group show 54
Seeing Sound

Sound and Vision: Essay by Jon Feinstein

In 2012, color-blind wizard artist Neil Harbisson gave a soon-to-be viral TED Talk I listen to Color, demonstrating technology that allows him to "hear" color by turning it into an audible frequency. Instead of seeing the world with a limited palette, the sci-fi looking contraption allows Halbrisson to hear what TED writers described as “a symphony of color.”
 
A few years after watching this talk, I was moved by Design Observer's What Design Sounds Like, a one-day symposium held at School of Visual Arts in New York City that explored the parallels between visual and aural experience, and sought the potential for sound to suggest a range of visual cues. More recently, Aperture published Sounds, a collection of images and essays looking at the history of photography and its relationship to sound, with a particular emphasis on music. 
 
For Humble’s current group show, Seeing Sound, I sought to challenge photographers to submit work with a loose approach to this ongoing conversation, avoiding representations of instruments, musicians and bands, in exchange for imagery that would hopefully be fluid, tangential and abstract in its discussion of the two senses. While not as technologically advanced as Halbrisson's tool for "hearing" color, the selected images evoke an audio-visual experience ripe with metaphor. They include visualizations of sound waves and representations of broken technology, sound as as metaphor in the built and natural landscape and sound as a cultural or sociological cue. Ultimately, all of the work in this exhibition serves as a footnote to Halbrisson's devices, suggesting the metaphorical potential to "hear" a photograph. 
 
Chicago-based artist Alice Hargrave, for example, uses layered Spectrograph images depicting sound waves of bird calls to make “portraits” of the 15 most endangered bird species in North America, toning them with the hues found within the spectrum of each species. Similarly, composer, performer and multimedia artist Kris T. Force transforms media characteristics through processes of decay, duplication, pause, juxtaposition, materiality, signal and transmission. The artist visualizes sound waves by capturing still frames from a two-oscillator FM/wave terrain synthesizer, painted grounds combined in Photoshop.
 
While our selection generally strays from most representations of music, Shane Lavalette and Rachel Boillot’s independent bodies of work each take a unique look at its metaphorical, cultural and spiritual presence. Both photographers have spent considerable periods of time photographing communities of musicians in the American South. However, rather than focusing on live performance or instrumentation, Lavalette and Boilott make portraits and landscapes that suggest the emotional quality and impact of music on their subjects with quiet pause and refrain. Lavalette presents a black and white portrait of a man looking upward his arm raised over his face, shielding his eyes from a bright sun, his gesture suggesting an unseen presence hovering above.
 
In an image that seems like unintentional conversation with Lavalette’s portrait, Boillet depicts a woman looking away from the camera towards a similarly unseen presence. Her dress blows ever so slightly, letting us quietly hear the presence of wind just by looking. In another of Boilett’s images, sunlight spills through a red curtain into a gaudily wallpapered kitchen. A small oscillating fan sits wedged between the curtain and window, and despite being still, like the previous image, we can subtly hear its muffled breeze.
 
Colleen Woolpert's video The Persistent Blink of Light Upon Darkness seemed uniquely photographic and suited for this exhibition. The piece, rendered here in black and white,  depicts a continuous loop of a blind woman blinking before the camera. The video is part of a larger project called Persistence of Vision that was inspired by Woolpert's participation in a tactile art class for blind artists. The project originated while Woolpert walked arm in arm with a woman from the class as she says, "in the trusting intimacy that develops when touch and voice stand in for sight and the woman suddenly said 'I miss looking at the night sky most of all."
 
The range of work in this exhibition occasionally touches on politics and current events. For the past three years Julie Pawlowski has been photographing the forced migration unfolding in traditional Shanghai communities, many including implications of sound. This is particularly charged in an image of an abandoned community blackboard left behind within a disappearing traditional Shanghai neighborhood. While the text may be indecipherable to many of our readers, we learn that they are actually song lyrics from Chinese pop artists S.H.E, GIGI Leung, Elva Xiao, and Hu Yanbin. While the images in this exhibition have a divergent aesthetic and conceptual approach, they ultimately work together as a tangent to Halbrisson's devices, suggesting the metaphorical potential to "hear" a photograph.