PRINT May 2007


AS SOMETHING LIKE THE SPRING BREAK OF THE ART WORLD, Art Basel Miami Beach is the kind of give-’em-all-you-got occasion where one expects to see more than just the occasional over-the-top flourish or media-friendly stunt. Perhaps it was this very context that made Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s installation Clamor, 2006, shown during the fair last December at Miami’s Moore Space, seem such an uneasy spectacle: a hulking fiberglass structure—pale gray, topped by domelike convexities, and with a peculiarly terraced facade of jutting rectilinear slabs—embedded in a sculptural outcrop of what looked like splintered, striated rock. At first glance, this intimidating construction seemed steeped in abstract, Minimalist form; but viewers quickly realized that it was, in fact, a bunker. Or rather, many bunkers. The artists had combined design elements of military caissons from around the world to create one particularly obtrusive monolith. Augmenting this sense of surprise was the fact that through the narrow apertures in the walls came not gun barrels but the occasional protruding slide of a trombone. Indeed, the artists had sequestered a five-piece band inside the bunker, all but entirely out of sight, and let its music charge the rough-hewn gallery space with a brass-based medley of misbegotten pomp and circumstance. Mostly there were compositions you would expect from such an ensemble—a military march from the Janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire, for example, and a ballad from the October Revolution. But sprinkled among these other tunes were a few, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and even Barney the dinosaur’s theme song, that were disarming precisely for their uncanny pop familiarity.

The seemingly incongruous inclusion of these pop-cultural stalwarts brings us, perhaps, to the artists’ point in creating this perversely imagined sound chamber. For Allora and Calzadilla consider all these musical compositions to be equivalent in their relationship to war—an estimation that is sustained by recent historical events. The metalhead anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” for instance, found new life as an inspirational battle cry blasted by American soldiers during the United States’ invasion of Panama in 1989. The Barney theme and “Born in the U.S.A.”—the latter penned to protest America’s treatment of Vietnam vets but later employed, some will recall, in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign—hark back to equally dark events: Both, allegedly, were played during the torture of inmates at Guantánamo. Muffled by the heavy walls of the bunker, the artists’ clamorous medley suggested that militarism is not as removed from mass culture as we might have assumed; indeed, it has long infiltrated ostensibly “civilian” space, and vice versa.

THE INTERROGATION OF THE WAYS in which sound operates in social space is not new, of course. Nor is the idea that music—its position as the pinnacle of autonomous art in a certain aesthetic tradition notwithstanding—is both a reflection of and a tool employed by the powers that be. In fact, this premise underpins Jacques Attali’s now-classic Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977), wherein the author suggests that “the world is not legible, but audible.” Critiquing the notion that power is an exclusive correlate of the visible, Attali posits four categories to illustrate music’s instrumentalization (as it were) across the ages. Delineating the first three, he explains: “When power wants to make people forget, music is ritual sacrifice, the scapegoat; when it wants them to believe, music is enactment, representation; when it wants to silence them, it is reproduced, normalized, repetition.” Most significant, however, is the fourth category, which he says “differs from all preceding it” and has the potential to instigate “a general evolution of social organization”: composition. Music that falls under this rubric is produced by individuals in the interest of forging a net- work of corporeal physical relations beyond the reach of political power and economic exchange. By effecting the removal of war songs from the framework of their customary “social organization,” Allora and Calzadilla’s band-in-a-bunker makes audible, which is to say perceptible, the centuries-old association of song and coercion that Attali elucidates—turning this association upside down, making strange what has become standard.

Although Clamor might seem a hard act to follow, it is in fact the first in a series of installations in which the artists take up what might be called sonic militarism. These new works are not the first projects in which Allora and Calzadilla have foregrounded sound—one could cite, for example, Hope Hippo, 2005, their “whistle-blowing” performance at the fifty-first Venice Biennale, or the video Sweat Glands, Sweat Lands, 2006, which features reggaeton artist Residente’s diatribe against the waste and cultural homogenization wrought by neoliberalism. But the new installation’s considerations of the songs of war, taken together, do appear to mark an emphatically “auditory turn” in the conceptual basis of the artists’ practice. At the same time, in speaking to the role of music in cultural operations and community formations, and to the particular implications of this role at a moment of global and seemingly permanent war, the new works are recognizably extensions of the pair’s long-standing concerns.

Since joining forces in 1995, the San Juan, Puerto Rico–based duo has endeavored to articulate the way space and our encounters with it are shaped by often unseen forces—globalization in particular—that nevertheless inscribe themselves on physical and psychological terrain. Most famously, they’ve made works in a multitude of media engaging the terms of Puerto Rico’s semicolonial relationship to the US, as epitomized by the island of Vieques, where the US Navy maintained a base and a weapons-testing range from 1941 to 2003. For their multimedia project Land Mark, 2001–, the artists participated in activities aimed, with eventual if partial success, at expelling the “Yanquis” from the island and reclaiming the expropriated land. Over the course of their long-term, rigorously site-specific engagement, they mapped the parameters not only of the widely publicized campaign, but of their own art as contestatory intervention. To this end, they created videos, photographs, and sculptural installations that documented and thus represented what they identify as an “other” art history made up of a series of “emergency designs” and creative actions by local activists. In turn, they productively related these endeavors to their own investments in an art history not prefaced by any sign of “otherness.” For example, in Land Mark (Footprints), 2001–2002, they fabricated shoe soles, each embossed with a personalized message of protest determined by the wearer. The shoes bearing the embossed soles were subsequently worn by individuals who walked illegally across the bombing range, literally leaving their marks as they traversed territory declared off-limits by naval edict. The artists then captured the footprints via the indexical register of photographs, thus completing a series of traces by which the island had been marked. Land Mark (Footprints), then, might be said to perform the distinction that Michel de Certeau draws between “place” and “space,” reclaiming the asserted homogeneity of the former and transforming it into the discursive heterogeneity of the latter. And, as de Certeau stipulates, this transformation is effected by practice, which is to say by the repeated incursions of the civil disobedients. But the transformation is also—significantly, in terms of the intervention Allora and Calzadilla perform in photographing these traces—wrought by the imposition of a narrative onto this ground, one that identifies the contradictory actions of human subjects not just on “place” but across time.

A similar operation is carried out by a later work, the short video Returning a Sound, 2004, which functions as something of a coda to Footprints and possibly as a preface of a sort to the war-song installations. In the video, shot soon after the US Navy relinquished its base on Vieques, Allora and Calzadilla turn their attention from the community of protesters to a single individual, a young activist named Homar. After retrofitting Homar’s moped with a trumpet in place of the muffler, the artists film him touring the island, journeying to regions that had been hitherto inaccessible to him. As he drives, his trumpet sounds a tune that is both celebratory and alarming, its cadence keyed to the topography. In the spaces where the sound of exploding munitions once dominated, Homar generates something that is a cross between a song and discordant sound, or what Attali hails as “noise”: the very stuff silenced by music’s conscription into the process of channeling social violence to cultural and thus political ends. In so “returning” a sound, Homar reclaims the sonic space as he reclaims the contours of the land. Of course, his ride and the video that documents it function as an elaborate allegory as well. Those who heard him as he passed likely did not understand what was happening. But it was precisely through this confusion, this reconfiguration of their aural landscape, that they would have been encouraged to reencounter the space around them—as the work’s viewers are encouraged to reencounter the gallery space where they see the video and, by implication, every space they encounter subsequently. In other words, through inserting this element of the strange and unknown into the everyday, Homar creates a kind of tear in the representation of the island’s social geography, forging an aperture through which “place” is made to tell of multiple, layered experiences. As with their photography in Land Mark (Footprints), the artists reinscribe this tear through their own act of recording, further spatializing the representation to include another aesthetic reading of the landscape.

However, what is most interesting about Allora and Calzadilla’s Returning a Sound is its emphasis on depicting the acoustic’s intersection with the concrete physical terrains that both mark and are marked by local specificities of domination and resistance. In other words, while drawing on the abstract qualities of what Marshall McLuhan long ago designated “acoustic space,” they insist on the material specificity of its place. Homar’s ride, that is, only makes sense in Vieques. A moped outfitted with a trumpet would not have the same purchase anywhere else in the world.

ESSENTIAL TO FRAMING THIS POLITICS OF SOUND and its inextricability from a politics of space are the metaphoric models of deterritorialization and reterritorialization developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, chiefly in their opus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. De- and reterritorialization, as outlined by the authors, are essentially remappings of space (whether actual or, significantly, conceptual) that efface existing coordinates of power and substitute new ones in their place. Since the moment these terms entered the critical lexicon, sonic phenomena have typically been assigned a privileged status in such tactical cartographies. (As Deleuze and Guattari note, sound has an “intense” deterritorializing capacity.) To some degree, this privilege depends upon the attributes that McLuhan had already pinpointed in championing “acoustic space,” on the grounds that it is devoid of the hierarchy inherent to visible space’s unidirectional linearity. But it also stems from the ways in which the aural has been opposed not only to the written word, for instance, but also to the physical act of territorial possession that fueled Deleuze and Guattari’s choice of metaphor to begin with. In other words, underwriting Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation, and its numerous subsequent mobilizations in the name of postcolonial and/or hybrid subjectivity, is the notion that sound, unlike action, leaves no trace—and that it is therefore directly opposed to the corporeal and visible events of possession and domination.

But there are problems with this metaphoric abstraction. As Attali reminded us at roughly the time that Deleuze and Guattari were developing their models, sound (and particularly music) can be and is used to mark and constitute territory and power, as well as to channel various forms of social violence. Consider, for example, the case of Beirut during Israel’s military offensive against Lebanon last summer. Here, in response to incursions into Lebanese acoustic space, artist Ali Cherry used his cell phone to record a bit of Israeli propaganda (about Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah) that he heard broadcast on Lebanese national radio as he shot footage of rescue boats taking foreigners out of the country. Musician Mazen Kerbaj, meanwhile, composed a score based on the sounds of his trumpet playing interwoven with the noise of Israeli bombs and the car alarms they triggered. These kinds of interventions indicate the ways in which sounds do leave traces, not only on landscapes but on the psyches of those who hear them. Asked what they remember from their experience of war, people often answer: the noise of bombs, screams, explosions. Even a cursory glance at Picasso’s Guernica evidences the struggle to represent these sonic impressions. We might say, in fact, that it is precisely in instances of territorial incursion that sound etches itself most deeply on the surface of reality, as trace, as memory.

For the catalogue accompanying their 2006 exhibition “Land Mark” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Allora and Calzadilla tellingly selected as their epigraph Walter Benjamin’s claim that “we are remembered by the traces that we leave.” Their shifting of these traces from the visual space they recorded in Land Mark (Footprints) to the aural register of Returning a Sound is directly germane to their ongoing efforts to locate and reconfigure the crux of art and activism or, more broadly, aesthetics and politics. What projects like Returning a Sound and those of Cherry and Kerbaj depend on is the unique perceptual status of the sonic trace. Sound is haptic—which is to say, felt on the eardrums or, if loud or bass-heavy enough, throughout the entire body—but not corporeal. It can therefore infiltrate space with visceral immediacy, but without the encumbrances of materiality. And herein lies the other side of the coin—the “rub,” so to speak. Embedded within the complex articulations of Allora and Calzadilla’s multivalent practice, sound may be construed as important not only for its capacities as a medium of resistance, but also for its ability to challenge the very act of metaphoric expropriation on which its privileged status is based. Deleuze and Guattari’s abstraction of “territory,” after all, performs its own kind of violence, one that delocalizes sonic experience and indeed, all experience. But ironically, sound itself—in the form of sonic trace—offers a means to relocalize, to turn the trope of deterritorialization back into material fact as it insists on the specificity of context. It is to this end that Homar returns a sound to the Vieques countryside.

ALLORA AND CALZADILLA’S INVESTIGATION into this split nature of sound mirrors the terms of their dialogue with what some have called the postformal abstraction of Minimalism, a dialogue geared toward exposing the degree to which all cultural production is always already dependent on political hegemony. In Puerto Rican Light, 2003, for example, they made this point visually when they borrowed Dan Flavin’s 1960s work of the same name from the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, reinstalled it at the Americas Society in New York, and powered it with a battery pack they had fueled with photovoltaic receptors in Puerto Rico. In place of the Minimalist credo “what you see is what you see,” Puerto Rican Light made visible the source of power that is otherwise invisible—and with it, a whole system of neocolonialisms that lurk just beneath the surface of Flavin’s work. In Clamor, while still engaged in working through the strategies bequeathed their generation by figures such as Flavin, Carl Andre, Frank Stella, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Hélio Oiticica, and Jenny Holzer, Allora and Calzadilla begin to remap a second genealogy that intersects more properly with post-Minimalist experimentation. In so doing, they bring their concern with strictly spatialized strategies into contact with the work of figures as diverse as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Max Neuhaus, Tony Conrad, Brian Eno, and Stephen Vitiello—all practitioners and theorists of sound-based art who, in varying ways, have helped to revise the long-standing notion that sound is primarily a temporal phenomenon.

The pair’s connection to this genealogy becomes even clearer in Wake Up, 2007, the second installation in the war-song series, which debuted earlier this spring at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Prior to the show, Allora and Calzadilla found themselves thinking about how the rebirth evoked by the term renaissance was originally meant to denote an awakening from the “dark” times of the medieval period. And so Wake Up, which curator Hamza Walker describes as a timely response to America’s “current sociopolitical morass,” was born. The installation is based on experimental reinterpretations of reveille, the bugle tune with which soldiers are roused at the start of each day. At the artists’ behest, Walker invited ten trumpet players/composers to submit reinterpretations of the composition. The artists asked that the entries represent a range of musical styles and geographic origins. Such global reach, while in keeping with the artists’ insistence on the global nature of permanent war, evidences more than a multiculti inclusivity. Rather, this range is meant to reflect the global history of reveille itself. The song’s lineage dates to the Revolutionary War, when the hodgepodge and polyglot Continental Army borrowed it and the hieratic rituals that accompany it from European armies who in turn had long put it to use in several centuries of wars fought over contested, often colonial, terrain.

In the end, Allora and Calzadilla chose seven interpretations by seven musicians from around the world: Franz Hautzinger (Austria), Ingrid Jensen (Canada), Leonel Kaplan (Argentina), Paul Smoker (US), Natsuki Tamura (Japan), Birgit Ulher (Germany), and Mazen Kerbaj (the Lebanese musician whose trumpet-bomb-alarm recording is discussed above). The artists joined these seven recordings into a ninety-minute loop. As with Clamor, this musical montage—in no part of which is the original reveille readily recognizable—takes spatial form in relation to an enormous structure built to fill the empty container of the gallery. In this case, however, the structure from which the music emanates is not a bunker but a hollow corridor that functions as a dividing wall, bending at several points—like two giant Morris L-beams or four of Nauman’s corridors turned inside out—to short-circuit viewers’ passage through the gallery. As the loop plays, an arrangement of incandescent lights inside the corridor is triggered, illuminating the ceiling in alternating intensities and hues determined by the pitch and tone of the music. The lowest sounds produce no light, but are so deep that you can feel your ribs vibrating in the darkness. Conversely, when the trumpet is at the highest end of its range, the lights flash almost blindingly bright. Without recourse to a singular representative or figurative element, the gallery space is transformed into a minefield or a camp under siege, wherein viewers are meant to experience, through what might be described as the limbic core of haptic memory, the phenomenon of sound as trace to which their earlier video works could only allude. As with their détournement of Minimalist purity, the artists have reinvented the phenomenological austerity of the “what you hear is what you hear” tradition of avant-garde musical experimentation, mapping it onto their broader investigation of sound as a medium of political agency and a form of territorial marking. The risk here, and so too with Clamor, lies in the movement away from the geopolitical specificity that characterizes, for example, Returning a Sound or the more recent Unrealizable Goals, 2007, which takes the artists’ selected repertoire of war music to a Japanese soccer field to consider the tensions inherent in Japan’s sovereign yet pacifist status. In such a movement, the artists, too, might be ceding to the metaphoric implications of deterritorialization as dematerialized trope. On the other hand, the very fact of making work about a state of war that is itself no longer territorially specific might necessitate such dislocations.

At present, Allora and Calzadilla are working on their third gallery-based war-song installation, which will open at the San Francisco Art Institute’s McBean Gallery later this year. The form and content of the work have not yet been disclosed by the artists, who are also gearing up for a summer retrospective in Zurich. Certainly, their work—no matter how disruptive its intent—has been and looks to continue to be well received. What this says about their politics or the political efficacy of their work is probably much less significant than what it suggests about the ease with which institutions mine and effectively reterritorialize such intentions. The artists appear to have given serious thought to this conundrum and to why or whether an engaged practice should negotiate it. Asked a few years ago by Tate Modern curator Sophie McKinlay whether they consider themselves political activists, Allora and Calzadilla replied quite carefully and specifically: “What we are interested in as artists is putting into crisis this very terminology.” Protest, they caution, need not only be expressed in the form of a demonstration or a march, but might locate itself in “all fields of knowledge,” of which they name art as but one. Questioning the forms and suppositions that constitute knowledge in any given field means forcing the kinds of crises or destabilizations that are the true purpose of protest, and ultimately of politics, as the artists see it. The specific form this politics might take remains of secondary importance to the questions posed and to the very fact of their being posed at all. Herein, perhaps, lies Allora and Calzadilla’s most precise territorial ambition and so too either their work’s greatest potential weakness or its greatest potential strength. In confining the circulation of the “noise” produced by their sonic investigations to the material realm of the institution and its own discursive histories, they ask us to reencounter not only the world around us, but this world specifically as it is sampled and processed within the realm of space deemed aesthetic before it is deemed anything else. While they may deliberately push the borders of this sphere, it remains to be seen whether, despite all the noise their work might make, it still runs the risk of silence. For Allora and Calzadilla’s purposes, however, this silence might be what speaks most effectively to their concerns as artists in dialogue with, as much as anything else, a history of traces.

Hannah Feldman is assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.