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Anne-Laure Chamboissier

De l’image au son et vice versa

The following text proposes a non-exhaustive introduction to the relation between visual arts and sound/music from the early twentieth century until today. It seemed important to me to not only take into account the constant interaction of certain artists with sound and music, but also, and as importantly, that of some composers with visual arts.

A historical introduction in the form of a “link"

The connection between sound and visual arts has never ceased to enrich itself ever since the end of the nineteenth century. The notion of total art (Gesamtkunswerk) appeared with Richard Wagner, who could not conceive of visual arts without the help of opera to direct them. As utopic as it may seem to us today, this notion would nevertheless prevail until the mid 1950’s and the changes this period brought on, which we shall discuss later on. The « avant-gardes », as they were still referred to in the twentieth century, still believed in this fusion of the arts in which the relation between music and visual arts is extremely important. Musical thought has undoubtedly constituted a privileged source of reflexion for artists such as Kandinsky, Kupka or Delaunay, who precisely looked for organizational structures of plastic space that distanced themselves from, or altogether escaped, the laws of representation.

The painter and composer Luigi Russolo, who was part of the Italian futurist movement, wrote in 1913 his now infamous manifest The Art of Noises, in which he foresaw the emergence of a new music that would find its inspiration in the sounds produced by man-made machines. Russolo established a basic classification of sounds, and in order to recreate them, invented and designed new instruments to which he gave the name « intonarumori » (noise makers). They were shaped like cubes with integrated horns to amplify their sounds which were triggered with a handle.

During the 1920’s, the experimental side of cinema saw artists such as Oskar Fishinger combine visual arts with music. While never having any intention to « illustrate music », Fishinger created visual symphonies of abstract shapes that follow the outlines of a sound, rhythmic drawings blending with the musical structures of the music he used in his films, such as 1936’s Alegretto.

He would bring his experiences with audio-visual synesthesia to their extreme with Radio Dynamics in 1943, a silent animation film in which shapes and colors are prone to evoking an imaginary music in the spectator’s unconscious. Other artists of the time would follow similar creative paths, such as the director, writer and sculptor Len Lye, who is known for creating the first feature directly hand-drawn on film as soon as 1921. Another pioneer of experimental cinema, Harry Smith, would paint directly on film; somewhat less known is his work as musicologist in the field of North-American folk songs.

The developments in technology continued stimulate these new experimentations. In 1925, Oskar Fischinger collaborates with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy; together they aim at creating an organ that would combine music and colors. Their work culminates in the presentation of the Sonochromatoscop, a kind of projector using both sound and light.

« Rather than a parralleling of elements from various artistic fields, one should talk about an interpenetration allowing each discipline to remain relatively autonomous » [1]., Jean Yves Bosseur points out, regarding the American scene of the early 1950’s. The idealized synthesis of several art forms envisioned by Richard Wagner –as well as other artistic movements that would follow such as der Blaue Reiter or Bauhaus– disappears to give way to a new approach called « intermedia », adopted by, among others, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, or artists coming from the Fluxus movement. It was always important to John Cage, who was not only a composer but also a poet, a musicologist and a visual artist, that the various disciplines should retain their autonomy. His work in experimental composition is an important reference for many contemporary artists whose work go beyond the use of sound.

Around the same time new sound objects appeared which were designed both from a visual and a musical standpoint, thus creating real sound sculptures. In the mid 1950’s, the Baschet brothers use their respective skills as an engineer and an artist to develop sound sculptures that incorporated extremely singular folded metal shapes and in which visual art and music coexist.
Jean Tinguely’s first acoustic sculptures date back from 1958 (Mes étoiles - concert pour sept peintures). Among the seven pieces (reliefs), some offer a great variety of sounds produced by a set of percussive objects. Switches were placed on a small control board, enabling spectators to trigger the various sculptural sound effects.

Between 1962 and 1965, Robert Rauschenberg conceived Oracle along with Bell engineer Billy Klüver (who had previously collaborated with Jean Tinguely for a kinetic sculpture). This sound installation was composed of five elements: bathtub with shower, stair on wheels, window frame, car door, pipe mounted on metal wheels. Each element contains a battery, a post-receptor and a speaker. Oracle is an interactive sculpture, in that the visitor can control the motor’s speed as well as the volume of the radio in each part of the sculpture by turning knobs. Oracle is a transposition into space and sound the ideas of his first Combine Paintings.

In 1969, Peter Vogel, a German physicist, painter and electronic music composer, created his first cybernetic works. These sculpted imaginary models of electronic systems react to the environment and respond to the light, shadow and sound emitted by the visitor. Peter Vogel has been developing this work up until today with three-dimensional structures made out of welded wires that include electronic components, transistors, photocells, speakers, and small electric motors, among other things.

This interaction between sound and visual can also be found in works such as La Monte Young and Marianne Zazeela’s Dream House (Zazeela, a former visual artist, had joined the Dream Syndicate collective as a singer and lighting designer; the collective also included Billy Name, Terry Riley, John Cale, Tony Conrad, as well as Angus MacLise, a poet and musician who was the Velvet Underground’s first drummer). This first immersive installation was launched by the couple in August of 1963 and is still available to the public today. The sculptures’ shadows resulting from the combination of several lighting sources create new three-dimensional shapes, giving birth to a new space between the real and the imaginary. The music played is constituted of sustained notes that can be infinitely prolonged: La Monte Young uses several sine wave generators, oscilloscopes, amplifiers and speakers in order to produce a space filled with continuous frequencies. The Dream House invites the listener to literally immerse himself in sound so as to better perceive its nuances and subtleties.

Numerous visual artists find themselves inspired by the performative energy of rock & roll, punk, pop and electronic music. They see the emerging new genres as a direct source of inspiration for their work, or in other cases, collaborate with the musicians themselves. The American art scene has numerous examples of such influences and collaborations. Dan Graham, a rock aficionado, wrote his first articles in 1967 for the New York Review of Sex and then in 1968 for Straight, edited by Joseph Kosuth, who then was still a student at the New York School of Visual Art. Numerous following articles would then be used in order to tackle other topics related to politics and social life. Some of his pieces have rock music as a subject, such as the video My rock Religion from 1985.

Two important artists of the American west coast, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, helped form the band Destroy All Monsters in 1976 while they were still art school students at the University of Michigan. The band was both an avant-garde musical and art movement: in the context of the former they saw several figures of the American punk-rock scene successively join their ranks; as the latter they published a number of magazines featuring drawings from some of its members (Destroy All Monsters - Geisha This by Niagara). They would qualify their experimental and psychedelic sounding music as «anti-rock», and were inspired by Sun Ra, The Velvet Underground, science-fiction films, the beat culture, and futurism.
The artists also directly contributed to the design and creation of the album covers, though I shall come back to this later.

From the 2000’s onwards, the generic term of « sound art » has been used following numerous exhibitions such as Sonic Boom (2000) at the London Hayward Gallery, curated by critic and composer David Toop, and which saw the participation of Brian Eno, Pan Sonic, Max Eastley, Christian Marclay as well as other important artists. This appropriation of sound by visual artists has been growing since the 1990’s in the field of contemporary arts. It takes the shape of multiple arrangements through a plastic approach of the variety of musical formats.


Some composers have played with the visual impact of their scores whereas visual artists use the codified space that these represent. As Alexandre Castant points out, « music sheets became an area of artistic intervention in and of themselves, the same way musical notation in its original sense actually needed new modes of representation as visual scores » [2].
Historically, one can look at graphic scores from composers such as Earle Brown, John Cage, or Cornelius Cardew. Another example is Anagram for String, a score for string instruments written by Yasunao Tone in 1963, in which circles and dots represent the sounds to be played by the musicians. For other artists, such as the ones belonging to the Fluxus movement, the score gathers instructions as to how the happening or performance is to be executed, in the same manner as that of composers. By mixing score-poems and press image collages, Ben Patterson’s Methods & Processes (1960) anticipated later publications such as George Brecht’s Water Yam (1962), both in terms of form and of content. Its structure is a series of instructions, its composition uses repetition as well as disruptive discourse, and the accordion-like shape of the document allows one to change the order of the texts and therefore of the instructions themselves: everything is put into play to take the reader out of his usual passive role and position him as an enactor of the text.

Currently, some contemporary visual artists use the material aspect of the score for its iconic potentialities as a three-dimensional object becoming a direct visualization of sound such as Rainier Lericolais’s 88 constellations* (2010), a transparent plastic score for barrel organ that was molded on a perforated cardboard disc. Another example is Christian Marclay’s Ephemera (A Musical Score), published in 2009 by the Michèle Didier-Bruxelles publisher. This document is the result of several years spent collecting a plethora of decorative musical notations found in advertisements, illustrations, menus or candy wrappers, etc. These were then photographed, reproduced and assembled into 28 folios. Christian Marclay then created a score titled Ephemera out of these printed patterns, which was destined to be interpreted by professional musicians. In 2010, it was performed by artists like John Zorn, Ikue Mori, Sylvie Courvoisier as well as Mark Nauseef.

Vinyl, magnetic and cassette tapes

There is a growing interest among a number of artists for analog technologies that some consider to be obsolete, including magnetic and cassette tapes as well as vinyl records. For Sarkis, music is a constant source of inspiration, whether it is direct or indirect. In his 1984 sculptural piece I Love my Lulu, the artist pays tribute to Berg’s work. Lulu’s body is made of a wire structure which is covered in magnetic tapes of a total duration of three hours and twenty minutes: that of Teresa Stratas’ recorded version, directed by Patrice Chéreau and accompanied by the orchestra of the Paris Opera under the direction of Pierre Boulez.

Christian Marclay reclaims the obsolete technology of the audio cassette tape by using the Cyanotype, a monochrome negative photographic process invented in 1840, through which one obtains a Prussian / cyan blue photographic print. His 2008 cyanotypes capture in time the abstract shapes created by the entanglements of magnetic tapes.

Also relevant here is the work of German artist Gregor Hildebrandt, which uses music’s myths (such as the great figures of rock, folk and classical music Joy Division, Kate Bush and Arvo Pärt) as recurring motives. The magnetic tape becomes for him the material of this reactivation, given the ultimate testimony to the vast history of sounds that it represents. Sound pervades the work, yet there is no sound to be heard, as in Running up the hill (Kate Bush) in 2010.

A great number of record covers have been produced by visual artists since the beginning of the Twentieth century; exhaustively listing these collaborations would be an impossible task. However, some emblematic pairings include that of Sonic Youth with Richard Prince for Sonic Nurse (2004) or with Raymond Petitbon (himself also a musician) for Goo (1990). In the field of contemporary music, John Cage took both the roles of composer and visual artist for his album Music of Changes (1961). In other instances, musicians and artists collaborated on limited publications.

Vinyl records can also be central to sculptures and installations. In Cécile Le Talec’s 2008 piece In the darkness, only my dream become visible, seven records were partly emptied and hung on the wall as a musical suite, creating a silent sound sculpture. Christian Marclay shall here be mentioned once more, seeing as music plays a central influence in his body of work. 1989’s Sans Titre, in Zurich’s Stedhalle, saw the installation floor covered with unpressed records. Visitors would scratch them by walking, and the records could be played as the installation’s final product, and therefore used as what they were first intended to be: a musical format.

Another relevant phenomenon in this context is that of visual artists starting their own record label. One of the first to do so was certainly John Giorno (a poet as well as a performer) with Giorno Poetry Systems from 1965 until the early 1980’s. In 2010, visual artist Nicolas Moulin created Grautag, a series of double LP’s inspired by reflections over artistic and philosophical matters: « What I’m interested in, through Grautag Records, is to produce a series of records with a direct link to my approach, in that it is dystopian and melancholy. Which in other words amounts to answering the following question: how can a visual artist gather musicians without using them as an alibi or in order to bring an « underground » touch to his career, which a great number of artists who produce records (usually CD’s) unfortunately do? It is a shared labor; the musicians and I build a universe, and then we build a record together, each in his own area. I take care of the visual and graphic design end of things, and we proceed step by step, each one of us respecting a sort of tacit agreement» [3].

Music instruments

We shall here focus on the work of seven artists we consider to be important, and whose varied approaches to art installations share some key similarities. These examples point to the interaction of certain visual artists with sound and music, but also to that of certain composers with visual arts.

Paul Panhuysen is a Dutch artist, performer, composer and musician, who from the outset of his artistic career conceived of sound art as a means of expression based on the interaction between visual art and music. He wrote in 1976 “ I had in mind artists who would draw direct inspiration from sound in order to create works mixing sound and image, so that their integration would so to speak form a new means of expression : sound art.” 4 Paul Panhuysen has been working on his Long String Installations since 1982. These are based on the amplified vibrations of long strings that were very precisely placed depending on the acoustic qualities of the spaces containing them, and which they therefore transform in a huge stringed instrument as well as a sculpture. Such works include Klokhuis (Apple Core) in 2003 in Bruges’ Chamber Music Hall, or Mechanical Long String Guitars from 1992. The research of this artist constitutes a source of inspiration for a certain number of contemporary artists. How can one consider Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s projects From here to ear (1999-2007) without thinking of the work developed by Paul Panhuysen with birds since the early 1990’s?

In 1986, Pierre Bastien founded his own orchestra, called Mecanium. It is composed of nine Meccano machines playing instruments as diverse as the Chinese lute, the bendir or the Moroccan rebab, over which the artist improvises on the violin or trumpet. Mecanium can take several forms, including that of the Paper Organs installation from 2011, in which three blowers play harmonium chords and clusters, while three sheets of tracing paper undulate and click in the air draft.

Sound systems can be conceived of as instruments as well. In this way the Canadian composer Robin Minard had been producing sound installations for public spaces since the early 1980’s. A great number of them are characterized by a reclaiming of sound-broadcasting systems. His Silent Music series (1994-2012) is a significative example of this. These highly visual installations include piezzo speakers and radio canals emitting delicate sounds at a low volume, thus inviting visitors to listen closely. A sound installation is indeed functional music, since it is composed in function of a given space. It is about incorporating sound in that space in an organic manner, as well as incorporating silence within sound. The composer can choose to add sounds, but also to substract them. Paradoxically, it is when sounds are very soft that listeners are compelled to be more attentive [6].

The notion of close listening is also present in the work of Christina Kubisch, a key German composer, musician and visual artist. Since the 1970’s she has been alternatively working on installations and sound walks, among which her Electrical Walks developed in numerous cities since 2004. Through wireless transmission to headphones, visitors enter a fictional sound universe which comes laying on top of the natural soundscape of the place they are in. Links and contrasts establish themselves between the soundtrack and the surroundings, which has the effect of disorienting the listeners.

Some visual artists such as Dominique Petitgand and Emmanuel Lagarrigue use the human voice as a basic material and central component of their installations in addition to other sounds. Dominique Petitgand’s work takes several forms : CD’s, sound installations and music shows. It is based on recordings of people speaking or breathing, of silences, noises and music which the artist composes, deconstructs and rearranges to draw mental images. « All of my voices are (like) voice-overs. Narrative instances coming out of nowhere. With no space around them and no acoustic resonance (when recorded), matt. Inner voices that listeners make their own »[7]. The installation Je (2005) occupies a large space within the scope of a single piece. It is composed of four speakers placed on the ground, facing up, as if according to a logic that escapes us. One can circulate throughout, and hear four characters (a girl, a man, a boy and a woman) who describe actions there are performing, whether one by one or in an overlapping fashion. What results is an architecture of short sentences punctuated by silences. Several narratives emerge, navigate in between silences and intersect through sentences that are repeated, switched around, and dissociated. « Each new voice creates a new character who holds the story of another at a distance while also containing it »[8].

This focus on voices and fractured narratives is also part of Emmanuel Lagarrigue’s approach. Many of his installation works are composed of sound diffusion systems of varying dimensions that sometimes include light as a key element. Speakers are used for their primary function, but also as sculptural elements. In 2007’s It’s not a generous world, about twenty speakers were set up to create a quadriphonic sound system. Numerous voices sampled from films or records tell stories about human relationships with friends or lovers, people imagined, absent or deceased. Such a set-up allows the mixed narratives to travel in several directions, constantly modifying the perception of visitors evolving in the installation space.

Through this non-exhaustive introduction, we have tried to draw links between visual arts and sound/music in the last century, as well as the key role that the avant-gardes and their great figures have played in this development by laying the foundations for the vast body of work that followed, still inspiring artists to this day. In the field of visual arts, the last two decades have shown a multiplication of concepts in which artists use sound as an excuse, or even as a gadget in some instances… The visual artists mentioned in this text have a deep knowledge of this media, some also being musicians, such as Rainier Lericolais and Christina Kubisch. It also seemed important to us to point out the interactions of musicians and composers (Paul Panhuysen, Robin Minard, among others) with visual arts. Sound arts, through the diversity and the openness to other media that characterizes them which City Sonic has been pushing to the forefront for the past ten years, also benefit from these interactions - encounters, tensions and interdisciplinary dialogues. Similarly, visual and graphic areas of creation find in them a source of inspiration that bears new energies and perspectives.

[1] Jean-Yves Bosseur, Le sonore et le visuel (Intersections Musique/ Arts plastiques aujourd’hui) ; Editions Dis Voir, Paris, 1992, p 73
[2] Alexandre Castant, Planètes Sonores, Radiophonie, Arts, Cinéma ; Editions Monografik, 2007, p 91
[3] Entretien de Nicolas Moulin avec Benjamin A sur le site web gouru.fr, décembre 2010
[4] Editorial Studio International, n°984, novembre-décembre 1976
[5] Espace/volière dans lequel les oiseaux se posent sur des guitares électriques.
[6] Article de Réjean Baucarne, Pionnier de la recherche spatiale, Montréal, 2008
[7] Dominique Petitgand, Installations (documents), Editions MF, 2006, p108
[8] Dominique Petitgand, Installations (documents), Editions MF, 2006, p201

Alexandre Castant, Planètes Sonores, Radiophonie, Arts, Cinéma ; Editions Monografik, 2007
Jean-Yves Bosseur, Le sonore et le visuel (Intersections Musique/ Arts plastiques aujourd’hui) ; Editions Dis Voir, Paris, 1992
Olivier Lussac, Fluxus et la musique, éditions Les Presses du Réel, 201
Catalogue See this Sound, Promises in Sound and Vision, Lentos, Kunstmuseum Linz, 2009
Robin Minard, Silent Music, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 1999
Christina Kubisch, Klangraumlichtzeit, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2000
Paul Panhuysen, Le jeu et les règles, éditions Les Presses du Réel, 2009
Emmanuel Lagarrigue, In other Worlds we would have been in love, Sémiose éditions, 2007
Dominique Petitgand, Installations (documents), Editions MF, 2006
Peter Vogel, Partitions de réactions, Editions Les Presses du Réel, 2009
Ben Patterson, Methods & Processes, publié initialement en 1962 à Paris à compte d’auteur, fac-similé publié par Edition Les Presses du Réel, 2011