The latest exhibition at Sheffield’s brilliant Site Gallery, with pieces also on show over the way at Sheffield Hallam’s SIA Gallery, has just opened. Listening is part of the Hayward’s Touring Curatorial Open – the result of the third open competition by the Hayward and funded through ACE, to take risks and support new and dynamic curatorial approaches. Curated by Sam Belinfante, the exhibition is entitled Listening. Yet it is not simply a show about sonic art: Sam is quick to explain that this has been done many times over the past decade, and his approach does something different…

Sam is himself an artist, performer, choreographer, interested in sound and movement, and his curatorial practice reflects these interests, as well as his curating being an intrinsic part of his own creative and artistic practice. The exhibition is most definitely a creative and artistic project, choreographed as an immersive experience for the viewer/audience (more on this distinction to follow). I was delighted to go along to the curator-led tour and hear him talk more about the exhibition while also experiencing it for myself. I was also really delighted that lots of the pieces had been commissioned specially for the show, and in dialogue/collaboration with the curator. I find that dynamic approach really exciting.

Enough to pull me in just by virtue of there being a Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller piece in Sheffield again, I was in fact delighted, fascinated and excited by the whole exhibition. Yes, the Cardiff/Miller piece is a classic of sonic art, as terrifying as it is thrilling and gripping (over-active imaginations experience a creepy dark forest, hiding in bushes, confrontation, and a shot being fired – different in scale from the Documenta (13) Alter Bahnhof Walk in 2012 which I walked though and from the 40 part motet Spem in Alium which I’ve sung), but I also made lots of new discoveries… 2013 Turner Prizewinner Laure Prouvost’s amusing and quirky use of theatrical lighting, and playing with museological modes of object display and narrative was one such in her new and rather magical commission for this exhibit, as was Amalia Pica’s rather beautiful Eavesdropping piece (which conjured up so much resonance and memory, and for some reason a bit of the aesthetic of Gabriel Orozco’s Asterisms too).

Mikhail Karikis makes another appearance in the city after his Art Sheffield 2013 Children of Unquiet project. In Listening, we find his amazing SeaWomen, based on the lives of women from Jeju, an island between South Korea, China and Japan, who dive under water for ages at a time to find pearls and edible sea creatures such as starfish, having adapted a remarkable way of making a breathing sound (sumbisori) which means they can dive  deeply. I went to Karikis’ talk about this a couple of years ago, also at Site, and it was amazing to be reunited with these women again. (And for weird reasons, starfish have a bit of a place in my head at the moment, so it was a strange juxtaposition to be sitting on a squidgy black cushion on reed matting, in the middle of Sheffield on a Saturday afternoon, but transported to a jagged seascape and starfish associations…)

As someone who writes a lot about disrupting the hierarchy of the senses, particularly through use of touch in galleries, the thing that struck me most about the whole show was that it really is about an embodied sort of listening. It’s not just focussing on the ears, the aural. It’s about a whole process, entirely sensory, and entirely not just about one sense at a time. It’s not, as Belinfante explained, telling people to ‘listen’, but it’s about what our bodies are doing while we are listening in space, and in time, how this relates to what our eyes are doing, what we touch. Listening.

And for me the piece that really encapsulates an embodied sort of touching/seeing/ listening was Laurie Anderson’s Handphone Table (from the year of my birth, 1978). Sitting at a wooden desk, hands over ears, the visitor/audience places their elbows on a dip in the table, and sounds are transmitted through the arms. It’s amazing. Especially if, like me, you aren’t a physicist or musician who understands audio waves. A real playing with what constitutes listening. Someone asked whether a deaf person would be able to hear the sounds: nobody seemed to know the answer, but it would be fascinating to test.

I really liked Sam’s constant references to etymology. So important in the way our thinking develops. In particular, he talked about the words ‘visitor’ and ‘audience’. ‘Visitor’ stemming from words around that visual ‘top of the tree’ sense (as also, he pointed out are many of our words around ‘thinking’ and ‘ideas’), but ‘audience’ from the audio. Definitely something to think about a bit more. And other things that Listening leaves me pontificating about include:

  • the ethics of audio: Nietzsche apparently said that unlike eyes, ‘the ears have no lids’ – we can’t switch off sounds
  • sometimes we have to contort our bodies sometimes in order to listen
  • there’s something sometimes intimate about listening, at others utterly immense
  • sometimes listening is an absence (SB referred to some works as ‘mute’ – which again is interesting in relation to ethics/ways of perceiving sensory (dis)abilities etc)
  • metaphor, mythology and sound – thunder, time, stars, sirens, ebb and flow, conflict
  • exponential expansion of the senses through focussing in on them

I’m unfortunately not able to go to what sounds like (ha ha!) an amazing Listening Conference event on 25 April: what is the listening body? but Listening has certainly given me a lot to think about, and was a thoroughly beautiful experience too. And I like the way too that it’s a sort of curation of curation of curation of curation…