New York

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida at Fridman Gallery

It is a strange thing to sit in a room for an hour and experience two people producing something unrecognizable. When successful, the relationship between the audience and the performers depends on generosity and trust. We, the audience, trust that we will be entertained, and so we open ourselves to the possibilities of the experience. In exchange for our receptivity, they, the performers, abandon certainty and create. On January 6, 2016, Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida did just that. Emanating unselfconscious enthusiasm, Rosenfeld and Vida’s event kicked off Fridman Gallery’s inaugural edition of its New Ear Festival dedicated to sound and performance.

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida. New Ear Festival, 2016 (performance still); sound performance. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery.

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida. New Ear Festival, 2016 (performance still); sound performance. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery.

Forgoing any sensational visual effects, Rosenfeld and Vida stood behind two industrial tables, equipped with a modest array of electronic devices and illuminated by comfortably dim lighting. Despite their similarly minimalist setups, each performer interacted with her or his materials with distinctly different approaches. Rosenfeld, who used a pair of turntables, a mixer, and a stack of vinyl records, danced around like Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia. Her movements evoked the cartoon mouse’s theatrical gesturing and delight at realizing he could make the objects and elements do his bidding—though she didn’t meet a disastrous end. Vida, meanwhile, bent with concentration over his mixer and modular synthesizer as he adjusted knobs amid an eruption of wires.

Most people take for granted the complex processes that allow for human sensory perception—at least until we encounter something out of the norm. The reason stems from the extreme impracticality of, for example, performing a step-by-step analysis of what it means to hear something, every time a sound is heard. But it can be equally detrimental to ignore the complex series of biological events that must occur for a human to function. When we take for granted our bodies, we take for granted our humanity. Unlike sight, which is active only during waking and open-eyed states, we cannot shut our ears.[1] Indeed, even in a space devoid of sound, we still hear ourselves. The artist and composer John Cage demonstrated this in the 1940s with his infamous visit to an anechoic chamber—a room designed to completely absorb any sounds—in which he heard two tones: the hums of his circulatory system and nervous system. Because vision is typically considered the dominant sense, hearing continues to be greatly misunderstood. In an essay on hearing, the theorist Jonathan Sterne summarizes: “The simple act of hearing implies a medium for sound, a body with ears to hear, a frame of mind to do the same, and a dynamic relation between hearer and heard that allows for the possibility of mutual effects.”[2]

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida. New Ear Festival, 2016 (performance still); sound performance. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery.

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida. New Ear Festival, 2016 (performance still); sound performance. Courtesy of Fridman Gallery.

During Rosenfeld and Vida’s sonorous interaction, I sat and wondered about my relationship with them and their performance. The sounds they created ranged from the organic and intelligible—bits of human speech and instrumental music—to the otherworldly yet oddly familiar. Rosenfeld produced sounds that mimicked the comforting crackle of a low-burning fire by amplifying the sound of the records’ scratched and dusty surfaces. By manipulating one record, she generated a low, oscillating croak, like that of a laughing toad. Even if they began as recognizable, each sonic progression would disintegrate into abstraction, eliminating any illusion that the sounds originated from anything but the performers. When I closed my eyes, I was not transported to another site, world, or time. Instead, I was firmly rooted in the present. The experience was similar to that of listening to and watching someone do a celebrity impression. For example, no matter how expertly an impressionist presents the voice of Katharine Hepburn, I will never be fooled into thinking that she has suddenly turned into the late actress. And yet I recognize the voice, which makes Hepburn seem present, provoking a rupture between reality and my expectations. Unlike a celebrity impressionist, Rosenfeld and Vida created impressions of originary phenomena; both esoteric and mundane, the sounds fluctuated between representation and negation of the known. Through this uncertainty, the performers asked the audience to consider what it means to sit in a room and listen to strange sounds—eliciting a consideration of a component of what it means to be human.

Marina Rosenfeld and Ben Vida performed at Fridman Gallery on January 6, 2016.

 

[1] For the purposes of this review, I am considering the part of the human population with functioning auditory and visual perception.

[2] Jonathan Sterne, “Hearing,” Keywords in Sound, ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Duke University, 2015), 65.

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