Category Archives: philosophy

Towards a Poetics of Museum Sound

i. Collections

An urge,
an unheard whisper in the ear,
a yearning for that
complete set,
that rarity that only we –
the privileged, the possessors –
can call our own
and control who sees it or hears it.

ii. Objects

This multitude of things
material or intangible
mute or loquacious
produced by culture
assumed authentic
obtained through
– excavation
– plunder
– exchange
selected by a few
desired by many
seen or unseen
with aural auras
yet somehow accessible
if deemed worthy.

iii. Galleries

The display of our wares
our triumphs
our tragedies
icons of history
or forgotten pasts
within discursive configurations
spaces resonating with
time –
the nexus of echoes
past and present:
the active sounds of history.

iv. Memory

What is it about that
that makes me think of childhood?
Why does this image
transport me back to that thing I read
back when I was a student?
Which story about
my family
deserves to be recorded?
When did they decide
these are the things
that we should remember?

v. Contemplation

This silence
that is not silent
these echoes
these objects
installed and instilled with
their own preciousness
encourage one’s mind to ponder
and wander
across time: backwards and forwards
waves of sound, waves of history
upon which our thoughts might float.

vi. Engagement

We visit these places
not just to learn,
but to teach
not just to see,
but to be seen
not just to listen,
but to be heard.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Film Review: Museum Hours

Museum Hours (2012)
106 minutes
directed by Jem Cohen

Museum Hours, Jem Cohen’s cinematic meditation on life, death, and art has a somewhat unexpected focus: sound. I finally got the chance to see this film almost a year after its initial release, and while I was expecting impressive visual statements (considering the film was shot primarily inside Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum), I was pleasantly surprised by its many fascinating sonic moments as well. Continue reading

Mapping the Sounds of Collections: Listening to Museums and Archives

This essay was commissioned by Meri Kytö and originally published in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology News Quarterly’s Research and Projects column (v.11 n.1, Jan-Mar 2014).

Museums, although thought of as silent spaces, can be surprisingly noisy when listened to attentively. A large portion of my practice as an artist involves listening to museums, where the sonic collisions between present and past create what I have previously referred to as the active sounds of history (Kannenberg 2012, 8). While I am not suggesting we can listen to the past directly by looking at objects, I believe that contemporary sounds in museum spaces are experientially charged and transformed by their physical contact with the tangible cultural heritage of the past. This transformation is in part reliant upon the accepted authenticity of museum objects: Continue reading

loose connections

“[In 16th century Europe, the time of the first curiosity cabinets,] . . . alchemy and magic were seen to be right at the cutting edge of a scientific method . . . Natural magic, the pursuit of the prisca theologica, the first knowledge revealed to Adam and handed down in a hermetic tradition to Moses, Orpheus, Pythagoras and later magi, assumed that the key to the understanding of the world lay in deciphering the alphabet in which the universe was written at its creation.” 

– Philipp Blom, To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, p. 44 (2002)

* * *

“Ptah: The local god of Memphis [in ancient Egypt] . . . created by means of his heart and tongue, thus fashioning the world by the power of his word. The god’s creative power was then manifest in every heart-beat and in every sound.”

– Manfred Lurker, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt, p. 96-97 (1991)

* * *

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, p. 89 (Routledge 2001)

Book Review: The Ground of the Image by Jean-Luc Nancy

Cover of "The Ground of the Image"

Jean-Luc Nancy’s exploration of the image in relationship to the sacred feels slightly uneven compared to the other two books of his I’ve read (“Listening” and “The Fall of Sleep”). Two of the nine chapters — the first, “The Image — The Distinct”, and the fifth, “Distinct Oscillation”, contain some of my favorite writing of his, while the rest of the book hits a combination of high and low notes for my tastes. One of those high notes is his critique of violence in chapter two, which becomes so impassioned that his language becomes as coarse as the violence he seeks to shun; similarly, his keen eye for compositional analysis shines in the chapter eight’s analysis of a painting of the Visitation by Pontormo. The low notes tend to come in what I can only describe as needlessly murky writing, as in the meandering exploration of visual Nazism in chapter three, “Forbidden Representation.” Continue reading

Listening to the Active Sounds of History: field recording and museums

This essay was commissioned by Cheryl Tipp, curator of sound at the British Library. Illustrated with photographs and sound clips, it was originally published 30 August 2013 on the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog. I’m reproducing it here with a few minor edits I should have caught the first time around.

Memory is at the heart of much human activity. Memory drives us to collect, to record, to create documents –”information or evidence that serves as an official record” – that we then spend a lot of time and effort preserving. Some of these documents are strictly personal and kept as family heirlooms. Others end up being judged by someone else as having a broader significance, and end up being preserved in places like museums and libraries in order that they be made accessible to a wider audience. There are countless institutions around the world whose mission statements may not explicitly express it, but which are essentially dedicated to honoring the human desire to remember. Continue reading

The Active Sounds of History: Museums as Acoustic Object Collections

I often experience a sensation of temporal simultaneity when visiting museums, a merging of past, present, and future in which my sense of history is seldom linear. Even if the museum’s exhibition designers have organized their collections chronologically, visitors rarely follow their intended path. The actual routes taken by museum visitors often, if not entirely, involve a great number of chance operations in tandem with a curatorial guide who, unavoidably, is only partially in control of the situation. Continue reading