Every scene in a drama, according to the late director Mike Nichols, is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.
He added, as a footnote, the same is true in life. The thrill, or the chaos, is that these three passages may occur in any order. Start, stop, go back, restart, leap forward, keep going, or not. Form follows helter-skelter. So it may also be true of the skittish interactivity experimental artists ask of audiences.
Take contemporary art: a fight, a seduction, a negotiation must occur between creator and receiver over how much unease the former foists on the latter. What captures me, the artist says, sooner or later will capture you, dear public. Be brave, be patient. It may take a lot of time. And you, art-loving citizen? You say you’ll take whatever time you need. Still, each side must negotiate. We have to get along. If we don’t, an art with a “we” perishes.
Entering the San Diego Art Institute gallery for the Saturday-night opening you read that the artist — Margaret Noble, who is present — uses sound to speak her ideas, acousticize space, amplify images and objects, the last trick, a touch surreal. Noble’s new frontier is sound sculpture, sonic design, aural environments — hoots and hollers of a playground, sirens and beeps of a digital mixer, the slosh of running water, the buzz of an electric razor, the whirl of an oscillating fan. Noises on, noises off.
You shouldn’t be wary. But you are. You know the piece will ask you for something, that is, to do some of the work, maybe the heaviest lifting, to get it — to engage (which means, you are probably too uptight if you don’t engage). Still, you think if there’s something you have to get, there’s a chance you won’t.
Your senses prefer art on the wall — a nice blurry Rothko or an ecstatic Cezanne. They’re not all rosy. Picasso’s Guernica is especially demanding. Indeed, what could be more menacingly clear than the horses’ agony, the severed heads? In its home in Madrid, you see — armed guards beside it — so much ripped apart that you’re relieved to move on and leave it behind, for the simple, the serene. Most art you behold has a safe distance you can retreat to. There’s the word. You don’t feel safe with contemporary art. More often than not, it’s anarchic and a burden.
You first encounter Noble’s What Lies Beneath, a tall wooden box for which there’re instructions: “Confirm spotlights are on and gently raise lid up to the top without detaching from the box. Please close when finished.” Lighted, you inch the lid up and there’s an organ-pipe, calliope sound. Like truck-brakes screeching, abrasive and mad. You lower the lid quickly, hide the clamor. The next person tries. He lowers the lid slowly to moderate the sound’s dissonance. He smiles. It’s clownishly alive, he says.
Noble (who is nearby) sees your trepidation: bright bulb, bossy honk, an irritation. You overhear her explain to a patron: “The idea is, your gesture opens the piece and finds a storm inside.” She says the work is a self-portrait of yours, of hers, of mine, of anyone’s “social anxiety.” The stage-frightfulness in us all, an artwork that blares (as if it knows) your desire not to engage it. It’s willfully pugnacious. You move on.
You approach Head in the Sand. Will this wooden box, sitting on four skinny legs, with a head-size hole on top, launch another barrage? Instructions: “Put your head in the hole and wait.” You mount the step stool and insert yours. Inside, a chambered light-and-sound show swarms. A long layered tone rings and shakes and swells. It’s not unpleasant; it’s softer, pastoral, more Schumann than Schoenberg. When you pull out, you return to the ambient chatter of the art opening, which is suddenly the real noise. This hole is sanctuary.
The idea occurs: sound-sculpted-space mishmashes the senses. A mixtape of neuronal impulses in you is what’s in play. Noble calls it, collars it, calms it. She’s also playing you, irony intended, with her clichéd title, Head in the Sand. To ignore that which is right in front of you, but here is just the opposite. You put your head in not to ignore the work but to grok it. Its territory — the sound cached in the sculpture — is continent and sea: intimate and private, performative and public. The art’s meaning, one of many, is to dispel your fear of it.
Nearby, Noble sees your reluctance, your curiosity. She is a coltish woman of 43, a dancer’s grace, a tinkerer’s avidity, plus a Masters of Fine Arts in sound art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. You approach her and ask, what is the nature of this new art?
“It’s the intersection of sculpture and sound,” she says, leaning in and raising her voice, wine-bar-loud. “Sound art is not intuitive and would fail without instructions.” What’s more, she continues, sound disturbs the enforced quiet of gallery or museum. Indeed, our overlong ocular-centric tradition of looking at stuff on walls and in cases and whispering inhibits our senses. She wants us “to intake” her compositions. She wants to create “strategies for people to consider the work more than just have it happen.”
Oscar Wilde expressed it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” You came in thinking art is that which contends for your attention. Half-right. It also measures your apathy with, and your giving over to, its anxieties. If you resist too much, your resistance becomes the subject. But it seems Noble’s aim is to seek friend not foe. And to sever expectation, to tender shock, to delay disinterest. She asks, in essence, what will attract you to my visceral ironies of sound? How does she win you over?
An art pilgrim, you persist. Another opening at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Library, you find Noble’s Records of Intimacy, a dozen photograph albums, from the Victorian parlor. Each is felt-covered, clasp-latched, books that stage the era’s men in handlebar mustaches and women in bustled dresses. You are instructed to place one album under a light, unclasp and open it. Out rush the sounds: a child’s mirthful singing; a horse-and-buggy clop-and-roll along cobblestones; a wind-up toy playing a xylophonic tune. The photo has been ripped out and in its place is a sheeny fabric, like a speaker cover, sound nesting within. It’s a bit Joan Crawford–weird, the photo album that is not there and the audio device that is.
You read, on the wall-plaque, Noble’s claim: “The Victorians were the first to collect recordings of home and identity in books. Now, the materiality of private histories is no longer needed. Intimacy is public; the personal is dead. Archived in these last albums are nameless, faceless moments, waiting.”
Commentary aside, each album feels good to the touch, the felt, worn, beloved. You let play all 12 as if they are Christmas presents. This is fun, gratifying fun. Here lies the seduction. It’s companionably multimodal. The cherished object, the techy irony, the invasive sound.
Noble (again, the artist is close by) says she “harkens to natural materials”: handmade objects she trolls for on eBay — toys with cranks, mantel clocks, wooden boxes with lids and dark-smelling innards, that which she disassembles, reprograms. You, moving nearer her aesthetic, spin, turn, reel, push, lift, rotate, and air several of her pieces live to hear their insides reverberating your insides: your buying-in, her ambition. Noble, gauging her audience, tells you, “I want my work to last longer than the moment it happens.”
Sound utilizes a source — with Noble, often an object, sometimes an image. Yet sound, object, and image are not analogous. They need not co-illustrate, though the tendency is there. Sound requires its own quarters. Video and the visual declaim too much. You are attracted to this because you are drowning in screens, suffocating on texts. When the phone rings, you hope it’s an unknown number.
Is “the personal dead,” as Noble asserts? Or is that just her provocation? Art always has Big Plans for Itself — a concept, a meaning, a following, which “lasts longer” than the gallery’s muzzled space or the online review. Here is her audio-irony, an abracadabra. In the photo books, Noble silences the image with sound. This allows her to animate the muted item with an alien vibe: water falling, wagon rolling, or child laughing. Like the puppet, she says, “I want you to believe it’s alive.” That’s it. You get it. You believe the artist’s sleight-of-hand. The artist offers from where to where: you build the bridge.
Noble knows you’re seduced. After all, she should. She’s a pro — and in demand. Among dozens of grants, honors, awards, and shows, she’s had solo exhibitions at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and the Ohrenhoch der Geräuschladen Sound Gallery in Berlin. Four new solo openings are due this year as well, one in Portugal.
It’s been her plan all along: to get you to sound her art via its visual moxie and tactile summons. Still, all this sensual inducement raises the biggest problem all interactive artists face. “When do I get an audience to get past the play and think about what’s happening? It’s so seductive — to play. I’m wondering, maybe there’s something fundamentally problematic about interactive art. It’s not a toy, but it’s playful, and it’s about serious matters. When you’re done playing, will you consider more?”
In her voice there’s a trace of something topsy-turvy: yes, she’s the one who deconstructs relics and crafts multimodal performance, works that need to be seen, heard, and touched. But could she also involve the spectator so much so that she gives her sound calling to the user to generate, an art whose audience is eventually freed from her control? John Cage’s transgressive dream — life is art, art is life — come true?
You continue to follow her, beguiled, roped-in. The artist again entices, this time with a large-scale work, 44th and Landis, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a resonant evocation of her adolescence in City Heights. In two big gallery rooms, seven geometrically shaped clumps of ceiling-hung mobiles sway in space. Among them are 12 handmade paper speakers, cycling a 20-minute loop of found-sound, the aural hubbub of 1980s street life: ice cream-truck tunes, car-stereo blasts, boom-box-boom, hip-hop 8-tracks (for break-dancing), pit-bulls barking, the in-house shouts of couples and parent-child arguing through the thin walls of this old, ungentrified hood.
You see, Noble was born in 1973, daughter of an artist, so she was a tweenager when the 1980s music-video revolution arrived, Madonna and Run-D.M.C. in tow. In 44th and Landis, Noble excavates that era and its tech bloom in which radios and cassettes and arcade games collectivized us.
She also replays a neighborhood that pushed every child, teen, and adult into a multi-sonic circus of public space, our city’s physical culture. In the all-a-jangle museum hall, Noble’s paper mobiles randomize, cloud and disperse, the young girl’s subconscious of the time. Such is her meaning when she says she likes to “score an object or a place,” bringing its psychoacoustic dynamics into play. That seems right.
You (a willing participant now) see an order behind this cyclic change — from the quiescence of a pre-1970s culture to the loud, de-privatized sound environments of the 1980s (all this people will re-internalize with devices in the 2000s) — which, you realize, demands an artist (a Noble one) to lay the tracks of our memory train. We need a cultural vanguard to remind us just how technology evolves itself while (or so that) we adapt. Marshal McLuhan: “We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us.”
Noble persuades you that enlarging the sensorium of art with sound begins with disorder. Your eye, anyone’s eye, has ruled gallery art and spatial sculpture for centuries. In seen space, you absorb the work with one or one hundred other hushed-up viewers; each slices her fair share of the pie. By contrast, a group display of sound sculpture, engaged one item at a time or on repeating loops, becomes a Fourth-of-July picnic, Charles-Ives polyphony, a resolute disequilibrium. Even the loveliest of tones multiplied multiply annoyance. The visual space can be many-layered, the sonic space cannot.
Invited to her studio, you ask what’s next. She points to a loudspeaker cone, a large, black, florescent flare, attached to an old Victrola. Noble says that she sits and stares at the cone, trying to hear herself speak through it. One way, she imagines, is to silence its broadcasting horn: stick knives or arrows or a giant cork into its maw “to shut it up.” Why? you ask.
Because that wide-open mouth has come to symbolize our manic culture. Does every phone and camera and computer and microphone need to be on incessantly? She wants to create a work that asserts with sound something against sound, that says stop interacting and responding, stop talking and expecting. Why? So we, so she, so anyone can daydream. Hear yourself think. Bear ennui. Why? It’s where these inventions originate, even for the sound artist, in silence.
You worry this artistic problem with Noble. What would such quiet look like? you say. What sound could give the cone back its silence? she says. You wonder. She wonders. The unsounded space between you and her wonders. Negotiations begin.