhood nostalgia as source material for their max patches and transducers. She is provoking racial and gender perceptions and exploring what it is to exist in a non-White body grappling with the pressure to relate to White womanhood. In “negotiating the simultaneous joys and pains of subjection, abjection, and personhood in public” she ignites a fire in the sacred gallery space and burns it to cinders.
Last week, sound artists Mendi and Keith Obedike denounced their honorable mention from the Giga-Hertz Award ceremony administered by the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. During a rehearsal for the ceremony, a representative for the organization proudly said they “had to choose between quality and diversity” in order to make the awards the most diverse yet. In response, the artists released a statement saying, “The places where media art, electronic music, and sound art are overwhelmingly White and European by design suffer from a lack of intellect, a lack of vision, and a lack of imagination, and are therefore in no position to honor or rank us.” I hope the global majority who turn to sound art reject the laptop stereotype to make room for provocative conceptual works instead.