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Rapid Ear Movements: The Rebellious Objects Of Sound Artist Zimoun
Robert Barry , February 13th, 2021 09:40

With a new installation currently being exhibited at the online Oto Sound Museum, Swiss sound artist Zimoun talks nature, material, and illusion

On first approaching the new work by Zimoun, the listener is confronted with what appears to be a rustling, flickering susurrus of synthesised sounds, a dense electronic thicket woven of complex algorithms and daisy-chained Max patches deftly entwined in a digital feedback loop of dizzying complexity. But appearances can be deceptive. The piece, titled Various vibrating materials (2020), consists of just that. “These are different small materials,” Zimoun confirms when I reach out to him via email. “Metal swarf, wood waste, PVC abrasion, small stones, clay and concrete crumbs, paper, cardboard, wires... but also small objects from the workshop such as springs, washers or nails.”

This motley orchestra – essentially, the fluff and flotsam from the bottom of your bag, but on the scale of an artist’s studio – was set in motion: rattled by motors, animated by transducers, energised by deep bass pulses from direct contact with a loudspeaker cone. The resulting noises, what Zimoun calls “microscopic sounds”, then became the basis for the slowly evolving composition that greets the listener upon booting up the website of the new Oto Sound Museum (an online platform with no relation to the longstanding London venue, Café Oto). The exhibition may be digital, but digital processing of the sound has been “sparing” Zimoun tells me, “similar to the precise adjustment of a microscope.”

If you’ve ever see one of Zimoun’s sculptural installations for venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago, NYU Art Gallery Abu Dhabi, or the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, you’ll get the idea. For over fifteen years, the Swiss sound artist has been setting small, humdrum, and otherwise mostly neglected objects in motion – cardboard boxes, desk fans, bead chains, steel rods, and in one memorable instance a colony of woodworms – and listening to the sounds they make.

If the thought of attending to a concert performed by a cardboard box shuffling back and forth on its base strikes you as peculiarly unappealing, try picturing a vast grey-walled warehouse space with 255 of them suspended from the ceiling on ropes strung each from their own “prepared” AC motors, the gentle thud and thrum of every one of them slowly rising and suddenly slamming down creating a sparse mesh-like counterpoint, a kind of pitch-less gamelan orchestra of muffled beats woozily playing itself (as at the Centquatre, Paris, in 2017). Or picture ninety-three kilograms of heavy black paper in a crumpled heap on the floor slowly swelling and contracting, like something alive, with a resulting sound like rain on a forest canopy (as at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Swiss town of Thun in 2016). Or imagine a long line of taut steel wires – nearly 300 metres in all – gently pummelled by ninety-nine small felt balls to produce a thickly pluming harmonic cloud (Artbon Art Collection, Arbon, Switzerland, 2018).

“I try to create sound spaces that behave more like natural sounds,” Zimoun tells me. “ Let’s take the sound of a river, for example: it always sounds similar when viewed from a distance, but it changes at every moment. If we look at its sound in a microscopic dimension, the exact same moment is never repeated. The micro-structures of its sounds are very lively, complex and in constant change, but at the same time the overall sound feels rather static and constant. There is no narrative component. It is rather an organism functioning in itself.”

Zimoun : Compilation Video 4.1 (2020) from Zimoun on Vimeo.

It is common to find references to nature and natural processes in discussion of Zimoun’s work. The discourse abounds with talk of flocking, swarming, cloud formations and brownian motion. The artist himself lives in Bern, a city surrounded by the Swiss alps, and he signs off his email telling me he is off for a walk in the forest. I get the feeling that the non-human environment is a source of profound inspiration for him (though he insists that he “can’t break inspiration down to something single”).

With their soundworld of shimmering white noise, always changing yet always the same, Zimoun’s work might even be pictured alongside the contemporary vogue for the supposedly sleep-enabling or productivity-enhancing power of soundscapes like waves lapping on a shore or the crackling of a campfire. Except there is something too unsettling – even uncanny – in the sounds, and even the scenes presented by these works. I am reminded of the animated broomsticks in Disney’s Fantasia or Jean Baudrillard’s musings on the ‘system of objects’, in which things speak their own language, attain personalities, and wreak their revenge upon their human enslavers through malfunction, “an avalanche of technical hitches”. The music of Zimoun is what happens when the instrumentarium seeks independence from the instrumentalists and starts to perform itself.

As a child, Zimoun was fascinated by the creaking noises emitted by the boiler at his grandmother’s house. “I remember a room with a large heater, which periodically heated,” he told me. “This caused the metals of the heater to heat up and then cool down again. During the process of this cooling, a large number of small clicking sounds were always created, which were also reflected on the walls of the room. This filled the entire room with small sounds and rhythms.” Entranced, he would find excuses to keep going back to this room, with its myriad tiny sounds. “I kept walking by this boiler room,” he says, “to listen to the sounds.”

In a sense, the artist keeps on returning to this room – a space that sounds almost more like something visited in a dream than any place in reality – with every work he creates. By accumulating masses of tiny sounding gestures, his work de-realises space and opens up a portal towards a topology of the imaginary. “I try to create sound spaces in which I can lose myself,” Zimoun writes from his home amongst the mountains and forests of northern Switzerland. With open ears, we may follow him into such dreamspaces – but it is a passage fraught with possible mirages. “Our perception can shift, psychoacoustic phenomena can be observed, things are disassembled and re-contextualised.”

Various vibrating materials by Zimoun is at Oto Sound Museum until 20 February 2021