Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 21, 2022
Ming-Yuen S. Ma There Is No Soundtrack: Rethinking Art, Media, and the Audio-Visual Contract Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020. 280 pp. Cloth £80.00 (9781526142122)

In There Is No Soundtrack, Ming-Yuen S. Ma contends that contemporary media art challenges understandings of image and sound that privilege visuality. This visual bias, according to Ma, appears in art history, art criticism, media theory, and more broadly throughout the humanities. Even in the field of film and media studies, which has produced dedicated treatments of cinematic sound, “visual hegemony” and “ocularcentrism” persist (2, 5). Ma offers a corrective in his series of analyses that emphasize the aural dimension of artworks by Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid), Tanya Tagaq, Chris Marker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chantal Akerman, Christian Marclay, Janet Cardiff, Nam June Paik, Bill Fontana, and Ultra-red. Over half in that list are known as video artists or filmmakers, while the others produce gallery installations and/or performances often understood as sound art. Beyond the latter category, Ma applies the term “experimental media art” to a variety of film, video, performance, installation, sculpture, drawing, field recording, and community-based art since the 1960s (1). Across these various practices, Ma finds challenges to the purported ocularcentrism inherent to a range of disciplines.

For his heterogeneous objects of study, Ma begins with a singular theoretical reference. The book’s title refers to French film sound theorist Michel Chion, who understands cinema’s image-sound relationship as a symbolic pact—an “audiovisual contract”—that combines rather than separates the senses. There is no soundtrack, according to Chion, because a film’s sounds don’t function apart from their visual counterparts. In response, Ma seeks to “renegotiate” this audiovisual contract and to “rethink audiovisuality” (6). He argues that in experimental media art, unlike conventional cinema, sound doesn’t necessarily rely on images for its meaning. This is because the narrative cinematic conventions that do rely on visuality simply aren’t present, or at least they’re not predominant, in experimental media art (6). So, why begin with narrative cinema theory to analyze nonnarrative or experimental media art? We learn, though, that this is indeed only the beginning. And Ma supplements Chion with an expansive bibliography—sound studies scholars, media theorists, musicologists, composers, art historians, art critics, and anthropologists—that he conscripts against visualism.

Yet rather than simply replacing sight with sound to create a different sensory hierarchy, Ma wants us to reconsider how the senses relate to one another in the production of meaning (4). For instance, chapter 1 considers films by Minh-ha, Akerman, and Marker, as well as the film-based multimedia work of Tagaq and Miller, that use the voice and performance to rework historical cinematic codes and comment on contemporary issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and Indigeneity. Specifically, Ma shows how Miller’s watershed multimedia work Rebirth of a Nation (2004) deconstructs and “remixes” D. W. Griffith’s canonically racist and white supremacist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Alongside Miller’s synchronized musical performance, his live filmic commentary hearkens back to the “picture lecturer,” an early form of voiceover whose roots film-sound theorists trace to pedagogy, ethnography, and precinematic magic lantern shows (31). The visual picture is requisitely present in these artistic reworkings of the picture lecturer. But the aural is not simply subservient to the image, Ma suggests, throughout the process of meaning making.

The second chapter echoes themes from the first while proposing resonance and reverberation as models for understanding history. Ma discusses Marclay’s Guitar Drag (2000), a video the artist conceives as an homage to James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was killed in 1998 by three white men in Texas in an act that recalls the history of lynchings in the US. Marclay’s video metaphorizes Byrd’s body as the body of a Fender Stratocaster that the artist drags from a pickup truck while it is plugged into an amplifier. One result is an intense noise (which Ma discusses in relation to both noise music and Jacques Attali’s nowcanonical Noise: The Political Economy of Music [French orig. 1977; English trans. 1985]). Another is a legible artistic commentary on the legacies of white supremacy and antiblackness, which continue to reverberate and resonate in the present. Ma compares and contrasts Marclay’s video with Billie Holiday’s notorious rendition of the antilynching song Strange Fruit (1939) while complicating Marclay’s subject position as a white artist addressing the subject of lynching. The chapter ends by connecting the intertwined histories of body snatching and racialized medical experimentation to the ear phonautograph, an early sound reproduction technology that used an excised human ear in order to simulate its functioning.

The second half of the book shifts from a focus on moving image works to sound in media installation and performance. Here breadth replaces depth in two chapters that deal, respectively, with space and place. Chapter 3 presents interview material from forty-five contemporary media artists responding to questions about sound and spatiality in their respective practices. A few of the more well-known artist-respondents are named in the chapter text while others are quasi-anonymous, their information appearing in the endnotes. Ma then reviews three exhibitions from 2013: the Museum of Modern Art’s Soundings: A Contemporary Score; Leubsdorf Gallery’s William Anastasi: Sound Works, 1963–2013; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet installed at the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters. These wide-ranging surveys suggest various themes and problematics. Ma attends to sound’s relationships to architectural space and visuality. He proposes that not all artists accord with art museums and galleries that attempt to “contain” sound rather than allowing it to permeate more freely across space. For Ma, this apparent shortcoming contributes to how art institutions are, as he contends with various academic disciplines, “ocularcentric” (163).

The book’s final chapter turns to sound and the politics of place. In addition to Fontana and Ultra-red, Ma analyzes works by Maryanne Amacher, Francisco López, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Elana Mann. He uses theories of the modern (and imperialist) soundscape from the composer R. Murray Schafer and the historian Emily Thompson as points of departure to offer a “transductive ethnography” of sound and site. The media artists he discusses both challenge and expand on the “ocularcentric discourse of the spatial politics in urban and other spaces” (187). As in previous instances, Ma’s charge of ocularcentrism is asserted here more than defended. Yet Ma suggests, intriguingly, that the art historical movements of site-specificity and institutional critique have underacknowledged correlates in field recordings and place-based sound installations. One example appears in Ma’s wonderful description of Ultra-red’s Second Nature project (1995–99) which consists of the art and AIDS activist collective’s field recordings that document public sex in Griffith Park, a popular gay cruising site in Los Angeles, during the late 1990s. One doesn’t necessarily need to accept Ma’s visual bias criticisms to appreciate the vivid interpretive connections he makes here between space, place, and queer politics.

Ma’s study excels in such descriptive moments that exhibit the power of sound in experimental media art to produce meaning. It leaves readers with questions, however, in its insistence on contemporary culture’s supposed visual bias. Are the arts and humanities really so ocularcentric? If so, are some fields more visually biased than others? Are there gradations of severity? For one, the historian Martin Jay (who Ma cites) discusses modern Western thought’s remarkably antivisualist attitudes, seen, for instance, in ideology critique’s understanding of appearance as antithetical to truth (see Jay’s Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993), 329–80). Beyond sight and sound, furthermore, how relevant do any of the senses remain to a contemporary art that can be said to privilege discursive meaning over sensory experience? Indeed, how significant are the senses after 1960s Conceptual art and its challenge to artistic modernism’s reduction of art to a set of mediums, each correlated to an individual sense (i.e. medium specificity)? What is the role of the senses when much of today’s advanced art is no longer strictly organized around them? While for the most part these questions don’t explicitly guide Ma’s study, they do seem pertinent to his category of “experimental media art.” Unlike sound art and visual art, Ma’s term suggests a useful frame to analyze post-1960s art without necessarily favoring a particular sensory register. By a similar token, a reader doesn’t need to favor sight or sound to feel moved by the meaningful interpretations that run throughout There Is No Soundtrack.

G Douglas Barrett
Assistant Professor, Media Arts, New Jersey City University