Pliny the Elder recounts the tale of a painting contest between two great artists, Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Athens. Zeuxis painted grapes so lifelike that the birds came down and tried to eat them. In response, Parrhasius led Zeuxis to his studio and asked him to pull back the curtain covering his painting; when he tried to do so, Zeuxis realised that the the curtain itself had been painted. The Heraclean knew when he was beaten: “I have deceived the birds,” he declared, “but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”
“When I combine sounds, I am often creating deceptive aural spaces,” asserts the media artist and composer Olivia Block as she sits in London’s Café Oto, waiting to set up for her first UK performance since 2011. “Sometimes I try to make music that sounds like a space you believe is real, but actually if you took all the elements of that space and were thinking about it consciously you would realise that it wasn’t possible that the space was real. “Heave To” [released in 2006 on the Sedimental label] is a good example of that. I intersperse instruments in with these environmental sounds and they sound like they should be there, but they really shouldn’t be there because we logically know that they shouldn’t. It’s almost like a cinematic thing, in a way.”
Cinema is an important reference point for the Chicago-based artist. While Pliny’s account of the painting contest is often taken as the starting point in the history of trompe-l’œil (‘deceive the eye’), cinema presents a more technically sophisticated, multisensory form of illusion. But Block’s interest in deception goes beyond mere contests of skill and hoodwinkery: “I’m hoping or banking on the fact that the way that people listen shifts, unconsciously,” she says. “There’s a well-known book by Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, and he talks a lot about three kinds of listening strategies that people have. One is that you’re basically listening for language, or codes, or whatever. And then another one is diagetic, you’re wondering what’s the location or identity of that sound — “Is it a door, is it a glass?”. The third one is more like listening in a more pure way, listening to textures and things like that, where you can’t name the sound necessarily. Which is probably more like the realm that we are in, which is music.”
All of these strategies, each so key to the creation of illusion and narrative in cinema, are engaged by Block in the creation of a piece of music, such as her 2015 release “Aberration of Light”. “I think for me it’s sometimes interesting to think about shifting those unconscious strategies in one piece,” she explains. “I would say that there’s a continuum, almost, of noise and music, and it’s interesting to play with that continuum, to explore the continuum, where does it change? The beginning part of [“Aberration of Light”] in its cinematic form happens really really slowly, so you almost can’t tell when you’re hearing something and when you’re not. First you’re taken into the familiarity of perception itself. And then you’re taken into the familiarity of music, of film music, Strauss and “2001” and all these things like that. First it’s about just filling a space with sound, and you’re aware that you’re in a room; and then you’re more brought into the narrative of whatever this drama is, the music is there, there are colours and things like that.”
Block’s music is noted for its combination of traditional Western orchestral instruments with field recordings and computer-based editing and processing techniques — one of the benefits of living in Chicago, she insists, is the access she has to rehearsal spaces with grand pianos, and to the Chicago Composers’ Orchestra, with whose support she has developed several orchestral compositions. This method of working has taught her to respect the musical traditions that hold such sway over how we hear and respond to music. “You really have to know how much of the tradition to include to make it compelling,” she asserts. “It’s not that interesting if you’re like, “I’m just going to have these instruments do whatever…”. I used to do that, and it just doesn’t work, really. There are reasons why, for instance, there are string sections. It’s better! It’s better to have a string section than to have strings doing all these different things. So it’s interesting to take those things and then use them in different ways.”
Besides the practicalities, what influence has living in Chicago had on Block? “I am attracted to industrial and utilitarian sounds, like automated machines — escalators, etc. Conversely, when I spent summers in the mountains of New Mexico, I recorded sounds in natural locations like deserts. In all places I live, I am attracted to the sounds of wind.
“I think the sounds of a given locations influence my decisions, too, unconsciously. “Pure Gaze” [released in 1998] was created when I spent a lot of time in the mountains, so the piece sounds more like that soundscape — much more space and sparseness. Currently my compositions tend to be much noisier and chaotic, which is partly because I hear those types of sounds in cities — trains, buses, people, the insides of buildings, etc.”
Thinking about how a place or landscape influences the act of creation plays a big part in the work Block makes for installation in a specific site, such as ‘Somnambient Pavilion’, created for Chicago’s Millennium Park, or ‘Open Air’, installed in the dilapidated Sokowsko Sanatorium in Poland. Just don’t call it ‘land art’. “For such a long time I was a really big fan of land art, big land art. And now I hate land art! I don’t like it when land is changed. I’m becoming weary of humans. We are so many humans in the world creating waste, and permanently altering environments. I think that my weariness is altering my listening patterns.”
So what would a ‘low-impact’ installation be like? “I’m thinking in terms of making an installation that is not altering the place that you are in — if it’s outside, thinking about attracting sounds that could be there anyway, so attracting birds or attracting frogs, or [other] sounds that could be there. I’m tired of inserting sounds that shouldn’t be there, I’m tired of doing that to things.”
Certainly the current tendency to overload every moment and gesture with symbols and insistences — the clamour and din of contemporary life, every inch a space to be filled with a new and louder advertisement or claim to power — can be exhausting. Sometimes the sound of a bird, or of an escalator, doesn’t need any further embellishment. But what is the role of an artist in such a situation, if she is not to smother the life of that moment? What sort of artwork leaves the moment alone, while at the same time contributing something to justify its own presence as art? Block is already one step ahead, and it brings us back to the topic of deception.
“I think for a while I was interested in creating spaces that sounded like no humans were there — I was very interested in not including any aspect of the recording process or anything like that. And then I think that this theme of showing the seams became more and more interesting to me, just because you can’t, I mean, I can’t get out of my point of view. There’s no way to do that. So why should I try to do that? To me it’s much more interesting to see limitations or efforts in the process of making arts.
“I think of site-specific installations as cinematic or theatrical sets that a spectator walks into. I think one reason I like to make these deceptive spaces and to skew the sound of a natural landscape, in an installation, for instance, is just to call attention to your own attention. To what you’re paying attention to and what you’re not paying attention to, what you’re listening to and what you’re not. That’s part of the contingency [of the situation] — your own attention, where you’re at.”
If you want to attract birds, paint some grapes. But if you want to attract humans — and not only attract them, but to make them aware of their own attentiveness, their mode of listening, and maybe shift that mode a little — then you have to be a bit smarter: you have to play with the continuum of noise and music, reality and deception; you have to show the seams between them as cracks in the curtain, to be peered through. Block’s performance later that evening transformed the venue’s grand piano into something strange and unexpected, while at the same time revealing it for what it was: a resonant object, a collection of resonant systems, really, situated in a room of certain dimensions, being animated by one human and listened to by a bunch of others. Maybe the best way for art of any kind to illuminate a situation is to leave the situation well alone, and instead seek to transform the perception and awareness of those who encounter it — something that Block’s music and installations already seem adept at.
Image: ‘Open Air’, Sokowsko Sanatorium, Sokowolsko, Poland, photo by Tomek Ogrodowczyk.