Sonic Acts Revisited A Modal Play of Audio-Visual

Photo: Roly Porter + MFO at Expanded Experience, Paradiso. Photo by Peter Kiers.

With the 2020 edition of Sonic Acts Academy slowly fading into the realm of memory, the always versatile and inspiring cross-disciplinary festival has solidified something of their critical commitment to me. Something I return to in the moments I remember; something affirmed every year I go. The thing Sonic Acts has always excelled in is to gesture towards a synaesthetic experience, leveraging the immersive qualities of both audio and the visual to wow its audience. 

When sound theorist Christop Cox dedicates the final chapter of his monograph on sound (see Sonic Flux 2018) to write against synaesthesia, he is mostly concerned, as he has always been, with the primacy of the visual in operations of sense-making. Cox’s worry is that audio-visual (AV) art runs the risk of enfolding the sonic into the visual, such that the aural properties of the artwork only subsist in abetting the function of the image: 

“[The] resistance to the seamless merging of sound and image is … based on the suspicion that any convergence of the senses is likely to retain the hierarchy that subordinates all other modalities to the visual. It is equally born of the desire not to eliminate the unique differences between the senses and the rich aesthetic tensions these differences generate. (Cox 2014: 96)

One is forgiven for thinking that Cox rejects multi- and inter-medial art altogether, but he does not, at least not entirely. Yet, in championing a sound art that “aims to thwart the imperial aspirations of the visual” (98), Cox is adamant in articulating the limits that audio-visuality supposedly imparts on sound: either it appropriates it, or it fails to do justice to its medium-specific affordances. Yet, the experiential spaces that Sonic Acts curates seemed to me not at all charged by limitations. On the contrary, they seemed to effect something quite special: a modal fault line.

I’m mostly thinking here about the mind-blowing performance by Roly Porter and MFO entitled Kistvaen. With a screen occupying an imposing area in Paradiso’s main hall, artists who come to preach their art here are challenged by the acoustics of this high, old church. But Roly Porter and MFO’s presence is stately, resolutely focused below the screen within their homely habitat of hardware: the former in charge of audio; the latter of visuals. MFO is the stage name of Marcel Weber, who is responsible for the visual direction at the always seminal Atonal festival in Berlin. A favoured mainstay when it comes to working with ambient and noise composers, Weber’s scenographic craft expertly complements the sonic material he works with. This continuity occurs both on the level of content as well as technique. 

Paradiso lights up with the appearance of vital, natural woods and ancient, pagan sites in Kistvaen lend a trans-historic perspective to the contemporary intervention of human design into our environment, identifying the magical Other in paganism with the growing import of virtuality in our lives. It resonates well with Paradiso’s historical architecture, not in the least because Porter seems comfortable with the particular sonic reverb. The performance tackles a waning of a certain sense of reality, one that is natural, earthy and unmediated, a waning of the pastoral ideal, a waning of the so-called pure. Yet critically, not a waning of reality per se, for surely immersion is the condition of a living-with nature as much as it is for a living-in virtuality. This unresolved tension in Kistvaen seeks to articulate the stakes of social mediation with regard to the climate crisis: simply, how do we reconcile a living-with each other and our planet with the growing virtualisation of our social lives? Is technology tantamount to distance, and is this distance worrisome?

You must be wondering about the sounds? Where they are in all this. Is Cox right then, because my analysis thus far seems to rely merely on a juxtaposition of images extrapolated from the performance? This string of images, however, is actually held together by technique. Weber uses strobe effect to let the brighter and warmer colours continuously emerge at stages of the AV performance. With the strobe’s high-frequency exposition of light transcending an iteration rate the audience seems comfortable with, audience members tend to give in to the noise which itself has swollen around the eardrums, pressuring the entire area around the ears. Ear plugs are a necessity here. There’s of course an irony to this, to impede ourselves from the flow sound that we came to experience. But even more, it’s an entirely serious signal marking the absolute otherness that noise can be to us.

Another technical cue in Weber’s toolbox is the use of a specific kind of layering that effects a blurred motion. Pixel clusters are stacked or just made to move slowly into indistinction against a fixed backdrop. The photography seems to portray seepage; a flow of water spilling out from a stable image. Reminiscent of Holly Herndon’s Proto project where portraiture and form continually evade focus, this blurring effect impresses the audience with a waning sense of reality: that even the objects of our most secure knowledge are too always in motion. Yet, Herndon employs this technique to enact a lack of definition that seems without the proper authority or direction to be resolved; literally, an inability to see or envision. In Kistvaen, however, the static image is often leaking a slow yet vital stream of life itself. Or at least, it is not a lack, not a reduction. It is contented. All the while, the atmospheric ambient music that leads the visuals is what gives this oozing substance body: an encompassing drone that is permeated by a melancholic wave and a recurring scant cry of a faint, fragmented all but human voice. The AV are harmonised, but they are not implicated in traditional harmonic hierarchies that would subtend the sonic under the visual. The particular technical modality Weber employs allows the visual medium to become qualitatively, affectively sonic. Kistvaen’s emotive resonance pinnacles at the meeting of modalities to produce something new that alone these media could not afford.

Ultimately, the point is that forwarding a purist position pursuing the medium-specific affordances of artistic, or indeed any medium, is to essentialise what that medium can do to inevitably and ever-ironically fall short of its true potential. This is simply endorsing what it should do. Festivals like Sonic Acts and AV performances like Kistvaen on the other hand show us that the manner in which a medium comes into being, its modality, is more versatile than that as long as you are willing to grant their interaction a form of production. Light in the form of strobe can act like sound does, whilst sound can iconise and relay stories. It’s not just about the type of information that media propagate and sense-media receive; it is also the affect and mood that insulate that information. And these latter aspects can easily traverse sensual modality as well as different intra-medial calibrations. 

“Ultimately, the point is that forwarding a purist position pursuing the medium-specific affordances of artistic, or indeed any medium, is to essentialise what that medium can do to inevitably and ever-ironically fall short of its true potential. This is simply endorsing what it should do.”

Indeed, when it comes to AV art, I share Christoph Cox’s opinion that synchresis is a waste of sonic matter. Yet conversely, there is equally no one-to-one relationship between ear/eye and audio/visual – modality is more complex than that. And gladly so, as Sonic Acts is keen to demonstrate year in, year out: any AV art that’s worth its salt surely must reside on the seams of modality.

Sonic Acts Academy is an annual three-day festival at the intersection of innovative audio-visual and performative art and critical thinking, motivated by changes in the ecological, political, technological and social landscape.