Initially I’m under the impression that the commotion of chattering voices is emanating from ICA’s small café situated across the hall (it later transpires during my own coffee stop that the attendees are far more respectful and dignified), but actually this is the sound of Bruce Nauman’s Days, which bellows boldly across within a bright and sparsely occupied area beside the gallery entrance. 14 sheets of folded fabric, which are suspended neatly in two symmetrical lines a short distance apart, pave an imaginary walkway down the centre. It takes a little while for my brain to acknowledge the fact that these are speakers, and the following slow walk between them further unveils that the “commotion” can be broken down into individual voices reciting the days of the week in a random order.
But this fleeting flash of comprehension is soon gone, as each voice becomes a commotion in itself. The recital of “Monday, Thursday, Tuesday, Saturday…” is arbitrary – without order, without context – and the speed at which the voices flit between them only renders the words themselves mundane. They are exposed as mere vessels for timekeeping, and when stripped of the activities and surrounding narratives that render their application significant, the very words that commonly provide life with its anchorage and routine suddenly become somewhat mysterious and unfriendly. As it turns out, there’s something both exciting and unsettling about being unhinged from one of our mechanisms for keeping reality in check.
Accompanying the exhibition is SOUNDWORKS: a collection of over one-hundred pieces of sound art, each sharing its theme with that of Bruce Nauman’s installation. It’s an inundation of audio – far too much for this reviewer to get through without setting a day or two aside – and while some of the links to Nauman’s work feel rather tenuous or generic, this is somewhat compensated by the delight of having such an eclectic array of approaches to Nauman’s themes (and more broadly speaking, approaches to sound art itself) within one location. The ICA currently has a designated room for SOUNDWORKS, in which the listener can browse and listen to the collection in quiet, or alternatively the works can be found online, and thus transported into any the location the listener sees fit. Below I’ve picked out four pieces that caught my attention while scrolling through the collection the other evening, with tea, incense, darkness and my own bedroom setting the environment for my own listening experience.
Personally I was engrossed in those pieces that tapped into the way in which our perception of certain objects (material or sensory) is distorted: perhaps through relentless repetition, or perhaps by actually warping the familiar into new shapes. For Brandon LaBelle’s submission, he recites the statement “365 is a significant number” into a cassette recorder hundreds of times over the course of a year. I find myself latching onto the differences within the tape noise as the recorder clacks between one recording and the next: unexpected bursts of plosives, the various background noises that emerge during each recital, and even mispronunciations of the statement itself. Meanwhile, the words dissolve out of meaning in a similar fashion to Days, peeling away from sentence structure to become a set of recurrent sounds; 365 is no longer a significant number, and neither is the sentence in which it is housed.
Similarly, C Spencer Yeh churns the voice into something utterly unrecognisable with a deceptively simple process. “Take My Breath Away” is essentially the sound of Yeh gurgling and spitting into a microphone for five minutes straight, only with each pause for breath edited out – what remains is a continuous stream of spittle and exhalation, devoid of the dynamic variation that places the noises in the context of the human breath cycle, thus becoming increasingly surreal as the splutters and wheezes continue. Bizarre and beautiful.
Steve Bates’ own disruption of the familiar may not sound particularly abnormal when taking the audio in isolation, and it’s only upon reading its accompanying description that the work starts to unveil itself. Despite lasting 20 minutes, the piece is actually the sound of a laptop processor recorded over the course of an hour, and a coffee brewing that took just under 10 minutes to perform. The two are skewed into synchronisation, and while the sounds may originate from the rather mundane elements of our everyday, it’s rather disturbing to hear something as trivial as the brewing of coffee teased out into a duration that just doesn’t feel right.
And in stark contrast to the babbling din of Days, Andrea Büttner presents the sound of a Quaker meeting in Houston, Texas. These meetings comprise of friends sitting together in silence, and much of the audible sound comes pouring in through the skyspace that has been left open throughout the recording. As with Bates’ piece, an understanding of context draws the listener’s attention away from the audio itself: in this instance, it homes in on the negative space, highlighting that the meeting attendees are emitters of silence in the same way that the birds and wind are the emitters of sound.
SOUNDWORKS – http://www.ica.org.uk/projects/soundworks/
Bruce Nauman’s Days – http://www.ica.org.uk/33310/Exhibitions/Bruce-Nauman-Days.html