“Tonefield” or the Power of the Ephemeral in Urban Space

Sabu Kohso
The Zone

The East River side of Brooklyn from Greenpoint to Williamsburg is one of the most deserted strips of land in New York City. The piers sticking out to the river have been abandoned for decades, affected as they have been by deindustrialization, the primary impetus of the urban economy. But the status of the area has altered recently since the zoning code was amended to welcome high-rise construction, and now its status of being warehoused is ‘official.’ The forthcoming development will undoubtedly give the final blow of gentrification to the area and very likely oust most of the low-income residents as well as the ethnic and alternative cultures. All in all the transformation of the area is symbolic of the history of New York, whose economy originally flourished thanks to trans-Atlantic trade, then shipbuilding, and finally, real estate.
      The riverside zone is always desolate during the daytime, but during the night it has been the stage for various events that are most suitably defined as ‘underground’: from cockfights of the neighboring Hispanic communities to parties of drag queens to raves and the experimental music scene. With the warehoused desertification and the staging of the underground events in ensemble, the zone has been a throbbing joint of urban life in transition, namely, the rubbed limen of urban metabolism. The initial function of “Tonefield,” a sound intervention organized by the artists/activists group TMP, is to make us face the urban life form by developing a way to listen to and drift along with the city’s throb.

The Drift
Referring to the aerial photograph posted on the website, one September Sunday I walked along Kent Avenue that runs along the edge of the eastern land and the western water, with occasional side trips to the streets toward the East. What I encountered here and there along the way was the intervention of continuous high tones, sometimes 'beating' as a result of subtle differences in frequency modulation. Naturally the desire of a participant/walker would be to look for the source, and it turned out to be a tiny device consisting of a light sensor and alarm-piezo, distributed in various spots in the public domain and left out to external forces. In the first place the tone alters its intensity according to the amount of sunlight, and dies out in tandem with the battery life. The devices could also be broken or taken away anytime by anyone.
      Walking as ‘searching for sound’ is a peculiar experience. It so happens that one comes to pay attention to every noise one hears on the street: traffic, people, construction, factories, river-water, and even the late summer crickets – all the noises one commonly puts away into the subconsciousness come out to consciousness and become ‘environmental sounds.’ Speaking of the sound the device makes, among all else it functions as the neuter or the “sound degree zero,” as it were. Like a chameleon it assimilates itself to the environment in which it is heard. As one of TMP organizers, Barry Weisblat, points out, in industrial areas the tones sound mechanical as if coming from a factory, in grassy areas like the buzzing of crickets, and so on. The sound can be listened to for its own sake, to enjoy it or scrutinize it, but more importantly it functions as a mimic and/or frame of other sounds. It is the sound that underlines and articulates other sounds. And our drift that is guided by the zero sound turns out to be an itinerary of hearing the sounds of the city, the throb of the spatio-temporal entity constantly in transition, and making a sonic map in our corporeal memory. In such a dynamic yet somewhat reserved manner Tonefield functions as a device to articulate territories of sounds or territories by sounds.
      What does it remind us of? Birds’ singing or dogs’ peeing! The act of marking territory by scattering the devices is similar to animals’ demarcation of territories by their affects or extensions of body. Drifting with the tonal mark we become birds and/or dogs.
      Being affected by the sunlight and other forces immanent in a locus, each device produces the tone of a singular locus. In other words, tone becomes locus itself. The tones in orchestration guide the body drifting into the space. As we walk guided by them, the tones become the guardian of the walking body. The spatial operation of Tonefield creates the refrain (or ritournelle in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari), which both provokes and protects the body wandering out on lines of drift. It is the repeated block of code that catalyzes matter, summons forth a landscape and a world, and fabricates time, the a priori form of time, which subsequently opens a key to produce alternative time.
      Williamsburg faces coming gentrification. It is almost a destiny. It is what the linear time of capitalist development imposes upon it. Sooner or later it will be a place exclusively for the rich where there is no more soil for ethnic and youth cultures to blossom. Meanwhile at this moment the area sustains the circular time of people’s everyday life: going to work, coming home, and relaxing in the evening on the street. Importantly there also is a nightlife of bohemian culture. This makes the area still lively and livable. But that is not all. As the third element, there exists a possibility of an alternative time – that could be created by decoded corporeal actions, interventions adrift in the urban space. While the first and second times are determined, the third is undetermined. This last is the only domain in which alternatives can grow and the only element that could change the destiny of the first time and the coded routine of the second time. So it is akin to the time of activism.

Anti-White Wall
New York is always considered to be the center of contemporary art. Stereotypical as it might be, this definition should be taken seriously with respect to the type of art that is developed within the ‘white wall.’ The development of New York Art after Abstract Expressionism has always been prefigured by the development of the white wall. What is this? It is the institution tacitly and solidly shared in the art world, and the common denominator for contemporary art, architecture, and capitalism. It is the index of an art/architecture/real estate conglomeration. It was invented by modern architecture as an element of neutrality; the principle of neutrality came to be shared by visual art; then later on it came to be distributed by real estate as the distinctive feature of cultured living. The so-called ‘loft’ phenomenon that began in Soho is especially emblematic of the deindustrialization that continues to haunt New York -- and the actual agent of the white wall. As the most lucrative use of former industrial space, the loft was invented in the urban context where the garment and printing industries were replaced by real estate. First small factories went out of business and abandoned the cast iron buildings with their workers; artists moved in to live cheaply and make large works; galleries that opened there adopted the idea of space-use; by the time Soho was the prime residential zone in New York, lofts ended up becoming the major trend not only in the art world but also for the yuppie community. The formal basis of American contemporary art (or global contemporary art for that matter) has been nurtured in tandem with this development, in which a new use of the former industrial space had to be reinvented swiftly and smoothly. The same impetus has been expanding, fully swallowing Williamsburg and elsewhere.
      The history of the East Village is telling about the history of gentrification vis-à-vis art in the next stage. The advance of the gallery scene in the 1980s was the forerunner of gentrification of the historical communities, meanwhile the struggle of squatters and the community garden movement flourished. Therein developed two kinds of art: the one that went hand in hand with the development of the white wall and the one that fought it together with the communities and the residents. The former is represented by Neo-geo and/or Simulationism, the cool and cynical Art with a capital A. The heritage of the latter is still alive as the community gardens and the alternative spaces such as Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village and ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side.
      But today the situation is different; the same kind of struggle, the struggle over real buildings, land, and estate is becoming nearly impossible. In New York, the degree of gentrification and state’s control of properties has reached the point at which appropriation of deserted or warehoused real estate is no longer tolerated for even a second. The dispossession of Casa Del Sol in 2004 was tragically symbolic in this context. But this struggle is not over; it continues. At the same time, however, the struggle over the actual space has shifted to a new phase, wherein the main battleground is the virtual and the issue of space is being reconsidered from that vantage point.

Blurring Art and Activism
Now we have to ask the following essential question: if art is possible outside the white wall, namely, outside real estate development. For, inasmuch as it is encased within the white wall, work -- even that which claims to be critical of gentrification -- cannot really engage in the situation to create an alternative. If and only if released from the conglomeration with real estate can art recharge its once promised progressive role. Thus in New York it is imperative to embrace the art that deals directly with the urban space and in consequence neighbors on activism. Therefore it is in our utmost interest to construct a genealogy of art as activism and develop a concept of activism as art.
      In the context of confronting this problematic, today we observe efforts to discover ways by which to intervene in public space virtually. ‘Virtual’ here means neither virtual reality nor the insubstantial. It means to be sensitive to what is not present yet exists as potency, like a seed or a code like DNA, and to positively nurture it. In terms of urban space it has to do with a creation/discovery of an alternative time in space or an alternative space in time. The most known example is certainly the Critical Mass Ride that takes place every last Friday of the month. The return in time is the force with which to pry open a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) in the routine of everyday urban traffic. It is a new form of taking over the space. The virtual taking over never endures but returns, and the refrain [ritournelle] becomes a force on a different level to exhaust the linear and coded times dominated by capital’s reproduction.
      Meanwhile the practice of TMP exemplified in Tonefield does not involve a physical confrontation with power, but also embraces the task of discovering TAZ in the spatio-temporal complex of the urban network. It too works with the virtual in the sense that it disseminates different times (tones) in space. Tonefield is an attempt to have us drift in territories of various times and experience plural temporalities. It is an approach to discover TAZ in the public domain that is always already taken over by capital, but by way of more artistic means, namely, inventing devices that affect our perception thereby inducing our corporeal intervention. Given that the dominant impetus of contemporary art is the rule of the white wall, the institution that intends to be eternally sovereign of the visual, TMP goes the opposite way. It intends to be as ephemeral as possible, yet as corporeal as possible vis-à-vis the urban space. For being ephemeral and corporeal is the very premise, perhaps the sine qua non, to begin a search for the virtual territory or the alternative way of being in over-gentrified public space.