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Whitney Pow: Bringing the museum to the computer screen with aural art

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published February 22, 2010

Correction appended: Anya Cobler was misidentified as Anya Cobbler.

On the audio track there is a robotic voice, emotionless, with odd, synthetic turns of phrase that make statements like “My mother has died” into mechanical articulations rather than emotive accounts. In the clip, the voice makes pointed statements that, if read, should evoke human emotion, but in audio something is lost in translation.

“Tyranny is nothing new,” the voice chimes, “It’s going to jump all over your head and cock-a-doodle-doo.” The odd rhymes are reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's poem “Daddy.” The voice, however, intones at the wrong vowels, extending the “ew” in “new” into a strange sloping sound, high to low, sounding closer to a steam whistle than a voice.

The work is titled “Repugnant Josephson's Chocolate” by Cecil Touchon, published on Textsound.org, an online audio publication. Without the auditory element of the work, one would lose the disturbing mechanical quality of lines like “looking at a picture of a dead six-year-old” and “children who blow themselves up.” The sound performance adds crucial elements to this piece that are not necessarily palpable in reading the words themselves without the element of performance inherent in it.

The audio recording is a somewhat overlooked medium in which to work and perform. Many of these recorded pieces are presented to the public in audio installations in galleries and museums, which, while being great venues for this kind of art, have a limited audience based on museum space and location. The audio works, however, have recently found more accessible outlets in online audio publications, such as Textsound.org, an online journal established by at-some-point-Ann-Arbor-based people including Anya Cobler, Adam Fagin, Anna Vitale and Laura Wetherington. Of the group, Cobler and Wetherington are both poets who graduated from the University’s MFA program.

I have had the privilege of working with Textsound, helping to turn the cogs in a local sound-based art journal among the ranks of other online journals that have found something important in the value of performed works of art in digital media. Textsound has produced eight issues of sound works and published pieces by Pulitzer Prize finalist Alice Notley as well as University Professor and sound poet Thylias Moss.

The process of gathering the pieces for publication is a curatorial process, where the online listening spaces in Textsound function similarly to a museum space in how they preserve these works while providing user accessibility to them. Here the definition of “exhibition space” is stretched to incorporate virtual spaces, where accessibility to the works of art is of primary importance. This all brings into question what an “exhibit space” is and how it functions as more and more works of art become digitized and available for viewing or listening online.

In blurring the line between online exhibit spaces and physical exhibit spaces, publications like Textsound also blur and meld the link between poetry and sound and performance art. The primary point of interest is not necessarily the words or sounds each by themselves, but the way, when put together, both complement one another.

For example, Professor Thylias Moss’s piece “EnterRuptedSums” in Issue 2 is presented in two versions. The first is a spoken version with heavy reverb and a droning, zombie-like cadence as the artist performs the lines aloud: “Let one offend / This one defend.” The second version, however, begins with an energetic percussive beat and catchy synthesizer notes. When the voice enters the recording, there is a more singsong performance of the lines and a jazzy refrain of “A line forms” sung behind them.

The words themselves have not changed between the two recordings, but the experience and effect of the words change with the manner in which they are performed — the spoken version is almost chant-like, imbuing a sense of foreboding and isolation into the lines. The music-accompanied version, however, instills the piece with a kind of rhythmic, pulsing undertone, making the words seem lighthearted in how the music tones predominantly tie the piece together. The idea of performance affecting how we experience words brings to mind theater and how the way words are intoned and presented can change how we experience certain lines themselves — the sentence “Where were you” can become a question with a rise in tone to the end of the phrase or turn accusatory with emphasis on “were” and no tonal change.

Many of these performance pieces play with sound and how it affects the way we perceive and understand language itself. And similarly, audio journals like Textsound affect the way we perceive exhibition space and how art should or could be presented to the public. Publications such as these use technology to play with and deconstruct the lines we see drawn between “separate” genres and spaces — virtual space versus physical space as well as written word versus performance art.

Digital spaces in particular allow us to re-think definitions of what something is and how this definition can be stretched to better fit the accessibility of the Internet and the collaborative nature of digital sound. As we investigate the meaning of how digital mediums can imbue works of art and works of poetry, we can see how journals like Textsound are moving forward, utilizing contemporary mediums as jumping points for reinvestigating traditionally analog forms of expression.


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