Sunday, August 06, 2006

Michael Waterman: Antiphon
Neutral Ground
August 5-25, 2006

The recorder, as a musical instrument, seems to have been relegated to the 3rd-grade classrooms of the world--its inclusion in "Stairway to Heaven" notwithstanding. Everyone in our culture, then, can likely play the recorder, but probably not very well. So it may be with little surprise that one can experience a playful naïveté when encountering Michael Waterman's work at Neutral Ground.

This work seems to have been tailored to the architecture of the space, as the hallway itself is the location of the first component of the exhibition. The short hallway leading into Neutral Ground's main space is lined on either side with recorders, which in turn are connected to and "blown" by small fan-like mechanisms. These mechanisms themselves are triggered through somewhat awkward motion detectors, so that when a body moves down the hallway--or back and forth within it--the recorders are "played," and each emits a single, clumsy note. The combined sound is an ambient dissonance.

At the end of this sonic gauntlet is a black curtain, blocking an exit to the right and into the gallery's main space. Pulling back the curtain triggers the first of several instruments inside the space; some description of these primitive and yet elaborate samplers is in order. Each of the several structures consists primarily of a speaker not unlike what one might find in a garage sale, as they seem to have been made circa 1970. Viewers familiar with similar contemporary art will no doubt draw a parallel with the work of Christian Marclay, although Marclay seems more interested in maintaining the sheer "speaker-ness" of his sculptural objects. In Waterman's case, the fabric front to each speaker has been replaced with coloured plastic (red, yellow, etc.). On top of each of these is a plastic tube, vertically encasing wires and leading to a bare motherboard and a stripped CD player. On the front of this is a tiny motion detector; when the motion detector is tripped, the CD begins to play, the speaker is lit from within, and a portion of a soundscape is heard (each disc plays something different, and most seemed to last between 30 and 60 seconds). When the sample ends, the light goes out and the CD stops, ready to be triggered again. The speakers do not function, nor sound, nor look quite the way they are "supposed" to.

My own first reaction was to dash about the room, finding out what sounds I could trigger in each of the machines; I then became selective, trying to remix the sound by triggering those I thought would sound "good" together. I was aware of how arbitrary this was on the one hand, and yet also understanding that my choices were built upon the history of Western music, as I combined low, rythmic thuds with higher-pitched tones. I was, of course, unable to completely orchestrate the machines, thanks to the unspecific gaze of each motion detector.

While Waterman's technology seems clumsy at first (picture a combination of Disco-era hi-fi and a Gibsonesque, Cyberpunk aesthetic), one realizes that this is an elaborate attempt to disrupt control of machine and instrument. One moves about the space, trying to negotiate the parameters set up by the range of each motion detector and the limitations of one's own bodily movement. This reconnection to the bodily pulls sound out of a cranial space and into a playful, physical exploration. The sounds are fairly stock ambient elements, not at all unlike what one might hear in work by Brian Eno or Steve Reich; but Waterman, like Eno, realizes the failure of a purely aural soundscape and insists that his sound be spacial.

Soundscape is, it turns out, what Waterman has created, allowing a viewer to lay his sound over the landscape of the gallery (I question here whether "soundscape" is actually appropriate, and therefore coin a new term: tonbauten, or built sound structures. You heard it here first. Use it at dinner parties). Antiphon--"contrast sound"--manages true user-unfriendliness; instead of being like a program that doesn't work, it ends up being like a program that writes poetry while failing to check your spelling.

--Lee Henderson

Antiphon at Neutral Ground

Christian Marclay


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