Sound Art and Public Auditory Awareness


Ariel Bustamante


Sound is the mechanical disturbance of a media provoked by an element in vibration. Its presence is subject to the existence of a media, such as gases inside planetary atmospheres.
Light is the complex electromagnetic radiation provoked by a photon. It exists throughout the entire universe including all that is within it.
Sound is the ubiquitous extension of events, which announces its presence to living creatures.
Light constitutes the visual counterpart to the vital power of heat. It is related to the creation of the cosmos and the conception of life.

It is irresistible to examine the hierarchy of these two universal medias, the cosmic relevance of light over the planetary relevance of sound. It reasons that humans are physically conditioned to this order; naturally established to give privilege to forms over events, to images rather than sounds. However, this disposition adjusts throughout time according to a cultural tendency. From the Renaissance till today, vision has been the privileged field in perception, and thanks to industrial development and technological abuse (both of information and communication), this favoritism keeps growing. The world is being represented and exposed mainly in images, which attract and impose on our conscious focus of attention through publicity, television or Internet. The ocular-centrism in our culture modifies and exaggerates the perception we have of the world. The postponing of the development of our auditory sense and the ignorance of its mechanisms creates a general, unconscious tolerance to acoustic contamination, a permission to devices of power, control and sound manipulation (sirens, alarms & muzak) and to the imprecise handling of our acoustic environment.

In practice, there have been various forms of sound activism with the intent to confront, instruct and expound upon the problem of auditory consciousness in society. Since the famous first book, The Tuning of the World (1977) by Murray Schaeffer, these have become practical concerns. The book deals with the imperialist and indiscriminate sounds of the cities, its impact on our lives, how to anticipate it and even how to use it in a positive way. As a diverse practice, Sound Art is recognized for being a working part of this eco-acoustic team. It is this relation that I will expound upon in this text, i.e. the connection between Sound Art and public auditory sensibilities.

It is always complicated to indicate some utility of art, especially when this practice simply expects to create works that use sound as its essential element rather than to aspire to produce consciousness. Nevertheless the subject of "opening your ears" has been a reoccurring theme in music since the beginning of the 20th century, whose influence was crucial in Sound Art.

Famous is the daring manifesto, The Art of Noises (1912) by Luigi Russolo, which proposed to the musical establishment the introduction of machines for the production of noises in the development of musical pieces, in a time when the only conceived sound was the traditional tonal sounds from the instrument.

Another fundamental example is John Cage's 4'33" (1952), a 4 minutes and 33 seconds work where no instrument is played. In this piece, concepts like "there is no silence" and "every existing sound can constitute music" were introduced, since the sounds in the auditorium (whispers, squeaks, coughs, etc) become the piece itself. In this way, the spectator is encouraged to listen to his environment. 1)

To change one's comprehension of the medium was always a recurrent interest in music, either because it seemed necessary to promulgate awareness, or because it was essential to appreciate the work, or simply because they wanted their work "accepted". The truth is this interest has declined after it had been established in the cultural development of the history of music, or at least in the avant-garde community. Still, since the beginnings of Sound Art in the 70's, there has been a commitment to changing perceptions and the public's "listening development", though this concern is also diminishing in importance and being superseded these days as a principal theme. However, more than a historical summary, my main interest lies in showing the most effective, practical and intrinsic connection that art has with its spectator's hearing-awareness, which is shown in the most optimum way in Sound Art developed in public spaces.

Sound Art outside museums goes back to the beginning of its "pre-consolidation" as an art form. In those days, Max Neuhaus arose as its wandering creator, who would call some of his works "sound installations." Neuhaus installed his work Time Square (1977 – present) in the famous pedestrian intersection at Broadway and 7th Avenue in New York City. He placed loudspeakers under the ventilation grille of the subway, thus making the materials from its structure resonate with different tones. These tones were reinforced and created sounds with diverse harmonics along the installation. Near a thousand people an hour walk over this grille through an acoustic and visual chaos. In this terrible situation (a part of life in Times Square) a different appreciation of its context is produced. This constant, strange sound changes the usual perspective of this scene, revealing in a cordial way a moment of real perception of this urban dictatorship.


When you stand, there you get an idea.
When the sound comes to you, your perception changes, totally.
You fall at your feet a bit, all that you see around you is the opposite of what you feel, a deep sensation with just a couple of underground tones.



Time Scqaure


Auinger and Odland "Blue Moon"


In the same field of "generating environmental consciousness", the artists Sam Auinger and Bruce Odland have used different methods to "tune" public spaces since 1991. In their work Bluemoon, three microphones are hidden. They receive the ambient sound of the environment, which is then modified through special tuning tubes, thus, creating a different tone. The resulting modification is reproduced in real time by several cubes containing speakers inside. Here the aesthetic acoustic value from this busy place is skillfully altered in a "harmonious" way; Random events such as the sound of a helicopter, a car's horn or voices from the passers-by are no longer processed by people as usual. Consequently, this new acoustic quality would help wake us from the lethargic habit of hearing the traffic of the city or would take John Cage's example and find enjoyment in it.


In another approach, the artist Christina Kubisch has worked intensively with the perception of public spaces and their history. In Massachusetts, USA, there is a 200-year-old industrial complex that has a big clock. The clock with its 1000-pound bell was used in its time to guide the rhythm of workers with its sound. In 1986, the place was vacated and reestablished as a museum, and in 1997, after 11 years of silence, Kubisch recovered the bell's sound (Clocktower, 1997). The artist created a work that automatically interpreted this sound depending on the light intensity received through the solar system. The old public memory of a familiar sound generated reminiscences and consciousness; and its new interpretation produced questions and uncertainty about the reason of its return. The acoustic-cultural heritage of the city was evoked. Through art, the idiosyncratic forgotten memory was recalled.




Artford and Yau "Infrasounds"


Finally, in another form of sound sensitivity, Scout Arford and Randy Yau have searched for special architectonic buildings in diverse spaces where they can realize non-musical infrasound "concerts" (Infrasounds, 2001). Through FM synthesis, they translate audible tones to infrasound vibrations at a high volume that are mainly perceived by the body instead of being heard with our ears. Here sound and its characteristics are presented as a tactile physical force. As the dramatic, vibrating walls from the place embody the spatial properties of sound, the resonance of our body and of the structure generates awareness about our corporal function in perception.


In short, all the presented works make people aware of what is commonly ignored. They inform us about our relation with the environment, (Neuhaus, Auinger and Odland), with our acoustic heritage and history (Kubisch), and finally with our body and how we perceive sound (Artford and Yau).

Now, to understand how this awareness is produced it is necessary to describe the way in which sound art communicates with its public.

To begin with, the appreciation of one of these works essentially requires "opening your ears," a very good first step. Yet the very material of sound art allows the approach to be a more basic process than in other, more traditional arts. In such art forms as painting or music, if the context is not shared or if a partial knowledge of its history is not possessed, a proper appreciation of the work becomes very difficult. These indicate a variety of discourses introduced over many distinct eras, which require a certain judgment for its comprehension.

In Neuhaus's work and in Infrasounds, the pieces are decontextualized, moved from the concert room to public space. They lack any narrative sense; there is no sound articulation; and their resistance to temporal parameters negates the musical code (without beginning or end). Consequently musical expectation is progressively lost. Questions are produced and the attention to the sound itself, its material, space and context, is stimulated.

What really makes these works approachable is that these are not closed processes. On the contrary, they deal with perpetual and general processes, with social or natural systems, with the daily relation we have with sounds; the sound of church's bell, a river or a cell phone. Therefore it's easier for these works to communicate to an audience not educated artistically or musically, because they allow a different access point, a more democratic one, not by means of intellect or previous knowledge but by favoring the very ways in which we perceive sound.

In the big challenges that exist in considering projects for public spaces (i.e., dealing with its invasive nature and with communication strategies for providing a better experience than the possible confusion to the arbitrary listener), a pertinent result from these works is produced. They transform places that usually don't have a transcendental meaning to a community. They generate a new and special sonic situation that turns an acoustically "irrelevant" zone into an important place for pedestrians. At the same time, people begin to communicate in a place in which they usually would not.

Sound Art is a clear and effective way to help familiarize audible awareness. This may sound illusionary, yet it's still interesting, considering that these concepts are being integrated into other areas. Also, the introduction of other disciplines to sound art, such as sculpture, net.art or electronic music, attract a heterogeneous public that might not be in the habit of "listening". In fact, it is because of this that many Sound Art exhibitions nowadays are still insisting upon older objectives such as changing one's comprehension of the medium as well as changing perceptions and the public's "listening development" by using statements like "open your ears".

It is important to consider these relations today, because the questions made 10 years ago are not the same as now. Democratized technology has drastically changed the way people relate with sound. The possibilities to reproduce, register, manipulate and create sound are, for the very first time in history, in public hands, in the shape of electronics and computers.

Is it necessary to be further conscious about sound, considering the quantity of acoustic spam, the stimulus and noises placed in modern life? Certainly, ignoring them is not the solution, but is it Sound Art considering that auditory awareness is more of a ‘trickle down effect' of the whole practice, a sort of secondary result, and to many a mediocre aim? 3)

The fundamental issue here is to reflect on the possibility of changing the mentality of the public community. It is to point out the relevance of generating consciousness about sound at a popular level.


When you become conscious of what it is that "they are doing with you" you are in a condition to reflect and formulate your own interests. When you become conscious of the world that you're in, you manipulate your environment more determinedly, which is fundamental to directing your own life. In a practical way, to be conscious of how the mechanisms of perception function gives you the possibility to decide what to accept and what not to. 4)


I think that people are wonderful, and I think this because there are instances of people changing their minds. (I refer to individuals and to myself) - John Cage (Silence)



March 2008


1) From a different perspective, this work is very similar to Murray Schaeffer's interest in paying greater attention to the environment.
2) Seiffarth C. The quote is from the audio interview taken on the 30th of November of 2007 at Tesla-Berlin, Germany
3) Tricle-down effect: By means of unlimited economic growth, social progress will automatically be established. For more info, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickle-down_economics
4) Krause, R., The quote is from the audio interview taken on the 28th of February of 2008 in Santiago de Chile


AUGE Marc. Non-Places, Verso. 1995

CAGE John. Silence, Wesleyan. 1961

DE LOS RIOS Valeria. Visual Culture: A History of Glance "Arts and Writing" from El Mercurio (chilean newspaper). 2006

GIBBS Tony. The Fundamentals of Sonic Arts and Sound Design, AVA Publishing. 2007

ONG, W. J. World as View and World as Event. In P. Shepard & D. McKinley (Eds.) 1971

ROJAS Sergio. Is there any "noise" left in sound? Reading at the "Reverberations" catalogue launch at the Fine Arts National Museum. 2006

RUSSOLO Luigi. The art of Noises, 1913, Pendaragon Press 1986

SCHAFER R. Murray. The tuning of the world, Random House Inc, 1977

THURMANN-JAJES Anne, BREITSAMETER Sabine, PAULEIT Winfried. Sound Art 3. 1998

Online Articles

CORREA G. Fernando. Visibility - Technologies from vision, Visual culture monograph

CUMMINGS Jim. Listen up! Opening Our Ears to Acoustic Ecology , Coger.2001

DAVIES Shaun. Sound in Space Adventures in Australian Sound Art1

HEON Laura. In Your Ear: hearing art in the 21st century

ITURBIDE Manuel Rocha. About John Cage - "La Pus Moderna", No 3. 1991

LONGINA Chiu. Social Control Technologies: sound. 2006

MADSEN Virginia. Notes Towards Sound Ecology in the Garden of Listening

NEUHAUS Max. Audio and Video documentation

ODLAND Bruce and AUINGER Sam. Transforming the Sonic Identity of Public and Private space

SCARUFFI Piero. History of Avantgarde Music, 2004

WIKIPEDIA. 4.33", 2008
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4' 33''

WIKIPEDIA. Sound Art. 2008

Interesting Websites



This article was part of the residency at the Institute for Music and Acoustics from The Center for Art and Media ZKM, Karlsruhe-Germany. The residency was made possible with the support from Gobierno de Chile - Consejo Nacional de la Cultura Y Las Artes and ZKM.

Thanks to: Institute for Music and Acoustics ZKM, Ludger Brummer, Carol Moessner, Rainer Krause, Enrique Rivera, Georg Weckwerth, Golo Foellmer, Valentina Montalvo, Georg Klein, Elizabeth Nelson, Volker Straebel, Carsten Seiffarth.



Ariel Bustamante (1980), Chilean Artist. His varied work moves between popular electronic music, public acoustic experiments and sounds installations (some of them with high use of technology). Mainly self taught, Ariel has won on two occasions the Chilean Funds for Arts (Fondart) and in 2006 the important Chilean arts prize "Amigos del Arte". He has made residences in Harvestworks NYC and in the ZKM Music and Acoustics Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany. He has shown his work in the Contemporary Art Museum and at The Fine Arts Museum of Chile, Subtonic NYC, the ZKM Media Museum, as many more. He currently works giving seminars of sound theory and teaching tools for interactive installations in the Master of Arts and Technology in the University of Chile.











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