Bogong residency 2: Plastic

Wind recording, Pretty Valley, Victoria. Photo by Madelynne Cornish.

This is my second of four posts documenting my residency at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture. The first post is here.

My time at Bogong unfortunately coincides with Perth’s Totally Huge New Music Festival, a biennial festival that brings several of the most interesting music and sound art practitioners to Perth for a few weeks. I had a good chat with the composer-in-residence for Totally Huge, Johannes S. Sistermanns, before leaving. He has some fascinating ideas, even if they are a little obscured by dense Teutonic prose. One of his most consistent tropes is the use of plastic as a means of interrogating space, defining it only to de-articulate it. His works use sound in a sculptural, plastic manner — “A sound needs space and creates it at the same time … sound models the air” — and using the concept of the fold (“pli” á la Gilles Deleuze), he reveals ambivalent spaces, dislocated sounds, vibrating plastic. In his exhibition SpaceFolding (PS Art Space, Fremantle; May 2015) reams of plastic wrapped around the space serve to encase the sound and the space, in doing so defining this interior/exterior space, yet rendering the explicit point where they meet as blurry and multifaceted.

As described previously, my time at Bogong was to be spent exploring the injection of sound into environments using speakers, and the practice of field recording in such contexts. It wasn’t until a few days before I started that I realised a potentially disastrous problem: it is May, and the Victorian Alps are wet and rainy. In a rush, I brought a huge plastic bag I had lying around the house (you can buy big rolls of them from hardware stores, I presume they’re for construction waste) and some Tupperware containers.

My use of plastic doesn’t quite have the elegant nuance of Sistermanns’ work, but I am quite interested in ideas surrounding encasement, containment, shelter; an attempt to seal between a secure, orderly interior and a turbulent, disorderly exterior. Plastic as a handled and touched material, as enabling capacity and potentiality. This post is mostly riffing on those ideas.

Plastics have very strong connotations in the visual arts and, dare I say it, the plastic arts. A common trope is the use of plastic as an ironic embrace of late 20th-, early 21st-century consumerism in the late capitalist age. A certain squeaky-clean veneer, a facade of perfection, that in the context of the gallery space questions the systemics of production and consumption.

Plastic as an encasement already has a history in sound art. I can’t recall the exact name of the work but Agostino di Scipio explores a similar concept in an installation (documented in “sound. self. other.” Galerie Mario Mazzoli, 2011), placing speakers in vacuum-sealed plastic bags, whereby sound is completely extinguished and exposed in a rather ugly reality of circuitry and componentry. Christof Migone’s excellent book Sonic Somatic: Performances of the Unsound Body (Errant Bodies Press, 2012) explores these idea in great depth, where artists like Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman are interpreted as artists of the unsound, exploring the affect of sound through its presence as potential only. Admittedly, my initial experiments using bluetooth speakers and sealed Tupperware containers aren’t as evocative or imaginative as these ideas, but they exposed plastic as a vibratory, ululating material. Sealing a speaker in a plastic container here, the sound is almost extinguished, and it becomes a vibrating object that is best “heard” through touching or holding it.

What does it mean for the field recording to be felt as opposed to heard? George Revill (Progress in Human Geography, 2015) recently explored the “touch” of sound from a political perspective, describing it as “grounded in both the visceral physicality of vibration and the lucidity of memory and imagination.” Although the kind of touch that Revill explores is more theoretical and political than explicitly , there’s a lot of intrigue in the prospect of somatic sound work.

As far as somatic field recording works go, Lawrence English’s recent Viento (Taiga, 2015) is hard to beat. Two side-length pieces, one consisting of wind recordings in Patagonia, Argentina; one of wind recordings in Antarctica; they are immersive and nicely arranged, evoking a disorienting yet paradoxically grounding sense of isolation, of insignificance in comparison to the blustery whims of these harsh environments. They’re stunning recordings, however I suspect that these recordings are maybe a little too perfect. As anyone who has taken a Zoom outside would know, wind is a destructive beast, and it can very easily distort recordings. These recordings are clean, hi-fi even, and have a sense of stasis that I feel doesn’t reflect that incredible feeling of being somewhere so windy you feel you could be flung off your feet at any moment. Lawrence English has been developing a compelling theory of relational listening that has definitely formed an integral part of how I approach field recording practice, but I think what I’m seeking here is more an abstracted somatics through sound, rather than of sound.

The other day I took my giant plastic bag up to Pretty Valley, pictured (altitude: approximately 1300m, near Falls Creek). What I like about my recordings of this plastic bag is that that familiar whistling of gale-force wind is almost completely absent. The wind is entirely represented through this gnarly noise of the plastic bag crumpling and contorting, inflating and deflating. This is unmistakably a product of the wind which demonstrates the visceral corporeality of high-altitude wind; but this is also unmistakably a plastic bag, with its claustrophobic, volatile shuddering. A recording practice like this eschews literality in favour of a skewed metaphor, in doing so interpreting the encounter of the body and mountainous wind from a rather abstracted sense of somatic presence.