Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Jacob Kirkegaard’s ‘Labyrinthitis’: Object Enters Subject

Originally published in my research thesis Innate Response Vs. Socioaural Nostalgia: Towards a Post-Cagean Analysis of Sound Art, Royal College of Art, May 2009.

Labyrinthitis is, in essence, a relational artwork. However, it does not require active participation. One only need let the ear perform its function to hear the complete composition.

"In June 2007, Jacob Kirkegaard had a range of DPOAEs [a distortion effect in the cochlea of the inner-ear that produces a ‘ghost tone’ when prompted by two other corresponding tones fed into the cochlea simultaneously] recorded in a sound proof booth at the Centre for Applied Hearing Research in Copenhagen, Denmark. Different tones of various frequencies were sent into his ears through subminiature speakers. As the basilar membrane in the cochlea was stimulated, his ears started to generate tones. These tones, and the very process that generated them, serve as the basis of Labyrinthitis: an interactive composition that involves the ears of the audience in a multi-layered cannon." (Kirkegaard, 2008)

These recorded tones are ordered into an abstract composition that lasts thirty-eight minutes and ten seconds. The composition was released in 2008 by the London based label Touch. During an email interview conducted in November 2008, Jacob Kirkegaard responded to the following question: in terms of existence, objecthood and ontology, how would you describe Labyrinthitis?

"Your question makes me want to ask, “what is hearing?” Of course, perception is a main part of listening; and of seeing etc. - but then there is the mechanics of hearing. That is perhaps where the “objecthood” comes into question? As for Labyrinthitis (and for hearing in general) there is actually a physical vibration taking place. The hair cells move and generate air pressure waves that we “perceive” as sound but I would say that the objecthood is what happens inside our very ear, namely the trembling of our hair cells - or just the hair cells themselves; the hair cells as objects, sound objects, like a speaker which is also a sound object.

After Labyrinthitis performances, people from the audience have come up to me and told me interesting things about what they experienced. Some people felt that their skull literally vibrated. So when sound becomes physical the skull is almost a sound object. Or at least, if sound shakes the object, it “inhabits” the object." (Kirkegaard, 2008)

One of the original and intriguing aspects of the work is this idea that it is being ‘finished’ by the listener in an act of innate or physiological participation. With well-functioning ears, our cochlea generates additional sounds; in a sense, subjectivity becomes inferior to the physiology of the ear. The very act of hearing (as opposed to listening) adds content to the artwork. Despite the space inside our heads being very private, we may nonetheless consider this work to be participatory or relational to some extent, on the basis that we as hearing subjects complete it.

"Yes, this work is indeed interactive but in a way that you don’t decide for yourself. Normally an interactive work is about you being able to decide “within” the work, but here your ear responds by itself. The very fact that it responds makes it interactive because if your ear didn’t interact, you would be deaf, and therefore unable to experience the piece.

Listening to this piece also offers a way to understand hearing in a new way, that the ear is not just a black hole but an active organ, the hair cells are like piano strings under water… This idea could be applied to all kinds of actions in life, that we need to interact with our world in order to understand it: that things always function in two ways.

So with Labyrinthitis, you don’t even have the entire piece of music on the CD, like you have on all the other CD’s. Here some of the tones that are part of the composition do not exist on the CD. They only appear and are only heard when the CD is being listened to." (Ibid)

Kirkegaard’s notion of object is not sound itself; on the contrary, it is the material entity that produces sound (the hair cell, or skull, or loudspeaker). Sound finds materiality via a relationship with its producing (hair cell, loudspeaker) or resonating (skull) object. Kirkegaard talks of the sound as inhabiting the object; what produces is material (hair cells), but what is produced is immaterial (sound). Labyrinthitis lies on the boundary between the material and the immaterial, simultaneously creating two kinds of object: a dialectic between them. I asked Jacob Kirkegaard: as some of the tones in Labyrinthitis are literally generated by our ear, does it therefore complicate or divide the notion of sonic object into two halves – those sounds that exist on the recording and those which are generated by our ears?

"Yes, if we consider that the sound-object is the source of the sound (the loudspeakers or the hair cells) then we in this case have two sources, the speakers and the hair cells. In Anthony Moore’s text (on the packaging accompanying the CD) he even describes a membrane in between the listener and the sound…"(Ibid)

Anthony Moore writes about:

"Lectures I gave in the late 90s, for example “Acoustic Cells and Membranes”, which later mutated into the rather science-fiction like “Membranes in Space and the Transmitting Ear.” This came out of research in the field of active perception. One hardly need look, or rather hear any further than the phenomenon of Oto-Acoustic Emissions (OAEs, measurable sounds emerging from the ear), to grasp that unless some action takes place on the part of the receiver, then incoming signals may remain unperceived. Due to the active, mechanical components that make up the physiology of the ear, it is possible to construct a model where certain physical aspects of hearing actually take place outside the body, at the entrance to the ear." (Moore, 2008)

As Labyrinthitis is on CD, it is incomplete. As listeners we must allow our ear’s mechanical processes to complete the artwork. Kirkegaard’s work here is somewhat anaesthetic; the body is numbed into submission, entering a womb-like, cathartic sense of place. Our bodies are emptied of emotion, experiencing something purer and more subversive than common aesthetic experience precisely because it has lost its active musicality in replacement for a form of pure anesthetising sound.

Labyrinthitis is implanted in the subject; we are forced into engagement with the work by the very functionality of our own ears. Its object enters us via the ear, blurring the line between subject and object, perceiver and perceived. When listening, one inhabits a space where it is not clear whether the sound exists inside or outside our heads – in this case we host sound, as material beings: we become a vessel or carrier for sound through time. Like Jem Finer’s Longplayer, Labyrinthitis, although existing through time, has a kind of timelessness to it; it creates a space seemingly devoid of time; Labyrinthitis is a context. To engage fully with it as an experience in listening is to be unconscious and unaware of the passing of time, and rather, to immerse oneself in a pure sense of space and place. This is its paradox: although time is passing, it seems to freeze the listener, forcing an awareness of time through timelessness itself.

There is also a second level to be observed where the perception of Labyrinthitis is concerned. This level is emphasised by Zizek’s notion of the ‘parallax view’ (MIT Press, 2006). A parallax view is defined as a phenomenon in which one thinks one has perceived a change in an object, but has in fact just unwittingly changed one’s position on viewing said object; the change then, is not in the object itself, but rather in one’s subjective position. This is precisely the case with Labyrinthitis.

The process by which the human auditory system completes Labyrinthitis as an artwork via the production of OAEs (Tartini tones – after Giuseppe Tartini, the 18th century Italian composer and violinist) emphasises the gap between the sciences and the arts: specifically scientifically proven physiological phenomena (OAEs) and philosophies of perception (theories of subjectivity). Labyrinthitis is an artwork created under the influence of science. This artwork creates an aesthetic experience using science as a tool or informant to its process. Such processes of art making can be read as attempts to bridge the gap between nature and culture (be they conscious or unconscious attempts). Zizek elaborates on the gap between nature and culture as follows:

“Bridging the gap” – namely, the gap between nature and culture, between “blind” biological (chemical, neuronal…) processes and the experience of awareness and sense – what, however, if this is the wrong task? What if the actual problem is not to bridge the gap but, rather, to formulate it as such, to conceive it properly? Here, more than anywhere else, the proper formulation of the gap is the solution to the problem." (Zizek, 2006: 214)

It is precisely a formulation of this gap that Kirkegaard brings to light in creating Labyrinthitis. In doing so, he reveals Zizek’s parallax view or gap between subject and object: the subject as the listener of Labyrinthitis, completing the artwork via one’s OAEs, and the object as the artwork itself – the artwork being the totality of the sounds on the CD combined with the OAEs the subject’s ear generates. When listening to Labyrinthitis one thinks one is hearing a change in the sound coming from the speakers (and thus the CD), but in fact the change in our subjective position (the fact that we as subjects have generated sound in our ears) is the real change; the view onto the perceptual act that is listening to Labyrinthtis is fundamentally a parallax one.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Butterfly - Catrin Morgan and Rachel Pedder-Smith

My newest curatorial endeavor is now available for a view if you find yourself in Fulham (again, woe betide - I apologise for the location of the gallery but beggars can't be choosers, can they?). There will be a full-blown website to accompany my new painting show in September (and document all the past exhibitions) - until then the blogosphere will have to suffice.

Here is a couple of photos courtesy of my tight designer Francisco Laranjo, his glorious ouvré and accompanying design criticism can be found here. Additionally, here is the 'introductory text' for the exhibition I wrote for the A4 FOH handout a month or so ago and the two artist's statements.


What we have come to understand as botanical illustration, and additionally collections of texts or objects that illustrate a specific literary or scientific theme, can be found rooted in the medieval Latin ‘florilegium’ (singular) or ‘florilegia’ (plural). This translates to modern English as ‘a gathering of flowers’. While the term was originally used to describe the way specific passages of scholarly and classical texts were selected and compiled to illustrate a specific theme, after the medieval period the word was used to refer to any collection or compilation of objects, in both scientific and literary contexts.

This exhibition brings the history of florilegia into the context of the art gallery, presenting two contemporary florilegium: on the one hand, a collection of watercolour illustrations of insect specimens (a form of botanic study rooted in art practice), and on the other hand, a collection of deconstructed texts with their pages meticulously cut into and fanned-out like the wings of a butterfly. This exhibition seeks to update the definition of florilegia, asking the visitor to consider the idea of collecting, or collections, both as scientific pursuits necessary for the accurate documentation of our natural world, and as a form of contemporary art practice that intends to give a sense of visual beauty to the inexpressive rigour and systematisation normally associated with purely scientific study. This exhibition both respects and questions botanical science, but above all adds something arguably necessary to it; something it might otherwise lack - a sense of consideration, elegance and craft through artistry.

Presentation and Further Information:

The placement of the artworks reflects the flight of a group of butterflies. The objects climb the gallery walls, fluttering around before settling on an available surface. The two artists’ works are mixed; blended to avoid the formality of hanging in set and separated groups. Additionally, the title of the exhibition, displayed on the wall in vinyl lettering, suggests the form and shape of a butterfly’s wings. In this respect, an element of the design process, normally restricted to the catalogue, is incorporated directly into the display of the artworks.

Many of the insects in Rachel Pedder-Smith’s paintings can be found in the gardens of Fulham Palace. Her work in this exhibition features both original watercolour works and photographic reproductions.

We wish to give special thanks to Daunt Bookshop for supplying the books.

Artist's Statement/Catrin Morgan

“I set myself problems and then create sets of rules determining the means by which I am allowed to solve them. In the case of the Butterfly Library, the problem was that I wanted to find a way of illustrating the shared moment that three particular works of fiction (The Satanic Verses, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Everything is Illuminated) entered when they all used the word butterfly. I had the idea that the word could act as a doorway between the texts. I thought of the problem in 2005, but didn't begin to come up with a solution until two years later whilst studying at the RCA. After I had decided that the solution would definitely involve pins, other rules began to emerge. I now have a framework of rules inside which the work is growing. Although I do use rules and systems to help me create work, I'm not dogmatic; sometimes rules must be broken or amended and in fact extending the project for this exhibition has led to the creation of new rules necessary to allow the project to continue.”

Artist's Statement/Rachel Pedder-Smith

“My painting is as representative as possible. I use watercolour paints and very small brushes. For the butterfly paintings I looked at the surface through a magnifying glass in order to try and capture the full structure of the wings. Most of my paintings are produced at exactly life size and I measure as many dimensions of the object as possible. Before I start painting I produce a faint line drawing as a guide. I don’t produce any preparation studies. I use a style called ‘dry brush technique’, where not much water is mixed with the paint.”

Sunday, 5 July 2009


My mother and her partner are writing a rather good travel blog as they eat their away around Spain as cheaply and cheerfully as possible. If you ever find yourself in Swindon (woe betide), their modest seven table cafe-bar Los Gatos is about the only place worth visiting. I wasn't invited, but all the same, her is a link and a slice of their empanada to wet your taste buds - fnar fnar!:

"Arturo’s is an unprepossessing place from the outside – an aluminium door with a small sign on the wall outside leads in to a single room with a small bar to the right and a few fishing and bullfighting pictures adorning the otherwise plain yellow painted walls. There is no pretence at being anything other than a neighbourhood restaurant, there to feed people."

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Lubetkin's Sivill House

Oh, now I get why drinking in the Bird Cage is ok, we (Entschwindet und Vergeht and I) get to walk past this on the way... I'll (rather unsteadily) raise a drink to that.