Unbenannte Seite

Ulmann-Matthias Hakert


An unlit space, audience blinders are mounted at eye level and equidistant along the walls, square black metal boxes with four round spotlights in each. After a moment of quiet, a low drone begins, an evenly undulating bass, and after that, a pause. The spotlights begin to glimmer as the tone is heard again, its vibration enveloping the whole body. The same is heard and seen once more after a second pause. A third pause is followed by the spotlight’s glare. When the lights are at full blast, a shrill fixed tone is heard. A repetition after yet another pause, followed by two more repetitions of the low tone with glimmering spotlights and then again the shrill, continuous tone with bright white light. After another pause, the same sequence starts over from the beginning. The clearest principle is the coupling of pitch and intensity of light. Along with the acoustic and visual events, the temperature fluctuates. The spotlights' full light quickly warms the air in the space. And when they are darkened, a clicking, ticking sound can be heard in the silence between the electronically created sinusoid sounds—the lights cooling off.

The dramaturgical arrangement of alternating silence and sound, of darkness, glimmer and blinding light is directed at a prospective observer. An individual perceiving is presumed. The individual’s expectation of eventfulness is anticipated, alternating with eventlessness. Perception is carried to its limits. The deep tones approach the boundary of audibility. The high tone is just below the boundary of the imperceptible. The low long-wave tones expanding throughout the space can be felt even as they penetrate beyond to the surrounding environment.
At various points within the space, this tone is barely audible—»audible« waves of slowly undulating tones. The
high fixed tone, with short high and low amplitudes, barely escapes the space. It is almost painful, rising up in
one's head, alarmingly like that whistling sound in the ear known as tennitus. Combined with the blinding white
light of the spotlights, the unbearable high tones make the return of silence seem desirable. Even so, during the intervals between acoustic and visual signals, the electric stillness itself seems threatening. And the deep tones themselves can't be described exactly as pleasant. The vibration of these sinusoid tones penetrates to the bone, almost making one nauseous. Up to the point where a repetitive sequence sets in again, hearing, seeing and waiting tend to send observers fleeing.

The visitor is the one who triggers what is seen and heard. A sensor has been installed at the entrance to this space. Without knowing it the sequence of pauses, tones, and light is initiated when the visitor enters or leaves the space. At the > WHITE NOISE installation at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin (Hamburger Bahnhof), visitors could be seen approaching the open passageway to the space, without venturing in. Where paintings normally hang, only lamps can be seen. But the spotlights are not lit. Instead, it is dark in the space. Cables and loudspeakers are seen, and nothing else—not even a sign reading »out of order«. Anyone lacking sufficient curiosity might leave the exhibition never having seen the electronic performance. Others pass by and then are drawn back when another visitor enters the > WHITE NOISE space and triggers the event. Some hear the deep booming in other rooms of the exhibition while looking at paintings, objects or sculpture. Following the waves to their source, perhaps they find nothing, or just a glimmer. Perhaps the glimmering light is not compelling enough to chance entering the space. The deep tone expands generously, even beyond the space—sufficient to see and hear. On top of that, the vibrating deep tone is not pleasant. Perhaps then the sudden flood of white light is the occasion to enter the space. But the sheer amount of light is unbearable to open eyes.

In a somewhat experimental installation, > WHITE NOISE lets hearing hear and seeing see, hearing see and seeing hear. The acoustic frequencies are within the range of the audible—the deep sinusoid tones fluctuate between
60 and 70 hertz, the high tone around 12,000. The physical phenomenon of white noise corresponds to white light, which comprises the entire spectrum of visible colored light. White noise is the sum of all frequencies perceptible to the human ear. The sound of > WHITE NOISE stakes out the acoustical boundaries of this spectrum, a metaphorically charged place. Although white noise has no pitch and no rhythm, pitch and rhythm will inevitably be perceived in white noise. Within the psychology of perception this is analogous to the phenomenon of observers seeing rhythmic order or even isolating forms within a completely symmetrical and abstract wallpaper pattern. In her short story »The Yellow Wallpaper«, Charlotte Perkins Gilman [1] defines this »power of observation« as a mental disorder. The text's credibility, however, rests on the fact that this power of sight to give structure is familiar to everyone. So, in a certain sense, interpreting symmetrical pattern lies well within the range of the normal. And yet it points
to a kind of prejudgment.

This becomes apparent in the interpretations of observers who understand > WHITE NOISE as narrative music.
Their understanding of what is seen and heard is apparently determined by context. At the presentation in Dresden, observers wanted to see a reference to the February 13, 1945, firebombing of Dresden, which destroyed their city. At the exhibition in Berlin, a connection to the Wall was postulated. It had stood not far from the Hamburger Bahnhof. But the immediate environment was also important for the way the piece was read. Traditionally galleries and museums offer visual impressions. Accordingly, the threatening images that were associated with > White Noise rested upon visual impressions—the light was equated with firebombs and perhaps with the illumination at border crossings. The synthetic sound of > WHITE NOISE has no equivalent at all. The sounds do not recall explosions. The Wall is not associated with any specific noise whatsoever. In fact, however, pre-cisely the silence, the deep dull sound, perceptible almost as physical pressure, and the sharp painful high tone are responsible for the »emotive« quality of the total impression.

If bird chirping accompanied the glaring light, perhaps an image of the sun would appear. The sound of frenetic applause would make it apparent that in this space, the observer is standing on a stage. White light is neutral and
a pure surface for projection. Every graphic impression corresponds to perception giving structure to white noise.
But white noise is also the acoustic phenomenon of complete indifference—you hear white, nothingness, purity,
the »White Square on White Ground« of Kasimir Malevich, etc.

In the series of photographs entitled > WEISSES RAUSCHEN (WHITE NOISE), the white surface is the result of images. Just as in the photography of the series > SHADOWS, > WHISPER and > BLUR and the > SPIRAL photograph, television images were photographed. »The camera sharply depicts the surface of the screen. Given the difference in speed between the progression of images on the screen and the closure of the camera aperture, the photos become blurred and movement on the screen becomes visible.« [2] Analyzed mechanically, the human eye's processing of images of movement created on film is laid bare. The individual images fused together in the perception of the observer
(25 per second) appear on photographic film next to and over each other. Exposure time and selection of image are located at a border region: It can still be recognized that here something blurred is visible. And yet the object photographed seems overwhelmingly abstract. The figures or objects that are identified could be similar to images in clouds. Through identifying and decoding the medium (photography, as material inscribed by light, is almost always a depiction of something) the photographic effect »that movement creates blur« is identifiable. The schematic and blurred is quite apparently not the result of lack of focus.

These photographs convey only an indirect physical impression in that they depict movement. They are far removed from the powerful physical effects of the arrangement of noise and light in > WHITE NOISE. This differing impact can be traced to the difference in media and to the different senses that are engaged. When observers enter the space of > WHITE NOISE, they are standing on a stage. Something happens to them there. It is not an exaggeration to say that they experience pain there. In contrast, observers remain relatively unscathed when viewing these photographs. They are confronted by physical urgency only in a metaphorical sense, as the somewhat colorless light and blurred images recall X-rays. At most the discomfort of reading these »X-ray pictures« seems aggressive—the images are available for interpretation and yet evade it too. But the observer long trained in abstract images can avoid this frustration too. Someone observing the light-and-sound installation can take an analogous attitude. In fact the acoustic/visual event loses some of its threatening quality when it is understood as a purely musical sequence and comprehended in its sheer duration. Contemplative indifference would avoid the confrontation with our own fears.

translation: Janice Becker

[1] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yellow Wallpaper: And Other Stories, Dover Thrift Editions, 1997
[2] Lars Loehn, At the moment of exposure, in: Gunda Förster – Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Stipendium
2000, Exhibition Catalog; Oktogon, Dresden, 2 Oct. - 5 Nov. 2000 and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf,
24 Nov. 2000 - 14 Jan. 2001

Catalogue text
Vedanta Gallery, Chicago, 2001
Charité, Berlin, 2001