Towards a framework for analysing public sound art

Author(s): 
Peter Batchelor
Date of publication: 
2013-04
ISSN: 
2052-7888
DOI: 
10.3943/001.2013.04.0106

The purpose of this text is to propose some starting points for the analysis of sound art in a public setting. It acknowledges the challenge represented by the sheer breadth of possible forms that such art might take and identifies a number of existing categorisation systems and analytical models which might be of relevance, drawn from a variety of fields including music and sound analysis, listener intention and reception, installation analysis, architecture and urban development. My principal concern is with site-specific sound art presented in public spaces. Issues surrounding how a work is received by members of the public are of particular interest, since artwork presented in public spaces is subject to very specific reception conditions based on its inevitably transient audience. This article is designed to present a foundation upon which a framework for the analysis of sound art in the public domain might be developed.

1. Introduction: the challenge

When considering the issue of analysis in relation to sound art[1], the first challenge to address is simply the sheer diversity of forms that such art might take. Alan Licht (2009) identifies sound art as encompassing ambient music, architecture, soundscape, sculpture, and even absence of sound, among other things, which of course includes installation art. When confronting such diversity for the purposes of analysis, how might one go about establishing a coherency/consistency between analyses that would make such a study a worthwhile exercise, both for the analyst and for any scholar, enabling comparison between approaches and outcomes? How, for example, might we compare the following works in which the sound component is:

  • presented through aeolian activation in an otherwise static sculpture in a rural setting (Tonkin Liu , Singing Ringing Tree, 1996 (Liu 2011))
  • presented via a screen of small loudspeakers (i.e. two-dimensionally) and experienced in waves of activity triggered by the participant in a suburbian bus shelter in middle America (David Birchfield, Kelly Phillips, Assegid Kidané, David Lorig, Transition Soundings, 2006 (Birchfield et al. 2006))
  • a product of the synchronous presentation or networking of multiple sonic spaces within the public domain (Bill Fontana, Speeds of Time, 2008 (Fontana 2012))
  • the asynchronous presentation of a variety of sound streams on boomboxes by ambulatory participants from a local community (Phil Kline, Unsilent Night, 1992 (Kline 2012))
  • a repurposed and otherwise banal feature of the urban landscape (railings) activated by members of the public using a stick (Greyworld, Railings, 1996 (Greyworld 2012))
  • the colouration of the existing sonic landscape, experienced through a sculptural object (liminal, Organ of Corti, 2011 (Liminal 2012))
  • a ‘moment work’ characterised by the sudden absence of sound—i.e. the curtailment of a sound which precedes it—which draws attention to the existing sonic environment (Max Neuhaus, Time Piece Graz, 2003 (Neuhaus 2003)) or merely a call to listen to that sonic environment (Akio Suzuki, Otodate, 1996- (e/static n.d.))
  • the product of public sound being funnelled into a ‘private’ space (Michael Asher, Installation at Pomona College 1970 (LaBelle 2006: 91-92))

These works are concerned not just with sound but with sound and its relationship with a variety of materials which collectively form the stuff of the artwork. Sound may well even be subsidiary to or a by-product of other aspects of a work. They are also presented in public spaces and are not only intimately bound to the spaces in which they exist, but also to the people which use those spaces and the social activities that go on in them.

The purpose of this text is to propose some starting points for the analysis of sound and installation art in a public setting. I will identify a number of existing categorisation systems and analytical models which might be of relevance, and will refer to gallery works for the purposes of some examples, but my principal concern is with site-specific work presented in public spaces. Issues surrounding the work’s reception are of particular interest, since artwork presented in public spaces is subject to very specific reception conditions based on its inevitably transient audience.

2. Why the 'sound' in 'sound art'?

A word should perhaps be said regarding the need for analytical techniques surrounding specifically sound related activity within sound art practice in the first place. As established above, and as Douglas Kahn observes, ‘most artists using sound use many other materials, phenomena, conceptual and sensory modes as well, even when there is only sound’ (2005: 1); these other aspects of a work are tightly bound with the sonic, often to the extent that to talk of its sound content in isolation would be meaningless. On this basis, Kahn objects to the label ‘sound art’, pointing out that many practitioners of such work would ‘rather be called artists than sound artists’ (ibid). This implies that the prefix devalues the art through sub-categorisation; it also ‘tends to narrow down the sphere of understanding rather than suggest that there is in fact a more comprehensive approach being enacted’ (ibid). If this is the case, perhaps we can look to discourse surrounding installation and public art theory more generally (i.e. not necessarily involving sound) to provide the relevant tools and methodology for the study of all associated practice, including that which uses sound. While relatively new as a field of enquiry, such discourse is rapidly developing—for example, Marc Rosenthal’s Understanding Installation Art (2005) and Clare Bishop’s Installation Art (2003) provide useful and complementary (if philosophically differing) taxonomies of installation art practice. The former identifies the installation as ‘medium’, and classifies according to primarily spatial and contextual considerations; the latter classifies according to viewer-experience, concerning itself with the psychological, phenomenological and social reception of a work. Where looking to categorise a sound art work in relation to such characteristics, these taxonomies will undoubtedly be useful.

Inevitably, however, there are issues specifically related to the experience of sound which will require more specialised set of tools for their analysis. Moreover, while applying ‘sound’ as prefix runs the risk of applying a secondary status to the art, its absence is equally problematic. Historically sound is afforded less importance in an art world with a primarily visual heritage (and in a life world which celebrates or biases the visual in any case). Definitions given to sound art, even by established sound artists and practitioners, regularly reinforce this perception: “Sound sculptures and sound installations are intermedia works, and they behave like expansions of sculpture and installation” (Iges in Iturbide 2003: 2), for example, implies that sound is an extension or by-product of a primarily visual experience. It seems that the label is needed in order for the sound component to be accorded its proper import within associated discourse. Artists might also headline their use of sound in instances where their works are conceived with a view to addressing particular site-specific and/or social issues relating to sound—e.g. attempting to draw attention to (and educate about) issues relating to sound ecology.

If the tools for installation art analysis are perhaps too generalised for the specifics of discussing sound within artistic practice, such tools might be found within analytical practice relating to sound and music studies. However, as Andrew Hugill remarks, ‘electroacoustic music analysis ... is a developing field and its tools are by no means established’ (Hugill 2012: 3). Most analytical activity is centred around formal analysis of, predominantly, acousmatic works whose presentation is usually over multiple speakers in a concert hall. Such work imposes particular space and time constraints around which to conduct an analysis: for example, it is usually experienced in a controlled acoustic, and its audience is static (i.e. faces a stage rather than being mobile);; it is subject to linear time, framed by the composer/performer (i.e. fixed start and end points in the musical narrative or performance). Some of the well established analytical techniques applied to these more delimited works might usefully be adopted for the purpose of analysing sound art works: taxonomies such as Denis Smalley’s spectromorphology and spatiomorphology (1986;; 1997) might be appropriate when describing spectral and spatial states in a work, along, perhaps, with short-term transitions between these states. Moreover, increasingly authors are addressing issues pertaining to the analysis of a variety of different electroacoustic artforms which are as yet unexplored (e.g. interactivity and context-specific sound design (Hugill 2012)), the tools from which might be readily transferable. However, the analyst must be discerning in terms of which will apply to particular sound art: as will be discussed later in this paper, sound art and sound installations are much freer in terms of their temporal and spatial discourse than works presented in the concert hall. Analytical models which presuppose goal-oriented compositional strategies, for example, will be inappropriate. Certainly no one-size-fits-all solution exists that accommodates all approaches to such work, and some forms of analytical techniques and tools for electronic musical work may actually be unhelpful—or at least limited in terms of the insights they can provide—when considering particular works which don’t adhere to established genre types—or cross boundaries.

So it seems that a combined approach needs to be taken towards sound art/installation in the public domain which should encompass sound-related analytical theory (some of which has yet to be developed) along with more general analytical taxonomies and tools such as those described in relation to Bishop and Rosenthal above. Given the presentation of such work in the public domain, such interdisciplinarity may need to be extended towards theory encompassing sociology, psychology, architecture and urbanism among others.

3. Intention/reception: public response 

In 2001, Leigh Landy identified that the analysis of electroacoustic music to that date focused primarily on the ‘material trace’ (Nattiez 1990: 15) of a work, and that more research was required with a view to understanding the poietic dimensions and dramaturgy of a work (the composer’s intentions and compositional processes through which these become the finished work) along with the esthesic (how such works were received or understood (or not) by those listening, whether ‘initiated’ in electroacoustic music or not) (Landy 2001)—ultimately acknowledging ‘how we listen/what we hear’ (Landy 2001: 27). The motivation for Landy’s Intention/Reception project at the time of conception was primarily to increase the accessibility of (and encourage better marketing practices for) electroacoustic music—with a view to it becoming ‘a music for all’ (Landy 2001: 28). Where it comes to dealing with electroacoustic music presented within the public domain, however, the acknowledgment of the processes of composer intention in relation to listener perception becomes critical to any analysis since, as already established, the material trace of such a work does not exist in isolation from its context;; its very success is dependent upon its relationship not only with its surroundings but also with members of the public.

In providing An elucidation of public sound art through non-sonorous tradition, María Andueza Olmedo proposes the term ‘citizen of the work’ to describe members of the public encountering public art since work in a public space is ‘designed specifically to be received by citizens’ (2012: 48), i.e. those who encounter the work while going about their daily lives in daily life (public) spaces. These citizens cannot by default be considered ‘audience’. They may become audience, but they are equally individuals with their own agendas for whom the artistic intervention might be a welcome distraction, but might also be unneeded, irrelevant, ignorable, even actively unwanted;; certainly the assumption of close and detailed listening cannot be made. Nevertheless, the citizens are inherently part of the work, are involved in the process of the work, as soon as they enter its boundaries, whether they subscribe to it or not (ibid: 49). Therefore, while retrieving data from uninformed listening is fairly limited in formal analysis, it is perhaps critical in the analysis of public art works, which inevitably involve the uninitiated listener. How such data is retrieved is another issue, and one that will be addressed below, since the practicalities of retrieving it warrant mention.

4. Space | Time

The existence of sound within installation practice makes particular demands on the experiencer when compared with installations that are non-sounding and ‘static’. Sound ‘will oblige the public in attendance to wait, to listen, and to be aware of the gradual or rapid changes’ that occur as part of a time-based phenomenon (Iturbide 2003: 4). That is, sound requires time in order to play out, and thus structures audience experience in a way that a work whose materials are persistently static will not (viewer experience of time in the latter instance being entirely self-determined and based on the time taken to navigate it). In this respect, as identified above, tools and strategies pertinent to the study of such temporal discourse in sound—i.e. music analysis—will be relevant to the analysis of sound art. However, in the installation, time as conceived or composed by the artist is set against that as experienced by the listener. Irrespective of the structural concerns of a particular work, tools and techniques for music analysis tend to operate on the assumption of fixed temporal boundaries—start and end points— within which the material trace is presented. Such boundaries do not necessarily apply in relation to the listener to a sound art work in public space, whose experience will likely begin and end at the time that he or she enters and exits the space in which the work is presented.

Thus, in a sound art work, time must be considered in terms of how it exists in relation not only to the materials of the work (the discourse of the work itself) but also in relation to the observer (whose navigation of, or experience of the work is conducted over a time frame that is different to that of the work itself). It also needs to be considered in relation to context (when the installation is taking place historically, or in relation to particular circumstances (at a particular time of day, for instance, or in relation to other activities)), and finally in relation to space.

Referencing Lefebvre’s Theory of Moments, Maria Andueza Olmedo distinguishes between the artwork as monument (‘static, immobile and isolated’), and as ‘moment’ (‘an experience, always in movement, always changing, always in context’), proposing that the immateriality and temporality of the sound installation is uniquely positioned to emerge out of an existing situation, as presented by the urban environment, and comment upon it, while being ephemeral and inconstant (2012: 52). Thus the spatial and contextual are animated by the temporal in these contexts.

With regard to space, in considering the issue of formal analysis of installation art, Sabine Schafer and Joachim Krebs propose a useful taxonomy which might serve as a starting point for the analysis of the physical configuration of the sound materials themselves. Broadly, these can be represented as:

  • the Space-soundObject,—a sound emitter which radiates sound in one direction only—in essence two-dimensionally;
  • the circumambulatory Space-soundBody—a sound emitter (we can imagine sculptural) which broadcasts (i.e. projects outwards) in all directions;
  • the enterable Space-soundBody—an enclosure in which the sound is projected inwards to an enclosed space inhabited by the listener;
  • the Space-within-Space—in which various layers of ... project inwards to a listening enclosure (Schafer and Krebs 2003).

Within these models we might look towards Robin Minard’s strategies of spatialisation for governing the conditioning and articulation of space within sound installation practice. The first of these involves the establishment of static ‘spatial states’— means of colouring environments with a view to influencing the perception of them. The second involves movement of sounds through space. The latter might be broken down into spatialisation types—trajectories of movements and so on (Minard 1996).

While helpful in describing the physical configuration of the materials of the installation and the way in which sound might be broadcast from them, the particular spatial types addressed by Schafer and Krebs presuppose works in architecturally circumscribed spaces—i.e. indoors—and that the architecture is neutral in its relationship with the work. In fact, inevitably with any kind of sound work (e.g. an orchestral performance in the concert hall), the sound radiated by the sound-making object will be affected by the acoustics of the space in which it is situated. But in installation practice, a presented work’s relationship with its environment must at the very least be acknowledged—“there is no frame separating this art from its viewing context, the work and the space having melded together into an approximation of a life experience” (Rosenthal 2003: 25)—and in site-specific works it is integrally bound with (i.e. cannot exist apart from) it. Thus the context is important in determining how the installation will be perceived: ‘the axes with which matter is being organized are not exclusively internal to the work, but also external’ (Iges in Iturbide 2003: 2);; the work must establish a dialogue with the surrounding space.

Public spaces are often architecturally complex and highly inconstant spaces, in which sound has an ambiguous horizon: it can go around corners and thus its presence be perceived prior to its origin being seen, but it can equally be occluded, reflected or channelled by physical objects or surfaces (buildings or corridors) in (or near to) the spaces from which it originates;; it can be masked by other sounds—by human activity, for example—in the vicinity. And if outside (and in particular if large-scale), sound can also be manipulated by weather conditions (carried/hampered by the wind or absorbed in high humidity). All of these things may also change depending on time of day or year. My own Old Joe Sound Sculpture (2001), a space- soundBody according to Schafer/Krebs’s typology, involved four speakers placed at the top of the clock tower at the University of Birmingham facing outward from each of the four walls. The electroacoustically manipulated bell sounds projected from these speakers were affected in complex ways through their interactions with the surrounding architecture (reflection and colouration) and the wind (Batchelor 2004: 11-13), but could be heard over a mile away from the source.

Thus sound installations presented in public may also play out over significantly greater spaces than those found in the concert hall or gallery space. Several of Bill Fontana’s works are presented on vast scales and play with the idiosyncrasies of time and space in their exploration of the differences in arrival times between electronically and acoustically transmitted sound in (and sometimes between) large urban spaces. Therefore the networking of acoustically independent soundBodies should perhaps be added to the Schafer/Krebs taxonomy for works presented in and between public spaces.

Bill Fontana’s works often involve a concern with the historicity of the sonic signature of a site: his work for the church of St Martin’s in Birmingham—The Bells of St Martin (2005)—was a reflection upon the restricted reach of the sounds of the church’s bells due to the recently-built amphitheatre-like enclosure of large buildings—the Bullring shopping complex—that now surround it, which act to contain them . The installation, which involved composing bell clusters in order to ‘create a much greater density of sound, a larger sound that I hope will travel further into the Birmingham landscape’ (Fontana in Grimley 2005) was an acknowledgement of the changing function of sound in the urban environment.

Such concern for the inhabitants and history of a site extends to the participatory nature of the installation activity, which in turn may extend to the explicitly performative and the soliciting of members of the public to participate in collective sonic art activity. In Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night (1992) and Richard Lerman’s Travelon Gamelon (1982), sound occupies public space amorphously, making use of members of an ambulatory public (volunteers) to carry and distribute their sounds throughout public spaces (Kline’s involving scintillating textures emanating from boom boxes (Kline 2012);; Lerman’s involving amplified bicycle mechanisms (Steim 2011)), yielding unified textures via the asynchronous presentation of a variety of sound streams.

In addition to the materials of installation (the amount of three-dimensional physical space occupied by the work, or how, in the case of sound, that sound is distributed from the work) as identified by Schafer and Krebs, therefore, space must also be considered as it relates to the relationship of the installation to context as place or site, which by extension takes into account space in relation to time as well as ‘the social’—the history of the space (its use before and after the installation), and the manner in which the installation may affect the perception of space and its use, permitting new social interactions.

5. The urban performative model

A useful model which encapsulates the necessary relationships between a work’s material contents and the various contextual concerns (both environmental and social/participatory) is provided by Line Marie Bruun Jespersen in a discussion of performativity and interaction in urban design (2010). This facilitates the analysis of what she refers to as ‘performative urban projects’, which covers site specific installations in a public setting. Jespersen’s model is derived from the combination of two others—one for analysing installation art by Anne Ring Petersen and the other for approaching physical/social spatial dynamics by Edward Sojas (2010: 31). Critically, Jespersen’s model suggests that the insertion of an installation in a public space creates a system that has implications well beyond the limits of the form of the installation itself. In any public art, the spatial context is ‘much more than just a site for art, but also a space for every day life and all the functions belonging to it’ (2010: 33). Any analysis of (public) installation art needs to take into account this relationship between the art and life, or context, which may refer to the immediate physical context of the installation (the site), the societal context, and the artistic context (ibid: 32). As such, her model is designed ‘not only to describe form or an artefact, but more precisely to define the effect the installation has on the relation between installation and site and users’ (ibid: 33). She identifies three levels of analysis:

  • formal analysis of the materials of the installation
  • analysis of the relationship between the installation and its context
  • the interaction between user and installation, encompassing cultural/social context

Jespersen addresses the context, and encapsulates the ‘life’ aspect, of the installation within three interdependent categories —space, time and the social—which drive the ‘motor of a dynamic process in space’ (ibid: 34). These categories need to be explored in combination, both in relation to the installation itself, and in relation to each other, in order to understand the whole system.

Around this engine is the observer/commentator frame. The installation inevitably involves a relationship with the individual as observer;; indeed, the spectator is in some way regarded as integral to the completion of any installation. But who is the spectator? According to Peterson’s model from which Jespersen derives her own, this frame encompasses those familiar with the discourse surrounding installation art, and therefore informed observers, though in light of the above discussion it should also, of course, encompass the uninformed observer. But it also acknowledges the ‘double role of the commentator, as art audience and art commentator at the same time’ which is valuable because ‘it links to some of the hermeneutical issues in analysing art, that include participation and interaction as experience modes’ (ibid: 32). In a work of public art this observer/commentator frame must necessarily include members of the public.

6. Public art evaluative model

Existing analytical models from an arts marketing perspective might also be of use here, along with artists who have subscribed to these. ixia is a public art think tank which ‘provides guidance on the role of art in the public realm’ (ixia 2012a). It provides a comprehensive toolkit for the evaluation of public art projects which in turn provides a number of useful tools for the analyst. These evaluations are predominantly done confidentially for the purposes of the artists or stakeholders directly involved in publicly-funded projects, and therefore decidedly have an agenda that is beyond the academic or pedagogical.

Questionnaires encourage the acquisition of both qualitative and quantitative data from those who have experienced the installation. And artists themselves are required to reflect upon the process and outcomes of the various installations through an evaluation ‘toolkit’ consisting of a ‘matrix’ which prompts reflection upon such issues as:

  • artistic value (e.g. visual/aesthetic/enjoyment, social activation, innovation/risk, challenge and prompting of critical debate)
  • social value (e.g. community development, poverty and social inclusion, health and well being, crime and safety)
  • environmental value (e.g. vegetation and wildlife, physical environmental improvement, conservation, pollution and waste management, climate change and energy)
  • economic value (e.g. marketing/place identity, regeneration, tourism, economic investment and output, resource use and recycling, education, employment, project management/sustainability, value for money) (ixia 2012b).

There is clearly a great deal more at issue here than an analysis of the materials that make up the work—in particular, logistical and practical concerns. Such aspects of ‘value added’ are alien to any traditional analysis within the arts, but in a context in which the art work is inescapably connected with life, the links are arguably unavoidable within a comprehensive analysis of the work, and it emphasises the need for multidisciplinarity in the analysis of sound art within the public domain.

The arts collective liminal (David Prior and Francis Crow) have produced a series of comprehensive analytical/evaluative documents for their various projects which are based on this model (e.g. Crowe and Leahy 2006; Liminal 2011).

7. The unknowing public and distraction

The Intention/Reception methodology begins with an exercise to ‘investigate individuals' listening strategies when introduced to a piece without any contextual information’ (Landy 2001: 1). These, of course, are exactly the conditions we might expect individuals to be listening in if encountering a piece of public art. This has implications in terms of the manner in which the installation is experienced. Landy (2001) and Weale (2006) contrive a useful set of parameters around which such Intention/Reception research might be conducted which might be reimagined for the purposes of the analysis of sound art within the public domain. These do, however, require the abstraction of explicit ‘art-within-life’ responses from the ‘life’ context in which they are experienced.

Petersen refers to the digital screen media that permeate our everyday environment, viewing this as the reason for a predisposition towards distraction on the part of the experiencer in video-based art. In the current age of multimedia information overload, she suggests, ‘ the observer is subjected to the continual change between the best and the worst possible viewing and listening positions, and will have to adopt a more or less automated perceptual procedure of letting new things come into focus while other things slip out of focus, and many things are not even perceived at all as they remain in the periphery of attention or beneath the threshold of awareness’ (Petersen 2010: 5).

Sound art/installation is perhaps one example of public art which lends itself to transparency or invisibility. I have written elsewhere about the exploration of the lower case and transparent in public sound art (Batchelor 2013);; for some artists, in fact, the issue of whether the work is noticed or not is unimportant;; what are the implications here with regards to analysis? Since music/sound in the form of piped music permeates public spaces and hence the daily lives of its occupants, a condition of selectivity and distraction inevitably results from this. Reception of any public art exists very much on a boundary between distraction and concentration;; reception is contingent upon the condition of people’s everyday lives at any one time (i.e. what they happen to be doing, their concurrent concerns etc) which by extension have a bearing upon whether the art is noticed in the first place.

On this basis, a particular additional analytical parameter perhaps becomes significant in the context of the sound installation might be ‘transparency’—related to ‘dynamics’ but not equivalent—which within the context of public sound art/installation might concern the ‘noticeability’ of the work. While a work by Bill Fontana intervenes aggressively and noisily in public spaces (e.g. Acoustical Visions of Venice, 1999 (Fontana 1999)), adding an explicit soundmark, for example, several by Max Neuhaus are designed to embrace a more liminal perceptual condition, emerging ‘organically’ from an existing environment and embracing the possibility of being ignored (e.g. Times Square, 1977 (Neuhaus 1977)).

By extension, one caveat in relation to the obtaining of information relating to response to works in the public domain is that to obtain such responses verbally might interfere in the process of reception in the first place—a kind of Heisenbergian uncertainty phenomenon insofar as whatever is studied is also changed (i.e. the very act of asking individuals their response to a public artwork will draw their attention to it, when they might otherwise have passed it by). The acquisition of such data can, perhaps, be achieved in a more passive manner than via questionnaires and interviews: retrieving unfiltered data from the public becomes to some extent easier with the increasing number of online blogs and social media sites, which makes informal independent reviews made by members of the public in response to public installation art more available;; nevertheless, most useful or telling responses to a work would likely be hidden in private exchanges which are inaccessible to the analyst. Another possibility is the collection and analysis of public ambulatory data. Comparing such data before and after the installation of a work might reveal any changing patterns in the movements of individuals through a public space. The data from any of these more passive data mining will, of course, be limited in its richness in comparison with the more active pursuit of verbal or written feedback.

8. Installation Documentation

‘Spectator participation is so integral to lnstallation art that without having the experience of being in the piece, analysis of Installation art is difficult’ (Reiss 2001: xiv). Nevertheless, there remains the issue of sound art/installation works which are dismantled, and therefore no longer available to experience directly for the purpose of analysis. It is of course possible to conduct an analysis on an installation that is no longer in situ, provided appropriate documentation of the work is available. In this case, of course, the analyst is entirely reliant on reliable and comprehensive documentation practices of the artist. In such instances, the documentation essentially becomes the work, or at least the only form in which the work continues to exist. This analysis will be different from one in which the analyst is able to see the full installation—clearly while the materials of the installation may still be accessible (sound files, algorithms, etc), these cannot be explored in relation to their context, but a valid analysis can be conducted from secondary sources. Meanwhile, while comprehensive documentation is critical in facilitating the analysis of a dismantled installation, the analysis itself becomes part of the documentation process, adding an additional perspective on the work.

Julie Reiss (2001) identifies four means of documentation for the art installation, all of which would be applicable to the sound installation in any context:

  • published criticism of the work by reviewers, who will not only describe the mechanics of the installation but provide a first-hand account of it as experienced, in addition to reflecting upon the general reception to the installation from members of the public. This also, of course, provides a historical perspective of the work. She says: ‘That it is it is the report of only one individual does not diminish its importance, as first-person experience is one of the main points of Installation art’ (ibid: xvi).
  • interviews individuals who have contributed to the development or staging of the work.
  • photographic documentation—both professional and amateur, since these will offer perspectives on the visual aspects of the installation both as intended and as experienced respectively.
  • analysis of the context—both physical and social—in which the work was exhibited, since this will have had a considerable impact upon the work as experienced.

Until recently, the prevailing means of documentation, even of art/installation practice involving sound, has been silent/visual: photography and written descriptions via print media is easiest to publish. Increasingly, however, digital means of documentation enable artists using various time-based media to accumulate and distribute media-rich documentation of their works in hard-copy publications (e.g. Groys et al. 2008;; Kubisch 2000) and online (e.g. Zimoun 2013).

In installations in which the sound component is not fixed, some artists present recordings or fabricated versions of an instance (sometimes fabricated) of a walk-through (e.g. Kubisch 2009). Ambisonic or binaural recordings/representations provide a practical means of capturing (or at least providing a sense of) the spatial experience provided by sound installations (e.g. Keston 2012 (for a showing of David Byrne’s Playing the Building at Aria in Minneapolis) and Chang 2012). These are equally applicable to the public art work, but several walk-throughs would be necessary in order to capture the installation in different conditions.

Nevertheless, the means of documenting sound installations remains very individual to the artists themselves;; certainly there is yet to be a comprehensive set of suggested guidelines in order to ensure a consistent means of documentation which lends itself to analysis. Since ‘analysis also deals with the identification and description of families of approaches and works.’ (Landy 2001: 26), this would also be useful from the point of view of facilitating comparative analysis.

Online databases offer archives of information on sound art for comparative analysis. Perhaps most useful from an analytical point of view is J Milo Taylor’s ImMApp (Immersive Mapping Application)—which offers a means of collecting, categorising and organising sound art according to not only conventional taxonomy (‘artist’, ‘location’ and ‘year’, for example), but also by what Taylor describes as ‘artist nodes’—keywords or tags applied to the database entry which describe more intuitively aspects of their aesthetic aim or content and which, collectively, act as ‘attractors around which practice can be seen to converge’ (Taylor 2008: 429). Demarcating and connecting areas of sound art practice in unexpected ways, the software ‘allows a researcher the chance to deconstruct, compare and contrast previously unconnected practice’, in turn enabling ‘transformative acts of play to recontextualise and reconfigure an imagined historical narrative’. Not only does this provide a useful model for comparative analysis, but it also offers alternative ways to understand the context in which a sound installation exists.

9. Conclusion

The presentation of sound in the form of art and installation in the public domain has received little theoretical coverage;; certainly there is a lot of ground that remains to be explored in relation to issues surrounding the analysis of such work. This text represents a very nascent attempt to present a foundation for future research while identifying some of the challenges and opportunities that might exist in pursuing such study. It seems apparent that an ideal approach should encompass the analysis of—and be conducted in acknowledgement of the various relationships that exist between—the material trace of the work (the installation or sound art artefact itself), its context (both physical and social) and, most critically, those who experience and interact with it. As such, any analysis of sound art in the public domain must be multidisciplinary, involving input from a wide variety of fields from (for example) music and sound theory and analysis (material trace), through acoustics, architecture, history and sociology (context), and ultimately to anthropology, ethnology, neuroscience, perception, psychoacoustics (public engagement). Clearly a comprehensive exploration and discussion of all the relevant techniques in these areas is beyond the scope of this essay, and their application would require the input of specialists in each field. This, perhaps, is the remit of further research in pursuit of a more comprehensive analytical methodology which synthesises these various techniques, along with the formulation of case studies with which to demonstrate their practical application.

[1] For the purposes of the current discussion I am purposefully using sound art to encompass sound art and sound installation practice. I will make distinctions between these where relevant, but since many of the issues discussed in this text concern both, for conciseness I will present them simply as ‘sound art’. 

 

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