Sound as Virtual Image




Bill Fontana

We look around and almost everything we see, except for light reflections and shadows, corresponds exactly to the place being looked at. Listening does not have the same sense of spatial correspondences as visual perception. With visual perception, we look directly at what is being seen, in listening we orient ourselves to where the sound is, not necessarily to where it is coming from. In visual perception, there is usually simultaneity between the viewer and the object of perception. With sound there is often a time lag, since we can often hear a sound source before or after we see it. In aural perception, we sometimes do not see what we are actually hearing. Because sound is experienced in a 360 degree way, we hear overlapping residues of many sounds at any given moment. If we were trained to turn mentally towards everything we hear, we would achieve a sense of spatial correspondence comparable to visual perception. Since as a culture we are not trained to bring this mental orientation to sound, the time lag between what we see and what we hear and the resulting disparities between our senses of visual and aural spatial correspondences have contributed greatly to our present cultural blind(deaf) spot - the concept of noise.

This sense of spatial correspondences is indicative of how as a culture we turn perception into meaning. Looking makes the object of vision discrete and identifiable, possessed with the logical possibility of being considered by itself. This becomes expressed as a name. The names we have are developed out of functional visual experiences; semantic systems make those experiences clear and distinct.

"..if the general description of the world is like a stencil of the world, the names pin it to the world so that the world is wholly covered by it" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)

Language has been the line of demarcation. It determines where we employ our mental focus. It has been the mind space where things become clear.

"A picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it for it lay in our language and the language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably" (Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations)

As a visually oriented culture our essential responses to the everyday world are semantic. Everyday sounds are regarded as not having semantic significance (noise). Noise pollution (with the exception of sounds that are dangerously loud (close proximity to a jet aircraft or heavy machinery) can be explained as a semantic problem. Because sounds must be semanticized in order to be meaningful, our main aural concerns as a culture have been language and music.

"colors are present "naturally" in nature, there are no musical sounds in nature, except in a purely accidental and unstable way; there are only noises. Sounds and colors are not entities of the same standing, and the only legitimate comparison is between colors and noises - that is between visual and acoustic modes of nature...nature produces noises not musical sounds: the latter are solely a consequence of culture, which has invented musical instruments and singing. But apart from the instance of bird would be unacquainted with musical sounds if he had not invented them. " (Claude Levi-Strauss from "The Raw and the Cooked")

The world of everyday sound is full of semantic ambiguity. Most people approach this experience without recognizing patterns in everyday sound. Noise is the resulting interpretation given to the normal experience of unsemanticized sounds. The semantic ambiguity of sound will change when society develops a capacity to perceive patterns or qualities that are recognizable as part of a context of meaning, such as the sound vocabularies of contemporary music and acoustic art.

The problem of noise has developed historically from an accumulation of bad designs caused by a lack of thinking about the acoustical by products of everything that happens in the human environment. Noise pollution is a circular problem: people don't pay attention to the sounds they hear and live with everyday and therefore it is not a part of the design of anything to consider the acoustical consequences. This problem is a self-perpetuating cultural blind(deaf) spot on the collective consciousness.

The task of acoustic art and acoustic design is to fundamentally challenge all of the old historical definitions of noise and the resulting preconceptions that most people have about the sounds they live with.

My work over the past 25 years has been an ongoing investigation into the aesthetic significance of sounds happening at a particular moment in time. This has led me to create a series of projects that treat the urban and natural environment as a living source of musical information. The most basic assumption I am making is that at any given moment there will be something meaningful to hear. I am in fact assuming that music - in the sense of meaningful sound patterns - is a natural process that is going on constantly.

Most of my projects have been created in urban public space, where an architectural situation is used as the physical and visual focal point of sounds that are relocated to these situations. Loudspeakers are normally mounted on the exterior of a building or a monument and are used to deconstruct and transform the situation by creating a virtual transparent reality of sound.

My most recent project in Paris, "Sound Island" was installed at the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Triomphe is an island at the center of an immense traffic circle. It is an urban architectural island not because it is surrounded by water, but by a sea of cars. The constant flow of hundreds of encircling cars are the dominant visual and aural experience one has when standing under the towering monument, looking out at Paris. This sound sculpture explored the transformation of the visual and aural experience of traffic. Live natural white sounds of the sea from the Normandy coast were transmitted to loudspeakers installed on the facade of the monument. The presence of the breaking and crashing waves created the illusion that the cars were silent. This was accomplished in contradiction to the visual aspects of the situation. The sound of the sea is natural white sound, and has the psycho-acoustic ability to mask other sounds, not by virtue of being louder, but because of the sheer harmonic complexity of the sea sound.

The placement of a work of acoustic art inside the space of an art museum raises some interesting issues. Museums are institutions devoted to the visual, retinal experience. The idea of placing a sound sculpture inside of a museum space, which cannot be seen with the eyes is an apparent contradiction, which is why so few museums have ever been interested in the type of work I am doing. Sound sculptures placed on the exterior of a building take on the visual aspects of the architecture and the urban landscape in which they are placed and create a perceptual tension between what you see and what you hear. Sound sculptures placed inside of a Museum, with no apparent visual element, create a new tension. They are made from sounds that come from places that we know, imagine and recognize as visual situations. If someone goes beyond the strangeness of hearing the naked sounds and takes the time to listen, the actual visual aspects of the sound sculpture lies in this person's imagination, in their personal mental space to create virtual images.