SILENCE IS SEXY

Valerio Mannucci

from NERO n.07 december/january 2006

Before beginning, perhaps I should be candid and say that this article is, at least in part, contestable. But I wouldn’t want it to be viewed as a kind of rejection, rather as a description. There is nothing in what follows that I haven’t already swallowed or am not ready to swallow.
Let’s put it like this: if after having received press releases via e-mail, read exhibition and concert reviews, witnessed lucubrations from the “cultural commissioner”, and listened to statements by artists and musicians who wouldn’t even be allowed citizenship in Disneyland, if after all this you realised that you’re fed up, what would you do? I don’t know, I’m still thinking it over. In the meantime, however, I thought of spitting out a part of this prêt-à-porter conceptualism on paper. Perhaps it’s the best thing to do because to try to provide linearity to dissatisfaction is a lost cause from the start. Better to spit something out and hope that it creates some unexpected links to the referred system in a chance game of upping the bid between specific idea and “empty” operation.

Let’s get down to specifics then and say that what interests me is a very precise dynamic, even if not easily describable: namely, the relationship that exists between the declaration of some stereotyped ideas and the assertion of phenomena to which these ideas refer to into a wider arena. I wouldn’t know how to describe this procedure because it’s very subtle. But let’s say that I’m referring to that phenomenon in which something created and developed in a specific social, critical and cultural context finds itself presented on a large scale (and almost always through talent-scouting conducted either by a public organisation or by a private one that is fully inserted into the dynamics of the predominant system). I’ll define this phenomenon with a word that would make Nicola Zingarelli’s skin crawl: institutionalisation. (Zingarelli: Italian philologist and founder of the most important Italian dictionary.)
Still more specifically, I would like to talk about that musical phenomenon that is normally defined, in its various expressions, as “contemporary ambient music”, “sound art”, “immersive music”, and so on. That is, the entire series of experiences in which the frontal aspect of listening to music becomes secondary to the active reception of the listener who finds himself “immersed” in a sound environment. At least that’s usually what one says. But let’s give an example: a work that would commonly belong to this category is a sound installation or a certain type of electronic noise, while a jazz or electro/techno concert would be excluded from this kind of discourse. Usually one also says that the listener of “immersive” music experiences the sound and noise in a conscious and critical way, less passively than someone seated in an auditorium for classical music. There are a lot of other considerations – that would partly justify these assumptions – but I’m interested in tackling these ideas in their diffused “packaging”.

Of course, it’s obvious that the more a thing spreads, the more the ideas that it carries with it become established; but I think the reference is two-fold. Things also spread because some ideas catch on more than others, and not by pure chance. To be honest and upfront: I don’t want to demonstrate that the concepts of immersion and sound ambience are nonsense. But I would like to show how they assume a closed and reassuring form, more than what’s right, in concurrence with the interest expressed in the events in question by institutions and the public.

Looking closer, not everything runs smoothly inside this diffused concept. The best thing in these cases is to look at the facts rather than making assumptions. Here’s an example of a press release whose source I will not cite (because it’s not important):

“…The installations integrate mixed media, audio electronics and video. Interactivity heightens the experience, engaging and directing participants in an activity of sensory exploration. Participants play a focal role, lending a great deal of creative input. Ultimately, outcomes are a result of the partnership between the artists and the public…”

All the elements are there: mixed media, interactivity, sensory experience, but, above all, the active participation of the spectator (here even defined as ‘partnership’). Yet it’s exactly for this that I sense something packaged in the idea. To hear the works talked about in these terms makes me think of a perverse form of historic regression towards an early 1900s modernism. Perhaps by dint of hearing talk of virtual reality and home theatre in television, one ends up confusing musical ambience with Dolby Surround, and this, I admit, pisses me off. But then I ask myself, in a launch of heroic honesty, if they’re not really the same thing after all, at least for how they’re usually served up to us.
For a variety of different reasons, several musicians have tackled the question of ambient music’s origin in pop culture. First among them to come to mind are Terre Thaemlitz and Ultra-Red. So we’ll go to another excerpt, taken from a text by Ultra-Red (a group of audio activists that, since the beginning of the 1990s, have performed in public spaces, written texts, and developed a very thoughtful discourse on the significance that audio culture has in our society). There’s a passage that gets going a simple but significant line of reasoning. It’s not a central concern, but perhaps it’s enough to open a first break:

“…Whether in urban clubs or rave parties held in rural areas, ambient music entered into ’90s youth music culture through chill-out spaces at such events. Characterised by a womb-like envelop of sound and an asylum from the physical rigors of dancing into the morning hour, chill-out spaces provided young urbanites a space for conversation and recuperation from a musical and chemical adrenaline rush. While the term chill-out is not universally applied to ambient music, the tropes of relaxation, contemplation and stasis remain ubiquitous.”

So Ultra-Red sustain that the concept of ambient music became part of youth music culture in the 1990s through chill-out spaces at the raves and underground clubs. In my opinion, this highlights a fundamental issue: that objective immersion (physical and sensory) doesn’t count in itself – what difference is there between listening to techno music in a warehouse and a sound installation inside an art gallery? – What counts is the psychological bent of who listens to it. Indeed, in a chill-out situation created to soften the exit from a highly frantic context like a rave, the stimulus is to allow yourself to be taken of, nurtured. After having abandoned oneself to techno’s chemical fumes, at the moment in which one wants to get out, one relates to the music not according to the rules of melody or rhythm, but to those of a personal and psychological flux. Immersion is a slow negotiation with the listener, and therefore with the public and context. In order to be immersive artists (provided that someone feels the need to be that), the conditions need to be created so that the public decides to put itself in those conditions beyond rational expectations (that often derive from having read a press release). And in order to do this, one must amaze and surprise the public, operating outside the expectations imposed by an idea that already predicts our experience. It’s for this reason that sometimes a techno party can be more immersive than a sound installation.

Now let’s return to the general issue. We all know that the world of art and culture has an economy, which in the current state of things (above all in Italy) is primarily characterised by searching for funds and economic support or by sponsorship from powerful institutions (or at least connected to other rich economic/commercial realities). Drawing a passage from a text by musician Terre Thaemlitz, here’s what one says regarding the rapport between institutions and the economic necessities of artists:

“…The crossover of audio producers working in both the commercial audio marketplace and fine arts has become common place, not so much out of the “creative will” of producers (as common mythology would have it), but out of the necessity for commercial producers to find alternate income in the wake of the audio marketplace’s current economic turmoil…”

So it’s not reckless to think that, faced with the necessity of musicians to find alternative incomes, economic dynamics are set in motion which include the ‘exploitation’ of the lateral culture.
However, I’d like to add and emphasise that the fault is not only of the institutions that exploit a scene, as much as the scene itself that makes itself available to be exploited. After having worked in niche contexts for years, young artists and organisers become precious goods and are recruited by more powerful institutions, becoming a reservoir for the launch of emerging phenomena on a wider scale. This transition made, the necessity of the two systems to meet halfway determines anomalous factors. A good part of the cultural communication system insists on reinforcing, also involuntarily, an idea like immersion. And therefore the little magic word begins to appear on press releases, articles, reviews of events. This is how some themes become very present, exactly because they’re easy to acknowledge and conceptualise, until they stratify themselves, on the one hand creating critical confusion, and on the other helping organisers and managers of culture to better sell what they know little about.
So, the above mentioned young organisations and artists – in order to justify the request for co-productions, grants and financing by the institutions – dress their artistic proposals (often of a high standard) with concepts and presentations that have to adapt to the comprehensibility of the “high” world, with a consequent and never-well-revealed critical pomp. And there’s no better way to do this than to use simplistic concepts.

All this has at least three clear and simple motives:

to justify the opening of a ‘serious’ institution towards young artistic practices and the ‘rave’ phenomena (as I sometimes happen to hear say…).

to make the object in question more comprehensible - an a-melodic installation for example - to those who are not at all trained in the field (though, despite everything, the greater part of them will define ‘strange’).

to create rules of communication between those who feel habitué to these and the bordering environments. First example: “yesterday I went to see a very interesting work by CM Von Hausswolff, one of those immersive, ambient artists” – “oh yes, he’s really good at making those things”. Second example: “…maybe we could invite a sound artist, perhaps we can ask him to do an installation. They spoke to me about a certain Mark Bain, it seems that his work is primarily concentrated on immersion and site-specific research…” – “excellent, he could think of an installation for the basement of the museum, creating a critical journey for the spectator, blah, blah, blah…”

I don’t believe anything else is needed for us to understand each other.

There is, therefore, a direct return between the establishing of certain ideas and the institutionalisation of the relative phenomena. The strongest return is connected to the communication that one creates around, and by which, the critical schemes are prepared for the reception and the consumption of these phenomena. However, there is another decisive aspect, though it is much more hidden and difficult to highlight: besides the public, who fortunately is a lot less world-wise and with the ring in the nose than the managers of culture believe, those who begin to really believe it are the critics and, above all, young artists. It’s happened several times that I’ve spoken with musicians my own age and felt disconcerted by the critical validation that they refer to. On the one hand, there’s a conscious and sly aspect because they know they’ll receive greater attention from the institutions, and on the other an unconscious and very degrading aspect in how, having found a formula that works, they attach themselves to it as if it was the only truth. Musicians who used to play electronic music at parties or in social centres begin to get big-headed and come out with improbable projects in which “…the space and listener interact, while synaesthesia de-structures the narrative…”, or things like that.

Perhaps I should explain myself better because I believe all this is dangerous. Because for as many speakers that the latest installation by Carsten Nicolai has, if I passively endure the concept of immersion, I’ll find myself looking at/listening to a show that’s already ready to go and therefore absolutely non-immersive (no more than it is going to the cinema). I don’t know if I’m making any sense. To be on the safe side, I’ll quote another example from the presentation of a project that I will not cite:

“…The artist has created an immersive space, in which the spectator can move and live his own route in a personal way…”

In reality, doing it like that they’ve already constructed the route for me. It’s as if they told me “this is a film that the viewer will identify with, creating his own path made of memories and psychological reconstructions…” In the end, it’s like entering the house of interactive horrors at the funfair. It’s like buying yourself anti-wrinkle cream.
Only by getting away from these types of simple conceptualisations can one avoid enduring yet again a ‘frontal’ product disguised as something else. In another short text found online, written by Alfredo M. Ronchi (Milan Polytechnic) with regard to the study of the recreational media, he says:

“…In reality, in the rapport between player and game another fundamental aspect intervenes that is usually called immersion. Immersion represents the degree of sensory and emotional participation that ties the user to the application. It is a highly subjective factor, some people identity with adventure by simply reading the pages of a novel, others maintain an absolute detachment”.

So, to finish up, it seems evident that the objective aspect is equal to zero. Therefore, any pre-constructed idea doesn’t hold up. The immersion in a sound ambient is mainly subjective and psychological. Then how can an art form exist that is characterised by always arousing in the spectator the same perceptive-psychological sensation? And even if it succeeded, would it be a valid criterion of definition? Would it define something specific and unique to these arts? And would normal music remain excluded? And cinema? And literature…?

Who knows, perhaps after Immersive Art, if need be we’ll also have Depressing Art and Exciting Music. All things considered then, the moment will arrive in which I’ll prefer silence.