The chilling images of “detainees” at Guantánamo Bay have become familiar enough. The kneeling figures, bound at the hands and feet, gagged, blindfolded, and often with hearing restricted, have raised the tenor of discussions concerning the use of torture and the concept of “sensory deprivation.” Variations on techniques of “sensory deprivation” can involve the direct overload of one or more of a detainee’s senses, for example, by the subjection to persistent loud noise. An exhibition at Alma Enterprises Gallery in London presents a timely response, focusing attention on both the idea of sound as a weapon and the potential of sound to be used as a weapon for artistic agitation. Even though the literal allusions to current military offensives in the group exhibition are few, the thoughtful and varied selection of sound and multimedia works lead us to think about the very possibility of sound weapons and their alternate non-militaristic uses. In this exhibition, it is the potential violence of the sonic weapon—or the act of bodily disturbance through noise—that is repeatedly evoked.
At first these different sonic studies present something of a cacophony within the small space of the gallery. While this can be a typical limitation of a multimedia group exhibition, the noisy jostle creates a tension that is invoked even before we enter the gallery. We are ambushed at the threshold by Pablo Gav’s Music Pissing on Flies Shitting on Bombs (2006), which is intended as a “peaceful and yet aggressive prelude for the visitor.” Its contradictory and incoherent montage of piano and violent, electronic sound emanates from speakers sitting on top of the Alma Enterprises sign at the gallery door; the multivalent inbetweenness of the installation underlines the tension in the piece.
In Tillmann Terbuyken and Thomas Baldischwyler’s Untitled (2006), visitors have the opportunity to interact with the work. The circular sculpture mounted to the wall is connected to a floor piece which, when stepped on, releases an aggressive noise that drowns out Bach’s Goldberg Variations playing permanently from a speaker within the sculpture. The work provokes the visitor’s desire to interrupt the field of sound momentarily with a disruptive intervention of noise that disturbs the other visitors’ experiences. However, the repetition of the noise created episodically by new visitors becomes part of the general din.
In Rod Dickinson’s video work, the affective property of sound is experienced from a safe distance. Nocturn: The Waco Re-enactment presents newly edited footage from his 2004 reconstruction of the psychological torture tactics used by the FBI in their 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect at Waco. The video shows an art scene audience (bussed in from the ICA in London) being blasted with high decibel sounds recreated by Dickinson from first-hand reports of the siege. These include a slowed down Nancy Sinatra song and a phone ringing off the hook. The video document is unable to reproduce the sound levels which confronted the viewer at the 2004 reenactment. Nevertheless, in a synaesthetic sense, we read their aural discomfort from their screwed up faces. Dickinson’s new video version of Nocturn forces the gallery viewer into a position of complicity through this voyeuristic spectacle of pain and behaviouralist experiment doubly removed.
In a different sense, Thomas Altheimer’s sonic attack takes place amid a collision of fictions and realities, represented here in his three channel video work Impossible. And yet there it is! No, impossible. Parallel Action #3.3.048—A Sonic Attack On Guantánamo Bay (2006). Last November, Altheimer’s alter ego, Thomas Herzen, embarked on a mission to Cuba to liberate Guantánamo Bay in the name of Europe by broadcasting Beethoven’s Eroica from a ghetto blaster at the “detainment camp” in order to turn it into “a huge European, neo-colonial, spatial installation.” The video work records the adventure. Herzen failed to mobilize the hoped for platoon of European sympathizers in Jamaica. In addition, he and his cameraperson suffered a nerve-wracking, thirty-hour crossing to Cuba in a howling gale. Finally, the tragic/comic offensive was launched from a distant viewing point where the camp is only visible through a telescope.
Altheimer discussed the mission or “Parallel Action” during a talk with Rod Dickinson at the gallery. He situated the work in the context of his larger mission, Parallel Fictions, by explaining how his seemingly futile conquests take inspiration from the fantastical adventures of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who proves so threatening to those he encounters. As he implied in the gallery talk, the media visibility of Guantánamo Bay seemed to present itself as a site vulnerable to a symbolic offensive with art wielded as a weapon. The tragic hero, Herzen makes a futile attempt to turn the tactics of the American military against itself, alluding to the desperate absurdity of the situation at the illegal base. The object lessons that Herzen receives in his continually thwarted attempts to secure a boat to take him to Cuba and then on the dramatic crossing itself, echo the clash between different realities and ideologies centred around the question of Guantánamo Bay.
In comparison, some of the works included in Arsenal are tentative and fall short of convincing us of the potential violence of sound. For example, Jasmin Jodhry and Mo Stoebe’s music video for the track 9 Samurai by dj kode9 and dubtronic poet Spaceape, though part of a multimedia assemblage, does not attempt to move beyond a contained music video aesthetic. It is not due to a lack of military allusion that such work fails. The video piece is merely comfortably illustrative and doesn’t challenge us to perceive sound’s potentially urgent affect. Overall, however, Arsenal presents a thoughtful investigation into the violence of sound weapons where the thresholds of the dimension of sound are considered through a tension that the visitor can begin to feel.
About the Author
Susanna Haddon is an artist and writer living in London, England. She is currently thinking about re-enactments in contemporary art for her London Consortium Masters dissertation.