Alice Cannava

fragments from the publication
accompanying the exhibition
Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 2017

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1. The sun isn’t perfect, yellow makes me sick and Josef Albers was right.

In 1609, a not yet famous, almost 45-year-old Galileo Galilei began to point the newly invented telescope at the sky. He was going to see things that would forever change our vision of the cosmos — sunspots among them. Galilei wasn’t the inventor of the telescope — rather, he had improved it and figured out its potential as a research instrument. He wasn’t always the first to observe these wondrous things either (the sunspots represent a controversial case in this sense); what rendered him unique was his ability and willingness to accept, understand and promote the radical changes in the existing system of knowledge that the new discoveries demanded. In the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model — widely dominant at the time — the sky beyond the moon’s orbit was supposed to be perfect, eternal and immutable; an unstable sun with dark spots moving around randomly didn’t really fit the picture.

(...) The solar iconography is a recurring element in most cultures, religions and art forms. This appears so evident that it went out of hand at some point, with scholars of the 19th century such as Max Müller seeing solar symbols pretty much everywhere — an attitude criticized by later, more cautious generations (e.g. Chase). Nonetheless, a golden, sunny leitmotif does run through ancient Egyptian, Greek mythology, Hinduism, Christian symbology … down to something I admit I’m more familiar with: names of bands — from the legendary Sun Ra and His Arkestra to the Berlin-based Sun Worship.

The symbology of the yellow color beyond its association with sun, light and the related imagery (energy, summer, youth, fun) is more controversial: some cultures associate it with sickness, jealousy and other negative conditions and feelings. Yellow has notoriously evolved as a danger-signaling color in the features of some animals (although the same holds for other bright colors); it is similarly used by humans in graphic design and marketing, to grab attention, but when too bright or overused it disturbs the eyes and looks vulgar. In his 1963 masterwork Interaction of Color, Josef Albers wrote: “Usually a special effort in using disliked colors ends up in falling in love with them.” In my experience, it works: I learned to design with and massively wear red, which I had found almost repelling for years, with the Albers method. (...)

2. You gotta listen to that.

In his correspondence with the German Mark Welser about the sunspots — collected and published in 1613 as Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari — Galilei expressed his hope that the new observations would help him “tune some pipes of that big, out-of-tune organ of our philosophy” (15, own translation). The recurring music-related metaphors in Galilei’s writings are not accidental: his father Vincenzo had been a prominent lute virtuoso, composer and music theorist of the late 16th century. He had contributed to the field with original and innovative content, often based on experiments and informed by a polemic attitude — remind you of anyone? Galileo was a pretty good lutenist himself.

The fact that one can use a musical sensibility or knowledge in other contexts may sound trivial, but it’s rather quadrivial — please forgive me —, and its relevance can go beyond individual biography. The current international network of experimental music can fairly be described as horizontal and independent (especially if compared to the contemporary art system). The participation of visual artists or scientists in that scene not only leads to interesting crossovers in regards of content, skills and techniques, but it may also help question categories and hierarchies in the respective fields.

Radical music is expected to be labeled as noise by the average common-sense representative. This dubious cliché hints at most important issues: telling music or, more in general, intentional messages from disturbing elements— that is, noise, not necessarily consisting of sound — is a fundamental problem that triggered no less than Shannon’s communication theory (1948), whose many applications enabled modern computers, data compression, high-level programming languages … in short, the digital world we live in. Once you know what noise is and how you can reduce it in a transmission, you’re also ready to use it deliberately, as another language.

The subjective nature of noise finds a symbolic embodiment in a dreaded symptom named tinnitus: the hearing of something that is not coming from external sources. It is a physical condition, i.e. the sound is not imagined, yet is audible only to the affected person, and can consist of a low- or high-pitched whistle, click, roar … The mechanism behind it is not fully understood, and a generally effective cure has not been found yet, but we know that hearing damage due to long-term exposure to loud sound is a common cause — the wicked tinnitus hits the very ears of music lovers, as if it were a malediction sent from a mad neighbor who wants you to turn down the volume.

3. What do you do?

The term ‘scientist’ was coined by the English polymath William Whewell in the 19th century. Galilei died in 1642 at the age of 77 and was, technically speaking, not a scientist. As mentioned above, the organ he wanted to tune was that of philosophy, which in turn meant something different back then and incorporated the research about nature. He also practiced astrology for friends, family and wealthy clients, but then again, what we now call pseudoscience has evolved in time as well. Sociologist of science Thomas F. Gieryn claims that “Science is a cultural space: it has no essential or universal qualities.” (...)

4. Closing Scene. Or better yet: Introduction.

The first work by Kama Sokolnicka I ever saw is a beautiful floor sculpture made of hexagonal brass pipes of different lengths, placed side by side and roughly welded together on the back— its title is Interstellar, it is depicted in this catalogue and part of the related exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. My first question was if the brass pipes were originally meant to be part of a musical instrument. They were not. Also, the title of the whole show was going to be Tinnitus, but the exhibition was to include visual works only. And yet music and sound seemed to play a somewhat important role. (...)

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