Wednesday, 11 July 2007

What Sound Does A Color Make?

That some people see colors when they hear certain sounds or associate sounds with colors has interested scientists, philosophers and artists for centuries. Perhaps one reason for the enduring curiousity about synaesthesia, as that transsensory experience is called, is that it suggests the possibility of transcending ordinary divided consciousness and ascending into a realm where cosmic energies may be experienced more holistically and ecstatically.

Artists have long worked at coordinating different sensory experiences in trying to simulate, if not actually stimulate, synaesthesia. ''What Sound Does a Color Make,'' a fascinating exhibition organized by Kathleen Forde for Independent Curators International, is based on the observation that computers are particularly well suited for that project because they can simultaneously translate electronic energy patterns into aural and visual patterns. So in digital works by 13 artists and artist teams, the visual and the aural are not just coordinated; they are actually different manifestations of the same underlying programs.

Many of the pieces involve abstract video play with light, color, shape and strongly percussive or textured -- as opposed to melodic or harmonic -- sound. That can be subtle, as in Thom Kubli's ''Monochrome Transporter,'' in which fleeting, barely visible bursts of geometrically shaped light register on a blue screen while speakers emit quiet crackling sounds; or it can be extremely aggressive, as in ''Lux'' by Granular-Synthesis, in which violently strobing color fields coincide with loud and deep electronic sounds. Either way, the effect is almost scarily entrancing.

Some pieces involve recognizable imagery. In Steina Vasulka's ''Trevor,'' the recording of a performer making sounds with his mouth and nose is subjected to all kinds of visual and aural distortion to comically horrific effect. And although the imagery in Fred Szymanski's animated videos is not representational, the flowing blobs of glossy gray matter do have a dreamy magic realism quality. With some pieces, the payoff does not seem worth the complications programmed by the artist: an interactive installation by Atau Tanaka, for example, in which the viewer's movement causes partial revelation of an otherwise illegible picture of a woman in bondage by the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki projected on a large screen. The possibilities of coordinating kinesthetic and visual experiences remain intriguing.

A disappointing aspect of this otherwise viscerally entertaining show is the relative absence of historical or cultural self-consciousness. Unlike Ara Peterson and other young filmmakers and artists who play off 60's-style psychedelia and New Age fantasies, the Eyebeam artists seem so preoccupied with technology that they lose sight of the many layers of meaning that have accumulated around the dream of synaesthesia and its intersection with modern machinery. That is forgivable in earlier works, like a video by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut from 1966 to 1969 that abstracts a film of a Beatles performance, or ''Noisefields'' from 1974, a hypnotic video by Steina and Woody Vasulka combining electronic music and a flickering colored circle. Now, however, you want to see new technologies applied to more richly dimensional ends.

July 8, 2005

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