Headphone festival is shared, but isolated. experience

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by Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio

It isn’t often that you need to bring your own equipment to an art gallery. But headphones are required for the Sound Art Festival Friday at the Rochester Art Center.

Rochester, Minn. — Sound is one of the hardest senses to describe. Scott Stulen says one of the pieces he’ll perform at the Headphone Festival involves kids’ voices, electronica and thunderstorms. It locates you in sensation.

Stulen is one of the curators of the festival. Sound artists will perform for the audience, who will listen through headphones. Stulen says headphones divide listeners from the rest of their environment.

“I think, in that, you start thinking about other things,” Stulen says. “I find that my mind starts to wander. When I listen to headphone music — and in particular music that is made for listening on headphones — you have a tendency to want to close your eyes, and just kind of relax and get into the music, and let it take you someplace else.”

In this case, listeners will hear the same thing, so it will be a shared but isolated experience.

Headphone festivals aren’t terribly common. The first, called Le Placard, was held in Paris in 1995, and other European cities have held their own festivals under the same name.

Sound is so completely, always, present. You can’t close your ears like you can your eyes.
– Viv Corringham, sound artist

As far as Stulen knows, no U.S. city has ever held a sound art festival. Stulen says if this event goes well, next year they’ll extend the festival to three days, and link to Le Placard.

As a category, sound art is broad. Perhaps not as broad as Web page content, but Stulen has selected a range of artists, from young indie rockers branching into the experimental, to more technological and environmental artists.

Viv Corringham fits more into the latter category. Corringham’s latest project is called Shadow-walk. In “Powderhorn Park,” she walks with a woman on her morning route and later tries to experience that walk herself.

At the festival, Corringham says she will improvise audio away from the audience, behind a curtain. She likes the idea of sound as a form that exists without a performer or a visual.

“Sound is so completely, always present. You can’t close your ears like you can your eyes. It can either be a nuisance, it can be ignored, or it can be enjoyed,” says Corringham. “I think once you start listening to sounds and start enjoying them, I think it brings you into a different relationship with the world, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose, and certainly with yourself.”

For another artist, Abinadi Meza, sound is a structure. One of his pieces, entitled “Silence,” is high-frequency noise, and it’s designed to be heard with headphones.

“When you read a text, at least me, in my own head, I’m kind of reading with my own voice,” says Meza. “You sort of imagine characters or scenes or settings or feelings, or you might even start identifying with the feelings or whatever. I think working with sound is quite a bit like that.”

Meza just got back from a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. In Dublin, he says he paid attention to the things people no longer noticed, like paper wrapping, or sea gulls — and eventually silence.

“In this sense, silence is sort of relative term,” Meza says. “It’s kind of an ironic term. Because the piece proposes that there is no silence, it’s just something that we’re not listening to.” Sound usually comes along with mouths and bodies, machines and lightbulbs. But this time it will mostly come from laptops.

It’ll be interesting to see listeners with their headphones on, one next to another, noticing and not noticing each other’s presence while hearing the same thing. There are only 50 plug-ins available, and you’ll need to bring your own headphones.

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