Today the first of two parts of The political component of noise in the artistic practices of the last century.
An imaginary world full of sonic waste, in which a new technology – aggressively promoted by a powerful corporation – has supplanted acoustic music with so-called “ultrasonic music,” atmospherically charged and inaudible. Against the backdrop of an encounter between a mute boy and an opera singer whose singing has become obsolete, J.G. Ballard entrusts a sound sweeper with the task of cleaning up the sonic environment. The Sound-Sweep tale draws out a significant metaphor for the process of destabilization of identity at an emotional and social level caused by the change in acoustic habitat. Written in 1981, The Sound-Sweep foreshadows the transformation that new technologies would bring about in global communication processes and in the consequent concentration of urban noise, both physical and metaphorical.
At the end of the 19th century, the noise of machines enabled the renewal of music.
It is no coincidence that the Futurist fascination with noise embodied the rejection of 19th-century bourgeois sounds, as well as musical and cultural pastism. Futurist music consists of bangs, rumblings of thunder, explosions, whistles, hisses and puffs, whispers, squeals, animal noises and human cries. Luigi Russolo, futurist composer and painter, who signed the manifesto L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), developed the “intonarumori” in 1913. This was an instrument that generated acoustic sounds and mechanically controlled the dynamics, volume and frequency of different types of sound. It was followed by the “rumorarmonio” in 1922, designed to amplify the musical effects created by the intonarumori. Russolo and his collaborator Piatti succeeded in developing about 30 different instruments, including rumblers, crackers, crumplers, bursters, gurglers, sibillators, buzzers…: “Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men.”
For the futurists, therefore, noise would have been the soundtrack of the future. Russolo’s instruments were introduced in the musical performances of his contemporaries Pratella, Malipiero and Casella, while 60s musique concrète – from J. Cage to P.Schaeffer, K.Stockhausen, L. Berio… – owes much to futurist experimentation and to the “found noises” of Marinetti’s radio shows.
What was hailed as the advent of new music at the beginning of the century, less than a hundred years later would begin to encroach on regulations on noise pollution. It was in 1995 that Law 447/1995 was drafted, the first law to address noise pollution. This law defines the fundamental principles for the protection of both the outdoor and living environment from noise pollution and defines the competences that the State, Regions, Provinces and Municipalities have in defining emission limits, and approving and monitoring the disposition of new works in compliance with the limits of acoustic impact.
In 1996, for the first time, the European Commission’s Green Paper on the future noise control policy treated noise pollution from the point of view of environmental protection. The noise surrounding us daily in urban centers impacts our auditory, neurological and cardiovascular systems. Noise-induced hearing damage includes tinnitus (buzzing or ringing in one’s ear), hypoacusis (hearing loss), paracusis (a false acoustic sensation) and hearing distortion. A 2018 study in Canada observed an increased risk of myocardial infarction as a result of long-term environmental noise exposure. Exposure to noise for eight hours a day could even cause permanent changes in children’s hearing, including the inability to hear certain frequencies. This is the same noise that in most classrooms, which have been badly designed when it comes to sound absorbing panels, interferes with the ability to concentrate, learn, memorize and even increases learning disabilities.
The question has entered decisively into the research of several artists whose practice also involves the study of the political element of sound, noise and language as a signifier.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, winner of the 2019 Turner Prize and an artist whose work examines the political subtexts of sound, created The All-Hearing (2012), a work presented in and inspired by Cairo – the third noisiest city in the world after Guangzhou, China (1st place), and Delhi, India (2nd place). In an operation inspired by McLuhan, the artist was able to convince two sheikhs to develop a sermon on noise pollution in Cairo that would then replace the mullah’s daily sermon, a religious tradition that represents a major source of city noise. The topic of the sermon that Lawrence Abu Hamdam established together with the two sheikhs revolved around the issue of noise as an implicitly censorious religious practice, covering and overriding all information the government wants to keep from its citizens.
The work was later exhibited at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven in July 2014, where the artist also presented the entire Tape Echo project, co-commissioned by Beirut in Cairo. In Tape Echo Abu Hamdan intervened on Cairo’s acoustic density by finding a new use for the old tape cassettes on which sermons were recorded. The artist dubbed over the original content, recording legal rulings emitted by various city loudspeakers. The magnetic tape is conceived as a blank canvas on which layers of color are fixed, concealing the layer beneath but not removing it. To add a visual decoding of the multiple layers of urban sound constitution, Abu Hamdan exhibited at the museum a series of optical scans of the tape’s surface.
Noise pollution, in fact, represents the sum of a territory and its cultural heritage. Cities such as Cairo or Delhi seem to be permeated by overlapping layers of noise proliferation, depriving citizen of the chance to communicate in a less invasive way in their daily relationships. From 2000, Malaysian composer Ng Chor Guan recorded the sound of Kuala Lumpur for fifteen years – its streetcars and street vendors (the so-called pheriwalla) – imagining the progressive change that the city’s sound would undergo as a result of urban redevelopment and e-commerce, an economic transformation that has had a significant impact on the decrease in urban markets and on travel. Today, the award-winning composer performs to audiences throughout Asia and Europe.
In the sound installation Air Condition (commissioned by Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, Texas in 2014), the American sound artist Abinadi Meza takes on the role of radio raider by interfering with airwaves using recordings previously gathered in the city. The radio broadcasts are interrupted with tracks related to the sound matrix of commercial transactions, air pollution, road and air traffic, etc. The artist’s aim is to insert himself into the so-called widely propagated air terrorism, traversed as it is by chemical and physical electromagnetic hazards. Air Condition is presented with an audio track that runs alongside a video of the sky taken from below, inviting the viewer to reflect, through radio incursions, on the political matter of air and the consequent ecological balance of the stratosphere. It is to Peter Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air (2002) that we owe the foresight of understanding how the twentieth century, starting from the first chemical weapons used in World War I, has replaced the fear of the enemy, which is imprinted on our bodies, to a widespread terror targeting the environment and the air that we breathe every second, thus feeding the declared atmo-political uncertainty. For Abinadi Meza, sound is an important way of addressing the political dimension of atmosphere.
Machine Auguries, a multi-channel installation by the British-South American artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, addresses the problem of sound (and light) pollution on bird communication. A study conducted by Pacific University, Oregon, has shown that the survival of birds is compromised by road and air traffic noise because it reduces their ability to forage for food. Birds living in cities have also had to modify their songs to higher frequencies to take background noise into account – this is called the Lombard effect. If noise has interfered with the ability to hear courtship songs, lighting has altered dawn chorus schedules.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has created an algorithm to reproduce birdsong, in order to act as a bridge and counterbalance to future extinction. In detail, solo recordings of chiffchaffs, great tits, redstarts, robins, thrushes and entire dawn choruses were used to train two neural networks, pitted against each other, to sing (GAN, or Generative Adversarial Network). The birds’ sound calls were then distributed by the sound installation in an ideal recreation of the function of the augurs of ancient Rome, soothsayers who could predict (the birdsong of) the future. Machine Auguries was presented in the chapel of the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House in 2019, commissioned by Somerset House and A/D/O by MINI and produced with the support of The Adonyeva Foundation.
…to be continued…
 Russolo Luigi, L’arte dei rumori, in Maffina, G. F, Luigi Russolo e l’arte dei rumori, Torino, ed. Martano, 1978, p. 129.
 Law 26 October 1995, n. 447 Framework law on noise pollution. https://www.bosettiegatti.eu/info/norme/statali/1995_0447.htm
  Ising H, Kruppa B. Health effects caused by noise : Evidence in the literature from the past 25 years. Noise Health 2004; vol.6, pp.5-13. https://www.noiseandhealth.org/printarticle.asp?issn=1463-1741;year=2004;volume=6;issue=22;spage=5;epage=13;aulast=ising 1/6
 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2014. Assessing Aircraft Noise Conditions Affecting Student Learning, Volume 1: Final Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.https://doi.org/10.17226/22433.
image: (cover 1) Abinadi Meza, «Air, Condition», 2014, site-specific sound-video, 2014, still
The political component of noise in the artistic practices of the last century is part of “Eternal Body. Human senses as a laboratory of power, between ecological crises and transhumanism”, curated by Elena Abbiatici. This rearch has been organised thanks to the support of the Italian Council (IX edition 2020), an international programme promoting Italian art under the auspices of the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and for Tourism (you can view here For an Olfactory Bio-politics. Pt I, Arshake, 21.07.2021).
Elena Giulia Abbiatici, Smell as a transcendent sense. The Role of the Olfactory System in a society focused on the Ethernal Body, Arshake 02.08.2021
Partners of the project: Arshake, FIM, Filosofia in Movimento-Rome, Walkin studios-Bangalore, Re: Humanism, Unità di ricerca Tecnoculture – Università Orientale – Naples GAD Giudecca Art District-Venezia, Arebyte – London, Sciami – Rome. “Eternal Body. Human senses as a laboratory of power, between ecological crises and transhumanism” is supported by the Italian Council (9th Edition, 2020), program to promote Italian contemporary art in the world by the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Italian Ministry of Culture”.