Stop Looking & Listen

I have spent a lot of time thinking about flakiness. That is, after all, what this blog was set up to allow myself. Contradictions, opposition, differences and fleeting thoughts and ideas are increasingly important in my work and my thinking. My last post looked at the contradictions and differences explored in the visual albums of Beyoncé and Terre Thaemlitz. Now I want to consider similar ideas but more generally in audio-visual work.

A combination of two disparate mediums means that these differences and contradictions are inherent in how they relate to each other. In her book Listening to Sound and Noise: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Salomé Voegelin quotes Theodor Adorno — who else? — on the benefits of not reducing thoughts and ideas to certainties:

When philosophers, who are well known to have difficulty in keeping silent, engage in conversation, they should try always to lose the argument, but in such a way as to convict their opponent of untruth. The point should not be to have absolutely corrent, irrefutable, watertight conditions – for they inevitably boil down to tautologies, but insights which cause the question of their justness to judge itself.

Voegelin applies this quotation to the way that we place our senses in a hierarchy of worth. Seeing wins, obviously, since seeing is believing. The misguided “certainty” that photography is truth is actually it’s biggest weakest for Voegelin, and our bias for the visual is misguided:

Vision, by its very nature assumes a distance from the object, which it receives in its monumentality. Seeing always happens in a meta-position, away from the seen, however close. And this distance enables a detachment and objectivity that presents itself as truth. Seeing is believing. The visual ‘gap’ nourishes the idea of structural certainty and the notion that we can truly understand things, give them names, and define ourselves in relation to those names as stable subjects, as identities. The score, the image track of the film, the stage set, the visual editing interface, and so on can make us believe in an objective hearing, but what we hear, guided by these images, is not sound but the realization of the visual. The sound itself is long gone, chased away by the certainty of the image. 

By contrast, hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener about the heard and himself hearing it. Hearing does not offer a meta-position; there is no place where I am no simultaneous with the heard. However far its source, the sound sits in my ear. I cannot hear it if I am not immersed in its auditory object, which is not its source but sound as sound itself.

Whilst at university, in that marvellous and much-missed hub of other creative folk, sound was always used in this regard (although without intention). I remember one informal presentation of a stereotypical project about members of some maligned social strata – I want to say it was the homeless, though it could have been any number of things – which was shown alongside a pretentiously melancholic piano piece. Rather than add to the emotive effect of the photographs, it betrayed them in having none. It exaggerated the nauseating untruth of the photographic slideshow projected on the wall in front of us. If only this were intentional, it may have been worthwhile viewing.

This was usually the case when any work was presented with sound. The sound was often misused or employed as an arbitrary dressing for a purely image-based project and this was the problem that I took issue with in my final year at university, producing the project Automatically Sunshine.

The most illuminating response to the project was when I tried and failed to present it verbally pre-installation. It was a horrendous presentation but in hindsight showed that the work didn’t suit the tautological model that all works have to go through to gain critical worth and acceptance. The criticism that stuck out most was “how do you expect your audience to care about your work when you do not tell them what it’s about?” I always remember that question with utter disbelief. The extent to which institutions and the canon have reduced photography to tautology almost made me want to stop studying it.

Voegelin’s introduction voices a number of similar complaints against visual bias and they are worth taking note of. Her proposed philosophy after Adorno is not “irrational or arbitrary, however, but clarifies its intention to embrace the experience of its object rather than replace it with ideas.”

In other words, it does not seek to mediate the sensorial experience of the artwork under consideration through theories, categories, hierarchies, histories, to eventually produce canons that release us from the doubt of hearing through the certainty and knowledge of its worth, which thus render our engagement tautological. 

Perhaps it is because of this that sound art is not a mainstream concern. There is no canon. For a moment it felt like there was about to be a sea change — Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize and the increasing visibility of Chris Watson in mainstream art culture has been brilliant — but it has yet to break through as a dominant and widely accepted form and I hope it never will. The sainthoods bestowed on the likes of the Beatles or John Coltrane are understandable, but they have limited pop, rock and jazz irreparably. The same can be said of photography — this brilliantly irreverent article in Wired comes to mind.

An interesting difference in opinion I have with Voegelin – perhaps a result of our respective biases – is that she sees sound reduced to an arbitrary dressing for the visual. I often think the opposite, when I consider my own interests in the way that record covers are often sidelined to the main aural event and the artists behind them are disregarded in their visual role of enhancing our experiences. Both opinions come from the same desire “to embrace the experience of [an] object” in its totality. Both photography and sound art can be concerned with the phenomenological but students of one rarely consider the other in the depth that they should.

I have my own visual bias – sound is new territory for me and I am a photographer first and foremost – but I do wonder what benefits both types of practitioners would experience if they learnt about the other. Or rather, if photographers learnt more about sound. I’m sure that many sound artists have a knowledge of the visual which is not reciprocated vice versa by visual artists. I feel that a great deal could be achieved if photographers learnt through difference. This is partly the aim of Voegelin’s book: to embrace a sonic sensibility that “would illuminate the unseen aspects of visuality, augmenting rather than opposing a visual philosophy”.

Photographers need to disregard their arrogance over the ease with which they can capture and represent visual events. An event is one thing, an experience is another and the majority of photographers will never adequately capture an experience or provide an audience with a new one if they limit themselves and pander to a needlessly revered canon.

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