PRINT September 2006



DURING THE WORLD CUP–obsessed summer of 2006, Berlin may have been the epicenter of soccer culture, but for decades it has been the unofficial global capital of sound art, which the city’s institutions have steadfastly and proudly supported. In 1980, the Akademie der Künste presented “Für Augen und Ohren” (For Eyes and Ears), a landmark exhibition that provided a historical backdrop for the emergence of sound art as a distinct category and introduced a generation of artists for whom sound was the primary medium. Berlin’s commercial galleries have been friendly to sound since the late ’70s, when Rolf Langebartels opened Galerie Giannozzo in the Charlottenburg district. (This tradition is continued today by Carsten Seiffarth’s Singuhr-Hörgalerie, still one of the very few spaces in the world dedicated exclusively to sound installation.) However, prior to this past summer, the most significant event hosted by this sound-art center was “Sonambiente 1996,” a multivenue exhibition curated by Matthias Osterwold, Georg Weckwerth, and Christian Kneisel and named after the American designer Harry Bertoia’s sound-sculpture studio. Taking place amid Berlin’s flurry of post-wall reconstruction, the festival assembled a who’s who of European and American audio artists and helped to launch the sound-art boom of the past decade.

And so Osterwold and Weckwerth’s reprise of “Sonambiente” in Berlin this past June and July raised high hopes—even if their decision to make the event coincide with the World Cup’s four-week run baffled anyone for whom the categories “sports fan” and “art lover” scarcely overlap. (If they hoped to draw some rowdy, face-painted hooligans away from the “Fan Fest”—a mile-long soccer-fueled carnival stretching from the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column—the ploy didn’t work. After the show’s solid opening in June, gallery guards outnumbered visitors at most of the citywide festival’s two dozen venues.) Presenting work by an international roster of nearly one hundred artists, along with lectures, performances, and film screenings, the curators clearly sought a repeat performance of their original event. Of course, with the passage of time, there were bound to be some differences. The first “Sonambiente,” for example, emphasized site-specificity, making use of the massive construction site that Berlin was in 1996 by installing work in a host of transitional spaces. For “Sonambiente 2006,” the curators again made use of novel venues, though this time these spots were more likely to be sterile and uninviting office buildings than the ruins of the German Democratic Republic. Of all the venues for the event, only the former Polish Embassy, a crumbling hulk of stark, bureaucratic grandeur, recalled the Berlin of the ’90s.

Julian Rosefeldt, Trilogy of Failure (Part I) The Sound Maker, 2004, still from a color film in Super-16 mm transferred to DVD, 36 minutes.

The original festival offered a broad survey of sound art aimed at consolidating it as a viable field. Today sound art is more firmly, if not fully, established. Nonetheless, comparing “Sonambiente 2006” with its original incarnation reveals how little sound-art practice and discourse have developed in the intervening decade. In striking contrast with the visual arts, sound art is still overwhelmingly male and European, and it is still dominated by the concerns that animated the prominent group of sound artists who emerged in the ’80s, among them Bernhard Leitner, Hans Peter Kuhn, Christina Kubisch, Rolf Julius, and Robin Minard, all of whom presented new work at “Sonambiente 2006.” Spurred by the historical legacy of Minimalism, these artists tend to deploy sound as a sculptural element that articulates space and amplifies the temporality of physical objects. The integration of sound with visual art is often construed by this group as a holistic enterprise that balances the sensorium, producing an aesthetic experience “for eyes and ears” alike. The resulting work can be elegant and powerful. But at “Sonambiente 2006” much of it seemed rote and ineffectual. Given an entire room in the Akademie’s Pariser Platz location, Leitner’s Serpentinata II, 2004/2006, an undulating structure of clear tubes, black cables, and small speakers that spouted hisses and squawks, was technically proficient, but little more. The same was true of Kuhn’s Labyrinth (Meikyu 2), 2006, a skewed grid of fluorescent tubes and panning loudspeakers that was as slick and vacuous as the displays at a high-end department store. More successful was Leitner’s sonic waterfall Kaskade, 2006, which, placed in a stairwell, skillfully shaped and directed sound using parabolic bowls and plastic ramps, and Julius’s characteristically lovely and understated assemblage of murmuring soup bowls and small video screens displaying offhand images of lightly rippling water.

A few other elders of the sound-art scene produced compelling work for the show in a more lighthearted vein. Filling a small, dark room of the former Polish Embassy, American experimentalist Nicolas Collins’s Daguerreotypes, 2006, provided an unusually elegant example of “circuit bending,” the creative deconstruction of consumer electronics detailed in the artist’s new book, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking (2006). In the work, tiny green lights illuminate a series of dangling LCD screens stripped from handheld electronics. The screens display a primitive microcinema of data fragments—blobs, glyphs, and runes—magnified in shadow on the walls, while a set of speakers spews audio data drawn from scrapped circuit boards. Upstairs, in a long room facing a busy boulevard, the Frankfurt-­based artist Achim Wollscheid jerry-rigged a mechanism that opened and closed a set of casement windows in response to visitor location and movement. The idea was a simple one. But it thoughtfully reconsidered the window as an auditory boundary rather than as a visual opening and allowed for a playful orchestration of ambient sounds.

Sound artists—particularly the older Europeans—tend to be so engrossed in their medium that they fail to consider it critically or conceptually. Earnestly focusing on the physical and the phenomenal—on the matter of sound and its perception—they produce work that is often resolutely non- (if not anti-) intellectual. “Sonambiente 2006” fully manifested this tendency—with a few notable exceptions provided primarily by younger artists. Cologne-based conceptualist Jens Brand’s witty and engaging installation Gpod-GP4, 2006, took the form of a mock electronics showroom featuring two products: the “Global Player” (which looked like a cross between a CD player and a CB radio) and the “Gpod” (a modified video iPod). Spec sheets, wall text, and a helpful “sales associate” explained that both devices were able to track the positions of thousands of satellites circling the globe and to use these to play the topography of the earth in real time in the same way that a stylus traces the pits and grooves of a vinyl record. Put on “shuffle,” the Gpod jumped around from one satellite to another, emitting a nervous stream of noisy blasts, low rumbles, and near silence. Whether or not the devices actually did what they were said to do, the installation owed less to its sensuous realization than to its idea, which recalled a rich history of oddball phonographic experiments, among them Thomas Alva Edison’s crackpot attempts to communicate with the dead and Rainer Maria Rilke’s proposal to use a phonograph needle to play the human skull.

Equally clever and savvy was Julian Rosefeldt’s superb three-channel film installation Trilogy of Failure (Part 1) The Sound Maker, 2004, one of the few pieces at “Sonambiente 2006” to reflect critically on the conjunctions between sound and sight. In the center panel, a man enters his apartment, takes a pee, prepares some food, watches television, and then, apparently out of boredom, decides to assemble his furniture and DJ equipment into a makeshift sculptural installation. From different perspectives, the side panels show a scrappy foley studio in which the same man calmly attempts to generate all the sounds that ought to accompany the action in the center. Despite his skillful and earnest efforts, the foley artist is unable to keep up with the job, and sound and image subtly but perceptibly drift apart in all three panels. More than self-referential slapstick (though it was that, too), the piece tugged at sensory and cinematic expectations and threw the viewer/auditor into a critical encounter with them.

Rosefeldt’s piece stood out at “Sonambiente 2006,” where so many of the projects manifested aesthetic problems that are all too prevalent in sound art today. The small handful of works that made explicit reference to the Cup or to soccer in general, for example, all succumbed to one of the twin pitfalls of musique concrète: Their sources were either too direct and literal (hence offering no aesthetic mediation) or too obscure (hence losing their referential anchor). In general, the work on display was too satisfied that it was auditory and too little concerned with the nature and significance of its auditory material or with the relationships of this material to visuality or to worldly sound. Too rarely did the artists seem to be asking, “Why sound?” “Why sound in this work?” or “Why this sound?” If sound art is to end up being something more than a subcategory of visual art that makes noise, it will need to think through these questions and consider the auditory as a problematic field rather than simply as another sensory modality to stimulate. Perhaps within the next decade, those artists who engage sound will more fully make this conceptual turn, and “Sonambiente 2016” will showcase a vigorous and fresh (and not merely sustained) sound-art practice.

Christoph Cox is the curator of “Invisible Geographies: New Sound Art from Germany,” opening September 9 at the Kitchen, New York.

Curators Matthias Osterwold, Georg Weckwerth, and Christian Kneisel drew a lucky hand when they created the “Sonambiente” festival a decade ago. Their idea of presenting audio work defined not by gadgetry, but rather composed as site-specific projects responding to and creating spatial experiences, was immediately significant to the then-emergent genre of sound art. That first event made use of abandoned factories and administrative buildings in the former East Germany, transforming them into acoustic platforms. In this year’s installment, “Sonambiente 2006,” curated by Osterwold and Weckwerth, artists again intervened in the urban landscape, this time making compelling use of still-functioning architecture.

For example, Bernhard Leitner installed Kaskade, 2006, on several levels of a stairwell in the Allianz-Hochhaus insurance company building. The expense and technical expertise required to do this may have been minor, but the impact was enormous, as bundles of sound were projected from parabola-like shells onto sheets of Plexiglas that reflected a continuous chirping noise down the stairs. Seeming to descend through the space like an acoustic waterfall, the succession of tones also drifted outward into the otherwise empty space of the surrounding architecture.

Equally precise in its play of sound and space was the work of the internationally renowned freq out orchestra, under the direction of Carl Michael von Hausswolff. In a fifty-meter-long, stalactite-encrusted vault on the grounds of a former castle demolished by GDR officials after WW II, twelve electronically wired stands intermittently produced frequencies composed by different musicians, ranging from 0 to 11,000 Hz. As part of this sonic spectrum, Austrian Franz Pomassl contributed powerful bass tones, while Finns Tommi Grönlund and Petteri Nisunen chimed in with a composition consisting of hysterical, higher-pitched clusters of sound. In the darkness a few neon lights, sparingly distributed at foot level, served to orient audiences, but, in fact, the ears see as well. Following the range of frequencies, one was guided by this aural sculpture.

Other works investigated the city in the tradition of the Situationists. For his Labyrinth of the Inner Ear, 2006, for example, Terry Fox took a walk around Potsdamer Platz with the blind author Siegfried Saerberg, burning the sounds of the environment onto a CD. As cars are heard to approach from the left and birds chirp from above, the tapping of the blind man’s stick forms a constant beat. This measure of feeling the way forward gives the sightless flaneur security, while marking with elegance the speed of his gait.

A second thematic strand was suggested by works embedding sound in narrative. Sometimes, as in the case of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, an entire drama emerged. In their Opera for a Small Room, 2005, a dozen turntables performed a fully automated DJ set that recounted the biography of an opera enthusiast collecting records—a story that was dominated by its perfect staging. A similar asymmetry between content and form appeared in Candice Breitz’s multichannel video installation, Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley), 2005. On thirty monitors, Jamaican Marley fans sing a best-of potpourri. Each track was recorded separately; only in the parallel connection do the singalongs converge in a powerful chorus. Still, the charm of the work does not reside entirely in the collectively generated sound, but rather at the level of the visual. By “drawing” the singing on video, Breitz translates it into the talking-head aesthetic she works with elsewhere. The shades of difference between the musical interpretations of the songs recede, relativized by the monumental presence of the screens. Ultimately, the sum of voices illustrates in sound the thesis that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri advance in their 2004 book, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire—that the members of society need to “communicate and act in common while remaining internally different.”

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Diana Reese.