BooksWeekend

Surround Sound: The Sonic Environments of Jacob Kirkegaard’s ‘Earside Out’

Found cranium and recording equipment used to capture shifting sands sounds for “Sabulation (Oman)” (courtesy JG Thirlwell and Jacob Kirkegaard)

This past spring, the Danish Museet for Samtids Kunst [Museum of Contemporary Art] acknowledged the hard-won singularity of countryman Jacob Kirkegaard by granting him his first solo exhibition, Earside Out. Though intended as a collection of sound installation work — the museum’s official description insisted that “Earside Out focuses on the essence of listening and challenges our understanding of sound” — the exhibition provided sustenance for more senses than simply sonic discovery, including panoramic landscape photographs documenting sites the artist used for his acoustic research. These were poignant and concentrated images worthy of a show of their own, making Earside Out a refreshing departure from those sound installations limited to wall-mounted stereo headphones and descriptive texts.

Having said that, the detailed side texts are another area where Kirkegaard distinguishes himself. Rather than simply justify the work’s existence, these statements provide lucid commentary on his subjects, with an enthusiastic engagement that draws the visitor into an interiot dialogue about under-investigated phenomena. . Given the strength of these supplemental texts and images, Museet for Samtids Kunst and Narayana Press have helpfully published a book — not a ‘catalog’ proper, as per the artist — that illuminates many of the career highlights covered in the original Roskilde-based exhibition. The Earside Out book is a hardcover volume handsomely embossed with a golden image of the inner ear’s complex structure. Looking more like some sort of deep-sea monstrosity than a feature of human anatomy, this image (as we’ll see) is the ideal introduction to the textually economical, but conceptually rich, fusion of images and ideas that makes a case for the artist’s integrality to a small but dedicated group of sound-based peers. The creative value of this movement resides in its ability to discover the communicative potential within the entirety of our lived environment, to never leave anything ‘for dead,’ and to find new ways to re-animate previously ‘static’ objects (incidentally, a few of these individuals also contribute essays branching off from the work under examination.)

Sidestepping current trends towards confessional, self-referential and political art in favor of an intense program of sensory and environmental research, Earside Out argues for Kirkegaard’s role as a pivotal figure in a Scandinavian art subculture typified by an elegantly expressive re-sacralization of the biosphere without the saccharine flavor of ‘New Age’ practice, and re-invigoration of the human organism without the penchant for novel prostheses that was made famous by the Italian and Russian Futurist movements.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of the projects surveyed in Earside Out is Kirkegaard’s ability to make enduring poetry out of transience and fragility. This is no new skill under the sun, particularly to anyone immersed in Zen aesthetics, but it is a skill that becomes more meaningful in light of the unrelenting technological scaffolding of the planet, one that aspires to ultimately conquer death itself (the recent acquisition by Google of biotech firm California Life Company is just the latest ‘upping of the ante’ here.) Among the works surveyed in Earside Out that follow this path, there is a certain diversity in methodology and materials used, but one that nevertheless yields a thematic cohesion.

Corroded marble engraving from Jacob Kirkegaard’s “Matter of Memory” piece (2006) (courtesy Jacob Kirkegaard)

One of the more interesting works is Matter of Memory, an installation from 2014 built from deteriorating marble portraits of the deceased taken from Venetian tombstones, and exhibited alongside the sounds of “tiny battery-driven music boxes that had been placed on the graves a few days before” (Kirkegaard, p. 107). The more austere Aion, from 2006, is of a piece with Matter of Memory: using recordings of resonant frequencies in four different rooms at Chernobyl’s notorious ‘exclusion zone,’ coupled with video projections of those same spaces, Kirkegaard telegraphs the expected feelings of stalking dread that come from visiting such a place, yet admits in his explanatory text that the experience was one almost of rejuvenation rather than a capitulation to horror. In his reckoning, “a tree was no longer a tree […] it looked like something I hadn’t seen before […] green was no longer just green […] My perception of ‘nature’ as an uncomplicated set of expectations had ceased to exist, and was replaced by a force I could no longer grasp” (Kirkegaard, p. 31).

It is maybe not the kind of ostranenie [de-familiarization or ‘making strange’] that Viktor Schklovsky had in mind when coining the term in 1917, but it is nonetheless a testament to the fact that ‘alien’ landscapes remain here on earth in spite of the best efforts of the tourism industry. When Kirkegaard’s entire oeuvre is considered, as it is in this collection, it seems far too simplistic to see these kinds of works as a grim memento mori merely for their dalliance with decay and loss. They aren’t, in the end, a resignation to deterioration, or a rhapsodizing of dystopia, so much as they are an acceptance of these forces as the ultimate ‘negative space’ of creative works — instead of a terminal point, they become a fundamental point of departure for new thoughts and actions. In some cases, even the tormented loss of healthy functioning is fashioned into a poetic device. For Kirkegaard’s 2011 Phantom Bell audio installation (originally placed within a disused prison built on the infamous ‘panopticon’ design), the sound was constructed according to the descriptions of tinnitus recounted by its sufferers. The descriptions — like those of synesthetes — were remarkably individualized and evocative, calling to mind the work of seasoned writers (e.g. “a horizon with a thin gray sharp line” and “a metal tube with frost crystals on the edges”).

Since Kirkegaard’s work is often a kind of ‘participatory journalism’ that requires him to travel to the ends of the earth, Earside Out is at least one part travelogue. It’s far too easy to interpret the artist’s peripatetic lifestyle as the desperate adventurism of someone with a limited of time to see and do everything of interest on this planet. In other words, those who confuse Kirkegaard’s travel for the substance of his work will see him and similarly minded colleagues as nothing more than an exotic species of ‘experience addict.’ Yet, unlike those individuals who believe their safe passage to and from a strange new place makes for high art in itself, Kirkegaard doesn’t merely attempt to astonish us with the Other-ness of Oman’s ‘singing sands’ (the 2009 multimedia piece Sabulation) or the unnaturally lurid coloration of Icelandic geysers (2005’s Eldfjall, whose sonic component is based on subterranean recordings of the same.) Rather, he attempts to find the phenomenological connectivity and interchangeability between nature and technological artifice. Although it might not be intended as such, this ongoing project requires the artist to rebel against the persistent attitude of the artist as a specialist in one field or another: bringing environments sonically to life requires more than a passing knowledge of sciences like geology and topography, as well as a keen knowledge of human folklore and the legends that permeate these environments.

Detail of noise-generating crystals utilized for “Fool’s Fire” (2008) (courtesy Jacob Kirkegaard)

With this in mind, it is intriguing to note that the sound arts researcher Douglas Kahn is one of the contributing essayists in Kirkegaard’s book. If you’ve read his previously published essay Aelectrosonic (2011), you can see why: the latter work by Kahn is very much concerned with those points in which “nature leaves off and technology begins” (wondering as well “what is the purpose of doing so”[Kahn, p. 57]). When you consider the painstaking processes required to make something sidereal and eerie with computer software or lengthy coding sessions, there is something perversely amusing about the ease with which Kirkegaard’s 2007 installation Sphere uses recordings of VLF [very low frequency, i.e. 3-30kHz] radio signals from the aurora borealis; he is essentially using the natural emissions of the earth’s own ionosphere to entrance and elevate the listener.

Kirkegaard also applies this same feeling of connectivity, or of common ‘negotiation points,’ to the human sphere, as well, as in his Ears of the Other and Rewind pieces (both from 2010.) The former project took the artist to Ethiopia not to seek out some impenetrably ‘foreign’ aspect of life in the horn of Africa, but simply to highlight the enthusiasm common to myriad human cultures for capturing and preserving emotionally resonant sounds (the project involved the artist attempting to record the favorite sounds of Ethiopian interview subjects with the intention of ‘borrowing their ears.’)

The latter, Rewind, saw the artist collecting ‘lost and found’ strips of pre-recorded magnetic tape and exhibiting them in plexiglass display cases, along with photos of the urban locations where they were discovered (since the tape strips in question were found without their cassette housing, the artist was required to re-wind them onto tape spools by hand — a numbing but eventually rewarding process — in order to play them on a tape deck.)

All told, Earside Out — both the original exhibition and the documentation thereof — are solid monuments to ‘activism’: a term whose meaning here is not limited to sociopolitical action, but broadened to include any resistance to passivity or stasis when action still remains an option. The varied operations which bear Kirkegaard’s creative signature — i.e. expanding the limits of the sensory apparatus, giving voice to the presumably voiceless, and revealing the transformative properties of decay processes — all converge here to make a single powerful statement against creative entropy.

Earside Out (2015) was produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art & Jacob Kirkegaard.

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