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The Sound of What Becomes Possible: Language Politics and Jesse Chun’s 술래 SULLAE (2020)

“To this day I think about all the strange words I missed out on, all the losses I’m still carrying from faraway…I still think of the time when I spoke one language, and that language was whole.”

Chun 2020

Language can be a site of loss, a wholeness with which one, due to migration, has never really known. In the above passage, artist, Jesse Chun, reflects on how her grandmother spoke words in a language she did not understand, but yearned to hear and feel those sounds after her passing. There is a sonic residue that sticks to diasporic experiences. There are sounds that can stir up a blend of affect and ideation that is comforting when whiteness is unsettling. It is this disjuncture between words, meaning, and their sounds, that drew me to Chun’s work, 술래 SULLAE (2020). This piece reminded me of how sound, in its most ambiguous and queer forms, can hold the contingencies of history, language, memory, family, and the genealogies of loss that mark these sites of colonial dispossession.

술래 SULLAE (2020) is a single channeled video that draws from ganggang sullae, a Korean seasonal harvest and fertility ritual that integrates song and dance and is typically performed by women under the glow of moonlight. The participants hold hands forming a circle that through their movement, expands, disassembles, and changes its form. The songs can be both impromptu or pre-determined and encourages the participants to express their feelings in chorus with one another.

Video made by the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea (2008) for UNESCO “intangible heritage” application

Diana Seo Hyung Lee (2020) suggests that historically ganggang sullae was meant to provide a forum for its participants to express emotions connected to living within patriarchal systems of power and oppression. She writes: “the women participating would not have been able to, in their everyday lives, sing, speak loudly, nor leave the house at night, in the patriarchal society of ancient Korea. This dance was a license for their one release.” In 술래 SULLAE, the dance proves to be a defiant presence. The women flash on screen as an unbreakable chain reinscribing a gendered history with new sounds and images that gesture to emancipatory possibilities.

술래 SULLAE combines archival clips of ganggang sullae, index pages from intonation books, images of Hangul and English consonants and audio splices from YouTube tutorials on how to pronounce English correctly. In the video, language becomes unhinged from expectation but at the same time, given form through history. The sound of the English language is disembodied and spliced into phonemic pulses.  In 술래 SULLAE, Chun has created an encounter with the grammars of polyphony; a simultaneity of sounds that are both restrained by and resistant to the imposition of English on the Korean diaspora. Through what Chun has described as a form of “unlanguaging” following Rey Chow, her audience is witness to new meanings produced through the abstraction, manipulation, and redaction of sounds and symbols from the English language.

Still from 술래 SULLAE (2020), courtesy of the artist

Chun’s editing and manipulation of English sounds is intentional. In an interview with Art Forum, Chun shares: “Taking the sound apart but still keeping it within the conceptual framework of English made me think about what else is embedded in making a language. English is tied up with legacies of imperialism; there’s so much unseen violence that is part of how this language is institutionalized.” What remains after the edits is an inventory of sounds that disrupts the primacy of the vowel as central to English word construction and thus, central to colonial imagination.  

Like Chun, I realize that my conceptualizing of language is within an English framework, but my hope is that when we turn to the affective and when we begin to pull language a part, something different, something resistant, is produced.  I am neither an expert in English nor Korean linguistics, it was the sounds in this work that pulled me into it. In thinking with 술래 SULLAE, I’m interested in what becomes possible in the absence of the vowel. I turn to the interruptive potential of consonant sounds to affect and incite methods of communication outside of those steeped in colonial dominance. What does it mean to de-emphasize the function of vowel sounds in language and reorient our listening to the consonant? What do consonant sounds teach us about the sonics of race that underwrite hierarchies of language? What methods of communication become possible when we do away with words and are left with only their sonic substance?

술래 SULLAE 3-channel excerpt

Through her assemblage of consonant sounds in 술래 SULLAE, Chun is making a deliberate choice to describe and animate a politics of language through refusing its colonial enclosures and turning to the aesthetic in order hold the excesses of description. She refuses the vowel in this piece, not by denying its presence, but instead relegating it to the soundless and the unfamiliar, a space of, in her words, “untranslatability.” In this undoing, consonants become the emotive force where new meanings and orientations to the sounds that mark our words are forged.

술래 SULLAE opens with the sound ssshhh; a pairing of consonant sounds that is often associated with insisting on silence, a sound meant to reprimand. Chun extracts and emplaces this sound in a new aesthetic landscape that is independent and unregulated by colonial schemas of enunciation and translation. The prominent soundscapes of the video are consonant sounds and when removed from their phonetic relations to vowels these sounds undo the presumptive structuring or potential reprimand of English. In 술래 SULLAE, we are meant to experience the fullness of the consonants’ timbre…ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk…these edited clips of sound originally meant to instruct and assimilate speech into English pronunciations now serve a different function. For me, they secure Chun’s political orientation: one that is about the crafting of a world that involves the careful consideration of the logistics, function, and embedded emotions of the sounds that inhabit it.

score (for unlanguaging), 2020
graphite, watermarks, paper, aluminum frame, 13 x 16 inches

All languages contain their own unique set of vowels and consonants, but, Anne Carson reminds us that: “The importance of vowels to human speech has remained. There are words in English without consonants, but so central are vowels to word construction that there isn’t a word in English that doesn’t include a vowel.” In speech, consonants sounds are meant to break up the intended agenda of vowels. The ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk, are antithetical to the circle or the rounded mouth needed to voice a vowel sound. Unlike the openness of a vowel, producing consonant sounds involves a narrowing of the vocal tract. This narrowing is referred to as constriction or the obstruction of breath whereby sound is produced by a form of corporeal tension. Consonant sounds also demand all the mechanics of the mouth: the lips, the teeth, the tongue, and the palette. Shhhh, requires the corners of the lips to lower and rather than rounding, the lips become pursed, and teeth become exposed. Parts of the mouth are drawn in. The soft palate is raised, and the tongue reaches upwards towards the roof of the mouth without touching it and then the tip of the tongue lowers behind the teeth.

Consonants emerge out of collectivity. Where a vowel is sounded without vocal constraint, consonants require more effort. Their sounds are produced through intricate bodily choreographies in the mouth that involve both constriction and collaboration. Ganggangsullae likewise relies on effort and interdependence. Participants collectively determine the speed and/or shape of their dance. They may even become serpentine or separate into smaller circles depending on what the group decides. The dance also provides an aesthetic space for its participants to voice frustration, anger, and tension through song with the hopes of producing reprieve from gendered hardships. Chun has decided to withhold these songs from her audience; we never hear the women singing. Through this erasure, Chun embeds the consonant sound with affective force whereby a politics of language and gendered presence is enunciated through and beyond a form of silencing. The dance redirects trajectories of dominance whereby the shushing takes on a new voice imbued with agency and hope. Because of how Chun isolates and amplifies its sound, ssshhhh is free to take on different meanings and associations. For me, I was reminded of rushing water or gusts of wind, or the sound used to lull my child to sleep. I was brought into another index of knowing and relating.

술래 SULLAE, 3-channel installation view, 2020, courtesy of the artist

The sounds of language hold erasures and layered histories often obfuscated by our mundane encounters with them. Largely understood as the most sonorous part of the syllable, vowels produce the loudest speech sounds and their capacity for holding larger amplitudes or louder volumes have been linked to the sonic expression of emotion. Consonant sounds are more pragmatic than vowels. They are known for their functionality, for the ways in which they assemble the semantic structure of words and for their capacities to hold vowels in place or as Anne Carson describes as “delineating meaning amid the flow of open vowel sounds.” Consonant and vowel sounds map out different functional trajectories by virtue of the shape of mouth and orientation of breath that these sounds demand. Like Chun, I’m interested in what political orientations become possible when we source emotion elsewhere, beyond the confines of spoken words imposed upon us.

The word consonant is a noun, a word used to identify or classify, a semantic enclosure that establishes a subject or object. But unlike the word vowel, consonant is also an adjective. A consonant possesses the capacity to describe, to name, to tell us more. Adjectives parcel out description on states of being, in this way, they are inherently phenomenological. In 술래 SULLAE, Chun empties vowels of their sonic substance leaving behind traces of fragmented characters and differently shaped circles in their wake. They are stripped of breath and their symbolic value forming a new method of communication that reroutes expectations of what language, as we know it, can do and sound like. Like, ganggang sullae, the vowel is premised on the shape of a circle, but in 술래 SULLAE, Chun provokes us to think about what becomes possible beyond the circular structuring device, what becomes possible beyond the purview of the violent embeddedness of English and its colonial exigencies.

new moons, 2020, graphite on wall, surveillance mirror, 18 x 6 inches each
untitled (ㄷ), 2020, a functional concrete stool, courtesy of artist

Chun has noted that the moon that hovers above the ganggangsullae is yet another site of imperial conquest. In Art Forum, Chun states: “when I look up at it to feel comforted or to find solace, I’m reminded of colonial violence and an agenda that’s projected onto it. In that way, the moon also reflected how I see language.” Chun’s turn to consonants signals a reshaping of the colonial frame that does not disavow or idealize the legacies of imperialism on systems of communication, but instead highlights the tensions and obstructions produced in its shadows.

Featured image: 술래 SULLAE, 2020, single-channel version, courtesy of artist

Casey Mecija is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Media Studies at York University. Her current research examines sound as a mode of affective, psychic and social representation, specifically in relation to diasporic experience. Drawing on sound studies, queer diaspora studies and Filipinx Studies, her research considers how sensorial encounters are enmeshed and disciplined by social and psychic conditions. She is also a musician and filmmaker, whose work has received a number of accolades and has been presented internationally.

tape-reel

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SO! Amplifies: Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021)

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome! We are excited that today’s post on Wu Tsang’s Anthem, currently on view at the Guggenheim through September 6, 2021, is written by Freddie Cruz Nowell, co-author of the exhibition texts! He is related to the curator of the exhibition and cares deeply about the collaborative, creative endeavors of Wu Tsang & Moved by the Motion.

The artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang (b. 1982) creates atmospheric performances, video installations, and films that envelop audiences into spaces where narratives become sensually ambiguous, collective experiences. Tsang’s new site-specific installation, Anthem (2021), was conceived in collaboration with the singer, composer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland (b. 1944, Philadelphia) and harnesses the Guggenheim Museum’s cathedral-like acoustics to construct what the artist calls a “sonic sculptural space.”

Occupying the entire rotunda, Anthem revolves around an immense, eighty-four-foot curtain sculpture that flows down from the building’s glass oculus. Projected onto this luminous textile is a “film-portrait” Tsang created of Glenn-Copeland improvising and singing passages of his music, including a cappella descants and his rendition of the spiritual “Deep River.” Filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, near Glenn-Copeland’s home in rural Nova Scotia, this non-linear video alternates between scenes of the musician performing with various instruments and stunning landscape shots of the eastern seaboard sky.


Instrument and Landscape View of Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021), Images courtesy of The Guggenheim

Harnessing the generous sound-reflecting quality of the Guggenheim’s concrete walls, Anthem weaves Glenn-Copeland’s voice and body percussion into a larger tapestry of other voices and sounds placed along the museum’s circular ramp, building a soundscape that wraps around the space. When I asked the exhibition’s curator X Zhu-Nowell about the striking ethereal, translucent quality of the curtain sculpture, X remarked,

It was a collaboration with the textile company Kvadrat. Wu visited their showroom a few times to select textile from thousands of the samples. This particular textile called power is semi translucent (created almost a hologram feeling), but still able to capture the light from the projectors very well. Wu once said that ‘when there is a curtain in the space, it turns the space into a stage.’ Curtain is very important to Wu’s practice.

The installation’s dimmed light ambiance also veils the fourteen speakers that Tsang positioned along this darkened path, each of which plays a uniquely composed track that accompanies Glenn-Copeland’s music.

Working in collaboration with musician Kelsey Lu and the DJ, producer, and composer duo of Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, Tsang conceived this arrangement of sounds as a series of improvisatory responses inspired by the call of Glenn-Copeland’s voice. The musical responses created by this diverse group of musicians include ethereal string tremolos, dreamy whisper sequences, and impromptu drum patterns, among other ambient sounds that help cultivate an alluring and reverberant listening environment.

Harnessing the generous sound-reflecting quality of the Guggenheim’s concrete walls, Anthem weaves Glenn-Copeland’s voice and body percussion into a larger tapestry of other voices and sounds placed along the museum’s circular ramp, building a soundscape that wraps around the space. X Zhu-Nowell described the process for the exhibit’s speaker placement:

We had a few mock-up to test the speaker placement. The two loudspeakers are placed on the rotunda floor because it’s unique capacity to fill the entire rotunda. The 12 additional Bose speakers were placed throughout ramp 3 – 6. We evenly distributed them, 3 speakers for each ramp. Ultimately, the goal is to work with the unique acoustics of the building, and working with the decay, allowing the time and space for the sound to bound on the concrete walls. The piece is 18 mins long, and in a continuous loop. It was not designed to cultivate a single prime viewing location. Instead, the piece was built to be experienced as one move through the space, and 18 mins is around the pace of one walk from the bottom of the rotunda floor to the top of ramp 6.

Visitors are encouraged to traverse upward from the bottom of the museum to the top of the building, and vice versa, and explore how Anthem ascends and descends along the spiral path.


Alternative View of Ramp: Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021)

The title of this exhibition, Anthem, draws from lesser-known histories of the word meaning antiphon, a style of call-and-response singing associated with music as a spiritual practice. Unlike a conventional anthem, which amplifies the power of a song through loudness and uniform sound, this installation enhances the call of Glenn-Copeland’s voice by combining it with ambiguous vocal timbres, changing tints of ambient sound, and other heterogeneous sonic and visual textures. Within this lush yet complicated auditory environment, Tsang’s Anthem also cultivates moments of quiet, rest, and reflection, reimagining the rotunda as a compassionate atmosphere for collective listening and looking. 

In addition to the immersive video installation on view in the rotunda, this exhibition also includes a touching companion film, titled “∞,” which visitors can access behind a luxe pleated curtain that divides the first floor side gallery from the main space. This video is a short interview that Tsang shot during the filming of Anthem of Glenn-Copeland and his partner, Elizabeth Glenn-Copeland, a theater artist, storyteller, and arts educator.

Wu Tsang: Anthem part of the exhibition program Re/Projections: Video, Film, and Performance for the Rotunda March 19-September 6, 2021, image courtesy of The Guggenheim

This dialogue captures autobiographical aspects of the couple’s intertwined creative process and artistic development, reflecting on myriad meanings of love in relation to their lives and work. Within the context of the oppressive and exploitive conditions of transgender “visibility” in contemporary culture, Tsang’s seemingly conventional yet uncommon record of this elderly and interracial couple exists in tension with the normative frame of transgender representation. It also extends the conversation within Tsang’s artistic practice around the centrality of collaboration, specifically long-term and intimate collaboration.


Photo of Wu and Glenn on set in Nova Scotia, from Wu Tsang’s IG feed

Since 2016, Tsang has frequently worked with a “roving band” of interdisciplinary artists called Moved by the Motion, cofounded with the artist Tosh Basco. Core members of this revolving cast include Maroof, Pineda, the dancer Josh Johnson, the cellist Patrick Belaga, and the poet and scholar Fred Moten. Anthem exemplifies how she uses collaboration as an aesthetic strategy for undoing conventional modes of authorship and to make space for marginalized narratives. For Tsang, “making art is an excuse to collaborate.”

On View at the Guggenheim, New York City, July 23-September 6, 2021

Featured Image: Still of banner/ installation View of Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021) at the Guggenheim, courtesy of curator X Zhu-Nowell

Frederick Cruz Nowell is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at Cornell University. He is a scholar with a specialty in historical avant-gardes, and cross-disciplinary research into the history of music theory, contemporary art, and popular music. His dissertation research (Supervisor, Prof. Andrew Hicks) lies at the occult intersection of artistic experimentalism, Euro-American counterculture, and the history of music theory in the early twentieth century. It traces how speculative music-theoretical concepts (i.e., cosmic harmony, biological rhythms, color-harmony, and ontologies of sympathetic vibration) fused into the practices of European avant-garde artists via fashionable occult religious movements  (i.e., Theosophy and Anthroposophy) and various cults of health and beauty (i.e., harmonic gymnastics, Eurythmics, free body culture (Freikörperkultur)). Intimately intertwined with one another, these social developments were integral to the larger infrastructure of the unwieldy “back to nature” Lebensreform (the reform of life) movement, which laid the foundations for progressive counterculture in the twentieth century. 

Before pursuing graduate studies in musicology, Frederick was a University Fellow at Northwestern University in the Department of Art, Theory, & Practice, where he received an MFA. He also holds a BFA from SAIC (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Since 2018, he has co-curated exhibitions with X Zhu-Nowell under the moniker Passing Fancy.

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