In one of the finest supermarket scenes in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), the narrator, Jack Gladney, walks with his daughter past the exotic fruit bins where he suddenly becomes aware of the sounds of the space, the confusion: “I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”
“Dissonance,” Theodor Adorno famously remarked, “is the truth about harmony.” In DeLillo’s novel, listening, as distinct from something purely passive, reveals the dissonance that consumer America (“Kleenex Softique, Kleenex Softique,” “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it”) obfuscates and conceals. DeLillo points to sound as that which manipulates and controls spaces and information. (As Hannah Arendt might have said, totalitarianism was the bastard child of modern technologies such as the microphone, the loudspeaker, and the radio.) It’s little wonder, then, that dissonance has become a favorite instrument in popular political demonstrations. In 2010, Cambridge University students used speakers to blast noise into the Vice Chancellor’s office in protest of budgetary spending cuts. More recently, in Kiev, thousands of protestors created uproar outside Parliament by pounding on oil drum containers and lampposts. Officialdom, however, is no stranger to the uses of dissonance either. Noise grenades were used on protestors in Kiev, for example; and “white noise torture,” first documented in the 1970s, when twelve suspected IRA terrorists were subjected to hissing sounds, is still rather common.
Los Angeles- and Oakland-based sculptor and sound artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s small multimedia show It Only Happens All of the Time (March 7-June 15, 2014) at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is a modest but no less engrossing display of work that addresses the tactical and violent implications of sound, its potential to both connect and alienate people, and its effects on space and the physical body. As Ceci Moss, assistant curator of visual arts at YBCA, observes, “Her practice…is an exercise in dissonance.” This is true; dissonance, at least, as Adorno understood it. Gordon consistently shows that harmony, in the realm of culture or politics, is distortion and subterfuge. It Only Happens All of the Time, which is an installment in YBCA’s program on technology called “Control” (curated by Moss), recalls the artist’s installation at the Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland last year. Gordon fixed transducers to the windows of the gallery and filtered sound from Frank H. Ogawa Plaza into the gallery. She blurred interior and exterior space, shifted visitors’ orientations, and nodded, it seemed, to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that took place in the plaza in 2011. For Gordon, both to listen and not listen is potentially dangerous; what you do not hear is equally as important as what you do.