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<nettime> What's wrong with sound art?
Ian Andrews on Fri, 25 Sep 1998 08:07:26 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> What's wrong with sound art?

What's wrong with sound art?

[I am writing this in response to an article on SoundCulture '96 by
Nicholas Gebhardt, "Can you hear me? What is sound art?" in Real Time 13.
This is not in any way meant to be a critique of Gebhardt's article
(though I might attempt such a critique in the future). It is just that
this article has raised some of the issues, and encapsulated some of the
dominant themes of sound theory that have been bugging me for a while. It
might help to check out Gebhardt's article before or while reading this.
http://sysx.apana.org.au/soundsite/texts/hear.html ]

     I have always felt uncomfortable with the theoretical position
ocuppied by "sound theory." Is sound theory a cross disciplinary area
encompassing branches of musicology, acoustic science, linguistics,
cultural studies, philosophy, film theory, anthropology and history, or
 does it occupy, or seek to occupy a position in the gaps between these
disciplines? Like the non-objective and dynamic nature of sound itself,
sound theory seems to permeate a multitude of disciplines without
reference to a single parent discipline or to a genealogical structure
within a taxonomy. In other words, it would be equally valid to argue that
sound theory is a subset of musicology, as it would be to argue that it is
a subset of film theory or philosophy. Thus the sound theorist, who is
rarely just a sound theorist, works in the way of a bricolouer, extracting
knowledge from a diverse range of disciplines. As a result of this, sound
theory suffers from an insecurity regarding its own position in relation
to other disciplines, and so it naturally embraces a tendency towards a
reduction of its scope - or a tendency towards a perceived purity or
essential idea - in order to define itself in stricter terms. I find this
direction (which seems to have occured over the last couple of years) not
only limiting but dangerous. This position, however, is perfectly
understandable when hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on
conferences and festivals in the name of sound art (such as SoundCulture),
and when sound studies strands are becoming familiar fare in Humanities
courses. It is quite predictable that such questions arise such as "what
are the concepts of a pedagogy of sound?"  Sound theory gets to big for
its boots and begins to exhibit the pretension of being a discipline unto
itself. It is at this stage that we begin to see sharp divisions being
drawn between theories of music and theories of sound, between cultural
criticism and sound theory, etc. The most cynical explaination for this
would be that sound theorists/curators/publishers/artists, harbouring a
deep insecurity for their discipline, have opted for an isolationist
policy that seals off the borders, demarcates the territory, fortifies the
limits and ultimately becomes very inward looking. Sound theory becomes an
ivory tower housing a small elite of theoretical purists who constantly
reinvent the wheel as a consequence of their isolation from other
disciplines This tendency to seal off the territory of sound theory often
results in a dramatic interiorization, a search for the "missing essence"
of sound - a search for the lost power that resides in the sonic
unconscious - ontotheology - religion. 

     The problem becomes even more pronounced when we move from theory to
practice. Sound art occupies an even more insecure position. In a
post-Cagean world, if sound art is performed in front of an audience it
can too easily be perceived as music or theater. If sound art happens on
radio it becomes radiphonics or, again, music. So sound art ends up in the
heavily culturally coded environment of the art gallery. But even that is
not enough. Sound art then finds that it needs to be tied to an object (so
that it can be visually documented, given a monetary value, given a value
of authenticity and singularity, etc.). In other words, enslaved to a
regime of the visual, yet again. While it is not true that all sound art
pieces are dominated by the visual - the pieces which attain the position
of highest importance in the hierarchy usually have a strong visual
presence. Disembodied works, on the other hand existing only as sound on
tape or CD in the same contex are often marginalised. 

     It is not my intention to lay the blame squarely on the sound
theorists/artists. The problem can equally be attributed to the growing
institutionalisation/commercialisation of sound theory/sound art, the
gallery/high art system, and even the selfish and paranoid intellectual
climate of the 90's. I may feel uncomfortable about the non-position of
sound theory but I also celebrate the anarchic freedom which this position
brings. It is my opinion that the greatest value of sound theory lies in
its challenge to a philosophical world view based on the domination of the
visual, not in the search for founding principles, aural essences, or
techno-mysticism. However, the re-examination of philosophical values from
the perspective of sound does not call for the instituion of a new set of
unmoveable founding concepts based on sound. We need to tread much more
lightly in this area. Sound theory should be dance from one body of
knowledge to another, constantly plundering, rearranging and juxtaposing
different disciplines. 

Ian Andrews.

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