Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Smash hits and sound gardens

Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound

Hayward Gallery, London. 27 April-18 June 2000. Exhibition selected by David Toop

Exhibitions of ‘sound art’ run the risk of providing little visual interest and too much overlapping noise. And though you could argue that true sound art has no obligation to provide any visual stimulus, most of the exhibits in Sonic Boom had a substantial visual dimension (and in many cases were much more interesting to look at than hear).

Nevertheless, ‘Sonic Boom’ was a popular event, in which culture-hungry Londoners were able to absorb ideas and concepts more established – and better disseminated – in Northern Europe and the US. Some of the lamer, more obvious ideas will almost certainly be swiped for commercial use: a friend of a friend from one of the big agencies told me he had come down, not because he was interested in avant-garde art, but because he was looking for new ideas. However the best pieces in the show provided plenty of stimulation and education for any designers looking to push the ear/eye analogy as far as possible.

Guitar Drag (2000) by turntablist Christian Marclay, could have been presented as a conceptual piece: an amplified Fender guitar is dragged along back roads and dirt tracks in Texas, tied to the back of a slow-moving flat-bed truck. The result, a fifteen-minute video installation, is more fun than a few lines of type, however, producing some striking images and a soundtrack to keep Sonic Youth and Caspar Brotzmann fans happy should their heroes ever fall from the back of a moving vehicle. Brian Eno’s Quiet Club was an example of a good idea that would have been better realised by someone else – Paul Schütze, for example, whose complex Third Site installation was a fully realised idea developed from a series of less focused CDs based upon architectural sites.

Philip Jeck’s installation (Off the Record, 1996) on the other hand, was fascinating but nothing like as gripping as his performances using a few record players picked up at car boot sales and modified, distressed vinyl. But there is not always any need to see these machines, just as there is no need for Jeck (or Brian Eno, for that matter) to wear a gold lame suit. The lesson for multimedia artists, and anyone teasing out the correlation between sound, vision and experience, is not clear, but the Hayward show is perhaps the beginning in the UK of a more open-minded approach to a volatile field.

One of the best exhibits, Christina Kubisch’s Oasis 2000: Music for a Concrete Jungle, also served as the perfect chill-out zone to escape the omnipresent, multi-layered noise of the main exhibition. The sculpture court was spanned by a three-dimensional web of green and yellow wires that induced sounds – water, birdsong, rainforest noises – in the cordless headphones we were obliged to wear. Wandering within the virtual sonic environment conjured while gazing at London’s much-changed skyline on an unusually clear spring day induced pleasure, wellbeing and smiles.

That’s a kind of ‘experience design’ that is still extremely difficult to achieve in the other kind of web.

Henry Miles, multimedia author, Stockport

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 7, 2022

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.