Report: STEIM at Sonic Acts 2010

An extended report by Elena Tiis on the STEIM programs at Sonic Acts XIII: The Poetics of Space. The fruitful collaboration between the two organizations resulted in two new works by Yutaka Makino and Hans W. Koch, expert meeting by Cafe Oto, Daniele Balit, Worm, keynote and panel with Steven Connor. Video by Vivian W Lin.

Yutaka Makino. Conflux. 26-28th Feb, 2010. Melkweg Media Room.

Conflux - Melkweg
photo by Oxalis Atindriyaratri

Makino’s involvement with STEIM has lasted for about 5 years to date; it is “like a base” he says. During this time, he has stayed as a resident and been involved on a number of projects, of which “Conflux” is the most recent.

Taking a cue from Edgar Varése’s notion of letting “the entire work [] flow as a river flows”, he came to think about what the new instrument for his generation could be. In answer: the computer. But that’s not it: the computer is a compound word which in Latin means to get together and to think. Makino’s challenge was how to create a system that works as a whole, thinking of the computer not just as a machine, simply asked to do specific work or tasks. In trying to control the entire system, tactically from bottom up, through self formation, and through finding form Makino is looking for emergent properties. In this space, one can proceed to the creation of behaviour which can be transformed into sound properties and systems. As he explained this background as STEIM’s Jamboree which was one of the first events of Sonic Acts 2010, Makino showed an image of a tornado, “then another one” with a wry laugh, betraying an environmental sciences background. Through this training in and sensitivity for environments, coupled with Dan Graham’s idea of “dislocating math in a personal way for the artist”, he takes on the environment in the finding or inducing of “neutral” environments where you can find your own narratives. “Conflux” is linked to this idea.

The intent of the piece was to create an environment where people experience shifted modes of perception in time: perception to proprioception. “Conflux” consists of a process; a gradual change that proceeds to whiteout, accomplished through the use of two layers of fog in contrastive temperatures. The fog is colder at the bottom with a low sound as it is pumped into the room, and hot at the top with a higher sound. These two states of fog, then, gradually pursue homeostasis – a stable state or averaging – until complete immersion in the textureless white of the fog mass, which is the where and when you may start projecting patterns onto this white, the flux of two fogs.

Makino has previously been experimenting with wave field synthesis as a means of spatialising sound, in an effort to abstract space with sound. Yet Makino is not interested in spatialising anything per se, but rather the process of redefining an environment and in inducing interaction between the spectators and their surroundings. “Conflux” is taking on the idea of the environment through the mixture of light, sound and fog. The question is how to create a new type of behaviour within a space with a malleable, amorphous substance such as fog. One cannot separate sound, fog or light, but they exist as a whole. The installation is produced by allowing for two different temperatures of fog, which are alternated by the spectators’ body heat, as the hotter air travels up. The slowly merging fogs in the Melkweg media room, present a very slow piece, reactive to temperature and moistures.

The fog used is not special material in general; the trick is rather in composing an environment which alters the fog’s behaviour. This is not completely controllable, since the material is not computable. So it allows for diverse behavioural possibilities, all dependent on the bottom up heat flow. Makino does not have expectations of a “100 per cent control” of the fog, or that it would include specific movements, rather the fog is enlivened by the temperature alterations and perhaps surprises therein. Fog as a material simultaneously exists and does not; one is in and out at the same time, and the patterns one might perceive in it when it gets all white is a case of the human brain dissecting, making sense of the white.

Makino’s involvement at the Sonic Acts “The Poetics of Space” festival through STEIM came about when STEIM’s current artistic director Takuro Mizuta Lippit invited him to feature in it last year, but already by this time Makino was thinking about developing a performative installation with the use of pseudo matter such as air or fog, and toying with the idea of a piece that does not have a definite space. He was using the same idea for the music that forms part of “Conflux”. Such an integration of music, a sense of spacelessness and pseudo matter never before materialised as a piece, so involvement with the festival has been opportune.

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The installation uses artificial fog which has completely different materiality from water vapour based fog. The usage of artificial fog was more of a practical decision, because they stay more concrete for longer which then allows the spectator to follow – as well as imagine – the specific development of shapes in the fog mass. Had he used water vapour, the result would have been more uniform instead of shapes coalescing out of the fog before complete whiteout. Makino had received technical supports from Melkweg in setting up a high ampere power source, which made the installation possible.

Researching for this piece must have been an interesting enterprise; Makino cites sensory deprivation and perceptual deprivation (i.e. stimulation without information, in the sense that one is exposed to colour sensations but cannot distinguish them three-dimensionally) studies as influential. The notion of developing these states gradually as well as physically engage shifts of perception draws, partially, from psychological experiments. For instance, the Ganzfeld (German “total/complete field”) effect is due to staring at an undifferentiated and uniform field of color. Wolfgang Metzger’s research in the 1930s established that when subjects gazed into a featureless field of vision they began to hallucinate, which was recorded in a change in their electroencephalograms which show the process of neural firing in the brain. Airforce pilots are subjected to artificially induced white fields for training purposes. Further, Diller & Scofidio’s “Blur” building in Switzerland, which is closely attuned to the perceptual fields Conflux engages with, the whiteout of fog and engulfing noise. Pierre Huyghe’s “L’Expédition Scintillante, Act II” is also of relevance, as well as Steven Connor’s article on the subject of air (the latter took part in the STEIM “The Hot Space in Music” panel at Sonic Acts).

Makino’s interest in how to materialise pseudo matter resulted in this case in the inducement of a “non object” which was not mediated by a computer. His background studies in environmental science are tactile in the sense that he subscribes to a view of science that is systemic rather than analytical. Cybernetics and systems theory are important conceptual standpoints engaged in the study which lead up to “Conflux”. 60s and 70s experiments, for instance the process art movement’s usage of materials which would decay, and their exploitation of the changes that the mutability and obsolescence of materials such as wax, felt and land masses could accomplish, are important precedents. Makino’s “Submultiple” of 2008 is an attempt to capture a solidified moment of movement in sculptural form, with each 3D-print that is produced different, unexpected. This is work which always changes, which is not tactile; one can see the phenomenon but cannot grasp it – it rather slips out into ambiguity and abstraction.

Conflux - Melkweg
photo by Oxalis Atindriyaratri

Before experiencing “Conflux”, members of the audience are asked to sign an agreement which cautions those who experience “ligyrophobia, achluophobia, homichlophobia, claustrophobia, asthma, anxiety attack, panic attack, heart attack, high blood pressure, breathing disorder, dizziness, migraine, headache.” This list seems rather ominous, as well as the stated possibility that it “might cause temporary disorientation and hearing damage.” As the fog begins to fill the room at the bottom it first pools out like a liquid, licking, sliding and gradually enveloping the floor. The fog outlet at top starts a little later and the fogs begin mixing, with that from the bottom rising up like wisps of smoke. The effect is ominous but beautiful; I was at once hyper-aware of being only able to distinguish my own body in the intermittent field of white and shivering at the thought of gas chambers, seclusion and chemical experiments to the grain of the music that pools through the loudspeakers which I can no longer place. At some point, lights on the sides, interrupting and reassuring, like beacons for the mariner.

Makino has actually been dispersed between three places for the duration of the festival. He is a PhD candidate at Media Art and Technology Program, UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara), a guest of the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm, and of course, the preparation for Conflux has seen him reside at STEIM in Amsterdam. Now that the festival is over, Makino will be getting settled in Berlin, with a couple of projects in development. He will be coming back to STEIM for another brief residency period in April, to prepare for STEIM’s presence at Japan Society in New York in May.

Makino has an educational background in earth and environmental sciences. He also studied fine art and sound in Chicago, and had the former artistic director of STEIM Nick Collins as a tutor, which led to him moving to the Netherlands. He spent two years at the Royal Conservatory/Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, and as an artist in residence at STEIM for the years that followed. He had a brief sojourn in Paris as well, researching the architecture and music of Iannis Xenakis.

Hans W. Koch. two rooms, flipped. 26th-28th February, 2010. STEIM

Hans Koch - STEIM
photo by Oxalis Atindriyaratri

Shortly before its outing in the context of the Sonic Acts festival at STEIM, I sit down with Hans Koch for a small talk about his upcoming piece “two rooms, flipped”. A rectangular sliver of red carpet lies on the floor, still uncut into shape and the microphone is not affixed to the roof yet (yes, it will be a case physical flipping of objects as well as sounds) but what he lets me listen to through the loudspeaker is already piquing.

So what is “two rooms, flipped”? Its origins are personal but also technical Koch needs two spaces that are connected to make this work which is possible to do at STEIM because all the rooms in the building are hooked up. To describe the piece in non-technical terms, Koch says, it is a case of mirror-imaging frequencies. The simple mechanics of flipping can be exemplified by whistling: whistle in an ascending scale and flipping it means that the loudspeaker delivers the scale as going down. So up goes down but – aha! – this happens again in the other room, so the sound produced in one room becomes audible again in the other. It is folded, however, so it is not the original. Oh, what or where was the original, again? After all, the system distorted it as soon as it picked it up. This flipping process is a bit more complicated than this, however. The lower sounds, when flipped to a higher range, tend to get compressed in our ears. The outcome of a simple flipping would be just a rather nasty high-pitched whine. So the process also needs a mathematical intervention: the high frequencies are stretched out a bit. Koch has a very engaging image to describe this: think of a fair with the house with all the distorted mirrors – one of the mirrors will distort your form but when this distortion is passed on to the other mirror, your form will start looking “okay” again. In this sense it takes from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, after a fashion. In between these distortive mirror images “there lie several monsters”. So the music is double-folded: it passes two times through a distortive mirror.

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Something of the “roots” of this particular project lie in Koch’s looking at audio processes, bumping into their boundaries. The Western tonal system has 12 keys with 5 intervals which can be visualised a kind of clock-face, with the G and the C and the F keys and so on spread out in a circle. This is, of course, a virtual space of music since in listening we do not comprehend sounds in this way. But it can be taken quite literally, as Koch once did in his “circle of fifths” installation, by placing 12 speakers in a circle in a room, playing a Mozart piece and filtering it out so that the Fs and the Cs and the Gs and rest of the tones come from their specific speakers. Usually sound for human ears is the experience of tones melding, but in this experiment one could distort this very image of sounds blending, isolating certain frequencies which become either louder or quieter depending on where specifically one stands in the room.

To describe what is actually audible in these two rooms which are flipped: orchestra music put on in one room is immediately inverted in the same room, always on the edge of feedbacking while what comes out through the loudspeaker in the other room sounds more or less like the original (although it really isn’t!). The idea is to create something which you actually can’t experience. Like Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”, you step behind the mirror and you are in two spaces at once – perhaps not physically as you cannot be in two rooms at once – but with the sensation giving you cause for some mental gymnastics.

How this links with Sonic Acts’ “Poetics of Space” thematic of this year is somewhat of a premeditated accident. Koch wasn’t consciously thinking of a space thematic with the current piece, but as “two rooms, flipped” started crystallising, what was happening was actually the discernible creation of three spaces through the medium of sound. There are two physical rooms, caught talking to one another like two distorting mirrors, with the mathematical space of the music inside the computer. It’s a “computationally expensive way of ruining sound”, Koch says with a laugh. The two spaces are connected to one other with microphone and loudspeaker. The patch of red carpet (on the ceiling in one room; on the floor in the other) is a hook for the eye. There will be a constant sound which gradually shifts and responds to the various noises produced in the room – talking, coughing, sneezing, singing or what-have-you.

"Two Rooms, Flipped" installation by Hans W. Koch
photo by John Kannenberg

But who is Hans W. Koch? A composer by training, his arrival at sound art is not very typical. He says that it “explains the historic obsession” with classical music though, as well as the idea of using the Western tonal system circle with five intervals. He does not do expressive art but rather his pieces come out as the result of a process of trying for the best way in which to realise an idea or a thought. The divergence from composer beginnings happened as he was not simply interested in writing pieces, or something just for others to play, as well as not in general writing music which was attractive for ensembles. As such, having an interest in and a knack at electronics and different medias is a fast track to sound art.

At STEIM’s Jamboree session, the first Sonic Acts event, Koch presented a sequence of videos, emblematic of the way he is dealing with the cross-section of computers and music. First, “rendez-vous”, which involves hair dryers and rubber gloves strung up by a hanger, with the subtitled explanation delivering a laconically funny documentation of what is happening as the blow dryers go on and off haphazardly. When “sometimes a meeting just happens”, the hot air makes the gloves balloon up in the gesture of a handshake. There is no control for when the two gloves inflate at once and become hands; the inflation happens completely at random since the circuitry has been tampered with.

Koch explains that he likes to use simple ideas and take things literally, exploring everyday tools and how they function, and in this process to engage with things which are usually overlooked. He first started working with computers in Cologne where he studied composition. In 1992 he became interested in electronics, starting off with very little knowledge and serial learning from mistakes The interest in computers at Cologne then reflected an imbalance: people were not talking about computer music but software music, which marks a fine distinction for him. So by posing the question of what a computer of itself sounds like, he embarked on a series of experiments, opening up motherboards and making the circuitry generate the music, torturing them by splashing water onto them too. “So at the end the thing is dead”, he laughs.

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The “more and more” installation (recently shown at the STEIM Hotpot #2: Handmade Music Amsterdam session on February 17th) started off as a kind of failure. In this piece, the computers used are “infected” with a kind of virus that causes the synthesiser to open again and again until the computer crashes. “The failure is the piece”, he says, “but not always”, as I jot the former down. I suppose sometimes the piece is just the piece too, luckily.

These experiments evolved in his using computers in more elaborate ways, investigating the relation that exists in the computer since it is a combination between software and hardware. These elements can be seen as a kind of unity which can be tapped in and explored. A laptop with built in speakers and a mike created feedback which, to him, “was annoying”. He began to subvert this through a Max MSP patch which changed the space of the feedback, and it become possible to play a laptop like an accordion, using the keys and opening and closing the screen.

Koch’s work is site specific usually, engaged in “squeezing [these particular] spaces for the things you want from them”. This is how it connects with Sonic Acts 2010; the connection between STEIM’s rooms is squeezed to coax out a kind of conversation between them. Even if sound art is often considered inaccessible, the challenge here for the listener is to piece together the puzzle. Not a climax after climax after climax, but sounds flipping back and forth between two rooms.

Steim Jamboree. #2: Birdcage, Café Oto, Worm. 25.02.2010. In the context of Sonic Acts, The Poetics of Space.

Sonic Acts Day 1
photo by Rosa Menkman

Following Hans Koch and Yutaka Makino’s presentations, the remaining talks of the STEIM Jamboree session focused on the themes of experimental arts curating, support, and facilities, as well as the financial issues of organisation through the examples of Birdcage (nomadic), Café Oto (London) and Worm (Rotterdam).

Birdcage is a gallery that travels around and exists in no space. An initiative of Daniele Balit, it is by now almost a year old, with a birth point sometime in March 2009. To date, it has hosted three episodes – in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Beijing. To conclusively define the Birdcage has the connotation of a limit, because you close something as you define it, Balit states; so he engages in the opposite effort, presenting the Birdcage as something that could be fluid, taking shape through practice as a concept in evolution. It is difficult to identify it with existing models: the Birdcage is not a gallery, a venue, a festival, nor an agency either, although it has something in common with all the models above, as a kind of metastructure of them.

One of the most important formative concepts behind this was the “museum without walls” concept by the French writer André Malraux who wanted to break open the gallery walls and find the connection between art, cultures and temporalities. Balit wanted to realise a sonic version of a wall-less gallery, because sound by definition is difficult to limit to a space, and it can be easily adapted to situations, to transform the perception of a space or influence it. Until which point can you work with the idea of sound being space specific? Birdcage as a kind of mobile sound gallery invites artists to assign a new space for it – a park, under a bridge, an astronomical observatory, a pool – the possibilities are open, yet sound explorations in outer space might be a little too much as of yet… The context: artists are invited through their selection of a space. Whilst thinking about the work an artist is also forced to think around it, the “where” of it. Thus the gallery is incorporated in the artwork, putting together artistic strategies and curatorial discourse. Such experimentation has happened before, especially in the 60s and 70s, but “enough theory” Balit says, and traces the history of Birdcage acts.

Carl Michael von Hausswolf’s 1485.0 kHz was staged in Stockholm, and consisted of setting a radio at the eponymous fixed frequency, creating the condition of out of this world communication in the intimate space of a private living room. The radio “action object” subsisted in this Swedish living room for one month, turning on for every evening as a dinner was taking place.

Sonic Acts Day 1
photo by Rosa Menkman

In Amsterdam, the Birdcage was involved in transforming an empty shop front in Zeedijk, in the “Chinatown” area of the city. dj sniff or Takuro Mizuta Lippit, who is also the current artistic director at STEIM, invited people who had roots in Asian culture to form a temporary microcommunity of musicians, as a way of confronting the East and the West. The storefront was designed as a stage, as an architectural structure that distributes the performers at different levels; not something that has a fixed notion but which can be redesigned in collaboration.

Birdcage events have no fixed logistics, and they have been produced each time by building a partnership on the ground, and by fostering a link between the local and the non-local. This merging of curatorial and artistic functions creates a sort of a story for the gallery, and with each place being different the Birdcage is at the border of being an art project itself and functions experimentally.

In Beijing, Yan Jun’s “news for tomorrow” was set in a newspaper office by hiding cassette and mp3 players in different places around the office with headphones hanging out. During the working day of the journalists, the sounds that could be heard by pressing in the earbuds were prerecorded interviews, real-time office noise and feedback. The work wanted to take part of the daily life of the journalists. Next, the Birdcage will be engaging the astronomical observatory in Rome.

Café Oto is a London venue which opened in April 2008, in an abandoned warehouse in Hackney, after being run once a month in different locales in the city. In this case, having a physical space was a way of cementing impact, trying to get away from irregular, dispersed events which were mostly attractive to a highly specialised audience. Keiko and Hamish run Café Oto in d-i-y sort of way independently, on a shoestring budget but very responsively to new ideas. Theirs is an impassioned, survivalist talk, detailing the story of running an experimental arts venue in a difficult city. They aim to be tactical in the way their pull in audiences, mixing in terms of styles and generations, conflating local and larger names during one night even. One of the largest difficulties in sustaining growth of a small place is the ephemeral nature of the events. The owners are trying to extend their residency programme; at the moment they can offer certain acts a space for three concerts in a row but even month-long residency and development project including local partnerships could be in development.

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Café Oto survives through a network of volunteers, and being neighbourhood based, having a plug in Residence FM and “the sea of goodwill” from local musicians, artists and enthusiasts. Funding has been occasionally received for some specific events but most important it is the attraction of an independent venue that had quick impact and has kept them afloat. Keiko and Hamish chanced upon a real thirst for a music venue of the sort that they are offering. Funding possibilities are as yet unexplored due to, a great extend, an attempt to preserve a sense of independence.

The case of Worm, in Rotterdam, is fascinating because during its 10 years’ nomadic existence it is in a situation of luxury. It is a well-funded institution in a city that does not immediately boast of its friendliness to experimental arts. In a way, they “had to force themselves on the town”, in the form of little organisations for which Worm became an umbrella. There is film programming and production, music programming and production, and a media lab (which has recently developed a notorious Web 2.0 suicide device) which offer space for art academy activities (like the Piet Zwart) as well. The film lab facilities (shoot, edit, develop) are d-y-i, free to use, and the same goes for the sound studio which was pieced together in an ad hoc way from hand-me-down equipment. Worm has music programmes, a radio, and they invite residencies and working opportunities in conjunction with preparing for live gigs, with archiving, livecasting and editing at the same time. The cinema shows mainly films which would not normally be available, in a 30-seater cinema space.

STEIM Jamboree Session
Photo by Szilvi Toth

Throughout their haphazard presentation, with images at random and snickering from the viewers, the Worm representatives give a sense of the vitality of a place which trades on a fairly free programming. However, they seem very conscious of the fact that without subsidies Worm couldn’t have started or could continue to develop in the way that it is today – which is very paradoxical, they say, because they venue doesn’t have the “optimal audience” in Rotterdam. Then again, receiving funding brings on its own limitations. A big amount of money must be spent on handling that money, of which having an accountant is not the least. Of a staff of 15 people and a team of volunteers, 2 people are fully employed working only with money issues. Yet the institutionalisation of Worm has not been more than necessary, they say. The recent funding cuts in the Dutch cultural arena are a scare, as the situation could change easily and Worm, as all cultural organisations, has to fight for funding, and needs a justification to deliver. Most recently Worm had a stunt at Ebay, putting the organisation up for sale, with – apparently – no viable buyers yet.

As the panel closes, running through these different examples is the realisation that attracting audiences presents a locational challenge, and arts organisations, in order to stay viable, have to rely on having a strong enough experience for repeated audiences. It’s not a question of having a specific night for a specific programme, but a constant circulation that is however mutable and varied.

The position of arts organizations in the Netherlands is special in the sense that it can (at least to some extent) allow for the possibility of experimental artists who can sustain themselves without a “day job”. Yet making a living from experimental arts is a problem, although it’s not just a question of money. Exercises in city marketing and the development of big festivals can create huge but temporary concentrations which can make it difficult to sustain arts organisation throughout the year. The tendency to go for event focused programming takes away from sustainability. For arts organisations, it is rather the sustained integration of art events throughout the year that is the focus for stronger experimental arts provision. So for those institutions that exist “at the banlieue of the system”, as Daniele Balit puts it, the visitors’ support of “the regular stuff” is what matters the most.

The Hot Space in Music: STEIM panel at Sonic Acts, 27th of February 2010. De Balie.

The Hot Space in Music - de balie
photo by Oxalis Atindriyaratri

STEIM’s panel session for the Sonic Acts festival had the two artists involved with Sonic Acts through STEIM, Hans W. Koch and Yutaka Makino, sit down with STEIM’s artistic director Takuro Mizuta Lippit and Steven Connor. The latter is attached to the London Consortium and Birckbeck College as well as also being an author, on sound and how we listen among other things. He delivers a lecture as a warm up for the eventual discussion, beginning by noting how skittish the other presenters during the conference have been about simply “reading things”. As a writer he is partial to “writing things”, and has written something for the audience to listen at this particular moment. A lucid speaker and writer, Connor extracts a few approving laughs before engaging in a flighty, writerly presentation which weaves its points through frequent ellipsis and poeticised rephrasal.

There are two things which concern him, which he will expand upon “in a collected fashion”. First of all, we are quite right to think of sound as saturated in space, as something which requires and procures space. It is a propagating phenomenon, it is expatiate and has to go beyond itself. Sound needs space to be in. It needs limits provided by solid objects in spaces. This is sound’s haecceity or “thisness”. It demands finitude: space.

Sound takes up space, yet it assumes it not just takes it. It is not naked but clothes itself in it, clings to that space. Sound refuses to relinquish its hold on a space where it occurred. Yet it is not adulterated but made possible by this space. First and last, space of sound is to be all existence. But could it be that space doesn’t seem to demand sound? This is true in inverse. But does sound induce space? Sound is not just supplemented and given body in space. Sound and space are indissoluble; they are accomplices, accessories for one another.

Secondly, sound and space are never coincident, but sound inflects and displaces. Sound needs room to propagate but it comes short of space because humans are not very good at recognising spatial position. We are much better at distinguishing between quality than by source or by position. The ear often consents to being led by the eye. Connor has written at book-length on ventriloquism, with the eventual discovery that this trick of mouthless speaking has little to do with sound in the end. It is approximative here: space acts as the alibi rather than the occasion for sound. Sound in space needs so much visual elaboration; the eye construes space as a given, but the ear makes it reside, it makes it exist as a shiver, and makes space dubious. Sound pits space against itself and makes space seem deficient. It deports it beyond itself – sound sets space by the ear.

The relation between sound and space is indissoluble but still sound is at once outside and inside; one listens in on the inside and listens out to the exterior. In the “earroom” – in the space of what we listen, in the primal cavity of the ear – sound is construed to the dimension of the ear. Connor now involves his own experience of tinnitus as fuel for his exposition. Tinnitus is a condition that, he states, is a surprisingly common auditory experience for a good amount of people. About half the people in the lecture room currently experience it in some form, he contends. Connor’s tinnitus is his “auditory self-taste”, which he explores as a historical and literary rather than a medical account for the purposes of this lecture. He asks “what organ does the ear use to overhear itself?” There is, of course, “no such thing”. The brain hears the ear in the same way that it corresponds in the ear – as a placid simultaneity. There is a doubling of the space of the world, where the sounds produced in the head have a form of exteriority without the position that usually accompanies this. Thus, there is an imaginary space of the ear which is half anatomy, half imagination. Its workings construe what he calls the “auditory black box”. Tinnitus qua headnoises used to be explained through pitting them as evidence of spiritual presence or as evidence of otherworldly visitors. There are testimonies, stories and treatment suggestions dating from the ancient Egyptians and Abyssinians on to the Middle Ages. Tinnitus was often taken to be a sign of haunting, of possession. For Connor, the experience is more akin to the “electronic fizz of white noise”. Thus, the new, electronically producible sounds are making sense for tinnitus sufferers, he claims.

de balie
photo by Oxalis Atindriyaratri

Connor’s two things now lead to a third; the attempt to derive from tinnitus a definition of music. Music never exclusively happens in a space; it is the spatialised accessiveness of sound in space. Place is space actualised. Music is sound as space. And by way of syllogism, place is the spacing that the music puts its listeners in. Music involves sounds to which no space can be equal. It is the “lexicon of the inimitable”. But this fantasy of ubiquity leaves out subtraction itself. It is Bachelard’s subtraction which should be given careful thought here: we focus in on certain sounds, selectively. Thus our very capacity to receive sound defends us against “the agoraphobia of indefinite extraction”. Sound is “definite, this, here”.

After Connor’s lecture, Makino and Koch are invited to shortly present their “mono pieces”, as Lippit calls them. As the Q&A session which follows these presentations takes a rather abstract bend, Connor compares the ear’s constant work of excluding certain sounds to differences between Greek geometry (math of the actual, measurable) and Arabic algebra (spaceless). Connor stresses the importance of this constant work of exclusion, the shifting out and suppression of certain sounds. As a sensitising image, he throws out the instant when the refrigerator whines into life suddenly – for two people engaged in conversation up to this point its constant hum was indiscernible because they had been hard at work excluding it hitherto. It is a historically shifting conception of what gets pulled out into the foreground. The figure and ground separation in music is a fantasy. Actually, we hear sounds merely because we can give them a space. Alien music would be unrecognisable for us, because we have not trained our ears to receive it. Sound is not a space, but optical interference. It is the “fricative of the air”. Aristotle compared sound to pathos, the sadness of something happening. We have a desire for making sound into a manipulable object that is somehow coherent and controllable.

Chaja_20100227_0255 kopie
photo by Chaja Hertog

Elena Tiis is currently an Urban Studies MSc student at the University of Amsterdam. Besides being involved with the Sonic Acts 2010 festival and documenting STEIM’s entrants, she is researching art subsidies in the Amsterdam region through a case study of STEIM for her thesis (due August 2010). She holds a BA degree in Art History from the University of York (UK) (2008), after which she interned at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam. She is originally from Finland.

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