Sunday, 30 December 2018

Why draw animals?

Marlene Dumas
The owl, 2015-2016

When I was a boy I lived in Dudley a town at that time in the English county of Worcestershire. It was overlooked by an ancient castle the grounds of which had been used as a zoo since 1937. Visiting the zoo as a child in the 1950s was a regular experience. One of my school friends was the son of a zoo keeper and as they lived in a house within the zoo grounds, when I visited my friend I began to see another side of the zoo, the mundane everyday reality of looking after captured and penned up animals. 
I could never look at the animals as if they were emotionless others. I always felt some sort of affinity with them and I read into their actions emotions, emotions that were of course human ones and ones I worked out by finding visual analogies with my own feelings. 

Dudley zoo: Polar Bears and their 'Tecton' enclosure

Dudley Zoo: A blueprint for a new world

Of all the animals trapped in that space it was the polar bears that had the most effect upon my young self. Their modernist enclosure may well have been a wonderful example of 1930s tectonic design, but the movements and attitudes of the bears were unmistakably tragic. They would stand for what seemed hours, swaying backwards and forwards or rocking from side to side, exactly the same movements I've observed sometimes with distressed homeless people sheltering in city doorways, those with severe mental health issues or people recovering from a stroke. The contrast between the clean edged modernist design of the polar bear enclosure and the world from which these magnificent animals came from could not have been sharper. The whiteness of modernity tolled a bell that only now years later would I hear.  The white bears with a white ice and snow heritage, trapped in the dirty white modernism of an architectural idea, an idea that was still being praised as being inspiring, whilst the very ice and snow landscapes of the Artic were beginning to melt under the pressures of global warming. The zoo's encloses had been designed by the Tecton Group, led by the Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin. I find it ironic that the group's first commission was the 1932-1934 gorilla house for London zoo, followed by a penguin pool, a design that with it's unique double helix walkway has won many awards and has been cited as an iconic modernist piece. The perceived success of these designs meant that other zoos became interested in taking up the Tecton Group's architectural services. During this time geometric abstraction then became the design mode for people too and as modernist flats were constructed and people moved into them, an eerily parallel situation developed. Creatures that for their physical and mental well being needed contact with the environment they were brought up in, were dislocated and transported into the architectural products of visions arrived at on drawing boards and in the minds of human visionaries. 
The drawings below are some of the designs for the zoo. They look futuristic and could almost be plans for some sort of spacecraft or future city.

These types of visions of future worlds were also being realised in the sets for the film 'Things to Come', a 1930s adaption of H G Wells' writings. The film ends with an account of humanity's unending quest for knowledge and advancement, told to us as a spaceship is launched and humankind sets out to conquer planets beyond the Earth, the final line of the film stating, "All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be? ..." The sets look as if they could be Dudley zoo animal enclosures, sterile places where living is acted out rather than lived, spaces not unlike those developed by Frances Bacon for his existentialist paintings. Lurking behind the geometric harmony of mathematical perfection, is the emotional dilemma of the mess of being human. 

Things to come: Film still

Frances Bacon

No wonder that when I first encountered Bacon's paintings that they seemed strangely familiar, his visions were the products of a 1930s designer turned artist. 

Frances Bacon: 1930s interior designs

The curved space frame occurs over and over again, both in design and fine art. It will eventually become an idea that forgets its origins, something embedded in the visual fabric of modernism like an old bear trap, one that you unexpectedly step into when looking for something else. One that for myself lay in the background of a polar bear pit, its sweeping curves enclosing the seed of an analogy with traps that would become very important to my future self.

Bear foot trap, technical drawing and digital realisation

It was John Berger that alerted us to the wider implications of looking at animals. He stated, 'With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals — hence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.

This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man'. John Berger in ‘Why Look at Animals?’ It is this loneliness that perhaps leads us to do the things we do. If we saw the world as our friend we would not mine it for its minerals and its oil, we would not pollute it and care much more about the results of our pollution and desecration of wildlife habitats and other natural resources. Berger at one point states that the animal's gaze is inconsequential, it doesn't matter. But for myself it was the polar bears' gaze that affected me deeply. They stared out at the humans that in their turn stared down on them. Their eyes locked with mine as I tried to see into their minds, their rocking backwards and forwards reflecting a need to go back into their mother's bellies, to go back to a time before time, to their pre-existence when they were just a feeling in their mother's wombs. They made me ashamed of what I was doing, ashamed of my cowardice and inability to do anything about their condition. I have made images of animals over and over again, they surface unbidden and they are at times sentimental and kitsch in their effect. I used to worry about this but not any more, these times are too difficult to start unpicking whether or not one particular way of making images is better than another, what we just need are images that may at some point become effective, images that might help change someone's mind. The print I made a few years ago below being my response to what I found out about the use of the crow cone.  The fact that the cone is also the form of ku klux klan hats, a dunce's cap, a capirote, a party hat and is almost like a beak when seen from the side, cementing the idea in my mind as one applicable to the plight of both humans and birds. As we trap them, we trap ourselves. 
Crow cones

I have also drawn pigs in many guises, the drawing below a fully humanised pig reading a how to recognise animal tracks book, a suggestion that as humans began to wear clothes they lost the ability to read nature directly and became one remove from it. 

Pig reader

Humans have drawn animals for over 40,000 years and the depiction of animals has allowed humans to enter into a relationship with the world of other species, by in many ways giving us voices clothed in animal forms. We are able to take part in nature through the bodies of the animals we depict. Marlene Dumas is usually associated with her portraits which rather than representing actual people, represent emotions or states of mind. In the same way her owl can be taken to represent the spirit of the moment of being an owl, the flap of wings, frozen within differing washes of tonal value and a change of brush that adds a darker textural bite. Sometimes we need to draw animals in order to be able to see our own animal nature. 

Victor Koulbak

Victor Koulbak uses silverpoint to produce drawings that remind us of the fragility of life. It is interesting to compare his use of silverpoint with other artists using the same medium, such as Des Lawrence's Obituary portrait of James Stewart  that I looked at in an earlier post. Koulbak's decision to have the monkey's portrait drawn so that it stares straight into the viewer's face is an interesting one, in that it suggests an internal reflexive mind, now examining and returning the gaze of those that would gaze upon it. 

Hendrick Goltzius

Hendrick Goltzius however shows us a more realistic state of nature in the hands of humankind. I can't help but feel sorry for Goltzius's chained up monkey, it feels as if all the spirit has been drained from it, it is now a ghost of its former self. If it could turn its face to stare back, I feel it would have hollow eyes. In contrast his drawing of a lumpfish below, seems to suggest that the fish has a rich life of its own, it also has a face that suggests that it is slowly transforming into a man/fish or similar hybrid creature. 

Hendrick Goltzius: Lumpfish

I've drawn a few rabbits lately so am very aware of how good Durer's drawings of rabbits are. In his study above his faint righthand spatial presence is invaded by a rabbit/hare, the textures of man and beast sitting together in such a way that we are reminded that they are both animals. A friend of mine has just returned from a trip to Nice where she visited the Chagall museum. She reminded me of how wonderful his images are and how within them colour is used to give life to both animate and inanimate subjects. I've just re-read his autobiography, 'My life' and it's fascinating to read how real life experiences are interwoven with a vision that sees the magical in the familiar and a loosening of rationality in times of revolutionary fervour. His take on animals is an ancient one, one that seems to be infused with a pre-historic understanding of animism. 

Chagall breaks down the barriers between humans and animals, both are magical, mysterious beings and so are the plants and trees that inhabit the world that he sees.

Chagall: Man and cock

Love infuses Chagall's visions, and in that love I find great optimism. I can get very cynical about people and politics, but when I see Chagall's work I am persuaded that there can be a  better future, especially if we are prepared to care for each other and to love the world we live in. It is hate and greed that have destroyed so much of our planet, alongside an unfeeling commodification of nature and lack of empathy that have led to us eliminate a huge proportion of the world's ecosystems. A new caring relationship will be needed if we are to heal what we have done and one that is built on cooperation rather than individualism and egotism, and on the recognition and preservation of eco-systems. 
Drawing animals, plants, rocks and other fellow inhabitants of this world may help develop a more empathetic relationship with them and artists and writers have historically shown that it is sometimes easier to develop alternative narratives by having them acted out by non humans. In many ways a fable or allegory is much easier to digest if we feel that we are not immediately implicit in the issues involved. 

Jacques Callot

Jacques Callot was an artist that had an allegorical intent, sometimes using animals to visualise his ideas. Most of us still remember the many fables told to us in childhood, one of the favourites being 'The three little pigs'. 

No matter which version we were introduced to the same basic idea was carried by the tale, one that made sure as adults we would remember to make sure our houses were well built and secure. I still think fables are needed, but new ones, ones that might help us respond to a growing awareness of global warming and economic collapse. So do think about what it means to draw animals, how the very act of responding to a creature other than ourselves may be a first step on a road that seeks a more balanced relationship between ourselves and the rest of the natural world. 

My own reflection on the polar bears in Dudley zoo

Links to related posts:

Monday, 24 December 2018

Artist's Xmas Cards

My old friend the artist Terry Hammill sent me a copy of his last Christmas card, a jelly baby scene. A timely reminder that Christmas Day is nearly upon us.

Terry Hammill's Xmas jelly babies

Terry's jelly babies of course reminded me that I ought to send out Xmas messages to all my drawing followers out there. So merry Xmas and a happy new drawing year to all of you. In the meantime in the spirit of bad Christmas cracker jokes another selection of artist's Xmas cards for you to look through. Try and guess who they are from, answers at the bottom of the post. Try not to read any text, it is such a giveaway. 










Warhol (again)
Robert Smithson

Happy Holidays

Monday, 17 December 2018

Collage part four: Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford's Venice Biennale USA pavilion

Mark Bradford's collages at first sight don't look like collages. The elements he collects from the streets around him are fused into huge shapes that can feel more animal like than a collaged collection of bits of paper and other street found materials. By welding together disparate elements with a rubberised solution and then sanding down the surface, the urban environment is sunk down into his abstract compositions and becomes the sinews of his work. The necessary tensions that are set up between the desire for compositional simplicity and using a process that is able to hold together masses of complicated stuff, creates a level of cognitive dissonance; his work has been described as having 'informal formalism, raw elegance and intricate boldness' as both emotional and restrained. The many layers and fragments of his collage, its patterns and dislocations, produces a practice that reflects the complex experience of city life, in many ways the built-up layers of materials also seem to echo the way the evolution of a city is reflected in its final shape. These images are exquisitely detailed, and have very distinctive shapes and patterns, compositions that have been described as like the aerial view of a city at night.
Mark Bradford in front of his work

Bradford’s huge collages are often compared to Modernist abstract painting. Yet his is an abstraction that comes more from the urban sprawl of his native Los Angeles than from art history: As Mark Bradford has stated, ‘There is an abstraction that happens in the city... a dislocation of reality when you have the Mexican taqueria next to the black wig shop across the street from the Korean nail shop’.
Los Moscos

Bradford's huge collage Los Moscos (2006) explores the structures of a city, its histories, cultures and economic systems. (The title translates as ‘the flies’, a derogatory term applied to migrant labourers in the San Francisco Bay area.) Composed from the signage of South Central LA, an area colonised by the entertainment industry, the work consists of hundreds of fragments of torn printed paper – posters, flyers, packaging – found by the artist in the streets surrounding his studio. Words and phrases appear and disappear throughout the picture surface, they emerge in a way analogous to the textural change as you walk through the area, the embedded materials that are revealed by sanding back the layers, capture the area’s cultural and historical multiplicity. 

Remnants of found posters and billboards, graffitied stencils and logos, and hairdresser’s permanent endpapers he’s collected from his other profession as a stylist, are all embedded into his dense surfaces. In this way personal history is intertwined with the on-going cultural interchange of commerce and social interaction. An old post-it note from an office computer screen, finding itself butted up against the remains of an AIDS awareness poster, that is itself sandwiched between a torn left over political slogan and a poster advert for the latest Mercedes car.

The devil is beating his wife

In 'The Devil is Beating His Wife', Bradford consolidates all these materials into a gridded composition of cultural cross-referencing. Built up on plywood, his 'painterly' collages can also be appreciated for their sensuous qualities, which can range from silky and skin-like to oily and singed.

Bradford uses a process of machine-sanding layers of street posters to make his abstract surfaces. However looking more closely at these surfaces made me think that he is also either rubbing into them bitumen or linseed oil, or changing the materials he is using to cement the layers together, so that as he sands down his collaged pieces alternative textual surfaces are revealed. When you walk up to these surfaces of Bradford's images, various secondary patterns come into view. The process of sanding through layers or peeling them off can reveal order in the chaos of collected street detritus. Sometimes these surfaces can look cellular and at other times they look as if they are star systems ripped out of a rubbish tip. He states: “I go between the micro and the macro, where the macro is policy change the micro is the local level. I go between helping one person and trying to change the policy.” The patterns of his images, echoing the patterns of his exchanges in his local community.

But he doesn't just make large abstract images. He is expanding his practice into a social direction by working with foster children and other at-risk communities. Two weeks before his Venice Biennial official opening, Bradford helped launch a new pop-up retail center in Venice stocked with handiwork by local female prisoners and a limited-edition bag he designed. He funded the pop-up, all proceeds from which go to Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a non-profit organisation that employs incarcerated women. “I don’t know if we’ve seen someone with the dexterity of De Kooning who is also committed to activism,” Christopher Bedford, co-curator of the U.S. Pavilion, told the LA Times, when the U.S. State Department announced that Bradford would represent the country. “That is unique to art,” he continued, echoing a widely-held artworld assumption that abstractionists are typically not socially conscientious.

Mark Bradford

Speak Birdman

The image 'Speak Birdman' is map-like in its structure, the 'Bird-man' in the title hovering over the city and seeing it as a vibrant map of pulsating life. The surfaces of images like these are wonderful to explore as you get close to them. I'm never sure as to how they are made, but they do suggest that he builds his collages up into a very thick initial layer, which is then I suspect 'filled' with some sort of grouting or filler, something that will harden as well as stick all the layers together; but what that is I'm not sure, you would have to do lots of testing to find out, but that in itself might lead to some interesting new surface possibilities. Once solid and dry he must use everything from an industrial sander to hand scrapers and simply pulling off layers with his hands to shape the surface and it's these processes that make the work so beautiful, so unexpected and which ties his work into a history of modernism. Modernism's concerns with surface and flatness are both embedded into the conceptual framework within which his work is theorised. Warhol's work was able to theorised as being both flat and about images. Warhol's work was 'painted' using silkscreen print processes and therefore all painterly gestures were rendered flat, his images were not illustrational because they were actual physical manifestations of photographic processes. Bradford's collages contain the 'matter' from which the city is made and therefore he is both able to represent a type of abstraction, one that is very flat, (but thick) and represent the all over compositional devices of artists like Jackson Pollock. He is able to hold within the work real content about the city, the collage elements and advance the cause of Modernism by demonstrating how colour and surface can be yet again re-energised and another formal game added to the Modernist project. Perhaps above all he has been able to restore an idea of the beautiful to the cannon of contemporary art. 

 Mark Bradford video 1

 Mark Bradford video 2

Collage: Part one

Collage: part two
Collage: part three

Collage part five

Articulated collage

Thursday, 13 December 2018

William Kentridge in Manchester

I went to see the William Kentridge exhibition, 'Thick Time' over at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester last week. Every time I go to see a Kentridge exhibition I find something new to think about and something else for me as an artist to aspire to. There are very few artists that I can revisit over and over again and still find myself engaged and thinking about how my awareness of the world changes as I look at it through his lens. This is not to say that his work is great or profound, just that the way he struggles to put together narratives about his own experiences of the world seems to chime in some way with my own. I'm older than he is, but only by five years, so my upbringing, although far away in the English Black Country, was in some ways similar. He was though from a very intellectual and well connected family; Clement Greenberg came to tea at Kentridge's family home when William was a young man, and I think it probably took some courage to not be directly influenced by Greenberg's powerful modernist doctrine. I had to reject Greenberg's ideas as anti-working class via a different route, but both of us needed to find a way of saying things about the world by using metaphor. Art for a long time seemed to reject narrative and analogy. These were things I always wanted art to include, but I spent many years having to fight for some sort of acceptance that what I was doing was ok, that it could be seen as legitimate fine art practice. Even now, I sometimes get accused of being too illustrational, but it doesn't worry me any more, I just get on with what I do. 

From 'Thick Time'

Kentridge uses metaphor in a layered way and this time I made sure I sat in with his animated installations long enough to see them through and to get an idea of what they were like if you moved into different positions to listen to them as well as watch them unfold. In doing this you get a better idea of the correspondence between the processes of his making and processes we find in the world itself. He has said himself that drawing is analogous to thought, and that for him, "the activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world". More recently his drawing concerns have moved on from being a type of thinking, (epistemological research) to becoming much more about a state of being, about worlds that are places to inhabit, as well as a process out of which worlds arrive. (Ontological investigations). He has also commented that we "actively construct our world as we go through it", something that is also  what we do when we draw. 

Thick time

The processes that Kentridge uses such as animation or printmaking are also metaphoric; animation moves through time and therefore appears to Kentridge as a medium ideally suited to dealing with history. Printmaking pushes information from loaded plates onto paper proofs, the press squeezing the ink into the papers operating as some sort of 'proving' process as well as 'proofing' process. The texts about his practice, all state that Kentridge is working through his South African trauma. I'm not sure what I'm working through, perhaps it's the British post industrial and post colonial loss of identity and the realisation of what it is to live in a multicultural society in a time of global warming. Or perhaps it's just that I have dreams and need to get them out of my head. When I make animations I'm not using them like Kentridge as metaphors for historical change, I'm trying to deal with change as a process that simply unfolds as part of the everyday, as well as realising that so much of what we do is repetition, this is why I try and make my animations looped. 

A dog with eyes on its body

This dog was the first animation I ever made, I know it's really basic, but the fact that the dog keeps running, keeps trying to get to the edge of the frame, but never quite gets there, was what fascinated me and this was what I decided was the deeper metaphor for myself, not an ever changing history but a sense of Sisyphean activity endlessly repeated. 

Neither man nor bird

In this case I tried to draw an animated image whereby man's aspirations, in this case to be able to fly, prevents the bird from taking its natural course. By one trying to catch or control the other, neither is able to do what they need to. The man endlessly stuck trying to hold on to the bird, hoping it will lift him off the ground, the bird struggling to fly, but being held down by the weight of the man. It's very crude, and I learnt this crudity from Kentridge, it seemed to me to be the only way to avoid having my work being compared to the sophistication of modern CGI animation techniques. This image is simply an animation made of a very quickly put down set of drawings, executed on several sheets of A4 tracing paper, with a dip in pen and a little ink wash. As the washes were added the paper crinkled up, and it is this crinkling that makes the background tonal changes. The drawings were not even laid on top of each other to ensure a smooth transition from one frame to the next, I just drew them in a line, one after the other. At the time of drawing this image I felt that the rough stupidity of human actions could not be over estimated and I haven't changed my mind. Kentridge's images are less pessimistic than my own and he has a sense of history leading towards a better life, something I'm not so sure about. Showing alongside the Kentridge at the Whitworth was another wonderful exhibition of Goya and Hogarth prints. Both artists were grim chroniclers of human folly and I see no reason to disagree with their take on things, we still repeat the same mistakes and I'm sure both Goya and Hogarth would recognise the base elements of greed, xenophobia and hatred that continue to exist, even when economic conditions are such that so many more of us now exist above the poverty line. 



If you can, do go to the Whitworth to see this. Kentridge has used several different ways of installing video projections as well as using sound to add emphasis to his narratives. He also has large textiles and cabinets of drawings on display, so there are various ways of dealing with presentation for those of you interested in moving image and sound art, as well as excellent work using more traditional formats. 

William Kentridge: tapestry

See also:

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Drawing sound: Spectrograms, vibration and religion

A visualisation of the word 'heard' spoken by an Australian English speaking male.

Everyone remembers that moment when the teacher's chalk made an awful screech as it was drawn across the blackboard. It just for a moment resonated with the board and produced a sound that went up under your fingernails and hit some spot in the back of your head and hurt you. Those moments are important to recall because they remind us of how sound and the body are inseparable, just as light directly affects us, sound and its vibrations tune us into the rest of the world. Sometimes a sound will cause the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck, the latin word 'horreo', from which we derive the word 'horror', used to mean to dread, shudder or bristle. Adorno states in his Aesthetic Theory, that the first sign of the world having an emotional effect upon us is goosebumps and it could be added when the hair stands up on the back of your neck. I.e. aesthetics begins in bodily responses. 

Visualisation of OM

Eastern religious cultures have understood this for thousands of years, and so has Western Christianity, but because Eastern religions have seen great value in a body/mind interconnection they have tended to celebrate and use this understanding to deepen a connection with the world, whilst within certain areas of Christian thought the deep sensual links made by sound were seen to be so transformative that they could distract attention away from thinking about the suffering of Christ, therefore in Church music certain sounds were forbidden. (Pope Gregory banned the use of the augmented fourth, "diabolus in musica") However because of its vibratory possibilities this particular sound was often used in Hindu musical structures and is essential to the sound structure of certain chants. For instance, the resonant chanting of 'OM' it was believed, attuned its chanters into the deep rhythm of the world itself. Timothy Morton recognises this experience as being that of 'the hyper-object', something that can 'only be detected as a ghostly spectrality that comes in and out of phase with normalised human spacetime.' (Morton, 2013, p. 169). 

Think of your breath as the air of the world being pulled into your body and then it being pushed out in such a way that your body shapes it into a vibrating pattern. This sound pattern mirrors the shape of your chest-throat-mouth and as it goes out into the world it sets up resonating vibrating patterns with all of the other objects it encounters. Like a blind man riding a bicycle and whistling, this sound locates you in the world, but also dissolves you back into it. 

Robert Morris: Box with the sound of its own making: 1961

Within the art world it was John Cage that opened out for us the importance of these things. His pupil, La Monte Young seeing the implication of Cage's teaching realised that if all things had their own resonant patterns, perhaps instead of seeing musical instruments as things humans played, they could be seen as objects that humans could interact with, and in doing so help release the possibilities inherent in their physical construction. Robert Morris had already intuited this type of idea with 'A box with the sound of its own making', but La Monte Young took this even further with 'The well tuned piano' a piece he began in 1964 and first performed 10 years later. 

La Monte Young: 'The well tuned piano' 

Marian Zazeela often worked in collaboration with La Monte Young, she used slides of still images and coloured gels that were blended in very slow dissolves from one to the next in order to create optical effects that were designed to mirror the effects being made by La Monte's sounds. 

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela: The Black Album

Marian Zazeela: Untitled 1967

Dream House: Young and Zazeela

Young and Zazeela were key figures in that hippy movement that sought to liberate us from the world of post war realities and at the time in the 1960s they seemed to offer a much more spiritual response to the growing spectre of consumerism than 'Pop Art' and the mirroring of consumerist products that it was offering. However, unfortunately, (in my mind) it was 'Pop Art', Andy Warhol and his progeny Jeff Koons, that went on to dominate the future concerns of the art world. Warhol was easy to 'get' and spiritual concerns worked directly against the might of the capitalist project.

Consumerism has by now become the dominant factor in society and I believe it is time to revisit work such as that done by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, especially now that digital technology is reshaping our vision of what things are and could be. In many ways new technology opens doors into areas of thinking that were not available in the 1960s, especially the way that it allows us to see sound and hear vision. We are also living in a time whereby we need to think more about how humans interact with the world and if we are to release the possibilities inherent in more sensitive interactions, we also need to remind ourselves that we ought not to be to profit from these things, but to establish our interconnectedness with the world and the wider web of life. 

In a previous post on Eye Music I looked at historical examples of artists trying to visualise sound and the book 'Thought-Forms', by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater was introduced as a key text. However since the advent of digital technologies everything that enters the digital world is convertible into anything else. After all for the computer it's all a matter of switches being in a particular pattern of ons and offs.  Translation, something we have also looked at before, is done all the time because of the nature of the medium, everything becoming a pattern of ons or offs and in the case of a visual representation of a sound we now have a wide range of differing software packages that can generate spectrograms. spectrogram is a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies of sound signals as they vary with time. Spectrograms are sometimes called sonographs, voiceprints, or voicegrams. When the data is represented in 3D plotted graphs they are sometimes called waterfalls and in that simile we have a connection that reminds us that everything is interdependent and that all is movement and vibration. A form, like a waterfall when looked at closely becoming empty, emptiness when explored becoming simply gaps in the pattern. I'm told that this situation is dealt with in Buddhism by the Heart Sutra. In this sutra we are reminded that any philosophies or expositions as to the nature of the world are mere statements about reality, they are not reality itself, and that the ultimate truth is beyond mental understanding.

The Heart Sutra
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.
“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.
“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.
Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.
Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.
“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.
“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

But we still suffer. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T S Elliot writes; 'But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen', images of this sort remind us of how patterns can be found in everything and that life itself can be visualised as the woven thread that follows our passage through time. Prufrock was however still suffering, his nerves jangled as he he saw their pattern. As we can see, poems can be visualised, but in this translation some things are lost and others gained.

Herr von Ribbeck auf Ribbeck im Havelland' by Theodor Fontane: re-visualised

Theodor Fontane's poem becomes a new object, its internal links revealed to suggest a new organic reality, still dependent on the original poem but a new thing in its own right that reveals a totally different series of associations never apparent in the linear narrative of the poem. Gradually text becomes vibration pattern, like the sound of many voices mixing, a hum of sound that is an essential part of being both sender and receiver. 

Words in space are now part of the data stream and the data stream threatens to reshape us as its algorithms respond to our needs and desires and begin to both feed us and shape us at the same time. If both digital and analogical drawing is seen as vibration patterning it can be seen as an area to fuse together thinking about our interconnectedness with everything, we just need to find better ways of understanding how to use both old and new drawing technologies.

Heike Weber

The work of Heike Weber in many ways harks back to the images Bridget Riley and Marian Zazeela developed during the 1960s, working in an immersive installation direction, her drawings cover floors, ceilings and walls. You can see a connection in her work with the surfaces of geometric patterns developed in Islamic art and you get a feeling that work of this sort has many more possibilities for reflecting on ideas concerning pattern and space. 

Islamic tile pattern

The sound/art genre Black Midi so called because there are so many notes in each piece that a score would look nearly black if it was set out as traditional sheet music, is an area where you can find contemporary approaches to sound/vision mixes and interestingly a lot of these results are collective, like the Islamic tile pattern a product of many minds rather than an individual. 

Black Midi selection

The internet itself can be seen as a pattern and as we enter into cyberspace, this post being one tiny vibration in this digital pattern, perhaps this is a glimpse of how in future artists may begin to visualise both electronic and spiritual realities.  

A visualisation of the Internet

Some technical information that might be useful if you are thinking of using sound visualisation techniques.

A sonic visualiser is a program that is used visualize the sound spectrum (a more detailed explanation can be found here). Additionally, there are also programs (such as Coagula and Metasynth) that allow users to easily convert any image into an audio file (you can even find a video tutorial on YouTube).

Oscilloscopes have long been used to turn sound wavelengths into graphical images and they are the precursors of spectrographs. 

Oscilloscopes used to called oscillographs because of the way they were used to visually represent varying signal voltages, they operated by providing a two-dimensional plot of one or more signals as a function of time set of against a graph.  Signals (such as sound or vibration) are converted to voltages and then displayed. 

Oscilloscopes are used to observe the change of an electrical signal over time, which can be described by a shape that is continuously graphed against a calibrated scale. The oscilloscope can be adjusted so that repetitive signals can be observed as a continuous shape on the screen. A storage oscilloscope allows single events to be captured by the instrument and displayed for a relatively long time, allowing observation of events too fast to be directly perceptible.
Special-purpose oscilloscopes may be used for such purposes as displaying the waveform of your heartbeat as an electrocardiogram, a reminder that the body is controlled by a pumping heart and that a messy wet sticky thing lies at the centre of all this technological information. 
An electrocardiogram


Adorno, T (2013) Aesthetic Theory London: Bloomsbury p.331

Morton, T (2013) Hyperobjects London: Minnesota Press

Sound is materially invisible but very visceral and emotive. It can define a space at the same time as it triggers a memory -Susan Philipsz

See also:

Eye Music
Jorinde Voigt Drawing as notation
Drawing and quantum theory
Drawing as translation