PRINT March 2005


Michael Graeve

ACCORDING TO THE media archaeology laid out in Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), the functions of film and phonograph can be distinguished by analogy with the psychoanalytic functions Jacques Lacan described as the “imaginary” and the “real.” Where the imaginary was once stimulated, in the era of the book, by the discrete flow of words, in the age of media it is directly controlled by the cinema’s manipulation of attention through techniques like the close-up, the zoom, and shot/countershot alternations. The phonograph, by contrast, acts as a repository and reproduction device for a real understood by Kittler as the continuous trace of the untranscribable noise a human listener effortlessly, and precisely through an unnoticed focus of attention, screens out. In the postwar era of electronic media—exemplified, on the one hand, by the capacity to edit and manipulate magnetic tape and, on the other, by the ability to spatially simulate environments through stereo sound—the imaginary and the real merge, opening, according to Kittler, onto a boom in popular music production and (largely the same thing) vast resources for the manipulation of experiential realms, no longer impeded by any unassimilable substrate or remainder.

Whether knowingly or not, much contemporary sound art is predicated on such a media-cultural backdrop, and the discourse surrounding it correspondingly emphasizes information technologies and anticipates—as both desirable and inevitable—the collapse of meaningful distinctions between visual and acoustical phenomena. Thus, Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo rightfully stands as one of sound art’s originators, not because he embraced noise over music (inspiring the early experiments of John Cage, among others) but because works like Risveglio di una città (Awakening of a City), 1913, attempted to convert that noise into an imaginary cityscape portrait. Other precedents need not be as explicit as Walter Ruttman’s Weekend, 1930, a sound collage conceived as an audio film. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “Dream Houses,” dating from the mid-’60s, not only instigate a complementarity of sound and vision, they attempt to induce distinct emotional states, “internal representations of the external air molecule patterns,” produced directly within the central nervous system (the bodily real, in Kittler’s parlance) through sonic vibrations.

Such media-archaeological conditions come into focus, and into play, with particular concision in the work of Australian sound artist Michael Graeve. Surrounded in performances and installations by numerous cast-off record players, Graeve can appear as a slightly disheveled or disorganized Philip Jeck, the Liverpool artist and turntablist who deploys arrays of mid-century Dansette phonographs. However, whereas Jeck creates atmospheric, almost cinematic soundscapes out of secondhand records, Graeve most often treats his equipment as electronic devices with intrinsic acoustic capabilities. “I’ve rarely played with vinyl,” Graeve states flatly. Instead, by allowing the needle to drag across the rotating metal platter or rubber mat (as in the live performance at the Sound Particle festival in Sydney on March 23, 2001, or in “whirr thump thump,” a track with a decidedly Futurist title from SIMPLE METHODS for complex times [2001]), Graeve transforms the phonograph into an avatar of Russolo’s rotating-drum, noise-producing intonarumori. Other techniques, such as putting loudspeakers atop record players to produce feedback, further extend his equipment’s sonic potential.

Although Graeve’s releases, most notably the polycarbonate twelve-inch Megalomania Micromania (2000), sound much like those of the Mego generation of laptop improvisers, the controlled din he elicits from the phonograph needle—conveyed across humming, ungrounded wires, crackling shorts in a cable, or the breathy resonance of degraded amps and speakers (most procured a decade ago)—markedly references its analog, as opposed to digital, origin. The effect, while not at all nostalgic, nevertheless carries connotations of the outmoded and is visually paralleled by the thrift-store (in Australian, “op-shop”) look of his Dieter Roth–like amalgam of shelved equipment 0, 16, 33, 45, 78, 2004, a sculpture occasionally activated as a performance platform. Even when going in for more dynamic acoustical assaults, as at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne last summer, Graeve’s concerts are less the onslaughts of Masami Akita’s Merzbow than the controlled errancy and breakdown produced on “cracked everyday electronics” by the Swiss duo Voice Crack (Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl).

The generative contrasts in Graeve’s work—between image and noise, handmade and manufactured, new and cast-off, utopian promise and material discard—already proved evident in the clutter of abstract painting and stereo equipment he installed at Grey Area Art Space Inc. in Melbourne (Painting and Sound Installation, 1997). With Frequency, rhythm and otherwise painted and Stereo (both 2000), Graeve delved further into the relation between sound and art. The former was an overly literal illustration of the conversion between an acoustic real and a visual imaginary, the latter a more dubious attempt, in part, to sonically condition the reception of a number of paintings. Since then, however, Graeve has moved in a different direction, investigating the dialectical “relations and unrelations” (his terms) of visual and acoustical phenomena in the vein of the recent sound art “movement” Christoph Cox termed “neo-modernism” [Artforum, November 2003].

As a painter, Graeve is continually attracted to the uninflected band or field of color. As described by Yve-Alain Bois, the monochrome canvas forms the degree zero of painting, the final point to which it can be reduced before its imaginary function dissolves and it presents itself as a mere object in the world. Graeve’s installations of paintings and speakers, such as the simply titled p&s at Melbourne’s West Space Inc. in 2003, thus pit the visual experience of an imaginary cum real against a real-cum-imaginary acoustical manipulation of environmental attentiveness. As prefigured in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (in Theodor Adorno’s prescient analysis) and achieved in the advent of sync-sound movies and television (as Jonathan Crary has speculated), techniques and technologies for conjoining sound and vision have been integrally allied with a regime of spectacle. Often, sound-art installations that comparably synthesize the audio and the visual serve to exemplify or extend, rather than critique or investigate, such effects. When not conceived as pure entertainment (as it was in last summer’s dreadful “Live” exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris), sound in the gallery frequently serves to lend “presence” to otherwise-lacking visual efforts. Apocalyptic wallpaper becomes conviction by the addition of a sound track. Though his installations knowingly toy with this perception, Graeve voices suspicion of such strategies. “I feel slightly uneasy about this characteristic,” he says about facile recourses to the trope of synesthesia. “My experience of the relation between the painting and sound parts in my work is much more ambivalent and guarded. . . . These media do not interact to form a seamless whole.”

That the two halves of Graeve’s sound art break apart as much as they fall together is due to their self-sufficiency. The monochrome’s historical connotations of self-reflexive autonomy block acoustic inhabitation, while Graeve’s audio referentiality deflects reception of the sounds as atmospheric emanations of his deadpan visuals. Rather than complementing one another, the acoustic and visual aspects of Graeve’s installations relate as subtly supplemental, almost allegorical, layerings.

The Other to the monochrome’s august self-sufficiency is its assimilation to modern design (a prevalent trope in contemporary sound art, exemplified in Carsten Nicolai’s influential label/design firm Raster-Noton). In s4p7(14)fl14, installed at Melbourne’s Penthouse and Pavement gallery in 2001, Graeve engaged this aspect of the monochrome’s legacy by suspending two-sided monochrome canvases from the ceiling so that they floated a few centimeters below the gallery’s hanging fluorescent-light fixtures. The result both evoked and violated the monochrome’s mystical, transcendent associations (recall Malevich’s Black Square, installed as both object and beacon high up in the “0,10” exhibition of 1915) while simultaneously invoking its industrial descendants in Donald Judd’s tinted Plexiglas or, more explicitly, Dan Flavin’s colored lights. While Graeve’s canvases reflected ambient hues onto the ceiling, they blocked the normal lighting, casting the sound-filled lower portion of the gallery into obscurity. The result both referenced and sundered the New Age unity of Young and Zazeela’s current sound-and-light environments.

Though Graeve is acoustically closest to his generation of neo-moderns, his artistic sensibility is ultimately more akin to that of Christian Marclay. Despite Marclay’s sonic appropriations and pyrotechnic mix-and-cut turntablism, his visual art is often less postmodern than a meditation on modernism, one in which autonomy equals silence and materials related to sound production are converted from use value to exhibition value. Marclay’s Endless Column, 1988, an emulation of Constanti Brancusi’s iconic modernist sculpture of the same name, is a case in point: Simply put, stacked records don’t play. Graeve’s own pile of speakers, amps, and microphones, ICNIINN III, 1998/2003, responds to both Marclay and Brancusi, making a further nod in its evident precariousness to Richard Serra’s famous “Skullcracker” series of 1968. Graeve’s two columns (postwar sound reproduction being, of course, stereo) differ from Marclay’s mash-up of readymade and monument by encompassing another facet of the strategy of “placement” that Rosalind Krauss once described as the “area of almost insidious overlap between Brancusi and Duchamp.” In ICNIINN III, the contingency of placement is registered visually, in the towers’ reach toward the air-conditioning duct, and aurally, by wiring the metal grate to amplify the knocks, pings, and whoosh of ventilation. Like cold air, the sound cascades downward and throughout the gallery.

Discussing Duchamp and Brancusi, Krauss has noted that, despite evident aesthetic differences, their practices of placement come together in externalizing the mechanisms of meaning production. Both thereby refused the humanist illusion of an ineffable internal core from which all meaning, as expression or intention, could be seen to emanate. In Graeve’s ICNIINN III, the strategy of placement, both as stacking and installation, entails neither an interventionist critique of the museum nor an aestheticized estrangement of habitually unnoted environmental effects. Rather, somewhat like his recordings and performances, Graeve’s sculpture amplifies contingency, a here and now distinct from both the immutable and pure chance. In a time increasingly dominated by the placelessness of the computer and the Internet (not to mention MP3 file sharing), such contingency is but another manifestation of the outmoded. By externalizing the mechanisms of sound production, Graeve’s work seems to interrogate the contemporary disappearance of meaning into the ineffable internal cores of black boxes that, as Kittler characterizes new media, do very well without human intentions at all.

Branden W. Joseph is assistant professor of contemporary art at the University of California, Irvine, and currently Coca-Cola Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.