“Inner Ear Vision: Sound as Medium” at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts offers a welcome cross section of innovative practices in contemporary sound art. These works all activate sound as something both within and outside of itself — a partner to the visual and tactile with infinite potential. Per the exhibition’s curators, sound is a means for exploration.
Diversity is a strength of the exhibition, which draws on traditions as disparate as thirteenth-century Chinese koujivocal mimicry (C. Spencer Yeh), Oglala Lakota iconographies (Suzanne Kite and Devin Ronneberg), Kurt Schwitters’s Dada tone poem Ursonate (Jean-Paul Perrotte), and Mississippi Delta jazz and blues (Wadada Leo Smith with Josie Holtzman and Nick Michael). Added to this are allusions to Italian Futurism and modernist musique concrète.
The objects themselves offer a similar multiplicity. Yeh’s Mei-Jia & Ting-Ting & Chin-Fu & Sin-Ji (2018) places the viewer/listener between two speakers, drawing our attention to both stereophonic hearing and verbal verisimilitude as assumed defaults in our navigation and comprehension of any linguistic soundscape. Other works, like Nadia Botello’s wonderful Bodies of Water (2019), activate sound through touch, using the human body as an amplifier, allowing the viewer to “hear” hydrophonic recordings from beneath the Missouri River. Jessica Ekomane’s Unrealities (2015) similarly activates the haptic, and also literal space itself, reverberating with transducers fed frequencies below the human range of hearing. One feels the work before one hears it — a firm reminder that sound and hearing are not obligatorily bound, and suggestive of how art might be shifted away from a default privileging of traditional modes of ear-based hearing.
Some works combine sonic complexity within visual fascination. Tyondai Braxton’s Drawing #2 and #3, both from 2107, are spectacularly beautiful visual scores. Like Lea Bertucci’s Ampheres: For Quadraphonic Cello and Electronics (2016), they occupy a space between musical notation and abstraction, challenging traditional semiotics of instrumentation. Bertucci’s schematic drawing for her Quadrophonic Cellois an apt reminder that innovation often has at least one foot in tradition. Tarek Atoui’s Sub-Ink (2016) synthesizes the best of all of these, with wonderfully lively scores of electro-conducive paint that are activated by moving a ring connected to a subwoofer on which the performer sits, thus “hearing” the work they are simultaneously playing.
Of all of the works, the most impactful is surely Wadada Leo Smith’s (with Josie Holtzman and Nick Michael) Awakening Emmitt Till (2017). Four individual screens surround the viewer as the sound of a river and, eventually, Smith’s elegy to Till — the fourteen-year-old black boy who was tortured and murdered by a lynch mob in 1955 after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman —emerges.
This nod to social justice is echoed in works like Nikita Gale’s INTERCEPTOR (2019), which alludes to both barricades and the muting of alternative voices; and Benvenuto Chavajay’s El Grito (The Scream, 2002), a sonic intervention that draws attention to the omnipresence of gun violence in contemporary (Latin) American life.
Special note should be made of Suzanne Kite and Devin Ronneberg’s Ínyan Iyé (Telling Rock, 2019), not only for its pointed emphasis on Oglala Lakota traditions indigenous to the land upon which Bemis sits, but also for its exciting merger of immersive, interactive sculptural forms; the work is built from sound-processing and machine-learning equipment interwoven with long braids of hair, wire, light, and exquisite fabric and hide pieces embroidered with native iconographies in electro-conducive filament.
“Inner Ear Visions” is a moving glimpse into the boundless frontier of sound art. It is also a compelling collection of objects and installations that cause deep reflection and self-awareness. If nothing else, this exhibition reminds us that art, and sound art perhaps most richly of all, offers us a place of meditation and motivation in a continuously evolving world.