Critical Distance

sound machine – Noise of Wonder: Michael Dumontier and T.R. Elliott
September 1 – September 23, 1995

a response to the exhibition by Marian Butler

The Oxford Universal Dictionary states that wonder is the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.

When I entered the dimly lit Ace Art for the unveiling of Michael and Tom’s sound-machine I was immediately struck by how great it felt to have all of the walls bare, and the the floor of the gallery space clear. Freedom was my first reaction, similar to the kind I feel when presented with a blank piece of paper or safe territory for my seven month old daughter to maneuver around in. The double edge is that it is also the kind of freedom that could become inhibiting if fear is allowed to seep into my system. Luckily I know Michael and Tom already. What could they do to frighten me? Still there is something in my subconscious that makes me wonder if the sound coming at me from the intercom located over my shoulder is really an inaudible warning “to run for my life” and I’m simply not able to decipher its code. I continue on.

On the wall across from the entrance is a shelf with copies of 5 artists statements. The first one reads: “Language is a debris that is, at best, sufficiently fixed. We try to be honest, if not always accurate.” I look back out at the gallery and think about something Italo Calvino had written in Mr. Palomar on The Blackbird’s Whistle. He could have easily been describing the sound in Ace Art gallery: “the invisible birds among the boughs around him display a repertory of the most varied manifestations of sound; they enfold him in an acoustic space that is irregular, discontinuous, jagged; but thanks to an equilibrium established among the various sounds, none of which outdoes the others in intensity or frequency, all is woven into a homogeneous texture, held together not by harmony but by lightness and transparency.”1

I am drawn to the source of the sound beyond the back door of the gallery. This room normally acts as a storage space. Draped over the wall to the right of the storage entrance are two black hoses, about six feet long. They look like the kind of hoses you might otherwise find attached to a home vacuum cleaner. But the lighting, being the way it is, creates shadows that resemble Richard Tuttle’s Rope Piece from the 70’s or an exterior component of a more recent Rebecca Horn installation. If I hold a hose up to my ear, I can hear the outside of the inside. Like a child trying to see through a peep hole and wondering what’s beyond I enter the room on the other side of the wall bearing the hoses. This is where it looks as though it could get scary. The back 40 space of Ace Art is the complete opposite of the sparse handling of the gallery. It is jam packed from floor to ceiling with everything and anything I can imagine — Ping pong balls, a wading pool, an oven grate, scraps of wood, pieces of cardboard tubing, wire, funnels, pipes, fishing line, renovated record players, duct tape, fans, more duct tape, whirl-a-gig kinds of things, cookie tins, hose, hair pins, pulleys, chains, motors, speakers, microphones, fragments of diet coke cans, keys, coins and more. Michael and Tom have taken apart these familiar objects and reassembled them into sound making devices, disregarding the rules about staying within the lines or that encourage us to keep things neat and tidy. Walking along the cleared path between kinetic constructions, I feel as though I could be visiting a magical toy shop housed in the imagination. I try to describe my response. Again an odd sensation of fear tickles my spine. I am reminded of the theme for the 1992 Dislocations Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art where “entering unfamiliar territory means accepting the possibility of losing your way.”2 Yet here there is a constant almost hypnotic drone threading together the unexpected and what appears to be unexplainable. There are some very rhythmic combinations juxtaposed with the more random accidental noises.

Something of an event always remains in the air, and is continually disturbed. (Conversations are always emanating from numerous spatio-temporal positions) We don’t know if anything is lost for good, or what you can keep. (from 5 artists statements) I have returned to the exhibition four times in the past week. I keep trying to see the ping pong ball/wading pool component of the sound-machine work. If only I had been more patient at the opening I wouldn’t have missed the particulars about it. Yet it’s not as though what appears to be irretrievable is destroying my overall experience. Quite the opposite. The breaking down and fixing up of the sound-machine becomes part of the metamorphosis of the event. By my fourth visit, the ping pong ball/wading pool device is now working and I’m grateful for the time I had without it. Every time I have returned to spend time with the work, I’ve had a completely different experience. Again I think about what Storr has talked about in reference to the Dislocations exhibition: What happens when one steps outside one’s usual environment only to find that one cannot go back, or that once back nothing seems the same? The furniture has been moved, and the memory of its original configuration blurred. Everything is off – slightly or drastically – with “slightly off” the most disconcerting of all possibilities. 3 Perhaps this explains some of my uneasiness.

Funny enough, we remember events, also, as strings and parts. (Joke) reads their third statement. I wonder how my daughter would describe these sounds. “ABOOF” is what she says.

My notes from my third visit read:

clunK about-clunK about-clunK
about-clunK about-clunK about

phriiiiiigh-click phriiiiiigh-click
prhiiiiiing click prhiiiiiigh click
tink tink tink tink tink tink
tink tink tink tink tink tink tink
cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck
cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck
cluck cluck cluck cluck
youare youare my prize plunk Kplunk
plun K youare you are my prize

as well as something like a bean bag being picked up and dropped on a recurring beat and sand paper being scraped across concrete and more.

Number 4 of 5 artists’ statements reads Progress is progress: there is no desired end. Almost 200 years ago, Shelley wrote: ” Know you what is to be a child? It is to believe in love, to believe in belief, it is to turn pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, nothing into everything.” For me the key has been how sound-machine has been a result of nothing being turned into everything. Having a small child makes me think about sounds and language differently. Each day I hold on to the development of her words and sounds. And each day layers are added onto the noise of the previous day. Oddly enough this is a lot like sound-machine. I promise myself that I will hold onto and cherish each and every one of these noises, but my memory working the way it does can only retain the sensations.

One of the most rewarding things I have taken away with me about this piece is the nature of collaboration between Michael and Tom. They have truly and honestly allowed the piece to be spontaneous and the living thing that it is. I believe they are working in a very intuitive way, allowing their inspiration to direct them as opposed to having their egos kill their collective vision. I am humbled by their collaboration and feel my words can not do the sound-machine the justice it deserves. I am filled with wonder. I believe their last statement says it all: this work, the sound machine, is a result of our collaboration and our friendship.

1. Calvino, Italo, Mr. Palomar (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1983), p. 22.
2. Storr, Robert, Dislocations ( New York, N.Y.: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991), p. 18.
3. Storr, Robert, Dislocations ( New York, N.Y.: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991), p. 18.

Marian Butler is an artist living in Winnipeg.