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Pushing on the doors of perception

  • A number of artists have been experimenting with sound, drawn in by its intangibility and immersive nature
  • The idea of “sound art” as a discipline is relatively new, with the term becoming commonplace during the 1990s

Ish Shehrawat has been working with the ‘phenomenal’ aspect of sound for over two decades
Ish Shehrawat has been working with the ‘phenomenal’ aspect of sound for over two decades

Close your eyes, just for a moment, and listen. Really listen.

You’ll hear the strained whirr of the fan in your computer working overtime to keep your CPU cool. Maybe, a few feet away, your colleague is clicking and clacking away at the keyboard. Or, if you’re out on a city street, there’s the sound of hawkers vying loudly for prospective customers, the cacophonic symphony of engines and car horns and the perennial rumble of construction work. Sound surrounds us, and even in our heavily image-saturated contemporary lives, it plays an essential role in how we make sense of the world. Which is why the past couple of decades have seen more and more artists—both Indian and international—adopt it as their primary medium.

“It’s this super primal medium, and once you start paying attention to sound you realize that it’s always there," says Yashas Shetty, an artist in residence at Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology and a founding faculty member at its Centre for Experimental Media and Arts. Shetty’s practice lies at the intersection between technology, sound and science, and he’s the founder of the Indian Sonic Research Institute Organisation, a Bengaluru-based collective of DIY instrument builders and artists dedicated to the proliferation of experimental music and art. “That’s what (American composer and music theorist) John Cage was all about, the impossibility of silence. Even in our mythology, the first thing in the universe was a sound."

The idea of “sound art" as a discipline is relatively new, with the term becoming commonplace during the 1990s. But artists from across traditions have been working with sound for over a century, with Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto The Art Of Noise often cited as a key foundational text. The Futurists were an art and social movement that celebrated modernity, industrialization, technology, violence and noise, and Russolo imagined that the future belonged to music crafted from the “infinite variety of noise-sounds", which would replace the “restricted circle" of traditional musical sounds. He tried to bring that vision to fruition by building noise machines that replicated the clatter of industrial age and the sonic violence of modern warfare.

 Akash Sharma’s custom 3D printer converts voice into physical objects
 Akash Sharma’s custom 3D printer converts voice into physical objects

Other pioneers include Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, who composed a 40-minute piece as a solo in the 1920s, comprising vocal utterances, vowels, consonants and invented words, and John Cage, whose score for the 1952 composition 4’33" instructed performers to not play their instruments for the entirety of the piece. The “music" instead came from the audience members shifting in their seats and sounds drifting in from outside the concert hall. A radically provocative piece, 4’33" challenged the established notions of what we consider music, removing the artist entirely and positioning the act of listening as a creative act, a starting point for the construction of meaning.

But sound art really came into its own since the 1990s, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated technological means of producing and manipulating sound. Today, artists from across disciplines—music, visual art, performance—are increasingly experimenting with sound as a part of their practice. The fact that sound art offers the possibility to have a foot in two worlds—music and gallery art—also makes it appealing to those who want their work to be more accessible to people outside the white cube of the gallery. Whether they call themselves sound artists or experimental musicians, the core of their work is about exploring the possibilities thrown up by this most intangible and abstract of mediums.

“It’s basically about engaging with the possibilities of perception," says Delhi-based artist and curator Ish Shehrawat, who runs the Sound Reasonslabel and festival, dedicated to promoting sound art and electronic music in the country. Trained in Western classical guitar, Shehrawat resolutely refuses any labels for his work—which includes live performances, recordings and multi-channel installations—insisting that “it’s all sound first".

“Sound gives you the possibility of perceiving and reimagining the creative output rather than trying to project meaning on to it," he says. “In visual art, people are too busy trying to figure out what an artist is trying to say through their work, while I’m more interested in what people say after experiencing my work. Your consciousness is either conscious of what is happening, or it is busy trying to relate it to something in the past. I think sound art leans more towards the former."

“With sound, you can cross over the threshold of language, it’s at the edge of information distortion," says Mumbai-based sound artist Akash Sharma, who quit a lucrative job as a music producer to start the sound research lab Sound.Codes in 2014. He says “sound as a human experience" is at the core of his work, which includes an archive of the acoustic signature of scores of Indian heritage buildings, experiments with unusual hybrid instruments, and a custom-built 3D printer device that takes sound samples and converts them into tangible physical objects.

His most recent performance piece was a collaboration with German artist Sarah Bahr, which used medical sensors to transform bodily data—skin temperature, respiration and muscular movement—into sound. “We’ve turned the body into a synthesizer," he says. “We took this project on a tour of alternative art spaces in the European Union last year."

In recent years, Indian art festivals like the Kochi Biennale and Serendipity Festival have slowly started making space for sound art, thanks to the success of sound works by mainstream new media artists like Shilpa Gupta and the Guwahati-based Desire Machine Collective. But in the absence of institutions that consistently push or support the discipline, most Indian sound artists still struggle to find curators and galleries willing to provide them with the space and financial assistance required to execute their vision. “I think it’s because of a lack of substantial reference points and the lack of enough knowledge," says Sharma.

Part of the problem is that sound art’s intangibility makes it even harder to sell than new media installations. In a local art market that is still overwhelmingly dominated by the modern artists—contemporary art makes up about 5% of overall sales—there are no takers for sound art. “There’s no immediate transactional value to it," says Bengaluru-based artist Hemant Sreekumar, who performs algorithmically generated noise music as part of his practice, which also includes work in prints and computer-generated art. “Sound is an immaterial medium, there’s no product as such."

This makes it particularly hard to make a living as a sound artist, with almost everyone involved in the field supporting themselves through third-party work or a more commercially viable practice. Despite these hurdles, artists like Shetty, Sreekumar, Sharma and Shehrawat are optimistic about the future of the still embryonic Indian sound art scene.

“It’s really small but there are more and more kids going to media colleges and getting exposed to new mediums of making sound, experimental media and all that," says Sreekumar. “So hopefully you will get more young people studying sound and working with it."

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