October 8th, 2007


Noise annoys

Back in June 2005, when I was here for a performance art show, I wrote a rather scathing rumination on the poverty of New York textures, wondering why the world's richest country should have some of the world's poorest interfaces. The texture of everyday life -- the tactile quality of the environment we move through -- is something I'm thinking about rather intensely right now because I have to address the AIGA conference at the weekend on the subject of "the future of texture".

Back in 2005 I framed sound pollution as one of New York's textural problems. "Sound is texture too: New York is so noisy I get tinnitus. I'm writing this in a room with an incredibly noisy fan, a deafening garbage truck outside, and a police siren behind that. The examples could go on and on." This year, those examples did go on and on. The clanging, honking, wailing, crashing and shouting was the first thing that hit me in New York. Berlin must be a super-quiet city. Here I have to wear ear protectors the whole time.

A f'rinstance. Yesterday I was at PS1 in Queens. The cafe was shut (even the water seemed shut off at PS1, which felt sadly neglected) so I went to eat lunch at a cheap Chinese place nearby. It was under the elevated subway stop, so every couple of minutes trains would clank round the bend a few feet above us, making an incredible metallic din. Inside the restaurant, though, things were no better. A plasma-screen TV was showing an action movie featuring continuous gunfire.

You'd think the controlled environment of an art museum would be different, but no, it was the same story in PS1 itself. The show Organizing Chaos is described in the blurb as "physically centered around the Luke Fowler video, Pilgrimage from Scatter Points (2006). The 45-minute piece incorporates archival footage and documentary material about British composer Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, an improvisational group that utilized found, graphic scores rather than traditional sheet music".

Well, great: Luke Fowler is one of my favourite artists, and his Cardew film certainly fits into the Organizing Chaos sound art theme of ambience and randomness. There's just one problem, though, one step too far into randomness: although the label tells us we're watching "Pilgrimage from Scatter Points", the film being shown is actually "What You See is Where You’re At", Fowler's 2001 documentary about anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing.

It isn't just the wrong documentary, it's also being shown in the wrong conditions. It's impossible to hear the speech on the Fowler soundtrack (issuing through tiny, tinny speakers mounted high on the wall of the echoey room) because the gallery is filled with overspill sound from the installation next door, mingled with the sound of Christian Marclay's "Guitar Drag" video on the other side of the building. This over-exposed piece shows an amplified guitar being dragged along behind a pick-up truck. It makes a godawful racket, which, at PS1, drowned out the quieter pieces in all the connected galleries.

But if it hadn't been the macho Marclay piece making the quieter, more thoughtful Fowler video inaudible, it would have been the rushing roar of the air conditioners or the absurdly loud, garbled transmissions coming from the guards' walkie talkies (yes, the "paranoid security state" follows you even into the inner sanctum of the aesthetic experience). Even the picture is compromised: the DVD machine's on the blink and keeps flashing chapter heading information in a blue band across the screen. I sit there truly saddened by a missed opportunity to see a really interesting piece.

What on earth were the curators thinking? Is the act of selecting the piece all that matters to them? We didn't even see the film they chose! Is the content of the piece, the artist's intention, and the point-of-consumption experience of the viewer irrelevant? Is running a gallery like PS1 just a constant struggle against various forms of chaotic entropy (the aircon is broken, the DVD player is acting up, the wrong disk arrived from Fowler's gallery in Glasgow, we can't stop the guards getting bored and using their radios too much, we couldn't get insulating curtains to stop soundspill happening...) Do the curators think that we won't notice that it's the wrong film, and that it's inaudible? Do they think we just look at the picture for ten seconds then pass on? Is the fact that Cage is in this show an indication that we're supposed to treat all the ambient sound as "music" and just relax and go with the flux and the flow?

Or is it just that a New York art gallery treats sound pretty much the way the city of New York treats sound? As something secondary and uncontrolled, a vacant spectrum up for grabs according to the Hobbsian rule of "survival of the loudest"?