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Critical Writing

Speaking Volumes

G Douglas Barrett

Distributed throughout the main gallery space at Recess are several large semi-rectangular objects, each composed of a set of variously sized industrial-grade particleboard panels and assembled to constitute a cabinet-like geometric form. These cabinets, stacked in multiples, invoke the cool industrial remove of minimalist sculpture. While seemingly mass-produced, the cabinets feel more organic than, for instance, the well-known boxes of Donald Judd. Unassuming, the objects seem functional. Directly in front of the main gallery window are two cabinet objects stacked together to the height of about a meter and a half. Placed opposite this arrangement is a wooden chair on top of which sits a large bass drum with a pearl-green sunburst pattern; some nicks and scratches indicate wear and tear, distinguishing it from the pristine surface of the cabinets. The drum doesn’t make any sound directly, though affixed to the back of the wood panel objects are two large speakers connected to a small amplifier next to the objects. These speakers, rather than pointing outward from the objects, are connected at the cones’ openings; they resonate the cabinets and produce a soft static drone. At the other end of the gallery there are stacked four of the cabinet-like objects; the objects appear as though they would “fit together” in pairs, like two larger rectangular forms were split diagonally in an uneven stepwise division from top to bottom. From this conglomerate sound is also emitted. Speakers inside the cabinets produce a somewhat noisier version of the other drone sound; the cabinets occasionally rattle due to excessive low-end vibration.

The above description comes from the first phase of Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson’s Volumes for Sound at Recess. Part of an ongoing series, the prolific duo’s Volumes have been presented in various versions as collaborations with musicians and sound artists in Iceland, Norway, Brooklyn, and, most recently and concurrent with their exhibition at Recess, as part of Sound Spill, a group exhibition held in Times Square, Manhattan. While referring to the cabinet sculptures, Volumes also points to the fullness and intensity of sound; in addition, the term references the interior three-dimensional space of each object as a resonant chamber. Perhaps somewhat less obvious is the use of volume to connote periodic or iterative; volume refers to the work’s numerous versions, the project’s seeming fixation on iteration, repetition, and, by extension, mediation—its multiplication through various forms of representation.

Conjuring the conceptual art strategies of Joseph Kosuth and Douglas Huebler, photographs of previous iterations are displayed in a separate section in each installation of Volumes for Sound. Dubbin and Davidson explain that these photographs function for them as both works on their own and as a kind of performance documentation. As though responding to the temporality attributed by many commentators to the subject’s encounter with the minimalist work, each of Dubbin and Davidson’s photographs collapses duration into an instant, while their performances redouble this intersection of time and space. The artists make the photographs along with other materials available on a website.[1] Between the two sets of cabinet/Volume formations are three store-bought home stereo speaker enclosures. Two of the slender towers stand upside down about four feet tall with the third placed on its side between the other two; all three have been stripped of any brand markings or paint and the horizontal enclosure has its top wooden panel removed. Sharing the woodgrain texture of the other Volumes, these objects are more conspicuous because they are more recognizable: the two vertical enclosures stand at the “perfect distance” from one another, as though they were calibrated for an ideal “home listening environment.” Though in this context they become defamiliarized by the removal of brand insignia along with their placement within the gallery installation. These modified speaker readymades point to listening as a performative, relational, and social—perhaps more specifically, domestic—activity. I’m compelled here to draw a comparison between Dubbin and Davidson’s work and artist/musician Bill Dietz’s Tutorial Diversions, a series of performances and interventions throughout Berlin which variously sought to frame and measure listening situations public and private.[2] Both Dietz’s Tutorials and Dubbin and Davidson’s Volumes can be seen as bracketing and exhibiting—to borrow Jonathan Sterne’s phrase—“techniques of listening,”[3] a set of learned, embodied, and technologically mediated “dispositions” which construct and allow for sonic-aesthetic experience. Implicating the physical, situational, architectural, and domestic mediation of sound, Dubbin and Davidson’s Volumes also provide continuity with historical intersections of sound, body, and object.

Returning to the documentation of the previous versions of Dubbin and Davidson’s Volumes for Sound, upon viewing the black and white photographs from the installations in Reykjavik, one notices an uncanny resemblance to the well-known portraits of Luigi Russolo and his intonaurumori (or noise instruments) from 1913. In one of them, the Italian futurist stands on the left side of the frame behind several of his intonaurumori gripping the crank of one of the horizontally poised box-shaped wooden machines (appearing to begin to push it back and forth). Meanwhile, Ugo Piatti, opposite Russolo, holds the lever of one of the vertically oriented intonaurumori. There are several striking similarities between Dubbin and Davidson’s photographs and the image of Russolo and Piatti: each portrays wooden, box-like objects arranged in similar rooms; soft daylight shines in through a window in both instances and casts delicate shadows on the sides of the objects and across the floor. The rooms themselves are also similar. Perhaps the strangest coincidence is the similar checkerboard-patterned tile floors in each. Differing from the intonaurumori, Dubbin and Davidson’s Volumes replace the large black cones protruding at one end of each of Russolo’s wooden boxes with a smaller speaker (as described earlier), which is attached at the opposite end of the cone. The performers depicted in the photos of Dubbin and Davidson’s project differ from Russolo and Piatti in that the former are generally seated and hunched over laptop computers connected to the Volumes through a network of cables. What unites the two is the mechanical production of sound mediated through bodily interaction with objects.

The intonaurumori, like futurist noise, can be thought as both a radical rupture with and continuation of musical tradition. Indeed, one recalls Russolo’s violently anti-traditionalist call for “resounding slaps and stamping with both feet on violins, pianos, contrabasses, and organs” (25), while simultaneously claiming to have “divine[d] the great renewal of music through the Art of Noises” (30). The destructive down-with-the-past impulse of the avant-garde is coterminous with the creative drive to rejuvenate tradition. It is perhaps this kind of relationship to historical objects of musical production that proves relevant to Dubbin and Davidson’s work.

While perhaps not the most likely comparison to Dubbin and Davidson’s Volumes, Russolo figures prominently in the broader discourses around sound art—perhaps an obvious place to look for discussions on the relationship between sound and object. One of the more prominent debates concerning sound art in recent years has been between Christoph Cox and Seth Kim-Cohen. The latter uses a funny-sounding neologistic reworking of Duchamp’s famous non-retinal formulation to arrive at “non-cochlear sonic art,” a category which, in Kim-Cohen’s elaboration, is to stand as a critique of the prevailing “materialist” sound artists (e.g. Francisco López) along with music conceived as an abstract art form. Relevant to this discussion of object and sound, two pivotal works in Kim-Cohen’s analysis are Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), and Marina Rosenfeld’s Sheer Frost Orchestra (1994), a performance in which electric guitars become “emasculated” using nail polish applicators (Kim-Cohen, 250). The former self-referentially encodes the latent sonic record of an object’s creation, while the latter recontextualizes variously gendered objects of musical production. Employing a Derridian conceptual framework and working primarily through an art-theoretical lens, the strength of Kim-Cohen’s argument is its ability to think a sound-related practice that is conceptual, relational, reflexive, and opens onto, while standing in a critical relationship to, a broader cultural universe—ultimately attributes shared by the most advanced contemporary art. Meanwhile, Cox explicitly opposes Kim-Cohen’s conceptualism with a theory of sound art promoting a “sonic materialism” based on the recent philosophical revival of realism,[4] which claims direct access to reality and attempts to reverse philosophy’s alleged “linguistic turn.” With clear differences in their philosophical approaches, a similar problem exists in both arguments: the tendency to erect a straw man out of music (and its analysis). Both rely on sweeping claims like Kim-Cohen’s indictment of music’s supposed “values,” a transhistorical (and transcultural) quality imparted to music wherein it has “always functioned according to Greenbergian precepts” (39).[5] (The work of Peter Ablinger or Christian von Borries, for example, I think, would surely demand Kim-Cohen’s reconsideration.) Or consider Cox’s blanket assertion that musicological analysis “remains oriented to the formal examination of discrete sound structures and performances” (140), a contention that would seem to all but completely ignore the entire body of literature that began in the 1970s with the New Musicology school.

Max Neuhaus, ironically one of the primary artists championed by Cox, has openly ridiculed the term sound art, arguing that it has more often than not functioned as a conservative term applied to what are actually radical musical forms. He points to the conspicuous taxonomical and conceptual maneuvers required to sustain the category:

It’s as if perfectly capable curators in the visual arts suddenly lose their equilibrium at the mention of the word sound. These same people who would all ridicule a new art form called, say, ‘Steel Art’ which was composed of steel sculpture combined with steel guitar music along with anything else with steel in it, somehow have no trouble at all swallowing ‘Sound Art’ (“Sound Art?”).

While he places perhaps too much emphasis here on the role of the curator, Neuhaus’s complaint is still pertinent today, as one exhibition after another (e.g. Sound Spill) still arguably group around the “unremarked commonality” (ibid.) that is sound. And while I tend to agree with Neuhaus, my intention is not simply to argue that Dubbin and Davidson’s practice is “actually music,” but rather to insist that the contemporary preoccupation with sound art—which can be seen to come out of (a somewhat distorted version of) the modernist conception of medium specificity—tends to reduce and diminish the rich historical connections between (and continuity with), among other things, object and sound already within and constitutive of music itself.[6]

The recent discussions around sound art can be seen as emerging from the long line of art historical debates around medium specificity, and, more generally, aesthetic autonomy. The former is emblematized in the oft-cited views of Greenberg—that, for instance, the artist’s attention should move away from “common experience” and in upon “the medium of his own craft” (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch” 532)—which have continued to shape contemporary discourse around artistic mediums. Aesthetic autonomy can be elaborated, on the one hand, as art’s separateness from society, a primary topic for theorists of the avant-garde such as Peter Bürger, and on the other, as the discreteness of individual art forms and mediums—in short, their medium specificity. In her recently translated work, contemporary German aesthetic philosopher Juliane Rebentisch attempts to argue for artistic autonomy precisely in the place where many postmodern critics and art theorists have located its demise: the “intermedial strategies of installation art” (77). Providing a rigorous cross-Atlantic engagement with canonical works such as Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Rebentisch sees installation art not as a break from the modernist project of aesthetic autonomy but precisely as its “critical continuation” (ibid.). Rosalind Krauss argues against the essentialism of medium specificity, or the retreat into “etiolated forms,” while simultaneously championing artists who in her view decided “not to engage in the international fashion of installation and intermedia work” (56). Supplementing the aforementioned sound art debates, discussions around the category of intermedia are as relevant to Dubbin and Davidson’s work as installation, especially in considering the confluence (the “intermediality”) between object and sound. While Rebentisch’s incorporation of theorists such as Niklas Luhmann on the distinction between medium and form, and her consideration of Adorno’s concept of Verfransung, or the “fraying” that occurs between artistic media, are valuable additions to the thought around aesthetic autonomy, I am not convinced, however, of her reading of Krauss. And though Rebentsich criticizes Krauss’s Voyage on the North Sea for being steeped in an aversion to the “flood of images” and the “culture of the spectacle,” I don’t think that Krauss’s argument should be reduced, as it seems here, to the “self-differing” of individual mediums. Indeed, if Krauss’s elaboration of “differential specificity,” the thrust of her argument, can be thought as a way out of the alternative between a quasi-essentialist return to “materialism”—as in Cox’s argument—and the recuperation of otherwise illegible art forms by virtue of their “unremarked commonality” (Neuhaus, “Sound Art?”), as is arguably the case with recent “sound art” exhibitions, then perhaps her argument still marks a critical position.

Or perhaps part of the trouble with both Krauss’s and Rebentisch’s thinking is with the concept of intermedia itself, if only in the sense that music can already be considered in and of itself intermedial; music functions across media. Perhaps the specificity of music is to be located not with respect to categories like sound or object—having less to do with any sort of “material” support, or even mediation—than it is to be found in the field of interdependent connective structures inherent to listening and collectivity. Why argue for the privileging of music over categories such as sound? What is the critical worth of thinking and performing such a formation as music in the contemporary moment? In light of concurrent global economic, environmental, political, and social crises one is left bemused, especially considering the relatively mute domain of “sound,” at the withdrawal of the agonism that once characterized the avant-garde. Yet despite their frequent and unfortunate categorization as sound art, for art/activist collective Ultra-red it is the musical frame in the absence of sound that allows for a space of resistance. The group’s work SILENT|LISTEN, for example, recontextualizes John Cage’s 1952 work 4′33″ in light of the contemporary struggles against AIDS. Cage’s silent composition, notably characterized as forming a “historically specific mode of queer resistance” during McCarthyism,[7] is instrumentalized as a container for confronting the AIDS crisis at a time when the rate of HIV infections is steadily rising to the point where half of all men who have sex with men will be HIV positive by age 50.[8] Not only with respect to the question of medium does this work demand attention, but also aesthetic autonomy conceived as art’s separateness from society. Douglas Crimp, at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in 1987, contended that “AIDS intersects with and requires a critical rethinking of all of culture” (40, emph. added). Indeed, in considering its development, the very concept of aesthetic autonomy should itself be thought as historically specific, dependent upon shifts between the imaginary of utopianism on the one hand (Greenberg), and the real of crisis on the other. Where then between these poles is one to locate the constellation of sounds, bodies, and objects? In work such as SILENT|LISTEN, it is the frame of listening, I argue, as opposed to media such as these, which forms a critical recuperation of music. Ultimately, in this sense, listening speaks volumes over and above the noise of both sounds and objects.


  1. 1.
  2. 2.
  3. 3.

    Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past, Ch. 2, particularly pp. 92-93.

  4. 4.

    Most notably in the work of Graham Harman and the Object-Oriented Philosophy movement, or Quentin Meillassoux and the Speculative Realist school.

  5. 5.

    If there is a comparison to be drawn between music and “Greenbergian precepts” it is perhaps only to be made specifically with absolute music, a qualification that is tacitly absent from Kim-Cohen’s argument. For a critical examination of the historical construction of absolute music as a category, see Daniel K. L. Chua. Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.

  6. 6.

    I am thinking here of connections made by contemporary artists to organology, musical automata, and the historically obsolete objects of recording technology found, respectively, in the unplayable musical instruments of Christian Marclay; the self-playing musical “sculptures” of Trimpin; and Semaphore Island, a project by artist Sari Carel involving phonautograms of endangered bird species.

  7. 7.

    Jonathan Katz, (1999). “John Cage’s Queer Silence or How to Avoid Making Matters Worse.”

  8. 8.

    See H.I. Hall, et al. “Estimation of HIV Incidence in the United States.” I thank activist James Krellenstein for this reference and for his recent presentation on current HIV statistics given during an ACT UP meeting at the LGBT Center, April 29, 2013.

Works Cited

Chua, Daniel K. L. Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Cox, Christoph. “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism.” Journal of Visual Culture 10.2 (2011): 145-61.

Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Art in Theory, 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas. Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 529-41.

Hall, H.I. et al. “Estimation of HIV Incidence in the United States.” JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association 300.5 (2008): 520-9.

Katz, Jonathan, (1999). John Cage’s Queer Silence or How to Avoid Making Matters Worse. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 5(2), 231-252. Available online: retrieved 27 June, 2011, from

Kim-Cohen, Seth. In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-cochlear Sonic Art. New York: Continuum, 2009. Krauss, Rosalind E. “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Neuhaus, Max. “Sound Art?” “Volume: Bed of Sound”, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, July 2000., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013.

Rebentisch, Juliane. Aesthetics of Installation Art. Trans. Daniel Hendrickson and Gerrit Jackson. Berlin: Sternberg, 2012.

Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises: A Futurist Manifesto. Trans. Barclay Brown. New York: Pendragon, 1987.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

About the artist

G Douglas Barrett

G Douglas Barrett is an artist, writer, and musician working at the intersection of performance, conceptualism, and social practice. Often situated between visual art, the performing arts, activism, and theory, Barrett’s work is presented throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. His writing is published in the interdisciplinary literary journal Mosaic (U of Manitoba) and Contemporary Music Review. In 2009 BARRETT received a DAAD research grant to Berlin and he is the recipient of a 2012-13 Franklin Furnace Fund award for his vinyl record project TWO TRANSCRIPTIONS/ODE TO SCHOENBERG.

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