What I’m attempting to do is to identify the specific qualities or characteristics that are motivating three significant, current, New York, visual art exhibitions. I see a reverse current at work, an undertow, pulling against the dominant tides of contemporary art history. This current runs back toward sight and away from Zeit and site. These shows want to isolate either perceptual phenomena or the act of perception (or both) and shield them from the criticality of spatial and temporal contexts (site and Zeit). If, as I’ve suggested, these shows take a cue from sound, retreating from contextual, social, problematics, then we might identify an alternate set of homonyms to chart a set of sonic concerns. Instead of sight - site - Zeit, we might think about sine - sign - sein. Here, the analogous term for the sanctity of sight is the sine wave, a pure wave without the complications of overtones. The complement of site is the sign, the location of meaning, contextual and differential. And, in place of Zeit (time) we have sein (being). These two German terms are, of course, the critical pairing in the title of Martin Heidegger’s monumental work of twentieth century philosophy, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit).
In sound art, one finds a preponderance of sine waves. There seems to be a belief that, by using electronically-produced sine waves (sometimes called “pure tones”) one avoids the annoying complications of other kinds of signals. The sine wave, so the thinking apparently goes, is unencumbered by historical reference, timbre, by instrumental voice, by expression, by connotation, by previous use. Leaving aside the question of whether this unencumberance is even desirable, let’s acknowledge that this thinking is just plain wrong. The sine wave has its own history, its own timbre, its own instruments. It expresses something very clearly (most often, the desire for purity I’ve just inventoried). The sine wave has become a very clear expression of a particular aesthetic mode with a whole host of artistic, technological, and ideological connotations. As for previous use, the sine wave in sound art is, by now, the genre’s most egregiously overused trope. The bottom line is that all urges for purity, for transcendence, end up plunging back into the miasma of history and the social. I don’t know: there may be experiences that exist prior to or outside of signification. I mean it when I say "I don’t know." But if such experiences exist, they are trapped in a form that allows no conveyance. We cannot speak them. We cannot even think them, because thinking is a transposition that relies on signification: a this-for-that transaction that would encumber a-signifiable experience with all the burdens of signification. Thus, “I don’t know” is the only real answer to this question of unsignifiable experience. Pure tones can’t escape the process of signification. In use they acquire meanings. Differences, contexts, and conventions load the wave, corrupt its purity. Even the sine is a sign.
Music and sound have long debated the status of sounds as signs. I don’t have the time (or the inclination) to rehearse that history here. Let me, instead just point to a signal moment in this debate: the disagreements between Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari about the relation of concrete sounds to their sources. Schaeffer, the inventor of musique concrete, insisted that sounds be employed in such a way as to sunder them from their sources. He called the resulting mode of audition, “reduced listening” (écouter réduite), an allusion to the phenomenological reduction of Husserl. Put simply, according to Schaeffer, when listening to a piece of musique concrete, the listener isn’t supposed to know (or care about) what caused the sounds used in the composition. Ferrari, who teamed up with Schaeffer in the late-50s as a kind of pupil/assistant, eventually pulled away from reduced listening. As Brian Kane puts it in his soon-to-be-published, Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford), Ferrari “became interested in “anecdotal” sounds, a use of recorded sound that revealed its origins, even the banality of its origins. Anecdotal sounds broke the taboo on the recognition of the sound source, instituted by Schaeffer’s demand for écouter réduite.” In a nutshell, Schaeffer treated sounds as basic units in a formal practice of composition, like Lego blocks being rearranged to create forms based on morphological complements and contrasts; Ferrari, on the other hand, treated sounds as signs of their sources and contexts. Tellingly, Michel Chion has characterized Ferrari’s revision of concrete tenets as a “return of the repressed” (quoted in Kane).
Being is always a complicated topic. Ontology may be first philosophy, the ground of all else, the problem that must first be dealt with before dealing with anything else. Or, on the other hand, ontology may be a fiction necessitated by epistemology. As Lyotard puts it, ““There is no ‘in accordance with,’ because there is nothing that is a primary or originary principle, a Grund. . . . Every discourse, including that of science or philosophy, is only a perspective.” (Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Stanford University Press, 1991, 28–29.) Nevertheless, we can find notions of sonic being (and sonic beings) in the theory and practice of the sonic arts. Schaeffer’s écouter réduite focuses on what he calls the “objet sonore,” the “sonic object.” This would be a unit of sonic being - possibly a fundamental unit, a kind of elementary particle. La Monte Young takes frequencies to be beings of a sort, not unlike biological entities, with their own needs for nurturing conditions. And many in the sine wave set like to think about waves as material realities, ontological entities whose realness is indisputable and whose capture by sign systems is both impossible and beside the point. The most eloquent purveyor of this position is Christoph Cox, whose various articles about sonic ontology are the basis of a much anticipated book, to be published (we hope) in the near future. As a starting point, one might look at Cox’s “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” published in the Journal of Visual Culture.
But it strikes me that much of this thinking of sonic beings (and sonic being) ignores Heidegger’s important contributions to, and revisions of, ontology. (There’s an interesting intersection here with Object Oriented Ontology, particularly in the work of Graham Harman, who has dedicated a lot of thought to Heidegger.) Specifically, the piece of Heidegger I want to cherry-pick for the purposes of thinking about sound is his notion of “mitsein.” Usually translated as “being-with,” this is one of Heidegger’s major emendations of the age-old view of what being is all about. Rather than ascribing an internal, immanent, identity to a thing, mitsein proposes that all things arrive at their identity in relation to other things in the world. Although Heidegger was overwhelmingly focused on the specific instance of human being, which he referred to as “dasein,” or “being-there,” one of his most famous examples of the being of a thing-in-the-world is his discussion of a hammer. Heidegger suggests that the identity of a hammer is not ascertained by examining its inherent qualities: its form, its materiality, its color. Instead, a hammer is best understood via its use as equipment, that is, in its relation to other things: nails, wood, and, most importantly, for Heidegger, human beings who use the hammer for a particular purpose. Granted, this view is overtly anthropocentric, and it’s difficult to maintain the position that all things achieve their being, wholly or in part, due to human interests. But, if we accept humans as other things-in-the-world, and not necessarily as special cases of being, then it is easy to accept that the hammer’s being is not inherent, but the result of its relations to other beings. This acknowledgment of being-with (mitsein) is a crucial insight about being.
No Tone Stands Alone
When applied to art, this thinking demands more of works than that they simply grant access to the immanent being of phenomena. The luminiosity-of-light, or the sonicity-of-sound, are not meaningful enough accounts in a post-Heideggerean ontology. Worse than that, they are misrepresentations of things and our relations to them. In attempting to bypass the complications of worldliness, this kind of art (let’s call it “ambient”) presents a lie as truth; a synecdochic part-for-whole substitution is tendered as an encounter with unabridged experience. And thus we arrive at the crux of the biscuit: a declaration of what it is we want from art. For me, this comes down to a basic precept (circling back to my original set of terms) of how I want to engage with the world. Focusing on where value is generated, on what is meaningful and why, I accept that there is no sein without mit; that all being is being-with. I believe that to understand anything - any thing - including myself, I must consider that thing integrally as part of a matrix of other things, meanings, valences, narratives, beliefs, histories, intentions, desires, and nested and overlapping matrices. There is no thing-in-itself. I don’t declare this to persuade you, dear reader, whoever you are, whatever you believe. I declare it as a statement of my own conviction. In a world such as mine, convinced of mitsein, there is no point in making ambient works of perceptual experience, as if that light, that sound, were a being complete in itself and that we, in a rare moment of access, are gazing into the very materiality of presence.
The sign, as we well know by now, is also mit-sign. Each and every sign comes by its meaning, its signification(s), by way of its relation to other signs. These relations are sometimes characterized with the Saussurean/Derridean term “differance.” The meaning of any sign arrives not via some internal set of criteria carried by the sign itself, but, instead, by comparing and contrasting that sign with a host of other signs with which the sign-in-question shares certain features. The word “house,” for instance acquires its specific meaning by contrast with related words such as “abode,” “mansion,” “shack,” “domicile,” “crib,” “pad,” and so on. It also contrasts with homonyms and near-homonyms such as “how’s,” and capital-H, “House,” the tv show about the megalomaniacal doctor, or Ron House, the singer of the great Ohio band, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. Some take issue with what they see as our overdependence on the sign as a mechanism for shepherding experience, but there is little disagreement about the fact that the sign, for better or worse, is always mit-sign.
So, if sein is understood as mitsein, and the sign as mit-sign, then I will also insist on the “mit-sine,” the “with-wave.” No tone stands alone. We experience and understand the things we hear relative to other sounds. This is the basis of musical form. But we also understand what we hear relative to a whole host of other factors, such as the litany I ascribed earlier to being: things, meanings, valences, narratives, beliefs, histories, intentions, desires, and other nested and overlapping matrices. The sine-wave, the tone, the sound object, are all subject to the same interlocking set of relations and influences. Every wave is a “with-wave,” a “mit-sine.”
After the decades of working through these issues in the visual arts, I - perhaps prematurely, perhaps complacently - assumed that we had worked it out, that the debate was settled. But here we are, in the summer of 2013, seemingly back in a mindset that countenances the decorative-headtrip of op-art. It would be too simple to ascribe blame to the recent embrace of sound in the visual art world. In fact the acceptance of sound may be more a symptom than a cause. But it’s hard for me to believe that sound and the ambient revival are unrelated. The question, finally, is: why? What combination of factors has delivered us back to this once rejected mindset, in which tuning out and turning on are considered worthwhile aspirations for artistic experience? I don’t really think I can successfully diagnose this problem. I lack the forensic methods to unearth compelling evidence. And, besides, I am skeptical of simple cause-and-effect equations in the meanderings of cultural inclinations.
Nevertheless, provisionally, I offer these suspects in The Case of the Resuscitated Ambient:
My first hunch is that we have all succumbed to the much ballyhooed “information overload.” It seems to me that this theory could hold some historical water. At the very least, some archive-rat art historian could assemble a credible set of dots and then connect them with personae, publications, and productions to make a compelling case for a “new anti-informationism.” One could, for example start with the exhibition “Information,” organized by Kynaston McShine at MoMA in 1969-70. The show included work from the front lines of what was not yet called “Conceptual Art;” works by Vito Acconci, Robert Barry, John Baldessari, Art & Language, Mel Bochner, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Christine Kozlov, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, the list, believe me, goes on. Next, one could draw a parabolic arc through Marshall McLuhan to the work of Friedrich Kittler, pausing briefly at his phrase, “the bottleneck of the signifier,” before easing the cork out of the bottle and allowing the genie of information (or data, as Kittler likes to call it) to infest and invest the so-called real with its semantic agnosticism. On a more popular tip, our forensic historian might touch on James Gleick’s 2011 book, “The Information,” which takes the very 21st century view that everything has always boiled down to information, but that we are only now coming to terms with this fact. Via the information technology that sits in everyone’s laps and pockets and neoprene messenger bags, we are now, for the first time in “recorded history” (note that this phrase itself is dependent upon and, for all intents and purposes, identical with, information), engaging with our world not as pure phenomena, not as portent of the wishes of the gods, not as a representation of something else nor as something demanding to be represented, but as a data set. And this, according to Gleick, sounding something like Kittler, sounding something like McLuhan-via-McShine, is what the universe is: a vast data set; love it or leave it. Forensic theory number one would suggest that given this option, leaving is the preferable route. Who wants to live in either the macro-reality of the universe-as-data-set, or in the micro-reality of triple-digit inbox numbers? Wouldn’t a bath in an ascending oval of glowing fuchsia be nice? I’ll pause, but briefly, to point out how much of the work I’m corralling under the rubric of “the ambient,” is, in fact, dependent upon and, in many cases, made of, the ones and zeroes of data in its purest technological ontology.
Politics is always a suspect. Art has the twofold problem of, first, deciding if it is the place (even a place) for politics to be engaged, and second, of formulating a response that is appropriate to the specific politics of its time and place. Every good artist wakes up sweating the Adornian edict about the barbarity of post-Auschwitz poetry. I mean, who wants to be that asshole? The politics of this particular moment (the 2010s) in this particular place (let’s say, specifically, New York, and generally, the United States) present a particularly frustrating construct with which to engage. I am under no illusion that the politics of our moment are any more fucked than previous regimes. The difference, hearkening back to our previous suspect, is the amount of information to which we have access. We know more about the conspiracies, constipations, and contradictions of our present government than other national subjects have. While the net effect of this knowledge is ultimately for the greater good (thank you Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange), the short term emotional impact is pretty disheartening. It is better that we know that Monsanto has engineered the entire agricultural system for their own benefit (and at our expense); that we are aware of shadowy private firms contracted by the U.S. government to do its dirty work; that the military employs unmanned aircraft to stealthily cross national borders and kill human beings (U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) with only the skimpiest, clandestine, judicial oversight; that the two major political parties in the U.S. have transformed their legislative mandate into a game of trivial pursuit focused on the quantity of cheese in their respective wheels. It is better that we know. But knowing sucks. It is depressing. It is sickening. It makes us cynical and skeptical. Knowing whispers in the ears of the oft-invoked angels of our better nature: “Withdraw, angels, no good can come of this.” Maybe ambience is a kind of assisted living facility for these angels; a place where all their needs are met and they needn’t lift a finger.
As politics has failed us, so too has religion. There are plenty of bureaucratic snafus we could point to. But ultimately, religion was designed to solace the ignorant. The more we know, the harder it is to persuade us of the unknown, not to mention, the unknowable. Yet, human beings cling stubbornly, desperately, to the need to feel that there is something that is not subject to our statutes, beyond the reach of physics, outside the law, unrestricted by human moral codes, unbeholden, even, to proofs of logic, reason, test, or testimony. Undoubtedly, this need stems from our own frustrations at our utter beholdeness to all these injunctions and many more besides: social, psychological, civil; the shortcomings of our species and our selves. The ambient is godlike: unknown, unknowing, unknowable. Turrell’s light signifies transcendence. Indeed, his whole backstory is a pilgrim’s tale. And, as I’ve suggested, his light is simply a form of documentation, an affidavit testifying to his journey, his piety, and his sacrifice. This ambient moment is a last gasp, a burst of longing for what we know is lost. I thought we had fought our way clear of such longings. I thought we had reconciled ourselves to our irredeemable immanence. I thought conceptual art was a symptom of our new disease: the death of god, the birth of the reader. Alas, we’re not so sick yet.