THE IDEA THAT ARTISTS ARE CAPABLE of producing organized sound that is somehow distinct from that created by musicians and composers has existed ever since the publication of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo's manifesto “The Art of Noises” in 1913. And although there's been a continuous stream of activity in this nebulous area ever since — Kurt Schwitter's “Merz” vocal composition Ursonate, Marcel Duchamp's chance compositions, the wildly cacophonous musique brut of Jean Dubuffet, the Fluxus compositions of George Brecht, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, the ritual orchestral drones of Vienna beef mogul Hermann Nitsch — it has taken almost a century for the concept of audio art to be taken seriously by the art world, and for sound artists to be considered anything more than sidetracked dilettantes or unskilled poseurs hiding behind a fancy title.
This year's Whitney Biennial (opening March 7 in New York) has taken evident pains to include a prominent selection of audio art. Debra Singer, who curated the Whitney's catching-up-with-the-digital-revolution exhibit, “BitStreams,” was assigned the task of traveling cross-country to perform the same function for the sound arts. Unsurprisingly, Singer has included major figures like vocalist/performance artist Meredith Monk and turntable-collage pioneer Christian Marclay, but has also come up with a few surprises, including former L.A. Weekly staffer Marina Rosenfeld, whose Glenn Brancastyle electric-guitar massings are given a conspicuous feminist twist through the use of nail-polish bottles as bottleneck slides. Other L.A. artists with sound practices participating in the Biennial include the Mike Kelley/Jim Shaw Destroy All Monsters Collective (showing a mass of their punk-psychedelic band ephemera) and gizmo artiste extraordinaire Tim Hawkinson. Although Hawkinson's piece for the Whitney isn't a sound work, Ace Gallery (excuse me — the Institute of Contemporary Art) is installing the artist's insanely gargantuan player-piano/bagpipe hybrid Überorgan (“possibly the largest contemporary indoor sculpture yet created”) in its New York space to coincide with Hawkinson's Whitney debut. Überorgan, originally designed to fill MassMOCA's airplane-hangar-size space, plays a variety of songs and hymns decoded from a roll of Mylar through enormous, gut-rattling pipes.
But the Whitney's gesture of inclusion is only the culmination of a widespread renewal of art-world interest in audio, piggybacked into the limelight in the scramble to incorporate computer-based digital work into the official canon (not to mention budget). And the connection is far from spurious. The Web-based “media arts platform” Rhizome.org recently hosted a panel discussion at Whose Café in Hollywood, focusing on the fertile subcategories of “glitch” and “post-digital” sound, followed by performances by Kim Cascone, Sutekh, and the Father of Lowercase Sound, Steve Roden. One panel participant, David Cotner, in addition to performing his own work as , maintains one of the most comprehensive Web sites and mailing lists about sound-art events and experimental music at www.hertz-lion.com. Digital technology has allowed artists access to sound-recording, editing and micromanufacturing tools that were unthinkable only a few years ago, and the Internet has provided the basis for an international exchange of ideas and sound files. The high caliber of sound art coming to light, especially compared to the hit-and-miss quality of Net art, is proof of how long and involved the subterranean history of the genre actually is.
Things have been heating up locally in real space, as well. Cindy Bernard, who organized a stellar (if bumpy) sound-art series at the MAK Schindler House last year, has incorporated as a nonprofit called the Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound, and is currently organizing a new season, including a chopped Optigan (a portablized version of the early-'70s analog sample-disc home keyboard marketed by Mattel, if you must know) marathon hosted by Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) alum Joe Potts. MAK artist-in-residence Richard Hoeck has also been active, presenting a DIY lo-fi electronic-sounds event in January as part of his Lobby in Rear project. Up on Hollywood Boulevard, LACE will offer Angelenos a rare opportunity to experience one of local legend Michael Brewster's acoustic sculptures. Brewster, who has taught at Claremont since 1973, is one of the few artists who work exclusively in the medium of sound, activating spaces with combinations of standing waves that undergo startling changes as the viewer — or auditor — moves through them. In the hardware department, Bay Area MIT grad and techno-geek sculptor Alan Rath has a selection of his hand-engineered stereo systems on view at Track 16 Gallery. Lacking the ominous anthropomorphism of his robotic works, Rath's stereos giddily embody the ne plus ultra of hi-fi hobbyist obsession, a bywater inextricable from contemporary sound art even as it renders the content of the actual signal irrelevant. Ping-Pong, anyone?
PERFORMANCE IS THE ONE AREA WHERE sound artists have been able to regularly penetrate the public's consciousness. While the majority of artists working in sound toil obscurely on projects that are fundamentally incompatible with show business, a few artists have actually managed paying gigs. In March, the long-delayed Sonic Youthcurated “All Tomorrow's Parties” will fill UCLA venues not only with indie darlings from Big Star to Stephen Malkmus, but art-noise from the likes of Destroy All Monsters, the Boredoms, Tony Conrad, and Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, the ultraprolific dean of Japanese noise music (who took his stage name from Kurt Schwitters' all-recycling one-man art movement).
Before all that hits the fans, however, UCLA Performing Arts is hosting new works by the somewhat more meditative sound/performance artists who originally defined the genre in the 1970s: Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. (See pages to your left, if you haven't already.) Anderson, whose ramshackle rendition of Moby-Dick in 1999 reiterated the wisdom of her latter-day return to minimalist solo work, is appearing at UCLA's Royce Hall this Saturday with a . . . minimalist solo work. Happiness, an autobiographical piece that recounts Anderson's undercover stints working at McDonald's and a Mennonite farm (sort of an inner-directed version of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed), promises to return the focus to Anderson's considerable gifts as a storyteller, which is arguably the oldest form of sound art. If anything could be more primal, it might be the wordless vocalizations of Meredith Monk, who forgoes the treacherous intricacies of linguistic utterances for a language of nonverbal sounds. Monk's newest work is Mercy, created in collaboration with installation artist Ann Hamilton, whose career took off while she was teaching at UC Santa Barbara and whose 1988 MOCA installation remains one of that institution's finest moments. Mercy, a nonlinear contemplation of the human capacities for cruelty and tenderness, has been pitched as a dance/theater piece, but the human voice is the central force in any of Monk's works — all the fixings are there to allow that voice to be heard.
Both Happiness and Mercy are steeped in post-9/11 melancholy, but ultimately, in both form and content, give witness to the transformative spiritual and political power inherent in intimate human experience. Which may well be the real reason that sound art is suddenly taking off. Rhizome.org emphasizes its “grassroots community and non-hierarchical structure,” and many sound artists are working at distinct odds with popular American culture's recent turn toward totalitarian bombast. But unlike Luigi Russolo, who sought an art to engage the industrial age on its own terms, sound art thinks small. Recordings of breaths and hums and rackets and rustlings, looped and layered and processed, burned onto CD in batches of 200 or 20, or put up on MP3.com, sound art is a sort of incremental accumulation of individual incidences of looking at the world in a slightly different way. And while it's nice that such activities are finally getting their props, it's not the sort of stuff that translates well into the Big Time. Personally, I'm getting pretty sick of Big Time culture. Maybe it's time to try on something smaller for size.
MICHAEL BREWSTER | At LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd. | February 16 through April 20
ALAN RATH | At TRACK 16, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through March 30