SEE THIS SOUND has its origins in a collaboration between the Lentos Art Museum and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research. on the interplay between image and sound in art, media, and perception. In 2009, to mark the designation of Linz as a European Capital of Culture, that collaboration was to culminate in the mounting of an exhibition. But how can such a broad subject area be structured in such a way that it becomes possible to accommodate it within the limits of an exhibition space? And how can this clattering, chattering, whispering field be presented within a predominantly visual medium? Earlier exhibitions often examined the topic through the phenomenon of synesthesia. In doing so, they generally presented a universal history of the connection between colors and tones, or a narrative that stretched from the color organ to the art of vjaying. Other approaches stressed the enormous importance of music for the development of abstract painting. Still others took their bearings from the phenomenon of noise and spanned a broad range of topics, from the Futurists’ noise manifesto to the smashing of electric guitars. Or else they put the focus on media and technology, on music videos, on mechanical musical instruments with moving figures, or on the field of sound art in the sense of sonic architecture.[1] SEE THIS SOUND, by contrast, deliberately places the emphasis on contemporary art and its debates. The exhibition is less concerned with a panorama of the field—imagined as free—of the intersections of image and sound than with the conception of art that held sway at a particular time and the promises associated with it. In eight separate sections, SEE THIS SOUND exhibits a number of important milestones and sociohistorical reference points in connection with which artists have worked with sound and composition and reflected on the medial relationship of image and sound. The individual areas are entitled Promises of Music for the Eye; New Modes of Perception; Borderline Art; Unreconciled; Audiovisual Experiments; Site.Sound.Industry; Come Together—Let’s Dance; and Background Noises—Institutional Sounds, and they are treated separately in the chapter introductions. Each of them attempts to shed light on a specific individual phenomenon or a single historical moment. But there are also certain overarching aspects that are common to all of the different sections. Throughout the ages, the combination of image and sound and the fusion of music and the visual arts—in short, intermediality—have consistently been the subject of extraordinary promises, and they continue to be the focus of such promises today. Often the mere fact of crossing the boundaries between art forms has seemed to be synonymous with the transformation of consciousness, with the attainment of universality and wholeness. At the very least, it has seemed to offer a foretaste of those social and technological utopias. Quite a few artists have worked almost euphorically on a universal language, on the symbolic shattering of the boundaries between the art forms, on giving life to the machine, or on revolutionary alternative forms of consciousness. An important point of reference for these narratives is the Romantic period around 1800. On the one hand, we have the notion of progressive, universal poetry, which was formulated by Friedrich Schlegel and envisaged a combination of literature, art, philosophy, and science that is all-encompassing but fragmentary, since it is eternally in the process of becoming.[2] On the other, we have the notion of the gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, which is based on Friedrich Schelling’s assertion that it is the necessary vocation of humanity to transform itself into God, and which sought to combine the different cultural forms into a larger, harmonious whole. Both notions have in common that they are no longer content to point humbly to God’s Creation, as the art between Gothic and Baroque, for all its splendor, had continued to do, but seek to assert the independent value of art itself.[3] In a typically Romantic, post-Enlightenment turn, this interweaving of different forms of cultural production quickly acquired the status of a surrogate religion. This universal ideal future empire of art,[4] which was also imagined in 1911 by the almanac Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), is mobilized whenever music is utilized by the visual arts. And that Romantic impulse still continues to operate today. Numerous artists who locate their work at the borderlines between image and sound are consciously or unconsciously indebted to it. Still others comment on it in their works with ironic distance, critical reflection, or a melancholic gesture—they too are included in the exhibition SEE THIS SOUND. John Cage is an important example of this. In Cage’s work, anything could become a component of the composition, even the audience. With his anarchistic approach, Cage called the entire European musical tradition into question. But the notion of intermedia, which is often cited in connection with Cage as well as Fluxus, is contradictory. Because it is conceived of as mediating between separate media and separate art forms, the notion of intermedia also stubbornly confirms the historical construction of the boundaries between them. The intermedial approaches adopted by Cage and other Fluxus artists, however, were actually conceived as an alternative to the traditional conception of art and to the harmonious synthesis of the arts that was associated with that conception, a synthesis that was idealized by Richard Wagner and Der Blaue Reiter. Thomas Kellein pointedly summarized these differences in an earlier analysis of intermediality: Synesthesia after 1910 did not encroach on the work’s traditional forms, the notion of the work, or the artist’s status as author. On the contrary, painting’s use of music sought to achieve solidarity among the art forms in order to oppose the respectability of mass culture, already lamented by Wagner, and materialism, which was everywhere on the rise.[5] In its own day, the intermedial practice of the 1950s saw itself above all as an alternative to the narrative of High Modernism, which was dominant at the time. That narrative regarded the autonomization of art as involving an increasing focus on the media and techniques that are specific to the individual art forms.

From today’s vantage point, it is clear that Cage’s alternative conception was enormously successful. Since then—and in a development for which Marcel Duchamp’s invention of the readymade also paved the way—artistic practice has ceased to be defined in terms of a medium and particular skills or with reference to particular art forms and genres. Instead, it consists of logical operations[6] for which any medium may be used. If one starts from this premise, it becomes apparent that the discussion of border crossing, syntheses, and fusions among the art forms is part of more fundamental questions concerning the system of art and its construction. The aim then becomes to look and see what these logical operations are; who it is that ultimately legitimates and recognizes them, and how; and in what economic and institutional contexts they operate.[7] Then all talk of the euphoria of border crossing and the age-old dreams of humanity that are associated with it is unmasked as an effusive or deliberately naturalizing rhetoric that ignores the specific historical constellations and questions surrounding the concept of art. By now, it goes without saying that artists are free to work in any media they choose. However, if their work is still described as intermedia or media art, that is because it has not been recognized by the world of the visual arts, or else because it has opted not to look for recognition there in the first place. Gert Loovink, who has repeatedly inveighed against the feud between film, new media, and the visual arts, speaks in this connection of the self-chosen ghettos of media art, which have been institutionalized by organizations like ZKM, Ars Electronica, and V2, and which he regards as the antithesis of the evolution of an expanded visual culture in the YouTube era.[8]

The exhibition SEE THIS SOUND already avoids such self-ghettoization thanks to its heterogeneous structure. Its eight sections delineate their own distinct areas of interest, and when taken together they do not follow a linear narrative. Some of them highlight historical constellations; others illuminate the relationship between image and sound thematically. The section Sights, Sound, Industry even functions as a separate exhibition, since it was assembled by outside experts, the music and film journalist Petra Erdmann and the art theorist Christian Höller. A number of sections are dominated by single installations, for example, the Dream House of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela or Das Unvollständige Gedicht (The Incomplete Poem) by Christian Philipp Müller; other sections present extensive documentary material. Finally, the cultural researchers and journalists Matthias Dusini and Thomas Edlinger have developed eight audio pieces, short thematic radio reports on sound in everyday life and pop culture contexts. And yet these divergent scenes are held together, both by their common interest in the combination of image and sound as well as by the exhibition architecture of Nicole David, who has supplied this borderless region with a structural spine. This architectural spine, which is located in the middle of the building and stretches through both exhibition halls, provides space for custom-designed projection rooms, a necessity for an exhibition that also includes a sizeable number of filmic installations.

Another conspicuous design element is the tall curtains that wind round the center axis like an undulating ribbon. These quantities of mud-colored fabric fulfill more than a purely acoustic function in the exhibition. They also make it visible and palpable that as visitors, we find ourselves on various different stages and therefore in shifting esthetic contexts. The curtain—which in the theater marks the boundary between esthetic representation and reality—becomes, in the museum, the autonomous sign of a discussion in which the traditional definitions of the visual arts are similarly folded and gathered. The art museum as a silent picture gallery is almost disguised. This exercise in dress-up also points to the inadequacy of conventional museum architecture for contemporary intermedial artistic production, as well as to the continuing relevance of the discourse surrounding the ominous theatricality of an art that defies clear categorization.[9] But it is not just theatrical art, which goes hand in hand with sound and noise, that contaminates the pure and silent space of the museum. In a similar way, furniture, plants, curtains, and fireplaces, all of which were still common in museums at the beginning of the twentieth century, were also soon experienced as contaminations and increasingly purged from the space of the museum.[10] Brian O’Doherty, one of the most important chroniclers of this history of purification, has already written about the hostility of the standard museum spaces to the human body and to action in the 1970s: All mixed movements have a theatrical component which runs parallel to the gallery space but which, in my view, doesn’t contribute much to its definition. Theatrical conventions die in the gallery.[11] Thus, the curtain is also the sign of an almost ghostly presence. It is only thanks to headphones, sound insulation, and black boxes that the relationship of sound and image becomes perceptible at all. For an exhibition that thematizes sound can only survive in a museum under very specific conditions.[12] Thus, the curtains of SEE THIS SOUND are also the symbol of a double bind that frees our gaze and sharpens our ears for other artistic ideas and for promises of image and sound that are actually not envisioned by the art museum and the picture gallery.

For more on the subject, see Diedrich Diederichsen’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, which uses examples to analyze the canon of exhibitions on image and sound.  
The term Gesamtkunstwerk was first employed by the writer and philosopher Eusebius Trahndorff in his Ästhetik oder Lehre von der Weltanschauung und Kunst (Aesthetics, Or the Theory of the World View and of Art, 1827). It reappears in 1849 in Richard Wagner’s essay Art and Revolution.  
Compare the discrediting of the theatrical by the American art critic Michael Fried in his essay Art and Objecthood (1967).  
On the question of what it is that one actually hears when one hears sound in a museum, see Helmut Draxler’s essay in the exhibition catalog.