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  • May 02, 2011
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  • Comments Off on Response: Ellen Moffat

For twenty-five centuries Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible.  Jacques Attali [1]

Sound art has relational currency. It is social, spatial, physical, temporal and performative. The Circulation of Fluids by Catherine Béchard and Sabin Hudon is an interactive multi-channel sound installation about listening, sound, silence and slow movement using technology as a tool to serve content. Their investigation is framed by qualitative, symbolic, mnemonic and fluid properties of water.

The artistic context of their work is installation and performance art practices that shift focus from the singular object toward multiple viewpoints and environments. Despite this, I find Jacques Attali’s analysis of music/noise an interesting filter for their work.

Installation view, The Circulation of Fluids, 2011


In Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Attali traces the controls, silences and shifts in musical expression through history using music and noise as polarities. He proposes music – the organization or domestication of noise –as a form that reflects society as an “instrument of understanding (that) prompts us to decipher a sound form of knowledge”. Music reflects power structures in society as well as technological developments; it references order, Lent, the state and authority. Noise is disorder; it suggests symbolic violence, the Carnival and ritual. Attali does not equate music with language. He relates the value of music to that of a phoneme – meaning is determined by the relations with other sound(s) and is embedded in a specific culture.

For Attali it is essential that music includes “man and his body” and that it constructs differences. I translate and extend (t)his statement into sound as embodied experience that relates to interactivity and relational practices. Prior to its commodification for commercial exchange, music reflected use-value rather exchange-value: it supported the creation of community and reconciliation rather than the market place. With the progression of capitalism, differences became reduced, replaced by homogeneity, and the exchange-value of commodities and labour.

Installation art critiques capitalism and the commodity. It rejects the focus on one object in favour of a consideration of the relationships between a number of elements or the interaction between things and their context. Multi-channel audio installation distributes sound through space to multiple outputs to disperse and localize sound; metaphorically this decentralizes authority. Interactivity disrupts the passive relationship of the viewer to the work of art.

Installation view, The Circulation of Fluids, 2011


Attali identifies four networks for music as a loose chronology: the sacrificial, representation, repetition and composition. The categories are not exclusive. Rather, they exist simultaneously as a flotsam from a past and fragments of the present/future with the dominance of one network over another. The first three networks refer to the progression of music from its social and community roots to profit-driven production. The fourth network – composition – brings music back to noise as a creation process and as a means of relating to the world. It proposes a renewed form of a collective imaginary through the reconciliation of work and play.

The Circulation of Fluids supports listening, interaction and sound generation with recordings of water as source material. “It probes water’s resonance as a pervasive and familiar fluid that is present in all aspects of our lives – in our bodies, the earth, and the planet as a core substance.”[2] Visitors perform the work, their physical movement captured by sonar sensors. The closer the visitor is to the audio outlet, the louder the sound; the greater the distance from the work, the softer the sound. The correlation of proximity and sound generation proposes mapping-composing as a system and process in which the visitor is an active agent.

Initially the work reads as a poetic exploration of water as an organic matter governed by physical and sonic properties rather than a political project. The soothing and meditative sounds of water are “conducive to sensory and memory experience”.[3] The sounds trigger the imagination and the connective within the social space of the gallery. But the work raises ethical, economic and political questions. As a limited natural resource, water is a valuable commodity of international exchange and territorial negotiation. It is essential to life.

Installation view, The Circulation of Fluids, 2011


Béchard and Hudon propose an organic and relational network that prompts a dialogue between sound, sculpture and the visitor using the technology of surveillance (sonar sensors and hydrophones). Sound recordings are from natural environments (rivers, lakes, water falls) as well as human-constructed systems and mechanical devices (watering cans, hoses, motor boats). As acousmatic sound (that which can be heard without seeing its source, similar to a radio) water is entrapped in digital representation. We are simultaneously connected and disconnected to the real.

The Circulation of Fluids employs a handsome D.I.Y. aesthetic with electronic devices, hand-constructed paper speaker cones and an organic sensibility. The sound leans toward noise rather than music in that it challenges order (domesticated sound) through improvisation (disorder), proposing a new order that frees the listener to consider another meaning and new relations. As visitor(s) negotiate the installation they generate localized sound through their physical exploration and their proximity to the work. Sound triggered by the embodied actions affirms our physical presence individually and collectively and our relations within society.

Installation view, The Circulation of Fluids, 2011


Attali writes that music and noise reflect tensions between state control and resistance to control as a battleground about discourse, meaning and subversion. As natural resources become increasing limited, polluted or toxic, water is a contested substance and territory. Conflicts are between the needs and agendas of development sectors and community groups, or between humans and non-humans whose water environment is their home. The Circulation of Fluids injects the ‘noise’ of water into the social world of the gallery employing strategies of interactive multi-channel audio installation. Visitors are invited to take an acoustic dive into an aquatic environment as a dialogue with our contemporary fluid reality.

[1] All references to Jacques Attali are from “Noise: The Political Economy of Music”, 1985.

[2] Artist Statement.

[3] Artist Statement.



Ellen Moffat is Saskatoon-based media artist whose production includes independent and collaborative projects. Her recent works explore methods and strategies for interactive co-creation. She has exhibited nationally and internationally.


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