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What’s that sound? And is it art?

Before Me by Richard Garet

Before Me by Richard Garet

Published in The Age on August 24, 2013.

To hear the longest-running sound art installation in New York, all you have to do is walk to Times Square and stand on the pedestrian island between West 45th and West 46th streets. It is easy to miss: fewer than one in a thousand people notice it, but stop to listen and your ear will gradually tune in to the eerie metallic resonance emanating from underground and tune out the taxis and buskers and beggars and tourists, if only for a minute or two.

The work, designed to be temporary, has been oscillating away beneath a subway grate since 1977, minus a decade off when funding dried up. There is no plaque honouring the artist, Max Neuhaus, which is as he intended. If people were initially unaware that they were being exposed to art, or mistook the noise for some echo of colossal subterranean machinery, so much the better. It might encourage them to listen more closely to their environment, to pull threads of interesting sound from the city static.

A few blocks uptown, a new exhibition called Soundings: A Contemporary Score is billed as “the first group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art to single out sound as a form of artistic expression.” In the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the show has been presented as a debutante ball for sound art, official recognition that it is no longer the underappreciated sister of painting, sculpture, video and conceptual art. On the message boards where sound artists and experimental musicians gather, it has been greeted with a shrug and some stinging criticism: What took MOMA so long? How can the curators ignore this, that and the other? Have they never heard of John Cage?

On a recent Friday, the day before the exhibition opened to the public, the museum’s third floor galleries were empty of visitors and surprisingly quiet. At the entrance, the 1,500 tiny speakers of Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall give off a layered white noise, like an air-conditioned office being vacuum cleaned. A pair of cones hidden by Sergei Tcherepnin under a repurposed New York subway bench (complete with gobs of chewing gum) vibrate at low frequency, producing sound you feel in your soft tissue.

Haroon Mirza’s Frame for a Painting dresses up a Piet Mondrian composition in flashing lights and the insistent beat and buzz of minimalist techno. In a darkened room at the far end, the ultrasonic chirps of bats, fish and aquatic insects, recorded and slowed down to frequencies audible to humans by Jana Winderen, create a captivating sub-natural sound field.

“I decided ‘no headphones’ because you can do that with your earbuds,” curator Barbara London told me. “I also didn’t want it to look like an electronic trade show – just a bunch of speakers. Sound had to be at the core of every work and I wanted to have different textures.” The result is an exhibition nominally focusing on sound art in which there is more for the eyes than the ears.

The Richard Garet work on display is a case in point: a marble, endlessly spinning on the upside down platter of a record player, recorded, amplified and broadcast through a vintage public address system. “Sound art is a very confused term,” Garet offered. “The element in common is that sound is the driving force, whether it’s conceptually, formally, direct, concrete, or imperceptible.”

The one Australian artist in the exhibition, Marco Fusinato, was seated by Perich’s wall of speakers, content to let the hiss wash over him. “How useful is sound art as a term?” I asked him. “Not at all,” he replied, with a bemused shake of the head. His contribution reproduces a score by the avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, with a line drawn from each note to a vanishing point at the centre. “It’s a proposition for a noise piece: imagine if those notes were all played at once,” Fusinato said.

From the Black Mass Implosion series by Marco Fusinato

From the Black Mass Implosion series by Marco Fusinato

His actual noise pieces, such as Aetheric Plexus, combine deafening light and blinding sound, shocking the unwary with an assault on the senses. “If I’d had more space, I would have put in noise work by Marco,” London said. “But that kind of piece, real noise, means ‘how do I contain it?’” “You can’t have 20,000 watts of white light burning someone’s face off,” Fusinato conceded. “The politics of these institutions are complex.”

Three years ago, MOMA installed a conceptual artwork by Yoko Ono in the foyer that invited visitors to scream into a microphone. All summer, the amplified shrieks created a sonic experience somewhere between a live horror soundtrack and a rollercoaster ticket booth. Writing in the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter suggested that Soundings is “low key to the point of timidity” in response to this traumatic, uncharacteristically adventurous episode in the museum’s recent history.

The exhibition has stimulated a lively discussion about the boundaries between sound art and music. Does Dadaist sound poetry belong in a gallery? Are Luigi Russolo’s noise-making contraptions artworks in themselves? What about Pauline Oliveros and La Monte Young? Laurie Anderson and Sonic Youth? Although he is often derided in classical music circles and venerated by visual artists, Cage is generally considered to be a composer. His insistence that an artist can work as freely with noise and silence as with paint or clay is the nearest thing sound art has to a manifesto.

The most heated debate has concerned experimental noise-makers who didn’t make the cut. In 2008, Fusinato co-curated a show with Alexie Glass, Emily Cormack, and Oren Ambarchi at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary gallery that brought together one hundred sound artists from the 21st Century. “We drew from our knowledge of underground scenes, people doing really fucked up stuff,” Fusinato told me.

Headphone cables were pulled taut from ceiling to floor, like a ship’s rigging, inviting listeners to move from station to station: from John Zorn to Scott Walker, from the doom metal of Sun O))) to the musique concrete of Jerome Noetinger, from Japanese guitar terrorist Keiji Haino to noted vinyl manipulator Christian Marclay, three years before The Clock made him an international art star. The porous border between music and art was not so much crossed as obliterated.

Fusinato and Garet both perform live, in small clubs where patrons expect loud, challenging, immersive experiences. In common with them, the third artist that I spoke with, Jacob Kirkegaard, also started out in punk rock. To make the work on show at MOMA, he set up microphones in abandoned rooms at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, recorded the sound of not-quite-silence, then played the recording back in the same space, repeating the process until the resonance overwhelmed all trace of the original sound.

At first, we tried to discuss the piece in the room where it was playing, together with a video shot in Chernobyl, but we were soon shushed by a visitor in quiet contemplation. “I don’t see myself as a sound artist. I’m an artist,” Kirkegaard told me, once we had beaten a chastened retreat. “But I do appreciate that MOMA says ‘this is sound art’ because when they walk in here, people are prepared. They say ‘look, this is about listening’ and people listen.”