Sound Art in the Age of Necessary Listening
By Miranda Lash, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Art & Sound
“We are listening,” was a refrain that sounded from nearly all quarters of American commerce during the summer of 2020. Across the United States, for-profit and non-profit institutions alike pledged to listen harder, learn more, and become more sensitive to the causes and effects of systemic racism. In the wake of still more Black lives lost to violence at the hands of law enforcement and the wave of protests and advocacy from the Black Lives Matter movement, institutions in the art world and beyond were forced to reckon with the fallibility of their organizational structures, and their own roles in perpetuating racist ideologies. Perhaps for the first time in the museum field since its inception, there was an industry-wide display of humility. Institutions both large and small acknowledged that the existing frameworks needed to change, and that listening was perhaps one of the most important tasks ahead in their path towards improvement.
At present it is an open question whether these pledges from institutions will lead to substantive or lasting change. In the meantime, I find it interesting to consider what this sweeping acknowledgement of the role of listening means for a field of art whose existence pivots on being heard. What could expansive listening mean for the future of sound art? For years I have loved engaging with works of sound art because they have heightened my perception of sounds that are beautiful, layered, complex, and at times challenging and strange. Now I am asking if this medium has (or has had?) the ability to also fire the synapses in our brain that make us more empathic, more receptive, and more willing to change to accommodate the needs of others. In the Tilt West roundtable discussion, it was expressed that “listening requires one to give of oneself.” This definition shifts the act of listening from a passive act (albeit one which requires perceptiveness) to one which demands that after hearing something we cannot remain the same.
Generally speaking, the type of listening demanded by movements such as Black Lives Matter is not about the literal perception of sounds. It focuses rather on the decentralizing of authority, the recognition of BIPOC voices, and the inclusion of those voices in decision-making spaces as ways of ending the deleterious effects of racism. In this context, listening has to do with the absorption of speech and ideas, and it does not end with perception but with action. Listening is not the end game but, rather, a means to an end. For this change to happen, institutions have to become more porous and less didactic. This ties in with what roundtable prompter Nathan Hall posits as a possible future for sound art: that it may become not only about putting sound into the world but also about eliciting a two-way dialogue. Tilt West host Bianca Mikahn linked this approach to the Black lineage of “call and response;” an action is not complete until it receives a response.
If sound art is now securely accepted within the canon of art history, then arguably it bears scrutinizing which stories are being told and whose sounds are being heard. Two examples of artworks that advance the sounds of under recognized voices are Tania Candiani’s Pulso and Postcommodity’s The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking. In 2016 Tania Candiani orchestrated the performance Pulso (Spanish for “Pulse”) in the subway system of Mexico City. This one-day performance comprised of 195 women playing pre-Hispanic drums in the tunnels, stairways, and corridors of the Metro, filling the spaces with indigenous-inspired percussive beats. The project centered on the artist asking, “What is the pulse of Mexico City today, and is it possible to recover the ancient pulse of an old Aztec city?” Employing instruments traditionally played only by men, the artwork addresses the role of women in society. In 2017, the indigenous art collective Postcommodity created The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking, which was broadcast into ancient grounds of Aristotle’s Lyceum of Athens, Greece as part of Documenta 14. This “hyperdirectional opera” encompassing oral stories and recorded vocals told by migrants based in North America, Syria, and the Middle East was projected from two Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADs. Acknowledging the ongoing tragedies associated with mass migrations globally, Postcommodity artist Raven Chacon explained, “In this work, we are also considering examples of forced migration in North America, like The Trail of Tears when the Cherokee Nation were forced from their lands and relocated to Oklahoma, and The Long Walk, the deportation of the Navajo people.” In this context, LRADs, which are devices often used by the military or police to disperse crowds, have been reconstituted into instruments for teaching. They ask us to listen to voices that have historically gone unnoticed.
Words can do harm, and so can the feeling of being unheard. During our discussion on deep listening Mikahn shared: “Deep listening is the most important thing in my world, because I am often very unheard. Extremely, egregiously unheard.” With this in mind, how can we tilt sound art towards listening so that it is not solely focused on the creation of sound? The term “deep listening,” as Nathan Hall acknowledged, comes from queer sound artist and pioneer composer Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros has defined deep listening as a practice of radical attentiveness, where listening is an inherently empathetic act, requiring receptivity to the intentions of others and the natural world. Currently, with the advent of multi-million-dollar NFTs, resistance to digitally-based artworks is rapidly evaporating, and my hope is that this will have positive ramifications for the lives and livelihoods of sound artists. The next challenge for sound art, after overcoming the intangibility of its medium, is perhaps exploring the elusive nature of listening, an invisible process that occurs in the mind both individually and collectively. How do we encourage listening? How do we know if it has happened? And how do ensure that others feel heard? Sound has always been about reciprocity. The frontier is arguably about our ability to process a more diverse range of sounds, hold them in our minds, and integrate their implications into our daily lives.
Miranda Lash is the Ellen Bruss Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and a board member for the Joan Mitchell Foundation. As Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum from 2014 to 2020, Lash orchestrated the museum’s installation of its first galleries exclusively dedicated to contemporary art in its new North Building and curated exhibitions including Yinka Shonibare CBE: The American Library; Keltie Ferris: *O*P*E*N*; BRUCE CONNER: FOREVER AND EVER; and Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art. From 2008 to 2014, Lash was the founding curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. There she curated over twenty exhibitions, including the large-scale traveling retrospective exhibition Mel Chin: Rematch and the exhibitions Rashaad Newsome: King of Arms; Camille Henrot: Cities of Ys; Swoon: Thalassa; Wayne Gonzales: Light to Dark, Dark to Light; and Parallel Universe: Quintron and Miss Pussycat Live at City Park. From 2017 to 2018 Lash was a member of the Artistic Director’s Council for the international triennial Prospect.4 in New Orleans. Lash has been a Clark Fellow at the Clark Art Institute, a consultant for Creative Capital, and a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.