• Dress Show

New Then / New Now: Structures and Reflections in the sound of House Style.

House Style as an exhibition of four film works shown at the Tramway, Glasgow from 25 October 2013 – 19 January 2014, presenting four artists from distinct fields in a conceptually succinct way. Through the course of this article I aim to examine individual ways in which each artist has approached the sound world in their films, and question whether or not there is a value to be found in applying certain narrative film music theories, in conjunction with sound and video art theories, in reading the works within a gallery context. I believe that due to our socially ingrained responses to audiovisual stimulus, it is as valid to apply them in these circumstances, as long as one is aware of the contextual subtleties that different environments demand.

 

The shared point of inspiration for the exhibition, Roundabout, is one of many cinemagazines produced by the Central Office of Information (COI) from 1962-1974[1] as soft propaganda[2] and distributed to territories of the British Empire, showing the progressive, innovative and cultural achievements of Britain. Roundabout, shown in Technicolor, had a particular focus on South and South East Asia, and was produced specifically for cinema distribution in these territories[3], being issued in eight languages English, Burmese, Mandarin Chinese (sub-titled), French, South Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai and Malay. Roundabout, as with the other cinemagazines created by the COI, shows a modernist ideal of Britain, a polished, finessed, utopia.  The independent Glaswegian curatorial practice led by Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan, Panel, selected four excerpts of these cinemagazines; ‘Dress Show’ and ‘Make Up’ issue No.5 (1962), ‘Plastics’ issue No.12 (1963) and ‘Fashion Model School’ issue No.40 (1965) as a platform for four artists to respond to. The invited artists were designer Hilda Hellström, writer Travis Jeppesen, artist Rob Kennedy and composer Daniel Padden. Though each artist responding to the excerpts comes from a distinct artistic practice, each also has a history of collaborative and cross-disciplinary works.

 

Described by Panel as a “playful” audiovisual composition, which collages original audio sources with traditional Burmese/Myanmar extracts and newly composed motifs[4], An English Model is the first video work Padden has created[5], normally working as a composer on other artist’s film projects. I feel however, that the music in this work is beyond playful and resonates with the excitement of original Artist-Composer’s[6] video art work. Holly Rogers attributes the birth of video art to the commercial availability of the Sony Portapak in 1965[7] and on first viewing I felt that within An English Model there was an audiovisual energy and enthusiasm echoing the artistic dynamism of this period.

 

The composition throughout lends itself to Schaeffer’s musique concrète techniques, evident in the tape scrubbing (00:00:45)[8], slowed down/sped up cuts (00:01:55 and 00:02:00), Bell Loops (00:01:04) and spatial control of the material within the stereo field (00:04:39). However, breaking from Schaeffer’s abstracting of the sound world, both sonically and visually, the quick tape cuts (00:00:52) and looping (00:01:04) quickly determine a synchronicity between the sound material and moving image, establishing the sound as being from the original film material. This implied originality of synchronicity is an illusion however. At (00:01:04) and throughout the film, Padden is using sampled Burmese/Myanmar traditional music sourced from the Internet mixed with the original sound sources from the Roundabout excerpts. This leads us to question our impression of the work from the outset and lends itself to a wider discussion of composers’ requisition of online found sources[9], [10].

 

This blurring of original and sourced sound calls into question the veracity of the image with which it is married, which I find to be an exceptionally astute tool Padden employs in directing the audiences thought process in his criticism of the veneer of truth in the Roundabout series. This questioning is then musically furthered by the appearance of the composed brass motifs along with the simplified looped sample phrasing and circular/repetitive imagery of the pink paint and played-forward/reversed female character (00:02:08 – 00:04:12). The repetitive cycle, only interrupted briefly towards the end, shows a stasis of narrative more commonly found in non-film related sound art works in a gallery context. If one were to walk in to the exhibition during this two-minute static encounter, I would argue it would not be unreasonable to assume the work as part of a sound art installation. As Salomé Voegelin describes “The listener encounters the work in a space and in a time, which pretend to be always-already-there before their encounter, while the sonic work, due to it’s temporality and effusiveness questions such a priori situations.”[11] Two minutes of a twenty-minute looped installation is not an insignificant amount of time to spend in stasis. By allowing this stasis to form and then breaking from it, Padden seems to be informing us of a dual narrative. At once choosing to highlight the repetition within the Roundabout series but also highlighting the temporality, and musicality, of his film work, and as such it’s difference from other sound art within a gallery context.

 

Inherently musical, An English Model blurs the distinction between the dominant and subservient media. At first, Claudia Gorbman’s principles of music in classical film[12] would seem inappropriate in relation to Padden’s film, however though certain structures are violated (Invisibility: the tape editing techniques are audibly fore fronted and Inaudibility: the music is certainly meant to be heard consciously), the remaining five hold true. Signifying mood, cueing and even leading narrative through its composition, and providing continuity and unity, the music performs a classical function in its relationship to the image, one which might be drawn from Padden’s previous work as a composer for film. It is difficult then, to remove An English Model from the context of Padden’s other works, and as such reading this film as a narrative film in a gallery context is both legitimate and informative.

 

What is particularly interesting about Padden’s work here is that he is the only artist within the exhibition to engage with the original sonic material from the Roundabout excerpts. As the only sound-based artist of the quartet, it is hardly surprising that his work is derived from the sound material within the original stimulus. However, what could be more telling is how the remaining artists have chosen to reject this half of the provided material.

 

The second film work in the programme is Hilda Hellström’s Experiments with Plastics. A short, four-minute film, Experiments with Plastics opens (00:07:00) to a static and silent image of plastic in a pre-moulded state being heated from below. The birds-eye view of the material combined with its unchanging stance, for me, gives a vertiginous underpinning to the image and twists the plastic into an otherworldly landscape. When the non-diegetic soundscape fades in (00:07:12) it calls to mind the mechanical processing of the material, but also creates a wind blown vastness to the imagined environment. The sense of height in the perspective is further outlined by the shot moving closer to the material and at the same time detailing the rising steam, whilst accompanied by an introduction of a near field rotary motion in the soundtrack (00:08:26), creating a sonic imagery of being in a helicopter looking down at this shifting terrain. At (00:08:57) there is a cross fade to a new texture viewed from a similar perspective. This fade is smoothed over by a reintroduction of the wind sound, utilising Gorbman’s fifth principle[13] of narrative film, in providing continuity between images. At (00:09:40) there is a transition between the perceived interaction of the sonic and visual elements of the film. Until this point the score has had a passive influence on the visual narrative, setting both ideas of process and position. Here though the soundtrack and perceived position of the viewer appears to have a direct impact on the material in the visual itself, reacting in response to the increase in the rotary sonic texture, almost de-acousmatising the rotary sound and as such the position of the viewer. This gives way to the final surface/texture, a foaming plastic that again is antagonised by the imagery of the soundtrack. Both being manipulated by the rotary motion, and as such perceived downward pressure (00:10:19) but also by the changed relationship of the visual material and the wind sound, which seem to now show the material itself being the implied diegetic source of the sound. This is again true of the omnipresent drone which, at (00:10:41), begins to perform a similar de-acousmatising process, groaning under tectonic shifts in the landscape. While both these actions do not show a literal de-acousmatic process in the strictest of Chion’s terms[14], I believe that the implied narrative for which it supports is easier to argue for when related to Hellström’s previous works.

 

Having used film previously in her practice, Hillström uses the media to examine and support the “notion of myth and investigate the narrative essential in objects”[15]. In The Monument[16] the relationship of the material to a broader landscape is dealt with almost inversely to the way it is discussed within House Style. Within the House Style exhibition space itself though, is one of Hillström’s urns[17] from her SEDIMENTATION process, where she investigates “phenomenonogical conceptions of subjectivity and what we conceive as ‘fake’ in opposition to the ‘real’”. By including this process within the physical space of the exhibition, Hillström points the audience towards a narrative within the work. That the flexibility of the plastic material, and the medium capturing it (the film), is conducive to the adaptability of it’s fakeness, and as such a fakeness that can be found within the original Roundabout material, a similar comment to the one made my Padden.

 

Whilst all four film works have a complexity of narrative structure and dominance within the soundtrack, the third in the programme of House Style appears from the outset to be the simplest. Further inquiry into the author’s process however, proves the opposite.

 

I, an Object by writer Travis Jeppesen is, like Daniel Padden’s work, a first exploration of the artist into using film as an artistic medium. Jeppesen describes his process, object-orientated writing[18], as “a new form that attempts to inhabit the object… a writing that positions itself within the work of art.” This style of writing comes from an acute relationship with object-orientated ontology[19], an anti-anthropocentric branch of philosophy that holds all objects as equal. In I, an Object, Jeppesen replaces the entire soundtrack of one of the Roundabout excerpts with his own voice, reading a newly constructed writing. I believe that studying this reading through the narrative film process of voice-over goes some way to explaining the influence of the soundtrack in the audiovisual relationship and how we understand the film.

 

By making the film work itself the object, Jeppesen sweeps through Branigan’s levels of narration[20] from top to bottom with the text also being the thought as the sole sonic signifier in the film. In replacing the soundtrack with his own narrative, Jeppesen breathes an entirely new life into the visual element of the film, and engages a host of interesting associations between the image and sound, constantly blurring and shifting our perception of the dominant medium. Spoken in an irrepressibly regular, droll tone, Jeppesen begins by having the object tell us the opposite of what it is showing us. “There are no people, there are no places, there are no events” accompanying a text image of “People, Places, Events” (00:11:24). Immediately relating the philosophical boundaries through which the work will take place and establishing the narrator as unreliable[21] and as such, the film itself as unreliable, perhaps providing a similar commentary on the propagandist imagery that both Padden and Hellström have made.

 

At (00:11:43) Jeppesen then brings in the narrative she character, though she is also me, the narrator/film. When the narrator talks of the prize camel dancing (00:12:49), there is a gap between when we hear of camels and when we see them. Experienced for the first time this gives the narrator and omnipotent level of control over what we expect to see within the visual element of the film, the narrator is in control of what is unfolding. However, in reality Jeppesen’s words are written as a response to the image we are seeing, as such questioning the controlling sense, aural or visual, much like in Padden’s An English Model. This control is shifted later in the film, from the lab scene onwards, when the she becomes visible and returns to the text with various referencing of “she”, “her” and “the woman”. Here the narrator changes to becoming descriptive of the image due the sequential appearance of image to text and as such the balance of dominance returns to the image. This seems to work towards a narrative understanding of Rogers’ shared audiovisual history[22] of film art-music as a medium, working towards creating a work in which the “audio is equal in importance to the visual”[23].

 

Jeppesen is aware that “object-oriented writing will always be, in its essence, an act of failed translation.”[24] As such I think that in Jeppesen’s ideal, abstracted reading of the work, narrative, as well as video and sound art theory would be redundant in helping the viewer understand the film, an object-orientated understanding, but he is aware that in reality this is not possible. I would surmise then that our socially engrained, narratively-minded responses to film works in any setting are taken as de facto by the artist and a such fully applicable in the reading of works such as I, an Object.

 

The final film of the exhibition is by Rob Kennedy, the only habitually film based artist of the four. As the title suggests, What are you Driving at? is a work that draws on the social momentum of the time period in which the Roundabout series comes from and relates it strongly, and critically to our current material fixations. As with Padden’s film, Kennedy uses Internet sourced sound in the construction of his work, but also Internet sourced imagery. Through the imagery he chooses, Kennedy points to information and media as the plastic, the grand material, of our time. What are you Driving at? is the only work in the exhibition that overtly deals with our temporal relationship to the source material. By mixing the COI’s footage with his own found imagery and a narratively succinct soundtrack, Kennedy seems to oppose the playful element in Padden’s work, making the more serious point that our relationship with manufacturing processes might not have changed for the better, if they can be said to have significantly changed at all.

 

I describe the soundtrack as narratively succinct because of its dominant relationship over the imagery in guiding our understanding of the meaning of the work. The film begins with a mechanical sound (00:17:12), which is de-acousmacised (00:17:18) to reveal a piston driven machine pressurising powder into pill form. Starting and ending with this sound/imagery alludes to the mechanical societal pressures that have not changed drastically since the 1960’s. By starting with this de-acousmacisation, Kennedy asks us to associate the following mechanical engine soundworld as emanating from the mechanical/technological imagery. He also begins to match the dynamic shifts in the soundtrack with manipulation of the video with contrast and colour flares in the image (00:19:10). These embodied audiovisual relationships continue to evolve throughout the film. As the sound of the engine moves from idle to aggressively mobile, the sound world gathers momentum so does the turnover of the selection of imagery. It is here that Kennedy brings in ultra-contemporary material highlighting how our current relationship with manufacturing and beauty and as a by-product, our subjectivity to the propagandist advertising machines of today.

 

Although well used to working with composers and musicians[25], Kennedy chooses to remove any traces of the original soundtrack, and not to replace it with classically musical soundtrack at all, creating a much more direct relationship between the narrative arc of the film and the sound world driving it.

 

In distinguishing between sound art and the performance based acoustic art of John Cage, Roger’s puts forward Alan Licht’s thoughts; “Sound art … is not time based: people do not have to experience the whole narrative, but can experience these works like the plastic arts; they can dip into an aural experience at any time and stay as long as they chose”[26]. From this perspective, these four audiovisual works are not sound art, as each is explicitly narrative and performative in it’s own unique way, a composition, reflection, reading and unfolding, and as such it could be assumed principles of sound art would be ineffectual in reading the works. Brandon LaBelle however, argues the opposite to Licht, devoting entire chapters[27] to Cage as the father of Sound Art through both performance-based works (4:33) and semi-audiovisual works that are less time-dependant (HPSCHD)[28]. I put forward these two conflicting definitions of sound art in order to shed light on the dialectic discussion between writers in this field and how this allows space for new perspectives on our relationship to audiovisual work in the gallery setting. Rogers places video work within the realm of sound art both historically and conceptually through Nam June Paik and his relationship with Cage[29]. She invites us to examine our relationship to video works saying “video art-music becomes compromised if viewed from only one perspective: rather, it necessitates a criticism that is as interdisciplinary as its subject”.

 

Though this article has focused on each film within House Style’s approach to the sonic element of the audiovisual contract, other explorations of the work could discuss the metatextual discourse of the curatorial decisions or the contextual translation of information through the manipulation of the exhibition space itself[30]. Here though, I hope, I have contributed towards the interdisciplinary criticism which Rogers demands of the film works themselves, in reading House Style through some of the critical constructs of sound art, film art, narrative film and others and in doing so explored the inherent musicality of each film’s soundtrack.

 

Bibliography

Books

Branigan, Edward (1992) Narrative Comprehension and Film (London/New York: Routledge)

Chion, Michel (1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Gorbman, Claudia (Ed. And Trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press) P72.

Kassabian, Anahid (2001), Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, (New York/London: Routledge)

LaBelle, Brandon (2006) Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group)

Reynolds, Simon (2011) Retromania (London: Faber and Faber)

Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press).

Voegelin, Salomé (2010), Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. (New York/London: Continuum International Publishing Group)

 

Articles

Feld, Steven (2000) “A Sweet Lullaby for ‘World Music’”, in Public Culture 12(1) (2000): 145-71

Koch, Jonas (2011) Unreliable and Discordant Film Narration, Journal of Literary Theory. Vol. 5 Issue 1, p57

 

Websites

http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml (Accessed 10 Dec 2013) Bogost, Iain, Prof. of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

http://www.brandonlabelle.net/texts/LaBelle_Uses%20of%20Cage%20(2012).pdf (Accessed 08 Dec 2013)

http://disorientations.com/2011/10/13/towards-an-object-oriented-writing-–-or-–-how-anti-formalism-helps-me-dream-notes-on-an-idea-plus-an-announcement/ (Accessed 10 Dec 2013).

http://www.grizedale.org/artists/rob-kennedy (Accessed 10 Dec 2013)

http://www.hildahellstrom.se (Accessed 07 Dec 2013)

 

Misc

(Daniel Padden, email conversation, 09 Dec 2013)

House Style exhibition text (2013), Self Published.

 

 


[1] News on Screen, “Roundabout”. http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/index.php/series/70 (Accessed 04 Dec 2013)

[2] House Style exhibition text (2013)

[3] News on Screen, “Roundabout”. http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/index.php/series/70 (Accessed 04 Dec 2013)

[4] House Style exhibition text (2013), Self Published.

[5] (Daniel Padden, email conversation, 09 Dec 2013)

[6] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P22

In this section of her book, Rogers outlines the explosive “combinative possibilities” that the emergence of video as a medium (the Portapak) allowed in its “encouraging image and music into a symbiotic partnership rarely encountered before.”

[7] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P11

[8] From this point onwards all timecodes will refer to the video work highlighted in Appendix I

[9] Reynolds, Simon (2011) Retromania (London: Faber and Faber) P413-415.

In this chapter Reynolds discusses Vampire Weekend’s “nonchalant entitlement” in their appropriation of “World” sounds in relation to that of other popular musicians (Paul Simon, Talking Heads).

[10] Feld, Steven (2000) “A Sweet Lullaby for ‘World Music’”, in Public Culture 12(1) (2000): 145-71. Feld states “As sonic virtuality is increasingly naturalized, everyone’s musical world will be felt and experienced as both more definite and more vague, specific yet blurred, particular but general, in place and in motion”.

[11] Voegelin, Salomé (2010), Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. (New York/London: Continuum International Publishing Group) P124

11Kassabian, Anahid (2001), Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, (New York/London: Routledge) P40.

[13] Kassabian, Anahid (2001), Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, (New York/London: Routledge) P40.

[14] Chion, Michel (1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, Gorbman, Claudia (Ed. And Trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press) P72.

[15] House Style exhibition text (2013), Self Published.

[16] http://www.hildahellstrom.se (Accessed 07 Dec 2013)

[17] See APPENDIX II

[18] http://disorientations.com/2011/10/13/towards-an-object-oriented-writing-–-or-–-how-anti-formalism-helps-me-dream-notes-on-an-idea-plus-an-announcement/ (Accessed 10 Dec 2013).

[19] Bogost, Iain, Prof. of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml (Accessed 10 Dec 2013)

[20] Branigan, Edward (1992) Narrative Comprehension and Film (London/New York: Routledge) P74

[21] Koch, Jonas (2011) Unreliable and Discordant Film Narration, Journal of Literary Theory. Vol. 5 Issue 1, p57, 24 p.

[22] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P41

[23] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P43

[24] http://disorientations.com/2011/10/13/towards-an-object-oriented-writing-–-or-–-how-anti-formalism-helps-me-dream-notes-on-an-idea-plus-an-announcement/ (Accessed 10 Dec 2013).

[25] http://www.grizedale.org/artists/rob-kennedy (Accessed 10 Dec 2013)

[26] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P37

[27] LaBelle, Brandon (2006) Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group) P7-23, P54-68

[28] The 1969 performance of HPSCHD was a five hour marathon of seven harpsichords, 64 slide projections, 52 computer-generated tape sounds through 59 channels of surround sound, eight movie projectors with 40 films projected onto an enormous circular screen. Showcasing an almost installational audiovisual relationship.

http://www.brandonlabelle.net/texts/LaBelle_Uses%20of%20Cage%20(2012).pdf (Accessed 08 Dec 2013)

[29] Rogers, Holly (2013) Sounding the Gallery (New York: Oxford University Press). P8

[30] See Appendix ||