Can we listen to the past? Can places and objects retain something of the audio landscapes that once surrounded them? What does the absence of sound sound like? Is it the same as silence?
Umashankar Manthravadi used to be a journalist but in the 1990s he taught himself acoustics and has almost single-handedly developed a disciple of acoustic archaeology – since the 1990s he has been building ambisonic microphones to map and measure the acoustic properties of places of ritual and festival. His argument is that we can’t just use our eyes to assess what performance and ritual looked like in these places from the past; we must listen for them too.
You could argue that conventional archaeology colonises the past by collecting it for display. But an archaeological site is not only about ruins and artefacts; it is also a record of everything that happened there. Measuring the sound waves that bounce off walls, floors, and ceilings allows us to deduce a trace of past events, like a latent memory of a collective experience that defies ownership.
An electronics enthusiast who has invented several tools of his trade, Manthravadi is not looking for ghosts when he maps the acoustic reflections of architectural surfaces. Instead he aims to reconstruct as accurately as possible a once-audible event in that space. “It is a fundamental confrontation with a sense that the past cannot be captured,” as one observer put it. “An archaeology of sound is about that which is lost but nevertheless always with us – the simultaneity of the past in the present, a collectivity across time beyond possession and accumulation.”
A Slightly Curving Place is an audio play, a video installation, and an archival exhibition that draws on those ideas. Manthravadi is a key member of what turns out to be an extensive team of of writers, choreographers, videographers, dancers, actors, composers, musicians, poets, field recordists and sound designers who have contributed to the project under the curatorial direction of Nida Ghouse
This is an exhibition with a difference – though it has an obvious lineage in Umashankar and the Earchaeologists, a project for 2016’s Art Dubai by a collective comprising Ghouse and Manthravadi with Lawrence Abu Hamdan. That was a two-year-long ‘acoustic archaeology’ commission looking at how sound can influence our understanding of ancient —and contemporary— sites.
A Slightly Curving Place is a considerable extension, though. Physically, the exhibition space in Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete is covered by an ambisonic dome, the slightly curving place of the title; it’s a giant segmented umbrella with around two dozen 360o speakers (the first ambisonic sound installation to come to Dubai, say the organisers) which guarantees an immersive audio experience for the visitor.
Centred around a multi-authored audio play and accompanying video installations, the exhibition generates a series of relays between script and voice and sound and movement. That essentially extends the notion of archaeology beyond the physical site to include text and the technologies of recording. Writers have produced narrative and conceptual scripts: performers – dancers, actors, speakers – have performed them: have sound designers reworked the recorded material through their various understandings of sound as matter, meaning, and music. The sound that arrives is only a record of sound as it might have been.
The curator Nida Ghouse has been interested in sound reproduction for ten years, with several publications and that Art Dubai collaboration before she curated the original iteration of A Slightly Curving Place in 2020 for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
One of the principal contributors to A Slightly Curving Place, Anurima Banerji, wrote a piece for the audio titled Meditations on Ranigumpha (Ranigumpha is the largest of the extensive complex of caves near the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, and it was one of Manthravadi first acoustical archaeology projects): “An archive is a collection of ephemera surrounding a dead entity, a kind of altar calling for reincarnation. It preserves absence through the objects, gestures and memorialisations that act as enharmonic equivalents of what has disappeared … An Archive is the fear of time’s power.”
Breaking free from time’s power is a noble and ambitious goal. It’s a pleasure to anticipate at least some similar result from A Slightly Curving Place.
A Slightly Curving Place is at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue; it will open at 7pm on 3 March with an introduction by the curator. There will be guided tours daily on 4-13 March at 11am; the show ends 22 March.
The exhibition will be accompanied by Coming to Know, a series of additional activations unfolding over Alserkal Art Week in response to A Slightly Curving Place. Organised by Nida Ghouse and Brooke Holmes, Professor of Post-classicisms at Princeton University, Coming to Know includes conversations, discussions, workshops and performative responses with exhibition collaborators and invited respondents. “Rather than a didactic supplement to an alien, premodern place and time, the programme will experiment in fashioning a sound system for listening to one another that transforms our sense of knowledge held in common.
A Slightly Curving Place is co-produced by Alserkal Arts Foundation and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.