The border between two spaces both separates and conjoins, allowing for distinction as well as interplay. Depending on one’s perspective this can be understood as a contamination or a vital encounter. The latest from Australian composer Robert Curgenven explores sonic borders through the work of visual artist James Turrell.
Drawn to the potential acoustics of Turrell’s work, Robert Curgenven visited fifteen of Turrell’s Skyspaces across nine countries, weaving the field-recordings produced there into Climata, a two-disc suite of gentle drones commingling with a variety of quiet incidental noises. Because these works produce no intentional sound of their own, any sounds which enter into the installation might be said to be a part of the work, just as the time of day alters the light within Turrell’s designs. Turrell’s site-specific installations are deeply rooted in the subtle pleasures of perception of light within a particular physical space, aspects that can not be captured by sound recording. Climata, therefore, presents a fascinating phenomenological challenge. The nature of these sounds means that much of the recording hovers just on the edge of perceptibility, occasionally blurring with similar sounds which may surround the listener at the point of audition. Birdsong, car noise, and quiet conversation could just as easily be coming from outside my window as from within my speakers.
Turrell inaugurated his still-ongoing Skyspaces project with Lunette in 1974. A semicircular window is removed at the end of a barrel-vaulted hallway in an Italian villa, allowing light and air into the space. The interior hallway is painted white, and florescent light fixtures run along the edge of the vaulted ceiling. What seems like a static alteration produces an environment in constant flux, as light, sound, and air freely move through the space. Though this flux is largely a slow and passive process it is nonetheless still a movement, which alters one’s perception of the space. Each Skyspace is unique but functions according to a similar logic, playing with the ways in which light and color affect our perception of a physical space. Skyspaces are sometimes integrated into existing architectural and other times especially constructed. They all utilize an open “aperture” of varying shapes and orientation which let light into a specifically proportioned space. In each case this opening acts as a point of contact between the sky and the built environment.
One’s perception of the environment changes as the light changes, and the boundary between interior and exterior doesn’t so much as shift as become called into question on an ontological level, the significance of the distinction flattened. The time-scale is measured not in arbitrary and equal subdivisions (i.e. with a clock) but in the relationship between the natural units and their interplay with the space. These apertures also let in sound, which is the basis of Curgenven’s dialogue with these works. The seemingly real-time unfolding of the listener’s perception of the space and flow of time becomes almost hallucinatory through attention to the quiet oscillating drones which rise and fall throughout. Douglas Kahn has written about the influence of John Cage on Turrell. Just as Cage came to his famous realization in an anechoic chamber that there is never complete silence, Turrell’s work stems from a realization that there is never no light. In each case the shear fact of our embodiment, the experience of our body as a sensing, feeling apparatus comes into stark relief in relation to their work. Climata perhaps closes the circle in revealing the Cagean experience within the sonic profile of the Skyspace. There is never complete silence, and if the Skyspace is dependent on air moving through the aperture, then that moving air must produce some sort of vibration, however inaudible. The tones are produced by heterodyning, using the aperture to turn the entire structure into a Helmolz resonator. By generating tones according to the specific resonant frequencies of each Skyspace the architecture comes to act as both “filter and instrument.” These two micro-tones tuned very close together to create a “beating” phase, vibrating the air through the aperture to create an audible tone, activating an architectural feature of the work to produce a unique acoustic experience.
The sounds we do hear on Climata not produced through this clever phasing revelation might suggest a sense of place through movement and reverberation, but even this representation becomes complicated by the fact that the six tracks over two disks are composite recordings from multiple spaces. One might conclude, therefore, that Robert Curgenven is up to something other than presenting strict audio documents of Turrell’s Skyspaces. Each track makes no pretense of representing any one particular Skyspace but a kind of fictional composite abstraction of the sonics of Skyspaces. In fact, installation versions of Climata are being exhibited at some of these Skyspaces, which suggests that rather than document Turrell’s work Curgenven has used them as a conceptual starting point, exploring how Turrell’s architectural installations could be re-encountered through the medium of sound.
Each track is of equal length (19:20), designed to be played in various configurations simultaneously, ideally on multiple stereo systems. This layering helps to make the experience more immersive, and the changing coincidence of events turns the mellow tones into something approaching generative music. Though still austere, it is easy to become lost in the overlap of events and pitches as they subtly accumulate in a deeply meditative fashion, not at all unlike the experience of Turrell’s work.
In Against Ambience Seth Kim-Cohen offers a critique of the recent vogue for “sound art” exhibitions in major museums and galleries, arguing that the works and artists often featured represent a tendency that he describes as ambient. Contrary to the last half-century of artistic practice informed by Conceptualism, these ambient works ask very little of audiences but to be passively enjoyed. To Kim-Cohen, this is an abrogation of our critical responsibility to think about and respond to our present circumstances, essentially a form of escapist entertainment that demeans the place of art in society. His exemplar of this ambient tendency was not sound art at all, but the spectacle of James Turrell’s work.
Kim-Cohen finds in this work a kind of art that places too much significance on pure sensory experience, and depoliticizes even sensory experience as being self-evident, as if these experiences occur in a bubble outside of any social or historical context, as if all bodies and subjectivities will experience them in the same terms. It isn’t hard to imagine similar kinds of work that exceed mere sensory experience. For instance, Gordon Matta-Clark‘s Day’s End (1975) was in part a response to social conditions and offered an implicit critique of Modernist urban planning through the alteration of a pier on the Hudson River in New York City. Better still, his Rooftop Atrium (1973), which preceded Lunette by a year and was also located in Italy. Calling to mind the Pantheon, Matta-Clark removed the top of the terracotta roof to create an aperture of air and light. While Turrell was creating a womb-like space in the private Italian villa of a rich art collector, Matta-Clark was mashing up the tradition of the country’s architectural language of proportions and light with the informal architecture of its rural areas, resulting in a powerfully ephemeral work. One needn’t accept this critique, of course, but it seems impossible to judge Climata without also forming a judgment of Turrell’s work, given how intertwined they are. And a sonic exploration of Turrell’s work certainly makes some amount of sense. Can Climata be viewed as a kind of counterpoint to this critique, or a substantiation of it?
“I want to think about how Cage, Turrell, and so many contemporary artists working with sound direct attention toward percepts, toward the sensory conditions of a given time and space,” Kim-Cohen writes. Sensory perception of time and space certainly does define Turrell’s Skyspaces and Curgenven’s Climata. What is it that Kim-Cohen understands attention to a situation’s (sensory) ambience as downplaying? “Issues of interiority and exteriority, real versus mediated experience, and how these relations instantiate power in one location, one actor, or another.” Climata does precisely these three things when its composer situates the technological apparatus of the microphone at the border of Turrell’s work. Furthermore, it implicitly offers a critique of all that is questionable about Turrell’s work. Turrell claims that all the Skyspaces are a part of a larger work, because they all open up into the same the sky, a part of the same world. By recording Climata “one note at a time” across fifteen different sites, Curgenven has reterritorialized these dispersed locations into a coherent work, emphasizing both the particularities of each location (as the particularities of each location dictate the tone generated) and their coming together.
Robert Curgenven is no stranger to capturing the spirit of a place in sound. Though trained as an organist (as featured on Sirène), he is best known for his minimal and drone inspired sound work utilizing field-recordings and feedback, channeling the conceptual power of the historical and political realities of the locations being documented. His field-recording practice began over a decade ago capturing the environmental sounds of his native Australia, and his sound installations explore the acoustics of place from another aspect. On the one hand, an engagement with the site-specific installations of James Turrell seems like a logical extension of these same concerns. Yet compared with the powerful anti-colonial critique inherent in 2014’s They tore the earth, and, like a scar, it swallowed them, one can’t help but feel that Climata is somewhat light by comparison, much more subtle in its implications. Yet given the proper attention, the seeming austerity of sound and concept increases in complexity, resulting in a rewarding engagement with Turrell that may actually succeed in making his works more meaningful. (Joseph Sannicandro)