New Modes of Perception

Beginning in the late 1960s numerous social protest movements vehemently demanded a fundamental social transformation. Things were to change, not only externally, but internally as well. An extensive change of consciousness seemed necessary, but also already underway: The electronic mass media revolutionized social communication; in addition, meditation, therapy and drugs promised to expand the capacity for perception. Large portions of this impetus had already been treated in the field of art a decade earlier. Relevant instructions are found in texts such as The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1954): Hallucinogens like mescaline and LSD seemed to make it possible to experience the potentials of human perception that were otherwise censored by the sensory organs. Uncensored perception that was also invoked in conjunction with intoxication, music and new physical expression stood for holism and intensity, for breaking out of monotone everyday life. A simple artistic instrument for this was designed by the Beatnik poet Brion Gysin with his Dreamachine, a kind of lamp rotating on a record player, which generated a flickering effect with a stroboscope. Tony Conrad went even further in the direction of a trance machine with his film The Flicker from 1965, which put the individual viewer into a hypnotic state, in which everyone saw their own film. The new media led to euphoric manifestos such as Stan VanDerBeek’s Culture Intercome (1966), in which he called on all artists to reshape the new audiovisual devices into pedagogical tools and to invent a new world language. However, they also led to prophetically skeptical writing, such as William S. Burroughs’ Electronic Revolution (1971). Some artists developed their new multimedia visions in direct collaboration with technical companies. They poured into the laboratories to turn them into places for reeducating perception (Branden W. Joseph), and the companies (IBM and others) willingly opened their doors. One of the most famous of these kinds of projects was the presentation of the electronics company Philips at the Brussels World Expo of 1958, which was conceived by Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis and Edgar Varèse. In a pavilion made of hyperbolic curves they presented a multimedia sound and image spectacle (Poème électronique), which anticipated many of today’s event formats. Other artists experimented with sound to enable special physical experiences of frequencies and resonances. In her Handphone Table (1978) Laurie Anderson explored the body as an instrument for transferring sound waves, whereas Bernhard Leitner in his Ton-Anzug (1975) made sound compositions circle directly on the body and between the bodies, thus investigating the body-space relationship and hearing space. Pauline Oliveros—an important composer of electronic avant-garde music—, who used the acoustics of gigantic natural caves for her works, developed the concept of Deep Listening, which she offered in the 1970s as a self-experience therapy in nature. Sound not only influenced bodies, it also began to lead a life of its own. In 1962 La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela developed the concept of a Dream House, in which compositions based solely on just intonation (in contrast to well tempered) are played continuously through sinus wave generators to exist as a living organism with its own life and tradition in time. La Monte Young called this state a drone state of mind, which influences the nervous system and opens it for new explorations. These electronic sound and light environments existed for several years and were intended to invite people to linger in them for a longer period. They offered an opportunity for a spiritual retreat. A less inner path was taken by the sound artist Max Neuhaus. With his investigations he consciously set out through the noisy public space of New York in the 1960s. His Sound Walks were comparable with small sociological urban investigations, which drew attention to acoustic and socio-political hanges in public space. Ryszard Waśko’s 30 Sound Situations can similarly be heard and seen as laconic miniature social analyses in Poland in the 1960s/70s.

James Whitney, Yantra, 1956

Brion Gysin, Dreamachine, 1960

La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, Dream House, 1962

Tony Conrad, The Flicker, 1966

Jonas Mekas, Velvet Underground’s First Appearance, 1966 (from Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol: Friendships and Intersections, 1963–1990)

Max Neuhaus, Sound Walks, 1966

Max Neuhaus, Times Square, 1977

Jordan Belson, Samadhi, 1967

Ira Cohen, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, 1968

Bernhard Leitner, Ton-Anzug, 1975

Ryszard Waśko, 30 Sound Situations, 1975

Laurie Anderson, Handphone Table, 1978

David Rokeby, Very Nervous System, 1986–1991

Christian Philipp Müller, Das unvollständige Gedicht, 1992/2009

Granular Synthesis, Sinken, 1999

Nina Stuhldreher, Private Cyberspace, 2002

TeZ, Optofonica Capsule, 2007