Toine Horvers: Sound and Space
Guus Vreeburg

published in: Archis (1994) 4, p 7 as translation of the original text in Dutch (translation: John Rudge)

In Utrecht the arts festival 'Traject’ recently came to an end, having shown installations by fifteen artists in the cellars on the medieval wharfs along the Oude Gracht. During evaluation of the project the question was raised of how far the relation between the visual and conceptual aspects of a work of art influences the degree to which it is accessible and open; at what point does the risk arise of a work of art only being approachable rationally? Toine Horvers' installation in Disco Fellini shed an unexpected light on these questions.

What was there to see? In the dark space of the cellar stood four music stands, one behind the other on the longitudinal axis of the vault; instead of the rests for the score sheets there were small speakers. Under we stands was a dotted line of four red lights - these were four personal stereos, playing. Once one had gotten used to the dark, one became aware of something else on the floor - a fitfully moving blob. This turned out to be a beam of light from a spotlight fixed high up on the facade across the canal which glanced off the water and was guided via a mirror through the entrance of the building. This light supplied the virtual counterpart of the water outside.

Equally elusive was the sound from the speakers. If one listened closely one heard it bouncing off the walls and drifting round the entire room. The dimensions and materiality of the space could hardly be seen, but were thus rendered audible - an enchanting experience in itself. Gradually one realized that the sound was not a uniform entity but consisted of different layers. There were metallic-sounding voices in four languages: Dutch, German, French and Schwyzerdütsch. If one took the trouble to unravel this jumble of sounds one could distinguish series of place names and numbers, which turned out to be the figures for water levels at various places along the Rhine. This is information one can get from automatic answering machines, with the figures adjusted every day. Once one had realized this, and was armed with the knowledge that the Oude Gracht is a former branch of the Rhine - the Roman name for Utrecht was Traiectum ad Rhenum - one had succeeded in bringing the secret of this sculpture to the surface. Not only is the spatial quality of the cellar made tangible; it is also linked up with the geographical space of half a continent. An art of space.

What was involved here was nothing that was concrete and material: the music stands and the stereos, however formally and carefully arranged, were no more than vehicles for the sound; in themselves they were not important. Horvers worked with fragments of light and sound; the viewer, or rather the listener, had to make do with that.

In Utrecht there was at least something still to be seen. The installation Clouds 7 that Horvers placed in Jan Hoogstad's VROM Ministry Building [in The Hague] in 1993 omits the traditional visual aspect of art altogether. In a 15storey lift shaft a series of speakers has been mounted emitting dusters of pre-recorded singing voices. The pitch, density and volume of these tone dusters as well as the place where they sound, are determined by a computer that reacts to changes in the weather. The sound one hears during one's invisible 'journey' in the dosed lift is different every time. This means that one cannot use it to ascertain one's whereabouts. One does of course hear whether one is approaching sounds that are above or below one rather than moving away from them. In this way one gets an experience of vertical movement. The artist's intention is also to create a relationship with the sun, rain and wind - which are visible everywhere else in the transparent glass-fronted building - thus opening up the enclosed space of the lift cage.

Horvers calls his works 'sound sculptures'. Initially a performance artist, for many years now he has deliberately chosen to draw on immaterial and fleeting media as ingredients of his installations. In this respect he goes against the trend of the much more material-based art of the past decade. He seems rather to relate to the minimalist and conceptual trends of the sixties and seventies. And yet there is a considerable difference. At that time the aim was to rid a work of art as far as possible of its concrete material form, shifting the emphasis from the physical and visual experience to the realm of rational understanding. Horvers continues to address the physical experience, but he wants to explore other routes than that of the purely visual.

This was also the theme of 'Les Immateriaux', the event that Jean-Franqois Lyotard organized in 1985 in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In it not only sound, but also smell, temperature and texture, movement and even memory were investigated as new media for the arts - matter itself belonged to the past. Sound is increasingly employed now as a spaceshaping medium. During the 1992 Documenta, for instance, Max Neuhaus installed a scarcely audible triad in an open stairwell. At the time of writing an installation by Bill Fontana can be heard from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where speakers transmit sounds from elsewhere in the city and from distant corners of the country.

Initially Horvers worked only with 'abstract' sound: drum rolls, the pure sound of the human voice. These works were to be heard and seen. Moreover it was the visual element that determined the limits and the rhythm of the auditory - both for the performers and for the onlookers; for instance the Intensity of the sound related roughly to the amount of daylight or to its position in the space. This often led to hermetic works that sometimes had explicitly theatrical aspects. The object of all these 'sculptures' was to attempt to articulate space and duration; both elements were often used in combination to create an experience of distance. Currently Horvers also use of `figurative' sound, such as in Utrecht. This is evidently very effective - by itself, without any visual backup.

Horvers links his installation in Utrecht with the phenomenon of energy: the energy of the Rhine river in incessant motion, but also that of the people who observe its flow and who regulate and record it. He sees ritual aspects in this activity which he goes on to deploy in what he calls 'drawing': page after page, layer on layer, he copies the tables in which the movements of the river are described. Drawings grow like 'flows' of concentrated congealed energy. Stream 3, a sort of auditory drawing taking its cue from the Utrecht installation, was produced by a comparable procedure: Horvers mixed the voices on the answering machines to create a wild sort of house music that could be played in the disco at night. In this way concentrated energy is used to liberate new energy.

Horvers' work makes considerable demands, both on the 'onlookers' and on its surroundings. Unlike imagery, sound is vulnerable to interference from other unintentional sound in the vicinity. While I was visiting the Fellini installation one morning, a vacuum cleaner was droning away in a neighbouring room – so much for the artwork! Horvers' house piece runs the risk of becoming completely assimilated in the ‘normal' music there, so that the work of art is no longer recognizable as a separate entity. In the lift of the VROM ministry people seem to prefer to listen to each other rather than to Horvers' clouds of sound – these quickly end up being treated as merely a bothersome background noise that is filtered out by one's ‘mental ear'. The VROM work in fact required to be recognized ‘in time' and deciphered over a longer period; only in this way can one discern its structure and penetrate the possible layers of meaning of the abstract sounds. In that respect the installation in Utrecht was much less hermetic because the sounds were more 'figurative'; furthermore the visitors were probably more motivated than random occupants of a lift cage. Once one is open to it, so turns out to have enormous potential as a key both to a directly physical experience as well as to one that is more mental and intellectual.

There lies its great importance for architecture. Provided it is carefully dosed and deliberately introduced - unlike the space's own 'characteristic’ sound (a hollow echo, the hum of air-conditioning other pieces of equipment) or the pollution of Musak - sound can heighten and expand one's experience of a building enormously. This was something that the builders of Gothic churches knew; these buildings served as genuine sound boxes for liturgical singing without which their architecture would in fact has been incomplete: it surrounded the faithful on all sides and they were carried away by it. In our day, when an excess of things material raises more and more questions, an architecture is developing that relies increasingly on abstract architectonic aspects rather, than on material spectacle. Sound, being immaterial by definition, would seem here to be a valuable medium for once more charging space with meaning.

© Guus Vreeburg / Het OOG, Rotterdam; 940407