Magazine article Artforum International

Sound and Sight: Branden W. Joseph on Michael Graeve

Magazine article Artforum International

Sound and Sight: Branden W. Joseph on Michael Graeve

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO THE media archaeology laid out in Friedrich A. Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), the functions of film and phonograph can be distinguished by analogy with the psychoanalytic functions Jacques Lacan described as the "imaginary" and the "real." Where the imaginary was once stimulated, in the era of the book, by the discrete flow of words, in the age of media it is directly controlled by the cinema's manipulation of attention through techniques like the close-up, the zoom, and shot/countershot alternations. The phonograph, by contrast, acts as a repository and reproduction device for a real understood by Kittler as the continuous trace of the untranscribable noise a human listener effortlessly, and precisely through an unnoticed focus of attention, screens out. In the postwar era of electronic media--exemplified, on the one hand, by the capacity to edit and manipulate magnetic tape and, on the other, by the ability to spatially simulate environments through stereo sound--the imaginary and the real merge, opening, according to Kittler, onto a boom in popular music production and (largely the same thing) vast resources for the manipulation of experiential realms, no longer impeded by any unassimilable substrate or remainder.

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Whether knowingly or not, much contemporary sound art is predicated on such a media-cultural backdrop, and the discourse surrounding it correspondingly emphasizes information technologies and anticipates--as both desirable and inevitable--the collapse of meaningful distinctions between visual and acoustical phenomena. Thus, Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo rightfully stands as one of sound art's originators, not because he embraced noise over music (inspiring the early experiments of John Cage, among others) but because works like Risveglio di una citta (Awakening of a City), 1913, attempted to convert that noise into an imaginary cityscape portrait. Other precedents need not be as explicit as Walter Ruttman's Weekend, 1930, a sound collage conceived as an audio film. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's "Dream Houses," dating from the mid-'60s, not only instigate a complementarity of sound and vision, they attempt to induce distinct emotional states, "internal representations of the external air molecule patterns," produced directly within the central nervous system (the bodily real, in Kittler's parlance) through sonic vibrations.

Such media-archaeological conditions come into focus, and into play, with particular concision in the work of Australian sound artist Michael Graeve. Surrounded in performances and installations by numerous cast-off record players, Graeve can appear as a slightly disheveled or disorganized Philip Jeck, the Liverpool artist and turntablist who deploys arrays of mid-century Dansette phonographs. However, whereas Jeck creates atmospheric, almost cinematic soundscapes out of secondhand records, Graeve most often treats his equipment as electronic devices with intrinsic acoustic capabilities. "I've rarely played with vinyl," Graeve states flatly. Instead, by allowing the needle to drag across the rotating metal platter or rubber mat (as in the live performance at the Sound Particle festival in Sydney on March 23, 2001, or in "whirr thump thump," a track with a decidedly Futurist title from SIMPLE METHODS for complex times [2001]), Graeve transforms the phonograph into an avatar of Russolo's rotating-drum, noise-producing intonarumori. Other techniques, such as putting loudspeakers atop record players to produce feedback, further extend his equipment's sonic potential.

Although Graeve's releases, most notably the polycarbonate twelve-inch Megalomania Micromania (2000), sound much like those of the Mego generation of laptop improvisers, the controlled din he elicits from the phonograph needle--conveyed across humming, ungrounded wires, crackling shorts in a cable, or the breathy resonance of degraded amps and speakers (most procured a decade ago)--markedly references its analog, as opposed to digital, origin. …

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