Words by Leanne Cunningham
the Bluecoat presents Listening, a sight and sound exhibition curated by Sam Belinfante, which interrogates the act of listening itself, rather than merely its aural objects. Durational works (of which there are several) allow the listener / audience to attend to a piece for their own desired length of time, with ‘techniques from the orchestra [used] to orchestrate the exhibition in terms of time and space’ (Sam Belinfante – opening speech).
From attending the preview night and re-visiting a second time, my experiences of the exhibition differed. Allowing intimacy and detail, the exhibition is metaphorically and physically moving – pulling one from room to room, allowing the ear to control your next move; inviting and intriguing senses usually ignored in such an environment. The first time around, the audio aspects of the show become drowned out with the sounds of real time, as the space becomes occupied by movement and life, with conversation filling each and every room. Yet the idea of the exhibition is to listen: I try to listen carefully.
I am greeted by the beautifully haunting choir of Song; a 6 hour long film by Ragnar Kjartansson which offers a repetitive and somewhat eerie contribution to the exhibition. This durational piece imbues the listener with a sense of loss; a loss of time awareness when present in the space.
As I continue to listen, the sound of a motorboat penetrates my ears. Feeling the drone and rattle through my body, sea movement creates a flowing of excitement along with the overwhelming sense of being surrounded by sound, the low frequencies of Haenyeo or Seawomen by Mikhail Karikis filling the room entirely.
Four channels of surround sound create a sense of space and place, and cushions on the floor seem inviting, yet viewers including myself remain standing. During my second visit to Seawomen, however, I aim for a different experience and sit alone on the gallery floor. By allowing yourself this sense of intimacy, the work encourages deep listening. I did not have to make an effort to hear – everything was peacefully quiet as though I was listening for the first time. The surround sound opened up a false perception and slight discomfort as I constantly kept turning my head, wondering what the disturbance noise was behind me; however I was alone.
‘Sound can be sectioned, taken away and used as a separate art form [which is] borrowed from language and experience in the theatre’. (Sam Belinfante, opening speech)
Hannah Richards’ Thunder, offers an aesthetic aspect of sound and vision as the latter is open to personal perception. Being positively warned about this piece as an unstructured ‘loud explosive happening every now and then’ by Bryan Biggs, and unaware of the time interval of the sound, the piece situated on the wall reads;
A recording of a single clap of thunder was stretched in length from 8 seconds to 7 minutes. The resulting sound was transcribed into musical score for 6 instruments. The musical score was performed, recorded and then reduced to 8 seconds…
(Hannah Richards, Thunder, 2005)
The idea of time in art becomes a side effect here due to the levels of interactivity within the gallery spaces. Interacting with Lina Lapelyte’s O, is one of my favourites; when wearing headphones, the audio playing seems like live sound from the gallery space, as though you’re listening to live aspects of real time accompanied by the sight of a spinning record, paradoxically moving in its own time.
Lastly, an ‘acoustic tomb’, by artist Harroon Mirza, who is a personal favourite of mine, invites one to sit, thereby allowing the listener to create their own durational work of art out of the materials in the gallery space. I sit on the rock situated under a hovering anechoic chamber with the idea of complete silence. The voices on the outside become drowned out as I sit in ‘quietude’ (as opposed to silence), with the state of stillness and quietness accessible with the space, creating and forcing an escape from the noise of normality.
Together with sight, looking up eyes wide open, there is only complete darkness. Sight is not visible.