aural thoughts

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  1. In March 2020 London, along with the rest of the UK, went into its first lockdown, to try and stop the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading. My work at the time was mainly focused on live art/performance, an important component being the physical presence/body of both the performer and the audience member within the performance space… not ideal for a pandemic, where social distancing is a key to daily life.  

    Even though I have the basic knowledge to edit my website (just about!) and appreciate digital art, I always felt this was an area I knew very little about, and so never thought digital art, or online art, was something I would consider creating.  

    I could, of course, used the time of the pandemic to work on and plan for future work alongside working n finishing my PhD thesis. But I felt like I wanted to react to what was happening and being able to adapt to new circumstances as an artist (and human) is always a good skill to develop.

    To some extent I think the situation also took away the fear of the work being crap – technically and/or otherwise. Suddenly, the digital space where all there was, so it felt ok I knew nothing about how to make work for it - I had no other choice but to try and learn. Over the course of 2020 and the first few months of 2021, I created several small projects, all to some extent for the ‘digital space’. I will discuss them all briefly below.

     

    Aural conjuring

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    ‘Aural Conjuring’ was the first ‘lockdown’ project I created. Contained in my house, I thought of listening as a way of reaching out – towards what I missed, what I hoped for, what I feared. I created 3 performance pieces, taking the form of a short ritual, which I filmed myself performing. In it, I use a tarot deck, where I draw 3 random cards. I am blindfolded during the performance and listening to each card. I then use automatic writing to record what goes through my mind after listening to each card. At the end I document the cards drawn and provide short descriptions of how to interpret them within the context of the Tarot deck. I find the idea of listening as something which is us reaching out as much as sound ‘reaching in’ really interesting, and this work gave me the chance to explore this idea in quite a playful context. I had though of this before, as In listening being a reaching out towards people or the environment. The setting of this performance as being a ritual introduced the idea of listening as a reaching out towards more abstract things, like the future. This is something I would love to explore further. I also like how the ritual/performance is quite flexible and easy to perform pretty much anywhere, and how I am able to adapt it to different topics. I came up with the idea and realised it quite quick – I didn’t think too much about it - it reminded me o the value of just testing out your ideas, even if they are not entirely clear to you yet. It might not be perfect, but something interesting will probably come out of it.

     

    Auralia Hum

    This piece was based on my 121 performance piece ‘Sonic Confessions’. In it, I embody a character called the Auralia Hum, the Sound Doctor. The audience comes to see her/me to get help with their (dangerous?) inner sound experiences.  Physical presence and proximity are important in this piece, so to create something online for this performance is really difficult.

    But what would all the people in need of the Sound Doctor do in lockdown? They would, of course, go online for their sessions! With this in mind, I wanted to try and create an online ‘session’ from the sound doctor, which would still retain some of the awkwardness of an actual visit to her. I also wanted to try and incorporate the ‘prescription’ all participants would be given at the end of their visit, which I did by making it downloadable. I still think the original performance works best ‘in the flesh’ – however, trying to create an online version has made me think a lot about how to work on making these kind of 121 performance ideas accessible through a digital medium – be that on a website or through a video calling app – this is something I am excited to explore in the future.  

     

    Murmur

    This is, technically, not a lockdown project. It is something that had been at the back of my mind for some time, but which I never really got working on properly. For a while I had been doing these ‘inner listening’ exercises which I had really enjoyed. I had thought for a while that I should find a way to formalise and share them. Lockdown gave me the final inspiration to get on with it. I created an instruction/score for this particular inner listening exercise, which you are now able to download on my website. I also created a composition inspired by the inner sounds I had experienced the last time I completed it. I have not had the chance to compose much lately, so I found it really enjoyable to have a reason to do that!   

     

    Telesonic transmission

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    This was a project created for the Online Performance Festival (lovely experience to be involve in, as a side note). The inspiration came from a Zoom workshop (where else!)  - the facilitator was the only person with the mic on, and apart from her speaking, I also heard some lovely bird song come through. This made me think about how not only where we in the presenter’s home – at least in the small part of it she let us see – but she, and the sound of birdsong, where in OUR home as well – and there was much less control over the sound- both from the presenter’s side and ours. ‘Telesonic transmission’ was partly about inner listening, and partly inspired by the idea of television as a occult medium, which was believed by some during the early age of television. In this project, I built on ideas I have explored earlier, of a collective inner listening experience, and of how sound can cross the border between inside and outside, self and other, with ease. I extended this idea to imagine how sound can use the digital networks to travel between you and me, into homes and private spheres. This project I found very interesting – unlike the previous projects, which had dealt with the digital aspect as a restriction or necessity more than anything else – this particular project actually was about sound in the digital world. it started to scratch the surface of what sound could do in a digital world, and our new relationship to video calls and digital tools. It will be really intrsting to explore this further in the future.

     

    Quarantine score

    This idea was thinking about our confined existence in our homes, and how I could create small moment of listening within this environment. I wrote a score anyone could use throughout the day, to find different spaces and sounds to listen to. I was very excited when it got published in Délicate Rebellions (un)influenced issue – which is why I cannot reproduce it here.

     

    Enclosed listening

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    'Enclosed listening' follows along the same lines as the ‘Quarantine score’. I wanted to find a way to integrate listening into my days - even though I have now been in the same place for what feels like forever… I decided to spend a couple of minutes once or twice a day listening in different parts of the house. I had made a basic hand drawn map, and each day put tracing paper over it, coloured in where I had been listening and wrote down a very short description of what was heard. The sounds where both ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ sounds – I did not distinguish on my maps. Over the week, the tracing paper created a multi-layered listening map of the house. I photographed the maps and added the photographs to my website. I like the look of the different layers and will experiment some more in how to best display them. I also wanted to use them as starting points for other ideas.

     

    Of course, I wish the pandemic never happened – or that our government handled it better (don’t get me started on that topic…!). Having been put in this weird situation though, I was forced to step outside of my comfort zone, and there are some positives I can take from that. Being restricted to the online/digital sphere and creating small low-key projects has thrown up a lot of interesting ideas I want to explore further. What does this digital 'new normal' mean? How does sound fit in? Can a new, digital way of connecting be more inclusive and generate interesting ideas for new performances?

     

    I wanted to add a note here on expectations and productivity. It is very easy, with being furloughed, having extra time or being stuck at home, to feel the pressure to produce. Our value, however, is not tied to our productivity. We all deal with things differently, and in no way do I want to suggest that creating art is the best way to deal with this pandemic. It was helpful TO ME, but that does not mean other ways of coping/surviving is less legitimate.  

    Look after yourself! Things can, and will, change.    

  2. The room is almost completely dark, lit only by a projector screen and some fairy lights I have placed on the currently empty table. I breath slowly, trying to look calm and collected. I go over everything once more in my mind. Performance. Presentation. Participants discussion. The first person walks through the door, I smile and ask them to sit down anywhere, anywhere they like around the table.

     

    No turning back now- let the séance begin.

     

     

    Points of Listening is a monthly programme of experimental workshops centred on and around practices of listening, together.  “It is an expanded and nomadic arena for practice and research that facilitates experimental scenarios with a participatory and performative emphasis.” ) It is co-convened by Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright in association with CRISAP, University of the Arts, London.

    For my Points of Listening session, I have proposed to perform a live piece of art, newly created, called ‘Aural Séance’ with a post-performance presentation and discussion. The work is part of my current practice based PhD in sound art at UAL.  My research degree investigates ‘inner sounds’ – sounds we hear as part of our inner worlds of thoughts, emotions and desires. It aims to call those sounds forward, to focus our attention on them, as well as define what they are and what they mean to us.

     

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    The table is full. Mark Peter Wright introduces the session and then it starts. I slowly walk up to the top of the table, look at the participants and start. I tell them how dangerous a séance can be. Tell them to focus, to close their eyes. I start to walk around the table, slowly. I summon the sound of darkness. The sound of fear. The sound of kindness. I keep walking around the table. I make sure they are aware of my presence by lightly touching their shoulder, their hair, their arm. Sometimes I stop, listening with one of them. I talk to them about the sound we are both listening for.

     

    ‘Aural Séance’ aims to, first and foremost, to focus our attention towards our inner capacity for inner listening, inner sounds. Through my research, I have found that – perhaps because we are a culture focused on the visual in many ways, perhaps for other reasons -  people frequently start by telling me they never hear inner sounds, that they don’t exist. I have devised various strategies for focusing your mind ‘sonically’, to listen inwards. Often, those same people who told me that they don’t hear inner sounds will speak to me again, later, maybe hours or days or weeks later, and tell me they DO hear inner sounds, they just never paid attention to them before. ‘Aural Séance’ aims to re-focus the participants attention towards these internal sounds.  

     

    How, then, can we hear without our ears? We are all aware of the expression ‘our minds eye’ – but do we have a corresponding ‘minds ear’? This question has been present in my research throughout - if we need our ears to listen, how can we then listen to our minds? One way of theorising and thinking through this issue has been with the help of French philosopher Maurice Merlau-Ponty. He argues that we are wrong to divide our experience into ‘body’ and ‘mind’ – we experience things as one being, as what he calls a ‘body-subject’ – an intertwining of body and mind. Thinking of hearing in this way means we can talk about a thinking body, but also, more importantly, a hearing mind. Merleau-Ponty also argues that there is not as clear a border as we would like to think between ourselves and the outer world. He speaks of experience and ‘pre-personal’ – the ‘I’, he argues, comes later with reflection. In the moment of experience, the border between us and the world is shifting, porous, changing. ‘Aural Séance’ uses the format of a Victorian style séance to explore this theme of ‘openness’ within inner listening. The idea first started to take shape while reading Lisa Blackmans book ‘Immaterial Bodies (2012)’, in which she discusses threshold experiences, which she defines as: “phenomena which suggests some kind of transport between the self and other, inside and outside, and material and immaterial” (Blackman, p 20)  A séance is interesting in this context, as it’s an experience which raises questions about the ‘contained’ nature of our inner selves. It consists of a group of people listening for, looking for or feeling towards ONE thing, sensation, spirit or sound. Frequently, the group of séance participants report they all experienced the same thing. This still stands whether you believe in the spirit world or think their experiences are just based on suggestion – a group of people somehow shared in a ‘inner’ experience.

    In ‘Aural Séance’ a group of participants are asked to all listen towards the same ‘inner’ sound. The sound prompts are designed to be abstract, to avoid triggering an obvious, recognised sound – the ‘sound of water’ is not used, but rather the sound of kindness, darkness etc. The participants are aware both of each other, and of the facilitator/artists presence in the space, and their listening towards the same sounds as they are. To further highlight this, and create a sense of a shared inner listening experience, I stop and listen WITH individual participants throughout the séance – talking to them about the sound we are both listening towards, while lightly touching their arm, their shoulder or just leaning against their chair.

     

    The séance comes to an end. I stop at the head of the table, and ask everyone to take a deep breath. Slowly open their eyes. I warn them that they should leave any sound they heard behind in this space, as they might otherwise haunt them in their daily lives. I walk out of the room and turn on the lights.

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    After performing the piece to the group, I have designed a short presentation to start discussion on the themes of the work. As is often the case, people are keen to discuss inner sounds, what they are, could they hear them? As I try to move the discussion on to other topics, such as he definition of ‘inner’ and how listening, inner listening and seances starts to question our understanding of it, the participants linger on inner sounds. Some of them are sound artists, and want to know if I have advice for listening inwards. Some of them wants me to describe the sounds I hear. Some want to talk about the sound of dreams.  They are an amazingly generous group of people, all willing to share experiences and discuss the work and how it affected them. I am left with the feeling of moving to quickly, of retrospectively wishing I allowed more time just to discuss inner sounds.   

     

    I have been both excited and nervous about doing a Points of Listening session for a long time, and I’m so glad I finally did one. Reflecting on the session, what was said, the work and its contexts has since defined an area which looks a lot like a chapter for my PhD. Performing your work, and then allowing a discussion and feedback on it might seem like a daunting thing to do (it did to me anyway!) but it was worth it.

     

    Can YOU hear the sound of nothing?

     

    Yes

     

    What does it sound like?

     

    (Silent listening)

    Previously published on the UAL Post Graduate Blog