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Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture

Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture

by Frances Dyson
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009
262 pp.  Trade, $60.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 9780520258983; ISBN: 978-0-520-25899-0.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Frances Dyson's book is populated with more philosophers than may be of use to artists.  She begins with a review of literature, writing about writing about virtuality.  Since Michael Heim's essay in Michael Benedikt's Cyberspace: First Steps (1991)—a book whose importance to this field seems to grow with each passing decade—there has been a cottage industry of philosophy academics wrapping concepts around digital environment artworks.

One section is essentially a wrestling match between John Cage and philosopher Martin Heidegger, with Jacques Derrida occasionally jumping in to referee.  Evidently Henri Bergson influenced both Edgar Varése and Antonin Artaud.  She cites Roland Barthes' trope of the "grain of the voice", and reminds us how the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception took place through the ear.  The author comments on the silence on an anechoic chamber, where one experience's the drum of one's beating heart and audible surge of pumped blood.  This is moment analogous to LSD-takers' oft-told epiphanies of the body's auto-electrochemistry.

She cites Montreal cultural scholar Jonathan Sterne on audio reproduction practices.  There is all too little on radio, a medium insightfully limned by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964) and elsewhere (Does a mural envelope the listener like radio does?  One ponders the resentful right-wing chatter of talk radio in the United States).  Interrogating the political contexts of virtuality, one might draw parallels between what conservatives would call "real life", the school of hard knocks and capitalism's creative destruction.

Yet aurality is but one aspect of immersion's totalizing flux of global capacity, and embodiment in Virtual Reality is primarily by vision, a form of artwork. Dyson is most interesting in the process of engaging with Char Davies' pieces Ephèmere and Osmose, as the author actually recounts her own experience with(in) the artworks.  Catherine Richard's 1991 video artwork Spectral Bodies (and later works), de-mapping and re-mapping the body upon phenomena outside itself, gives Dyson much to contemplate too.

This reviewer might have liked discussion of Another Room, the audio artists' gathering amongst rooftop loudspeakers in Oakland, California in the 1980s, broadcasting soundworks over a nonplussed industrial neighborhood.  Or discussion of Douglas Kahn, author of Noise Water Meat: a History of Sound in the Arts (1999).  Kahn was the assembler/mixmaster of the hilarious tape "Ronald Reagan Speaks for Himself", eerily predictive of the befuddlement that overcame the Great Communicator in the second term of his presidency.  The neglect of Kahn is most surprising, since he collaborated with author Dyson on an installation, pictured on the book's front cover.

The book's concluding chapter cites Michel Gaillot on techno music and rave events, yet the atonal, jarring genres of Industrial and Noise are entirely omitted.  One would have liked a CD to accompany this book, containing at least excerpts of Cage, Varése and others cited to concretize—if that term is appropriate to audio artifacts—the history her book covers.  Frances Dyson's linkage in Sounding New Media of immersive soundworks and virtual worlds by artists is welcome, but in end, too many of the works feel more read about than heard and experienced.  It leaves the reader feeling that the book was written in the library, with the author's iPod left at home.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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