Excerpts from the book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology

Stephen Wilson   (Segments focused on sound)

Compiled by Stephen Wilson, Professor, CIA Program , Art Dept, San Francisco State University
###Note these links are part of the research for Wilson's  book Informati on Arts (MIT Press,2002). Please see the book for more details about the artists, organizations, and texts listed in these links and for extended analysis of the relationship of art and research.  Feel free to use these resources but please attribute source. Copyright, 1999-2002 Stephen Wilson, MIT Press

For links to artists, texts, organizations etc see Artists' Work


Chapter 5.3 Kinetic Instruments, Sound Sculpture, and Industrial Music

Music has a long tradition of technological experimentation with devices to produce sound. Those that became accepted into the repertoire came to be called the standard instruments such as pianos, trumpets, violins and the like. Contemporary sound artists are attracted the possibilities of using the tools and materials of industrial technological culture in sound making. They are interested in sound outside of music and speech. Sound artists were also among the first to explore electricity, recording technology, synthesis, sound editing, radio and electronics. Contemporary artists have created a multitude of forms that integrate the visual and sonic arts.

They have worked in many ways. Some have pursued sensual novelty - trying to create sounds never heard before. Some develop alternative instruments. Some try to explore the sounds of the natural and human built world. Others create kinetic sculptures and interactive installations which investigate critical themes in cultural analysis in the context of sound. Other chapters have described other science or technologically inspired investigations such as the search for AI and genetic music generating algorithms (4.3, 7.6); acoustic ecology (2.4); auralization of information (7.7); and speech synthesis and computer manipulations of 3-D sound space (7.5).

Technological and electronic sound experimentation is a major chapter in the relationships among art, science and technology. Sound artists and musicians have demonstrated many of the cross disciplinary themes described in this book. Musicians and sound artists early entered into the scientific discourse about sound and hearing. They pioneered technological investigations of electronic sound and were among the earliest to work with personal computers.

Unfortunately, consideration of sound artist experimentation of technology is an enormous topic beyond the scope of this book. There are books, journals, and organizations specifically devoted to these inquiries. For example, some of those resources include: Leonardo Electronic Music Journal, Electronic Music Journal, and SoundCulture This section attempts to provide only an brief sampling of the ways to consider the relationship of science and technology to sound art. It concentrates primarily on artists who work within the traditions of kinetic sculpture and installation.

A Brief Theoretical Overture Some theorists consider sound grossly underexplored in analysis of the arts. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead edited a landmark book, Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde which collects theoretical analysis and historical documents. Some of the historical eras they consider include the age of the phonograph's invention, the Futurists' art of noise, Duchamp's gap music, Dada's experiments with sound art, the Russian Constructivists, the Surrealists, and John Cage's experiments. Technology was simultaneously a provocation and a tool for this work although they shy away from technological determinism - searching instead for broader cultural themes..

They give voice to the view of many about the strange neglect of sound, given its unique kind of access to people's consciousness. They find the paucity of systematic theoretical attention a major lack.

The human ear offers not just another hole in the body, but a hole in the head. Moreover, the absence of obstructive anatomical features such as earlids would seem to assure a direct and unmediated pathway for acoustic phenomena, with sonic vibrations heading straight into the central nervous system.

One would expect to find amid the accumulation of studies of modernism, post-modernism, the avant-garde, and postwar experimentalism a more faithful attendance to the cultural preoccupations of hearing -- one of the two major senses, the "public" ones, as John Cage described them for their ability to make contact from a distance.

In part they attribute the lack to the dominance of the "regime of the visual", a tendency in modern Western culture to focus on sight, a subject of much contemporary analysis. They claim that sounds cannot be objectified as easily as sights. Yet another problem exists in merely thinking about sound within a culture that so readily and pervasively privileges the eye over the ear. Visuality is so embedded that attempts at redress seem doomed to tautology. Many contemporary theories and philosophies, in fact, invoke aural, sonic, musical, and preguttural metaphors at the points where they are unable to speak, at the limits of language. How can we then rely on the same theories and philosophies to query the very sounds heard during such moments of matriculation? How, for instance, can listening be explained when the subject in recent theory has been situated, no matter how askew, in the web of the gaze, mirroring, reflection, the spectacle, and other ocular tropes? Visually disposed language, furthermore, favors thinking about sound as an object, but sound functions poorly in this regard: it dissipates, modulates, infiltrates other sounds, becomes absorbed and deflected by actual objects, and fills a space surrounding them. Other parts of this book will suggest that expanding the scientific, technological and artistic attention given to other senses (touch, kinesthetic, taste, and smell) will also open up new cultural issues.

The authors also note the privileging of "music" in Western thought about sound. Tendencies such as modernist autoreferentiality, the quest for nonobjectivity, the dynamics of musical rules, and music's mystical associations with the sublime all mitigated against a culturally expansive approach to sound. Even the avant-garde traditions the book described-- except possibly Surrealism-- often framed their work as the expansion of music. As a result of its august tradition Western music did not deal well with mass media, new technologies, and interactions with folk and non western traditions.

Only recently has a significant sound arts movement emerged of sound installation, audio, and radio experimental artists. These artists have undertaken projects such as "the radicalization of sound/image relationships" and of "acoustics in architectural, environmental, or virtual space". Technological innovations and sound art experimentation have always gone hand in hand. Kahn and Whitehead explain this relationship in part by teasing out the profound cultural implications of the new sound technologies.

For example, sound recording had a major effect on thought. It raised the spectre of technologizing the body and suggested access to previously unexplored regions such as the afterlife and the unconscious. Radio similarly inspired the artistic imagination. It raised ides of disembodiment -- a sound could exist in two distant spaces at once. It referred to "the expanses of the ocean, to crowds, to other lands, and to the otherness of the unexplored globe." Even more it could shake up categories of thought -- suggesting the inflow of ideas in a non linear way from many sources at once. Innovations inspire the artists and then they take it forward - both exploring its cultural meanings missed by technical practitioners and themselves inventing new technical extensions. It is a pattern often repeated.