Since the first mechanical recording by Edison in 1877 artists of the auditory medium have moulded and layered audio elements producing something of immaterial quality, yet able to evoke feeling and transport the inner being.
Fast forward (pun intended) to today and we are at liberty to access technology that can digitally reproduce and distort sound. It comes to us without a prerequisite to understand the technical evolution from gramophone to cassette to sound files, and all that is in between. However, to trace the progress of recording technology would emphasise the significance of the ingenuity of today’s software and hardware. It has evolved through the insightful and determined imaginings of mavericks in fields of science and art progressing technical capabilities. The power of software packages such as Pro Tools is a galaxy away from recording beginnings where the first medium to reproduce a sound was the technology of wax paper being etched – the first visual depiction of a sound being recorded (Milner 2009).
Although not speaking of sound directly, Valery’s predictive analysis of impending transformations in notions of art due to the growth in sophistication of techniques is applicable:
“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful....We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bring about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
– Paul Valery, PIECES SUR L’ART, ‘La Conquete de l’ubiquite,’ Paris.
While the ability to create music without the need to master an instrument would be considered by Valery as ‘profound,’ another significant, more philosophical development is demonstrated through a recent installation by sound artist Stephen Vitiello titled The Sound of Red Earth at Sydney Park Brickworks. The location of this installation is significant because it is hundreds of thousands of kilometres removed from the source of the sound recordings – the Kimberley region in Western Australia. By capturing, manipulating and recombining sounds from remote Australia, Vitiello aims to transmogrify the atmosphere in the brickworks kilns and thereby transform the participants experience. Instead of imagining the labour intensive activities that the brickworks were once intended for, the soundscapes produced by Vitiello aim to produce a simulacrum of the Kimberley’s environment.
The reproductive nature of art has been considered as a short fall by Benjamin who chooses to recognise the deficiency of a reproduction by juxtaposing it to the experience of presence: ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (Benjamin 1935: p.214). However, he goes on to recognise‘… technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.’ (Benjamin 1935: p.214). In the case of Vitiello’s The Sound of Red Earth installation, the digital recordings borrow from the Kimberley’s and are introduced to an altogether removed location. It is an example of ‘…the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly’ (Benjamin 1935: p.217). However, Vitiello is perhaps clumsy in his choice to fit out the kilns with sound equipment that is visually obvious. Wires, cords, speakers and recording hardware are on display, when it need not be. Technological options of today provide alternatives where the technical hardware aspect of an artwork can be concealed through the use of WiFi devices.
Without doubt this installation evokes a sense of the Kimberley’s, however not the Kimberley’s precisely. In the absence of descriptive catalogues explaining the motive and inspiration of this installation, one could imagine any remote area. In a visually dominated society the non-visual elements of this digitally remediated art work evokes a sensory experience, thereby achieving its ambition of encouraging the creation of a personally imagined experience.
Benjamin, Walter. (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions’. In Benjamin, W. (1992) Illuminations. London: Fontana Press. p.214, 217.
Milner.G (2009) Perfecting Sound Forever. Faber & Faber. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.au/books?id=KuPkMAsPDQQC&pg=PA4&dq=Milner+making+Edison+the+first+human+being+to+record+a+sound+and+reproduce+it&hl=en&ei=-GaVTOrEHMy6censuKQF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA
Valery.P (1964) Aesthetics, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’. In Benjamin, Walter. (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductions’. In Benjamin, W. (1992) Illuminations. London: Fontana Press. P.211