In a silent way

Curator: Matt Warren Laura Altman, Monica Brooks, Nicolas Bullen, Darren Cook, Gail Priest, Lawrence English, Samaan Fieck, Joel Stern Contemporary Art Spaces, Hobart 28 July – 26 August 2012

In A Silent Way, opening event. Photo: Peter Angus Robinson.

"Play this album quietly" is the instruction given with the catalogue CD that accompanies In A Silent Way. Curated by Matt Warren under the CAST Curatorial Mentorship Program, the exhibition attempts to accommodate the overlap between sound and silence, between art and everyday life.

Individual soundworks by eight artists are installed along the walls of the open CAST gallery. Offering a space for reflection and meditation, In A Silent Way proposes listening as an engaged activity, where viewers become active participants in their interpretation of, and inadvertent contribution to, the soundscape. Allowing for a diversity of experience, and therefore encouraging return visits, In A Silent Way provides a shift in aural focus and a renewed sensitivity to the construction and constitution of sound.

Spread evenly around the dim gallery space, the eight works are illuminated by alternating splashes of red, green and blue light. Crucially, the works are played through speakers, not headphones, generating an evolving correspondence between the individual works, and also allowing the sounds of the gallery and its visitors to play their own parts in the soundscape. In this way, the exhibition highlights the infinitely unfolding nature of acoustic experience - where both deliberately placed and peripheral sounds are at times harmonious, other times discordant, but forever in dialogue.

During one visit, this shifted focus was made evident – the exhibition space became a kind of reservoir for the collection of and attendance to the acoustic environs. Through this new lens, I was able to note a plethora of sounds external, but in this context welcome, to what the artists and curator had intended. The wind howled outside, the timber cracked as it expanded with the heaters, floorboards creaked when I walked, and my sudden sneeze punctuated the quiet space. The invigilator used the bathroom and sounds of the washbasin filtered through, as meanwhile a second visitor entered, bringing their own cacophony of door-slamming, footsteps and conversation. All the while, the artworks played on in continuous loops, lapsing and synching with each other and this now magnified soundscape.

Whilst the decided placement of a single couch in the centre of the gallery is clearly an invitation to sit and absorb the space in its entirety, the illuminated speakers invite closer listening. However, thwarted by the now enlarged sphere of sounds, the complexities of individual works are somewhat lost in the exhibition. Instead, what comes into prominence is again a shifted attention to the dynamics occurring between the works – how one work actually recedes when stood in front of, and distant sounds, installed or natural, begin to dominate. This dynamic interchange results in chance harmonies, but also makes tangible a tension between the vying sounds. In A Silent Way proposes an alternate approach to what Warren refers to in his catalogue essay as “this contest for acoustic space” that is positive and affective, rather than treating it as an imposition or problem.

Warren's stipulation to his artists was to make a work to be played quietly, the exhibition is an attempt to distend the space between deliberate and incidental sound. Yet there remains a level of frustration in the fact that the works cannot be experienced discretely, without distraction. However Warren does address this by providing a catalogue CD containing all eight works, which allows for further listening on a more intimate level, at one’s own pace – which is perhaps a more appropriate format for experiencing works of this nature, in any case. Ultimately, the experience of the exhibition was not so much invested in the individual works as much as in the experience of wandering around an infinitely changing sonic environment.

In the year of what would have been John Cage’s 100th birthday, Warren’s exhibition takes its cue from the sentiment of Cage’s 4:33, offering something of an antidote to this noisy blue planet we inhabit. In A Silent Way inquires into what it means to listen, considering not just the works themselves, but furthermore the context in which they are apprehended. In this case, Warren specifically addresses the gallery space, but only as it represents one component in the greater sonic atmosphere, indeed, the world at large.

Claire Krouzecky

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