People watch a screen in the exhibition space for Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts
Stories & Ideas

Tue 14 Feb 2017

Sound design and the purist

Art Exhibition Film Sound
ACMI X colourful wall

Emma Bortignon

Sound Designer

Emma Bortignon provides a sonic response to Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts.

Before I launch into my reaction to the exhibition I ‘d first love to share a few concepts to you:

  1. Sound design is the construction, creation and manipulation of sound to elicit a reaction from the listener
  2. Your sense of hearing is the first sense developed in the womb, a sense that exists pre-conscious, before your brain understands or has the ability to process that sound. Hearing, and therefore listening are innate behaviours.

The combination of these two points mean that as a sound designer you can be incredibly persuasive with the use of sound in a controlled medium (such as film or in an exhibition space) even without there being an awareness of the manipulation from the listener. 

As I first entered the exhibition space I was immediately drawn to the back half of the space, to the area where films were screening. I saw lights flashing and heard the screeching of guitars.

As a short film ended, I automatically sat on the floor and waited for the next film to begin.The screen curtain was drawn and then opened again to mark the beginning of another film and I could hear the incredibly detailed action of the curtain – the rope being pulled around the back of the screen was loud enough to hear from where I was sitting, as was the metal rings slipping across the pole. To my delight the curtain was mic'd up and played through the sound system. It commanded my immediate attention and asked to me to sit silently and to be aware of the detail – of everything. 

People watch a screen in the exhibition space for Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts

June 8, 1968

Of the many sounds that could have been played throughout this short film, we only hear one very concentrated and detailed sound – the travelling sound of the train as it clicks, clacks and meanders its way through small towns, carrying the body of the recently deceased Bobby Kennedy. We hear the squeals of the metal wheels stress on the tracks, the shake and rattle of the wood structure of the carriages shunting along as they round corners, all of it’s parts moaning with the friction.(It made me think for a moment about Nicolas Becker, Philippe Parreno's sound designer recording each of these sound elements and then meticulously re-constructing them to create a hyper-real sonic version of the train for the film) 

In the film we see people standing, still, with quiet respect as the train passes them by, yet we still only hear the train. The film then cuts away to a field and the sound of the film follows perspective, as we hear the delicate waves of wind through the grass. The conscious decision for the sound to follow, in close detail, the perspective changes in the picture takes our ears along with the visuals and then back again to the close perspective of the clacking of the train.

It gave the impression that I was travelling on the roof of the train, keeping watch over the important cargo, observing and assessing the silent reactions of those who stand in respect.

I am, however, not thinking these exact thoughts as I watch and listen to the film. In the moment they happen without awareness but are thoughts that I have upon reflection.

In that moment, I am asked to be still as the film almost motionless and silent except for the incredibly focused and detailed sound of the train, invites me to listen intently. 


Philippe Parreno, 'Marilyn', 2012, (film still) ©
 Philippe Parreno, Courtesy Pilar Corrias Gallery, London


Marilyn’s voice was cast so that the timbre, pitch and phrasing of the overall sound of her voice was as close to the real Marilyn Monroe as possible. Although we see no sight of her, we hear her soft words come wafting out from the speakers very clearly as we hear her assessing her environment – the sound of her voice is very close and intimate, like she is talking directly to me. The sound of her space is very peaceful and still and there is no aural sense of the bustling city that exists out the window. It feels like only Marilyn and I and the scratching of her writing a letter, until the lovely sound of the rain beating down on the window comes into play.

Then, during the short film Marilyn, I heard the sound of another train but couldn’t detect where the sound was coming from. Was it part of the soundtrack? It felt like a direct relation to the train in the previous film.

I later discovered that the sound of the train was actually a live train passing from the nearby Flinders Street train tracks. Microphones had been placed on the tracks, capturing the sound of each train pass and then played back through the sound system in the exhibition. It was as though this sound became a soundtrack to a new film with no accompanying images – instead the exhibition space itself became a visual focus. The random sound of the train encouraged me to look around the exhibition space and focus on the faces around me and to take in the floating fish whose colours were being reflected from the light of the screen. I sat and took it all in.

When I left and walked up the stairs from the exhibition space, the memory of all these highly focused and detailed sounds followed me, and I continued to listen as though I was still in the space.

Outside at street level I heard sounds one at a time, as individual elements rather than the whole soundscape of the city that I am so used to hearing: sirens, skateboards, pedestrian ticks, people talking, the click of a woman's heels walking by, music playing from within a shop, the rumble of an approaching tram. Each of these sounds dancing around my head as individual sounds, one at a time, like the focused sounds from the films I had just heard.

Philippe Parreno exhibition image

On another visit I caught the lift from the exhibition space back up to street level and found my self focusing and listening to each of the mechanical cogs, grinds, clunks and whirs from the lift as I traveled upward.

In closing, the result of presenting all these sounds in such a focused and detailed manner had a lasting effect on the way that I listened, not only to the sounds of the exhibition space, but how I listened to the familiar sounds of life beyond the exhibition experience.

– Emma Bortignon