The Strange Sounds of Activism at The Kitchen’s S/N

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scraaatch at the kitchen

What kind of music would an orchestra play were their score a picture of police brutality? How would a game of tic-tac-toe play out were its rulebook a recording of a seaport? These are the sorts of questions posed by S/N, a collection of sound art hosted at The Kitchen in Chelsea as part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Fellows Program. By means of performance, video, and works on paper, S/N creates a space for understanding the world in aural terms.

Joan La Barbara’s “She Is Always Alone” opens the exhibition’s antechamber. It’s a performance piece in digital video and with a paper score, written in English rather than in musical notation. It makes a programmatic statement: La Barbara’s piece thematizes left and right brain theory, proposing that the brain’s left and right hemispheres correspond, respectively, to logical and creative ways of being in the world. As La Barbara shifts erratically and ambiguously between speaking and singing, she illustrates the perceptual shift that the Kitchen encourages. Whereas a strictly rational, lingual piece makes meaning out of nonsense, music’s nonsensical opposite—the ground on which it is understood—is noise, itself a legible, meaningful category. If a textual work as a musical score doesn’t seem to make sense to you, then you have exactly the right idea. 

S/N stands for Signal to Noise, the ratio between desired communication and unwanted interference. That ratio is fuzzy—the noise of a warm tube amplifier colors guitar tones, for example, shifting the boundary of the legible signal. By posing musical questions to the world, curators Alex Fleming, Anya Komar, and Blair Murphy propose an aural intervention that would open meaningful discourse about questions and spaces that seem closed. To understand the world musically is to understand how objects—like noise—can become subjects as they intervene in the conceptual superstructure that produce their legibility as “mere” objects.

The opening par excellence is Protocols for the Wojnarowicz Object, or What Is the Sound of Building Up and Tearing Down?, a 2012 work by the Los Angeles-based collective Ultra-Red. “These protocols,” write Ultra-Red, “seek to put listeners into processes that illuminate the terms through which we may learn to exercise…tactics [for resistance].” Like Barbara’s work, “the Sound of Building Up and Tearing Down” is both a document and a score. As it encourages performers to write reactions to a reading of artist David Wojnarowicz’s written chronicles of the LQBTQ scene on Manhattan’s West Side on paper found on the ground. The protocols critique that writing—do the performers react to the timbre of the reader’s voice? Their own memories? A perceived political end? As they do so, they critique the interpretive remove at which writing places you, instead emphasizing the process itself. The piece allows Wojnarowicz—who died of AIDS in 1992—to be heard and considered and, in the course of finding littered paper, also encourages community involvement. The aural paradigm is in that way political. It is a means of capturing the lived experience of marginalized populations, an event that disrupts dominant narratives as it both demands and resists interpretation.

In that sense, it reminds me of Datamoshing. A datamosh is a video processed by means of an audio editing tool like Audacity. A form of glitch art, a datamosh introduces a new mode of apprehension for video data, simultaneously offering new editing tools and altering narratives concerning which objects in the world are legible as meaningful videos. As S/N shows how signal is possible only through noise, it too shows a path forward for the recognition, occupation, and reconfiguration of discarded or privatized space.

The project is free to attend and up at the Kitchen until June 12. Other artists included are Sonia Boyce and Ain Bailey, Cammisa Buerhaus, James Coleman, Manon de Boer, Tracie Morris, Vanessa Place, Steve Reinke, Lis Rhodes, SCRAAATCH, Masha Tupitsyn, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Jackie Wang. You can scope an exemplary datamosh below: Yoni Wolf covering Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You.”