Rethinking art, media, and the audio-visual contract
Author: Ming-Yuen S. Ma

There is no soundtrack is a specific yet expansive study of sound tactics deployed in experimental media art today. It analyses how audio and visual elements interact and produce meaning, drawing from works by contemporary media artists ranging from Chantal Akerman, to Nam June Paik, to Tanya Tagaq. It then links these analyses to discussions on silence, voice, noise, listening, the soundscape, and other key ideas in sound studies. In making these connections, the book argues that experimental media art – avant-garde film, video art, performance, installation, and hybrid forms – produces radical and new audio-visual relationships that challenge and destabilize the visually-dominated fields of art history, contemporary art criticism, cinema and media studies, and cultural studies as well as the larger area of the human sciences. This book directly addresses what sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne calls ‘visual hegemony’. It joins a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship that is collectively sonifying the study of culture while defying the lack of diversity within the field by focusing on practitioners from transnational and diverse backgrounds. Therefore, the media artists discussed in this book are of interest to scholars and students who are exploring aurality in related disciplines including gender and feminist studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, urban studies, environmental analysis, and architecture. As such, There Is No Soundtrack makes meaningful connections between previously disconnected bodies of scholarship to build new, more complex and reverberating frameworks for the study of art, media, and sound.

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Rethinking the audio-visual contract
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

Using Michel Chion’s concept of an ‘audiovisual contract’ as a framework, this chapter explore the broader questions of how sound and image, as well as listening and seeing, interact to produce meaning in experimental media art. These questions are considered within the specific context of cinema and media studies, art history and art criticism, sound studies, as well as more specialized discussions, including the ‘sound art’ versus ‘sound in art’ debate. This introductory chapter argues that experimental media art today generates new relationships between sound and image that both challenge the ocularcentric assumptions art and media scholarship, while pointing to the possibility of larger paradigmatic shifts in the human sciences that can destabilize the visual hegemony. This chapter also outlines the structure of the book, highlighting the flow of its main arguments and connections among individual chapters.

in There is no soundtrack
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Notes on acoustic time
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

In an echo of the prologue, the book closes with an open-ended series of questions and provocations. The epilogue is inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ and uses a similar notation form to remix There Is No Soundtrack’s major discussions and debates, also to introduce new artists and works, and generate topics and areas of research for future investigation. As Steven Feld points out, time and space are mutually reinforced in acoustics, therefore this new politics of space is also temporal. The complex reverberations between linear and non-linear notions and expressions of time, duration, history, memory, and subjectivity similarly stretch, loop, and recalibrate what Francois Lyotard calls ‘capitalist time’. While reckoning with questions including whether modern sound technology played a role in time’s colonization, There is no soundtrack concludes by opening up an important new dimension to review and consider anew its discussion on sound, image, space, and perception.

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Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

This chapter both points to the limitation of the human voice in communicating the horrors of racialized violence, and suggests an acoustic model of thinking about history. In an in-depth examination of Marclay’s performance installation Guitar Drag (2000), the author listens to the different cultural forces reverberating within the ‘noise’ of the dying/destroyed instrument in Guitar Drag. These historical reverberations, powered by a shared legacy of violence enacted upon raced and classed bodies (and their parts), are amplified through an examination of seemingly disparate objects and events, including Billie Holiday’s performance of the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, lynching photographs in the James Allen collection, and the ear phonautograph invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Clarence Blake.

in There is no soundtrack
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Voiceover, autoethnography, performativity
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

This chapter’s discussion is organized around the discursive as well as bodily understanding of the voice within Western intellectual traditions, through which it examines the voice’s disembodiment facilitated by media technology. Specifically, the voice that is split from the image in documentary and ethnographic filmmaking becomes what Mary Ann Doane calls the ‘radical other’. This chapter argues that the disembodied voice’s radical otherness has the potential to empower silenced or misrepresented subjects to re-claim their vocal power within these filmic traditions. However, this re-claimed voice is neither discursive nor normative. Instead, this voice is re-embodied through performative, improvisatory, and vibrational strategies, exemplified in live performances by Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky-That Subliminal Kid) and Tanya Tagaq, alongside experimental documentaries and essay films including Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1976), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982), and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989).

in There is no soundtrack
Acoustic communities, aesthetic colonization, and sound imperialism
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

The final chapter juxtaposes Clifford’s idea of an ‘ethnographic ear’ with contemporary media artworks that engage with the politics of location, geography, and landscape through sound and listening. Schafer’s discussion of ‘acoustic communities’ and ‘sound imperialism,’ as well as Michael Bull’s study of ‘aesthetic colonization’, serve as the overarching theoretical framework that informs these investigations. Through a series of ‘transductive’ exchange with six case studies, including location recordings by Spanish sound artist Francisco López and the collective Ultra-red, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation Frequency and Volume: Relational Architecture 9 (2003), a public art project by Elana Mann, and Maryanne Amacher and Bill Fontana’s live transmissions, the ideas of colonialism and imperialism, nature and pollution, community and access, site and non-site, public and private are worked with and through. This chapter proposes new ways of understanding sound through space, and vice versa.

in There is no soundtrack
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Listening to installation and performance
Ming-Yuen S. Ma

The first of the two concluding chapters considers how one might proceed with a comprehensive study of sound in contemporary media installation and performance art – a daunting prospect considering their current ubiquity and sheer diversity in the globalized art world. This chapter proposes several rubrics: theory and history, empirical research, direct listening and observation, and institutional practices through which one may begin to conceptualize one such study. These rubrics are tested against a survey of over two hundred artists working in media installation and performance globally, three recent exhibitions, as well as a preliminary look (and listen) into the institutional and material conditions that enable the exhibition and presentation of such works in museums, galleries, and alternative art spaces. These methodological experiments suggest that how we listen to media installations and performance may have more to do with the architecture, construction, labor, and expertise in these institutions than the art and artists themselves.

in There is no soundtrack