Years of being confronted by tedious sound art 'installations' - question: has ANYTHING called an 'installation' ever been worthwhile? - and of 'sonic art' (pasty-faced nerds with laptops sampling and looping the sound of broken glass or 'generating sound by non-conventional means' - i.e. hitting railings with sticks) has left me more than a little sceptical about sound art.
In principle of course, there's no reason sonic art couldn't work. On the contrary in fact. But as we know now, the meaning of 'art' within the Saatchi-corrupted English bourgeois culture is 'anything that's boring, produces no affects and has no vision whatsoever', so to append the description 'art' to an object or experience is in effect to say, 'abandon all hope of interest all ye who enter here'. Or, more accurately: bring your own libido. The artist cannot be expected to stimulate you. It is your job to clothe the emperor. (Get Craner to deliver his rant on art which claims to 'negotiate ideas of...'; it's absolutely otm.)
So, somewhat unwittingly I found myself in Bruce Nauman's new sound space at Tate Modern last week with Ray (Gnostic Dark Prince of Cold Rationalism, co-organizer of the Noise Theory Noise conferences at Middlesex).
I say sound space advisedly, not just because, as I indicated above, I loathe the term 'installation' but because, for once, here was an art experience that was all to do with space. Unlike the slovenly improv tedium of the sonic art I have previously encountered, which fogs the space with a damp haze of sludgy sonic signal, Nauman's hyper-precise sound orchestration not only used the space, it was the space.
There is no 'art object' in Nauman's Raw Materials: nothing to be mastered, nothing that could be re-viewed. There is only an affective space whose properties change dependent upon the population that moves through it. The sound we, the audience, make operates as the sonic equivalent of a found object: the unpredictable and anomalous signal that interacts with twenty-two recorded voices to produce an unliving sonic collage.
Nauman's schizophony is composed not only of the twenty-two voices (which can be heard very clearly only when you stand exactly opposite the speakers from which they emerge) but of other sounds that are in every sense unplaceable, most notable amongst which was a low moan (is it mechanical or natural? an aircraft drone? the wind?)
It presents you with a good reflexivity as opposed to the boring PoMo bad reflexivity with which we are all now so over-familiar. Instead of the meta-distance from a devoid-of-affect 'work', Nauman's sonicollage gave you a praticontemplation of immanence. As a participant-hearer you find yourself unable to gain any position of transcendence over the soundspace, and only partly because you yourself are a part of it. This is an encounter with acoustic space as described by McLuhan: 360 degrees round, schizophrenically diffuse, predator-ridden and haunted.
If Nauman's show drew out some of the specific semiotic and affective features of sound, the excellent Eyes, Lies and Illusion exhibition just down the
South Bank at the Hayward does something similar for the visual.
As Baudrillard has long complained, it is the hatred for illusion, the impulse to strip away the veils of (re)presentation and confront the unadorned Real, that defines our contemporary 'transaesthetics of banality'. What Badiou calls the 'passion for the real' can be seen in everything produced by the Emin-Lucas-Hirst sensational-borocratic abstract machine, which, with a quaint naivete that is almost admirable, makes a show of disdaining the artificial.
Paradoxically, this only heightens the sense of representationalist pathos surrounding such 'work'. The op art, anamorphs and optical illusions on show at the Hayward do exactly the opposite: draw attention to the representational machines that have produced them.
Once again, there is a good reflexivity, a vertiginous sense of radical immanence much like you encounter at a certain point in most of Philip K Dick's, Burroughs' and Ligotti's most powerful stories. As you contemplate an intricately constructed illusion, you suddenly realise that the world which you are contemplating it from and the ego which is doing the contemplation are themselves illusions in what seems like an infinite series of illusions.