Blurred Boundaries: how technology has bridged the gap between music and art

By in Features





Breaking down creative silos and altering preconceptions of what constitutes art, Future Shock is the latest exhibition to blur boundaries and create experiences that embrace new technologies. In this guest essay, Laima explores the history and context of this ever-evolving relationship.

Sound is the first sense in life. A baby starts hearing in the womb. It’s likely the last sense that leaves the body when we die. Sound permeates our lives.

Historically, sound seems to have led people to a significant interest in technology. Access to gadgets such as reel-to-reel recorders, microphones, tape delays, modified instruments and synthesisers have expanded the creation tools for musicians, composers and sound artists. “Technology”, as the pioneering composer Laurie Spiegel states, “is a tremendous liberator: it blows up power structures.” Spiegel started producing in the late ’60s, an era in which tech companies such as IBM and Bell Labs would hire resident artists to participate and collaborate in research and push the boundaries between arts and science.

Laurie Spiegel in the studio

Technological advances have made a wide range of new materials, tools and working techniques available to the artist. Jaissa Reichardt, the curator of ICA’s 1968 exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, has said that “technology is today at the centre of man-made nature, and if artists use it, they use it because it is available.”

At the start of the ’70s, futurologist Alvin Toffler wrote his book Future Shock, in which he predicted that the speedy pace of technology could lead humanity into a dystopian future where the notion of reality could be distorted. As we navigate Toffler’s ‘future’, we could say the world has become digitalised, dystopian, and a place where the boundaries between truth and lies, virtual and real, have faded. But also a world in which, due to decentralised networks, there is room for poetry and reflection. Virtual reality is reality, and we exist in it.

Future Shock at 180 Strand borrows the title from Toffler to trace a technological and poetic reflection of our times. Through audio-visual technology, AI, 3D digital mapping, laser work, and holographic projections, artists produce unique experiences to share with the public. The sense of discovery and inventiveness is on display. Like in Cybernetic Serendipity – the first comprehensive exhibition of computer-assisted art – the sensory overload reminds us of a school science fair, where you long to see the next invention, for the next experience, for new discoveries. That is the space where reflection and poetry happens.

Cybernetic Serendipity installation view, 1968

In Cybernetic Serendipity, the works were done by mathematicians, computer scientists, programmers and cybernetic artists. Future Shock presents pieces by performers, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, designers and architects. I am particularly interested in the break with norms and forms in both exhibitions, which presents a wide range of researchers as artists. Such allowance refreshes the art space expanding the idea of who produces art.

In both exhibitions and New York’s art scene of the ’70s and ’80s, there is a sense of no boundaries between the various art forms and who produces the work.

In Future Shock, 180 Studios has commissioned Caterina’s Barbieri to create a new work, Vigil, in which a large chunk of ice stands in front of a video projection. The perception of time through the melting of the ice is visible. Space is tangible through the temperature of the room. Sound reinforces the idea of time and space.

Caterina Barbieri, Vigil, 2022

In Duets on Ice, performed in New York in 1972, Laurie Anderson stood on the street wearing ice skates frozen into a block of ice and played a violin embedded with a speaker. The performance would only end when the ice melted. Laurie reflects upon “the parallels between skating and violin playing – blades over a surface – about balancing and the passage of time.”

John Lennon was shot clutching a tape with the final mix of ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ in 1980 while on his way home from the studio. Ironically, the lyrics talk of the unpredictability of life and death – of “throwing the dice in the air” – and conclude, “when our hearts return to ashes, it will be just a story.” Later, using homemade movie clips, Yoko Ono edited a film to accompany the song. Images of her family’s intimate moments in all truthfulness. A music video as well as a remembrance visual montage. Three female composers, musicians, performers? Three artists using ice as a depiction of time.

When Ono assembled images to accompany ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, music was first, visuals second. Ralph Rugoff – curator of the 2016 exhibition The Infinite Mix – says that “our culture in general privileges the visual, when we speak of ‘motion pictures’, ‘film’, or even ‘video’ we end up using terms that invoke only visual representation”. The Infinite Mix exhibited 10 audiovisual artworks at 180 Studios intending to alter this hierarchy. Bom Bom’s Dream, by Cecilia Bangolea and Jeremy Deller, followed a Japanese dancer in her journey to compete in Jamaica’s dancehall street parties. Deller and Bangolea purposefully alter the original music, which is replaced by new tracks creating a surreal sense of displacement in a cross-cultural outcome where music plays a fundamental role as the tool to build the narrative.

In 1979, Barbara London at MoMA curated a forgotten Sound Art exhibition. ‘Sound artist’ was a term used in the ’70s to define artists that use sound as their primary tool; it served well to break with the term ‘composer’, related to the rigid structures of music. There is no longer a need to define contemporary artists through their medium. For the MoMA exhibition, London chose only women artists, taking into account that, for decades, it had been typical to exhibit only male artists; her curatorial decision can be seen as a feminist statement. For all artists, technology was central to their works and technology involved sound.

Artist Maggi Payne has constantly tried to reproduce in her works the richness of the sonic complexity presented by nature, which led her to experiment with spatial composition and multi speakers. Payne says “many of my ideas are visually oriented. I visualise the sound as coming from, say, a point source below where one is standing and might try to make it swirl out and up into an ever-expanding spiral until it disappears over the listener’s head…” Hamill Industries’ Vortex (2016-2022) at Future Shock seems like a descendent work of Payne’s visions. In this work, the Spanish collective uses music and physics to reveal the presence of sound in space. Smoke becomes a tool to visualise sound, dictating how the work unfolds. Smoke is tangible and transcends the limits of the screen, touching the spectator and occupying space.

At 180 Studios the silos between music, digital art, AI and film have faded – Future Shock enables the public to experience and interact within these blurred boundaries.

Contemporary art allows us to transcend our notion of time and space whilst writing the present moment into the timeline of history. Technology then becomes a tool of transcendence. Sound awareness isolates the noise in our surroundings and guides us to the present moment.

Head here for more info on Future Shock.

All Future Shock images © Jack Hems, Future Shock, 180 Studios