Bet you can’t read what the speakers aren’t saying. Conciliabule messes with Braille and sound
Conciliabule is derived from the Latin word conciliabulum, meaning “place of assembly.” More than a simple gathering, the term conciliabulum carries with it implications of secrecy, with such an assembly usually congregating to make important religious or political decisions without permission from the ruling class. In brief, the word is associated with shady things — back-door dealings, whispers, betrayals of trust, and the seizure of power.
Armed with this definition as I visit The New Gallery to see the new exhibition Conciliabule, I draw immediate relationships between the sparse, yet carefully arranged installation of speakers and wires, the dimly-lit gallery and the aforementioned word’s clandestine nature. Conciliabule is a multi-track audio installation — an ongoing collaborative project between Montreal artists Myriam Bessette and Robin Dupuis. The gallery is quiet — well, relatively quiet. The ambient noise of Eau Claire — a mixture of “lite” rock, chatting shoppers and a steady, whiny, flowing sound coming from the mall’s air ducts — is the only sound I hear, and it’s only after a couple of minutes that I notice the vibration of the speakers.
Unexpectedly, for a work billed as an audio installation, none of the wall-mounted speakers emit audible frequencies. Instead, the speakers pulse and throb, and only when the vibrating diaphragm is completely saturated with the low frequencies is a discernible sound created. As the frequencies build, what at first was a tiny, high-pitched buzz becomes louder, like a swarm of bees filling your ear drums — punctuated by the crackles and snaps of speakers nearly overloading. It feels like something is reaching out to tap the delicate membranes of your inner ear. The speakers are arranged on two walls, facing each other, compelling the viewer to cross back and forth to each side, putting an ear close to individual speakers in a vain attempt to discover the source of the sounds; attempting to decipher a message that may be contained in the static.
Bessette’s voice provides the material for the tracks, filtering out references to the human voice until all that is left is the very low, inaudible frequencies. Conciliabule illustrates invisible sound waves and distills the human voice to its most basic form, stripped of any and all cultural markers or narratives that can influence how we process these signals. Dupuis explains that this “allows the information transmitting through the speakers to function on almost an emotional level; visitors are drawn towards the speakers, despite not being able to tell what it is that is coming out.”
In contrast to the abstract sounds coming from the speakers, the wires running from the units to the CD players at the back of the gallery are plainly visible. Since they are investigating the transmission of information, the artists have chosen to leave these in sight in order to highlight the physical path information takes while being technologically transmitted. “As digital technology is further refined,” says Dupuis, “we are losing the sense of just how information is actually transmitted.”
Since 2006, when Bessette and Dupuis mounted Concilibule for the first time, the piece has been changing. The speakers are installed on the wall at The New Gallery instead of being suspended from the ceiling as they have in the past, indicating a shift in meaning the work has undergone through three years of development. According to Dupuis, Conciliabule was always meant to be seen more than heard, and this wall configuration highlights the speakers and the wires in such a way that allows for contemplation about the technology behind the work.
The artists’ feel that there is a connection between the religious connotations of the early incarnations of Conciliabule and the current configuration of the work, which has become more definitively rooted in the exploration of technology. Dupuis likens the faith modern society has in technology to the faith one may have in a particular god: “We [often] don’t understand how, say, a computer is working — we simply have faith that it will,” quips Dupuis.
Exploring ways to transmit signals and messages even further, the artists have arranged the speakers on the wall to spell out Matériel Son (Material Sound) in Braille, poetically referencing their attempts to make the intangible tangible with Conciliabule’s “visual sound.” Much like the static coming out of the speakers, this message is not easily available, as it would be impossible to run your fingers over the speakers in order to read the message — not many people read Braille visually.
So I suppose this makes Conciliabule an audio-piece you can’t hear, spelling out a message that can’t be read. These facts could be seen as problematic, but the potential of this work excites me. Conciliabule is an ongoing piece the artists will continue to develop and I look forward to the different directions Bessette and Dupuis may take as they build upon these concepts in the future.