by Shailaja Tripathi Jul 03, 2020
The purpose of art is to tell a story; and to do so effectively, the work of art has to have sensorial engagement with the viewer. And in this context, we most often rely upon the visual. Paintings and sculptures, installations and moving image (video) – they all primarily employ the optical sense. That said, we seldom realise that the one sense that remains active even while we are asleep is our ability to hear. Sound has the ability to change emotional frame of mind – after all, there is nothing like the caw of a seagull to make you feel like you are at the beach! And sound is the chosen media for artist and researcher Farah Mulla. Currently she is focused on the “invisible architectures of locations (urban and rural) and their acoustic ecologies,” and her projects “bring attention to our sonic environment and address the invisible agency of sonic architecture to take form in public interventions, soundscape recordings and writing”.
STIR speaks with Mulla on her inspirations and her sound-art practice.
Rahul Kumar (RK): From science to art, how did this transition happen? Please also tell us how the study of these distinct disciplines influences your practice?
Farah Mulla (FM): While at university, I pursued science as I found the line of thought and enquiry to be relatable as it fed my curiosity about how things work. It wasn’t until the second year of my Masters in Geology that I realised I needed a more creative outlet. I was already exhibiting my work by then. So with the encouragement of a dear friend and my family I decided to find that creative outlet and went on to study art. Having never viewed science and art as distinct categories it didn’t feel like much of a transition to me as they always have informed one another. So, apart from switching courses in the educational system, I didn’t really notice much of a difference in my approach to learning. Since I don’t sketch, each work starts as an experiment, a small part of a whole installation.
RK: You use sound to create your art and also for therapy. How do the basics differ for the two purposes?
FM: Experiments is where things begin to take form for me. The act of questioning our perceptions and what makes something a fact is often a point of departure. My work, be it an art installation, writing, or therapy is about exploring these aural experiences. It is via this curiosity regarding the listening experience that I stumbled upon sound therapy. I was at odds with the idea that sound could cure and replace medical intervention. So, along with a colleague (Dr. Hoffstader) we started observing people’s brain activity with EEG scans during therapy sessions. We discovered that while the study participants were fast asleep, there was no indication of this on their brain scans. In fact, their brain patterns showed increased activity, almost as if they were wide awake. Whether or not sound cures, we know that it has the ability to deeply relax people. And in this day and age if you can make anyone relax, I feel it’s worth the pursuit.
RK: A significant part of your study orients around exploring possibilities of human experience of sound in relation to time, space and the visual. Please share how this journey has been and what have been some of the interesting discoveries for you?
FM: I think the most valuable part of my job is to be able to learn and explore something new every day. Having the flexibility to adapt and apply it in various outlets is something I have always been grateful for as a creative researcher. Seeing people of all ages letting their guard down and behaving like children is the biggest compliment and encouragement to my installation work. It has been quite challenging, but being able to disseminate this understanding in various mediums, platforms and outlets has been the most valuable and interesting part of the journey. From making movie soundtracks with an old rusted gate (for the National Poetry competition, 2014) to having my research on ASMR being included in a documentary (that premiered at The BFI London Film Festival, 2019), and from delivering lectures at architecture conferences to conducting listening workshops for corporate organisations around the world.
RK: Sound is an invisible agency. How does the very perception of experiencing your work change with varied visuals while engaging with your work?
FM: Primarily selected to reflect the intent of the sound, the visuals draw in the viewer to engage with the installation. This visual vocabulary also determines how the viewers interact with the work. Some of my installations have been just sounds in an empty dark room, wherein the sound of the audience is reflected back to them (Aural Mirror, 2013) and works that have used the sound of the viewer and converted them into visuals (Crosstalk, 2019). There have also been works that have taken the form of travelling QR codes narrating stories of migrants (Translat, 2017) to a kinetic aeolian harp (Windschatten, 2016) made of discarded plastic bottles that generated sounds in response to the ambient intensity and direction of the wind.
RK: You say “multitude of languages spoken in Mumbai (India), I have tried to erase meaning making systems, which could be comprehended by some people but totally irrelevant to others. This socio-linguistic overlap is the noise of our culture – our acoustic ecology…”. Through your installation titled The Invisible Generation, are you also attempting to comment on the politics of sound?
FM: All sounds, be it language, silence, the voice and noise have immense potential to be politically charged. The human voice is a vessel of language, intonation, accent and ‘the who’ of who is uttering. The spoken word is always political, it becomes even more charged with the act of recording and replaying. This particular work had recordings of various personal narratives in different languages interspersed over each other. It was an open work wherein the viewers’ movements within the space made certain narratives louder than the others amongst the flux of recorded noise. Noise is relational; its presence relies on an assemblage of perceivers, generators, ideas, geographies and materials. Noise does, in fact, create a meaning; first, because the interruption of a message signifies censorship; and second, because the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message un-channels auditory sensations and frees the listener’s imagination.
RK: Please share with us your current (and ongoing) projects.
FM: Currently I am on a break, which happened to coincide with the lockdown. While I unwind from the whirlwind that was last year, I am slowly beginning to unpack bits of research on sensory overlaps and materiality. It has been a thread of interest since the beginning of my research. I find myself playing with a lot of different texts, sounds and circuits. Trying to understand the alchemy of immaterial entities such as sounds and ideas to manifest a material and bodily experience. As I mentioned earlier, it is here within the experimental states that the works take form.