Spencer Topel creates installations and performance pieces that are immersive experiences, fusing sound, visual components, and interactive expression. Trained in music conservatories as a composer and violinist, he produced work for orchestral and chamber ensembles for over twenty years. In 2011 he collaborated with sculptor Soo Sunny Park on a yearlong installation titled Capturing Resonance, presented at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, Topel’s practice has expanded to include visual art in a distinctive body of work that engages artwork as observer and listener, where installations gain agency in the interactions between visitors and environments.
Heavy Waves: Between Light and Sound
In developing the concept for the Hood Museum of Art’s fall 2017 exhibition Resonant Spaces: Sound Art at Dartmouth, Amelia Kahl and I posited that sound is a material of art, one that can be compared with other materials such as wood, glass, paint, and metal. While sound can be deployed as an artistic material in the sense that it can be differentiated, changed, and transformed, in its audible form it exists only briefly, in a liminal space between the material and immaterial. Even the term sound art has been met with criticism, particularly around the idea that sound art is restrictive in that it limits the extent to which sound plays a role within art in the broadest historical and practice-based contexts.1 Yet scholar Christoph Cox argued successfully for the use of the term sound art as one that describes art that engages and even, at times, elevates the background noise of everyday life to become the art itself.2 Sound art in this context is therefore site-specific in the sense that acoustics, ambient noise, and other factors such as social and psychoacoustic contexts influence its transmission and reception.
Light—as an art medium, operates similarly between the material and immaterial, exhibiting properties of both a wave and a particle (fig. 1). When considered together, sound and light contain extraordinarily similar physiological and phenomenological properties: both light and sound can be harnessed from natural occurrences, such as sunlight or wind, or can be generated from artificial sources such as light-emitting diodes and loudspeakers. Both can behave as waves, and because of this they can be measured in terms of frequency through time. To this extent, even the most static sound and light works are time-based phenomena. Works created with light or sound are also subject to both perceptible and imperceptible phenomena in an environment. For instance, non-visible light or non-audible sound may have significant influence on the behavior of surrounding waves and their reflections, affecting multiple elements ranging from the reception of the work by visitors to the documentation process.
Given the overlap between light and sound, this essay examines commissioned sound art works created for Resonant Spaces in relation to topics of perception and environmental minimalism overlapping with light art. Specifically how the artists approach, control, and even restrict sound in their artistic practices to guide the visitor toward a particular experience; how the artists responded to their selected locations; and how sonic environmental conditions influenced or participated with the resulting art.
Seven of the eight artists featured in the exhibition—namely, Julianne Swartz, Alvin Lucier, Jacob Kirkegaard, Bill Fontana, Laura Maes, Jess Rowland, and Christine Sun Kim—were commissioned to produce site-specific works. As curators, Amelia and I were directly involved with the development, installation, and technological aspects of these new works. We had frequent conversations with the artists and conducted reviews of their works in progress, and the majority of the artists made site visits with us to select the Dartmouth campus location that best fit their vision.3 The resulting process illuminated the artistic practices of the individual artists, but also revealed aspects of sound art that speak to broader thematic areas in contemporary art—particularly the unique qualities and challenges facing light art, time-based art, and ephemeral art.
In Robin Clark’s essay “Phenomenal: An Introduction,” Clark argues that phenomenal is a term that links art dealing with light, space, environment, and ambience for the purpose of applying “mechanical and psychological effects of visual and haptic perception to aesthetic experiments happening in the Light and Space Movement during the 1960s and 1970s in and around Los Angeles, which emerged as a byproduct of the 1971 exhibition at UCLA titled Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space: Four Artists.”4 Curiously, American light art practice developed alongside sound art in almost parallel courses on opposite sides of the United States, with the Light and Space Movement (LSM) in California and Fluxus in New York, which discursively grew out of composer John Cage’s Experimental Music course at the New School, and shortly thereafter with the emergence of the Sonic Arts Union.5 Just as some artists expressed ambivalence around their affiliation with Fluxus, many artists associated with LSM resist that categorization and deny membership in the group, and even dispute the origins of the name and its credibility as a distinct art movement.
The 1971 UCLA show exhibited works by four artists, Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Craig Kauffman, yet many more artists working with light share historical roots with LSM, either as members or collaborators. These include but are not limited to James Turrell, Mary Corse, Doug Wheeler, and Ron Cooper, as well as artists inspired by the group such as Yayoi Kusama, Olafur Eliasson, and Bruce Munro. A younger cadre of artists continuing to work with immersive light and environmental installation notably includes Soo Sunny Park, Yoko Seyama, Gunda Förster, Jenny Holzer, and Ben Ruben.
Of the artists associated with LSM, Wheeler is perhaps the most relevant to sound, or rather its absence. His most renowned project, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, conceived in the late 1960s but only realized in 2017, aims to reconfigure the visual and auditory environment of the gallery to alter the sensory experience of the visitor. Light and color in the space are reduced to almost nothing, and the acoustics are modified using techniques borrowed from anechoic chamber design, which results in a severe reduction of ambient noise and reverberation. With environmental stimulation reduced to almost nothing, the experience itself starts to become a kind of sensorial minimalism intended to affect each visitor on an individual and introspective level. It operates as a kind of hyper-minimalism—not in the artistic or musical sense, but rather of experience. Wheeler intends to modulate a visitor’s perception of the world at the most fundamental level of visual, auditory, and even olfactory stimulation.6 Wheeler’s idea to sensitize his audience through sensory deprivation is almost contrary to Cage’s idea of silence— encapsulated in his landmark work 4’33”—which, in a minimalist gesture, aims to tune listeners into background noise itself as the musical experience.7 Yet minimalism of this kind taken to its eventual extreme might become something resembling Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert III, where stimulus in all of its forms is reduced and diminished to the most minimal possible sensorial experience.
Another byproduct of environmental minimalism is exaggeration of subtle acoustic or visual phenomena—perceptual or physical—that would otherwise be subsumed in the background noise of day-to-day life. Restriction of ambient light and sound parameters within a controlled environment heightens the perceptual experience of the audience.8 Of particular relevance to this approach is the work of James Turrell in the light domain, and of Alvin Lucier in the sound domain. For Turrell, the use of light projection, color, and environmental control yields reality-defying works, such as Afrum Pale Blue (1968) (fig. 2), which creates the illusion of a three-dimensional cube out of seemingly nothing. A precise balance between luminosity, reflection, color, and environmental conditions ultimately enables the work to exist. By changing one variable, such as increasing the ambient light, the effect is greatly diminished or disappears altogether.
In the sound domain, the works of Alvin Lucier and other artists, in particular, Max Neuhaus, Maryanne Amacher, and La Monte Young, often require specific acoustic conditions to create subtle perceptual phenomena. For example, in Lucier’s Bird and Person Dyning (1975), a performer gradually moves across a space to generate phantom tones using feedback between two binaural microphones placed near the performer’s ears, and two speakers.9 A sound source consisting of a birdcall emitted by a toy bird creates a stable, descending cascade of tones that provide the frequencies to activate the feedback process. Through firsthand experience of hearing this work performed in two different locations—the atrium of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth in the spring of 2015, and later in the fall of the same year at the Drawing Center in New York City (fig. 3)—I recognized that the physical acoustics of the space played a critical role in its audibility. The reflective, hard surfaces of the Drawing Center greatly enhanced the depth and loudness of the phantom tones, whereas the carpeted, airy space of the Hopkins Center atrium significantly reduced the effect.
Just as with Turrell’s Afrum Pale Blue, the ambient acoustic conditions were critical to the efficacy of Bird and Person Dyning in producing Lucier’s desired effect. In both cases, the artists restrict the attention of the audience or visitor to a limited experiential component through the restriction of material or environmental conditions. For Terrell, this entails reducing the light and color components to only two static elements, blue and white light. For Lucier, it requires limiting the performer to extremely subtle motions of the head and feet, and restricting the sonic material to only the birdcall and its interaction with feedback in the room generated through microphones and loudspeakers.10 It is only through these constraints that the often subtle perceptual effect can be observed by the audience. Considered more broadly, perceptual minimalism emerges not so much as a genre, but instead as a critical parameter of immersive installation art. To this end, perceptual minimalism becomes a process of bringing into focus a particular sonic or visual detail by raising one’s level of awareness through minimizing other possible distractions.
In the remainder of the essay, I will look at the development of commissioned pieces for Resonant Spaces, the reception of these works, and their potential overlaps with respect to perceptual minimalism and environmental interaction. In particular, I consider how the commissioned artists address the ambient sonic and visual conditions of their sites and identify ways they address perceptual elements in their work to shape the perceptual experience of the audience.
Julianne Swartz: Transfer (objects)
Julianne Swartz approaches sound as a material, like paint, wood, or metal. She describes sound as a “heavy” material when present in an artwork, since it often dominates the visual elements accompanying it.11 Swartz attempts to create work balancing visual and sonic elements both in a self-contained way within the artwork, and within the environment where they are situated, since loudness of sound in sound art is in a sense comparable to intensity of light and color in the visual domain.
Site specificity is central to many of Swartz’s past works and is expressed again in Transfer (objects) (2017), installed in Dartmouth’s Sherman Art Library. For the context of a university library possessed by a special decorum that combines silence with study and thought, Swartz conceived a suite of sound-emitting objects that attempt to encapsulate the virtues and qualities of the library environment itself.
As described in the exhibition didactic: “Building on the qualities and expectations of the library, Swartz created three listening objects that resemble books in scale, weight, and location (fig. 4). They are meant to be held and listened to by one person at a time, and this one-on-one relationship dictates the objects’ form and function. The sound is a private, singular experience that echoes the act of reading.”12 Yet, the wooden objects are striking in how nondescript, almost formless they are. With soft edges that appear more like clay than wood, the objects do not suggest by their appearance that they make sound, yet they invite visitors to hold and interact with them. In this manner the objects simultaneously connect wood, the essential substance of books, with clay and its alignment with the creation of the human form. The softness extends to the tactile experience of the objects through many hours of sanding and shaping. Together, these elements point toward the essence of the work as intrinsically about the phenomenological human experience.
The objects each possess a small hole in the upper half of the form allowing sound to escape. Swartz was careful to balance the loudness of sound so as not to damage a visitor’s hearing, while permitting the listener to discern sonic materials consisting of writing and murmuring sounds that at times reference specific passages from books Swartz installed alongside the objects. The result is a soothing and introspective experience for the listener akin to the kind of interiority and stillness suggested by Wheeler’s Synthetic Desert, only it is miniaturized. These are not visually or sonically “loud” objects, but instead possess a kind of constrained blankness, which is a trope of perceptual minimalism in the sense that not one element is more important than the other, and that the sounds of writing provide an essentially uneventful yet soothing, ASMR-like experience.13 Perhaps more importantly, the objects are created with the intent to cohabitate with the books, sounds, and conditions around them. They are as much intended to be participants within the environment as they are to focus the mind on the very essence of reading and writing.
Alvin Lucier: 5 Graves to Cairo
In a similarly phenomenological way to Swartz, the creations of Alvin Lucier often play on or exploit intrinsic aspects of human perception and acoustics. If there are visual components to his work, they function in the service of the sonic purpose. Interestingly, in the Resonant Spaces symposium on sound art, Lucier referenced the operational diagrams of Sol LeWitt as a way in which sound art might gain permanence relative to other forms of art that rely heavily on materiality. Sound art, in this model, is analogous to a musical composition, in the sense that it is scored for a particular situation, and not necessarily manifest as a material form. That is, rather than emphasizing the object, equipment, and tools for generating the art, the thing becomes instead the conceptual clarity, the instructions, the sound files, the blueprints, similar to those used in music and theater. For Lucier, this means that sound art can be a conceptual practice driven by instructions rather than a studio-based one. This is exactly how he developed a work for the Hood exhibition, where Lucier provided instructions to his assistant and to the museum on how his work was to be realized, much in the way an ensemble interprets and performs a composer’s manuscript.
In 5 Graves to Cairo (2017, fig. 5), sound is an additional layer to the already rich sonic environment of the Bema: a tree-lined grotto hidden in the middle of the Dartmouth campus, full of sounds from birds, trees moving in the breeze, industrial cooling systems from the adjacent science buildings, and various traffic sounds from nearby streets. In the process of installing the work, Lucier was insistent the low waves of droning sine tones would not dominate the ambient environmental sounds, but instead complemented them. It was important to Lucier that the rhythm and timing of the interferences between the different drones was slow enough so that each wave could be felt and experienced in between long silences. It was also vital to Lucier that the loudspeakers were hidden, buried beneath the ground. As he put it, “I didn’t want to disturb the visual beauty of the place by putting speakers on the lawn or in the trees.” Rather than draw attention to his acoustic intervention per se, Lucier instead encouraged visitors to experience his work within the visual and sonic qualities of the native environment. The influence from these ambient sounds varied greatly depending on the time of day, and even at larger seasonal timescales. For instance, when fall turned to winter, the sounds of the insects and birds were noticeably absent, making the sounds from the installation seem relatively louder by comparison. Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo thus not only speaks to a particular place, but also comments on how sound varies throughout natural cycles.
At a deeper level, Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo alludes to his father’s time at Dartmouth as a student, and how the artist imagined his parent moving about and participating in various activities on campus. The Bema in particular is a longtime fixture of the campus, formerly the site for graduations and other festive and ceremonial activities. To this end, Lucier ties into the deeper histories of both Hanover and his personal connections to Dartmouth.
Jacob Kirkegaard: Transmission
If for some reason were to lose these [sound] files then my entire life work, contained only on this hard drive, would be lost.14
Recorded sound is the primary component in the sound art of Jacob Kirkegaard, in a similar way that recorded sights are for a photographer. The mode of the recordings’ presentation, such as installation or album, is arguably secondary to the captured sounds—be they field recordings or sounds from the human ear itself. For Kirkegaard the act of creating sonic materials is an intensely time- and place-specific undertaking, since the sounds he works with in his installations and albums come from recordings that he captures at particular locations and dates using carefully selected equipment. In Transmission (2017), Kirkegaard worked with University of Utah professor and seismologist Jeff Moore, who assisted him in creating seismic recordings of various stone arches in Arizona and Utah (fig. 6). Over the course of several days they made long-duration recordings of very low-frequency vibrations, along with simultaneous recordings using air microphones to capture the sounds above and around the arches.
In determining the best environment for his installation at Dartmouth, Kirkegaard wanted to capture a sense of distance between two discrete soundscapes. The four-story atrium of the Sherman Fairchild Physical Sciences Center (fig. 7), with its rough concrete walls and large panes of glass, was good fit in terms of the artistic concept and acoustic requirements for the work. Specifically, it was important to the artist that the sounds were immersive yet not overwhelming. To do this, he deployed eight speakers in total, with four on the bottom floor and four on the top floor of the atrium. The four loudspeakers located on the first floor consisted of custom-fabricated speaker cabinets with single, broad-spectrum speaker drivers mounted on top. The intended effect was to project subterranean sounds upward into the atrium in such a way as to interact with the architecture of the space. Four additional powered speakers were located on the top floor of the atrium mounted on light pole structures. Their purpose was to distribute terranean sounds across the top of the atrium; at times, these could be audible from the first floor. In this way, Kirkegaard addressed sound in terms of how it might operate in relation to the architecture itself, as a metaphor for sonic materials upon the earth’s surface and below it. Transmission became less about observing a single object or sound, and more about generating an immersive experience that enveloped the listener. At no time was the sound too loud or overwhelming, however. Instead, long stretches of silence prompted the visitor to attune to the existing sounds of the building, such as the elevator motor, doors opening and closing, and hums from the nearby cooling system. In those moments, one was suddenly returned from Transmission’s sonic immersion to the plainness of day-to-day life on a college campus, yearning to be summoned back to the wild, remote sounds of the desert. The sounds, sometimes ominous rumbles and at other times falling and rising tones, like otherworldly songs, moved around the atrium in phantasm-like trajectories.
Bill Fontana: MicroSoundings
Akin to Jacob Kirkegaard, Bill Fontana approaches sound from the mindset of a photographer—or, more aptly, a videographer—where the captured sonic materials are of primary importance. Fontana’s work similarly draws on field recordings made with great attention to the method and equipment used to capture sound and vibration within different environments and structures. In the vein of French electronic musician Pierre Schaeffer, Fontana treats sounds as individual “sound objects” or as Schaeffer describes it, l’objet sonore.15 Schaeffer posited that when sounds are isolated or fragmented they become sound objects, and often take on properties and associations that are markedly different from their sources.
For MicroSoundings (2017), Fontana chose to examine sounds created by machinery within the Life Sciences Building at Dartmouth College. These sounds, often quiet or even inaudible, were then transformed and amplified through loudspeakers attached to a slatted metal structure on the exterior of the building (fig. 8).16 In this way, the building itself became a speaker, projecting the inner world of laboratories and HVAC systems to the outside world. Fontana installed an additional set of speakers in front of the structure that amplified the response of the metal structure itself using accelerometers, thereby creating feedback between the virtual world of the pre-recorded material and that of the immediate present. It also recontextualized the metal structure as a musical instrument, or a readymade kinetic architecture.
The interaction between MicroSoundings and the ambient environment often overlapped, since the sounds of traffic, building air ventilation systems, and other noises easily combined with the pre-recorded sounds. Perhaps most remarkable was during light rain, when the patter of raindrops hitting the structure sounded like amplified, ringing vibraphone bars being randomly struck by an invisible performer. These sounds then seamlessly transitioned into the gurgling sounds of centrifuges, water tanks, and drones of air systems.
Laura Maes: Spikes
Artist Laura Maes often explores how physical objects interact, and how an object sounds in relation to physical or electrophysical interaction with environments and visitors. For example, in her solo exhibition Sounding Sound Art (2013), a series of refrigeration pipes cooled air to produce condensation, which then fell onto amplified glass plates suspended below the pipes. The simple physical interaction between these elements created the sound work. Repetition of this phenomenon with multiple units played a key role in generating complexity from Maes’s simple means, and the result was both predictable and varied. Yet, over time, this complexity created a drone-like texture that is both hypnotic and sonically arresting.
In Spikes (2017, fig. 9), light was an essential component of the work at different stages. Maes employed two hundred custom circuit boards affixed to five sets of copper rods powered by solar panels affixed to the outside of the building. The artist designed each circuit to be individually distinct yet functionally the same by varying the circuits’ components and, most importantly, by employing different kinds of sound emitters, to which she affixed an array of washers and nuts to alter the acoustic sound. A variable resistor in the form of a photocell included in each circuit responded to ambient light conditions, introducing randomness into the timing cycle of the circuits, which emitted a click sound and brief flash of light from an LED when activated. Likewise, changes in daylight directly affected the loudness, speed, and synchronicity of the system. The entire work was situated in a small, closed room that serves as a second entrance to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. With the entryway’s low ceilings, visitors were quite close to the circuits, and one could discern the spatial effect of each circuit as well as a cumulative effect of the whole, since the room was lively and reverberant. Visitors likened the work to listening to tree frogs in the spring, or crickets in late summer, and every now and then passersby would interrupt the soundscape with their travels.
Jess Rowland: The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound and Life This In Find We
Jess Rowland’s practice considers the materiality of sound through combining paper-printing techniques with loudspeaker design. As a result, Rowland’s approach to sound is both compositional and sculptural, as sound seems to emanate from the paper in an almost magical way.
The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound (2017, fig. 10) carries this idea further by reconfiguring essential loudspeaker components in unexpected ways. For two of the four objects, visitors must use a stethoscope, modified with a neodymium magnet affixed to the membrane, to gradually move along different conductive wires carrying sound signals across heavy rectangular vellum sheets. The experience is individual, as only one person can experience the complete work at a time. Alluringly, the sound appears to come from nowhere. The visual component of the work consists of crisscrossing conductive and light-reflective metal shapes affixed to what appears to be staff paper. The allusion to musical notation cannot be missed, yet the way the score becomes a sonic phenomenon through the interaction of the deconstructed speaker components is playful and unexpected.
The second set of works plays sound through speakers printed onto paper using a technique developed by the artist.17 Affixed to the surface of the paper are shiny metallic patterns scrawled across contrasting matte black colored paper. The work gives a sense of what an indecipherable musical score might sound like, without additional instructions provided to the imaginary performer. As with Julianne Swartz’s book-like objects, visitors must stand quite close to these works to hear them, straining to hear fragments of Stravinsky and other composed sounds.
Rowland’s The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound was installed alongside an additional piece titled Life This In Find We (fig. 11), a readymade piano roll object augmented with various copper strips and electronics so as to become an interactive artwork with musical instrument–like qualities. When visitors bridged the various vertical strips of copper to a ground strip, they triggered high-, low-, and middle-frequency sounds to play from a small hidden speaker near the work. In contrast to the rigidly temporal instructions originally cut into the piano roll, Rowland’s sonic materials consisted of organ-like drones that could be sustained indefinitely, performed at the whim of the participant rather than through the fixed mechanism of the player piano.
Together, The Other Side of Air and Life This In Find We are both silent and sonic works. They can be viewed as visual art on walls, or as interactive pieces that produce sound. It is this duality that is most curious about these works, since the symbols and shapes presented suggest musical notation, and in turn provide the visitor with an almost fantastical experience of hearing a music hidden within. The rich, bubbling and sustained sonic textures emerging from Rowland’s pieces bear similarities to the sonic textures found in electronic collage music, where recorded and synthesized sounds are layered to create quiet and almost fragile sonic microcosms.
Christine Sun Kim: The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics
Christine Sun Kim likens the act of “listening” to something that occurs through translators. Her engagement with sound is an intensely physical experience manifesting in a practice reaching across visual and sonic art, which challenges conventional assumptions about sound in relation to deafness. One could argue that sound assumes a notably visual form in Sun Kim’s work, since the motion of speakers and materials and the vibrations of objects and structures become explicit indicators for the presence of sound.
The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics (2017, fig. 12) continues many themes found in Sun Kim’s previous works by abstracting sound away from the aural phenomenon, and into the conceptual and personal. Here she considers her own various specific associations with sound via translation, transmission, memory, and experience, and represents these associations through drawings and clay sculptures. Early in the process, she likened this concept to a dictionary of sorts, which attempted to define different forms of acousmatic phenomena, some real and some invented. Whimsical and thought provoking, the objects ultimately form an idea of what sound might be like without presence of the sound itself. It is a representation of sound as a material before it actually becomes a thing.
Sun Kim’s work illustrates how sound can carry significance, both in terms of physical sensation and perception, in the absence of hearing. Light, similarly, carries both physical and perceptual elements beyond sight. In certain cases, for example, a blind person can still sense sunlight and other intense beams of light through “unconscious vision.”18
The near-silent conditions of the room where the artist installed The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics allowed for visitors to utilize their aural imaginations, through the written suggestions around the drawings and the proportion and shape of objects displayed. It would be challenging or even impossible to truly experience this work in a noisy environment. Indeed, as a hearing person, I found the absence of an aural stimulation in this work a catalyst for amplifying my internal sonic imagination. I was able to consider more carefully my own relationship to sound in different contexts, and in doing so I better understood the complex network of meanings that Sun Kim’s collection of ceramic objects suggest.