Where do we draw the distinction between vision and sound? To those of us not endowed with the gift of synaesthesia (although more, or even all, of us may have aspects of this talent at the level of unconscious cognition) that question might seem easy to answer but the distinction is becoming blurred. Note how some of the most outstanding pieces of “sculpture” at the Munster Sculpture Project 07 were actually sound pieces. I refer to Suchan Kinoshita’s Chinese Whispers installation and Susan Philipsz’s The Lost Reflection.
Philipsz’s piece is especially pertinent because it was fundamentally musical using a barcarole from The Tales of Hoffmann. So we if can quite happily take music as “sculpture”, so long as it is framed as “installation art”, then one might say that there is a certain synaesthetic process occurring at a conceptual level at least.
And when we make the revolutionary step outside the conventional world of fine art into the area of media art we find the distinction between visual art and sound/music/noise is much less defined. One of the critical features of media art lies in the phenomenon of electronic and digital convergence where static visual art, time-based visual art, design, sound, and electronic music constantly meld and overlap.
So it was not surprising to attend a concert of electronic music by Ryoichi Kurokawa and find a powerful visual accompaniment projected onto the enormous backstage wall of the Brucknerhaus concert hall in Linz.
You can watch and listen to a video of part of Kurokawa’s performance here (VIDEO CLIP)
Kurokawa describes himself as an “audiovisual artist” (YouTube interview–in French) rather than as a VJ, and the sophistication of his music and, possibly to a lesser extent, his imagery supports this distinction (compare with youtube), although the fashion for VJing in Japan may have been an influence. It was difficult to tell whether his Ars Electronica performance was a prepared videoscape as was the case for Niobe’s performance, or whether there was a dynamic interaction between the sound and the imagery. The latter appears to be the case because the visual and the sonic aspects seemed to be closely interknit.
The audiovisual artist has several choices: a prepared videoscape, a database-driven videoscape composed of clips that can be activated by sound and/or manually, and/or computer-generated abstract imagery that is intimately integrated with sound via software that deploys sonic analysis and transpositional rules. The most sophisticated audiovisual software currently available is Max/Msp/Jitter or the open-source (and free) version of this which is Pure Data or PD (pure data). Both packages are sophisticated visual programming languages and require training; they also work best on Macintosh computers, but there are simpler packages (softwarevj vjsoft).
Such digital developments are exciting because from a historical point of view, the intersection of sonic and visual language has been a particular obsession of modernity that can be traced back to the Symbolist movement in the late nineteenth century. Indeed the Symbolists obsession with creating “visual music” played a crucial role in the evolution of abstraction in visual art as is evident if one reads Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 text Concerning the Spiritual in Art (in the Peter Vergo translation, which is the best, it is entitled On the Spiritual in Art).
It is interesting, therefore, to see a resurgence of what might be called digital or electronic abstraction in the field of media arts. What the digital offers artists like Kurokawa is a remarkable synaesthetic technology. Any user of computers realises that she or he can seamlessly switch from writing something on a wordprocessor to listening to music, to editing that music, to using photo-editing or video-editing. This is a revolution that only began to become available in mass produced personal computers (beginning with Macintosh) around 1994. So it is perhaps not surprising that the revolution has not hit the field of fine art which is traditionally slow to adopt new media (it took the fine art institution 130 years to accept photography, although it was much quicker off the mark with video).
Like the mind, the digital medium translates all sensory data into a common language/medium. In the brain this language consists of electrochemical patterns, in the computer it is microelectronic patterns. These patterns or structures can be manifested in different ways. No doubt this is how synaesthesia functions: visual data coming into the synaesthetic’s brain becomes a neural pattern of electrochemical activity but that pattern is not simply inputted via a visual pathway but also via an auditory or olfactory pathway. In this way the same pattern is expressed in the synaesthetic’s consciousness as both visual and sonic or olfactory experience.
But returning to Kurokawa his music, or sound art, whatever you want to call it, although the term “noise art” seems only relevant to aspects of his work because it is often quite lyrically repetitive in a manner that is meditational. Electronic music is very effective at producing trance-like effects but of all the concert performances at Ars Electronica 2006 the venerable Eliane Radigue’s “676” was the most trance inducing. I found myself constantly “waking up” which is to say coming back into full consciousness after having gradually drifted into another cognitive space, and then ineluctably being pulled back into the hypnotic condition.
One of the most impressive features of music/sonic art is its capacity to encompass mind and body, which is something visual art–being trapped in the regime of the gaze–finds extremely difficult. And so intersections of the two dimensions which are common at Ars Electronica are extremely interesting. One can mention for example Kaffe Matthews’ Sonic Bed a sonic immersive installation also at Ars Electronica 2006, which was a dramatic demonstration of the power of sound to induce extraordinary body-mind experiences.