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Compulsively obsessive art & sound

Darren Jorgensen: What I See When I Look At Sound

Matt Gingold, Filament Orkestra, 2014, What I See When I Look At Sound Matt Gingold, Filament Orkestra, 2014, What I See When I Look At Sound
photo Alessandro Bianchetti
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove a group of mad military men are hunkered down in an underground bunker watching missiles fly around the world. As with much of the most paranoid science fiction, this setting was based on fact, in a command centre buried under the mountains of Colorado that is designed to withstand a nuclear hit.

In an exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Kynan Tan has created what looks like a contemporary version of this sort of bunker. We are immersed in darkness among screens animated by mute colours and thin lines. The biggest of these is a large, dual screen projection that flickers into a world map, upon which topographies and population statistics appear and disappear in a fantasy of total visibility.

Kynan Tan, What I See When I Look At Sound Kynan Tan, What I See When I Look At Sound
photo Alessandro Bianchetti
Tan’s is a deep space aesthetic, one enabled by the era of information, while using this data to reimagine the earth. Contour profiles and cameras on aircraft reveal terrain that is both alien and familiar, flattening our experience of the Earth only to render it in four dimensions once more. The installation would look good in a biennale somewhere, as it makes more than a metaphor for the globalisation of information, making us feel as if we are both inside the world and out of it, immersed and abstracted from the planet all at once.

As if to completely reverse the immersive effects of this information bunker the other works in the exhibition rely on more analogue ideas. Cat Hope creates a temple of low frequency out of a dangerous looking pile of bass guitars and dirty amplifiers. The volume knobs and the placement of the guitars is just right to produce a well of bass, its density and texture shifting as we move about the room.

Cat Hope, What I See When I Look At Sound Cat Hope, What I See When I Look At Sound
photo Alessandro Bianchetti
Hope creates a bunker of a different kind from Tan’s, but her piece also resonates strangely with the outside world, as it creates a highly tuned awareness of subsonic and low frequencies. After meditating on Hope’s strings, my ears and body were tuned to find bass wells everywhere, sites where low frequency sounds are trapped as they echo out of air conditioners and other ambient machines.

If Hope creates some kind of 1980s-style cyberpunk temple and ashram of bass, Lyndon Blue’s Altar harks back to a psychedelic era. He places an interactive Theremin in front of a trippy, warped projection so that putting your hand into the instrument’s field distorts old footage of airships exploding and crystals forming in a laboratory. Meanwhile the sound of tape wheezes back and forth, to create something akin to a bad trip watching the History Channel, when the bright colours go muddy at 3am.

The main PICA room is dedicated to two other installations. One by Lauren Brown features headphones that produce no sound, as if to deconstruct the whole exhibition. Brown alludes to sounds by writing a column of word-sounds under ultra-violet light, in a long poem to everyday listening.

The biggest single installation here is a dense and complex arrangement of light bulbs, electrical wires, radios and relays that runs as precisely as a toy train set. In Matthew Gingold’s Filament Orkestra bulbs switch on and off in different orders, triggered by sensors that are then hooked up to speakers that also hang from the ceiling.

With the passion of a technically gifted child, Gingold can play his instrument with an intuitive sense of how his abstract grid of light can be turned into a machine of beauty. His contraption is obsessive and strange, a steampunk factory designed to solve obscure riddles. Like a template for something greater than itself, Filament Orkestra looks like an experimental model that has yet to betray its true purpose.

Lyndon Blue, Altar, What I See When I Look At Sound Lyndon Blue, Altar, What I See When I Look At Sound
photo Alessandro Bianchetti
There is a sense of occasion around this exhibition, that marks a coming of age for a couple of Perth artists, Lyndon Blue and Kynan Tan, who have long been lingering in local universities. Blue is a local polymath who plays everything from big band jazz to neo-folk and krautrock, while Tan has been creating impressive experimental sound pieces for some time.

This exhibition proves Blue and Tan can work with bigger installation spaces, while Hope used the occasion to announce she is folding her improvisational bass project Abe Sada to play more with the compositionally focused Bass Orchestra. A book launched at PICA, titled The End of Abe Sada (PICA Press, 2014), testifies to this shifting scene of low frequency improvisation.

While all of these artists work with completely different technologies, they are unified by an obsessive interest in their materials. From a set of older machines, such as bass guitars and light bulbs to Tan’s synchronised immersions and Blue’s hypnotic and hallucinatory device, the exhibition is like a poem to bunkers in space and time, illuminating a will to make caves out of wires.

In utopian fiction, there are always two characters. The first is the visionary who inspires others with his ideas about changing the world, while the second is the tinkerer, who will get madly enthusiastic about the details. Each of these installations shifts between the two points of view, as its artists realise some grand idea but only through an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail.

The wires of Gingold’s light bulb system extending to the PICA ceiling, the ridiculous collection of bass guitars and the old school optical distortions of Blue’s psychic projection all testify to the madness of artists at work. They come together because each of them displays a certain eccentricity, an interest in fiddling with things when others would have lost interest.

The evidence—making things work, and showing them off—is something that is often lost when art is taken into bigger galleries. Here the banality of the materials, the evidence of an artist’s madness, pulls this exhibition into a tactile realm. The mediation of sound and vision takes place as we listen to switches and watch the vibration of strings.

What I See When I Look At Sound, curator Leigh Robb, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth, 12 July-31 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 47

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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