A spotlight on “6 X 15” by Ben Frost, exhibited as part of Post-Apocalyptic Renaissance, Palermo Art Weekend, curated by Maria Abramenko.
Ben Frost exhibited Six x Fifteen at Palazzo Mazzarino, Palermo, as part of Post-Apocalyptic Renaissance at Palermo Art Weekend, curated by Maria Abramenko. The room was tall and narrow, with a vaulted ceiling and two rows of imposing pillars, reminiscent of the Tyrell Corporation headquarters in Blade Runner. Frost’s work was positioned between these pillars: six fifteen-inch cardioid subwoofers hung from chains in three sets of stacked twos. The paired subwoofers faced each other – the bottom one faced up and the top, down – ‘creating between them a pressurised void where phase cancellation imposes a counter-intuitive quiet at close proximity’, and, further away, the six discrete channels of low-frequency audio formed ‘an evolving field of invisible friction which interacts with both the physical architecture of the space and the viewer within it’, according to the artist’s statement.
The sound had a strobing, damaged texture that abraded itself and the listener. Phase cancellation is generally considered a mistake, however, forms the central conceit of Frost’s intervention in the space – one of the ways in which Frost ‘plays against his tools’, to quote Flusser on photography, which he likens to a game of chess in which ‘photographers do not play with their plaything but against it’. The subwoofers, typically invisible in the service of the listener’s experience, here assert themselves in the space. The securing chains and exposed technology reference industrial noise, black metal and punk. I felt the emotional core of the work could be rage, or a controlled and sustained opposition to something. For me, the work felt like dread and one that – in its democratic setup where the sound sat alongside the viewer and demanded active participation – spoke to a collective experience.
When I first entered the space, I thought the sound wasn’t working. The room was echoey and the noise of conversation, footsteps and laughter bounced around it. I could hear the work, but it wasn’t big enough to contend with the ambient sound; it was an equal participant. Instinctively, I moved closer to the subwoofers, where it grew quieter still. Frustrated, I prowled around – between pillars and people, over power cords, to the room’s corners – looking for the noise. It caught me unexpectedly and in patches, like a pocket of cold in a lake in summer. Perhaps fittingly, in this shifty theme, I found it loudest in the doorway as I went to exit to an adjacent room – a passageway unsuited to loitering. Not only did I question the technology in front of me, but also my own. It was an unsettling experience. The work destabilised the process of listening, and, in doing so, drew attention to the audience’s own hearing technology, for many people as invisible and incidental to the process of listening as the subwoofers, under different circumstances. In the face of this, the work asks us to pay attention, it might also ask for a little humility.
In reading Jennifer Lucy Allen’s The Foghorn’s Lament, I came across an account of physicist John Tyndall, who, in 1873, was tasked with running foghorn trials off the coast of the UK, to find a reliable sound signal. Problem was, there wasn’t one. Tyndall’s 1974 report documents ‘acoustic clouds’ where the sound of the foghorn would disappear, for no apparent reason, before returning a short distance away. Another witness describes ‘echoes that reached us, as if by magic, from absolutely invisible walls’. The sound collaborated with temperature shifts and inversions, humidity changes, hard cliffs, reflective water, distance, waves. I was reminded of this in Frost’s work both in the way that he privileges contingency, and in the way that he draws attention to materiality by laying bare the conditions in which sound is made, or not, received, or not. I was struck by something Frost said in an interview about a live performance: ‘the way I’ve set my technology up, it’s throwing a lot of wild cards at me…I have to interact with it, it can get pretty wily and it can fall apart pretty easily, so I’m always just kind of looking for a way through it.’
In addition to showing an impressive respect for his materials, I’m interested in that instability as praxis. Risk has an arresting energy – spiked with danger for the artist that translates to the audience. It goes without saying that you can’t fake risk. There is an integrity to the work that elevates its simplicity to the symbolic. In many ways, I see our attraction to the sea as similar to our attraction to immersive sound experiences. I recently watched a YouTube video ‘Tanker in the storm’ – it’s compelling viewing. The wind wuthers incessantly, absolutely colossal waves heave – faces webbed with spume – as the prow of the tanker rears up to fill the frame, before ploughing back into the great flanks of water, as I watched, safe behind the glass of the wheelhouse window with its stalwart window wiper. Dark, unknowable, interior. It draws you in. You want to be subsumed by it even while it instills terror. It’s lonely, and soothingly so. Legendary composer La Monte Young, who Brian Eno called ‘the daddy of us all’, went through a period of taking six-hour showers when washing his hair, saying ‘I just find the warm-water experience to be really seductive.’ Another thing he said is ‘I like to get inside of a sound. When the sounds are very long […] it can be easier to get inside them.’ He took this to its logical conclusion with Composition 1960 No. 10, consisting of the instruction ‘draw a straight line and follow it’. I feel that Frost’s work doesn’t allow you to get inside the sound, and doesn’t offer this kind of immersion. But I am interested in the role of continuity in his work as it relates to this negation. How an awareness of, and yearning for, this sense of immersion, might affect the way that we relate to the work when this is thwarted.
When a sound isn’t sustained but you know that there is a sustained sound it becomes your job to sustain it. If there were an equation for this I would use it. In Frost’s work, you know – because you can see its means of production, and you have enough evidence from various sound impressions – that there are six huge subwoofers outputting low-frequency audio continuously, but you do not receive this sound information in any sustained or reliable empirical way. Therefore, that continuity exists in mind and the impulse is to find evidence of it. I’m circling back to dread here. I think the sound becomes an inner state in a different and potentially more affecting way for having to be held in mind, and something that the audience constructs and looks to the outside world for a counterpart, than if the continuity were a ‘complete’ sound experience that offered a point of entry to the audience and thus, potentially, a form of transcendence. In a journal entry, Kierkegaard wrote ‘Dread is an alien power, which lays hold of an individual, and yet one cannot tear oneself away, nor has the will to do so; for one fears, but one fears what one desires.’ Elsewhere he describes dread as ‘unfocused fear’. I think this description parallels Frost’s work, both in the sound’s dislocation and in its conflict-leading-to-stasis.
In some lights, you could look at the installation and think, is that anxiety holding those subwoofers up? Is this what now feels like? Are we all screaming at each other and nobody’s hearing a thing? Is there, instead, a noise for which there is no culpability? It’s hard not to see the interpersonal in two outputs, locked together and facing, that, out of phase and with force, steadily and continuously cancel each other out. For those of us navigating in dense fog, I’ll end with the current UK and US hydrographic offices’ current List of Lights caveats regarding sound signals along the coast:
Fog signals are heard at greatly varying distances and that the distance at which a fog signal can be heard may vary with the bearing of the signal and may be different on different occasions; under certain conditions of atmosphere, when a fog signal has a combination of high and low tones, it is not unusual for one of the tones to be inaudible. In the case of sirens, which produce a varying tone, portions of the blast may not be heard; there are occasionally areas close to the signal in which it is wholly inaudible.