Sound Art in India
An artistic discipline and style that came into practice in the 1900s, sound art refers to artworks that use sound as their primary medium or subject. It is often also understood as the practice of using sound in aesthetic or artistic ways. Alternatively called sonic art, sound-based music or aural architecture, sound art has contested formal definitions. Contemporary discourse around the art form, which rejects rigid definitions, emphasises its participatory and experiential aspects and views it as a critical exploration of cultural, scientific, political or social phenomena associated with the act of listening. Sound has featured in artworks and experiments by artists from twentieth-century movements such as Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. The sound artist uses and manipulates sound to make otherwise unperceived sounds perceivable. The emphasis is less on using sound to create and more on enabling sound to be experienced.
The concept of sound as art was first formally expounded in the artist Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto The Art of Noise (1913). In it he envisaged the music of the future as being derived from industrial, mechanistic and militaristic noises, unlike the autonomous sounds of Western music traditions. Dadaists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and Antonio Russolo, who took a different approach to sound art, conceptualised it as a pure aesthetic material and sought to abstract it from its compositional rigidity. The mid twentieth century saw the emergence of avant-garde composers, such as Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage and Muddy Water, who shaped the trajectory of sound art by challenging the ideas of process and function central to the traditional composition of music. In the 1990s, contemporary artists began to look beyond sound as a medium and started to consider the history of sound and analogue technologies. During this period, artistic engagement extended to research and practical explorations of academic fields such as sound studies and cultural theory. Subsequent developments in analogue sound recording and playback technologies, electronic music and digital software made it possible for artists to represent sound visually, explore relationships between sound and space and expand the scope of participation in artistic production.
In India, the economic liberalization of the 1990s and the fast-changing technological landscape, gave artists the opportunity to explore new contexts of art — outside the paradigms of art as commodity or object and its normative modes of consumption. New media proved to be one of the key instruments of contemporary breakaway art, with sound art emerging much later in its developmental trajectory. Although it remains relatively narrow in its definition and scope, several Indian artists and collectives who work with installation, video art, and new media have incorporated sound as a significant artistic material in their works. These artists include Abhishek Hazra, Budhaditya Chattopadhay, Hemant Sreekumar, Ish Shehrawat, Navin Thomas, Shilpa Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty, Vivan Sundaram and Yashas Shetty, Raqs Media Collective and Desire Machine Collective. Their works variously examine old analogue media, urban soundscapes, sonic narratives, listening practices and semantic segmentation using sound.
Organisations, such as KHOJ, have also provided a platform, through artist programmes and events, for the emerging and evolving genre. Events organised by Khoj that have spotlighted sound art are the artist residency Auditions (2013), the exhibitions City & Sound (2011) by the Delhi Listening Group and Sound Reasons (2012, 2014) as well as the Listening Room (2016) series by REProduce.
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