The artists of the 1960s and 1970s were looking for alternatives to the gallery space. They discovered ways to use the environment (earth, light, air, sound) and many used their own bodies as performance sites. Chris Burden, for example, did several extreme pieces, from having himself crucified on the back of a Volkswagen to being shot in the arm with a gun.
By the mid-70s, many of these process artists quit performing and drifted instead into object-making. After all, an artist like Chris Burden couldn’t keep getting shot at forever. Instead, they began exploring other ways—some might say saner ways—of continuing their practice. To accomplish this, the use of sound was often chosen. Chris Burden, for example, made a great sound work called “The Atomic Alphabet,” a short chant based on an alliterative reading of the alphabet through the lens of the No Nukes movement, that went along with an elaborate installation of toy nuclear submarines that filled a room.
Around that time, the art pendulum began to swing in a different direction: toward juicy narrative and sequential presentation, that made a break from the somber and serious process and minimal artists. As a result, these performances began to resemble more traditional performance modes—be it variety theater, cabaret, or stand-up comedy—and marked a shift to “performance as theatricality” from “performance as documentation.” The new performance brought in a larger audience with this new entertainment. Artists like Andy Warhol and Mike Smith were being courted by Saturday Night Live, and one of the Kipper Kids—a messy performance duo popular in the 70s—married Bette Midler.
Much of this work, inspired by feminism, was made by women. Out of this context emerged Laurie Anderson, who began performing publicly by playing the violin while wearing ice skates that were encased in blocks of ice. The performance would end when the ice melted. As the narrative tendencies of the day grew stronger, she fused the rigor of her early performances with music and stories (think Cage’s Indeterminacy) to create compelling music verging on pop. “O Superman” (1982) charted in the UK at number 2, a unprecedented accomplishment for an artist. The rest is history.
Karen Finley, too, emerged in this wave. Take away all the controversy surrounding her involvement with the so-called culture wars of the early ’90s and you end up with some stunning audio works, particularly I’m An Ass Man (recorded 1985-86), in which she assumes the terrifying character of a male sodomist. It’s hair-raising stuff that could only exist—and flourish—within the confines of art.
More sobering, but just as edgy, is the work of Lauren Lesko. For a 1995 recording, “Thirst,” she took a decidedly Henri Chopinesque strategy and inserted a contact mic into her vagina. She walked around for nearly 30 minutes, recording the sounds. Taking her cue from earlier performance artists like Carolee Schneeman, who in the early ’60s did a famous performance in which she read from a paper scroll that she pulled out of her vagina, Lesko’s decidedly feminist statement creates an unusually beautiful soundscape (I’ll leave it for you to decide. You can find the file on UbuWeb).
This tradition continues today. In 1993, while a student at CalArts, Marina Rosenfeld founded The Sheer Frost Orchestra, an all-female group of improvisers. The group performs on a stage demarcated by a line of over 100 bottles of nail polish and the musicians all play guitars — set on the floor — with bottles of nail polish. Similarly, Laetitia Sonami uses a fashion accessory as a compositional device. She dons a delicate looking glove made of black lycra, which is embedded with sensors to track the slightest motion of each finger, hence triggering sounds.
Miya Masaoka has made extensive use of bodies—hers, other’s, insects—in her work. In a piece called Ritual she lies naked on a table allowing giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches to crawl over her. Laser beams are project across her body and when the roaches break the beam, amplified sounds are triggered. (Speaking of insects, she’s also done a work scored for the sound of 3,000 live bees and a koto.) Another piece, called What is the Sound of Ten Naked Asian Men? in which ten Asian men lie on 10 tables, each hooked up with audio pickups attached to different parts of their body. She recorded the sounds of their stomachs, heartbeats, swallowing, etc. and took them back to the studio, processed them, and stitched them into a composition. (Similarly, the San Francisco-based duo Matmos based their 2001 album A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure on the sounds of medical procedures such as liposuction and nose jobs).
The merging of bodies with technology represents an established way of working with sound today. In a McLuhanesque way, our machines are becoming extensions of our nervous systems, particularly with the rise of networked computing. Sound artists have kept pace with these developments and have articulated them in precise ways. Take, for example, Gregory Whitehead, whose work has been primarily concerned with the effect and interaction of technology on the body and, in particular, on the voice. Taking his cues from Artaud, he explores themes of disembodiment as filtered through the medium of radio or recording. Like a talking head on television, Whitehead’s work makes us focus on the relationship between the missing body and the present voice. He has explored these issues in extended form on a several recordings, most notably on an hour-long horspiel, Dead Letters and in a collection of shorter pieces, The Pressure of Ruins.
The San Francisco-based composer Pamela Z has also done extraordinary work with technology, the body, and language. My favorite piece of hers is called Geekspeak and features sampled voices of people working in the laboratories of the Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, which she then assembled in her studio into a hilarious and timely soundscape. You hear guys arguing about Mac vs. PC, different flavors of unix, file-sharing, and FTPing. Although it was created in 1995, it’s a picture of how we all speak today: in bits, bauds, and bytes.
In 2002, Jaap Blonk took these traditions to a new level of absurdity. The Dutch sound poet—who can do the most incredible things with his mouth—hooked up with techno music whiz Radboud Mens to create an album of dance music, Bek, all made with sounds from Blonk’s mouth. It sounds just like any other techno music at first. But if you listen closely you will hear the labial clicks, tongue pops and slurps of saliva, from which it’s composed. Rumor has it that in clubs all over Europe they’re dancing to the sound of sound art.