“RPM” Opens at Colgate, Introduces Sound Art to the World

Alanna Weissman

Little Hall hosted the opening of “RPM: Revolutions Per Minute,” the first sound art survey show anywhere in the world, on Tuesday, March 26. Sponsored by the Christian A. Johnson Foundation, the Colgate Arts Council and the Department of Art & Art History and with the support of the Film & Media Studies Department and MAD Art, the exhibit features 36 sound art pieces by a number of Chinese artists and marks the realization of the “10-year dream” of curators Assistant Professor of Art & Art History Wenhua SHI and Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Visiting Artist-in-Residence Dajuin YAO.

The three main goals of the exhibit are “to see Chinese contemporary society/art scene through the lens of sound art and pass this knowledge to new audiences, to have the opportunity for a historical reexamination of the development of sound art in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and finally to encourage the possibility of collaboration among artists (some artists haven’t met each other), and collaboration between U.S. and Chinese artists,” SHI said.

“The inspiration is that Chinese sound art sort of started around 2003, and it’s been around ten years, so I was thinking that we should do some kind of retrospective, a large-scale retrospective, since there hasn’t been anything like that in China,” YAO said.

Though the works comprising “RPM” are concentrated on the second floor of Little Hall – where there are currently 24 works, many of which are interactive or feature accompanying visual pieces – they also appear in other, more unexpected places around Colgate and in Hamilton, such as the Persson steps, the tunnel between McGregory and Olin Halls and the former Crowe’s Pharmacy.

The highly anticipated opening reception on Tuesday featured remarks by Professor and Chair of Art & Art History Robert McVaugh, SHI, YAO and five other sound artists whose work is featured in the exhibit: XU Cheng, Samson YOUNG, QU Qianwen, XIE Zhongqi and WANG Changcun. The opening, which also featured a tour of “RPM’s” outdoor works, was the first of the week’s many sound art events; there were also live performances in the Hall of Presidents (HOP) on Wednesday, March 27, and in the Ho Tung Visualization Lab on Thursday, March 28, a discussion panel on Friday and five workshops – with topics including “Brainwave Composition” and “Real-Time Audio-Visual Performance” – throughout the week.

In particular, workshop attendees expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn about and practice the medium, which was unfamiliar to many students.

“I enjoyed the exhibit, especially going to the workshops,” studio art concentrator and junior Jessica Aquino said. “It really brought into perspective the artwork and it furthered my appreciation of creating sound art, which is something I have heard of, but have never seen done. And in one of the workshops I did just that. It really made me reflect on just how much we have expanded the meaning of art and expanded from the conventional use of artistic mediums.”

“Sound art is the art of the listening,” SHI said. “Artists use sound as the most prominent medium within their work. Today sound art could be phonographic field recording, musique concrete, computer improvisation, audio-visual work, noise performance, sound sculpture and installation.”

Further, though many of the works involve Chinese speech and characters, visitors to the exhibit need not fear a language barrier.

“I think language is not that much a barrier for this show, because there are things that are difficult to understand not because of the language, but because sound art is a language. If you could come and experience that, I think that’s the most important thing,” YAO said. “Just look at the show, because with sound art you have to experience it. There’s no way to summarize it or to scan through it, you have to be there in real time. That’s the difference between sound art and other media.”

Though the opening week festivities are now over, “RPM” will be accessible, with compilation CDs on sale, through closing night on April 26, when the artists will debut a piece created with the help of the Colgate and Hamilton communities.

“At Colgate and in Hamilton, we want everyone to participate and help create a sound project. We are collecting sounds of Colgate and Hamilton. During the closing night, the final Hamilton sound project will be on view,” SHI said.

Visitors are invited to contribute their own recordings; more information about the exhibit, the artists and this project is available at www.rpm13.com.