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May 16, 2005

Sonic Interventions Conference Report


The Sounds/Noise of Silence

Conference Report: Sonic Interventions: Pushing the Boundaries of Cultural Analysis, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, Universiteit von Amsterdam, by Marisa S. Olson

The Sonic Interventions Conference was described by its organizers, the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, as an interdisciplinary conference "dedicated to exploring the cultural practices, aesthetics, technologies, and ways of conceptualizing sound, noise, and silence." One might imagine that this is an enormous topic, just as enormous as attempting to categorize something as pervasive as light, with which sound is frequently lumped. Taking the example of a panel discussionon the radio, consider the differences between discussing the radio in domestic life in the 1920s and the entire cultural history of the police radio. Interesting connections emerged and, yet, there was not enough time to address them in a single panel. And, of course, theseare just fractional aspects of radio history, and of sound, writ large.

The conference was driven by a large number of such concurrent panel sessions, which tended to foreclose the possibility of any two conference-goers having a "common experience," or of a consistent discourse emerging. The organizers also asked speakers to limit their presentations to ten minutes, rather than the standard twenty, in order to be more conducive to conversation among the thinly-spread audience.

Despite the structural obstacles and the broad topic, Sonic Interventions managed to play host to a number of interestingpresentations. Though a wide net was cast in the call for proposals, inviting artists and engineers to contribute, in addition to thetypical range of academic papers, the program ultimately skewed in thedirection of the academy. Sonic Interventions, then, became an opportunity to survey some of the more interesting contemporary humanities research related to sound.

Keynote speaker Douglas Kahn was among the better-known sound theorists present and his opening talk provided an art historical backdrop for the next four days of discussion. In lieu of discussing sound art, proper, Kahn actually discussed artistic research into states of soundlessness. In a reprise of his catalogue essay for theSon et Lumiere show at the Pompidou, Kahn discussed John Cage's and James Turrell's notions of "silence," and perception in general. Discussing the former's visit to an anechoic chamber and the latter's emulation of such a space, Kahn began to outline a phenomenology of corporeal sound; one concerned with the difference between perceiving the sounds of the body (of the blood flow, or even of thought) as interior or exterior events that is, whether the sounds of the body's systems or the retinal changes experienced in a transition to darkness, would be read as coming from the self or as environmentally specific to the anechoic chamber.

Kahn's arguments find extension into the realms of site-specificity and composition, of course, but also 1960s military research and counter-cultural resistance, or the ever-slippery relationship between light and sound, as manifest through shades of withdrawal and hallucination. This approach echoed the ethos of the overall conference, made evident in ASCA's CFP, which stated, "Sound is a mental impression, a penetrating sensation, a transmitted disturbance that may be structured or chaotic, narrative or non-narrative, organic or technologically produced, communicative, and even politicallycharged."

Despite the vagaries of the call (which were, admittedly, posited in a gesture towards inclusion and diversity), Kahn's specific approach became an apt backdrop for the ensuing days of Sonic Interventions. The overall intent of the conference was to not only define what constitutes sound or silence, but what historic discourses and ideological models of value have been associated with thosedefinitions.

A glance at the conference program reveals that all of the following stood as specimens in the study of sound: music (of many genres, eras, and areas), the spoken word (also of many genres, eras, and areas), radio, noise (political, mental, static, dynamic), the sound of writing, silence (as in "the silent arts," anechoism, "queer silence,"and beyond), orality, the voice, what the dead would say if they could, what the subaltern would say if they could, the soundscape, instruments, recording and playback technology, the broadcast and its political economy, field recordings, sound memories, sound trauma, and the ecology of sonic waste, among others.

Punctuated by performances by Mary Flanagan and Jay Needham were presentations under the heading of four continuous themes: Sound and the Moving Image & Sound Technologies and Cultural Change; The Sonic in the 'Silent' Arts and Bring in the Noise; Silences/Orality; and Soundscapes: Sound, Space, and the Body & Sound Practices and Events. In the interest of time and space, I will present the best or most interesting panels from each heading.

Under the first category, which considered sound in relationship to the moving image, technology, and cultural change, there was an interesting meeting of Cageian theory and pop aestheticism, brought about by Seda Ergul, Jal Kraut, and Luke Stickels. Kraut's approach to reading Cage's notion of silence, and the means of "defeating" it, sounded almost staid in comparison with Ergul's paper on "Cageian Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or Stickels's, on "Violence versus Silence: exploding binaries in Hana Bi." The three bounced nicely off each other, while proving that a seemingly-flimsy definition of silence could be profitable in its potential for widespread application.

The second category, "The Sonic in the 'Silent' Arts and Bring in the Noise" seemed to yield some of the most interesting, if diverse presentations. The title of the category sounds like a collision between ancient philosophy and a contemporary Broadway musical. Nonetheless, conference attendees with an openness to such "accidents"could find themselves presently surprised, as I was in attending a panel of a literary bent. Hannah Bosma, Alix Mazuet, and John M.Picker did an excellent job in excavating the polyvalent "sounds" with which literature is infused, ranging from rattling in one's head space to the scratchy scrawling of ecriture, to the narrative representation of aurality. Where Bosma opened with an elucidation on "Different Noises," Mazuet and Picker looked at Victorian-era instanciations of them. Picker compared the latter to contemporary urban noise problems.

Pulling at a similarly literary thread, under the heading of "Silences/Orality," Greg Esplin, Maria Boletsi, David Copenhafer, and Zachary Sifuentes plunged into canonical texts by Melville, Conrad, Kafka, and Eliot. Each presented studies of characters and contexts in which the cacophony of an encroaching modernity is "heard." The panel was interesting in that each presenter took a very specifically-angled approach to looking at issues with which many media theorists are currently concerned. These include the notions of private/public, orprivacy/publicity; the relationship of the part to the whole (be it a character in a book, an individual in a society, or a cog in a wheel); and modes of distribution and broadcast. Discourses of power, be it individual agency or the apprehensively aligned electrical power, were understatedly present, and the entire conversation was "enlightening."

Finally, under the fourth broad category, "Soundscapes: Sound, Space, and the Body & Sound Practices and Events," Ros Bandt, Ching Fang Chiang, and Pieter Verstraete comprised the panel most oriented toward contemporary art. This very international group looked at variations on installation art ranging from large museum works to smaller-scale immersive works, to Janet Cardiff's "audio walks." The panelists performed close-readings of sonic aspects of the works, which could also have been inspected under the lens of the previous topics. In particular, the thread of modernity (surprisingly more so than postmodernity) permeated the majority of the conference presentations and the aforementioned tenets of this discourse particularly the distinction between the personal and the public were uniquely embodied by the art works discussed here.

Elsewhere under the "Soundscape" category, Julian Henriques presented a paper, entitled "The Reggae Sound System: Music, Culture and Technology," which in a certain sense represented the best synthesis of all of the conference themes: comparing sensorial and political notions of sound and silence, tracing diasporic and ideological roots and metaphorically equating them with root objects in an evolving musicology, and tracing the simultaneous evolution of recording technology and its relationships to the sound it plays and the people who hear it.

In the end, were one to draw any one conclusion about the Sonic Interventions conference, it might be that "sound theory" is currently finding room to "intervene" in other humanistic studies. For better or for worse, this all-encompassing conference worked less to establish sound as a category in its own right (as one will recall was once done for film studies and new media, in the conferences of yore) than to posit is as a useful, if intricate, gloss upon other areas of enquiry. [via Rhizome]

Posted by jo at May 16, 2005 10:21 AM