Afternoon Dust

Specific Utopias: Non-General Responses To The 'Problematic' Site

The current issue of Interference journal contains an interesting essay by Will Scrimshaw titled ‘Any Place Whatever: Schizophonic Dislocation and the Sound of Space in General’. The essay draws upon works by Francisco López, Asher Thal-Nir and Taylor Deupree to describe a shift in site-specific sound art from “veridical act[s] of documentation” towards an abstract “schizophonic dislocation”, a shift Scrimshaw considers in terms of a movement from the specific to the general. In Scrimshaw’s view, the tendency to try to capture ‘essential’ sonic features or events that give a site its specificity and uniqueness, an approach he associates with R. Murray Schafer’s ‘acoustic ecology’, is opposed by a contrasting tendency that seeks to efface specificity by distorting the site’s sonic features, burying it in a “problematic” abstract generality. This is not seen as a destructive act, but rather a productive, generative one: as the relation between sonic signifier and signified site becomes decoupled, new relations can be proposed that lead to the production of new spaces or “proto-places”.

Scrimshaw’s argument is complex, and while I think he is right in identifying a shift away from “veridical documentation” in site-oriented sound art, I’m not sure I completely agree with his characterisation of this as a move from representation to abstraction, or from the specific to the general. First of all, I think it’s important to note that what we think of as the ‘site’ (a particular geographic or social location taken as a starting point by the artist(s)) is already a representation — the term does not merely describe a collection of pure, undecoded signals, but rather proposes a model for how those signals are to be interpreted and responded to1. To use the example from the work of Schafer given by Scrimshaw, the Scottish village of Dollar, when considered as a ‘site’, exists as a set of assumptions regarding the historical, social and political meanings of the material traces found in a certain geographic locale. It was the model provided by these assumptions that guided Schafer’s choices in selecting ‘significant’ acoustic events to record for his sound portrait of the village. The site exists as a discursive entity, and as such is always already abstract and contigent even prior to the arrival of the artist.

Scrimshaw draws upon the work of Miwon Kwon in order to place his argument within a history of recent site-oriented artistic practices. Kwon notes a tension between “nostalgic desire for a retrieval of rooted, place-bound identities on the one hand and the antinostalgic embrace of a nomadic fluidity of subjectivity, identity and spatiality on the other”2 as being characteristic of current approaches to site-oriented art. This “nomadic fluidity” emerged as a reaction against the identity politics of the 1980s, which tended to efface the specificity of individual subjects for the sake of wider political and ideological solidarity. One effect of this shift upon site-oriented artistic practice is that artists began to turn away from a consideration of the ‘essential’ features of a given site — generalisations that produced coherent, representable site-bound identities through the downplaying of difference — and towards the specifics of individual experiences of the site, be it their own or that of certain others, living or historical, actual or fictional. Thus, the shift identified by Scrimshaw appears as a reaction against the suppressive abstract generalities of identity politics, rather than an open embrace of the productive confusion of the abstract and the general3.

I would like to suggest that the site-oriented aspects of works by artists such as López, Thal-Nir and Deupree are best understood in terms of proposing new models for interpreting and responding to a given space, rather than as the dissolution of the site into abstract generality. Such models are specific in that they bring a specific set of assumptions and conventions to bear on the material traces that comprise the space, namely those assumptions derived from the particular experiences, influences and intentions of the artist as an individual subject. They are contingent and unstable to the degree that individual subjectivities are contingent and unstable, and they are productive in the sense that they open up new possibilities for perceiving, understanding, and acting within the space. Their specificity is important, because it allows them to challenge the dominant model of the site proposed by the powers that assert ownership over the space, and the claims to eternal truth and fixidity made on behalf of that model (and therefore of that assertion of ownership).

This is demonstrated by the example cited by Scrimshaw of Airport Symphony (2007), a collection of works that challenge the tightly controlled, regulated and homogenised site proffered by the dominant model of Brisbane Airport. By isolating, manipulating and distorting the material signals by which the space signifies, the works offer new models for interpreting and responding to those signals, rather than frustrating attempts at interpretation by burying the signals in confusion and background noise. However, by emphasising the choices made by the artist — the choice to isolate that particular frequency band and not another, to combine these two sound sources and not others — the models offered by Airport Symphony refrain from setting themselves up as definitive interpretations of the space. It is their very specificity that articulates their contingency, challenging the fixed, determined homogeneity of the dominant model through the assertion of specific differences. Abstraction and confusion are indeed present — in the sense that individual sound sources may be manipulated beyond recognition, or mistaken for one another — yet they appear not as goals in themselves but as means to the articulation of specific approaches to the space, approaches specific enough to be testable, interrogable, and adapted by others.

It is on these grounds that site-oriented artistic practices are often considered invasive by those who have a vested interest in the dominant model of the site, whose own identities often rest on the assurances provided by that model. In such cases, it may be wise for the artist(s) to do what they can to ensure that the models they propose are understood not as ‘rival truths’ or plays for dominance, but rather as ways of thinking about the site that open up new spaces for the expression and articulation of individual differences, making room within the abstract for the specific. It could be argued that identity politics and Schaferian acoustic ecology both attempt to describe the world as it is given to them, then fight for change on the basis of those descriptions. However, rather than simply describing what is, or retreating from the act of representation altogether into a self-absorbed bubble of ambiguities, site-oriented sound art is also capable of proposing new models for understanding the given, new ways of looking at, listening to, and occupying space.

  1. I owe the distinction between the description and the model to Jeff Wall’s essay ‘Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography as, or in, Conceptual Art’, in Goldstein and Rorimer (eds.) (1995), Reconsidering The Object of Art, 1965-1975, p.247-267. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art. ↩︎

  2. Kwon, Miwon, quoted in Scrimshaw, Any Place Whatever↩︎

  3. For more on artists’ responses to identity politics, see the work of Renée Green, for example _Endless Dreams and Time-Based Streams (2010, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). ↩︎