Article categories: Issue 72
November 26th, 2009

Sometime over the last ten, fifteen, umpteen years sound happened in the worlds of art, music, media arts … and literature, theatre, radio, film, academic scholarship, etc. In the arts, years of grassroots and radical institutional efforts occurred and were required before broader recognition. Since, ‘sound’ has grown significantly and now appears ubiquitous.

There is, of course, no ‘sound’. Sound has always been plural. There are many more sounds than debates about where sound practices sit in relation to art and music, what sound art is, etc. To many working artists and musicians such categorical manoeuvres do and don’t matter much. Pigeonholing is never good for the wingspan but can be good for a nest when you need one. It is good to see the world but the world can become too far to fly just to get by. All settles into that condition described by the Swedish poet Erik Lindegren: ‘Because our only nest is our wings.’

Douglas Kahn in the Red Box at State Library of QLD_photo by Chloe Cogle

Douglas Kahn in the Red Box at State Library of QLD_photo by Chloe Cogle

Given its ambiguous, ubiquitous and peripatetic nature, it is not surprising that sound has had difficulty finding a comfort zone among official institutions of exhibition and performance, along with arts and music journalism, education and scholarship. While official institutions have experienced and perpetrated problems in dealing with sound, as Caleb Kelly describes in these pages, and while unofficial institutions may fare better in accommodating more variations upon a sound, it is never clear where sound best drifts and settles. The ubiquity of sound is thus no place at all.

It can become difficult to ground new intensities and developments and gain critical distance from them. This is critical in itself since, despite becoming widespread, sound is still in its infancy. How many umpteen years sound has been around it is not very many in historical years. That is why occasions such as this special issue of Art Monthly Australia are so important. It is a joint effort of the Embracing Sound Program of the Australian Network for Art and Technology and AMA to provide a concentrated look at official and unofficial sound alike.

It is especially refreshing that AMA and ANAT have been strenuously unconcerned with policing any putative domain of where sound stops and starts with respect to art and music. As a historian, it makes sense. Since the 1950s, at least, prominent publications and spaces of ‘visual art’ have accommodated music and other auditory practices otherwise anathema to certain institutions of music. The experimental music issue of Studio International in 1976 comes immediately to mind. That the experimental music of the time went on to exert influence across the arts and media arts, as well as music, demonstrates the potential fruits of being curious and unconcerned.

The present issue has precedent among a number of Australian publications and rests upon a few decades of performances, exhibitions, discussions, broadcasts and narrowcasts. Australia was the first Anglophone nation, for example, to significantly raise the level of discourse on sound during the 1980s, opening it to contemporary theories, practices and possibilities. This new sophistication was first typified, in my limited perspective, in issues of Art & Text and New Music Articles, and Paul Carter’s book The Sound In Between.

It was odd, therefore, in 2000 when Australia was already onto a third generation of artists (not counting aunts and uncles …I am thinking of Joan Brassil, Percy Grainger and Johannes Rosenberg), that the press surrounding the Sonic Boom! exhibition at the Hayward Gallery hailed that London had discovered sound or, rather, sound! The Hearing is Believing conference in 1996 in Sunderland, in fact, was convened to help bring the UK up to speed. There were hopes to kick-start the BBC into doing what continental state broadcasters and radio programs such as Surface Tension and The Listening Room at the ABC had been doing for years. Given the nature of contemporary communications, it is thankfully more difficult for metropolitan centres to remain parochial.

In this sense, therefore, the present issue of AMA should be understood as another Australian assertion of evolving traditions. These traditions are not discrete, but are constituted and reconstituted from revolving and persistent sets of individuals, communities and institutions. They come and go from many places. When artists pointed to Marcel Duchamp, he pointed to the dada tradition of François Rabelais. In these pages and on the accompanying DVD, Hollis Taylor, herself a champion fiddle player and expert writer, points to the performances of pied butcherbirds. When the theorist and critic Ann Finnegan thinks about certain artists, she hears the call of Martin Heidegger. When Zita Joyce and Danni Zuvela write, their touchstones are the dynamics of grassroots communities and networks who no doubt, given the opportunity, would cue other authors, birds and philosophers.

The talented writers in the following pages have engaged a range of artists, musicians, authors, collaborations and communities. The DVD includes new works specially commissioned for this issue as well as materials by some of the birds, artists and musicians discussed in the essays. I will let the essays and artworks speak for themselves rather than introduce them here. What this issue is not, however, is a survey. It is instead the end of a process of a call for proposals that has no doubt chronicled an important moment in time but certainly not all that should be emblematic of it. There are always cuts in any splice of life.

While Sarah Last and myself, with help from Maurice O’Riordan, are responsible for the editorial decisions, much bluster was given to me. They have shouldered most of the burdens, whereas my main task was in working through proposals and successive drafts with the authors. I lent privilege to essays that were primarily informative rather than polemical, and to stating polemics through objects, performances and events rather than more abstractly. This derives from a personal conviction that the best devils are in details and shake-ups come from the underground on up. Other decisions can be attributed to trying to do this from San Francisco after an absence from Australia for over seven years. With oceans and fraught balance aside, I am very grateful to Sarah and Maurice, and to those people and institutions supporting them, for this wonderful opportunity to once again participate in ‘sound’ in Australia.

Douglas Kahn
Douglas Kahn, Professor at University of California at Davis, is a historian and theorist of art, music and media arts, with special attention to sound and electromagnetism.

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