PRINT May 1982


The computer’s most profound implication is that we are being forced to dismiss the classical view of art and reality which insists that . . . art can be separated from its everyday environment. . . . It has already been observed that the everyday world is rapidly assuming identity with the condition of art.
—Jack Burnham, 1969

MAX NEUHAUS IS CREATING a sound that could be used for the sirens on every squad car, ambulance, and fire truck in New York. This project suggests considerations ranging from a fool’s errand to a very defensible repositioning of that much contended barrier, moved as often as a wall in a Japanese house, between art and everything else.

Aspects of the project, despite its immaculately simple conception, have precedents in Neuhaus’ previous work, which has characteristically used sound to manipulate space as well as time, and has eliminated the auditor’s choice in access. Sirens are understood to invoke a particular mode of response—obligatory alarm—which would seem to be atypical of Neuhaus’ fundamentally inexpressive style. In fact, Neuhaus sees his role in the siren project as basically that of an eminently qualified and imaginative sound technician; he looks outside the art context for the project’s ramifications. It is the mandatory localization and identification of the alarm sound by the hearer, rather than any emotional representation of it, that he feels must be emphasized.

Neuhaus’ fifteen years of involvement with sound installations of various permanence follows an earlier career as a performing musician, notably as percussion soloist with Karlheinz Stockhausen. His most recent installations have made use of electronically synthesized sounds, for which he has developed an elegant computerized system for manipulating and storing tone patterns. The system he is using for the siren project is modified from one created in 1980 for a St. Paul (Minnesota) Botanical Garden installation, and includes a video monitor on which the sounds can literally be drawn with an electric marker.

The video monitor and synthesizer travel with Neuhaus on test missions for the siren project to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where sounds are generated through speakers on cars traveling in repeated loops over incrementally marked distances. Floyd Bennett Field is enormous and bleak, and by urban standards an aural void. Its few peripheral airplane hangars and administrative buildings suggest an antiquated future in which people are displaced by the scale of their enterprises. All of this makes the business of attending to emergencies seem unusually forlorn. Despite the troop of professionals, from psychoacousticians to police detectives, whom Neuhaus credits for their part in the project, at the airfield Neuhaus seemed less a brilliant strategist than a romantic inventor. The immediate area around the test vehicles was thick with equipment, including that belonging to documenters and commentators—technology seems to love company—but the hermetic concentration of the person at central control made the formidable array of apparatus seem sympathetically approachable.

The first sounds Neuhaus worked with at the airfield were simple variations on the three patterns now available to emergency vehicle operators: the “wail,” the “yelp,” and “high-low”—all fairly self-explanatory. More complex sounds, creating a kind of syncopated siren stomp, gradually emerged. At this writing, the final sound has yet to be determined, but one of the features Neuhaus is working toward is an optimized Doppler effect, which would signal most clearly the location of an emergency vehicle. Neuhaus is, by his own admission, unwilling to be hostage to scientific method, which he finds cumbersome. He prefers to approach the condition of art—which, he insists has long existed in unsuspected areas of the everyday world—with the anesthesia of technology. Computers simply provide him with sophisticated tools.

Although the use of computerized sound-generating systems disengages him to a degree from personal expression, the psychoacoustic parameters of the new siren are ultimately being determined intuitively, Neuhaus says. In his proposal for the project, he writes: “The aura of panic and tension created around a city by emergency sirens is a constant psychological irritant; behavior, attitudes, and emotions are unquestionably affected by aural intrusion.” The territory that Neuhaus is charting lies between kinds of sounds that arouse productive awareness and those which cause incapacitating frenzy. His unwillingness to circumscribe the project within an art context has less to do with an insistence on its practicability than with his impatience about the categories under which esthetic responsibility are judged. An implicit goal of Neuhaus’ undertaking is to encourage recognition that many technicians and civil servants, in all fields of public and commercial communications, share with artists the privilege of determining our perceptual environment. The New York Police Department, which early on commended the project as an “act of social progress,” is an obvious example. Sirens provide Neuhaus with a means of demonstrating that the responsibility of authorship had been separated from expression long before he created his first “anonymous” (to the general public) sound installation.

The issues of obligation, intrusion, and accountability raised by the siren project have been of ongoing interest to Neuhaus. Describing Neuhaus’ 1974 series of 21 installations called “Water Whistle,” in which submerged sounds were emitted in various New York City public pools, Al Brunelle wrote in Art in America, “Whereas the sense of sight is generally fixed to what is external—‘out there’ in the field of vision—sound takes place within the ear, so it is more invasive and fraught with consequences.” The siren project carries the audience’s obligation to the sound beyond reception to include physical response, but the voice of command here is dictated by collective patterns and needs rather than esthetic imperatives. In moving out of the way of the sound of a siren, auditors behave out of socially contracted responsibility. Working with sirens thus provides Neuhaus with an occasion for conclusively disobliging himself of the need to entertain his audience, and for releasing them to respond to meaning rather than style. He is also examining the expressive role that sirens play, not only in the streets, but also in the media. Their ubiquitous presence, in film and television as well as in our daily lives, has been increasingly cited as evidence of escalating violence. Neuhaus blames television for promoting an unrealistically heroic image of paramedics, and is sure that this romantic image has influenced ambulance drivers to “abuse” sirens. He is therefore being somewhat disingenuous when he says that the success of the new siren’s sound will depend entirely on the ease with which it can be located. One of Neuhaus’ criticisms of existing sirens is that they are sometimes demonstrably hazardous—“they scare the shit out of people, which tends to make them stop dead in their tracks”—but surely the reflexive obedience necessary to the function of a siren is partly predicated on fear. The siren project unquestionably meddles in the area between actual and representational expressions of danger; it is fair to infer from Neuhaus’ observations about ambulance drivers not only that violence has become integral to popular culture, but also that the analysis of violence or danger intrinsically belongs in current esthetic discourse. In a recent study of violence and the arts, the English social historian John Fraser condemns the use of violence in the media because, he says, “the consciousnesses of victims and victimizers get falsified and the border between life and art is erased in the wrong way, namely by the reduction of life to the status of art.” In defense of Neuhaus’ intervention in this border zone, his manipulation of a signal system of violence regulates rather than imposes a particularly potent symbol.

Before being powerful symbols sirens are, of course, symbols of power, of authority responding to challenge and confronting danger. In accepting the civil authority invested in sirens, Neuhaus runs a collision course with the very different authority of art. The relationship between power and violence, as construed by Hannah Arendt, has a nice congruence with the traditionally understood relationship between controlled communications and the lone avenger, art: “The extreme form of power,” Arendt writes, “is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All.”

But Neuhaus is adept at reconciling apparently antagonistic spheres of communication. He reminds us with the siren project that danger is more than a discrete physical situation, and that violence is a descriptive as well as a substantive term. In formulating a sound for alarm, Neuhaus rationalizes several roles that offer the possibility of coercion, and arrives at a consummate act of conceptual and musical resolution.

Nancy Princenthal is exhibitions director at Creative Time Inc. and a freelance writer. She lives in New York.