Blindfolds and brain waves: Swiss artist Zimoun's sound art is pure escapism

The artist, known for his sound sculptures, premiered a new composition with NYUAD

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The trickling melody from a guitar comes from behind a wash of static. A percussive pop orbits around my head. I’m wearing headphones, my eyes are closed.

Zimoun would rather I wear a blindfold or eye mask, but I don’t have either to hand. However, even without them, getting lost in the Swiss artist’s online audio performance is easy.

That is, until the sound buffers, and everything goes silent for a split second before the guitar, the static and the percussive clicks resound.

But, soon, you begin to get used to the intermittent bouts of silence, even if they are somewhat disruptive to the listening experience.

A good measure of acceptance, and even the awkward gaps of quiet become part of the composition, which Zimoun wrote specifically for the online performance on Tuesday, June 9, which was held by NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery as part of its Trace: Archives and Reunions series. This event marked the launch of Zimoun's exhibition archive on the NYUAD Art Galley's webpage.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many artists have taken to performing online on makeshift home stages or at empty venues. Yet, experiencing a live concert in person is quite different than listening in from your home. There are constant distractions that draw your attention to the music streaming in through your home theatre system or your headphones.

Sure, you can't go to a concert in your boxer shorts but you can't be fully immersed in the music from your home, either.

Zimoun has taken this dissonance between performer and audience as a challenge. He guides audiences back into the art of deep listening. Draw your curtains shut, hit the lights, put on your best pair of headphones, sit in a comfortable chair, and close your eyes. Let the music lead your sight.

There are dozens of others watching the live stream with me on NYUAD Art Gallery’s Facebook page. During the Zoom hangout after the event, Zimoun notes that all the sounds we were hearing – the static, the percussive clicks, the crackling and the rustling, were all produced from a guitar.

“I used a number of effect pedals, recording a number of sessions of me playing the guitar, each session was about an hour long,” Zimoun says, adding that he then layered the recording on top of one another, heavily manipulating them for the final composition, which took a year to complete.

Maya Allison, chief curator at NYUAD, notes that the process is an unusual one for the Swiss artist.

"I don't recall you ever using traditional instruments," she tells Zimoun during the Zoom meeting, noting how, in his other works – some of which were exhibited at the gallery last year – Zimoun tends to explore sounds from objects we wouldn't categorise as musical instruments.

One of his signature pieces includes a 10-metre-tall tower of cardboard boxes in which cotton balls create a deep rumble within.

Another one of his works – '37 Prepared DC-Motors, 85 m Rope, Steel Washers Ø 40 mm' – is a wall piece using a simple mechanical system that causes a curtain of string and washers to dance.

Using an electric guitar may be a far cry from Zimoun’s more unorthodox methods. But the ambition of the piece is the same: to get his audience to do their part in immersing themselves to the audio around them.

“Our eyes are our main senses,” Allison says. “So to block our sight, sound comes to life in a different way. The darkness changes the experience.”

The others at the Zoom meeting agree, and soon the question of the noise cuts are brought up. I am (somewhat selfishly) relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only one experiencing the sporadic silences in Zimoun’s composition.

"Were they part of the music?" someone asks.

Zimoun admits that the silences were not part of the composition, calling it a “technical difficulty” but the participants don’t seem to mind. “It felt like I was breaking the water’s surface for air before diving back in,” one says, comparing his listening experience to one of his scuba diving adventures.

He wasn't the only one who found was transported to natural surroundings, others said they felt like they were in the middle of a forest, hearing the creaking of trees, the rustling of a wind and the crackling of a bonfire.

Zimoun seems pleased by the visual testimonies of the participants. I say seems because the artist – keeping with his enigmatic ways – chose not to stream video during the Zoom meeting, concealing his face behind a picture of one of his art installations.

“The less you see, the more you see,” he says.

Zimoun's June 9 performance was a one-off virtual concert, but the artist's 2019 exhibition at the NYU Art Gallery can now be accessed online through the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery website