Longread — Nov 24, 2020

Time-based Media Curator-in-Training Danica Pinteric reflects on curating the screening Video Club: Sound Check and programming video in the age of the pandemic.

The regulation of public space brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in unprecedented changes to our usage of public space throughout the world, and museum galleries are no exception. Of these changes, the omission of headphones, interactive displays and shareable sound equipment were likely among the least conspicuous to visitors. Although a seemingly small gesture by contrast to the tight room capacities and hand sanitizing stations throughout the building, the disappearance of audio equipment was keenly felt by the time-based media team at the Stedelijk. It brought about a unique challenge: that of negotiating the presence of open sound in the gallery space. With headphones removed from video works installed in common areas, the acoustic domain demanded acute attention. The museum’s project teams were suddenly tasked with mitigating sound-spill and determining appropriate volume levels to restore harmony to their installations. In spite of this recent wave of aural adjustments, one corner of the museum remained relatively unaffected by the new measures in place: the cinema-style screening room in the upper level of BASE 2, home to Video Club, a rotating program which highlights video works in the Stedelijk’s time-based media collection. The unchanged status of this area, a space dedicated to audiovisual presentations, provided a framework for organizing the latest installment of Video Club.

With the newfound privilege of conflict-free open sound in mind, Sound Check considers the intermedial nature of video and emphasizes the relationship between image and sound in works from the Stedelijk video collection. Following Paul Hegarty’s observation that “the normalcy of having sound and image together [in video art] makes us forget to consume the sound as anything other than incidental,”[1] this program focuses on the material and affective resonance of the audio within audiovisual media like video. Which conclusions can be drawn, or associations made, when the audible is addressed as an element equal to the visible, rather than taken as a secondary or “incidental” component? This program approaches the relation between the seen and the heard not in terms of a hierarchy, but rather, as something fluid.

Artists in this program navigate the perceptual boundaries of audiovisual cohesion using a number of technical approaches. Certain works, like Servaas’ Writing (1981) and Richard Serra’s Boomerang (1974) present footage exactly as it was recorded. Others, like Pop Pop Video: General Hospital/Olympic Women Speed Skaters (1980), source and combine fragments from American pop culture’s sonic and visual landscape. Across these various techniques, sound plays a crucial role in establishing the tone and narrative structure at the core of each work.

Reimagining the audio components of broadcast television fragments, Dara Birnbaum’s Pop Pop Video: General Hospital/Olympic Women Speed Skaters (1980) unpacks the influence of sound on perceptions of the image by overlaying snippets from popular entertainment, like Olympic speedskating contests and dramatic soap operas, with different musical scores. The video alternates between footage of an indoor speedskating competition among athletes in full-length bodysuits, and a scene at a hospital between a man in a doctor’s uniform and a woman engaged in conversation with concerned facial expressions. Uplifting instrumentals fade into acoustic vocal performances, later becoming energetic disco music. Each musical transition provides an opportunity to reflect on the distinct aesthetic and emotive properties of the sourced material. As a result, the tone of the scenes shifts from celebratory, to jarring, to absurd, as though one were tuning into different radio stations on a television set.

While Dara Birnbaum investigates sound and video through the use of sourced video footage and music, Richard Serra explores this relationship through his own recordings. Boomerang (1974) documents an early experiment with video and sound equipment. A young white woman with medium-length brown hair (the artist Nancy Holt) appears in a recording studio against a blue background. She wears headphones which echo the sound of her own voice back to her in near real-time, with only a split-second delay. With astounding clarity, Holt describes her experience of simultaneously producing and responding to the sensation of hearing her voice ensnared in a cybernetic loop. While the connection between the sound and image components in this video is more or less stable, the delay caused by the feedback produces a dreamlike quality and captures Holt as she enters a heightened state of self-awareness brought on by the rapid audio playback. At the time of the video’s production this would have been a relatively novel feature, due to the emergent and expanding access that artists gained to real-time sound and video technology within this time period.

The head of a white woman with medium-length hair wearing headphones appears against a blue background.
Richard Serra, Boomerang, 1974, courtesy of the artist’s studio

Holt’s performance in Boomerang (1979) corresponds to that of a medium, transmitting and absorbing fragments of her own speech. Another artist also concerned with processes of mediation is Gary Hill. His work Mediations (towards a remake of Soundings) (1979/1986) comprises a single take shot from above, focused on a stereo speaker that loudly reverberates Hill’s voice reciting poetry. Periodically, a disembodied hand (the artist’s) enters the frame to sprinkle grains of sand into the speaker’s cone. As the sand accumulates, the material substance through which the sound travels alters dramatically. As this experiment progresses, Hill’s commentary loosely refers to the actions in the video (“a voice lies in the sand, 1000 grains of voice…”), which in turn also contributes to the vibration of the speaker.

Taken from a bird’s eye perspective, a black cone speaker is shown, filled almost to the edges with grains of beige sand. The vibration of the speaker scatters the sand across the surface.
Gary Hill, Mediations (towards a remake of Soundings), 1979/1986.

Both Serra’s and Hill’s works document experiments with different kinds of sound equipment where the connection between sound and image is reasonably clear. Departing from this relative audiovisual coherence is a collaboration between Dutch video artist Paul Müller and American sound artist Anna Rubin, Reflections in a Sound Mirror (1984), which investigates the formal and narrative structures of both music and video. This work juxtaposes an experimental soundscape by Rubin, which features computer-altered breathing and other guttural noises, with Müller’s ambiguous video footage of an old, unoccupied room and blurry, cropped frames of a mysterious young white woman (a performance by video artist Annie Wright). The fusion of Müller and Rubin’s disparate contributions destabilizes the expectation that image and sound work together to develop a narrative. Instead, Müller and Rubin establish a relationship between hearing and seeing that is more associative than it is didactic.

Another work which deliberately blurs the connection between audio and visual elements is Writing (1981) by Dutch artist Servaas. In this work, the sound of a scratching pen serves as the dominant narrative device for interpreting the visual material: an indistinct cluster of blurred yellow matter against a black background, moving in time with the sound element. As time goes on, a short sentence, written in Dutch, is revealed on-screen, presumably having been composed in the seconds prior. In effect, the visual component serves to establish the writing as both the source of the audio component and of the written sentence depicted. Servaas was known for being sparse with his technical input, avoiding the use of newly-available computers or synthesizers in his video works. The audiovisual effects in his videos are produced through situations he orchestrated and filmed.

The final work in the program, Resonance II (1993), features a spoken and acoustic performance by intermedia artist Philip Dadson. Alternating between black and white sequences and full-color close-ups with a red background, we see Dadson’s hands performing a series of actions—rubbing, clapping, and later, tapping two river stones against each other—that create an entrancing rhythmic composition of percussive noise, later accompanied by other acoustic instruments. Dadson’s composition is contrasted visually with a sequence of unique forms and patterns, made by his moving hands in silhouette. A voiceover periodically enters to recount personal memories of particular noises. Weaving together sound, image, and memory, the performance explores Dadson’s emotional relationship to his senses, which connect his past and present.

Two white hands appear against a red backdrop. In the hands are two small grey and beige river stones.
Philip Dadson, Resonance II, 1993.

Pandemic or not, accessibility for Sound Check cannot be universal. Especially due to its emphasis on aural and visual stimuli, the experience of this program can differ for audience members within communities of disability, such as visitors who experience degrees of hearing or vision impairment. The current circumstances may appear to be advantageous to some for reflections on the multisensory dimensions of video, but they may not be recognized as such by every viewer. In recent years, supplementary materials such as verbal descriptions and alternate texts have become increasingly available within arts institutions to offer additional details regarding an artwork’s content. While a number of excellent resources exist for captioning images online, the path for describing the content of video artworks is less clearly defined. With the intention of improving the accessibility of this program, this text has integrated a brief content description of each artwork’s audiovisual content. This approach does not claim to be a final resolution for describing video artworks, but rather, reflects a facet of an ongoing process of learning and development.

Although initiated by external circumstances, Sound Check ironically encourages visitors to turn their focus inward. While sound plays a significant role in each of these works, interpretations of meaning are also framed by each viewer’s own experiences, memories, and ability. Though their diverse technical and narrative strategies, the works featured in this program explore the elastic relationship between image and sound, with varied results. As the program nears the end of its run and we begin to acclimatize to the practical conditions of the so-called “new normal,” may one thing persist: of all the noises transmitted through the speakers in Sound Check, none are “incidental.”

[1] Paul Hegarty, Rumour and Radiation: Sound in Video Art, (New York/London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 12.