Alan Licht

The Headphones Show -- Curator Statement

Headphones have become a fact of the urban landscape -- the Walkman, Discman, and now iPods have made headphones a ubiquitous presence in the culture of commuters. Headphones are the closest one can come to experiencing sound in the same way as reading silently to oneself. They provide an alternative, handpicked, and disjunctive soundtrack to one’s surroundings. They also block out the sounds of the immediate environment, as well as keeping the music inaudible to others, to prevent both the listener and their cohabitants from being disturbed. In this way headphones have come to symbolize isolation as an increasingly common attribute of life in the digital world.

The Headphones Show brings together recent art works that require headphones to be experienced, acknowledging the rise of sound as an element in visual art, as well as a medium in itself. The works in the show explore shared experience versus private experience, using headphones to signify the daily reconciliations of interior and exterior worlds in everyday life.

Viv Corringham's sound piece In the Machine (2007) entwines several walks she made with students and faculty during a residency at California State University in Fullerton during January 2007. Combining her own singing and bits of the ambient sound, with speaking voices floating from left to right in the headphones as they wouldn't in ordinary circumstances, this piece highlights recording as a means to create a personalized sound world from field recordings. The headphones emphasize Corringham's subjectivity, as well as bringing real-world social interactions into a solitary, enclosed sonic space.

A sound artist who has often used headphones in her work, Christina Kubisch has devised another sort of audio walk entirely. Using special created electromagnetic headphones she picks up otherwise inaudible and invisible electric currents in urban environments and amplifies them, uncovering the secret sonic lives of elevators, ATMs, security systems, neon lights, etc. The inner space of outer space(s) is recorded and re-channeled back into inner space, with the headphones functioning both as a conduit to recording, as a microphone would be, as well as private speakers. Several audio documents of her "electrical walks" are presented, as well as maps of the walks, which Kubisch feels comprise a composition in and of themselves.

In Andre Avelas' Earphones (2007), 1000 earphones are placed on the floor, 960 functioning as speakers, 40 as microphones, creating a feedback loop. In this case, headphones are removed entirely from personal space to create a low-level sound environment audible to all.

In Abinadi Meza's video Beacon (2007) the headphones help divorce the sound from the image. Meza captures a street lamp in the midst of heavy snow flurries. The audio track mixes the sounds of snowflakes hitting a steel plate outfitted with a contact mic and field recordings of snow plows, all slowed down to become an unrecognizable series of low rumbles and metallic sounds. As the lamp's orange-yellow glow suggests a fire, so too does the soundtrack suggest a cave or another setting besides what's being seen on screen - that the sound is happening so close to the viewer's head takes it further away from associating it directly with what's happening on screen, with faint sounds of the wind blowing being the one link remaining between sound and image.

In Betsey Biggs' Burble (2006) headphones again allow a hidden sound component to emerge. Burble is an interactive work consisting of a bamboo water fountain whose burbling sounds are converted to musical tones via music software. Through headphones, visitors can vary the pitches and dynamics, as well as mix in the sounds of birds and thunder.

Photographer Barbara Ess' video Acid Karaoke (2000/2006) is the show's most self-reflexive piece - the viewer is asked to don headphones and watch a video of different people wearing headphones while watching an old video clip of a man involved in an LSD experiment, and asked to imitate his facial expressions and verbal responses to an unseen scientist's questions. Headphones reinforce the internal dimension of the LSD experience itself and the closed conditions of the scientific experimental process.

Artist Seth Price's downloadable audio file 8-4 9-5 10-6 11-7 (title variable) (2001--) is a solid 8 hour workday's worth of music, a mega-mix-tape comprised of compilations of extinct pop music genres like New Jack Swing or archaic video game music previously released by Price in different audio formats and packages. It is presented as a sound installation in the lobby and also as an iPod headphone experience in the gallery. Price's piece, which deals with issues of packaging and distribution, is presented here as demonstration of recording playback's interactions with both public and personal space as well as a nod to the omnipresence of portable music culture.

Composer Tristan Perich's 1 Bit Music (2004-2005) is an electronic circuit housed in a CD jewel case, which plays back electronic music at the lowest possible signal. The inclusion of a headphone jack conflates the identities of CD, iPod, and art object at play in the device (it was released by the label Cantaloupe Music as a CD as well as a special art edition with the poster also on display here).

Vito Acconci first used headphones in various gallery installations in the 70s; The Headphone Show includes the four headphones employed in his 1979 piece Movable Floor, which loop Chilean revolutionary songs and disco music as a comment on opposing systems of capitalism and communism. In Acconci's notes for his collaborative work with Sarina Basta and Daniel Perlin, Virafon (2005), a sound piece installed with headphones at a Madrid bus stop, he comments on his ambivalence about using headphones and that by hearing the recorded sound of a heartbeat used in the piece "you've plugged yourself in" by putting on the headphones.

In my own recording On Deaf Ears (2008), an article from the newspaper AM New York about potential hearing loss due to listening to music on iPods at loud volumes in urban areas is read aloud. Piped out onto Grand Street outside the gallery, the message is mixed into the ambient soundscape that an earbud-wearing pedestrian will be oblivious to, even as the article is brought to life off the page and broadcast repeatedly over the show's duration.