Feminine gender neutrality
Rihards Bražinskis, DJ, columnist

As we know, many equally valid, mutually exclusive opinions exist about the goals, principles and mission of art. of course, to deliberate about art according to what annoys you or gets on your nerves is completely subjective, but it’s possible to almost purely intuitively sense what has been done well and what has been done not so well. for example, personally, female sound musicians often provide me with true aesthetic joy. and not just because it’s almost every male’s dream (a female + equipment, or a woman who drinks beer); rather, it’s because in the human sense a female sound musician has exceeded herself as a female. in exactly the same way as men do so when expressing themselves in a seemingly feminine way without being homosexual.

Of course, this kind of feeling is rooted in gender stereotypes, but at the same time, a great many creative women themselves also generate the concept that they are only capable of light, playful, romantic, doleful and similar art. it’s clear that feminism has legitimised choice, whatever it may be. however, the reproduction of the feminine cliché only solidifies the colours of gender roles, widening an ever greater gap between the sexes and in the end strengthening the achievements of feminism’s fiasco index purely mentally. to understand the nature of a work as unnecessarily or uncontrollably feminine (or masculine) if this has not been the task is, to my mind, one of creativity’s greatest shortcomings.

But neither is everything unambiguous with female sound musicians, because many ladies in the “noise” genre express themselves almost in a rock-star style. a wild and/or sexy image is undoubtedly one of the forms of artistic content, but external accents of femininity can come to disturb the overall image and dissonate with the female artist’s basic aesthetic. it’s shamelessly easy to manipulate an audience by “riding” on femininity in the male-dominated experimental sound scene. for example, in recent years the types of neat images of outstanding musicians like swede frederikke hoffmeier or american pharmakon, are undoubtedly a part of the creative product they are selling. here at home, too, there’s an uncritical enthusiasm that dominates with respect to female audio activists to the extent that the creative creature herself pretends that at each concert her one and the same sweet, uncovered shoulder is unintentional and unimportant.

And then we come to the second problem in which many creative female minds so often get caught. namely, the issue of sexuality and gender, which women catch as easily as the flu, and which sometimes seem to be the only real topics a female artist should deal with. of course, i respect the engaged aspects of art and understand the tone of pride regarding sexuality sown by third-wave feminism, but this is often the reason for the narrowness and tedious nature of feminist art.

This is exactly why i have selected for this article four female artists whose work, in my opinion, is markedly unobtrusive in terms of gender. the story unfolds in decreasing order in terms of the ages of the artists, and it turns out that each of these women has some connection with unconventional/adventurous music. all are also linked to the Skaņu mežs organisation.

The first who comes to mind, of course, is the outstanding german artist christina kubisch, born in 1948, who belongs to the first sound art generation and focuses explicitly on the synthesis of audio and visual art. local audiences should know her from the 2006 Skaņu mežs festival, when those attending had the opportunity to go on “electromagnetic walks”. electrical Walks is a work by kubisch that has taken place for already ten years and consists of special wireless earphones with built-in reels that react to the electromagnetic waves of their surroundings. electrical Walks has been staged in more than forty cities, allowing people to hear their city in a different aspect. sounds not heard in daily life originating from the most diverse electronic equipment are made audible; in addition, each participant is like an arranger of this sound him/herself, because the sounds are subject to the attendee’s choice of movements. the totality of the sound heard is quite unpredictable and continually changing, because even the smallest movement of the head influences the nuances of the audio landscape. it turns out that the sounds from the electromagnetic field are much more musical than they may at first seem. and aesthetically, they undoubtedly lie within the german “glitch” sound tradition.

Electrical Walks is an outstanding example of art from the point of view that it consists of sound only, if we don’t count the urban environment as a visual element. in her works, kubisch has used light a great deal – ultraviolet lighting and fluorescent colours – using these to change the perception of the space and making the act of listening more intense. i would call such works sound-and-light works, and they are mainly set up in dark, empty, abandoned and seemingly timeless places. kubisch is interested in the past of a space and, with the help of cold lighting, she has more than once highlighted that which usually remains unnoticed and considered unimportant: dust, cracks, old flakes of paint, debris and other details, which are revealed as real storytellers of the past.

Kubisch has often used visible speakers, which are, of course, a symptomatic feature of sound art. in her 2001 work Snow White and raven Black, for example, kubisch’s interest in messages from the distant past and carl andre’s minimalist objects intertwine with each other. the work was placed in old beer brewing vats. white pigmented speakers were set up in precise geometric order on a black painted base. lit up by ultraviolet light, the speakers seemed to float in the air.

Also unforgettable is kubisch’s work Sound Flow Light Source – Forty pillars and One room (1999), which was set up in berlin’s potsdamer platz underground car park. the 200-metre- long car park corridor with its forty columns was transformed into a suggestive mystical environment. each column had electrical cords of various forms and thickness wound about it, and these were lit up with ultraviolet lights. the cords, painted with phosphorescent paints, shone in a green colour in the dark with the ultraviolet lighting. each column with its cords transmitted certain sound tones that were gained from the bubbling, dripping, spraying and pouring of water. Visitors could move about freely in the space and listen to all the individual combinations of sounds with the assistance of special headphones. with the twisted green cords and watery noises, the effect was something similar to an underwater world.
Christina Kubisch. Snow White and Raven Black. Installation. 2001
Publicity photo
Courtesy of the artist
Norwegian artist jana winderen (1965), who honoured the citizens of riga in 2009 with her presence at the Skaņu mežs concert at the anglican church, is also closely associated with the underwater world. she is known to much of her audience for the wonderful underwater recording she released for the leading british experimental music publisher touch. winderen’s field recordings reveal the diverse, creative and otherworldly sound landscapes of water life, mainly from distant northern waters.

Winderen also exhibits her recordings as installations, simply releasing them through speakers in the exhibition space. she has created installations consisting only of sound in earphones; she has also simply tossed a microphone out of the window of the recording booth into the water, broadcasting live from the recording studio what was happening right there beyond the wall.

In addition to these sorts of activities and various group works, winderen has also had, for example, a work like Quiet and relaxed, but Alert (2005) in one of norway’s oldest contemporary art institutions, Galleri F 15, a gallery located in a private house in moss, not far from oslo. the work consisted of sensory pads on the floor and a jumble of cords and equipment on the wall. by stepping on the sensors, the visitor could influence changes in the sounds of the environmental recording in the space. a screen with a spectrogram showing the audio process of the installation was located in the jumble of equipment. window of the space was kept open, thereby allowing natural sounds to mix with the processed sounds.

In august of this year, winderen created a large and magnificent light and sound installation titled Dive in the park avenue tunnel in manhattan, new york. a section of traffic in the famous metropolis was closed off, and the tunnel was only sporadically open to pedestrians, too. a sound installation consisting of several segments was set up in a 400-metre-long section of the tunnel, with recordings from water at various depths – from greenland and iceland, extending all the way to thailand and the caribbean region. sounds created by a variety of water inhabitants, which are not usually audible to the human ear, were caught in these recordings with particularly sensitive hydrophones. along with the cool blue light and special three-dimensional sound, those attending felt as if they were diving in the ocean.

Another woman with a connection to park avenue is new yorker marina rosenfeld (1968), who works particularly actively in the hybridisation of music and art. her work p.A. / public Address was begun in 2009 in the historic avant-garde park avenue armory art space in new york city. it consisted of a number of objects, mainly large, black and rotating metal horns that reminded one of industrially stylised gramophone speakers crossed with siren megaphones. the artist used the architecture and acoustics of the building to create tones, textures, voices and sound ricochets and emphasise the features and possibilities of sculptural sound that the work and the specific space permitted.

A second version of the work was exhibited at the car park of renshaw hall at the liverpool biennale in 2010. here, the horns were incorporated into the environment in a way that seemed as if they’d been there for years.

Rosenfeld tends to develop one and the same idea in a variety of forms – installations, performances and recordings. public Address, for example, was also included in last year’s vinyl version edition p.A./Hard Love by the prestigious australian publishers room40. her long-standing collaboration partner, cellist okkyung lee, as well as jamaican rasta vocalist Warrior Queen, participated in the live and recorded versions of the work. both musicians have taken part in Skaņu mežs in riga, with lee performing there this autumn.

Large custom-made speakers are rosenfeld’s signature, and she has used them many times. on the artificial, memorial flagler island along the miami shore, for example, the speakers were painted with sound-absorbing colour and displayed at the base of a tree. horns were also a small part of the installation/musical performance Cannons (2010–2011), the central element of which were “bass cannons”, or, a number of large rusted pipes placed lying down on wooden pallets that had accurately measured sub-woofers (low-frequency speakers) built into them. a violin, cello, percussion and rosenfeld herself at the record players were the “companions to the cannons”. as an aside, rosenfeld’s father was an orchestra musician, and maybe this is why she often uses the sounds of classical instruments in her works.

Rosenfeld’s oeuvre also includes works that are overloaded with the gender theme, like Sheer Frost Orchestra (1993–2001), a series of performances by 17 women playing 17 guitars with bottles of nail polish. in this work, the guitars are placed on the ground rather than held in front of the crotch as usual, where they are very phallic and hot. here they are cool to the maximum, and – so that improvisation can be fully utilised – they are played by women who do not really know how to play the guitar. it would be interesting to hear what british artist keith rowe would say about all this. he laid his guitar on a table already back in the 1960s, creating the “table-top guitar” playing method and starting a revolution in music that was equal to that of jackson pollock in painting. maybe rowe already un-phallicised the guitar long ago?

In any case, Sheer Frost Orchestra is a striking exception among rosenfeld’s works. for example, the extremely simple but compelling Fragment Opera (1999–2001), which consists of a vinyl record-player with a self-recorded record and a variety of images (or video projections). rosenfeld’s characteristic manner is clearly expressed in these works, forcing the viewers to participate and put everything together in their heads themselves. the items can be found on the floor or propped up against the wall, and there are frequently flowers in the images, which make the installation look somewhat like a roadside memorial, but the sensation of art in these objects is indisputable.

Along with Fragment Opera, rosenfeld’s activities with her self-created vinyls (so-called “dub plates” or “acetate records”), which most often serve djs for easy testing of new rhythms instead of as records to listen to for ages, commenced and inevitably continued. since that time, experimental work with record players has become one of rosenfeld’s main features.

Rosenfeld has a special relationship with vinyl records. namely, she perceives her hands, which move the record needle, almost as a substitute body and the surface of the record as a hilly landscape, which the surface of a record actually is (its intricate construction of patterns can only be revealed under a microscope). as a consequence, rosenfeld enjoys the vagueness that is involved in working with vinyl. the vinyl culture’s open nature is especially close to her, as opposed to secretive activities on a computer.

Something quite the opposite can be seen in the sterile and quite obscure works of dutch artist esther Venrooy (1974), who works in belgium. in autumn of 2011, during the first international tour of the european sound art network resonance to Skaņu mežs in riga, her site-specific work A Shadow of Wall travelled to the space at tabakas fabrika. the construction with a sloping surface placed against a wall consisted of wooden frames and rice-paper-coloured plastic panels of various forms and sizes, reminding one of a fragment of a solar panel on a roof. sounds were played under the surface and the plastic panels resonated like speaker membranes. in addition, the bipolar speakers spread sounds in various directions from the three-dimensional orthogonal triangular bases, making it even more difficult to determine the source of the sound. the sound from the work spread like a large cloud and slowly moved about the space.

The primary element of A Shadow of Wall is the corner of the space, which has the capacity to collect an especially large volume of sound. the wall, in turn, both radiates the noise and at the same time absorbs it, highlighting certain noises and hiding others. A Shadow of Wall is like the acoustic shadow of a wall. the work is an unobtrusive interference with architecture, allowing one to sense the space in a slightly different way. it has not only sounded different every time it has been exhibited due to the variety of spaces where it has been set up; it also brings unending changes within itself, starting from the fact that the executed sound modules rotate autonomously and randomly, and finishing with the fact that the sound changes depending on how listeners move around and shift and how they interact with the work.

Esther Venrooy is philosophically analytical in her artistic approach. she has clearly formulated her creative cognitive questions, for example: what and where is sound? how do we experience a space through sound? and how should an audible space be created? space is Venrooy’s work characteristic, which, of course, isn’t anything original. associations with the sound art grandmaster maryanne amacher (1938–2009), who was one of Venrooy’s sources of inspiration, immediately come to mind. amacher mainly transformed the acoustic perception of the listeners’ space, working with special psychoacoustic frequencies and tones that encourage the ear of the listener to generate additional tones for itself, creating spectacular auditory illusions.

But Venrooy’s most powerful conclusion is that sound at its very core anticipates a space – if there isn’t a space, there is also no sound. sound is omnipresent. absolute silence does not exist. except maybe in outer space where there’s no atmosphere. but even then, a person would hear the inner noises of the body. in addition to this, Venrooy is interested in the integration of sound in architecture, its synergy with architecture. this is so that her work is not only heard but is also a bodily experience. Venrooy often creates her works so that the visitor can enter them.

A shining example is the 2009 work Blueprint #1, which was set up at the uninhabited belle-epoque-era private residence Villa la tourelle in the belgian coastal city of ostend. a booth with plaster-board-coloured walls was set up within the building, creating the effect of something temporary, a renovation construction. sounds from the surrounding spaces and self-generated sounds were played through the walls; these sounds were not constant and changed throughout the day, similarly to how light changes with the cycle of the sun. the experience of the installation varied according to the time of the visit. other fragments of the building were in a way transferred into this booth, reconciling the architecture with sound in a special, poetic way.

The elements of Venrooy’s works are mainly handsome wood, light tones and minimalism. it’s especially pleasant that the majority of the speakers in her works are not visible; this allows the sound to work in a completely acousmatic manner. and, even though Venrooy, independently of her visual activities, is well known with her published audio-recordings at the elegant british entr’acte publishing house, she herself considers that a recording is only a percept of the sounds’ spatial experience.

And that’s what my favourite visual sound women, who are capable of gender-neutrality, are like. obviously, the examined works were more formal and emotionally alienated, but that’s apparently what the aesthetic territory must be like in which, with the removal of the artist’s name, it is impossible to determine the gender of the work. to my mind, one of the signs of good art is its gender-free nature. and – as opposed to works by female artists being of value merely because they are feminine due to having been created by women – there is power precisely in the fact that femininity is not a factor in the work of female artists.

Translator into English: Uldis Brūns
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