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.


Tom said...
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Tom said...

A 1000-minute long section of Jem Finer's Longplayer is going to be played by live musicians for the first time on September 12th 2009 at the Roundhouse in London. It will be performed on a massive 20-meter wide instrument by 25 musicians. Here's the link: http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/book-tickets/longplayer-live-3543/3544

Daniel Campbell Blight said...

Ah yes, I also wrote on Longplayer for my thesis, it's a good piece of work, thanks for the heads up on the performance.