Moving to the Rhythm

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Aura Satz, Dial Tone Drone (2014). Seeing Sound at KADIST San Francisco. Seeing Sound is curated by Barbara London and produced by Independent Curators International (ICI). Photo: Jeff Warrin

KADIST, an arts organization founded in Paris, France, that promotes interdisciplinary work, is exhibiting Seeing Sound, a blend of sound and video art, at its 20th Street gallery. Curated by Barbara London, an advocate of sound art since the 1970s, the show debuts in San Francisco before travelling internationally. Three distinct modes of contemporary sound art are presented in three spaces.

London artist Aura Satz’s Dial Tone Drone, 2014, is shown in the front room. The piece is so banal it might easily be missed: two armchairs positioned on either side of a telephone stand. Visitors are invited to take a seat and pick up the rotary style telephone, which plays a recorded conversation between electronic music innovators Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) and Laurie Spiegel (b.1945). The chat can also be accessed from any device by dialing 833-764-1221.

In the recording, Oliveros and Spiegel discuss sound and art, atop the incessant drone of a dial tone. Their conversation is a sort of primer for the rest of the exhibition, providing viewers with concepts and language around sound-based art. “Our body is a form of mediation,” one of the discussants says, referencing the way in which sound works on the mind, a statement that serves as the exhibition’s thesis. The piece’s portable nature questions location’s influence on how art is experienced. How might interpretations change if one listened to the recording while walking on the beach, rather than sitting in the gallery?

The second room contains New York composer Marina Rosenfeld’s Music Stands, 2019, an ensemble of sculptural music stands, acoustic panels, and microphones. Cables snake along the gallery floor from the mics into a mixing board. A laptop connected to the board is equipped with software that records, mixes, and spits back out snippets of sound in random sequence. Navigating the installation and hearing one’s own movements and words played back is a sonar-like experience. Interacting with the piece creates a heightened self-awareness of the viewer’s own body, as their presence in the room is amplified on the speakers.

On view in the gallery’s screening room is Muted Situation #2: Muted Lion Dance, 2014, a seven-and-a-half-minute video by Hong Kong-based artist Samson Young. The film shows a troupe of dancers staging the traditional Chinese lion dance, usually performed during lunar New Year celebrations and weddings. The setting is a black box theater, placing the emphasis on the costumed performers. The conventional percussive accompaniment is notably absent, replaced by a recording of the dancers’ rhythmic footsteps and heavy breathing from within their lion costumes. The soundtrack of the dancers’ exertions gives the piece a visceral quality and makes spectators hyper-aware of their own inertia as they view the work.

Each of the pieces relied on a collaboration in its making, with viewers becoming a part of that relationship. The exhibits’ staging encourages dynamic engagement – sitting, walking – while each work uses sound to orchestrate movements, tuning visitors’ awareness to their own bodies.

Seeing Sound is on view at KADIST San Francisco, 3295 20th Street, through July 24.