Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Graceful Attention: Stephen Kelly’s Open Tuning (Wave Up)


You never expect to experience grace in a public space. More usual are brusque movements, dispirited shuffling, and distracted gesticulations, but moments of balletic poise and rapt attention are much less common. While I should be more careful with word-choice, since “grace” is loaded with spiritual connotations, it seems the most apt descriptor. Even more unlikely, this unanticipated experience of grace occurred at a rather grace-neutral locale and at the sort of function not normally known for its gracefulness—the opening reception for Stephen Kelly’s Open Tuning (Wave Up) at TRUCK Contemporary Art in Calgary.

Having read the pre-exhibition press materials, I was aware that the exhibition was comprised of several sound-emitting/sound-generating sculptural objects. Interpreting data collected from sensory devices located off the coast of Nova Scotia, the kinetic objects promised to re-situate the oceanic flux and flow within TRUCK’s white-cube gallery space. Within the exhibition’s pamphlet essay, Kari McQueen’s description of the looping soundscape made it seem as if these swells of sounds would offer a somewhat subtle listening experiences. Under such circumstances the opening reception seemed especially unpromising, the loud chatter and art scene gossip would likely drown out the work and make it difficult to discern what the work offered. Regardless, I decided to attend the opening and be a body dutifully accounted for by the attendance clicker—if the show seemed intriguing I would return for a more extensive engagement.

My misgivings regarding the opening reception were unfounded; it was the ideal time to experience Open Tuning. I arrived fairly early and was one of the first people into the space. There I found the sculptures, several were wall-mounted and a couple hung from the ceiling. The pieces seemed built from scavenged mechanical detritus, remnants of printers and stereo components jerry-rigged together to yield decidedly low-tech forms. Moving with metronomic regularity and dependability, the gangly and awkward objects were welcomingly familiar and approachable.

Drawn closer to one work, the sculpture’s delicate sounds soon attracted the majority of my attention. Somewhere between a swelling hum and a droning buzz, the sound rose and fell, distantly recalling the rhythms of the ocean tide. Straining to discern these soft undulations of tone, I found myself slowly swaying back and forth, loosely tethered to the sculpture but drifting in concert with the oceanic sound emanating from this unlikely source. Soon I noticed that other visitors were performing a similar dance. Attentive to the gentle waves of sound, these listeners moved delicately and deliberately, with heads cocked first towards one speaker and then another. Closely observing the other listeners, I noticed a certain absence of focus around the eyes, as if the optical sense had yielded to aural. Through this rapt attention, the listeners projected a distanced-presence, at once in the moment while transported elsewhere by the subtleties of the sound.

While static visual images and many video projections mandate immobility and often fix the viewer in space, Open Tuning gracefully animated its listeners. Despite the delicacy of its dynamics, the work invites its audience’s rapt attention and concentration. While openings are normally boisterous affairs too distracting to develop a response to the work, Stephen Kelly’s work situated a quiet, yet stimulating milieu. The reception, then, was the ideal time to experience the effects of the work and observe how Opening Tuning entranced and activated its audience. Indeed, I was so intrigued by the experience that I decided not to return, thinking that this rare performance of listening and graceful attention was all one could want from a gallery visit.