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.