Live: Martin A. Smith – NOISE and whispers @ GV Art, 14/11/2013

“I should be doing something.”

So says a gentle, uneasy voice on Clay Gold’s work for headphones. I imagine a figure sat in a living room, poised awkwardly on the edge of a chair and absently ingesting the birdsong that trickles in through a window overlooking a garden, while a faint, clock-like tick counts every second of his stillness, gathering up each moment of his procrastination until it casts a towering shadow over its subject. Hearing is so often perceived as a secondary sense to the extent that the act of pure listening – with no visual accompaniment to pocket the sound into a picture of significance and reason – can often be read as a form of dormancy; a temporary lapse into death and nothing, casting one’s self into the void without the lifejacket of movement, either instigated or visually perceived. “I should be doing something” – the sense that stillness is combatant against the quest for endless sensory ingestion, and that the act of listening (particular listening to the world as it is, without a notable event protruding from stasis and equilibrium) does not qualify as sensory nourishment.

And indeed, in many of the pieces here, the sound benefits wonderfully from having a visual to frame it. There’s one particular hum running through Yann Novak’s piece – sandwiched gently between pillows of low tone and a string of static – that I perceive to be the hazy orange band that runs across the accompanying square print, surging out of the murk and wavering, loosely tethered to a grander stasis. Equally, there is a synaesthesic bond between the clumped harmonies and phantom delays of Iris Garrelfs and the playful squiggles that curl and writhe across the black – an illusion of elasticity and motion where there is none, co-authored by sound and image.

Elsewhere, the visual and material are used as the seeds of sound: a video of the Material Studies Group at work shows them re-interpreting objects and surfaces as cocoons of sonic potential, highlighting the unique shapes and “textures” of sound that is dismissed by so many as by-product, while the dot score of Wajid Yaseen demonstrates how image is both a universal musical language and a haven for wonderfully eclectic sonic ambiguity, producing Colin Hacklander’s punctuative and sporadic percussion hits and Farrah Hatam’s compositional constellations that perceive implied lines between the nomadic flecks. In some instances, sound as real-world vibration is absent entirely, instead utilising an audio of potential: Alex Baker’s delicate record player of balsa wood and tissue paper (which is powered by the wind that causes the player to turn, and thus the piece rests poised and peacefully still indoors), while the score of Josh Horsley depicts a chord whose physical materialisation is forbidden by the laws of object space.

Perhaps we are rendered uncomfortable by sound’s unhesitating invasion of personal space, thus turning to other senses to plug the absence of borders and structure? It’s a trait that so often becomes the central theme of sound art exhibition, with the audience constantly subjected to the overspill of neighbouring works; numerous times I’ve entered a gallery only to have every work rush to greet me simultaneously, and such a sea of eclectic intention can often cloud my attempts to engage with individual installations. While I enjoy encountering the quandaries that arise from putting several sound installations within a small space, it’s fantastic to see an exhibition that doesn’t feel forced into calling itself an “observation” of sound and its diffusive instincts – Martin A. Smith highlights these classic concerns by conquering them triumphantly (often through the use of exceptionally comfy noise-cancelling headphones), allowing me to focus on one piece without the others peering in.