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Issue 54 September-October 2000 RSS

Sonic Boom

Hayward Gallery, London, UK

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You know how it is. One day you realise there is music in your collection which you cannot bring yourself to play - a little something by Steve Beresford and Tristan Honsinger, perhaps - unlistened to for nearly 20 years, but which you cannot bring yourself to throw out. ‘Sonic Boom’, a show about sound art, was a bit like this; you didn’t actually like it very much, and were happy when it was all over, but in principle you were glad it existed.

Curated by musician and writer David Toop, the premise of the show was a good one and the inclusion of the onomatopoeic word Boom promised excitement. The actuality, unfortunately, was nearer the whimper than the bang end of the meter. This wasn’t for any lack of crashes, bleeps, tweeting sine-tones or screeches, but the consequence of cumulative misjudgements, all of which originated from the best of intentions. Just over 20 artists, composers and collaborators were presented, including Brian Eno and Max Eastley, as well as such bleakly titled collaborations as Greyworld, Disinformation and Project Dark. Mostly though, a very studenty, blokeish thing seemed to be going on, which included a great deal of kinetic automata of the slapstick kind. Other than numerous jokes about turntables, a representative gag which occurred in Heri Dono’s Watching the Marginal People (2000), and Paulo Feliciano and Rafael Toral’s Toyzone (2000), involved, to art school effect, the use of prosthetic eyeballs which mechanically swivel. These, and a great many other similar works, took ‘Sonic Boom’ to a hearty place, somewhere to the rear of Acker Bilk and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, art’s loss being visiting children’s gain.

If the show had presented a more inclusive history of automata then the selection of works might have been less of a puzzle; but it was neither a historical overview nor a more adventurous selection of contemporary sonic art.

This error of judgement was compounded by the show’s misuse of darkness, which conferred ludicrous importance to the comic works, and overt theatricality to the frequent doomy ‘artistic’ ones - recognisable by their overuse of reverb and groaning installation clichés. In spite of the boinging hullabaloo of the show, there was relative indifference to the actual sounds themselves, as opposed to the processes by which they were arrived at. The hammering and soldering, mad inventor syndrome more successfully transcended its expression in Stephan von Heune’s Extended Schwitters (1987), a mechanised plywood android which utters random phonemes. These phonetically distinct sounds of human language originate from a speech synthesiser, here programmed to exclaim an emphatically effective nothingness. Christina Kubisch’s Oasis 2000: Music for a Concrete Jungle (2000) was shown outside on the Hayward terrace, and gained immeasurably from being shown in daylight and at some distance from the fanfares of her fellow artists. Magnetic induction cables, stretched overhead, tripped localised New Age noise zones of rainforest, babbling brooks and bird noises into the visitor’s headphones, to wry effect given the gallery’s overwhelming concrete presence. In this way, Kubisch introduced a liberating spatialisation of sound absent in other works, as well as creating the most technically interesting piece - and in so doing, spoiled the blokeish technology fetish theory.

The promise of dangerous excitement in the show’s title was eventually fulfilled by Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag (2000), in which a brand new Fender guitar is towed behind a pick up truck with a large amp clamped to it. The guitar emits howls of feedback pain as it strikes the road, like taking a whine for walk. Eventually battered by its screeching journey over the rural Texas landscape, the guitar is destroyed. This is powerful stuff, invoking the ghosts and demons of rock history, and translating a literal and metaphorical landscape into sound waves. How this work constructs its reference to the American recreational pastime of dragging black males to their deaths behind tow trucks is ambiguous. It is difficult to determine the degree of the potently horrible or redemptive in this work - that it should be under recognising a human death by its conflation with a guitar, or that it should be honouring it, in a praise of black musical creativity. Whatever, the work elevated ‘Sonic Boom’ beyond the bleeps and flashing lights of an 1980s’ games arcade. In a world where improvised jazz can be described as the ‘traditional avant garde’, it was a relief to encounter something which transcended the obvious categories.

Neal Brown

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First published in
Issue 54, September-October 2000

by Neal Brown

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