Curtis Tamm conducting fieldwork in East Iceland for The Viscous Shape; photograph by collaborator Hermione Spriggs, 2016

Curtis Tamm conducting fieldwork in East Iceland for The Viscous Shape; photograph by collaborator Hermione Spriggs, 2016

How to Make One's Self into a Siren: An Acoustemological Mix by Curtis Tamm—Part 2

LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab is pleased to present a special audio mix by 2017 LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient Curtis Tamm. As part of his project, Tympanic Tether, the artist conducted audio visual fieldwork in geologically active parts of the world to re-evaluate the relationship between culture and natural catastrophes. Traveling to Santorini, Greece, Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., East Iceland, and multiple locations in Japan, he researched the experiential and technological origins of the siren as a warning device and developed a series of new “siren candidates.” Far from typical sirens, the sounds in the mix aim to heal trauma.

This is a continuation of our conversation with Tamm discussing his research and travels and learning why it may be worth rethinking the role of the aural warning siren in our lives today.

In one of our recent conversations, you told me about how Los Angeles/Hollywood used to have "rehearsals" for nuclear attacks during the Cold War. How does this fit into your research?

Between 1942 and 1985 hundreds of aural warning sirens would wail throughout Los Angeles every last Friday of the month. Many of the sirens are still standing today, but the city has since abandoned them. News articles and other documents from that era are charged with a potent sense of fear; people were on edge about the shape of things to come. It wasn’t long ago one could wake up at 5 am to watch artificial sunrises emanating from atomic bomb testing taking place, 300 miles away in the Nevada desert; an enjoyable past-time for some throughout the Cold War. Once in a spectacle designed to memorialize the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Los Angeles tabloid staged a “mock bombing” of the city—which consisted of military planes flying in V-formation and dropping thousands of leaflets which read, “this could have been a bomb!” From the “mythological casualties” (faux death-tolls counted and publicized during air-raid rehearsals), to Miss Atomic Energy to the dozens of Hollywood cinematographers hired to document military training procedures with atomic bombs, the entertainment industry became wrapped up in political world-making.

Regardless of intentionality, the line separating entertainment and entrainment is blurred by the shared use of media technologies across the civic and governmental domains of culture. Something which now seems fundamental to the way we experience American politics. Before they were called sirens, they were initially a musical instrument designed to mimic the human voice. Now, reinstantiating those origins in the form of musical play may be an impossible task, since it has been co-opted and used for so long as a military device of warfare. Marshall McLuhan once said that Sputnik turned the earth into a “stage set beneath the proscenium arch” created by the orbiting satellite. And like an audience in a theater, we began to see ourselves from afar, objectifying the earth as an “ecological spaceship,” but one filled only with passengers. In a similar but more localized way, I think the continual use of siren testing and other air raid rehearsals throughout L.A. during WWII and the Cold War played a significant role in synchronizing American citizens into an audience for the narrative spectacle of nuclear energy as a fuel for freedom.

What would make a good siren candidate for this mythology?

With the help of LACMA’s Art + Tech Lab grant I’ve been incubating a project to reactivate the sirens of L.A. but with unpredictable and disorienting sounds. Recently in Ibaraki, Japan, and on Santorini I created playful propositions for new aural warnings built from field recordings for local emergency broadcast sirens—which spontaneously lured city inhabitants into social experiences of deep listening. I think of this work as a way to tame the siren archetype into complexifying our relationship with catastrophic events, in conjunction with their intention as a predictive warning signal. The implication being, that careful doses of disorientation into urban space not only could capacitate further sensory resilience and individual improvisation in the face of future dangers, but maybe even help us heal from previous cultural traumas. Perhaps from a generational perspective, a more democratic approach, and use, to urban sound design could help us feel out a more troubled and hence robust narrative of disaster instead of allowing our relationship with chaos to be mediated solely by the sciences, or some other authoritarian institution. Sirens can never be fully trusted.

Tamm listening to bonsho in Kotabe-san’s foundry, photograph courtesy of Arcus Project, 2017
Tamm listening to bonsho in Kotabe-san’s foundry, photograph courtesy of Arcus Project, 2017

Last year you launched Spelling for Protection Against Oneself at the Mori Museum in Tokyo. Please tell us about the project.

In 2017 while living and working in Japan I became bewitched by the multi-ton temple bells known as bonsho. I had the opportunity to closely observe and document the ritual pouring process with a bell maker named Kotabe-san, in the small town of Makabe. One day before filming he had me stand within the inner cavity of a bell as he struck it, referring to the experience simply as, “the womb.” This wasn’t an unthoughtful anthropomorphizing of the bell, but a way for Kotabe-san to begin letting me into the secret history of bonsho, which stretches back through prehistoric times into an earlier dawn of humanity. He was acknowledging the deep evolutionary timeline of our ears, and the uncanny affects sound waves have upon our body, which the bell as an object distills and condenses across cultures and time; this was felt immediately in my bones as a mysterious form of time travel. During embryonic development we grow gills. Our hands were once flippers. Our developing brain encases the amniotic water we are suspended in, becoming the cerebrospinal fluid which now circulates throughout our nervous systems. We know this, but somehow while standing in the bell and surrendering to its deafening and full-bodied presence, these concepts were made more believable; which is to say, for a moment I believed them to be so, rather than accepting them as lifeless facts.

Bonsho are sacred objects, always elevated and housed within their own pagoda on the temple grounds, made physically inaccessible to visitors, and cared for by monks for centuries. They are tolled twice a day, 18 times at sunrise and sunset, but “time keeping” is a lazy interpretation of their sole function. Every strike unlocks a radius of atavistic electricity into the surrounding area, a living memory made of fluid harmonics extending the temple beyond its walls and into the lives of those within earshot. Throbbing waves undulate from the bell’s “empty” cavity to materialize in hyper-specific physical patterns, which can actually be felt and touched in the air around the bell. Each bonsho is a unique character with radically different tonalities and psycho-physical affects. With the help of Mori Art Museum curator Ken Kondo, and coordinators at Arcus Project, I traveled around Kyoto and Tokyo working with temples to gather recordings of their bonsho, by standing inside their “wombs” while ringing. By deploying microphones sensitive to ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies, I was able to pitch-shift the liminal tones back into the human range. It seems likely that there are events occurring which leave sound prints there, and that hearing them could sensitize us in valuable ways. Among them, new ways of appreciating, sensing, and knowing silence. These recordings became the keystone drones for the exhibition’s nine-channel circular sound sculpture, among a library of other field recordings.

How does the project relate to seismicity?

During the project’s development I also studied Namazu-e; Edo-period woodblock prints which satirically characterize earthquakes as a smiling, humanoid catfish engaged in surprising scenarios. Sometimes Namazu is depicted massaging the feet of those who lost their home and children to an earthquake, sometimes he's being worshipped by carpenters (as seismic forces often create economic booms), other times he’s playing “fox-fists” with a fire demon. At first glance, they seem like nothing more than entertainment to include in local newspapers, but on closer inspection the prints speak to the necessity of myth, parody, and humor in helping us recover from catastrophic trauma. One in particular is called Magic Spell for Protection from Earthquakes. The title makes use of the Japanese word jishin, which translates to earthquake. But jishin is a homonym, and without context possesses multiple meanings: confidence and oneself. So, the title of the print can also be read as Magic Spell for Protection from Oneself or Magic Spell for Protection from Confidence. The notion that we occasionally need protection from ourselves or from confidence is a paradoxical proposition, underlying a Shintoist and Buddhist perspective on the relationship between organisms and their environments; at a certain scale, there’s little difference. And the same can be said of catastrophe and culture (take your pick), because they feed and are fed from one another. The careful use of aesthetics and language in Namazu-e guide the viewer into a state of playful paradox and double focus. The prints themselves are a sophisticated technique for coping with the inevitability of seismic trauma in Japan; for making sense of nonsense. The fusion of this unlikely pairing between “catfish” and “earthquake” is thought to have emerged from a myth local to Lake Biwa—when a fisherman witnessed hundreds of catfish leaping up out of the lake before the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855.

Installation view, MAM Project 026: Curtis Tamm, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019, photo: Kioku Keizo, photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
Installation view, MAM Project 026: Curtis Tamm, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019, photo: Kioku Keizo, photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

How did all of this research come together to create your exhibition?

The overall scale and scope of the exhibition finally came into focus when I met Professor Yada-san, in his laboratory at Kanagawa Institute of Technology. Yada-san studies animal behavior in relation to seismic activity, and cohabits with many species including birds, snakes, and not surprisingly, the Lake Biwa catfish (i.e. Namazu). All his interspecies companions are showing signs of unusual and erratic behavior before earthquakes, but Namazu begins acting strangely up to three days before they happen. It’s a total mystery what precisely the animals are responding to, but it’s clear they are more sensitive than our sensors and seismographs and we should begin taking a lesson from them. Maybe high-energy events build up a charge before they unfold, releasing “feelers” into the surrounding landscape to warn those willing to listen. Whatever the case may be, Yada-san believes that we too possess an ability to precognize and “feel out” large-scale events before they occur, but that a number of factors keep us from using our senses as an early-warning antenna. The obvious culprits: lack of confidence and the stimulus-din of our urban environment. It could be that the signals just can’t compete for our attention with all the noise. But we also spoke about something less obvious; the taboo of certain conversations, and how our cultural constructions of communication plays a role in how we put our senses and sensitivities into action. It’s always been difficult to dialogue about the uncanny, hard-to-define affects just out of reach of logic, causality, or reason—those sudden and slippery events which dance on the tip of our tongue to quickly retract into inky-black forgetfulness evade our grasp. How to coax these sensations in closer long enough to hold onto them? Perhaps a more improvisational approach to communication as a stream of consciousness. Or maybe we need more glossolalic songs, more generous forms of social nonsense freed from the moral responsibility of defending it. Perhaps then the subtle signal patterns moving quietly through the social plexus—like flares shot out before the shape of things to come—would surface more noticeably.

It’s helpful to remember humans are the late comers to the species scene, and thus have inherited many of the tried and tested sensorial faculties other animals have. Think about how the organs of our inner ear were first developed by fish to cope with the currents of the ocean, and all the eons of earthquakes which have gone into shaping those exquisite pieces of anatomy which now keep us balanced. The exhibition space I developed for Mori Art Museum became a summoning place for terrestrial extra-sensitivities, techniques for re-membering a body which has been forgotten, and made use of those ancient bell tones as an excavation tool for latent and dormant, catfish-like capacities.

Installation view, MAM Project 026: Curtis Tamm, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019, photo: Kioku Keizo, photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
Installation view, MAM Project 026: Curtis Tamm, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2019, photo: Kioku Keizo, photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Many thanks to:

Joel Ferree and the Art + Technology Lab at LACMA
Ken Kondo and coordinators at Mori Art Museum
Aruma Toyama and coordinators at Arcus Project
Adam Audio
Kotabe Foundry
Andrew Hunter
Maneesh Raj Madahar
Josh Nordin
Hermione Spriggs

The Art + Technology Lab is presented by

Hyundai logo
The Art + Technology Lab is made possible by Accenture, YouTube Learning, and Snap Inc.

Additional support is provided by SpaceX.

The Lab is part of The Hyundai Project: Art + Technology at LACMA, a joint initiative exploring the convergence of art and technology.

Seed funding for the development of the Art + Technology Lab was provided by the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission through the Productivity Investment Fund and LACMA Trustee David Bohnett.