No Thing Unto Itself: SoundMatter

Tonight I had the pleasure of talking with Noortje Marres, David Turnbull, and Katherine Behar about “object-oriented politics” as part of the “No Thing Unto Itself” panel discussion, itself an event connected to the “And Another Thing” exhibit at CUNY. I’ve had quite a month — including four public presentations in the past week — so, as eager as I was to take part in tonight’s discussion, I felt a little worn down and under-prepared.

I still haven’t broken my bad habit of custom-writing a new paper for every talk I deliver. Re-purposing material still feels like cheating to me. I have to get over that. Regardless, this time, when asked to say something about “object-oriented politics,” I decided I’d visit the exhibition and allow it to generate some ideas for my talk. I was struck by the sonic pieces in the show — and I had been curious about the dearth of discussion of sound within object-oriented discourse (Timothy Morton is one obvious exception) — so I decided to focus on SoundMatter in my talk tonight.

*     *     *     *     *

Sound Matter

I heard it before I saw it. Before I even crossed the threshold of the James Gallery I knew there were small humming, buzzing machines inside. Through the door and off to the left I beheld a light installation – a sort of chandelier “hack” – composed of dozens of flickering nightlights suspended by their electrical cords, swaying and clinking together in the breezes produced by oscillating fans.

via Cleopatra’s:

I followed their cords up to the ceiling where they heaped upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach a power supply.

Ruslan Trusewych’s “this is the way the world is” presents the world as a swarm of objects, all subject to variable environmental forces, all fighting for access to necessary sustenance – food, water, or, in this case, electrical current. What became most apparent to me here, however, was the swarm as a sonic entity or event. Sonic cues were as integral as the visual in helping me understand what I was experiencing. My New School colleague Eugene Thacker has written about swarms as sonic. I’ll return to his ideas in a bit.

[A little ad-libbing here] But I’ll be focusing here on acoustic qualities that resounded through several projects in the “And Another Thing” exhibition. I’ll examine what these different projects, and others like them, can tell us about the source of sound, and sound’s relationship to the sounding object and its sonic environment.

Trusewych’s work reminds me of another project:

This is Zimoun’s “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators” – a work whose name implies that what we’re hearing, or experiencing, is simply the sum of its very mundane parts. Yet as with Trusewych’s piece, I sense that this collection of parts is not all there is. The “way the world works” in Trusewych’s this is the way the works can’t possibly be sonically indexed by the sound of blades cutting through air, mechanisms rotating the fan’s head, plastic nightlight shades plinking against one another. In both works we have mechanically circulated air providing the animating force for swarm-like movement – yet the actuality of what we’re experiencing seems to be somewhere in between the two experiences implied by the artworks’ titles – somewhere between the grandiose claim that “this the way the world works” and the reductivist claim that it’s just 30,000 plastic bags and 16 ventilators.

Now, back to Thacker:

If we are to think swarms in a way that does not privilege the visual, it seems that two possibilities immediately present themselves to us…. The atomistic approach suggests that our registering of the swarm by hearing it is correlated to a field of interacting sound atoms that is not visible to us. The Neo-platonic approach gives us an image of incorporeal sound emanating from corporeal entities into a kind of phenomenal density in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thacker presents cicadas as an example of an organic swarm that could be conceived through either of these lenses. Cicadas, he writes, “are more often heard than seen – indeed, they are quite impossible to locate by sound.”

This leads me to a second piece in the James Gallery, located in close proximity to Trusewych’s, and created by the same artist responsible for “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators.” This is 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system.

Critics of Zimoun’s work – even the projects that don’t involve live woodworms – often use swarm-like references to describe it:

The results, powered by simple DC motors in kinetic musical action, recall some kind of natural, organic colony.

[Zimoun] creates closed systems that develop their own behavior and rules similarly to artificial creatures.

The movement is there, that electric, dynamic sense of disquiet that characterizes insect worlds. It’s an alien movement… They each present a similar kind of movement that is found in the insectoid underbellies of nature all around us (via Zimoun, “About”).

One critic’s description echoes Thacker’s in her acknowledgment of two possible ways of understanding Zimoun’s acousto-mechanical systems. She writes:

Indeed, one of the refreshing elements of this work is the immediacy with which one can understand the sound-making process, where each micro-event is present, visible, and concrete. Yet at the same time the resulting complexity of the total system, conjured before your eyes, defies any attempt to dissect it. You might find yourself feeling there is a prime mover at work behind the scenes, but in fact it is just the characteristic reaction of materials behaving together and in unison with the space of their activity (via Zimoun, “About”).

The “space of activity” is of central importance in these projects. Zimoun describes his work as sound sculptures and sound architectures. Both terms in these pairings – “sound” and “sculpture” – are mutually constitutive: sound constructs an acoustic (or, as we’ll discover in a bit, an (an)acoustic) space, while the material properties of the space within which a sound resounds construct the properties of that sound. This holds true for swarms, too; they’re spatio-sonic, or acousto-spatial events.

Francisco López, a sound artist whom Eugene Thacker pointed me towards, and about whom Timothy Morton and Will Schrimshaw have written, has spoken eloquently about how he negotiates the relationships between organisms and environments – between “objects” and “spaces” – in his audio recordings. While many “environmental” sound artists tend to habitually focus on the sounds of animals, López advocates for focusing on the “environment as a whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us.” The “space of activity” in a sonic environment expands far beyond the sound-producing organism; the environment is instead a consequence of “all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements.”

The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space (Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter).

López’s focus on “sound matter” rather than “sound objects” represents, according to Schrimshaw (May 7, 2011), “his preference for the…confusing over the clear and distinct, for environments as a whole rather than the well grounded identities of the individual bodies that compose them.” Rather than emphasizing “the audible representation of a place or individual animals, objects, bodies or events,” he captures “sounds that in their obscurity reveal something of the material capacities underpinning their implication within representation, recognition, and indexical listening” (ibid.).

It’s important to note that that sound environment includes things that aren’t perceptible to the human ear; its “sonic matter” includes matter that does not resound for us – at least not under normal conditions. The sound we hear in “25 woodworms…,” is the auditory index of invisible internal processes – worms consuming wood – which are imperceptibly changing the constitution of the object we can see and identify: the wood. The microphone and sound system provide the necessary tools within this acoustic system to “liberate” sounds from the wood object; as Frances Dyson explains in regards to John Cage’s work, amplification “allows sounds, which otherwise would remain silent, to be heard via the action of electronic ears” (62). [See also the infrastructure projects of Bill Fontana]

But sometimes technical amplification is not enough. Sometimes forces and stimuli in other registers have to be “sonified” before they can be heard. Consider the Institute for Algorithmics, a collective dedicated to finding the “rhythms” in our “algorithms.”

Algorhythms show us that our digital culture is not immaterial, but divided in time. Time + music becomes (sic) important for understanding media. With enough scientific effort the invisible electronic or electromagnetic (wireless) signals can be made hearable. Listening to those digitally modulated signals, you can hear the rhythmic character of the signals of most digitally working devices and also of wireless consumer electronic networks like WLAN, GSM, UMTS, Bluetooth, digital TV and Radio et cetera (“More/About/Readme”). [See also the “wave field” work of Raviv Ganchrow, who visited my “City & Sound” class in 2009.]

Likewise, Detektors, a “brother” collective, sonifies the “electromagnetic emissions produced by everyday electronic devices” in order to “to make audible the hidden infoscapes of our time.” [Below: a Canon camera turning on and off]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The professed goal here is to “make [internal mechanisms] audible” in order to promote our “understanding [of] media,” but perhaps there is also value in these sonifications, as in all the sound pieces in “And Another Thing,” as accounts of “sound in-itself” or “sound-in-space,” outside of its perception? (Schrimshaw, August 24, 2010).  Schrimshaw suggest that such an account would “approach sound according to its bare minimum of internal relations, relations apart from the ear” – perhaps sound simply as vibration.

Rational Impulse, via Lesley Heller:

Seth Kim-Cohen is skeptical of such a notion of “sound-in-itself”; his model of a “non-cochlear” art acknowledges both the audible and the “exigencies out of earshot” – the tactile dimensions of sonic vibration, for instance. Artist Tom Kotik, whose work appears in the exhibition downstairs, plays with some of these ideas. His “Rational Impulse” consists of two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing – and, when closed, silencing – speakers blaring Kotik’s own band’s music. From the outside, it’s a mute, inert wooden box. But lifting the outer lid releases the vibration, and lifting the inner lid releases the cacophony. Kotik constructs an “architecture of silence” – an external silence one can appreciate only when one knows the commotion within. This piece can be said to reveal what Schrimshaw (March 29, 2011) calls the “infraesthetic implications of objective tendencies” – that which is in excess of the threshold of perception. The heard and the unheard are both integral parts of the object or event. It’s when we lift the first lid and cross one threshold that we perceive the “non-cochlear” (and a hint of the cochlear) dimensions of the “sounding object” inside, and when we lift the second, interior, lid that we fully cross the auditory threshold.

Untitled, via Lesley Heller

Kotik’s more recent work never pushes past that second threshold; he alludes to sound through form and texture. His “Untitled” (2007) is a “music stand fitted with loudspeakers that reproduce a soundless music whose inaudible frequencies cause the compulsive movement of the membranes” (“Tom Kotik’s Architectures…”), and his SoundStudies (2007) are “sculptures” constructed of acoustic materials. He’s even constructed non-sounding, sound-absorbing felt work that, by consuming the gallery’s soundwaves, alters the room’s acoustics.

By being made aware of the thresholds of our own perception, we wonder about the objects or matter on the other side of those thresholds. How do they sound without us? What’s it like inside Kotik’s box? What’s the nature of the interaction between the sounds emanating from his speakers and the sound-proofing material inside the box? What does wood sound like to a woodworm? What does being consumed sound like to the wood? What does swarming sound like from inside the swarm?

[And here I petered out in my writing, so, to conclude, I riffed on this]: In all the works I’ve discussed here, sonic objects – sonic “matter” – interacts within an environment, a constructed or natural space, that includes both sounding and nonsounding matter. What are the politics of these soundings? What are our own relations do them? Yadda yadda yadda.


*          *          *          *

Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2009).


Institute for Algorhythmics:

Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter, reprinted on (April 1998).

Will Schrmshaw, “Nature Recording and the Broadband World” [blog post] (May 7, 2011).

Will Schrimshaw, “Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound (August 24. 2010).

Eugene Thacker, “Pulse DemonsCulture Machine 9 (2007).

Tom Kotik’s Architectures of Silence at the Joan Miró (n.d.).