Theoretical discussions of medium specificity within electroacoustic and sonic art disciplines often draw on individualized works definitively bound to a singular medium. In practice, however, artists engage with the idea through a somewhat broader reflection on practices, projects and processes that prove challenging or impossible to “translate” into another medium.
As Jan Thoben discusses, the idea of medium specificity can be traced back to the late-18th century in the realm of painting and was vigorously revisited in the 1960s, again in relation to painterly practices. In contrast, contemporary perspectives on what constitutes medium specificity in sound-based artistic practices have revolved around a variety of individual types of storage or support technologies and how they affect, define and reflect upon the eventual potential “output” of the medium. The specificities of the phonograph (and subsequent developments of the medium) that he takes as a starting point for some “Thoughts on Medium Specificity in the Sonic Arts” provide an excellent example of “a technical support [that] remains open to and even encourages artistic repurposing.” Usage that bypasses the expected or afforded means of interaction or engagement with a particular artistic medium can constitute a “site of resistance”, notably in the case of “outmoded technologies”. Thus, when Christian Marclay, Roger Miller, Paul DeMarinis or Jens Brand challenge prevalent perspectives on the nature and intent of phonographic technologies by reassessing, extending and subverting their intended purpose, they not only instigate new modes of artistic exploitation and expression, but also, crucially, “make it possible to grasp the inner complexity” of those technologies.
More broadly, the subversion of media by these and other artists has often resulted in, or at least tended to encourage the deliverance of “singular, yet ever-changing works” (Thoben). The myriad artistic practices that have arisen as a result of the decontextualization, repurposing and extension of media form the core of the discussion of Medium-Specific Practices in Sound in this issue of eContact!
In retrospect, it is not difficult to see how certain technological practices and objects that have appeared over the course of the past century have lent themselves with ease to repurposing, hacking, détournement — despite their intended design and function. Artists have responded to their seemingly inherent singularity by challenging, building on and ultimately surpassing their original affordances and limitations.
The appropriation of commercial technologies for purposes that perhaps conflict with their intended usage forms the base of Nicolas Collins’ experimentation with CD players of the early 1990s. With an initial interest in the transformative nature of turntablism and sampling cultures, he sought to develop a less wieldy array of equipment to be used in performances using samples and live radio broadcasts. Subsequent developments arose out of his desire “to control the [CD] player more directly, ideally approximating turntable techniques.” Such “misuse” does not, of course, negate the original use or intention of this late-20th-century technology, but rather gives it new life, new purpose. Indeed, when “Hacking the CD Player” he imbues these technologies with meaning and artistic potential that were perhaps not foreseeable in their initial development, in the production value they originally reflected. In contrast to the various forms of technological revival we encounter today, here artistic subversion was possible and conceived directly in parallel to these technological developments: as each new model was increasingly “sophisticated” and less prone to hacking, Collins responded with player-specific hacks.
The kind of technological drilling down pioneered by Collins makes it possible to uncover and discover functionality and potential that is not necessarily apparent to — or encouraged by — the manufacturer. Once a niche practice, hardware hacking has proliferated and is today a widely exploited artistic practice, with an incredibly wide range of sonic and æsthetic offerings. Stephanie Castonguay revives an obsolete technology so she can repurpose it in another technological realm entirely, exploring notions of both temporality and meaning à la Henri Bergson: “The alternative use of scanner heads allows for a sort of temporal excavation that leads to an extension of their use and the surpassing of their obsolescence.” Castonguay’s “Détournements de cellules solaires”serve to zombify existing light-based technologies and reanimate them within a DIY performance practice that is founded on the exploration of “the waves hidden between sound and light.” The causality of this encounter forms the genesis of a new language that is articulated through a negotiative relation between body and machine: the disembodied “soul” of these zombified technological objects lives on in her performative installation Scanner Me, Darkly.
The Environment and the Human as Media
Where some practices exploring or exploiting medium specificity might tend toward a more reductive and conceptual approach that draws on, exploits and articulates the idiosyncrasies of one medium in particular or exclusively, others involve an array of media in a potentially more complex configuration. The hacked CD player, for example, was but one component of Collins’ performance setup; shortwave radio is at the core of Amanda Dawn Christie’s Requiem for Radio but its presentation involves instrumental and fixed-media composition, electronics, a cow bone… And the medium need not be (purely) technology-based for it to have distinctive attributes or affordances. It could also be an environment, with the characteristics or elements unique to the location availing to the artist deterministic factors that could singularly affect or reflect on the work’s state at any given moment.
Thus, the specificities of the canal running through the Merian Gärten in Basel — its width, depth and contours, the vegetation along its banks — define not only the speed at which the floating speakers of île flottante’s site-specific project Ohr-Weide — Salix aurita move, but also, as Lilian Beidler explains, the direction in which they travel and where along their journey they might naturally congregate in impromptu choirs. The use of the St.-Alban Teich has paralleled the evolving relationship between society and industry in Basel. Excavated in the 12th century to power grain mills, it later drove the watermills of the paper/printing and various other industries that were developed along its banks. Today it is surrounded by a public park but still provides electricity to some 1000 households. As the fleet of speakers travels downstream through the park, the fabricated sound world of île flottante’s work reflects on and draws attention to the artificiality of this urban “natural” environment.
A somewhat unpredictable variability of the “output” is a virtually unavoidable characteristic of many medium-specific practices, whether they be a natural environment, repurposed or “misused” technologies, or the human ear. In Brian Connolly’s recent research-based work, various types of acoustic signals are used to stimulate responses in the listener’s ear. He “performs the listener” in this manner by “Utilizing auditory distortion products in the compositional process.” Otoacoustic emissions in effect transform the human ear into a medium capable of producing sounds that are not present in the original signal, as a result of combination tones and residue pitch. Since 2014 he has created a body of electroacoustic works that exploit the various phenomena that result from him “using the ear to play itself.” Taking advantage of the growing availability and potential of digital technologies, Connolly’s artistic practice offers composers “an opportunity to engage with their listener’s ears more than ever before.”
Human-scale performance contexts and interfaces can also be seen to typify Kathy Kennedy’s work with “Low-Watt Radio and the Technological Mediation of the Voice” since the early 1990s. When a mobile collective of performers moves freely while singing and operating low-watt radios amongst a sometimes unsuspecting public, both the conventional modes of public space usage and listening are subverted; such performances obviously call into question societal structures and norms. But in performing her radio-based soundwalks in the form of “guerilla public interventions” she has also sought to “infuse iconic sites of patriarchy… with an organic, feminine auditory presence.” Her works are further characterized by “an explicitly political intent: addressing and counteracting the individual’s isolation within the anonymity of urban society.”
The ubiquitousness and familiarity of radio technologies today would seem to naturally encourage an integrated exploration of the democratization of both access and participation. Indeed, in Kennedy’s work the conventional boundary between performer and public is breached on a regular basis. Moreover, the value of a willingly participatory public is widely acknowledged within the international community of shortwave radio enthusiasts, DXers and pirates. The involvement of this particular audience-at-a-distance is in fact an indispensable component of Requiem for Radio, Amanda Dawn Christie’s hour-long theatrical suite involving “Sound sculptures, shortwave simulcasts, performances and pirates.”
Radio-based sound practices do not exploit a singular technology but rather a multiplicity of technologies, from those used to create and store the work to those necessary for its transmission and reception to those used to document the results, which may vary wildly from an earlier “fixed-medium” version of the work. Christie’s entire project, reflecting on the dismantling of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave transmission site that stood in eastern Canada until 2014, is imbued with aspects of shortwave radio practices. The medium-specific effects of shortwave radio technologies and community involvement are particularly evident in the Deviant Receptions component of the suite. As part of this work, Lukas Pearse’s five-channel composition Dead Air Requiem is broadcast from five separate shortwave transmitters (one of which is a pirate radio station) from locations around the world. As their participation is impossible to precisely coordinate, timing deviations unavoidably occur, the convergence of the tracks during the live performance in Halifax NB a “serendipitous coincidence” of signals received on five separate radios in the theatre. Distortion products are inherent to sound propagation via shortwave transmission and reception technologies, and the sonic artifacts and distortions inherent to shortwave transmission are expected and integral parts of the work. DXers who wished to catch the performance had to find a means themselves to receive one or more of the broadcasts. Following the performance, some enthusiasts sent reception reports and even recordings documenting the reception to Christie and it would not be surprising if some of those recordings were subsequently broadcast by pirates, thus creating new renditions of existing renditions of the original broadcasts.
Interview and Review
In Bob Gluck’s interview with composer and visual artist Charlemagne Palestine, the carillonneur and hazzan turned experimental musician talks of the multifarious influences he encountered growing up within the late-1960s and early-1970s New York scenes. He immersed himself in Indian classical music through studies with Pandit Pran Nath, then electronic music through Subotnick’s Bleecker Street studio, where he befriended Serge Tcherepnin and Maryanne Amacher. Living upstairs from Palestine was Pharoah Sanders, across the street was Mingus and next door Jimmy Garrison. It therefore comes as no surprise when Palestine, who actually came of age in the midst of this riveting context, says: “Crazy Things Happened that I Can’t Imagine Ever Happening Again.”
Burning Man is an annual event held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that brings together a plethora of lifestyles and activities “with agreed-upon social principles that attempt to encourage maximum participation, social responsibility and immediacy of experience.” With the intention of redressing “a dearth of the more experimental forms of music on the Playa” (an area of respite from the constant onslaught of beat-based musical forms), Stephan Moore and Scott Smallwood brought a curated programme of multi-channel electroacoustic works, a custom sound system and even the venue to a constantly changing and extremely enthusiastic audience. They discuss the genesis, manufacture and success of their project in “Unpopular Music at the End of the Universe: Burning Man as a venue for multi-channel electroacoustic music.”
In discussing and exploring the concept of medium-specific practices in sound we encounter a number of artistic activities and projects that involve more than one media. Despite what the term “medium-specific” might seem to suggest, the concept does not inherently preclude more complex configurations. Therefore, it should not be thought of solely as a practice that can only produce singular artistic objects bound to a singular media. It could be that only some portion or aspect of a work or a project is medium-specific. In such cases, while the resulting work may be heavily characterized and defined by it, a rigid application of the concept of medium specificity might be unnecessarily reductive.
And because it is indeed a concept and not a unequivocally definable activity, media specificity can be applied to a boundless field of practice, as the incredibly wide and diverse range of artistic activities in this issue of eContact! attests to: from low-watt radio (Kennedy) and shortwave radio (Christie-Pearse) to the human ear (Connolly), the Earth (Brand) and a Swiss canal (Beidler) to solar panels and scanners (Castonguay) to vinyl records (Marclay and Miller) and CD players (Collins). Not to mention the affordances of wax cylinders, lasers and live goldfish (DeMarinis in Thoben)…
2 February 2020