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20 Questions R. Basbaum Crossroads Windmills Auscultation Digital Cuts

20 Questions

Jens Maier-Rothe, 2009 / pdf

The following twenty questions formed the starting point for the idea to talk with various artists, writers and curators about the role of sound and listening in contemporary art. Basically, they are at the core of the research that brought Sonic Thinking to life. Conversations often start from or get back to them and some of the questions even re-appear exactly as they are articulated here. I divided them into five categories of four questions each.

01 The public sphere: acoustic space as a site and product of conflict

1/ If we think of public space as an ephemeral product of conflict or dissent, and if we think of publics and counter-publics1: Can a different acoustic space be constructed, and with it a new public? Can sound produce a counter-public or an alternative public sphere?

2/ Where can the social and political dimensions of auditory experience be located today? Can listening have (de)politicizing effects? What is an agonistic2 sound practice, and does it lead to new sounds or to new forms of (organizing) listening?

3/ Sound and listening are fundamentally spatial. On the one hand, sound is widely understood as organizing space, as a matter of territory or even a weapon and means of control. How, on the other hand, does the organization of time within/through auditive experience affect socio-political concepts at large?

4/ Where would you position the notion of silence in the context of public space, or within the opposition of publics and counter-publics? What comes before and after silence and who or what creates silences in public space?

02 The senses: sight and sound in visual arts discourses

5/ Are the senses truly distinct and therefore bound to separate aesthetic systems? Or are they rather relational? How does the one or the other notion play a role in your work?

6/ Is there a predominance of visual culture3, and do you see this as problematic? Is there a need for sonic culture to counter a predominant visual system? Or does it rather support critical intents in sonic art when aurality is underrepresented on many levels?

7/ How can we learn from visual culture to investigate the cultural meaning of listening and the notion of sound? Is it helpful to juxtapose or to analogize both senses in order to imagine the world in sonic terms, and thus to propose other imaginary worlds through sound?

8/ Does sound offer or demand a different mode of theory and practice?4 Can a debate on listening add anything new to current art discourses? Can it foster new potentialities, or does it rather require new ways of thinking about art practice in general? Can it open up new perspectives on the interplay of theory and practice?

03 The truth in sound: phenomenological and ontological aspects

9/ What are the main influences that shape the acoustic spaces of the society you live in? How have these acoustic spaces changed over the years and why?

10/ Taking the premise of Ultra-red that "acoustic space is enunciative of social relations"5: How does the phenomenology of acoustic space link up to social relations? Can we actually say how capitalism sounds, and how the economic crisis? What sounds are enunciative for an ideology? And, most importantly, what are the sounds of the socio-political alternatives that we can offer?

11/ Can we try to listen to social relations inherent in acoustic space without getting implicated in a notion of enlightenment or a certain aspect of ontology, without promoting an idea of "listening to truth"?

12/ Is sound from its nature able to reveal things that cannot be articulated otherwise? If yes, then (how) can we investigate on this, (how) must field recordings be treated and used to disclose these things, (how) can they become readable for everyone? Do the answers to these questions lie in sound itself or rather in the ways in which listening is and can be organized? Or are both inseparably connected?

04 The grammar of sound: vocabularies, linguistics, knowledge production

13/ Recent debates discuss art practice as a form of knowledge production. What kind of language needs to be chosen, avoided or invented in order to use sound as a methodology to form a critique of the prevailing systems of knowledge production? What instruments, strategies and/or attitudes are necessary on both the listener's and the artist's sides?

14/ Sound is often described as fragmentary and ephemeral, somehow impossible to grasp or define. Does it threaten or support critical intents within sonic art to move away from this non-definition and toward new vocabularies which might enable to think and communicate more easily about sound and acoustic space? Or, to phrase it the other way round, does an implementation of audio culture in the prevailing art discourses make it easier for major narratives to absorb sonic critique?

15/ How are paradigms of action, agency, participation or power organised, modified and interrupted by auditory experience and its effects on the spatiotemporal sensorium, and how does that manifest itself in acoustic space? Or, to decribe it with the words of Jacques Ranciere: What are the politics of sonic aesthetics? Can we actually listen to 'the distribution of the sensible'?6

16/ How does the grammar of sound relate to linguistics? Does the possibility to go back to a language of very basic gestures through sound, to produce linguistic 'nonsense' so to speak, open up potential for artistic practices to escape the rules of representation? If so, how much is this potential constituted by the fact that streams of acoustic information cannot easily be stripped down or compressed by statistics and other methods of social sciences?

05 The organization of sound: listening, modes of display, white cube

17/ Many authors have written on listening, among them most prominently Michel Chion, Roland Barthes and more recently Jean-Luc Nancy. Which forms or notions of listening are interesting for you and your work?

18/ How do you as (an) artist(s) get to the sonic material you want to work with? What is your first step when you intend to address a specific issue in a specific place on a sonic level? How do you organize your investigations, and if at all, where is the line between the moment before the microphone comes out and after?

19/ An exhibition always includes pedagogical aspects in the sense that it formalizes listening. How do you as a artist(s)/curator(s) organize listening situations in the exhibition space and what influences this process? Are there established conventions for 'displaying' sound in exhibition spaces and if so, where do they come from?

20/ If we think of the role that listening plays or has played in the history of the white cube, and as part of the ideology of the gallery space, what did it mean for its sound when "all impediments except art were removed"7 from the gallery space? Did the new homogeneous space bring a new homogenous sound with it? What would be the gallery as a sonic gesture, what the gallery version of John Cage's recital piece 4:33?


1) As described by Alexander Kluge & Oskar Negt, and Michael Warner

2) Understanding the term in the way Chantal Mouffe uses it

3) As described by Marshall McLuhan, Murray Schafer, and others

4) Brandon LaBelle formulates this question on www.errantbodies.org

5) See Mission Statement of Ultra-red http://www.ultrared.org/mission.html

6) Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2004

7) Brian O'Doherty, Inside the white cube, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999