by Joseph Nechvatal
Seth Kim-Cohen’s concise but punchy e-book Against Ambience puts forth a fervently pithy polemic aimed at what he determined was an epidemic of anti-conceptual ambient sound and light exhibitions in New York City last summer (2013); citing: Robert Irwin at the Whitney, James Turrell at the Guggenheim, Soundings at MoMA, Janet Cardiff at the Met, the show ambient at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (curated by Tim Griffin), and The String and The Mirror show at the Lisa Cooley Gallery. Whether or not you agree with him that seven exhibitions, out of the hundreds open that summer in New York, form an epidemic or not, he does identify an interesting anti-object totalizing trend today that picks up where some art-and-technology work of the 1960s and 70’s (Op Art and Kinetic Art, principally) left off: with an attraction for immersive visual and sound art that tends to wash over us in ambient ways.
First off, it was wonderfully refreshing to read someone of competence capable of thinking and talking about visual art and audio art and art theory in the same breath, particularly from the point of view of artist-musician-scholar/theorist. Kim-Cohen is all of that (and does that) seamlessly here. That alone is a golden offering to a market obsessed art world, and what attracted me first to this, his third, book. Here he attributes this perceived desire for ambience as an undesirable response to information overload (page 278) and rightfully thanks Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange for their service to humanity. With these assertions, I certainly agree.
Some history of ambience is established, initially (ambience as a modality routinely associated with the surrounding ephemeral qualities of sound) so the author can later take issue with certain aspects of ambient aesthetics (mostly the overvaluing of a mute phenomenological perception that is destroying our criticality) and attack what he sees as the shrinking conceptual turn in the arts today. Thus, one would expect (and receives here) an adequate review of John Cage’s non-silence, along with the formation of Brian Eno’s ambient music ideals as conceived from his sick bed. Certainly Cage’s influence on Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s light work is also established, as they both worked in an anechoic chamber as part of the Art and Technology project at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the late 1960s. Of course, in the early 1950s, after visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage reached the celebrated conclusion that there is no such thing as silence – and Turrell arrived at an equivalent conclusion concerning light.
But I was surprised, delighted and intrigued with his use of cutting-edge Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) philosopher Timothy Morton and his notion of ambient poetics, as Morton, that same summer, dropped the year’s most eagerly waited e-book on aesthetics: Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality where Morton directly ties aesthetics to causality.
It is due to what Kim-Cohen sees as a lack of this level of conceptualism (even comparing Op Art and this ambient trend, disapprovingly) that provokes him to thunder (like King Kong) against the overly perceptual characteristics of ambience; a fault that he sees commensurate with a loss of conceptualism (he connects this deficiency with the death of one of Conceptual Art’s chief promoters; Seth Siegelaub, that occurred that same summer), trouncing ambient art’s seemingly necessarily subtle, soft, and fuzzy qualities. This loss he reads as a regrettable move towards further cultural industrial spectacle of the sort that Theodor Adorno warned us of in his book Aesthetic Theory – where Adorno urged art and aesthetics to resist such integration through formal difficulty – and away from the art world’s previous embrace of engagements with criticality, new media, philosophy, economics, gender, identity, and interpersonal relations at the level of individuals, organizations, corporations, and nation-states. (page 18)
Working this perhaps unnecessary polarity to its end, Kim-Cohen goes so far as to conjecture if the popularity of this modality of ambience signals the end of conceptualism. But this is something I see too little evidence of, both in this book and around the art world. My feeling is that he just needs to hold ambient art and sound to the higher standard of an immersive art that does not preference the style of quiet meditation and color transcendentalism over visceral engagement, such as that I experienced at Konrad Smolenski’s brilliant immersive bell piece Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More that was perfectly presented at the Polish Pavilion that same summer at the Venice Biennale. Indeed, if Kim-Cohen’s assertion that conceptualism is over and ambient aesthetics rule, Smolenski would have won the Golden Lion award (I think he should have) rather than the relationalist, Tino Sehgal.
But rather than pitching for a more demanding counter modality in immersive art, he unconvincingly offers that of Dub music and its use of breezy echo, reverb, panoramic delay, and occasional dubbing of vocal or instrumental snippets from the original version or other works. This seems neither novel (Ambient Dub is an existent musical genre) nor sufficient to me in reversing the perceived ambient slide into happy nonchalance. So although he identifies a trend that goes back to Happenings, Fluxus, and Kinetic Art (see: Frank Popper’s seminal book Art – Action and Participation from 1975) as suddenly central, and thus problematic, I found no formula for overcoming the seductions of a sweet totalizing ambiance here, other than getting down to work with the business of connecting our pleasurable sensations to critical conceptions through the experience of quality art, and through the play of immersion and critical distance in whatever form it takes so long as it delivers critical pleasure.