on sound, installation, and improvisation

“…if the sensible dominant of a performance is visual, then the aural emerges as that which is given in its fullest possibility by the visual…”

In Fred Moten’s “Visible Music” he describes the relationship between lack and abundance; between a primordial loss and the manner in which it can paradoxically reemerge as that which can be sensed (felt) but not interpreted.  The “and more” which seems to overflow from certain objects and aesthetic forms, Moten’s central example is the writing of James Baldwin, reveals the text’s ‘lack,’ a lack which is then ‘transferred’ or reproduced in the writing’s failure to represent sound, but also, and more importantly, through the manner in which its absence redoubles and therefore troubles the taken for grantedness of the loss, making it once again, palpable.

Moten is talking about a set of works and aesthetic encounters which are marked by a loss more profound than most; the writings of Baldwin, the moans of Emmett Till’s mother, the songs of Marvin Gaye, he’s writing then about the black aesthetic experience, but the generative nature of his writing, its ‘resonance,’ too seems to extend beyond itself.

I’ve been thinking about a certain genre of visual encounter which has become quite common in the contemporary art gallery.  One enters a cavernous space which at first seems to consist merely of an absence; there are no paintings on the wall, no screens, just a few indiscernible perspectivally small objects scattered at a great distance from the entering audience and each other.  It is quite common to see little art in the art gallery.  I refer to this ‘experience’ as being governed by its ‘genre’ in reference to the way in which a genre like contemporary visual art has established a set of expectations regarding the way in which we will interact with it in a way no different than any other more everyday form of aesthetic experience.  Kris Cohen has described contemporary, mediated experience as increasingly characterized by broken genres; if a genre can be considered an agreement, an agreement that an interaction will proceed in a certain manner, that there will be a sense of reciprocity to the encounter, then contemporary everyday aesthetic experiences are increasingly broken; they are increasingly disappointing, full of unmet expectations (Cohen, Never Alone Except for Now). (A great example of this is almost any interaction we have with our constant companion the smartphone.)

Cohen describes art works which index this condition, but he is more concerned with the ways in which these artworks represent everyday encounters than with the manner in which these works themselves, as objects of visual art, might illustrate a similar generic contract (and its discontents) within the realm of visual art itself. 

I recently visited Chicago’s Renaissance Society to experience Jill Magid’s newest installation.  Tender/Balance is a project which was conceptualized and produced by Magid during the Covid pandemic and it is presented, at least in its encounter at the Renaissance Society, as a multimedia installation which occupies the entirety of the relatively small, but still cavernous fourth floor space.  Visitors to the show enter a space sparsely populated with objects but full of sound.  A bulging white plastic bag sits atop a plinth on wheels in the center of the gallery.  On one wall an x-ray of a chest cavity, on the wall opposite, an inset glass vitrine with several colored glass pennies (a vitrine which is itself sparsely filled.)  An ominous soundtrack is bleeding across a wall which does not even pretend to be containing it.  I hesitate to say that on the other side of the wall is the core of the project, an almost thirty minute film in which Magid documents both the work inside a US treasury mint in a ‘day in the life’ documentary style, juxtaposed with the documentation of many individuals using dollars and change to pay for food, lottery tickets, water, at various convenience stores around New York City.  The backdrop of the entire installation is the COVID-19 Pandemic, so there is an underlying aura of concern, which Magid emphasizes with the camera’s claustrophobic close-ups, regarding the touch-oriented nature of these transactions.  Her film also explicitly stages a parallel between the change-filled trucks as they leave the US Treasury Mint and the refrigerated trucks which left new York city hospitals filled with their existentially heavier cargo over the course of the last year.  The visual aesthetics of the film resemble more closely the banality of the everyday documentary but the film achieves its resonance, both literally and aesthetically, through a pulsing, menacing sonic accompaniment, an accompaniment which tints the experience with a palpable sense of anxiety; if you did not know you were meant to view the bodega encounters with a sense of dread, the music would make it hard to avoid.  It also, as I mentioned, serves to tie the various aesthetic modes of address in the installation together; given sound’s enveloping capacity, we (and the objects encountered) are marked as participants in Magid’s concept when we enter the gallery, a concept which given its capaciousness is easy to accept. 

I bring up both Moten and Cohen because this piece prompted me to think more intently about the experience of the soundtrack in the space and what it is doing in all of its bombast, in contrast to the sparseness of the space itself.  One gets used to the lack of objects in galleries, but I have an impulse to argue that there is not really an understood or shared sense of what the reciprocity of an encounter like this should consist in for an audience.  What do we do when confronted with these objects; their ‘lack,’ their un-wholeness?  Moten describes Baldwin’s response to the failure of writing to represent sound and music as characterized by improvisation, and the traces of aurality this technique affords him allows for a troubling of the myth of the ‘whole’ which has almost always encompassed our understanding of aesthetic objects.  It’s a very audiovisual perspective, Moten’s is, one in a long line of cultural analyses which strive to recapture the visual in the sonic and the sonic in the visual. 

I wanted to think improvisation alongside the experience of an installation like Magid’s because I wonder if that’s a possible means of conceiving just how it is we as viewers are responding to work like this. We enter the space in medias res, confronted with pennies in a variety of forms, without context (if we could imagine visitors don’t already know anything about the installation before they arrive). We imagine what the objects are doing here, what the connections between them might be, using our previous experiences with art or the artist to help with their framing. We hear the music, move into the space of the film in the adjoining space and revise our understanding of the objects accordingly. If we hold on to the initial, phenomenal experience of the exhibition though, there is still a lack at the center of its encounter we had at various stages in its encounter had to improvise through. The encounter with sound before its corresponding images prompts us to relate the sound to the objects we do see, to imagine what we will see in the adjacent room.

Perhaps one way to understand the experience of Magid’s work in Tender/Balance at least is as a juxtaposition of the minor which characterized the artistic drive towards deskilling in the 21st century with the sort of audiovisual immersion which characterizes the higher budget spectacle an artist of Magid’s caliber can afford. If in many respects the exhibition refuses the audiovisual improvisation I would like to locate due to the big budget audiovisual aesthetics of Magid’s film, the way it overtakes the smaller works in the gallery, I at least experienced a minute or two of improvisation in the exhibition’s encounter. Perhaps to some degree what I would like to interrogate, or think through more deeply is the role sound in particular plays in something like Moten’s improvsiation; if my choice of Moten is tricky (perhaps misled) given his argument’s focus on the written text and my own object, suffused as it is with the sound Baldwin had to improvise to recapture, sound and music as forms are characterized by their own lack, one which, as Baldwin’s begs for sound, begs for text (or discourse more broadly). The increasingly sonic space of the visual art gallery poses a variety of challenges to improvisation, refusing it, prompting different kinds of improvisation (the sound and objects encountered together very often don’t go together! or do they merely by our encountering them as such??) Sound studies has a lot of terms for these encounters, schizophonia which leads to new forms of synchresis or Jean-Paul Thiebaud’s visiophonic knot; sounds are ripped from their context but we tend to create unities out of the sound we hear and the sight we see. Although certainly with a different inflection than Moten’s more spiritual mode, these too are forms of improvisation as we instinctively but also more intellectually make sense of the sensory stimulations we encounter in space.