National Sculpture Factory: Just Listen

Various Venues, Ireland

In April of this year, the National Sculpture Factory proposed a series of events around the ideas and practices of sound art. It took place in numerous venues in Cork and Limerick and went by the name of Just Listen. At the time, I wondered what the exhortation meant, what it implied. Was it instructing, begging, leading or hoping? What had the expected audience done or not done to be told to listen? Had we been bad listeners? Non-listeners now given a chance to rectify our omission? Or had we done well enough to finally be offered the chance to just listen? The title worked performatively, asking the just listener to take it not as a written phrase, but a phrase that had a tone, a tone that was multiple, ambiguous, but whatever tone you heard, it was clearly directed, an injunction of some sort, or what Louis Althusser called ‘interpellation’: the listener was called upon, called to, called at, to be a listener. In just listening, YOU would be a just listener.
Listening is a sign of moral good, it implies attention, openness, and features strongly in the managerialist discourses flooding contemporary culture. It hides in consultation, attentiveness, a will to please that masks a bureaucratisation of power. Who could say listening (e.g. a politician listening to the public in a focus group, consultative process, policy review, interactive new media) is bad?Someday, someone will need to imagine it might not be straightforwardly good to listen. After all, in the economic or political spheres, we would understand that if someone was just listening, they would not be translating that into action. Listening becomes a surrogate for co-operation, and the means becomes the end. So in the realm of sound art, just listening has implications beyond or beneath its good intentions. In sound art, if all we have to do is listen, then all sound art has to do is produce a situation for listening to happen, and all other contexts can drop away, and so can the modernist drive to better experimentation. It will be enough that listening happened.
Listening to sound in art contexts (as opposed to musical settings) has a history, a history which seems to have borne the fruit of acceptance of audible presence: Susan Philips won the most recent Turner prize for her site-specific singing works (although she disingenuously rejects the term sound art for her work); galleries are happy to feature sound art, although they are still nervous of having only sound (so that we could just listen); and funding bodies are happy because sound art can be imagined as an autonomous and new medium, working with new technologies. Traditionally, art galleries discouraged noise, favouring instead thoughtful and therefore quiet viewing. But Duchamp had already changed this with his buzzing Rotoreliefs, the Futurists had tried to inject noise as content and form into their writing and painting, even before we consider Luigi Russolo’s noisy machines, the Intonarumori. But it would be a long way into the twentieth century before just listening would occur in art contexts, and what it needed was silence, a new, challenging silence. John Cage made people listen to a musically framed world with his silent piece 4’33” (1952), but this was very much framed as music, and, at the same time, part of a multi-media art event. Yves Klein performed his Symphonie Monotone for the first time in 1960. A chamber orchestra would play one note for 20 minutes, and then there would be 20 minutes of silence. This intrusion into the gallery space challenged not only music and art as categories, but also the idea of music as accompaniment (as this was played alongside a performance of bodies being painted blue). Cage was getting us to listen better, but in place of music, and Klein was disrupting the operation of gallery art, but neither were completely aiming for just listening. Instead, sound was being introduced into a more synaesthetic idea of art. Far from being the least of senses used in art, it would now be the key in uniting them, and letting the operation of consuming art cross from one sense, one discipline, one training, one experience, to another.
Sound in art has mostly been part of something, and in that way, gradually infiltrated galleries (through video, installation and performance art) from the late 1960s on. Its autonomy came later, and actually sound in art is still rarely self-sufficient. Even works very focussed on ideas of listening will often include components that signal the listening process, or sound reproduction. When it comes in almost pure sound form, such as a range of works to be heard on headphones, it seems to be leaving the world of art to rejoin the listening practices we associate with music. The listening body will always be there too, operating devices, making movements that allow (or hinder) listening. Bruce Nauman used to know this, and as well as his noisy video pieces, he made the intercative installation Acoustic Pressure Piece (Acoustic Corridor) (1971), a thin, seemingly rickety wood passage for the gallery visitor to physically navigate. In his Tate Modern installation, Raw Materials (2004), he took the soundtracks to several of his videos and set them up to play simultaneously, with nothing visual but speakers. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, making the mass public for the venue wander and try to listen while hoping something else was going to pop out, but it showed the wheedling potential of just listening, its mutedness making it a passive-aggressive and shit version of Pipilotti Rist’s video installations embedded in the fabric of buildings.
Let’s assume we have done some listening, where the ‘we’ is the public that consumes art in art spaces and situations. What then? What happens after we have taken time to just listen? The spread of sound art is like a colossal and multiple happening along the lines of Cage’s silent pieces. The practice of listening has alerted this ‘us’ that vision is not the only sense, and, in a paranoid artworld that refuses the tactile element of works to the public, sound stands in for tactility, proximity, immersion. Oddly, once we have just listened, it turns out that just listening can never be that, even while it is happening. And once it has not been happening, we can hear it happening (or not) in the many other multimedia or ‘intermedia’ works that proliferate precisely on the rejection of ‘just’ one thing, operation, sense, practice, over another. To just listen is to realise the impossibility of just such a thing, of arriving at a point where all can be switched off. And that might be something.
Just Listen took place at various venues in Cork and Limerick 15 – 30 April 2011.