Go back to article: Towards a more sonically inclusive museum practice: a new definition of the ‘sound object’

Contemporary sound art curation

Art museums have made significantly more progress in the display of sounds (both non-musical and musical) as an object than their counterparts in the fields of natural history, anthropology and science, spurred on by the burgeoning interest in sound as a medium of art. Beginning with the Hayward Gallery’s Sonic Boom (Toop, 2000), these steps towards a prototypical ‘sonic blockbuster exhibition’ have seen diverse curatorial strategies put forth for the display of sound art as museum objects in exhibitions such as: 2012’s A House Full of Music at the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt (Beil et al, 2012); 2012’s Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art at ZKM in Karlsruhe (Weibel, 2017); 2013’s Soundings: A Contemporary Score at MoMA in New York (London et al, 2013); 2014’s Art or Sound at the Fondazione Prada in Venice (Celant, 2014); 2015’s Soundscapes at the National Gallery, London (Moore Ede and Noy, 2015); and 2016’s This Is A Voice at the Wellcome Collection, London (Currall and Muñoz, 2016).

A more detailed review of these exhibitions will eventually be required in order to determine what contributions, if any, these exhibitions have made towards the implementation of a more sonically inclusive museology, and remains outside the scope of the present article. At this stage, however, two of these exhibitions stand out as being particularly successful in their approaches to the display of sound art for different reasons.

The Wellcome Collection’s This Is A Voice presented sound within the context of the human voice, including a combination of scientific objects describing human anatomy related to vocalisation and hearing, alongside creative works of music, sound art, and multimedia, creating a dialogue between scientific and cultural approaches to the voice. According to the exhibition’s curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, in a presentation she gave in 2016 at the ‘Acoustics on Display’ symposium at the Science Museum in London, she was attempting to explore the voice beyond linguistic terms, focusing on communication through melody and rhythm. Muñoz described an early intention of the exhibition’s designers to ‘work with sound…as a friend as opposed to an enemy, and to use it to create a narrative across the gallery space’ (Currall and Muñoz, 2016). This led to a variety of architectural approaches that primarily kept the space open rather than attempting to compartmentalise sounds in isolated chamber-like spaces (see Figure 3). However, one of the most important strategies, according to Muñoz, was in managing visitor expectations by advertising the exhibition as an experience where visitors would be ‘surrounded by voices’, leading to an audience who was generally more prepared to listen to an exhibition than is usually the case.

Figure 3

Floorplan diagram of the This is a Voice exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

Floorplan diagram, This Is A Voice exhibition, Wellcome Collection, London. Photo by author, from presentation by Muñoz and Carall (2016)

Setting aside the exhibition’s curatorial discretions that forego any pre-twenty-first-century contributions by non-western artists, Fondazione Prada’s Art or Sound appears to be the most successful of the above-mentioned exhibitions in terms of displaying sounds alongside their original sources, authentic historical physical objects. Several of the sculptures, instruments and decorative objects on display played their own sounds live into the gallery space and set up a tension between the sounds and their physical sources – which was the object: the sound or the material producing it? This type of display, while not perfect, approaches breaking new ground for the display of sounds as objects within a museological context. This success was the result of conceptual and technical aspects of the exhibition’s curation and design. The exhibition’s catalogue states that the sounding objects in the exhibition were treated with a quasi-musical intent, in the hopes that visitors would accept the sounds of multiple objects as parts of a whole rather than as intrusions upon each other. The exhibition’s installation included several sound-related design solutions, including cushioned plinths helping to isolate and absorb sounds (see Figures 4–6). As with any exhibition of sound taking place in a visual gallery space, there were inevitable areas of sonic conflict, but in terms of physical objects displayed as sounding objects, Art or Sound stands out as particularly successful in both concept and execution.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of exhibits in the Art or Sound exhibition within the Fondazione Prada museum in Venice

Installation view, floor 1, Art or Sound exhibition, Fondazione Prada, Venice

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a cuckoo clock installed as a listenable object in the Fondazione Prada museum in Venice

Cuckoo clock installed as a listenable object, floor 1, Art or Sound exhibition, Fondazione Prada, Venice

Figure 6

Colour photograph of clocks installed as a listenable objects in the Fondazione Prada museum in Venice

Clocks installed as listenable objects, floor 1, Art or Sound exhibition, Fondazione Prada, Venice

Listen to my own recordings of the exhibition on SoundCloud:

Audio 1

Stationary recording made on 2 November 2014 of the ambience of the main space of the first floor of Fondazione Prada's exhibition Art or Sound, an exploration of soundmaking objects and sound art installation that was staged in Venice in 2014. Sounds generated by cuckoo clocks, nineteenth-century automata, gramophones. The sounds from each object play in a predetermined pattern to both overlap each other and be individually distinctive; the listener can hear the loop repeat during this recording.

Audio 2

Walking through the second floor of the Art or Sound exhibition at Venice's Fondazione Prada on 2 November 2014. Includes sounds generated by pieces created by Haroon Mirza, Rebecca Horn, Ruth Ewan, Martin Creed, Tarek Atoui, Subodh Gupta, Doug Aitken, Tom Sachs, Bernhard Leitner, Anri Sala, Alberto Tadiello, and Dennis Oppenheim.

The presentation strategy in Art or Sound appears to align consistently with sound art theorist Christoph Cox’s call for a sonic materialism within aesthetics. Cox suggests that it is the intangible quality of sound that has misguidedly caused philosophers to regard sounds as ‘secondary attributes of the objects we see: the sound of a bird, the sound of an air conditioner’ (Cox, 2011, p 156). If we remove the visual as our primary focus of the interpretation of sounds, however, it is possible to view sounds as distinct from their sources, and Cox’s thoughts on the subject are worth quoting here at length:

Visual objects persist through time and survive the alteration of their properties. (The door, for example, remains when it is painted a different colour.) By contrast, properties do not survive in this way. (The redness of the door does not survive its repainting.) In this respect, sounds appear to be much more akin to independently existing objects, since they survive changes to their qualities. A sound that begins as a low rumble may become a high-pitched whine, while remaining a single sound. In such an occurrence, the object that produces it (a car, for example) does not lose one sound and gain another. The sound remains what it is throughout, though its sensible qualities change… [W]e can experience a sound without experiencing its source, and the source without the sound. So while sources generate or cause sounds, sounds are not bound to their sources as properties. Sounds then, are distinct individuals or particulars like objects… This is precisely what – albeit in the idealist language of phenomenology – Pierre Schaeffer…aimed to show in his analysis of the objet sonore [emphasis in original] (2011, p 156).

Cox is not, however, arguing for the consideration of sound itself as an object. While arguing for a more materialist attitude towards sound theory, he also insists that sound, as it is decoded by listeners’ sensory systems over time, is in fact not an object but an event (Cox, 2015, p 126). Divorced from its source and its physical effects upon space and listeners’ bodies, the sonic event is what Cox views as its ultimate identity, distinct from the objects of the physical world. I will return to this notion of the sonic event within a materialist view of sound in more detail in the next section.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/004