Emanations from the Electromagnetic
Since the 1970s, Christina Kubisch’s place in the international art pantheon has been confirmed and celebrated due to her work as a flautist and instrumental and electroacoustic composer, and for her sound sculptures and installation art. Her ‘art objects’ generate experiences that concatenate the audible and the visible, exerting specific effects in their vicinity 01. As a first-generation pioneer, her trajectory unfolds across a period of technologically enabled practices now embellished with institutional affiliations and conceptual distinctions: Music? Instrumental and electroacoustic composition? Sound art? Installation? Sculpture? Interactive art? Art? These familiar bifurcations of thought confront this essay, and with them, an initial problem: the universalising hegemony of art discourses, and the risk of occluding the specifically sonic and musical that I hear at the heart of her work.02
I should say at the outset that this is not a study of Kubisch. It might be a sketch for a manifesto in her wake. It is a composer’s reflections that arise if we think her work as music. But I will not rehearse the conceptual hygienics aimed at cleaning up messy boundary disputes here. 03 While these distinctions have their place in the sociocultural field, such discourses can only ever capture music in the symbolic orders of language. And music is not a language, let alone a universal one.04
Since our Neolithic ancestors formed bones into flutes, musicking has always coevolved with new technologies.05Electromagnetism is no exception, being deeply entangled with differing consequences throughout contemporary sonic arts, which would barely be possible without it: radios, microphones, loudspeakers, cables, tape heads, recording media and so on. 06 A multitude of media apparatuses now transmit information between geopolitically distant places, dealing in telepresence. Since at least the time of the theremin, the electromagnetic field (EMF) has afforded access to unseen realms, conjuring alien phenomenologies as the earmark of the foreign, the strange, the ethereal, the weird.07
As a form of practical magic, electromagnetism can move objects remotely, and can shapeshift between light waves, air pressure and electrical signals.08 At the level of materials themselves, electromagnetism is a fundamental force of physics. It is infinitesimal and cosmic in scale, propagating as waves to produce a spectrum of light from Very Low Frequency (VLF), through radio waves to gamma rays. Human vision is sensitised to only a narrow range within this spectrum.
Kubisch, like other twentieth-century artists and scientists became interested in the constraints and implications of these electromagnetic sources and transmissive processes, foregrounding questions of medium and mediation. While in traditional musics, the role of the instrument in relation to the artwork is usually well delineated, as the media themselves became investigated, the boundary between these two aspects came into focus. Noise became signal. But over the course of the Anthropocene, technological acceleration has generated new sources whose proliferation Kubisch remarks upon ever since the Electrical Walks (2004–ongoing)project began. The implications of this cybernetically enabled listening – that is, understood through cybernetics, as a system organised around dynamics of feedback and recursion and which modulate the interactions between listener, technical devices and the environment – are the focus here.
Abstracting Kubisch, this essay is also an argument for a music freed from the discursive strictures that risk disciplining sounds as material-themselves. Thinking Kubisch as music aims to redress the subordination of the ear to the eye, a strategy to evade established partitions of the sensible – what Jonathan Sterne has called the ‘audiovisual litany’, namely the modernist hierarchisation of the senses by which the visual speciously claims special linkage to the conceptual – which I think can mute the specifically sonic.09
This, then, is a series of related vertices on aspects of Kubisch’s work: the audible and the visible; sonifying the electromagnetic and materials-themselves; the instrumentalising of the listener; and, a brief proposal for xeno-esthesic-poetic processes through encountering the unknown sonic of information architectures. 10 This is about Kubisch as cyberneticist-composer, receiver of tele-presences and alien-synthetic formations.