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.
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Upstairs at the YBCA, visitors encounter a fairly menacing abstract sculpture on the wall called IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You to Want Me to Want You to Want Me) (2014). Displayed so the edges thrust at the viewer, the purple blocks of sound-canceling foam (such as one typically finds in a recording studio) gently threaten with cancellation and intimations of secrecy. The artist handles this awkward material fairly well. There is something militant, even tank-like, about the display. Its title, a loopy expression of love and desire, perhaps recalls glossy, repetitious pop music or commercial radio. Moss notes that Gordon’s concerns extend to white noise torture devices; and the sculpture, with its combined implications of secrecy and studio-produced pop, perhaps alludes to such procedures, particularly the U.S. military’s documented use of pop music for torture in Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo. (Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and children’s songs from Barney the Dinosaur, for example, all relentlessly repeated at piercing volumes.) The references to torture are furthered with Gordon’s uncanny, somewhat cartoonish gouache and ink drawings, called Filter Resonances. These “filters,” as the artist describes them, can look like bruised stomachs, and line the wall like organs or slabs of meat. Fixed with wires and often set against a grid, they are meant to evoke music-editing software. The effect is cold and technical; they belong to some plan of systematic violence. Here, indeed, harmony has a dimension of cruelty.
If the sculpture and drawings are merely descriptive, the main event, an environment engineered with sound, is where these concepts are experienced. The gallery is fixed up with a commercial-quality surround sound system, with speakers stationed along the walls. Broadcast is a long loop of sounds: passing cars, airplanes, voices, throbbing, pulsing, and ringing, all culled from field recordings, sound banks, or produced with a modular synthesizer. The combination of recorded, appropriated, and synthesizer-produced sounds serves to conflate interior and exterior spaces. It also serves to emphasize the compelling artifice of sound and its impact on space generally, particularly when it is released through such state-of-the-art technology. (On at least one occasion I looked up at the ceiling expecting to see the airplane I could hear screeching against the sky; and I could not always distinguish between real and recorded voices.) In some respects, the installation is like a grotesque realization of Thomas Edison’s ambition to reproduce natural sound exactly, but also a bastardization of that same ambition because of the artifice and technologically produced noises. According to Moss, the space’s walls are outfitted with sound-blocking equipment that references “anechoic chambers found in military and scientific testing facilities.” This implies the prospect of further bastardization: sound tinkered into something so unnatural as to be perverse, perhaps lethal.
The sound-blocking walls also reinforce the feeling of confinement the space generates. Surrounded by noise on all sides, it is like walking around a corral. The space becomes dissonant on multiple registers. Gordon essentially engineers a revelation like the one experienced by DeLillo’s Jack Gladney in the supermarket. It is a revelation, to reference the YBCA series title, of control, of space monopolized. Hence, in the center of the gallery, there is a capsule-shaped sound-canceling bunker of a sculpture, stuffed with insulation foam, with a seat inside. And located across from it, another seat more vulnerably framed in Plexiglass. Visitors are encouraged to sit and look at each other and become closer through the shared experience (the artist calls this Love Seat (2014)). I admittedly made little eye contact with the person across from me, but we both smiled in a confused way, and to be in each other’s presence was enough to feel the uplifting warmth of the piece.
This communal listening seems to oppose the private, isolated listening that is now so endemic thanks to the iPod and smartphones. In his essay “The Audio-Visual iPod,” the Australian scholar Michael Bull notes the common phenomenon by which iPod users artificially enrich urban spaces with private soundtracks, creating illusory connections and relationships to spaces and people. Gordon is certainly concerned with sound in terms of military and state power, but she is equally concerned with such private individual listening, and how the two are fatefully connected; how what we listen to determines what we do not listen to, what we neglect. Love Seat opens up new listening possibilities. It seems to ask: What kind of listening, and what kind of relationships, are needed at a time when noise has been weaponized, when eavesdropping and massive data collection are commonplace, and when dissonance so often masquerades as harmony? The installation is a space where this new listening and these new relationships can be discovered and tried out.