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Have You Listened to this Doorknob Today?

by Danielle Georgiou 22 Mar 2013 11:40 AM

What do ordinary object sound like? That’s the question artist Shannon Novak is asking with his new show at The MAC.


Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is the artistic director and choreographer of DGDG: Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. And she’s a member of Muscle Nation.

Shannon Novak, “Transcriptions Verse 1”

“Sound is a part of all that exists.”

This claim from artist Shannon Novak resonates in his body of work, and specifically for the exhibition “Tonnetz,” which opens at The MAC (McKinney Avenue Contemporary) in conjunction with Michael Bise’s “Life and Death,” selections from Frank Rodick’s “Labyrinth of Desire” and Wael Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades.”

In musical turning and harmony, tonnetz (German for “tone-network”) is a conceptual lattice diagram representing tonal space, or the relationships between musical pitches. Novak takes this idea and places it in the hands of the people of the gallery. How, you might ask? Well, by encouraging the use of mobile devices to reveal a synesthetic experience. Still confused?

To begin, you need to know a little more about Novak. He is a synesthete – one who can look at objects and experience them as a series of specific sounds, colors and shapes. Everything to him has a “sound quality,” and this exhibition gives the viewer the ability to experience Novak’s synesthesia. Using a specific form of technology – Augmented Reality (AR) – the audience can hold up their mobile devices to an object, such as a water fountain, a set of stairs, or a chair, revealing a series of sounds, colors and shapes. Taking the “art” off the traditional white gallery walls, Novak is utilizing a movement in contemporary art focused on the promotion of public art, a movement in its heyday at present. “Tonnetz” is activating spaces in the gallery that have not been activated before by an artist.

What Noval’s work does more than anything else is beg the question that contemporary art has been struggling to address for decades: “What is art?” It doesn’t answer it – there can never, and will never, be a direct answer to this question (we would be kidding ourselves if we thought there ever was to be one). But it does add to the conversation. In the vein of René Magritte and his painting La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), is that water fountain, those stairs, that chair, that table really what it appears to be? Or is it just a representation? Je ne sais pas.

Magritte’s work frequently displayed a collection of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. Novak is doing something similar, by giving commonplace objects color and sound, something we do not see or hear with our everyday senses. The object is not what it was originally intended to be (like Magritte’s pipe), it is now an “image” of that object. While, yes, the objects Novak highlights are clearly symbols, and the understanding of them as such is predicated on and by you, the audience, having a certain set of senses such as hearing and sight, it is really just a play of reality and illusion.

It is poetic imagery trying to find its place in a world that is ephemeral. What we see on the screen of our mobile device is not real. When we look back and forth between the object and the screen, the result is a projected illusion of what we could possibly be seeing and hearing. It is an abstraction, but perhaps more real than reality itself.

“Tonnetz” will be available for viewing play from Saturday to May 11.