Time to Listen: The Aural Dimensions of Performance and Time-Based Media Art

In conservation and art history, two disciplines that remain very visually oriented, the sound aspects of artworks are too often neglected or forgotten. But why does sound remain the parent pauvre of documentation – especially of performance and media art? This aspect was the subject of two of our recent discussions held within the research project Performance. Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge, with performance scholar Heike Roms and time-based media conservator Amy Brost.

Our first guest, performance scholar Heike Roms, is currently launching a fascinating research project on the sound documents of performance art, Toward an Aural History of Performance Art.[1] Sound documents, she explained us, include audio recordings of live performances but also other types of recordings such as interviews, or sound elements that were part of a performance. Thanks to the relational nature of sound, these recordings have the capacity to complement and even challenge visual documentation, and to offer a different understanding of performance art. But she goes even further by suggesting that the unique properties of sound could also open up new paths for thinking about performance’s capacity for reappearance: If sound never disappears but rather keeps on reverberating (as recent debates in fields such as acoustic archaeology suggest), does it mean that a performance never completely disappears?

Our research group in conversation with Heike Roms (bottom right).

According to Heike Roms, sound documents are an invaluable tool with which to access and research performance, yet performance’s sonic dimension is rarely discussed, and too often forgotten when past performances are mediated through existing documents. This realization particularly struck her when visiting a completely silent – or in her own words, “dead” – retrospective exhibition about Fluxus, which included works, like those of Joe Jones, that are intended to make a ruckus. If art history cannot ignore the major role that sound, music, noise, or calculated silence played in Fluxus events, why are these elements still neglected in a contemporary exhibition?

Perhaps because in art history and in museum collections the visual arts are predominant. Perhaps also because museums, libraries and archives, where we typically encounter performance “after the act,” are supposed to be quiet, silent places. The sound in museums often appears as an element that needs to be disciplined and contained through headphones, curtains and soundproof walls. In this sense it is telling that when exhibiting performance, media or sound art, one major curatorial issue is to avoid sound leaking or spilling into other exhibition spaces, as if it were some kind of contaminant.

The visual bias of contemporary art display and documentation also struck conservator Amy Brost, who, as a media conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, deals with installing and documenting time-based media artworks on a daily basis. We discussed Amy’s recent article “A Documentation Framework for Sound in Time-based Media Installation Art,”[2] in which she proposes to expand existing documentation models to better include sonic parameters of the works and insists on the importance of developing an appropriate vocabulary for conservators to characterize sound quality and properties. We then asked ourselves what would be the suitable training and skills for conservators to better care for the audio aspects of artworks. Besides a basic introduction to acoustics and audio engineering, time-based media conservation education should ideally include ear training sessions for conservators. As Valerian mentioned, ear training courses already exist within the Sound Arts department at the Bern University of the Art. Maybe a future collaboration with the Conservation-Restoration department could take place there?

Testing audio equipment in the exhibition space. Photo Joanna Phillips.

Thinking more broadly about the aural environment of artworks, we also discussed the sounds that are not directly part of the work, but nevertheless participate in our perception of it – what Hanna called the “soundscape of new media”: the characteristic noises of film and slide projectors, the sizzling of CRT monitors, etc. The specific aural (and visual) properties of each technology—the playback or display equipment employed to activate moving images, for instance—often escape the viewer’s attention until the technology changes or becomes obsolete, and its intrinsic properties disappear. But what happens when the specific soundscape is gone? Should it be considered a loss? As a result of this change, does the work becomes different, or only our experience of it?

Our research group in conversation with Amy Brost (bottom right).

We could all recall examples where the sound of an analogue film projector was emulated in digital projection, which means that at least in some cases conservators have considered that the projector’s noise was an integral part of the way the artwork should be experienced.[3] Indeed, why would sounds that are external (or collateral) to the work not be important? Especially with performance, sounds coming from the living bodies moving through space also tell something about the unfolding of the event. And ultimately, as Heike Roms pointed out, sound invites us to think further about what the work is, both in space and time.

If we think further beyond the aural dimensions, all the other senses can be triggered by performance (and by art in general). The smell of a performance (be it of sweat or of other materials) can be overwhelming, but we could also think of humidity, vibrations, temperature variations, and air drafts, etc. Yet as Hanna pointed out, these sensorial aspects are difficult to transmit and document, because we lack an appropriate recording medium or carrier. Despite this difficulty, can we imagine what a multi-sensory conservation of performance could be? Is reenactment a way of re-activating these lost sensory aspects?

As an ending note, I recently discovered that many people on YouTube seem to find the sounds and haptic aspects of art conservation to be soothing, as the success of these ASMR conservation videos indicates. Perhaps an inspiration to build an archive of conservation through all the senses?

[1] A chapter outline of the project “Listening to Performance Art” will be published later in 2022 in Tancredi Gusman (ed.) Reconstructing Performance Art, Routledge.

[2] Amy Brost, “A Documentation Framework for Sound in Time-based Media Installation Art,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 60:2-3 (2021), 210-224.

[3] For example Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up (1967), a 16mm film piece that was transferred to video. For a discussion of this case, see: Pip Laurenson, “Vulnerabilities and Contingencies in Film and Video Art,” in Film and Video Art, ed. Stuart Comer (London: Tate Publishing, 2010), 145-151.

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