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A book review of Against Ambience by Seth Kim-Cohen

A book review of Against Ambience by Seth Kim-Cohen

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Published by Joseph Nechvatal
A book review of Against Ambience by Seth Kim-Cohen
A book review of Against Ambience by Seth Kim-Cohen

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Published by: Joseph Nechvatal on Jun 30, 2014
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A book review of 
  Against Ambience 
 by Seth Kim-Cohen by
Joseph NechvatalPublished at on-verge
Seth Kim-Cohen’s concise but punchy e-book
 Against Ambience
 puts forth a fervently pithy polemic aimed at what he determined was an epidemic of anti-conceptual ambient
sound and light exhibitions in New York City last summer (2013); citing: Robert Irwin atthe Whitney, James Turrell at the Guggenheim,
 at MoMA, Janet Cardiff at theMet, the show
 at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (curated by Tim Griffin), and
TheString and The Mirror 
 show at the Lisa Cooley Gallery. Whether or not you agree withhim that seven exhibitions, out of the hundreds open that summer in New York, form anepidemic or not, he does identify an interesting anti-object totalizing trend today that picks up where some art-and-technology work of the 1960s and 70’s (Op Art and KineticArt, principally) left off: with an attraction for immersive visual and sound art that tendsto wash over us in ambient ways.First off, it was wonderfully refreshing to read someone of competence capable of thinking and talking about visual art and audio art and art theory in the same breath, particularly from the point of view of artist-musician-scholar/theorist. Kim-Cohen is allof that (and does that) seamlessly here. That alone is a golden offering to a marketobsessed art world, and what attracted me first to this, his third, book. Here he attributesthis perceived desire for ambience as an undesirable response to information overload(page 278) and rightfully thanks Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange for their service to humanity. With these assertions, I certainly agree.Some history of ambience is established, initially (ambience as a modality routinelyassociated with the surrounding ephemeral qualities of sound) so the author can later takeissue with certain aspects of ambient aesthetics (mostly the overvaluing of a mute phenomenological perception that is destroying our criticality) and attack what he sees asthe shrinking conceptual turn in the arts today. Thus, one would expect (and receiveshere) an adequate review of John Cage’s non-silence, along with the formation of BrianEno’s ambient music ideals as conceived from his sick bed. Certainly Cage’s influenceon Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s light work is also established, as they both workedin an anechoic chamber as part of the Art and Technology project at the Los AngelesCounty Museum of Art in the late 1960s. Of course, in the early 1950s, after visiting ananechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage reached the celebrated conclusion that there is nosuch thing as silence - and Turrell arrived at an equivalent conclusion concerning light.
But I was surprised, delighted and intrigued with his use of cutting-edge Object OrientedOntology (OOO) philosopher Timothy Morton and his notion of ambient poetics, asMorton, that same summer, dropped the year’s most eagerly waited e-book on aesthetics:
 Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality
 where Morton directly ties aesthetics tocausality.It is due to what Kim-Cohen sees as a lack of this level of conceptualism (evencomparing Op Art and this ambient trend, disapprovingly) that provokes him to thunder (like King Kong) against the overly perceptual characteristics of ambience; a fault that hesees commensurate with a loss of conceptualism (he connects this deficiency with thedeath of one of Conceptual Art’s chief promoters; Seth Siegelaub, that occurred that samesummer), trouncing ambient art’s seemingly necessarily subtle, soft, and fuzzy qualities.This loss he reads as a regrettable move towards further cultural industrial spectacle of the sort that Theodor Adorno warned us of in his book
 Aesthetic Theory
 - where Adornourged art and aesthetics to resist such integration through formal difficulty - and awayfrom the art world’s previous embrace of engagements with criticality, new media, philosophy, economics, gender, identity, and interpersonal relations at the level of individuals, organizations, corporations, and nation-states. (page 18)Working this perhaps unnecessary polarity to its end, Kim-Cohen goes so far as toconjecture if the popularity of this modality of ambience signals the end of conceptualism. But this is something I see too little evidence of, both in this book andaround the art world. My feeling is that he just needs to hold ambient art and sound to thehigher standard of an immersive art that does not preference the style of quiet meditationand color transcendentalism over visceral engagement, such as that I experienced at
Smolenski’s brilliant immersive bell piece
 Everything Wa
 s F 
Until I 
o Mo
that was perfectly presented at the Polish Pavilion that same summer at theVenice Biennale. Indeed, if Kim-Cohen’s assertion that conceptualism is over andambient aesthetics rule, Smolenski would have won the Golden Lion award (I think heshould have) rather than the relationalist, Tino Sehgal.

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