Sound Galleries Are Flipping the Equation Between Music and Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the equation between art galleries and music clubs is being flipped.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Everything is up for negotiation, and the protean way people work through what constitutes consensus is sometimes truly a thing of beauty to behold. Which is to say if there was once a time that everyone went to museums for art and smoky clubs for music, is there any reason to not flip the script? Knut Remond doesn’t think so, and via his gallery, Ohrenhoch (roughly translated as “High Ear”), he has declared himself king and is filling museums not so much with music as what he’s calling sound art.
“I wanted people to experience a different relation to sound,” says the 62-year-old Remond from his office in Berlin. Not so much a put-down of smoky clubs and music as background soundtracks for drunken high jinks, but more an understanding of the art gallery experience needing to be both more immediate and more active. With a manifesto premised on “sound activism,” and described in all earnestness as “electronic sonic art,” Remond set about designing a space for sound art, in the same way that traditional galleries are designed and lit as part of the viewing experience.
The problem with musical sounds is usually how promiscuous they are.
Manuel Liebeskind, filmmaker and music producer
Influenced in equal parts by fine art, the Fluxus movement, tape composer Luigi Nono and the pop art of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, Remond is not even close to being alone. Throughout Berlin and beyond, sonic installations are filling gallery spaces with audio-rich environments, most notably Ari Benjamin Meyers’ “Kunsthalle for Music” project in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Michael Wertmüller and Thomas Mahmoud’s “Higgs” installation that was part of the Albert Oehlen exhibition in — of all places — Cleveland.
“The problem with musical sounds is usually how promiscuous they are,” says Manuel Liebeskind, a Berlin filmmaker, music producer and Swiss expat. We hear them on television, in the streets, on our phones, just about everywhere, and so we take them about as seriously as we take air. “Remond recontextualizes how you approach what you hear by putting you in a position where doing nothing but listening is the easiest thing,” Liebeskind says.
The idea behind Ohrenhoch, says Remond, is to “make the sound artists participate actively in the social and political process in context with the visitors,” while focusing on “how the sound takes effect on the urgent questions that society is concerned with.” Sounds that are hidden, and that can move listeners to active thinking and action. To this end, in 2007, before the gentrification rage of Berlin’s Neukölln, Remond and his partner in sound crime, Katharina Moos, rented a spot to use as a workshop.
Like sound’s tendency to spread, Remond and Moos’ mission grew, and before too long Remond had installed loudspeakers on the ground level and was using the shop window as conduit. As the two worked, they presented their process and their electroacoustic pieces to the public at intervals as regularly as they could. A development that, in February 2008, resolved itself into a full-blown dedication to sound and the creation of Ohrenhoch Sundays, during which visitors can listen to sonic art while sipping nonalcoholic beverages that are served.
And because if you create it they will come, sound artists — on the more successful end, those seeing their work sidetrack into commercial jingles or, on the less successful end, bedroom noodling — are now working in places and spaces primed for what they’re offering. Most recently, Canadian sound artist Tina Pearson produced “Carried on Your Winds” and “Flowing on Your Tongues,” two participatory audio pieces that involved artists responding to her sounds with their own sounds sent in online, where she collated them into a symphony of found sound.
“I think hearing contains a potential power that is revolutionary,” Remond says. “And Ohrenhoch manifests itself here as well.” To this end, Remond and Moos have started Ohrenhoch Rumori-Kids, an electroacoustic music and sound installation school for 5-to-14-year-olds. It’s a platform for young artists to experiment and research sonics in an interdisciplinary way. Ohrenhoch Rumori-Kids’ participants have presented their themed works at the art festival 48 Stunden Neukölln, won prizes in competitions and received a coveted invite to the SinusTon festival for electroacoustic music in Magdeburg, Germany.
“Luigi Nono said that tape and the sound on it makes it possible to use a technical instrument in the same way guerrilla warfare is executed,” says Moos. “Sounds are mobile and flexible.” Like Iannis Xenakis’ “Orient-Occident,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock or the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who saw a revolutionary potential in the kino-glaz, or “film-eye” (camera lens), to capture every detail of the world profoundly and objectively. “Ohrenhoch is an international gallery,” Moos adds. A gallery where sound — beautiful noises for noncommercial hearing — is treated much more grandly than just as something that comes out of your car’s speakers.