Art that hurts
Members of Sensorband highlight an evening of experimental sound art at Chico State
Those who believe nothing is shocking in art anymore should have been in the Wismer Theater last Sunday evening, when an evening of abrasive noise left many in the sold-out audience crumpled in their seats and grabbing their heads.
That night, Chico State University hosted a relatively new art event in California, the fifth annual “Activating the Medium” festival, a touring collection of internationally known sound artists who, by using digital manipulation and sometimes their own homespun technology, created an atmosphere of complete audio immersion.
Whether merging sound to real-time video or simply bombarding the audience with explosive feedback and noise, the event surely had people thinking—if only about the persistent ringing in their ears afterwards.
A relatively new artistic phenomenon, sound art has caught on big in cities like San Francisco after enjoying greater popularity in Europe the past few decades. Adding to the buzz surrounding the Chico performance was that sound sculpture/collage has only recently been accepted by the art establishment for museum exhibits. The supportive Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco was the last sold-out stop for the ATM event before making its way to Chico.
Tonight’s performance began with brief introductions, during which young co-curator David Prochaska broke sound art into roughly four categories: fine arts, new music/experimental (dealing with subversion of structure), pure experience/punk ethos/noise (Japanese underground scene) and, finally, field recordings.
Artist Scott Arford then began, sitting at his laptop in the dark arena theater. Behind him, a theater-sized screen suddenly came to life with a colorful representation of spiky static and noise, appearing as if the horizontal hold needed adjusting. Of the four artists featured, Arford made the most direct attempt to capture an “experiential, synesthetic [sic] environment” by creating a space where audio and visual components were inseparable. He attempted this through alternating color fields (green-, blue-, red-toned screens) and by the real-time translation of a video feed from his VCR (featuring carefully edited video images—free-form tape scratches, black-and-white grids) into his mixing board and over the speaker system.
As at a good punk show, the effect of strobe lights and noise was hypnotic—once you became accustomed to the volume, that is. (SFMOMA patrons were warned to bring earplugs; Chico attendees were not, to my knowledge.) Arford’s work ended with the cryptic spoken words, “Mickey Mouse"—like a stamp of humor on his sonic architecture.
The second artist, Paul DeMarinis, was the only performer who did not make use of excessive volume. After tying four yellow balloons to an office desk surrounded by an antique tube radio and tiny Victrola, DeMarinis sat calmly and played field recordings of a speech by Stalin, then later added what sounded like a baby crying into a fan.
DeMarinis often deals with speech processed and synthesized by computers, which accounts for the eerie blend of human and machine in his work. His presentation required a thoughtful ear for all the tiny particulars, as it seemed to meld the antiquity and novelty of first recorded sounds with the technology of the future. But the most striking aspect was the final image, voices speaking from out of a gas-lit flame—making the fire dance with language.
Next was Edwin van der Heide, from the experimental music trio Sensorband, a composer, performer and instrument builder from the Netherlands. He won applause for his solo work using computer-connected sensor pads that he wore on his hands. As van der Heide gesticulated slowly (like playing an invisible accordion), unbelievably dense sound samples swelled in breathy, pulsing drones from the speakers. At one point, it was as if a helicopter was actually in the room. Thanks to the impressive volume and timing of different speakers, van der Heide created a flexible wall of sound that was impossible to tune out and shocking in volume and power.
As if to top this, a partner from the trio, Zbigniew Karkowski, performed the final and most ear-piercingly excruciating work of the evening—which basically sounded like high-pitched white noise and abrasive scratching, an aural scouring so violent and loud that a few people were forced to leave the room. I was reminded of a college friend who used to turn AM radio static up loudly during crowded car trips to see who would freak out first. Bet he didn’t realize he had a career in the arts.
My lingering doubts about noise “composers” remain, especially after thumbing through some of the pretentious literature available outside the Wismer, a baffling mix of lofty artspeak, techno-fetish and circular, linguistic philosophy—deconstructionists of sound speaking in experimental pseudo-poetry.
Still, the overall experience of orchestrated noise was illuminating, if painful. One left the theater shell-shocked and more aware of different frequencies of noise that inhabit everyday life. But I couldn’t help wondering: Was my reaction due to the shock value created by some cult of sadomasochistic noise lovers giddy with the prospect of clearing a room? Or were these talented future composers speaking a language I had yet to understand? Whatever the case, I could have used some earplugs.