Paper given at 7th Symposium for Systems Research in the Arts, Baden-Baden, Germany, August, 2005, and published in proceedings (ISBN – 1894613457)

Doing Stuff with Sound

Abstract: This presentation proposes to query the identification of a particular term Klangkunst in relation to the diversity of current practices with sound. I will be arguing for the recognition of Sound Art beyond the definition of this terminology. Maybe paradoxically proposing that the further development of Sound Art lies not in a categorising off of its practice in a particular description, but by throwing itself into the fray of activity: doing stuff with sound. In contrast to this I position a German preoccupation with the term Klangkunst to define a very local and particular practice, and consequently aim to present how sound, rather than fitting into this particular practice, necessarily implodes the description and works in various contexts. In other words I am proposing Sound Art as a strategy, as a sensibility rather than an actual and essentialist material production, motivated by the desire to challenge a substantial aesthetic. At the centre of this understanding I position the notion of discourse as an ideological framework that guarantees professional autonomy without however fixing work into one category of production. I will be presenting my own works and practical strategies, to illustrate and debate my ideas.

In response to the subject of this conference, my paper seeks to investigate the status and purpose of systems for the production, identification and valuation of sound art. The title of my paper ‘doing stuff with sound’ suggests, at least initially, a rather unsystematic approach of simply going ahead and doing whatever with sonic material. In the course of this presentation I want to find out whether such an all encompassing approach really aids artistic production and its perception, or whether a more systemic articulation makes for more challenging work.

To stage this argument I will articulate the motivation and concerns of my own practice and theoretical writings in relation to ‘doing stuff with sound’. The starting point for this paper is a recent realisation that there exist different interpretations of what the term Sound Art/Klangkunst encompasses and how these practices should be contextualised, developed and evaluated. In particular I became acutely aware of such different interpretations at a meeting termed ‘Listening Out’, which was part of the Berlin Transmediale earlier this year. To remain anecdotal for now, at this meeting were younger artists and curators from the Spanish and English speaking world as well as a more established generation of German sound artists and curators. It became very quickly clear that we did not speak the same language and that Sound Art and Klangkunst, which after all are literal translations of each other, did not in fact translate. While the, lets call it, international and less established contingent, had a variety of views and examples of what could be presented and considered under the term sound art, the German view was very clear and focused on a particular genre and tradition.

Their interest in defining such a clear territory was no doubt a professional concern to protect and validate sound work within recognisable conventions and systems, producing an autonomous artistic expression with its own canon, and thus protecting their own professional status.(1) Their chief interest seemed to be to make sound work visible and lasting, collectable and commodifiable, despite and even against sound’s obvious temporality and transcient nature. By contrast, exactly this transcience and consequently the pliability of sonic material and the potential heterogeneity of its expressions was the interest articulated by the less established participants at the meeting. As ‘newcomers’ the work and ideas presented by these artists and curators had a different intention. It was not that of keeping a system in place and cementing it, but of muscling in on the act, of finding one’s own voice and producing work different from that gone before, challenging its conventions. However, the diversity of their practices and conceptualisations seemed unacceptable to the curators present who declared their work not to be suitable for the framework of Klangkunst. Consequently a line was drawn between Klangkuenstlern and Sound Artists. From this disagreement very lively and I believe necessary and fertile discussions ensued and no consensus was found.

Whilst I understand the curators and collectors interest in achieving a substantial value for a sonic piece of work, as an artist who does ‘stuff with sound’ in a very broad sense, the enthusiasm to categorise sonic expressions into one particular term - Klangkunst - with its very clear definition, examples and canonical history, however young, seems to suppress some of the key critical motivators that inspire artists to work with sound in the first place.

To articulate these motivators I am taking my cue from Christian Metz’ 1975 essay on ‘Aural Objects’ or its more pertinent French title ‘le perçu et le nommé’ (the named and the perceived), in which he articulates our preference for the visual as the insurer of cultural permanence. And of course the aspiration for canonisation is the aspiration for cultural permanence. Through the fixation on the noun, the substantial, the sonic expression escapes the doubt of the temporal and assumes a position of a quasi-spatial certainty. In relation to Metz’ thesis, sound is a radical medium that has the potential to challenge the visual certainty through a temporal invisibility. Its uncertainty however, is also the reason for its prompt sublimation into a visual language in which it attains the role of the attribute explaining and expanding on the visual object but never allowed its temporal and heterogeneous expression.

And this temporal uncertainty is for me the challenge sound poses, or can pose, to a visual, a substantial aesthetic, and where a critique of ideological interests linked to this need for substantiality can be produced. Bound up with such an ideological critique are issues of subjectivity, perception and interactivity, in relation to which sound work can forge new sensibilities and artistic realities.(2)

In an ideological sense there is a paradox between the potential of sound to challenge given (visual) systems, conventions and values of interpretation and the apparent need, embodied in the term Klangkunst, and bandied about by its supporters, to define and settle the critical uncertainty of sound in one certain expression, which appears to be more visual than sonic. This interest to me embodies a modernist aesthetic with its investment in clear rules as to what is good art in respect to clearly typified and categorised manifestations.

By contrast, my interest in ‘doing stuff with sound’ is one of playing with the invisibility of sound which demands an interaction of the subject and questions a visual, a substantial reality and its concurrent ideological interests.  In other words it proposes a more post-modern engagement with sound that is aware of its continuing re-evaluation and fluidity.(3)

This motivation is apparent in my own work of which I played at this point one recent example: Wedding Night (coniferous woodland early spring) stereo sound, 3.30 min.

This piece was commissioned by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art last year (2004). It was initially staged as an actual performance in a woodland, where I repeatedly called out ‘I love you’. This actual life event was then edited and re-staged in post-production where the environmental sounds were augmented and manipulated, and the time of the performance was cut to 3.30 minutes to mimic the length of a pop song. 

The occasion was very interesting in that the Institute of Modern Art was not yet built, hence there was no Architectural Context for a show. However the curators, the administrators, etc. were all in place and wanted to get on with the job of organising exhibitions even without that physical context in place. Their idea was to commission sonic works that would then be broadcast over the airwaves from the location where the gallery would come to be built. Sonically defining its outline and making it a concrete place, even if in time rather than in space. At the same time, the invisible sound works produced for the occasion were lent a physical dimension and a place through the planed visual space, backing them up as an ideological space, that had the strength of location through its planning permission, name, funding bodies, etc.

In my own work I wanted to use the stability of this ideological space to produce a performative piece that plays with the sound artwork’s transcient nature and its dependency on a complicit audience. In a paradoxical way the assumed authority of the host institution, its ideological substantiality, made the sonic performance audible without encasing it within institutional walls, and in this sense allowed it to remain contingent, non-totalised, and wholly perceptual.

The suggestion is that sound work challenges our ability to summarise, to make a totalised aesthetic reading of a work. Had the Institute of Modern Art, as an architectural space, been in place at this moment, I believe, the sonic interactions would have challenged its visual parameters anyway. But architecture’s emphasis on structure and repetition might have suppressed its fluency and might have subordinated the temporal perception to a spatial orientation.  We might have come to hear the space of its reproduction rather than the moment of its perception.

Sound as sound is demanding, it takes the time it plays rather than the time I take to listen, and it creates a sonic ‘timespace’(4) rather then mimicking a visual location. It extends the space of visuality beyond hearing into what Michel Chion terms a ‘clump of sensation’, where I as listener feel rather than hear what is being played. Sound does not allow for a critical distance, but penetrates my ears and body. It immerses me in an intensive sensorial attack. In this sense sound is not an inherent materiality as much as a material sensibility.

My desire to work with sound is based on this understanding. I aim to trigger a sensorial engagement rather than produce an intellectual understanding. Sound, or rather a sonic sensibility, affords me the possibility to produce such immersive work. The piece ‘Wedding Night’ demands an interaction of the audience. You are impelled to imagine the goings on in the forest, the staging of the event, beyond a simple visualisation in a more visceral engagement. The listener becomes the generator of the sound work, producing the piece in his/her innovative listening. In my role as artist I want to exploit and play with this quality of sound, to manipulate the imaginary space in time and set off in the audience the production of a complex timespace.

With the term timespace I allude to the idea that in this imagination, time and space and by association sound and image, do not exist in a dialectical relationship, directly opposed to each other, wholly different, and therefore imminently recuperable in a greater whole, the total artwork, as it presents itself to aesthetic theory. Rather, the sonic as a sensibility rather than as materiality is transferable to visual practices and their relationship is one of ‘equal difference’ (5). In this sense, timespace is a momentary composite, produced through a complex working together of diverse elements, in sound and image, perceived with equal value as wholly different. Consequently the perceptual process has to mimic this complexity, and the artwork remains forever just the momentary object of its contingent perception.

Avoiding the dialectical relationship might be futile in the end, as criticism will inevitable bring the work back to a meaning and understanding in the space of language. But, as a strategy for artistic production or audience engagement, rather than as an actual outcome, I think it is nevertheless worthwhile pursuing.

This notion of timespace becomes particularly useful to me in relation to my audio-visual work. In my video work I aim to produce complex relationships between sound and image that challenge visual preferences and totalities, and import a sonic sensibility to the visual component also. I played here an excerpt of a recent video work, to try and present this strategy of working with sound and image in what I would term a timespace-collage: Gallant Boy, 2004, 4.20min, monitor work

Gallant Boy is a short video piece produced in the beginning of 2004. It is an example of this collaging together of audio-visual elements. For Gallant Boy I worked with incidentally shot footage of horses in a park in Wales and planned material of boats on the Serpentine in London. This footage was subsequently embellished with found visuals, digitally manipulated and juxtaposed to a tightly composed soundtrack consisting of a documentary voice-over, environmental sounds, film sounds and musical interludes. This material was brought together so as to produce the idea of a possible event, or indeed an impossible event, rather than the re-presentation of an actual occurrence. The documentary quality of the voice-over, a woman talking about the image of a naked man in a porn magazine, is juxtaposed to the genteel pursuit of boating in the park. The cold and echoing quality of the voice is dried by the pretty and colourful imagery of flowers and boats moving in a gentle and leisurely rhythm. However, my aim was not the crass juxtaposition of an explicit voice-over with the pretty environments of a boating afternoon. Rather what I sought to create is a complex expression produced in the collaging of all elements involved. The nostalgia reverberant in the glass cut voices of the film soundtrack and the comic appeal of the ‘40s film-music was used to alienate the viewer from the actual location, the actual content of the material, and to set off the production of a fictional setting instead.

On the level of the media, sound and image, this complex working together of diverse elements plays with the temporal and spatial aspects of its apparent quality. The sonic is worked so as to spatialise the visual expression and the visual outlines the time of the sonic. The aim is not to produce a linear (narrative) development but to instead generate a static movement: a wobble or quiver on the spot of perception. This material condition describes my interest in holding a time-based artwork in the particularity of a spatial now. This spatial now is not however, the opposite of the material flow, but articulates the continual production of that flow from the contingent location of the viewer as listener.

I believe what a discussion of my work presents is that, in all its enthusiasm to challenge a dialectical opposition between sound and image, and in all its desire for a fluid and participatory artwork, sound art still needs a framework, a system, for its evaluation. These works do not fit into the confines of the term Klangkunst, yet they are made with sound, playing with and challenging the conventions of work done by forerunners in the field.

In relation to this, the idea of just ‘doing stuff with sound’ seems too broad an identification for what I do and what I understand the term sound art to be enabling. The liberal attitude of anything goes as long it sounds, I believe, undoes the critical potential of working with sound in that the work would become incomprehensible and a sure consequence of such a lack of sonic understanding is a prompt sublimation into a visual scheme of reference: the Notenbild, the photographic documentation, the visual language of its description, etc. Consequently sound art would loose its autonomy and hence its potential to address any aesthetic or ideological issues.

In this sense the paradox addressed at the beginning of this paper, between the motivation to work with sound in order to question and challenge a substantial, a quasi visual aesthetic, and the collectors need for a systemic identification of sound work, remains pertinent. However, I still do not think that the solution is a rigid professional determination such as is proposed under the term Klangkunst.

Instead of it being solidified within one term, supporting an objective, substantial idea of the object of Klangkunst, I would like to foreground the discourse about sound, and place the rigour there. In other words, the identification and justification of sound art does not lie within one rigid description, but within a continually produced and challenged discourse about what sound art is. Such a continual evaluation and re-articulation does not threaten the canon or the professional autonomy and status of sound art nor that of its practicioners. Rather, current discourse creates and feeds the canon and maintains the currency and status of sound work, thus justifying its professional autonomy and collectability.

My focus lies on the structures of discourse, which have to be fluid, rather than produce a pure solidification of sound into an object. The places of discourse production are heterogeneous, what they all have in common is their loyality towards sound art. In other words what they share is the principle that sound is not used in the service of just anything, but that the focus remains on artistic production. Only that makes it sound art, rather than say soundscape research or a train announcement system.

In this way sound art has more than one framework of justification without floundering in a liberal anything goes. The established artists who furnish the canon are just one facet of what sound art is. There are other participants in the production of the art field, who do not enter the canon but nevertheless have an important part to play in the production of discourse and its evaluation. David Mollin outlines the idea of artists as a footnote to the canon and considers it a good ambition for an artist to be placed in a slightly smaller font but informing the main text. To become a footnote in the great anthologies on 20th and 21st Century art, according to Mollin, describes artistic practice as a process of doing rather than solidifying.

In the same way Julian Stallabrass identifies different ways of being part of artistic discourse by considering artists who work within academia (art schools, art history and visual culture departments), museums and other professional bodies, which fund academics, fellowships, residencies, etc. They are the institutions that maintain the autonomy and ideological function of art. And according to Stallabrass these are sometimes at odds with what achieves success in the market.

Following these two opinions, I believe that rather than investing in the writing of pamphlets and guidelines on the correct, canonical practice of Klangkunst, the emphasis has to be on the heterogeneity of discourse production. In other words the focus has to be on the community of sound artists, academics and curators and their varied but rigorous practices of sound art. This in the end will not only enable the artist to produce focused and current work but will give the collectors and curators an ever developing and renewing field of work to choose from. The constant re-evaluation of what sound art is would not be a threat to an existing canon and its collectors, but is the necessary process to keeping the canon alive and commercially successful and relevant.

In conclusion then I would like to suggest that there is no doubt a need for an articulation of sound art but that this articulation can never be fixed but has to be in flux all the time. The issue is not one of solidifying the object of art into the notion of a quasi-visual Klangkunst. Rather the task is to continually formulate a discourse and places of discourse production that enable the sonic artwork to be ephemeral and temporal whilst at the same time constraint and defined within the temporal solidity of its articulations. It is then not the artwork that is defined but the location of its discourse production, and that is a fluid system not a fixed frame.

One important location for this discourse production are educational institutions which at once define sound art but also allow it to develop in ever new and challenging ways.  In the visual arts it is the BFA and MFA programmes that guarantee the collectability and quality of the product. They are the feeders of the galleries and producers of the material for the canon. Sound art, where it sits at the moment halfway between conservatoire and media art school, accepted by neither, might want to find a more autonomous place for its discourse production in order to achieve this kind of relevance.


1.This understanding of the need for professional distinction is articulated in Stanely Fish’s book Professional Correctness (1999), where he outlines the idea that a profession needs to be distinct and autonomous in order to distinguish itself from other professions to gain and guard its status. However, as I will argue later on, this process of distinction is not a matter of arresting the development of the profession in a fixed category. Rather, according to Fish, it is a matter of discourse and such discourse is not static but is in continual conflict as various groups within the field attempt to consolidate power. The result of this is an idea of an autonomous field that is paradoxically unstable and in flux, and any consolidation of power is therefore contestable within this field. In this paper I query the method of the Klangkunst professionals consolidating their professional status, in relation to Fish’s notion of professional distinction.

2. It is not my intention to fundament a dialectical relationship between sound and image. I understand the preference for the visual not to articulate a preference for what we see but rather for how we look. We look for certainty and the substantial and produce a vocabulary that can achieve this desire.  A sublimation of sound into these terms of visuality will not make us listen but only hear. However, the differentiation is not one between sound and image, as inherent materials, but between different modes of engagement and their ideologies.

For the purpose of developing the argument of this paper, I produce a short-cut around this differentiation, and take it as a given that what I am talking about is a material sensibility rather than an essentialist interpretation. In this sense the sonic sensibility of transience and uncertainty can be equally practiced in the visual. What would need to be  done is to abandon the project of certainty rather than the idea of visuality. It is then not a question of materiality but one of perception and its evaluation, its ideological interests.

3.  In relation to music, understood as the modernist precursor to sound art, it is the score that substantiates and qualifies the work in an à priori. The score visualises and thus spatialises and arrests the individual performance in an ideal temporality. The score is proof of its existence and determines its value. According to Theodor W. Adorno, it is the quasi objective relationship between tones in harmonic intervals in relation to the compositional totality of the work that renders the musical work ideal. The temporal quality of music, which could be seen as its critical edge vis-à-vis spatial art practices, is for Adorno a problem, unless it is compositionally controlled; the temporal sounds fixed in what he terms a Notenbild (the score, an image of notes).

A danger that I observe in much contemporary discourse on Sonic Arts is that the score is simply replaced by a technological manual. The Notenbild is replaced by illustrations of Software processes and Hardware interfaces, the ideology of an à priori objectivism remains in place however. The work is identified within these processes only, and the listening subject too is fixed in relation to this ideal totality. Such a focus on the production processes, as composition, retains Sonic Arts’ discourse within a modernist aesthetic. It avoids a consideration of the experiential status of the work, which would problematise any compositional control, intention, and the unified appreciation of the work.

4. I term this temporal space ‘timespace’, adopting the merger of time and space from Doreen Massey’s use of the term in her essay ‘Power-geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’ (1996) . In her sense time and space are concepts rather than absolutes. They are a matter of perception. Not however in relation to a dominant ideology but in relation to an individual ideology, or what I call a contingent sense of self. In other words there is no clear separation between the fluidity of time and fixed space. Rather, the two interact and produce every spatial moment as a matter of individual perception. I adopt her identification, however, in order to stress the non-dialectical relationship between time and space I remove the dash. Thereby I also seek to highlight the critical equivalence between spatial and temporal processes in sound art.

5. Equal difference implies the idea that both, sound and vision, are equivalently distinct. They are treated as autonomous elements of equal value, used so as to make the artwork more complex rather than to produce a total, consensually readable work for which either expression is compromised.


Adorno, Theodor W., Gesammelte Schriften, (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt an Main, 1970ff)

Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision Sound and Screen, translated by Claudia Gorbman, (Columbia University Press: New York, 1994)

Fish, Stanley, Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (Harvard University Press: US, 1999)

Massey, Doreen, ‘Power-geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’, in Mapping the Futures, local cultures, global change, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson and Lisa Tickner eds, (Routledge: London, 1996, [orig. 1993])

Mollin, David, Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer. 50th Venice Biennale (Alberta Press: London, 2003) co-written by Matthew Arnatt and Peter Fillingham

Stallabrass, Julian, Art Incorporated, the Story of Contemporary Art, (Oxford University Press: UK, 2004)