The 15th edition of ‘Liquid Architecture’, Australia’s annual festival of sound art, took place between August and October 2014, with more than 50 artists performing across a range of venues in Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and, for the first time ever, Singapore. Evidently, this was a year for growth and diversification because in addition to extending the festival’s geographical reach, newly appointed curators Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela adopted a far more expansive take on the sonic arts than in previous years. Following recent debates about the place of sound in the field of contemporary art – especially since the Museum of Modern Art’s much-discussed 2013 exhibition ‘Soundings’ and the subsequent publication of author and critic Seth Kim-Cohen’s controversial polemic Against Ambience (2013) – the gesture felt timely.
At stake in these debates is nothing less than the ontology of sound. On one side, the likes of philosopher Christopher Cox argue for sound’s objectivity. Sound is an ‘asignifying material flux’: a force, a flow, an energy. On the other, Kim-Cohen and others argue for a sound art that celebrates and plays with what they take to be sound’s necessary social-embeddedness. Stern and Zuvela’s curatorial theme, ‘The Ear is a Brain’, offered something of a middle way. ‘There’s a position between “sound in itself” and “non-cochlear” approaches’, they claimed in the curatorial statement, ‘that is not uninterested in what it sounds like, just more interested in what its effects are, what the forces are that produce it. This position hears, but also reads sound.’ This approach came through very clearly in the festival’s programming.
Johannes Kreidler’s performance of This Tulip of Which I am Speaking and Which I Replace in Speaking (2014), at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), was both hilarious and conceptually ambitious. Kreidler began by playing snippets from an absurd array of metal genres on his laptop, as their names – ‘heavy’, ‘black’, ‘death-doom’, ‘symphonic’, ‘viking’ – flashed up on slides above his head. As the performance moved on through a range of mischievous correlations between sound and text, it became increasingly clear that Kreidler was playing with precisely the ear/brain distinction at the festival’s heart. He seemed to be saying that, as social beings, to listen is always already to encode.
Elsewhere, the works invited a more ambiguous engagement. Melbourne artist Helen Grogan kicked off the festival’s opening night with Concrete Room (2014) in which she traced the internal perimeter of Melbourne’s heritage-listed Meat Market – a large, characterful and superbly repurposed venue – with a microphone. Although the work could easily be read as an attempt to represent the physicality of the space in sound, it was clearly experienced by many audience members as ‘mere’ ambience: scratching, scraping, pleasantly atmospheric noise. The same was true of sound-artist and poet Christof Migone’s Hit Parade (2014), in which 50 volunteers, lying face down in the cavernous Great Hall of the NGV, were told to bang their microphones onto the floor 1,000 times. Whether the work was a sophisticated commentary on collective action and public speech or simply an entertaining racket depended on how much effort you were prepared to expend on it.
The question of just how committed the curators were to their synthesis of conceptualism and materialism came to a head with one of the festival’s strongest performances, by the Melbourne experimental music stalwart Robin Fox. Fox’s work is usually discussed in terms of a sonic and visual materialism that, on the face of it, might seem at odds with Stern and Zuvela’s stated preference for works that ‘asked questions about the systems, forces and assumptions structuring our society, our experience, and our listening’. At the performance of Fox’s RGB Laser Show (2014), tricolour lasers fired across the expanse of the Meat Market as sounds pulsed and throbbed in extraordinary grammatical synchronicity and the audience stood slack-jawed in collective awe. This was a raucous spectacle, powerful to the point of being oppressive. How susceptible is this kind of performance to a conceptual ‘reading’? For my own part, any initial feelings of amazement quickly became an object of contemplation. I thought about what this performance did and didn’t have in common with a rave (why was no-one dancing?), a fireworks display, a movie or an opera; what started out as an experience of pleasurable domination soon began to feel like a form of institutional critique. In drawing out this dimension of Fox’s remarkable work, as well as in the festival as a whole, Stern and Zuvela’s triumph was not so much to stage an intervention in the already stale debate into which they had entered, but to shuffle its terms back into productive dialogue.