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When artists started working in film and photography, new media in the modern era, both media seemed like a natural extension of the visual image. Sound then entered; various movements, like the Dadaists and the Fluxus happenings, introduced it into the gallery space—John Cage being the most well-known early experimenter in the field.

Often combined with images or sculpture or performance, it tends to be multidisciplinary in both presentation and production—the sound could be song, music, voice, found recordings, electronic experimentations, or silence as in Cage’s 4’33’’. Early expressions have evolved with technology; today, from Christian Marclay to Mithu Sen, sound is used in collages of vinyl clippings (Marclay) to pure utterance—in Sen’s garbled verbiage in I Am a Poet, one is forced to listen: Hearing is the new seeing.

When Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010, it was the first time that a sound artist had won Britain’s top artist award. In Lowlands, her voice singing Scottish chants filled the gallery space. Philipsz talks of sound as sculpture, of how she uses sound to define a space, how one becomes more aware of the space one is in and how it heightens the sense of self.

A similar experiential evening is promised in The Way of Light, a site-specific light and sound performance in Mumbai that will be presented by Experimenta India, an artist-run platform that supports film and sound experimentation, next week. Sound artist Michael Northam, experimental film-maker Shumona Goel, production/ costume designer Tabasheer Zutshi and cinematographer/ film-maker Avijit Mukul Kishore have chosen to show outside the gallery space; the very ephemeral nature of the work would seem at odds linked with commerce.

Terming their skills an exercise in introspection, they question frenzied city living. Sceptical of the urban yearning to escape to idyllic landscapes to restore balance, they take a sensorial combining of objects, light, sound and the viewer, and ponder whether the inward journey is the answer—the opening up of awareness through the consciousness of self and the suspension of time. In periodic episodes lasting roughly 45 minutes each, viewers will be seated in a specially mapped concentric circle arrangement while the artists riff off each other, much like improvisation in jazz. Here though, the sound is reduced to an elemental form—a particular frequency, or microphones embedded in hardened fungi the fingers swirl upon, even as a fan gently stirs a tanpura’s strings. Non-melodic, it rises and fades, interrupts and moves. Speakers are placed around the space and in the artists’ hands as they move around, hoping to transport the listener/viewer into a transformative space. Collected objects are placed around, areas lit up strategically, the whole atmosphere an organic orchestration.

Performances like these beget questions—what exactly is this? Meditation? Art? The artists want this ambiguity—an open-endedness to the experience—unsure if this will work or not; the unsurety as much theirs as it is the audience’s. More so, in the format it plays out the viewer becomes the site specific, the object, so to speak, even as sound and light are used by the artists in a set space and time.

In semi-darkness, The Way of Light hopes, in the literal dilatation of the pupil of the eye’s adjustment, to start the waking of an inner consciousness. In that it uses sound and performance to enhance this, listening does become the new seeing, the dropping of one’s guard to enter the suspended moment: the “Way" the artists hope to light up. If there’s a faint ritualistic aspect, it’s only apt that the performance is within the halls of theological study—although this experience is within the spirituality of art, a “religion" of another kind.

The Way of Light will be held on 10-11 April, 7-7.45pm and 8.30-9.15pm, at the KR Cama Oriental Institute, #136, Ground floor, opposite Lion Gate, Bombay Samachar Marg, Fort, Mumbai.

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