The Drum as a Visual Speaker

Thursday, October 26, 2017

For the past ten years, Anri Sala has been working with sculptural installations that include drums: single drums alongside video installations or configurations of several drums overlaid with sound. Hung upside down or laid on their side, Sala’s drums take on a peculiar anthropomorphic quality. They appear to play themselves or, to be more precise, the music plays them: their sticks move in response to vibrations emanating from speakers hidden within.

When asked about his fascination with this instrument, Sala gives Hitchcock’s Rear Window by way of explanation. In Hitchcock’s film, James Stewart’s character watches neighbours in an apartment building opposite. Sala explains that if you were to watch a neighbour playing violin in the building opposite, without hearing its sound, there would be no way of knowing what song it was they were playing. If, however, your neighbour was playing the drums, the beat of their music would be evident through movement alone. It is this choreographic aspect of the drums that interests Sala most. This inextricable relationship between sound and image is why Sala thinks about the drum as a visual speaker.

One of Sala’s earliest works featuring the drums is his 2009 installation, A Solo in the Doldrums. Sala worked in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Siobhan Davies, who created a dance she performed alone, with only the company of a microphone. Sala used the audio taken from Davies’ performance, modulating the sound into inaudible frequencies that were then played through speakers inside a customised snare drum. Sala liked the idea of a performance that would “never be seen or heard,” but that was audible only as “the sounds of the drumsticks playing to the sound-traces that her dance diffused in the space.”* The results were poetic and intriguing.

Drums are also at the centre of Sala’s 2008 video work Answer Me, in which a young man plays fixedly at a drum set, while a young woman nearby attempts to communicate through speech: inaudible under the din of the drums. Beside her is one of Sala’s customised snare drums, its sticks pattering gently like a third participant in the futile conversation, or a vehicle for her unheard speech. The video cuts to the exterior of the space, showing that the scene takes place inside a cold war listening station, a geometric, industrialised structure intended for the transmission of coded intelligence during the cold war. This constant exchange between architecture, sound and choreography is at the heart of Sala’s practice.

While many of Sala’s works have focussed on the aural and visual qualities of a small configuration of drums, his latest work, The Last Resort, increases that number to 38. Roughly corresponding to sections in an orchestra, Sala’s drums for Kaldor Public Art Project 33 play pre-recordings of multiple instruments, in addition to a secondary track made up of inaudible vibrations. These unheard sounds are translated through the subtle tapping of drumsticks and their choreographic movement as the drums play en masse, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flurry of activity.

The dramatic outdoor location of Sala’s The Last Resort adds another voice to this conversation of sound and movement. The effect of the wind as it blows through the work—installed as it is up high on Sydney’s Observatory Hill—inflects the movement of the drumsticks with an element of unpredictability, as they are bound to respond to the architecture of the Rotunda and the whims of the weather.

*Anri Sala, "Siobhan Davies Dance". 

Image 1: Snare drum detail from Kaldor Public Art Project 33: Anri Sala, The Last Resort, 2017. Video still.

Images 2 & 3: Anri Sala, A Solo in the Doldrums. Photograph: Pari Naderi

Image 4: Still from Anri Sala, Answer Me, 2008. Copyright of Anri Sala, 2011. Courtesy of the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Johnen/Schottle, Galerie Chantel Crousel

Image 5: Anri Sala, The Last Resort, 2017. Photograph: Peter Greig