We only hear things after the fact. By the time a pressure wave hits someone’s ear or microphone and registers as "sound," the event itself has passed.
This is true for all the senses, sure. Even at light-speed, images take time to reach the eye. The brain needs a moment to process physical touch; smells linger. But sound, uniquely, gets around. It bumps into and bounces off things, suffusing and literally echoing its surroundings. Its delays and detours are measurable, revealing hidden features of the space it travels through (bats and dolphins have always known this). Still, with each passing second and added reverberation, the gap between cause and effect, sound and source grows wider — and weirder.
The distance and disconnect can be extreme: the 1883 Krakatau volcanic eruption produced the loudest sound in recorded history, heard four hours later and almost 5,000 kilometres away, "like the distant roar of heavy guns." It can seem poignant — I’m thinking of the "52-Hertz whale," an individual of unknown species tracked for decades using underwater microphones but never seen, the only, lonely cetacean singing that distinctive frequency.
Sounding Space can also be a lot of fun, as we see (and hear, and feel) in the exhibition at Gallery 1C03 by Montreal sound artist Adam Basanta and New York-based Maritimer Eleanor King. The airy arrangement of audio installation and semi-abstract drawings and sculptures applies formal and conceptual rigour with a light touch, making space for nostalgia, humour and play.
We encounter Basanta’s A Room Listening to Itself — comprising microphones and speaker cones hung at various heights and angles around the gallery — first as a mute spatial arrangement of crisscrossed wires. Alone with the gallery attendant on a quiet afternoon, the first sounds I heard were low hums and feedback whines that swelled and seemed to follow me from place to place. You feel the vibrations with your skin as distinctly as you hear them with your ears, as "empty" space becomes something you touch and manipulate. Deaf and hearing-impaired visitors will have different but equally direct access to the work, I think.
I started taking pictures, and the camera beeps and shutter clicks quickly multiplied, briefly transforming the small space into a sonic cathedral of rhythmic pops and robotic birdsong. Basanta’s piece draws on Alvin Lucier’s groundbreaking 1969 work I am sitting in a room and indeed an entire genre of sound art concerned with feedback loops and resonant frequencies, but it also reinvents itself for each new group of visitors.
King’s sculptures and drawings notably don’t make noise, but their silence communicates something. Here she’s working with CDs, a format increasingly relegated to older car stereos in advance of its inevitable, ironic re-uptake.
Cheekily riffing on 1960s minimalism, a slumped-over spindle of unplayed (and increasingly unplayable) discs slouches into the wall in a woozy, scoliotic S-curve. A Redacted Stack of jewelcases, arranged by colour, titles tantalizingly painted over, reimagines Donald Judd’s stacked boxes as an abstract basement rec-room media tower.
Made by obsessively tracing CDs in coloured pencil, King’s precise but loopy Wormhole drawings bring to mind insect burrows, seismographs and waveforms, creating paradoxical illusions of depth that echo sound’s felt but ephemeral movements. The works are refined and sharp, whimsical and a little wistful.
Where so much sound art skews dark, dry and drone-y, both artists and especially King inject (or at least allow for) a kind of playful nostalgia — King’s obsolescent media and rainbow Spirograph doodles harmonize nicely with Basanta’s salvaged analogue equipment. It’s a simple but a well-pitched pairing and a lovely show.
Sounding Space closes Nov. 26. Artist Eleanor King hosts a free talk in the university’s room 1C16A on Oct. 15 at 2 p.m.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.