SOUND DOES NOT EXIST IN A VACUUM—it requires a medium through which to propagate. Innovations in electroacoustics have worked to partition and privatize the sonic realm, separating voices and music from their host bodies and feeding them cleanly to the ear via high-fidelity speakers, noise-canceling headphones, and other means. But sound represents only one facet of a listening experience. To understand another person while speaking face-to-face is not merely to listen to them but, rather, to navigate a full constellation of perceptual cues—visual, tactile, olfactory, and social—that inform and inflect what is said and heard. In the parlance of neuroscience, this sensory interplay constitutes what is known as “multimodal perception.”
Some of the most vital sound art of recent years has positioned sound as a promiscuous and complexly multimodal phenomenon. This kind of work—by the likes of Christine Sun Kim, Kevin Beasley, and Nikita Gale—has emphasized sound’s life beyond the strictly aural by framing it as a phenomenon that bleeds across perceptual registers, signifying on different levels of sensation while challenging us to look, feel, and think as much as listen. These artists share a commitment to an expanded multimodal conception of sound and an urgent engagement with the logics of power and prejudice.
WHILE SOUND ART ERUPTED into critical consciousness near the turn of the new millennium, the categorically fraught genre experienced an earlier institutional uptake around 1980. By that point in time, decades of generative cross-pollination between artists and experimental musicians, increased permeability between concert venues and art spaces, and—in the hybrid spirit of the ’70s—enthusiastic plunges into disciplinary mixing had yielded complexly hyphenated sonic practices that challenged the vocabularies of critics, curators, and practitioners themselves.
At interdisciplinary venues like the Kitchen in New York, Laurie Anderson staged playful and subversive “duets” in which she sawed along live on a violin while recorded violin music issued from a speaker lodged in her mouth. In works designed to transplant the noise and ambience of the outdoors, Maryanne Amacher and Bill Fontana used loudspeakers to pipe the sounds of wharves, harbors, and rent-a-car locations into the hushed spaces of art galleries. After the ’60s, when he enjoyed a successful career as an experimental percussionist, Max Neuhaus took to producing site-specific sound works that he, in a debatable historical first, dubbed “sound installations.”
Such difficult-to-classify work provocatively straddled the boundary between music and the expanded arts. And around 1980, as if operating in unison, a number of major institutions in the United States and abroad ventured to present work of this kind in a series of ambitious and innovative exhibitions. Shows like “Für Augen und Ohren” (“For Eyes and Ears”) at the Akademie der Künst in Berlin in 1980; “Soundings” at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., in 1981; and “Sound/Art” at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1983 welcomed nominally “visual” artists who dabbled in sound alongside musicians who flirted with multimedia. While the curators of these shows and responding critics began mentioning the existence of a “sound art” (or “audio art”), these exhibitions were primarily interested in historical crossings of music and the arts, and work that offered itself to hearing and sight—as the Akademie der Künst put it, “eyes and ears.” Sound had been invited into the museum, but largely on the coattails of the visual.
Two decades later, around the new millennium, sound again swept into major museum institutions, but this time the conditions were a bit different. Shows like “Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound” at the Hayward Gallery in London (in 2000), “Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art” at ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2012–2013), and “Soundings: A Contemporary Score” at the Museum of Modern Art (2013) continued to survey cross-disciplinary intersections and mixed-media practices. But they also featured an increasing number of practitioners who self-consciously identified as “sound artists” and explored the unique formal affordances of acoustic and psychoacoustic matters—sound and hearing—without so explicit or necessary a debt to the fuller sensorium.
Among the changes that occasioned such a shift was that these artists were working in tandem with a growing body of theory, which, buoyed by a wider academic interest in sound and the growth of “sound studies,” was actively constructing a medium-specific vocabulary capable of meaningfully distinguishing sound art from music and the visual arts. This important literature—by Christoph Cox, Brandon LaBelle, Salomé Voegelin, and Alan Licht, among others—countered a long legacy of critical and curatorial neglect toward sonic experimentation and halfhearted attempts to admit it under the rubric of the “audiovisual” or synesthetic. As if in a theory-practice feedback loop, some of the most celebrated works of sound art of the mid-2000s—among them the installations of Janet Cardiff, Florian Hecker, and Turner Prize–winner Susan Philipsz—adopted an affecting but austere presentational approach, often comprising little more than voices emanating from gallery-bound speaker-systems. This was, unmistakably, sound art for the ears alone.
ONE NEED ONLY LOOK to the work of Christine Sun Kim to recognize that the stakes and status of sound art have changed considerably over the last ten years. Born Deaf, Kim—whose work in drawing, sculpture, video, and performance has been gathered comfortably under the category of “sound art” for its consistent engagement with sound and what Kim calls “sound etiquette”—has been met equally with sensitive critical examination and clickbait headlines tilting toward an assumed incongruity between the terms “Deaf” and “sound artist.” Kim observes no such dissonance, nor, her work suggests, should we. Through a mixture of cutting polemics, wry jokes, novel conceptual maneuvers, and an omnivorous approach to materials, she has rigorously unmade and remade sound art from the inside out, stretching it across modal registers and critiquing the artificial limits placed on the genre by normative, ableist, and purely auditory conceptions of sonic phenomena.
Much of Kim’s work challenges, lampoons, or otherwise dispels myths and misunderstandings around deafness and Deaf culture, chief among them the notion that hearing people enjoy exclusive or privileged ownership of sound while Deaf people are consigned to a life of unqualified “silence” with no meaningful access to it. Some of Kim’s most direct and unflinching engagements with her own identity as a Deaf woman of color and ignorant communities around her are to be found in her celebrated charcoal drawings—for example, Why I Work with Sign Language Interpreters or Degrees of My Deaf Rage in the Art World, both from 2018—which employ the building blocks of Western musical notation and American Sign Language “glossing” (a term for notating ASL on paper) while mapping elements of Kim’s personal experience by way of pie charts and other graphs.
Earlier in her career, in 2012, Kim examined one way in which sound is experienced multimodally—in the form of vibration—by using the physical force of loudspeakers to guide the movement of paint across wooden panels. While these Speaker Drawing works brokered an elegant cross-sensory transcription of sound, providing evidence of its status as a palpable presence, Kim quickly moved past this tack and has since cautioned against vibration-oriented framings of her practice, perhaps in recognition of the way vibration has been fetishized as a privileged means by which Deaf individuals experience sound and music.
Since then, Kim has become increasingly interested in sound as a “social currency” that is subject to social or interpersonal mediation. In an evocative turn of phrase calling back to her Speaker Drawing works, she has described people functioning, for her, like “speakers.” In Face Opera II (2013), an opera in seven acts devised for a group of prelingually Deaf performers, facial expressions corresponding to a sequence of words displayed by Kim take the place of singing. The work seems to speak to the importance of facial expressions and body language in ASL as well as to Kim’s experience, in speech therapy, of gauging others’ facial expressions to assess her own performance.
WHILE KIM RENDERS sound’s complexity by emphasizing its extra-aural manifestations, Kevin Beasley creatively expands his work with sound by mixing it with a range of materials as both a sound artist and a sculptor. Beasley grew up with a background in music—he has remarked that he drummed for a prog-metal band and also played funk and jazz. But it was only when DJing in graduate school while studying sculpture at Yale University—experiencing the tactility of turntables and listening to sound pulsate and unfold in space—that he came to appreciate sound’s physicality and fungibility as an artistic medium.
Beasley has earned a reputation for unequivocally sculptural works in which he amalgamates and encases articles of clothing—T-shirts, shoes, do-rags—using polyurethane foam and resin. But he has been equally celebrated for his use of sound and music in different forms. For his breakthrough I Want My Spot Back (2012), Beasley rattled MoMA’s atrium gallery walls with an improvised patchwork of acapella vocal tracks from deceased black rappers. In 2015, he performed three consecutive days on New York’s High Line, mixing and amplifying noises captured live as well as site-specific sounds—insect chatter, motor drones, and pneumatic drills—that he had recorded along the structure over several months.
It would be a mistake, however, to try to extricate Beasley’s sound from his sculpture. His live performance techniques, so often premised on the aggregation and interweaving of field recordings, snippets of speeches or news coverage, and ambient sound, mirror his approach to material assemblage. His soundscapes, like his sculptures, index layers of sedimented history strewn with signifiers related to his identity as a Black man in America.
Even more significantly, some of Beasley’s most affecting works enlist sound and sculpture together. In some instances, Beasley has presented material frameworks or foundations for live performance that can be appreciated either as sculptural installations or, when activated, as components of a sound work. In Black Rocker, debuted in 2015 at the Dallas Museum of Art, twenty-four foam seat cushions sit arrayed on the floor before a black rocking chair, connected by a web of cables to a digital mixer. In performance, Beasley invited audience members to sit on the cushions (and their embedded microphones) as he worked an electronic console, routing and manipulating sounds from around the room through speakers. Inverting a popular strand of sound art that explores the acoustical and vibratory properties of different materials by activating them with the physical energy of sound, Beasley has often implanted microphones in his sculptures, recording the presence of spectators and implicating them in the act of looking and listening.
Another approach to sonic activation figured in Beasley’s 2017 show “Sport/Utility” at Casey Kaplan gallery in New York, where an air-conditioner-turned-speaker issued both a steady hum and audio drawn from recordings of riots, protests, and interviews with the parents of Black individuals slain by the police. The work, titled Air Conditioner (Tempo), 2017, served to tune the reception of other sculptural works on display—among them a crushed Cadillac Escalade and resin-coated basketball jerseys bearing the names of NBA stars—while invoking manifest specters of racial violence. In the context of the exhibition, the sound of Air Conditioner (Tempo) served a supplementary function, invoking a kind of visibility, or witnessing, unachievable with vision alone.
Many critics describing Beasley’s work have deployed the label “sound sculpture,” a term more popular in the past that has since taken a backseat to the more encompassing “sound art.” In any case, to pigeonhole certain of Beasley’s works as either sound art or sculpture would be to overlook the manner in which the artist choreographs experiential shifts between sound, vision, and haptic sensation, ultimately demonstrating the insufficiency of each of these individual modes and insisting on their collaboration in the pursuit of recognition and racial redress.
ANOTHER ARTIST OPERATING in the margin between the seen and the heard is Nikita Gale, whose work interacts diversely with questions of silence and visibility. With an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles and training in archaeological studies from Yale, Gale demonstrates an acute interest in historical genealogies and dense connotative webs of particular materials (concrete, metal, terry cloth) and architectural forms (banisters and barriers) that don’t often elicit conscious attention.
In sculptural and installation work, Gale has directed this interest not toward sound as it is typically understood but rather toward the technological and material infrastructures that enable and suppress speech in the public sphere. For INTERCEPTOR (2019), departing from a nineteenth-century reference drawing for an “ideal barricade construction,” Gale fashioned an imposing skeletal structure out of metal studs, decorating the form’s outline with a tangle of black audio cables and chaotically arrayed microphone stands. The work implies speech with the presence of barricades, which Gale has said have long served as ad-hoc stages for insurgents. But it silently withholds sound all the while, suggesting a “sound art” in negative relief.
Gale’s thematically similar RUINER sculptures (2020–21) take metal barricades—generally used to organize the flow of admission lines and guide streaming crowds to and from concert venues—and mummify them in black cabling and cloths dipped in concrete. In rendering these support structures useless, Gale, as in INTERCEPTOR, evokes the act of silencing and the dismantling of platforms by which individuals make themselves heard. But the artist, who has discussed the potentially unproductive and alienating effects of public discourse, has also suggested that such visually coded silence need not be regarded in explicitly negative terms.
In Gale’s 2020 installation PRIVATE DANCER, blazing theatrical spotlights piled on the ground swivel around in elliptical motions, following a lighting program coordinated to Tina Turner’s (inaudible) 1984 album Private Dancer. Discussing PRIVATE DANCER in a 2020 interview, Gale credited the influence of sound-and film-theorist Michel Chion, whose term “athorybia” (from the Greek thorubos, or “noise,” and the prefix a-, meaning “not, without”) identifies the kind of jarring experience when one apprehends visual phenomena without the accompaniment of their corresponding sounds. Gale has also indicated that the installation probes the aestheticization of the labor carried out by Black performers like Tina Turner; in this context, the absence of noise, like Turner’s decision to retire from the stage after the triumph of her 50th-annivesary tour in 2009, constitutes a radical and redemptive act.
While having accorded sound an audible and inaudible presence in numerous installations and performances, the artist has not often been classed as a sound artist, perhaps because so many of Gale’s works invert sound art’s usual modal terms and dare beholders to look and listen for sound that never arrives. But to accept installations like PRIVATE DANCER as sound art is not to dilute or compromise the genre but, rather, to equip it to grapple with the politics of silence.
IN ENGAGING A FULLER SENSORIUM, work by Kim, Beasley, and Gale challenges the medium-specific language of sound art that has structured so much sound-centric theory and practice while harking back to a time when sound’s entry to the museum was predicated on cross-connections to the visual. But this new efflorescence of the multimodal is far from a regression. Whereas just a decade ago sound art’s survival seemed contingent on its ability to distinguish itself from the musical and the visual in service of its own rigorously delineated formal vocabulary, the genre is now secure enough as an established idiom that practitioners can afford to draw outside its lines while suggesting a revision of its parameters.
Hybrid from the start, sound art is no longer compelled to mute sound’s multimodality. And artists such as Kim, Beasley, and Gale have demonstrated that a conscious embrace of sound’s modal slippages—the tensions and overlaps between the aural and visual—may be the means toward a more inclusive and politically potent sound art.