Within the increasingly diverse and energised art movement that responds to ecological change and climate crisis, the medium of sonic art has come to play a unique role—demanding attuned sensibilities and concentrated awareness on the part of both artist and audience. This is perhaps what is meant by the phrase ‘deep listening’, which pops up regularly in the literature and discourse of sonic art. In the catalogue essay for the exhibition Site & Sound: Sonic Art as Ecological Practice, Bundjalung and Kullilli artist Daniel Browning describes ‘deep listening’ as “an ethical approach, and a deeper state of awareness, as much as a relational way of communicating.”
These ideas are at the heart of this show. Site & Sound features an expansive program of immersive sound installations as well as performances and listening events, responding to a wide range of ecological issues including bushfires, melting ice caps and loss of biodiversity. The exhibition has drawn from RMIT University’s Sonic Arts Collection and also commissioned four new works. Among the nearly 30 participating artists are Philip Samartzis and Eugene Ughetti, Leah Barclay, Madelynne Cornish, Philip Brophy, David Chesworth, and Ros Bandt. Also involved are some well-known names whose work might be regarded as experimental music as much as sound art, such as Lawrence English and Thembi Soddell.
Perceiving sound is, of course, a very different sensory experience to perceiving art visually. And while it might sometimes demand more of our powers of attention and focus, sonic art can illuminate hidden patterns and truths within our environment that other mediums cannot, cultivating a renewed intimacy with the natural world.
“Listening can be a revelatory experience on a personal level, awakening a sense that is often taken for granted,” says Simon Lawrie, curator at McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery. Lawrie curated Site & Sound in collaboration with Lawrence Harvey and Jon Buckingham, both of whom hold positions at RMIT. “It can also bring new knowledge about the world around us and our place within it, including the urgency of the climate crises which face us on all fronts.
“I hope audiences recognise that the world of sound is equally as rich in texture, colour, form and depth as that afforded by visual experience. As ecologist Bernie Krause has noted, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a sound is worth a thousand pictures.”
Several installations take the form of ‘sound walks’, including one by Rachel Meyers, a composer and sonic artist based in Tasmania. Her piece, Southern Ecophony: Wind and Water, 2020, combines field recordings from Arthur River, a remote spot on the northwest coast of Tasmania, with her own instrumental responses on violin. The visitor’s guided walk at McClelland is accompanied by Meyers’s soundtrack projected through a fixed-speaker installation. For Meyers, a classically trained musician, sound art is profoundly powerful in how it can absorb the listener on a physical level, and in its special capacity to integrate human being with environment.
“A great many ecological crises cannot be visually discerned nor photographically documented, nor can they be understood, in the ways we traditionally think about objects or situations,” explains Meyers, who says she has been moved to tears in response to particular sound environments. “In fact, they require multiple modes and technologies to be perceptible.
“In a nutshell, I believe that listening with our whole bodies may well be one of these multi-modal approaches to aid in reshaping our sense of time, place and self as the environment rather than in opposition to it.”
The idea that sonic art can dissolve the boundaries between humanity and nature, and person and surroundings, is shared by Site & Sound’s curators— particularly Buckingham.
“Visual thinking encourages a sense of separation between yourself, the perceiver, and the things that are being perceived,” Buckingham says. “Listening overcomes this, it sharpens the imagination, makes us consider the source of the sound, why it might be changing, what this might mean for us. It encourages a sense of connection between you and the world.”
As its title suggests, the other key component to the exhibition is space, and the site-specific nature of many works, including Meyers’s piece.
McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, Lawrie says, is unique in its “focus on contemporary spatial practice and the relationship between art and environment.” Through the sound walks and immersive installations, visitors can explore how sound can shape a location’s atmosphere and mood, and vice-versa. The exhibition also invites visitors to experiment and play with their aural perception and the subjective experience of sound. As Buckingham notes, “Many of the works are spatialised—listening at different positions can offer completely different experiences, and tone, pitch, frequency and volume shift can change around the space. A useful visual analogy for this is a piece of sculpture—moving around it will allow you to see different aspects.”
It’s as if sonic art has its own special kind of three-dimensionality. And with this landmark exhibition, its Australian practitioners are continuing to explore its revelations, and its poetry.