Twenty-one sets of headphones are strewn about: laid on benches, spotlit on white walls, hooked on the corners of chairs. There’s nothing else in the cramped, windowless room that houses ‘Listening Room,’ a sound art exhibition curated by Nkule Mabaso, Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose and Chloë Reid. It’s the gallery stripped down to its essentials: the medium, the viewer (or, in this case, the listener), and a few places to rest. Pulled together under the rubric of a medium rather than a concept, ‘Listening Room’ allows for reflection on works which were miscellaneous without being incoherent.
Sound art, an immediate but often abstract medium, seems to be conflated with ambience, distortion, and reverb. Dani Kyengo, Jenna Burchell, Mia Thom and Mira Calix all employ these conventions, composing ethereal, almost haunted, sonic landscapes. Although a bit trite, these remain effective symbolic strategies for these artists’ respective projects. There’s Kyengo Tswee-tswee no Coughing, aseblief, a pastiched psychoscape of nostalgic and domestic samples. Burchell layers ambient music over interviews with Bethesda slate miners and their dream to create a university for their children to go to. Thom’s sensory, submarine recordings archive the remnants of Cape Town’s ancient hydroponic systems. Calix’s i desire no commendation creates a ghostly poetics out of liturgies from Catherine Parr. Each of these artists use sound as a means of calling the past into the present, reincarnated in the listener’s ear.
Other pieces draw attention to sound art that might otherwise be relegated to the underground music circle. FAKA’s ancestral gqom gospel, or Quaid Heneke’s erratic acid house, seem perhaps out of place in such a small, stoic room. What makes these compositions palpable is often the corporeal experience, to hear these sounds blasted on big speakers, to be a dancer surrounded by other dancing bodies. Nevertheless, queer club music, more so than fine art, seems to be the medium through which exciting subversions and transgressions are happening. By putting these tracks into the gallery, the curators are imagining a world in which queer artists can exist outside the underground, their creations respected by the art world as much as the alternative club community from which they sprang.
Listening to every piece in its entirety would take around two and a half hours. It’s a lot of time to spend in such a small room. And yet, you find yourself spending an hour there, easily, without realising how much time had passed. The same way you might get caught up chatting with a friend for hours into the night. Eavesdropping on Jabu Nadia Newman’s friends’ voice notes, for instance, or even Sean O’Toole’s onomatopoeic retelling of his short story The Object, the listener gets caught up in the intimacy of listening.
The exhibition was curated to get listeners caught up intimately with each other as well. All of you end up spending a lot of time together. If there’s a dozen or so people in the room, you inevitably find yourself waiting for headphones, in a way you don’t wait for art pieces. It becomes a polite game of musical chairs, where otherwise confident, competent people hover bashfully around one another, suddenly concerned about gallery manners.
Since the curators chose not to include any visual elements in the gallery, there’s nothing to look at. Thus, listeners have to create images for themselves. But listeners, also, literally, decide what the gallery space looks like. Draped in wires, leaning against the walls, sitting on the floor, they become sculptural. One listener rests their wrist on their chin while contemplating existential imperatives in James Webb’s Telephone Voice, becoming Rodinesque. Three friends, casually hunched over on the Sean O’ Toole bench, resemble Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys. Someone laughs at Mitchell Gilbert’s spliced together song lyrics, which tell the story of a sentient, sardonic copyright algorithm, almost spilling their drink. Someone, listening to Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Bird Song, a gentle, groovy collaboration with jazz musician and composer Mandla Mlangeni, leans into the hug of her coat and closes her eyes. There is something beautiful about these coincidences. They are like un-choreographed performances; the listeners improvise as they go along.
Listeners are also constantly making their own sounds: creaking footsteps on Michaelis’s old floorboards, swishing writeups, clinking wine glasses, chuckling and sniffling, dropping this and that. This show, thus, achieves something that visual art spaces rarely do. ‘Listening Room’ becomes, serendipitously, orchestral: fluid, participatory, collaborative, ever-shifting.