Paper for Sound as Art conference, 21-24 November 2006, Aberdeen,

I am not a Sound Artist; an exploration of sound as concept and the fear of visual definition


‘I am not a sound artist’, this part of the title reflects on an exclamation made by an artist I recently met to discuss a possible contribution to a forthcoming show that presents sound-work. It reflects her horror of being identified, categorised even, within the spectre of sound art. I felt hers was a very interesting fear, complex and hiding many reasons why artists work with sound, and increasingly so, but at the same time avoid the sightless identification this might give them.

Her reaction made me think about the status of sound in a sound-artist’s work. It introduces the question to what degree the sound of a sound-work remains sonic, if there is indeed the possibility to evaluate and hear sound as an autonomous phenomenon, not in the service of or sublimated to a visual object or event; separate from its role of support for other disciplines. Or whether any sound art is art with a bit of sound, but essentially it is art and hence fits into the ideologies and criticalities of visual art’s discourse, or in the musical discourse, which for its meaning and valuation relies heavily on the understanding of the visual score, the Notenbild, and hence it too brings sound back to a visual identification. This identification enables meaning and aesthetic judgment but in turn restricts the process of listening to a visual idea of what can be heard.

In his 1975 essay ‘Aural Objects’, originally titled ‘le perçu et le nommé’ (‘the perceived and the named’, my translation), the film theorist Christian Metz discusses the idea of a preference for the visible and tactile, determining the comprehension of the world through the substantial. He identifies vision and touch as primary senses above smell and sound, which are thus qualified as secondary and attributal.(1) He locates this valuation within a notion of stability and ephemerality of image and sound respectively and subsequently articulates the source and consequence of such a prejudice for the production and theorisation of sound on a cultural and ideological level, locating it in the subject-predicate structure of Indo-European languages where the noun determines the gender and case of the predicate, dictating the terms of perception and valuation of the sonic and the olfactory. Metz states that it is in language that sound gets rehabilitated into the visual order, where it takes primary role but in doing so relinquishes its aural quality.

For the purpose of this paper I would like to consider two particular strategies for the production of sound work and study the challenges they pose to perception given that the mode of debating such perception, language, according to Metz is intrinsically substance bound, visual and tactile. This paper will aim to produce one passing articulation of these two ways of working with sound and consider their consequences for the understanding and valuation of art, sonic and otherwise. I say passing, since to categorise sound work immediately contradicts the idea of sound as an autonomous phenomenon, ephemeral, timebased and fluid; not simply to be considered in relation to a visual category - language.

When Metz talks about how language reflects our preference for the visual - we are buying jumpers, in orange or green, but they are jumpers, rather than orange and green in the shape of jumpers - it becomes apparent that the tautology of establishing a critique of a visual use of sound within language might just lap its own thought. I feel it is nevertheless important to try. The articulation might lie in this process of trying rather than in what is said.

In this sense, what is written here, is significant only in that it is a concept, one passing concept among many as to how to deal with sound and how it should be heard or not.  I do not know (yet) how to speak about green or orange beyond their predicated position.

Site specific sound installations

Of the two uses of sound as art I have spoken about earlier, one is the site specific sound installation. Installing sound to resonate spaces, to enter into conversation with their architectural parameters, their visual identification and everyday use, extolling their histories and expanding present functions. Such sound work evokes Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’ (1964). The nooks and crannies of a dark abandoned house are opened by sound; memories and narratives replayed and invented. Sound re-invests and invents meaning and functions of spaces. The listener visiting such installations is made to inhabit the visual space through a sonic insistence. In this sense installed sound, playing at us from loudspeakers hidden in corners or openly displayed, produced by our presence, or present without us, brings to perception, and makes collectively available the personal poetics Bachelard is excavating from his old family home.

The processes of such installations are fascinating. The relationship between the stasis of visual architecture and sound’s attempts to stretch it, bring it into time, produces visual contortions: visual spaces are expanded, invented and denied. Site specific sound installations produce real ‘timespace’, a timespace without a separating dash between time and space, that overcomes or never enters rather, the dialectical relationship between time and space, in a spatiality that knows it is articulated through the temporal movement of sound, and a temporality that knows it is such spatial motions.

Site specific sound installations produce new visualisations of spaces, render them immersive and inhabitable; they connect spaces and bring to perception invisible links and ideologies of separation. They are a potent way of interfering with the everyday,  its invisible routines and repetitive trajectories, making them ‘senseable’ in the sense of available for sensory contemplation.

One recent example is Bill Fontana’s piece Harmonic Bridge (2) produced for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which was installed there between the 16th June and the 28th August this year.

The Tate’s website describes the piece in the following way:

His [Fonatana’s] intriguing sound installation reveals the myriad of noises hidden within the Millennium Bridge. A network of vibration sensors have been placed within the bridge turning it into a vast stringed instrument which plays an ever-changing musical composition based on it's [sic] surrounding environment.

The noise created by pedestrians passing overhead, the wind, bicycles and the architectural elements which make up the bridge have been transformed into a sound installation which can be heard simultaneously in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and also at Southwark Underground station.  


The website features a drawn diagram of the bridge, photographic images of the recording technology (accelerometer microphones) installed on its steel-cable construction, as well as an image from the St Paul’s end of the bridge over the river onto the Tate Modern, and allows you to listen to a couple of recordings via mp3 files. Also, if you have broadband, you can download an interactive vibration-sensor-map. 

Fontana used sound to make the bridge visible beyond what we see. He renders the bridge a timespace phenomenon, bestowing on it a sonic visibility. The bridge ceases to exist as a spatial phenomenon and becomes a perpetually moving event. (Apt then that he should have chosen what was known as the wobbly bridge. Who knows, maybe the initially unsteady character of the bridge inspired the installation.)

What is intriguing, beyond liking or disliking the sounds in a very immediate way is the concept, the processes engaged with by Fontana and my imagination thereof. I believe this installation is neither about the bridge, nor about the Turbine Hall or the Tate Modern, it is not about Southwark Underground station and neither is it about the sounds produced, but it is about the process of inventing a space between those sites encompassing them all as temporal phenomena. It is a space made up of the time of the motion of the bridge, the time of its recording, the time of my listening, the time at the Underground station. Fontana is making visible paths and connections not through the resulting sonic composition itself but through the realisation and connecting of these spaces via the temporality of a conceptual sound.

And since these connections are not visible but only visualised, in to this visualisation slips the personal, the inhabiting, the imagining ‘I’ of the spectator as listener. The ‘I’, who perceives the remnants of the production process through its documentation and sound, re-invigorates the connections, re-builds the space, anew and different again and again as a contingent timespace of his/her imagination.

The work then is its concept, realised in my contingent experience of it.

I was intrigued by the way Fontana used sound to produce a complex net of connecting sites, aesthetic plains and hidden ideologies. And I would argue that this complexity and timespatiality can only be achieved via sound. But that is sound understood not simply as a materiality but as a sensibility: a way of approaching the world and producing knowledge about this world. Fontana achieves a sonic sensibility a sonic knowledge about the bridge and its materiality, its environs, and their association, that is not reached through visual expectations but only generated in a sonic visuality. What I mean is a seeing not supplemented or aided by sound, nor ignoring the distraction sound can bring to the visual, but a seeing that is informed and produced by the sensibility of timespace, of interaction and insistence; through the knowledge of process, change, and interconnectivity, through all the traits, in other words, of a sonic appreciation. 

Fontana’s sound installation gave me the demanding satisfaction of seeing the whole. He showed us a space, complex and invisible, visualised clearly through sound, clearer than could have ever been achieved by images. His site specific sound installation produced an ‘über-vision’: creating a view beyond the visual. It produced a Gesamtkunstwerk, connecting pieces to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts: the bridge, its steel cables, the turbine hall, its speakers, the tube station, the way to the Tate Modern; myself inhabiting this timespace and moving along its trajectories. However, this is not a totalising vision, but a blind vision, generating its own view, embedding itself within the bridge and within my own imagination.

The Harmonic Bridge achieves what Michel Chion terms a ‘clump of sensation’ (1994, p112). Chion assigns sound the task not to simply and directly transpose a visual reality, but in fact to render the visual image real and believable beyond the visual perception, as a holistic sensational experience. Sound does not translate one order of sensation into another. Rather, in Chion’s terms, what is rendered is a ‘clump of sensation’: the weight, the feel, the speed, the materiality, the process, etc. all sorts of experiential information is produced by the sound. What Chion talks about is the believable rendering of a body falling out of a tower block onto the bonnet of a parked car. The image of the body will not make us feel, it will only make us see, it is the sound that is given the task to render the weight of the body, the impact on the car and the materiality of the bonnet. Of course the Millennium Bridge is visible, the Tate Modern and Southwark tube station are visible, but the connections and repeated trajectories are invisible, rendered perceptible in the conceptualisation of the work’s sonic processes: Fontana’s engagement with the bridge via a sonic sensibility, and my inhabiting of the sonic timespace produced. It is in this case not the sound of the recordings made, but the sonic sensibility of the connections made via the recordings that produce the clump.

A sonic sensibility for New Media Art

Equally, it is not sound as a discreet element, but sound as such a ‘clump of sensibility’, making thinkable complex connections and trajectories as well as inviting their interactive realisation through a contingent inhabiting, that is useful for the creation of a discourse on New Media Art. New Media Art often refuses a conventional visual aesthetics. The pieces are too fragmented, their materiality too heterogeneous, the role of the perceiving subject too involved and fuzzy to allow for a conventional reading and valuation.

Wandering around the rooms at Karlsruhe’s Zentrum für Kunst und Medien (ZKM, Centre for Art and Media) I am struggling to make sense of the work around me. The work is multifaceted, loud and silent, involving plants and paint, lampshades and oven gloves, dentist-chairs and buttons, screens and sculptures in equal measures.  It seemingly invites me in to participate and leaves me outside its alien world. Desperately clinging to known formats and their theoretical discourses, I tend to either ignore complex features of a given work that refuse such identification, or imagine an Expo-like, semi-educational context to achieve a satisfactory understanding of the work, focusing on their interactive features as devices for learning.

Maybe there are curatorial problems that cause me to escape the real experience of the work and force on me a conventional comparison. The Museum, as for Sound Art, might not be the best place for complex interactive and immersive installations. But beside this issue of protocol and habit, it is trying to adapt a visual aesthetic discourse to a practice that seems too complex for vision, that I believe hinders the appropriate perception and valuation of New Media Art.

Having detailed the complexity of Fontana’s piece and located its criticality in a sonic sensibility, I believe that such a sonic knowledge offers strategies for the perception and new starting points for the critical discourse of New Media Art. 

The Legible City a work created by Jeffrey Shaw between 1988 and 91 is one example of my bafflement at the complexity of it all.  (

The text to this piece, printed in Media Art History, a publication by the ZKM, reads:

A bicycle with a small monitor on the handlebars is mounted in front of a big project screen. When the observer pedals, a projection is activated and he can move through three different, simulated representations of cities (Manhattan, Amsterdam, and Karlsruhe). The architectural landscape of the streets is formed by letters and texts. Ground plans of the city can be selected and read on the small monitor. The observer determines the speed and direction of travel. His location is marked by a point on the map. (1997, p149)

I can cycle through three different cities, deeper and deeper into their architecture, manifest by big looming letters, replacing urban architecture with fictional stories, standing in for them in size and shape, and building the city from the notes in its archive respectively. This information I admit I gain from the catalogue rather than the piece. And in this sense the work, as Fontana’s Harmonic Bridge, is not its immediate self, is not what I see, but is the invisible links made and the trajectories projected.

It is not about the bicycle or the letters looming large in front of me, letting me through and drawing me into an urban science-fiction landscape that I build and navigate at the same time. It is not about the screen, a known protagonist in installation art, nor the monitor, another familiar face. It is about invisible relationships, the relationships of the bicycle to the Museum, to the effort of my own tautological cycling, perpetually moving more to move more. It links this space to outside spaces, to real motion, to the city as concept, as a sonic city understood in Michel deCerteau’s terms as created by the ‘Wandersmänner’ ‘down below’, ‘whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it.’ (1988, p93) DeCerteau’s city on the ground level is created by these blind practitioners, who by association hear rather than see its text, ‘make use of space that cannot be seen’ and produce it as a timespace phenomenon. (Ibid.)

It is the sonic mode articulated via Fontana’s bridge and clarified via deCerteau’s city of the practitioner, that helps me understand and steer myself through the work’s complex and initially mystifying aesthetic.

Manhattan, Amsterdam and Karlsruhe become sonic cities in the sense that they are produced through my immersed inhabiting, I conceptually and actually, muscularly, produce what I experience. My sensory-motor gestures towards the computer programme, my cycling, produce a timespace and me reciprocally within it. This complexity is not visual, but sonic, rendering available to experience invisible parameters of the work, of myself, of the Museum and even of the bicycle, and linking them all in one experiential ‘thing’ that is bigger, in the sense of more complex, than the sum of its parts, but not totalised in a visual perception. Rather, this complexity is generated in its own continual practice.

I am unable to remember whether the work had an actual soundtrack or not. However, the whole piece, realised as it is in my sonic engagement as a sensate clump of a place in time, makes this question irrelevant.

Fontana’s actual sound

Fontana’s piece had an actual sound. However when you hear the sound of Harmonic Bridge, and do not know the process of production and the conceptual timespace involved, it is another piece altogether. Then it is about you listening to curious and familiar sounds in the impressive environment of the Turbine Hall, connecting them vaguely to that scale, history and present use. It is a simpler listening, not ungainly, but certainly simpler, not spatial so much as anecdotal and definitely smaller.

I like the work as concept, when it opens in my head the idea of a conversation between the recording processes, the walked trajectories, the architectural sites and the listening engagement, where the real sound becomes the sound of the imagined work. The sounds themselves are but the outline or the trigger for this imagination. The sounds are not banal as some sounds of site specific sound installations can be, overburdened possibly by the complexity of a sonic sensibility, they fail to sound. But they are in a sense a by-product, unable to carry their own knowledge themselves.

I did not walk across the bridge afterwards and did not go to the Tube station either; I was there by car. If I had, I would possibly have heard more. What was exciting was the idea, was the work as process and was my involved imagination of that process triggered by a conceptual sonority.

The second type of sound work

The second type of sound work mentioned in the beginning of this paper might not be available for discussion at all since it does not exist as a collectively accessible phenomenon. It too is a concept but one that is not realised in conceptualisation but in the practice of the material. It is the green and the orange on its own, it is the sound as sound, not creating visualisations or making visible invisible connections and ideologies but as an autonomous phenomenon.

This is the sound of Kristeva’s fourth signifying practice, which escapes the collective meaning making process, refuses to signify, but remains forever signifying.

Kristeva’s text, like our sound, is distinct from her other three signifying practices, which all end in a collective sense making process, since the ‘real [visual] object is never posited as lost’ (1984, p99) and hence cannot be replaced by language understood as proposing shared meaning. It is sound producing a ‘trial of sense’ rather than exposing a lack of visuality. This sound work produces ‘an endless mobility’, positing elements and reactivating them in ever-new ‘knots of interdependence’ (ibid. p99).(3) The ‘infinite-indefinite sense’ that is produced in this ‘trial of sense’ is wholly contingent and local to my own perceptual process.  (1984, p99 ff)

This sound is a contingent practice, a doing of sound rather than a sonic knowledge. To write about its experience would mean, following Metz, to rehabilitate it into the visual order of language and loosing its own resonance, so lets not.

But it is probably this notion of truly autonomous sound, that makes the artist I mentioned in the beginning of this paper so afraid to be called a sound artist, since how can her work be known, attain a criticality and exposure if it cannot be seen in writing.


1.In this essay Metz correlates this hierarchical order with a capitalist orientation in the West. He talks about a ‘primitive substantialism’, which according to him, reflects the Western philosophical tradition since Descartes and Spinoza. This tradition, to him, is apparent in the subject-predicate structure particular to Indo-European languages, where the noun of the sentence orientates and determines the predicate, which is thus sublimated to this noun. He identifies the visual as the stable and primary, the noun, whilst the sonic is its changing attribute. Metz argues this hierarchy with regard to its construction and consequence for the production and theorisation of film-making. I understand the original title of this essay, ‘le perçu et le nommé’, to foreground the distinction between a semiotic account and an experiential engagement. I argue that the differentiation between ‘the perceived’ and ‘the named’ clearly marks out a distinction between a culturally coded, named, understanding of the (visual) object as sign, and a contingent production of the (sonic) thing in a perceptual process.

2. This title reflects, deliberately or not, on an earlier installation by the same name, produced by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger in North Adams, Massachusetts. This permanent installation, running since 1998 is described on their website in the following paragraph:

Traffic passing on Highway 2 overpass activates harmonic series in two 16 foot "C" tuning tubes affixed to the bridge. The resulting harmonic stereo field is installed in the reclaimed gothic acoustic space beneath, emanating from two "Cube" loudspeakers designed by O+A.


3. According to Kristeva, this ‘endless mobility’ is not a deconstructive, post-structural, motion of endless deferral. Rather, in marked distinction to deconstruction, which always still produces consensual sense, objectivity, even if this sense is temporal and contingent, the text’s endless mobility does not engage in consensual meaning but produces singular sense processes.


Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas, (Beacon Press: Boston 1964, [orig.1958])

Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen Audio- translated by Claudia Gorbman, (Columbia University Press: New York, 1994, [orig. 1990])

DeCerteau, Michel, The Practice of the Everyday, translated by Steven Rendall (University of California

Press: London,1988, [orig. 1984])

Metz, Christian, ‘The Passion for Perceiving’, in Film Theory and Criticism, 4th Edition, Mast, Cohen and Braudy eds., (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1992, [orig. from ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, in Screen vol. 16, no. 2])

Kristeva, Julia, Revolution in Poetic Language, translated by Margaret Waller with an introduction by Leon S. Roudiez, (Columbia University Press:  New York, 1984, [orig.1974])

Picht, Rebecca and Birgit Stöckmann eds, Media Art History, (Prestel, Munich: 1997)

Websites accessed 28.10.06 accessed 28.10.06