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In Resonance by Dawn Chan
NY Arts Magazine, November / December 2005

Remember that hyperactive boy in junior high, the one who found nothing funnier than the fact that he was an indefatigable public nuisance? At In Resonance, last month's Seattle-based sound art exhibit, that boy was Thurston Moore.

In Resonance put forth a month-long program of noise-improvisation shows, companion CDs and a panel discussion. Most considerably, the exhibit housed the chirping, droning and mumbling installations of thirteen multimedia artists, from local favorites like Jesse Paul Miller, to global names like Toshiya Tsunoda and Sonic Youth's Moore.

Since the golden era of John Cage, sound art had kept a low profile for several decades. Within this new century, though, it has wormed its way back into the good graces of galleries and museums, even if no one can quite agree on the boundaries of its definition. The role of sound in art ranges from the synesthesia-informed pieces in the L.A. MoCA's exhibit earlier this year, to Björk's and Matthew Barney's recent video and soundtrack collaboration. Curated by Robert Millis and Fionn Meade, In Resonance was a comprehensive response to the wide array of work considered "sound art;" the exhibit included pieces that generated sounds, responded to sounds and even silently addressed the nature of sound.

Marcel Duchamp, in his 1937 Boite Verte, left instructions to take a box, add something unidentifiable by its sound, and weld the box shut. Thurston Moore's piece, called Squeeze My Noise Bag Gently, answered with a fuck-you that made Duchamp's box look bourgeois and staid. Moore chose an even more lo-fi readymade, one favored by hobos: a wrinkled plastic shopping bag. In this bag, he placed two pocket-sized speakers that had been altered to wail continuously and at a maximally painful pitch. A looping video showed Moore making and unleashing his "noise bag," to the delight of friends and the dismay of his dogs.

Although the rest of the exhibit's work was decidedly more tranquil, much of it, according to the participating artists, drew inspiration from the D.I.Y. and punk principles that happened to be embodied by Moore's shopping bag. Rather than accepting the constraints of musical instruments, formal training, and conventions refined over hundreds of years, the featured artists make do with objects at hand. They embrace a path of least resistance with panache.

Because In Resonance was an offshoot of Seattle's annual Bumbershoot Festival, the exhibit took place within the context of a larger event, famous mostly for its huge lineup of indie-rock acts. Given its music-saturated surroundings, In Resonance served as an excellent reminder that not all interesting sound is music. There were field recordings of birdcalls, satellite signals, and - in one of Stephen Vitiello's piece, entitled Crazy Wall Thing - a boy saying, "Pour more gasoline on it, dad!" This recording, processed beyond recognition and mixed with samples of a boy's choir, emanated from palm-sized speakers mounted to a wall. A frowny face was painted upon each speaker's surface by collaborator Tony Oursler. Vitiello's work was unique in its embrace of loudspeakers as visual objects; he put his speakers center stage, and even went so far as to ornament them.

In contrast, most other artists hid their speakers in containers, or stowed them out of the way, as if intending for us to listen but not look. In Fragments of a Former Moon, though, Jim Haynes exiled some speakers, but incorporated others into the structure that occupied the center of his installation space: a set of chemical-spattered glass panes hung from the ceiling into a Rubik's Cube-like form, lit from within. His piece conjured both an abandoned factory in Roswell, and a well-lit Japanese tearoom enclosed by Shoji screens.

Among the featured works, many addressed the inevitable questions regarding the relationship between sound and image. Are visual and sonic events always causally related? Which dominates, and which is auxiliary? In the book Art and Fear, the doomsaying theorist Paul Virilio denounced the use of sound synched to video. To Virilio, sound and light, when placed in a mind-numbing lockstep, becomes totalitarian.

The works by Jennifer West and Marina Rosenfeld showed that the marriage of sound and video footage can be much more complex and revealing. In West's Amplify/Sound Misapprehension, multi-channel videos of her friends manipulating objects - from writing letters to burning celery - accompanied an audio track of the resulting noise-counterpoint. In As Now, Is Now, turntable artist Marina Rosenfeld explored the more specific connection of a visual score to an audio performance. By projecting both the Super-8 video of an abstract score (two bands of light that change their width and intensity) and a cellist's and turntablist's musical responses, Rosenfeld gave her audience a peephole through which they could watch the translational process of music, rather than being excluded from the usual huddle formed by the score and its interpreter.

Just as we learned to trace all sounds to their visual sources, L.A.-based artist Steve Roden presented visual work created in response to sound. In Vowel Construction, he made colored-pencil drawings, while following rules applied to the sound recording of a John Glenn speech. Similarly in Transmission (Voices of Objects and Skies), tin cans - suspended from the ceiling - are color-coded according to the same speech. Then there was Translation (Notes Lines Fields), a sculpture made from a quilt, dowel tower, and speakers playing piano sounds, all sized according to the proportions of Roden's body parts. Roden's work is high-art trying on the outfit of outsider-art, both in his punk-inspired use of lo-fi materials (tin cans, string, handmade quilts, and colored pencils) and in his Adolf Wölfli-like obsessive adherence to a very personal system of synthetic constraints.

One of the most affecting pieces in this sound art exhibit, in fact, made no audible sound. In Fear of High Places and Natural Things, Stephen Vitiello suspended conical speakers from the ceiling into an arc, like steps of a spiral staircase. All the speakers fluctuated in frequencies too low for the human ear, (but audible to a giraffe, according to Vitiello). The speakers' silent but visible trembling conveyed a moving futility. Indeed, the futile loudspeaker is a theme that runs through Vitiello's previous works, including fluxus-inspired pieces in which he shot arrows and even a cannonball through speakers, then used the damaged speakers to play the recordings of these shots, as best they could.

For the most part, the featured works, despite their convention-slamming parentage of fluxus and punk, stuck with a polite, library-going murmur. Was this because the curators, intent on creating a harmonious, unified exhibit, had shied away from a whole range of potentially interesting sounds: bombastic, rousing, thundering and shrill? Was this why Thurston Moore's noise bag had been banished to the lobby of the exhibit?

Overall, though, curators Meade and Millis created a thoughtful exhibit. In their willful intent to blur the borders between pieces, they often unearthed revealing moments of interaction. One such moment was when noise improviser, Eyvind Kang, played violin while, at the curators' behest, he wandered through the exhibit. Though it seemed forced at first, this conceit resulted in a performance composed of a sensitively chosen trellis of sounds.

Another insightfully created moment, my favorite in the show, was the corner space where Vitiello's Fear of High Places met Scenery of Vibration, by Toshiya Tsunoda. In Tsunoda's elegant piece, piezo plates, attached to a row of teapots and ceramic plates, vibrated at just the right frequency to make these objects hum. Placed less than ten feet apart, Tsunoda's and Vitiello's pieces developed a tender dynamic. Like a child trying to speak for his mute, paralyzed grandfather, Tsunoda's objects gave a bashful and innocent voice to Vitiello's speakers, which were otherwise resigned to silence.