PhD completion seminar speech

Events, Writing

This is the text of my PhD completion seminar presentation I gave last week. It gives a finer grained description of the project than the exhibition essay I posted recently, and it has videos!

Listening Art: making sonic artworks that critique listening

Camille Robinson


Hi, I’m Camille Robinson. I’m a sound artist and musician, and a completing PhD candidate with Production at the VCA. Today I’m going to talk about my PhD project “Listening Art: making sonic artworks that critique listening”.

The project began with a problem: By my observation, people who make sonic art [music or any other art form using sound] and people who listen to it take for granted that how a person listens, affects what an artwork is perceived to be, through their inclusion, exclusion, and interpretation of the sonic events that constitute a given work. As sonic art can only be experienced through listening, and depends on people’s listening abilities to be experienced as intended, I found this odd.

In response to this problem, I set out to explore the possibility of making sonic artworks that take criticality of listening as their primary concern, with the aim of making artworks structured as critical discourses on listening, and for those artworks to give rise to critical reflection on listening by their listeners.

Phrased as a question, I summarized my approach as:
“How can sonic artworks be made that form critiques of listening?”

  • “How can”
    (by what methods can)
  • “sonic artworks”
    (any artworks using sound as their primary medium)
  • “be made”
    (self explanatory)
  • “that form”
    (that are structured as from the artist’s perspective, and give rise to from the listener’s perspective)
  • “critiques of”
    (critical discussions around)
  • “listening”
    (the act of perceiving sound)

This isn’t a problem peculiar to sonic art. Visual art is also affected by and dependent on its perception, however by my reckoning visual art has a stronger tradition of interrogating the act of looking.

A pivotal example for me in clarifying my ideas was David Thomas’ Amid History 2 (Thomas, 2006).

It doesn’t come up well as a projection, but what it is, is a large format photographic print with this rectangle painted onto it in a glossy reflective finish. So, the rectangle shows me a reflection of me looking at the artwork, while also censoring the image behind it, in doing so forcing me to think about my act of looking, and how I look at a seemingly innocuous tourist snap of the Brandenburg Gate, and if I think about it, the complex history of the Gate that I might otherwise filter out.

I’m not a visual artist, but from my perspective it seems critical engagement with perception is probably a more obvious problem to approach in visual art, because so much of it simulates the act of looking at something. Representational art shows me a constructed version of things I recognize from my own perceptions of the world, and I can compare the two. But representation is something music for example doesn’t normally do; and maybe the lack of representation accounts for why criticality of perception is not as commonplace in sonic practices. In any case for me Thomas’ artwork proved that the act of perceiving can be simply and elegantly brought into relief by the object of perceiving. I just needed to find appropriate means to achieve this with sound.


A minute ago I defined listening as “the act of perceiving sound”, this is fine as a simple working definition. But for my project, I wanted to find something more thorough, and to try to understand how listening works; and find clues as to how I could go about making artworks that critique it. I began my review of the literature with a couple of disciplines whose main focus is auditory perception.

On the natural science side of things I looked at psychoacoustics and auditory neuroscience. They determine and describe the qualities and limits of what the human auditory system is capable of sensing. What it’s possible to hear more than the act of listening; they don’t do much discussion of what the mind does with sound once it’s heard, so this didn’t turn out to be a great place to find a more information on listening, although their work can be read as enabling critical reflection on listening by demonstrating what it’s physically possible to listen to (Fastl et al., 2007, Schnupp et al., 2011).

On the human science side of things I looked at listening studies, which investigates listening by proposing and testing models of its cognitive structure, and what behaviors make a person a good listener. What surprised me was that listening studies doesn’t have a fixed definition of listening; a core part of their research is constantly interrogating and redefining listening’s meanings and associations. So on the plus side, I had found an example of a discipline that critiqued listening as one of its main activities, but its methods weren’t relevant to making art, and it showed me my object of research was in a perpetual state of being defined, and maybe indefinable (Glenn, 1989, Bodie et al., 2008).

With this knowledge, I looked further afield to other research that touched on listening.

A pivotal text for me in two ways was Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. First, by doing a phenomenology of listening, critically examining it by describing in detail the act of doing it, it demonstrated it was possible to elicit critical reflection on listening by leading someone – in this case a reader – through an experience of listening. Second, his application of phenomenology to listening in different situations – listening to environmental sound, to language, to music, to recorded sound – demonstrated that listening differs depending on what a person is listening-to (Ihde, 2007).

This idea of variations or facets of listening became an invaluable tool when conceptualizing my art, and as a critical lens it allowed me to see that most of the research on listening was actually focused on particular types of listening, not listening-in-general.

The aforementioned listening studies deals mostly with listening-to language, with its tests of comprehension and retention of information transmitted via words.

So do writers like Jean-Luc Nancy in Listening who sees listening as a tool for critiquing philosophy and its habits of argument, and Gemma Corradi Fiumara in The other side of language: a philosophy of listening who argues listening’s agency in language, and necessity for language’s existence (Nancy, 2007, Corradi Fiumara, 1990).

Then you have writers like Jacques Attali in Noise: the political economy of music who uses the history of the act of listening-to music as an analogue for political, social, and economic change; Theodor Adorno in Essays on Music who worries over the emergence of recording and broadcast technologies, jazz, popular music, and the culture industry, and their effect on the act of listening-to music; Christopher Small in Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening like Fiumara with language, argues that music can only exist in conjunction with listening; and of course Ethnomusicologists for example Feld and Seeger, describe myriad culturally constructed variations of the concept and practice of music and the act of listening-to it (Attali, 1985, Adorno, 2002, Small, 1998).

These writers demonstrate many ways to mount an argument as to the properties, applications, and variations of listening-to a type of object (language, music), with words, but little indication of how to do so with listening-in-general, without words. So Ihde remained my best example of a critique of listening-in-general so far, and for ideas for doing so without words I looked to pre-existing work in sonic art forms.

Given my previous education as a composer, I began with western art music. Music is of course concerned with the act of listening-to music, and if you look at histories of it like the Paul Griffiths books, its various technical and stylistic innovations – a series of challenges to what constitutes music – are also challenges to what constitutes the act of listening-to it (Griffiths, 1985, Griffiths, 2010).

As critiques of music these innovations were sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. A work using an altered set of musical conventions might have been presented as is, or it might have been accompanied by a manifesto of some kind. As critiques of listening-to music they were most often implicit, with the odd exception like Satie and his furniture music that was for not listening to, and Varese and Cage and their calls for all sound to be listened-to as music. Either way, this reading of musical history showed that the values embedded in the act of listening-to sonic art can be changed by that art (Herve, 2013, Bernard, 1987, Cage, 1961).

I also looked to other sonic art forms to see if this effect carried beyond music.

The sonic art forms that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century for the most part branched from music, and as such simply their existence can be read as a series of critiques of the values embedded in listening to it. But beyond this reactionary aspect, they all also proposed fundamentally different relationships to sound for artists and listeners, new types of listening-to sound aesthetically.

With musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer proposed a new mode of reduced or acousmatic listening-to its collaged and manipulated sounds, disregarding their identities or representational meanings; with acoustic ecology R. Murray Schafer proposed an ethically and aesthetically motivated form of listening-to environmental sounds; with Deep Listening Pauline Oliveros developed listening as a meditative-creative practice concerned with attending to all sound equally; with the concept of Sonic Art Trevor Wishart argued for an aesthetic mode of listening that could encompass any sound or value system; and sound art, and its variant conceptual sound art proposed by Seth Kim Cohen, emerged as a unification of many of these other ideas with practices from the gallery setting, that focuses on listening to sound’s formal properties as an art form, and in the case of Kim-Cohen’s theorization of it, its ability to convey meaning beyond itself (Schaeffer, 2004, Schafer, 1994, Oliveros, 2005, Wishart, 1996, Labelle, 2005, Voegelin, 2010, Kim-Cohen, 2009).

Like the majority of the written literature, even with their proposed new forms of listening, these art forms focused primarily on the object of listening – sound – as the subject of their artworks, whereas I was still looking to make the act of perceiving sound the subject of my art. Their critiques of the act of listening aesthetically were powerful, but to follow directly in their mold I would have had to devise a new art form for each critique I wanted to make, which seemed excessive.

With the knowledge that leading a person through an experience of listening could elicit critical reflection on listening; that there are a multitude of variations or facets of listening-to sound; that the act of listening-to art can be changed by that art; and that this is not limited to a type of object or system such as music, I moved on to develop my own methodology for structuring artworks around critiques of listening, and determining whether they elicited critical reflection on listening by listeners.


A research methodology consists of a set of assumptions as to what constitutes a valid approach and appropriate methods for the production of knowledge, predicated on assumptions as to what constitutes knowledge of value. A creative methodology consists of a set of assumptions as to what constitutes a valid approach and appropriate methods for the production of art, predicated on assumptions as to what constitutes art of value.

By definition of this project’s aims, its art of value needed to:

  • Consist of sound
  • That engages in critical argumentation on the subject of listening, and
  • Results in critical appraisal of listening by listeners.

The first criterion required that the artworks take sound as their primary medium, and comes as no surprise.

The second criterion required that I devise a rationale by which from my perspective as an artist I could justify the artworks as being structured as critiques of listening.

The third criterion required that I devise a method by which I could determine whether the artworks did foster critical reflection on listening by listeners.

To determine how I would justify the works as structured as critiques of listening, I sought to determine what kind of critique they would enact.

My aim of using a sonic artwork – an organized experience of listening – to critique listening is reminiscent of the concept of immanent critique, a form of argument that uses criteria of assessment drawn from within a system to test the assumptions implicit in that system. For example using laws from a legal system to argue that the system itself endorses or commits crimes, or using the grammar of a language to argue that the language itself undermines its own ability to represent meaning (Sonderegger and Boer, 2011).

To make my artworks as immanent critiques of listening, I had to identify the system of judgment that listening uses.

Listening judges and interprets sound; the system of criteria it uses to perform that assessment is often theorized using the concept of schemata. A schema is a set of expectations of what characteristics constitute a physical or mental object, its meaning, and actions relevant to it in a given context (Rumelhart, 1980).

Listening’s schemata judge and interpret sound based on expectations of its content, and form or behaviour. For example I know what the sound of a clap is because I have a schema for it:

  • In terms of content it has a characteristic timbre,
  • In terms of form or behaviour it has a rapid attack and decay, and is made by a person striking their hands together.

Schemata are self-evaluating systems, people learn more about things over time, and the schemata for the things they know self-evaluate comparing their existing criteria for recognition of an object with the exhibited characteristics of a recognised object. If an object matches a schema enough to be recognised but also has characteristics the schema doesn’t account for, the schema may be elaborated on. For example over time I’ve learned the timbre and loudness of a clap varies depending on the size of a person’s hands and how they’re struck together.

Not only sounds are recognised and interpreted with schemata, so are ideas and acts, like listening. To critique listening using the system of assessment it uses itself, what I needed to do with my art was stimulate the listener’s schema for listening itself to self-evaluate, by getting them to recognise an act of listening, and then show that it also had characteristics their schema for listening had not initially accounted for.

To achieve this I returned to the idea of variations or facets of listening. I reasoned that if variations of listening-to sound could be invoked in the course of an artwork and be made to compete or contradict each other, then evaluation of listening could be led to occur.

This resolves the second criterion for art of value, and leads back to the third:

  • Results in critical appraisal of listening by listeners.

For this I had to select an appropriate method for gathering and distilling relevant knowledge of value to determine whether my art fostered critical reflection on listening.

As the problem to be resolved concerned listener’s experiences of listening to artworks, the knowledge of most value was that produced by listeners in experiencing the artworks. This knowledge could be referred to as a form of praxical knowledge, being a product of the practice of listening, however as I was going to be dealing with listeners’ interpretations of an experience, and whether these interpretations contained criticality of listening, I felt it was better described as abductive knowledge (Ihde, 1978, Barrett and Bolt, 2010, Bird, 2005, Josephson and Josephson, 1994).

Abductive knowledge is knowledge that occupies a place among an array of potentially valid truths inferred from given stimuli. For example a doctor’s diagnosis based on a set of presenting symptoms, or a listener’s interpretation of experiencing an artwork.

To gather and distil this abductive knowledge of experiencing the artworks, I turned to the methods of Heuristic Research as set out in the book of the same name by Clark Moustakas. Due to its focus on portraying the phenomenon under investigation as experienced, as opposed to methods that privilege a second order structure or essence of experience, I felt this the most appropriate approach to adopt (Moustakas, 1990).

Another reason for my adopting the Heuristic Research approach was that its typical process seemed easily adaptable to the creative process.

Its stages are:

  1. Formulating the question – isolating a research problem
  2. Preparing to collect data – devising data eliciting tools, interview materials
  3. Collecting data – conducting interviews/collect responses
  4. Data Interpretation – reviewing the data and distilling insights
  5. Writing the manuscript – publishing the data as a textual synthesis

I equated these with:

  1. Formulating the idea/intent – isolating a creative problem
  2. Sketching – devising a draft or prototype version of a work
  3. Showing – showing a draft and observing how it is experienced
  4. Redrafting – using insights from showings to refine the work
  5. Presenting the final artwork – publicly performing or exhibiting a work

I integrated Heuristic Research’s data collection and interpretation techniques into the showing and redrafting stages of my creative process, turning the showings of draft versions to colleagues and acquaintances into a structured interview and data evaluation process.

The questions used to collect data on experiencing the works were:

  • How would you define listening?
  • What was your experience of the piece?
  • What were you listening to?
  • How do you think you were listening?
  • Did you notice anything unusual about what you were listening to?
  • Did you notice anything unusual about how you were listening?
  • Do you think you were listening the whole time?
  • If you weren’t listening what were you doing?
  • Do you think what you were doing when you weren’t listening was part of your experience of the piece?
  • What do you think was the meaning of the piece?

The responses to these questions allowed me to test the works’ success in:

  • Incurring the intended structure of experience as a sequence of intended types of listening-to the sonic content,

and their success in resulting in critical appraisal of listening by listeners by:

  • Evoking generalized critical reflection on listening
  • Evoking critical reflection on listening along the intended core concepts of a given artwork
  • Evoking reflection on listening matching artist’s interpretation of the core concepts


The test of evoking generalized critical reflection on listening is best addressed by discussing the works as a group, as the relevant data is drawn from looking at each participant’s responses to the works as a set, and comparing statements between interviews. The works did consistently evoke generalized critical reflection on listening. Throughout each interview the participants continually commented on what listening is and means independent of the question at hand, in several cases commenting on it before the interviews questions began, and responses to How would you define listening?” which demanded critical reflection on listening, were clearly influenced by the participants’ interpretation of each work’s conceptual focus, changing in depth and emphasis with each one.

The rest of the tests are best addressed on a work-by-work basis.

I’ll begin with an excerpt from I’m here to listen (Robinson, 2014a)

It consists of a phone handset, a set of instructions, and a button which when pressed triggers playback of a recording through the handset, and a speaker concealed in an adjacent room: of a phone ringing, a person answering the phone and saying “I’m here to listen”, listening quietly for about three and a half minutes, and then hanging up.

Putting the listener in an ambiguous situation using the phone, the piece asks them to reflect on the dual role of listener/speaker, the performance of listening, and the sounds that signify it, with my position being that the roles of perceiver and producer of sound are inseparable, and for a person to be known to listen they must produce sound to signify it.

To achieve this aim, I intended the structure of the experience lead the listener through reciprocal, and solitary types of listening, triggered by belief in the existence of someone listening on the phone, and dissolution of that belief.

With this work, the structure of the majority of participants’ experiences was as intended, with the exception of one who disregarded the problem of belief in the person on the phone, and embraced the opportunity to speak unconditionally whether or not someone was there.

In all cases the participants’ responses referred to the intended key concepts of listener and speaker behaviour, and on this level it was successful.

As for communication of my particular take on these concepts, listener responses aligned with it some of the time, but less than half.

Given its overall success in achieving its intent, the changes made to this work in redrafting were minor. In the interest of prolonging the initial reciprocal listening state in the exhibited version, the computer used for audio playback, and display of the instructions in the draft was concealed, to de-emphasize it as a likely source of sound.

This is an excerpt of Sound, proof (Robinson, 2014d)

It consists of a series of small cardboard boxes arranged in a line, with labels describing their contents, real or nominal; the first box (box with the sound of its own making) containing a device playing back an audio recording of the box’s construction.

Beginning with an homage to Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making, then its soundproof counterpart, and a series of others, the piece asks the listener to reflect on the acts of listening to heard and to imagined sounds, with my position being that listening can occur independent of the presence of sound.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through sensation directed, and imagination directed types of listening, triggered by attending to the sound of the first box, and responding to the cues for listening given by the boxes’ labels.

For the majority of listeners the structure of experiencing this piece was as intended. There were two exceptions, both of whom recognised they were expected to listen to their imagination when engaging with the latter boxes, but rejected the idea of imagined sound as listened to.

In the majority of cases, the participants’ discussion of the piece referred to the intended key concepts of sensed or real sound, and imagining, remembering, or listening for sound.

The majority of listeners’ interpretations of the work’s meaning or purpose were also strikingly similar to my take on the key concepts of the work.

Given the success of this work in achieving its intent, with even the listeners it failed to engage fully recognising its aims, no changes were made to this piece in redrafting.

This is an excerpt from Over hear (Robinson, 2014c)

It consists of a recorded composition for three guitars, played through headphones and one freestanding speaker in its draft version, and headphones and three freestanding speakers in the exhibited version. The participant puts on the headphones and presses a button to trigger playback of the composition, which shifts in emphasis between the virtual space of the headphones and the physical space of the room.

Initially presenting the listener with the sound of a virtual space, using musical sound the piece gradually invites the listener to draw their attention outward, and to reflect on the effect of attention on the auditory perception of space, with my position being that listener attention has an editorial effect on the sounds that are heard, but also on how space is perceived and inhabited.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through attentionally and spatially focused, and attentionally and spatially flexible types of listening, triggered by attending to the headphones, and being distracted by and redistributing attention to the freestanding speaker/s, and the physical and sonic characteristics of the space they were situated in.

For six of the eleven participants, the structure of their experiences was as intended. Four participants only experienced the initial intended type of listening and were unaware the freestanding speaker was a sound source, and one participant only experienced the latter intended type of listening, being aware of the speaker from the outset.

The piece was only moderately successful in eliciting discussion referring to its key concepts. Five participants referred to spatial perception, and three of those five referred to it in relation to attention, whereas four participants focused on the work’s musical dimension to the exclusion of most other features.

As for communication of my take on the key concepts, only one participant’s comments explicitly resembled my interpretation.

Given its general lack of success in achieving its intent, in redrafting the materials of this piece were spatially reorganised in the hope of better eliciting awareness of the headphones and freestanding speaker(s) as distinct sources of sound, and as signifying distinct [virtual and real] spaces. The three channels of the composition were relocated from the headphones and one freestanding speaker to three freestanding speakers, and I repurposed the headphones to play back a recording of the ambient sound of the exhibition space, with the intent of making the properties of the real space an earlier object of attention, and placing it in more direct dialogue with the virtual by virtualising a version of it.

This is an excerpt from Memory Walk (Robinson, 2014b)

It consists of a recursively structured video and binaural audio recording of the walk to and away from the location of the showing of the piece.

Presenting variations on a sound walk – a curated walk whereby a listener’s attention is directed to the sounds of a given environment – already unknowingly experienced, the piece invites the listener to compare heard and remembered sounds, to use this comparison to imagine future sounds, and reflect on the interweaving of sensation, memory, and imagination, with my position being that these are inseparable components of each other.

To achieve this, I intended that the structure of the experience lead the listener through passive, and temporally aware types of listening, triggered by the presentation of a mundane stimulus, and its recursion, variation, and play on the listener’s memory of their experiences in and coming to the showing location.

The structure of all the participants’ experiences of this work was as intended.

As for eliciting discussion of its key concepts of memory, imagination, and time, imagination wasn’t explicitly discussed by any of the participants, and memory and differentiating sounds across time, together were only discussed in six of the interviews. In this regard I considered the success of this work indeterminate.

None of the participants’ discussions of the work’s meaning or purpose explicitly resembled my take on its key concepts. However despite its limitations in communicating a fixed conceptual meaning, all of the participants found this artwork intensely meaningful, and its success in this regard led me to set aside my own interpretation of it, and avoid altering it significantly in redrafting. The only difference between the draft and exhibited versions is their customisation to their given locations.


By producing artworks following a rigorous rationale, and by systematically testing them against listeners’ experiences, this project has been able to demonstrate that it is possible to make sonic artworks structured around critical discourses on listening, which foster critical reflection on listening by listeners. The predictability of the structure of those experiences and the content of listeners’ interpretations of the works’ conceptual content is more or less variable, depending on the specific artwork in question.

Original contributions knowledge include the original artworks and their rationale as critiques of listening, the interpretation of developments in the western art music tradition as critiques of listening-to it, and my adaptation of heuristic research to the creative process. All of these may be subjects for elaboration in future research, as may exploration of the conditions for the variation of experiential structure and conceptual interpretation in listening to artworks such as those of this project.

Thank you for listening.


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Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2007

© David Thomas.

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