- Hearing Loss
Transferring the emphasis from hearing to loss in the title of this installation results in an interesting shift from a medical or factual orientation to an emotional or philosophical one. Hearing loss is a routine, progressive physical disability; hearing loss is something altogether more nebulous and poetic.
My father died in 2006, leaving behind three pairs of hearing aids (Fig. 3) and a typically extensive supply of batteries. Hearing aids, like false teeth, are very personal objects that are not only used daily but are actually inserted into bodily orifices. One of the first things that struck me when I began to work with them is that they are made in the shape of my father's ear canals, giving a positive shape to a negative, internal and intimate space that no longer exists. It was literally through these objects that he heard the world during the final years of his life. Interestingly, his hearing seemed to recover somewhat on his deathbed. We were surprised at his ability to follow conversations we assumed he would not be able to hear without his hearing aids, although we may previously have been misled by the selective nature of his hearing loss when he was at home.
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Just handling these objects makes you feel old: your fingers seem clumsy and, unless your eyesight is perfect, glasses or some other magnification are essential, even to insert a battery. The piece makes use of the minute but complex feedback field produced by what are essentially six tiny microphones and six tiny speakers in close proximity. The feedback produced is relatively quiet but piercing and difficult to localize. When I arrived home in London from Vancouver after my father's funeral, one of the hearing aids had turned itself on inside my suitcase, and I felt for a few moments like Harry Caul at the end of The Conversation as I searched high and low for the source of the annoying new sound in my flat before remembering the hearing aids in my bag. Installing the work in Vancouver triggered a bout of tinnitus, my nervous system's own feedback loop, from which I have still not fully recovered.
In my work with auditory warnings of my own design, I have sought to draw attention to an abstract beauty in alarm sounds that is usually ignored because of their overwhelming annoyance factor and their association with danger. Likewise, feedback is most often seen as a nuisance and a potential danger to hearing or to electronic equipment rather than as legitimate material for music or art. There is significant interest in feedback in the experimental music community, as witnessed by Knut Aufermann's special Feedback issue of Resonance magazine (2002), but the general perception of feedback is overwhelmingly negative. In a recent study at Salford University, it took second place only to vomiting in a list of the sounds people found most upsetting or irritating.
The pitch and timbre of the feedback produced by these devices change in ways that are interesting and difficult to predict, depending on their proximity to each other and the direction in which they face, the size and shape of the space which contains them and the presence and movement of the viewer's hands or body. Integral noise gates in each device, designed to protect the user from ear-damaging build-up of feedback, mean that rather than unchanging tones, the effect is rather like a conversation between the six diminutive objects as feedback builds up and subsides in complex polyphonic patterns.
In most of my installation work, the only visual element is the sound-making technology itself, and here I want to let physics and the emotional associations of these evocative objects speak for themselves, but when I looked through Dad's meticulously organized and labeled slides just before installing, I came across an image I immediately knew belonged in the piece. It is a shot taken by him somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. We were on the Homeric, on our way to...