The Why of the What

In one of the breakout group discussions I was particularly struck by a phrase mentioned by one of our members, he was interested in exploring “the why of the what.”

Theory and practice (or the technical aspects of practice) are often seen as separate things in academic study, but as any practicing artist knows they are one and the same, inexorably intertwined and anyone who ignores one over the other does so to their own detriment. 

But, I must admit that I was hit right in the forehead by this innocent question of “why?”

After years of crafting sound scores for the stage, building MAX/msp patches for interactive installations, soldering up circuits and performing in an electronic noise band I had fully immersed myself in as many of the technical aspects of sound art as I could.   The “what” (or how) of what I was doing seemed pretty clear to me. 

And recently as I have been teaching others about these practices, I have lectured about how to contextualize a sound experience that was part of a fine art practice or non-traditional music performance.  So I thought I was starting to get a handle on some of the theory, but then the question of “why” came up.

Why do we do this?

I am not concerned about the broad existential question of why humans make art (which is the potentially too broad path this discussion may go down).

But specifically I wonder, why sound art? 

Why do we do the particular things that we do?

I have been thinking and I have some ideas for myself, but I am wondering if anyone else is interested in discussing why they do what they do.

Why do you make “sound art”?





Seth Kim-Cohen's picture

I originally posted this in response to Roddy's welcome post. But it's more apropos here: 

I had hoped to get into this a little bit the other night, but perhaps this is a better space for it anyway. I feel that the big issue for sound practice these days is the question of meaning. Sure, sound is cool. We all dig a bit of hairy noise, an ass-rattling low frequency, an exqusitely notch-filtered tone. But do we want to be the quirky cousin in the corner, avoiding interaction with the world? Or do we want to find a way to make sound meaningful in its contexts? As far as I'm concerned, it's a rhetorical question. If sound doesn't or can't interact with the social, the political, the economic; with gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, time, place, etc. then it has no real claim to relevance. In my opinion, something calling itself a "sound working group" ought to start with these questions. If sound art is just an extension of music, in that it aspires to areferntiality and to a spiritual purity apart from the world, then I'm not a sound artist. On the other hand, I don't think that's ever what music was really about. 

"[The] same people who would all ridicule a new art form called, say, 'Steel Art' which was composed of steel sculpture combined with steel guitar music along with anything else with steel in it, somehow have no trouble at all swallowing 'Sound Art'."

-- Max Neuhaus, “Sound Art?” (2000)



Roddy's picture

These are tough questions.

"If sound doesn't or can't interact with the social, the political, the economic; with gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, time, place, etc. then it has no real claim to relevance."

How does one get sound art out of its state of areferential stasis? I think one of the first steps is for sound artists to admit that they actually live in the world and are as much a product of their culture as everyone else... and most likely not cloned in a laboratory.

Also, to clarify, when I mentioned in my previous comment that I enjoy sounds ability to not force meaning, it doesn't mean that I think that it should be meaningless, just that one of its qualities is its semantic playfulness. But I totally agree that the work needs to be relevant to the world and not just a muttering relative in the corner. 

I've been listening to quite a bit of Terre Thaemlitz recently and am finding his music more relevant than ever. -- looking forward to his June 14 performance at ISSUE. 

Roddy's picture

Chris, I too was struck by this powerful and simple question. And it's something I've not spent enough time really working through myself, but I think for me ultimately, I'm very attracted to the ability of sound to "conjure". Sound is so deeply temporal and slippery, I think that's why I am still attracted to it. I am trying to explore that slipperiness even more in my work these days and am less interested than ever in clearly forcing sound to have meaning. A bit of a rambly reaction on my part, but I would love to see how others are responding to this question. Maybe it is something we can highlight at the next meeting. 

Seth Kim-Cohen's picture

Roddy, you say you are " less interested than ever in clearly forcing sound to have meaning." My feeling on this is that, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, the things you do and make will take on meaning. If you agree with this, then the responsibility of the artist is to be cognizant of the possible meanings of the work and to steward the work toward more productive meanings. This doesn't mean that a work has a 1:1 correspondence with some message or moral. Art's provilege is to be hinged, to swing multiple ways. But the set of possible meanings is limited. The artist can have some say - not final say, but some say - in the constitution of this set of meanings. As an example, in my book In The Blink of an Ear,  I wrote about Francisco Lopez doing one of his blindfold performances at the Judson Church in 2008. I took issue with Lopez asking his audience to turn their backs on him and to don blindfolds. In 2008, particularly in New York, with the "war on terror" in full shock and awe mode, with the Guantanamo debacle and the Abu Graib horrors fresh in the collective memory, it seemed irresponsible of Lopez to put his audience in such a vulnerable, submissive position. If he had used this gesture as a commentary on Bush's wars and the so-called freedom at stake, perhaps the move could have had potent artistic and political resonance. But as most of us know, Lopez just likes sound and he wants us to just shut out the world and listen. I see this as aesthetically and morally myopic. His work had meaning in spite of every effort on his part to make it purely perceptual, purely sensual. Sound folks would be well advised to accept that meaning happens and to deal with it as fully and accountably as we can. This opens up the question of "why?" to countless good answers, while forcing us to move past the safe, conservative, avoidant "what?"

Roddy's picture

I think my slightly knee-jerk comment about being less interested in "forcing meaning" on sound was a superficial way of saying that the potential for sound to suggest multivalent directions is one of the things I love most about it and I get a little nervous when an artist tries to control too closely the listener's understanding. I like work that has a clear grid of meaning/intention underneath it, as a strong underpinning, then is free to float a little more eccentrically above that, opening even potentially discordant understandings of intention. I think we both agree that the frameworks/context created by the artist substantially guide the "constitution of the set of meanings" and there is some degree of responsibility in that, you might expect a bit more than I do though. 

I'm curious, do you see pieces like Ostertag's "All the Rage" as being a good example of the kind of meaningfulness that you describe? I admire his work very much because it is so deeply embedded in his socially relevant practice but often the end sound product still feels like it has so much flexibility about it. 

Thank you for prodding some attempts at lucidity out of me, I would love to see how others feel about these issues. Talking clearly about sound issues is not something that comes easily for me so I see the potential to have these conversations as a very real way to help us, or at least me, learn a lot. 

Artists often claim social/political relevance for their work as a way to give it credibility. But, more often than not, that work is artistically and politically lame and ineffectual, and the claim of social and political relevance is compensatory. This is not to say that artists ought to avoid the social or the political (as Seth rightly comments, this isn't possible). Rather, it's to say that social and political meaning or reference does not suffice to make a work of art interesting or important. "Political" art too often simply says what everyone already knows and only serves to mark the artist as "on the right side." As Jacques Ranciere nicely put it: 

"art in and of itself is not liberating; it either is or isn’t depending on the type of capacity it sets in motion, on the extent to which its nature is shareable or universalizable. For example, emancipation can’t be expected from forms of art that presuppose the imbecility of the viewer while anticipating their precise effect on that viewer: for example, exhibitions that capitalize on the denunciation of the 'society of the spectacle' or of 'consumer society' -- bugbears that have already been denounced a hundred times -- or those that want to make viewers 'active' at all costs with the help of various gadgets borrowed from advertising, a desire predicated on the presupposition that the spectator is otherwise necessarily rendered 'passive' solely by virtue of his looking. An art is emancipated and emancipating when it renounces the authority of the imposed message, the target audience, and the univocal mode of explicating the world, when, in other words, it stops wanting to emancipate us."

The question is not "what does a work of art MEAN?" The question, rather, is "what does a work of art DO?" Sound works, in particular, generally do not REFER; but they PRODUCE EFFECTS, alter bodies and spaces in numerous ways. The political issue, then, is not a semantic question but a pragmatic or performative one. The question of the "politics of sound" has to be answered at this level (which is why the best book yet on the politics of sound is probably Steve Goodman's _Sonic Warfare_).

Seth Kim-Cohen's picture

CC, glad to have your voice here. I think your statement: "The question is not "what does a work of art MEAN?" The question, rather, is "what does a work of art DO?"" is itself a semantic issue. Meaning is a kind of doing. Or to think about it a different way, all doing has meaning. I think, fundamentally, you and I agree on what it means for work to engage the social, the political, et al. You are intent on avoiding the ascription of 'meaning' in a kind of 60s-semiotic-linguistic-turn way of thinking. And I'm all for the pragmatic/performative. Is it fair to say, then, that doing needs to establish or effect something in order to register as doing? If so, it resembles what I am calling for under the banner of 'meaning.' Meaning, for me, is an engagement with the implications of a work, a space, a sound, a text, a situation, etc. Works which attempt (futiley) to sidestep such implications are, in my thinking, attempting to avoid meaning. To put it in a way that might not trigger alwarms for you, such works try to avoid doing anything in favor of merely presenting or observing. But, of course, presenting and observing are kinds of doing. So we find, unavoidably, that all works both mean and do, regardless of what their authors or audiences want. So, I think you and I can agree that the issue is not whether works do or mean, but what they do or mean, how they do or mean, and how the what and the how contribute to what the works do and mean beyond the strict semantic 'content' (the 'meaning') of the work.

Still, these issue haunt sound practitioners and theorists. We tend to get off on frequencies and resonances in and of themselves as fascinating material phenomena - which sometimes they are. But, for me, this kind of work is similar to op-art or to the so-called 'beauty' of pure mathematics. Elegant, interesting, serendipitious, surprising? Sure. But these practices, in and of themselves, don't do or mean anything outside their own insular paradigms. What I want out of any kind of work - sound or otherwise - is communication, relevance, implication, affect. These all imply a doing with meaning. That's not to say that the meaning is prescribed, singular, universal, eternal. But it is to say that the work I favor is engaged with the implications of the meanings and doings incorporated by and initiated by the work.