Alain Cueff


The entire length of the space is crossed by a continuous line of sound. Its content is something like a rustling sound, although it is impossible to decide with any certainty what it is or to locate its source. A frail sound, at first almost imperceptible, yet insistent, which soon comes to impose on our sense of hearing, leaving us curiously free of all visual distraction. Following this line that comes from above, which stops abruptly when one moves a step away from it, the physical marks to which we are accustomed and by which we regulate our movements lose their solidity. We have not left the floor, the space has not changed, and yet something is happening around us that is also happening within us. Our sensory hierarchy is being deconstructed, our perception reorganized.

This line which the listening body passes through, crosses, leaves and returns to, acquires a tangible reality which marks the space without dividing it. Deprived of both its storing and its demonstrative functions, the Magasin in Grenoble, an old warehouse converted into an art centre where Max Neuhaus has created this line, no longer seems to be one thing or the other.

Max Neuhaus's work is essentially distinguished from music by the fact that its dimension is not so much time as the space in which it occurs and from which it cannot be dissociated. The more we expect music, blind to the world and measured in terms of its own sequence, the more the sound forms of Max Neuhaus are always already there, made luminous by replacing our gaze with a direct perception of the space in which we coexist with them.

From 1961 until 1968 Max Neuhaus was a percussionist, giving concerts with Pierre Boulez's Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, collaborating with Karlheinz Stockhausen, playing as a soloist at Carnegie Hall. His first independent work - a series of sound walks across urban and rural sites in 1966 - started off his reflection on the space of sound. 'I began my career as a musician working in a sphere of music where distinctions between composer and performer were beginning to disappear. I became interested in going further and moving into an area where composer and performer would not exist.' However, Neuhaus does not base his work on Manichean oppositions of the passive/active type, any more than he is involved in a psychological theory about audience participation. From the start it has been a matter of getting rid of a certain number of mediators and approaching a new dimension by entrusting the hearing of sounds to the person listening.

Ceasing to perform in public and pursuing his research on a computer, Neuhaus broke with the traditional concepts of art, from production to reception. His work today examines the very function of art. There is no ideological theory behind this work, nor can one be deduced from it; the work quite simply begins with the space, and remains within the aura of its reality.

The choice of the site is the first stage of any installation, determined by its architectural, functional and acoustic properties. This choice is carried out in the world; there is nowhere that is necessarily inappropriate. The variety of sites used by Max Neuhaus bears witness to this: elevator, swimming pool, museum, metro station, public park, telephone system, radio, road, airport, etc. There is no privilege, no impossibility, no constraint; it is understood that this order of possibility is also a part of the work.

The preliminary survey of the site that Neuhaus carries out is a work of total perception, in which all the elements and their interactions appear. The space is not a reality made up of autonomous parts connected by relations of cause and effect and perceived by our senses in an analytic sequence. The space is a density. Thus it will not be solely a matter of acoustic questions, treated so as to optimize the specific qualities of a place in order to obtain the maximum number of effects, but of conceiving an authentic form which will be integrated with it, which will be able to crystallize, through its own uniqueness, the total perception of the space. The plainness of the form and its mimeticism are the conditions of this crystallization.

The programmes worked out in the studio are modified on site, reworked and readapted. The system is never completed, does not become reified in a coded language which would apply in all cases. The distinction between tool (the computer) and instrument is important because it determines a relationship to technology which is not one of dependence but rather of freedom. There is no fascination or naive faith in progress here, no fetishism or narcissistic fixation. Pragmatic, Neuhaus's work does not chatter but rather makes one hear.

Thus the form is a direct part of the space: it simultaneously emanates from it and reveals it, comes from it and returns to it, coincides with it and becomes distinct from it. It is volatile and figurative. It has no source because its sole end is its clear integration with the space. The sound sources are invisible for reasons which are inherent within the project itself: the sound is a part of the space like the air that flows in it, immediate, without any instrumental constraint.

The extreme precision of the sound forms allows a multiplicity and individuality of experiences. Given that our personal perception of time and space is the main agent, it is clear that these installations produce different experiences and do not assign to the space one sole nature which would then be an unambiguous totality. The singularity and the richness of the possibilities are directly proportional to the precision and the strictness of the terms.

Some works, such as that carried out in the pedestrian zone at Times Square in New York, or the Montparnasse metro station project in Paris, have the characteristic, among others, of being practically anonymous. The uninformed passerby can walk past without noticing their existence. Only sustained attention enables one to discover them or to disentangle the various strata of coexistent sonorities. In operation twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, the Times Square work questions our presence within the space, without creating an effect of surprise, but opening up the possibilities of the world, not in a fiction, but in the actuality of everyday life.

If Neuhaus exhibits in a gallery or a museum, he alters our expectations, contradicts our reflexes, inverts our atavism. It is not a question of competing with the visual arts; we have already observed the principle of plainness behind this work. A recent work reveals another aspect: the sound installation can only be perceived after dark, when the photo-electric cells reveal their function. The sequence, which seems to be irregular, invades the space of the gallery, which is neither empty nor full but deprived of its purpose.

Max Neuhaus's work is an active phenomenology which, instead of taking our senses into account, redistributes them in the immediate infinity. The work creates a space within a space, without indicating or marking it, without even appropriating it, without subsequently interfering with the truth that constitutes it. The sound is within us as we are within the space: that is the principle of this place in which we are sent to live, and which is, however, neither arbitrary nor metaphoric. This place cannot effectively be transferred to any other place: it is a moment of our awareness. A mental place more than anything else, elaborated within the limits of our presence in the world.

Using the barest of descriptive styles, Neuhaus in his drawings records the mute data of the landscapes. The lines, the curves, and the grey shading do not offer an ideal equivalent, but they do enable us to measure the parameters of the landscapes such as we shall never see them. Finally, the drawings do not prescribe any attitudes for the beholder to take, nor do they offer directions for use or describe experience. They testify to the essentially irreducible character of the work, closing the illusion of reproduction and insisting on the work's own demands, hearing the place in the landscape, the place of the world.


First published as "Max Neuhaus: The Space of Sound", Artscribe, September-October 1988