How sound is sound art?! A thought!

Mayo Martin

At the latest Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak (RITES) event yesterday, sound artist Marc Chia (aka One Man Nation) brought up something regarding sound art performances that’s probably on the minds of even the most open-minded of audiences (including this RAT).

And that’s the lack of an actual performance.

How sound artists are more concerned twiddling the knobs and, well, checking their emails (?) on their MacBooks and overlook other aspects like building personal rapport with the audience in front of them or making use of the actual space they have.

Aside from now Singapore-based Chinese artist Cai Qing who presented his work in process, a collaboration with his son that will take them to Hong Kong and China, the rest of RITES was focused on sound art.

It was a valid point. And for his own processes at least, Marc (Mr Nation?) said he tries to add that performative aspect by turning whatever gadget he has into a tactile surface that he physically interacts with the way a cellist would his/her cello. Not by just pressing buttons but by slapping and hitting the console. (Of course, I doubt he’d go so far as to smash his gizmos ala Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain).

For his performance, Chia also went around the Substation Theatre screaming very much like Zack de la Rocha.

This and a number of the presentations have underscored for me at least, our reliance on the visual, the theatrical to grasp a sound performance (as opposed to an installation), which in a way is something sound artists in Singapore may need to contend with.

Zai Tang’s presentation was the simplest, but in a way it was also the clearest. Talking about acoustic ecology, high-fi and low-fi sounds, and one’s perception of noise/sound in an urban environment, he took us on a walking tour from The Substation all the way up to Fort Canning Park and then down. (Yes, it was also a much needed exercise)

Simply put you were made to focus on sounds. I was surprised that I had a hard time doing so, battling with the constant barrage of imagery throughout the walk. At some point, we had to close our eyes and do this again. I ended up trying to “picture” something.

And so we have One Man Nation doing a One Man (Screaming) Show. Which doesn’t quite translate well (a documented video of the performance elsewhere seemed more effective) but props for trying to prove his point.

Another presentation, by Filipino sound artist Tengal Drilon, also highlighted my reliance on the visual. It’s an interesting piece – a collage of seemingly random (but not so, it turns out) snippents from movies and documentaries over which Drilon “collaged” his own set of studio sounds and field recordings to somehow match what was going on in the screen. Sound, at least from my experience, was secondary and supplementary to what I was seeing.

Have we, as audiences, become so reliant on the visual, the theatrical? Are we still lacking the necessary tools and vocabulary to fully understand and articulate how we should be mapping out sound devoid of a video or something our eye can peg itself to? Especially the kind of aural experience that can be abrasive/non-melodic/etc?

How on earth do classical music concert goers do it?

Oh yeah, they fall asleep.


(This article was orginally published on For Art's Sake! (TODAY), 03 May 2010. Special thanks to Mayo Martin.)

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