Sphere of sound: 

Explorations of aural Perception

It is perhaps not premature to suppose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active and more spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively than anyone else to an extension of the several sense fields…
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Primal Sound


What makes sound meaningful?


Sound helps designate our place in the world. This research website explores creative representations of the aural dimension and how they help inform our understanding of interpretations of sonic meaning. Via sound-based installations and performances, artists such as Tarek Atoui and Christine Sun Kim have deconstructed our existing idea of what it is to experience sound in order to expand how we define hearing. Cross-modal art like theirs offers us a tangible mechanism with which we can mediate our surroundings. Such explorations that keep embodied differences in mind and utilize technological components when creating art challenge how we understand perception and restructure the senses with which we process information.

To provide context for these examples, it is necessary to illustrate various historical interpretations of how the body reacts to sensory perception. While Jean-Luc Nancy reduced the body to “that in which sense is given and out of which sense emerges,” others such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty have more thoroughly unpacked bodily experiences via a grasp of the chain of physical and physiological events. With these arguments in mind, we can look towards future instantiations of how the body will play a role in our interactions with the digital (and in this case, artworks that incorporate the digital to deliver their messages), particularly from a posthuman standpoint.

Philosophers as far back as Aristotle defined the five senses and the process of sensing as going from potentiality to actuality, from perceived to applied meaning. In seeking to understand the body as more than just a signifier, per Nancy, Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the bodily experience may provide help. Merleau-Ponty stresses that we are conscious of ourselves and our body via the world. If we understand the senses as primary facilitators of this experience, in that they give meaning to external events/entities and our sense of place, and if we accept Merleau-Ponty’s claim that we ‘surge towards’ objects to grasp them—then we can validate the need to broaden our definition of how we use the senses to identify these objects. (Merleau-Ponty, pg. 106) If we are drawn to objects in our search for their meaning and the meaning of their surroundings, then this resulting, subjective meaning can in turn be influenced or supplemented by these very objects.

With these understandings in mind, N. Katherine Hayles took this process one step further in How We Became Posthuman:

The posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate

...she claims, meaning that extending the body or replacing certain functions is inevitable. (Hayles, pg. 3) If the necessity for embodiment in order to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings is decentered in such a manner, more value is placed on external tools that assist with cognition and the application of meaning. From here, couldn’t we legitimize artistic approaches to new constructions of subjectivity and cognition in general?




It is perhaps not premature to suppose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active and more spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively than anyone else to an extension of the several sense fields…
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Primal Sound



Were it to be modeled spatially, the auditory field would have to be conceived of as a “sphere” within which I am positioned, but whose “extent” remains indefinite as it reaches outward toward a horizon.
- Don Ihde, Listening & Voice

Tarek Atoui: Infinite ear


Tarek Atoui is a hard of hearing Lebanese artist and sound composer. He has worked with Al Amal School for the Deaf in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, since 2012 to gain knowledge about the Deaf experience of interacting with sound. (Council, 2014) This collaboration lead to a long-term project known as WITHIN, which culminated in musical performances and instruments with and for Deaf people. Infinite Ear continued this research and provided a multi-sensory and exploratory haven for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing visitors alike.

The exhibition was part of the 2016 Bergen Assembly, Norway’s triennial, for which Atoui was one of the Artistic Directors. It included several films, videos, artwork installations, sonic experiences, and innovative instruments all collected with the intention of providing an entirely new aural experience for visitors. “What we learned about vibrations and the perception of sound through working with the students and engaging with the participants in this piece, was that the potential of sound goes beyond regions or cultural characteristics,” Atoui remarked. (Atoui 2014)

By choosing to work with the Deaf community, Atoui uncovered creative methods for interactivity and sensory mediation that might not otherwise have been possible.

Infinite Ear is an exercise in inhabiting hearings edge, hearings ‘other’ from without, and in inhabiting that which remains in excess of sound. It displaces, attenuates and substitutes the organs and sounding apparatuses normally responsible for hearing and speaking. Instead, Infinite Ear versions hearing, denaturalizes it, and creates a conceptual morphospace composed of multiple kinds of ‘hearing knowledges’

Emma Goodhart writes in Council’s online documentation of their explorations that led to the exhibition. (Council, 2014) The materials in the exhibition (such as the instruments, the environment) are the what create this ‘hearing knowledge’ in their tactile manifestations of signals such as the frequencies that turn into sound. Effectively, a new aural dimension is born, and is validated by its ability to create and transmit ‘information.’ While the auditory brainstem works with the inner ear to localize sound sources and parse out frequencies, people who are hard of hearing have reduced frequency selectivity and seek other, external resources to aid in perception of noise.



Translating Sound - Exhibition Components


Variations on aural perception and interpretation can reshape our means for communicating messages and applying meaning to them. How we perceive sound is relative, adaptable, and fluid (contrary to a stagnant and standardized way of experiencing auditory signals).

Thierry Madiot's Sonic Massages.  Image Source.

Thierry Madiot's Sonic Massages. Image Source.

Tactile Sound

Sonic Massages, created by artist Thierry Madiot, were presented to visitors as an almost literal approach to dissolving the boundary between the hearing and the nonhearing. Individuals could experience his medium via vibrations, illustrating how auditory signals can be transformed into tactile sensations that remain faithful to an intended message.

Council's White Cat Cafe.  Image source.

Council's White Cat Cafe. Image source.

Inaudible Noise

Council, a curatorial group that worked with Atoui on the exhibition, sought to challenge hearing by separating it from the ear’s functionality with which we usually define it. One of their contributions to Infinite Ear was the White Cat Café, where visitors could choose from a menu of drinks paired with recordings of normally inaudible sounds ranging from a snowy landscape to the gravitational waves emitted from colliding black holes.


Video of performance from Within - Infinite Ear. Source.

If the world’s whole field of experience, including those spheres which are beyond our knowledge, be represented in a complete circle, it will be immediately evident that when the black sectors, denoting that which we are incapable of experiencing, are measured against the lesser, light sections, correspond to that which is illuminated by the senses, the former are very much greater.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Primal Sound (Quoted from Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter)

Christine Sun Kim:

Sound as Currency

Christine Sun Kim transcodes sound and meaning to produce unique artworks.  Born deaf, Kim began her career making paintings. However, she wanted to “reclaim ownership of sound” by putting it into her art practice. (TED Talk) Particularly due to her experiences navigating a world that is not build for her deaf body, Kim has considered how she has to adapt her own behavior to fit into a world of sound. She views sound as “social currency,” and by harnessing it in her art, she pushes back against normative exchanges of this currency.

Game of Skill 2.0 MoMA PS1's "Greater New York" October 11th, 2015 - March 7th, 2016 ASL version: http://www.momaps1.org/csk/ Concept by Christine Sun Kim Designed and built by Levy Lorenzo

Game of Skill 2.0

Game of Skill 2.0, which was presented as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition in 2015, the artist hung a handheld device from lines hung across the ceiling. Visitors are prompted to hold the device and move forwards and backwards in order to play the audio. However, the need for ‘skill’ lies in the fact that the handheld portion must be held in a specific manner in order for the audio to play in a decipherable voice. (Kim) As users walk through the physical space to experience the sound, Kim provides a literal expansion of their auditory fields.

Game of Skill 2.0 requires both users and technology to work together to create meaning, a way of emphasizing the “mutually constitutive interactions between components of a system rather than on message, signal or information,” like Hayles wrote decades prior. (Hayles) This deemphasizes abilities or inabilities of components of the system and requires all parts, biological and mechanical, to work together to decipher information. And, just like the new forms of communication that emerged with the phonograph or the later, vibration-based instruments exhibited in Infinite Ear, such novel interactions with technology can bring about new understandings of how the senses enable those forms of communication.


“It is through instruments that transformed perceptions occur and new ‘worlds’ emerge, but any new world is itself a modification of life-world processes,”
- Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology


Christine Sun Kim,  Listen , Image source -  artist website .

Christine Sun Kim, Listen, Image source - artist website.

(Listen), 2016

This sketch coincided with the artist's sound walks that took place in New York City in 2016. The artist took audiences on nonverbal walks around the Lower East Side neighborhood, where she invited them to understand the soundscape of the environment by participating. More information about the experience here.

Christine Sun Kim,  Too Much Future , Image source -  Whitney Museum .

Christine Sun Kim, Too Much Future, Image source - Whitney Museum.

Too Much Future, 2018

This billboard-size image appears on a building next to the Whitney Museum in New York City. This installation presents passers-by with a visual interpretation of the word "future" in ASL. Paired with a text translation, the image's graphic quality emphasize's ASL's ability to create meaning from gesture - sound is not required for viewers to understand bodily movements.  

... this layer of music, universal before the advent of meaning, carries all meaning within it; distilled, differentiated language selects the meaning or meanings it will isolate from this complex, and then broadcast. 
- Michel Serres, The Five Senses

The work in Infinite Ear portrays a way that technology can augment, instead of supplement or replace, tools for experiencing normative or supernormative sensory perception. Focused on the ‘real’ via vibrations like Edison’s phonograph, information is transmitted via tactile sensation and body cues. The exhibition relays information via instruments and tools, and in doing so, almost refashions the human auditory systems. Similarly, Kim’s representations of sound challenge audiences to adjust their bodily movement to uncover the messages in her work.

In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway argued that human-machine combinations can push back against normative approaches to what makes a sensory, able body. Such a new translation of these systems, put in Haraway’s terms, is “the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment and exchange.” (Haraway 2000)

Merleau-Ponty spends time discussing phantom limb theories in The Phenomenology of Perception, and describes how the body inherently seems to reject any physiological limitations:


What it is in us which refuses mutilation and disablement is an I committed to a certain physical and inter-human world, who continues to tend towards his world despite handicaps and amputations and who, to this extent, does not recognize the de jure. The refusal of the deficiency is only the obverse of our inherence in a world…


He refers to the limitations of disablement as “regions of silence,” but these two artists move beyond such a claim by using their embodied understanding of silence to shed light into new abysses open for interpretation.

Kim’s and Atoui’s artworks communicate the experience of the self via non-normative means, and from such expressions emerge disability communities as equals to able bodied people. By presenting audiences with tangible representations of the subtleties of aural perception, they help us teach our bodies new ways to give meaning to our surroundings. In deprioritizing ability as a necessity in the delivery and perception of sensory information, and instead with technology as our enabler, boundaries between the five senses can be broken down in so as to guide us further into the sphere of sound.

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Resonating within us: a column of air and water and solids, three-dimensional space, tissue and skin, long and broad walls and patches, and wiring, running through them; moorings receptive to the lower frequencies, as though our bodies were in the union of ear and orchestra, transmission and reception.
- Michel Serres, The Five Senses