Friday, 29 May 2009

Florian Hecker’s Pentaphonic Dark Energy: Object Becomes Context: Or, a Prefatory Statement on the Curating of Sound in the Gallery

Pentaphonic Dark Energy further enforces the notion of sound becoming space:


Pushing the envelope of algorithmic software, the works of Florian Hecker reshape listener’s perceptual processes, taking the spatial soundworlds imagined by Xenakis a step further into psychoacoustic black holes. (Cain, 2008: 34)


Florian Hecker’s installation is sound infecting its surround. It relentlessly attacks the listener, before pulling back into quiet. And then again it comes, this time with a pure tone, and a second, before spitting sound around the room in a primal display of aggression. The speakers hang like Jurassic birds from the ceiling. The listener poses little threat, so the birds don’t move, they merely attack aurally, covering all directions, all frequencies it seems, confusing and engulfing space.

Pentaphonic Dark Energy is an object of context. It simultaneously exists as an independent artwork, and the space itself. Hecker’s interest in Psychoacoustics is paramount here. Hecker understands the human perception of sound is beyond a physiological or mechanical phenomenon; it is also a sensory event, processed in our auditory cortex, beyond the physiology of the human ear. Hecker’s piece distorts perception, creating a bodily experience that resonates deeper than the act of merely hearing; it is a physical and vibrational experience that takes listening beyond the scope of the ear and the brain, into the body. The title Pentaphonic Dark Energy pays homage to ‘Dark Energy;’ a hypothetical kind of energy proposed in cosmological study. It is apparently responsible for the expansion of the universe, nonetheless.

The sound of Pentaphonic Dark Energy fills the art gallery space, creating a space of its own that in turn submerges the body of the listener (the embodied subject, embodied by the context). This idea of space is not geometrical, mathematical or acoustic space, but bodily space.


The thinking of Descartes was viewed as the decisive point in the working-out of the concept of space, and the key to its mature form. According to most historians of Western thought, Descartes had brought to an end the Aristotelian tradition which held that space and time were among those categories which facilitated the naming and classing of the evidence of the senses. The status of such categories had hitherto remained unclear, for they could be looked upon either as simple empirical tools for ordering sense data or, alternatively, as generalities in some way superior to the evidence supplied by the body’s sensory organs. (Lefebvre, 1974: 1)

And later Kant supplied his own update. Merleau-Ponty elaborates,

Kant tried to draw a strict demarcation line between space as the form of external experience and the things given within that experience. There is naturally no question of a relationship of container to content, since this relationship exists only between objects, nor even a relationship of logical inclusion, like the one existing between the individual and the class, since space is anterior to its alleged parts, which are always carved out of it. Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the position of things becomes possible. (Merleau-Ponty, 1958: 284)


Merleau-Ponty suggests space is in front of what constitutes it. Space is anterior (ahead in time) of what it is made up of. Therefore sound must catch up with space in order to fill it. In such a case sound is not only chasing space, constituting it, but also redefining it. Sound in the art gallery becomes the art gallery; the sound object becomes the context.

Florian Hecker’s installation changes the sterile white-cube environment of Sadie Coles’ gallery into a place of confusion and infection. It contrasts the comfortable, still experience of the subject’s body, with a dramatic, perplexing and hugely physical experience.


Again, it is clear that no causal relationship is conceivable between the subject and his body, his world or his society. Only at the cost of losing the basis of all my certainties can I question what is conveyed to me by my presence to myself. (Ibid: 504)


It is precisely within sound that one can lose physical certainty. When entirely immersed in a variety of sonic frequencies and intensities, we become aware of our own presence - the outside world renders itself conclusively unimportant. It is denied an existence and pushed away into unrecognisability by low hums, high squeaks, and attacking volumes of sound. Any references to external circumstances are actualised internally; they are the stuff of nostalgia, a version of history filtered through the self. There is no causal relationship between subject and body in sound, not because there is no correspondence between them, but precisely because they are so correspondent that they become one another; there is no separation between subject and body when immersed in sound; they are overwhelmingly united.

Pentaphonic Dark Energy is a purely aesthetic experience. The listening curator will acknowledge this pure and physical aesthetic of sound, encouraging and intensifying the experience in the art gallery. Musicality is not the only power sound possesses – there is also the pure volume and intensity of noise and sound devoid of 12-tone structural relations. By presenting a contrast to musical sound in the art gallery, the curator of contemporary sound art will dislocate sound art from the potentiality of musical listenability, forcing the gallery visitor to consider sound in its most pure and abstract form. By presenting music with abstract sound in the same curatorial space, the curator is not contextualising experimental sound practices within the history of music, but rather setting up a scenario where the very basis of the socioaural cannot be questioned because of the presence of musical sound. The human emotional response to musical sound will always win over abstract sound when the two forms are presented together in the same exhibition – history shows us this.

There must be a complete liberation of abstract sound from musicality and visuality in order to present sound art as an autonomous and progressive contemporary discipline. The space in which it should be presented is dark - the possibility of seeing removed. The gallery visitor should not consciously be hearing, for as neurobiological research shows, hearing is an act with two levels of understanding: linguistic and musical. Instead, the visitor should listen (attend to sound), not to their past (socioaural) experiences of sound, but to their bodies and the physical intensity that occurs. The aesthetic experience of sound art is not one of listening to the sound itself, but rather of listening to the body, and its interaction with sound and space. Appreciating abstract sound is to ‘feel’ sound, to understand the phenomena of tactility and spatio-temporality.


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