Bruit de Fond
Background Noise
Published by JSBJ - Je Suis une Bande de Jeunes


© JSBJ, Background Noise Cover


The world is a very overwhelming place for an infant. With a brain that new, the different neural pathways that perceive sensory information are still taking shape, and transmissions sometimes get lost in a soup of subcortical and cortex confusion. Scientists have successfully shown that when babies are stimulated sonically or visually the corresponding neural sensory mode will not be the one firing. For example, a baby will hear a loud noise but neurons in her sight modality will fire. Simply put, a baby can hear sights, see noises, and touch smells, and does so frequently. As a result a baby lives in a disorienting cognitive stage in which sensual boundaries are still developing.


© Jeff Otto O'Brien


This condition is not unique to early childhood, as many adults have developed fixed cognitive functions that classify as synesthesia. The neurobiological mechanisms of synesthesia work as follows; stimuli in one sensory modality registers as a sensory experience in a different modality. The most popularly referenced synesthetic function is grapheme-colour synesthesia, in which graphemes (letters, numbers, punctuation marks, etc.) illicit a strong color association from the synesthete. The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky famously used his synesthetic condition to relay cross-faculty experience in artistic depiction. Kandinsky paintings arrange musical composition as it relates to his color and movement-based associations of them.


© Bill Sullivan

Artists frequently attempt to mediate the space between art object and viewer perception. Ostensibly that space involves eliciting synesthetic-like interpretation of artistic gestures, although rather than causing an actual synesthetic experience, the visual information triggers specific emotional histories that lead to cross-sensual engagement. If one’s response to an object or image is visceral, often specific personal memories are recalled. That archive usually contains information that refers to not just sight, but also touch, taste, smell, etc. Although synesthesia is a neurological condition that cannot simply be willed by the unafflicted, the effect of this type of response to art work mimics a genuine synesthetic experience. In both cases, the stimulation of one sensory organ gets channeled through more than one cognitive pathway.

© Yann Gross


This sensual boundary crossing has profound implications for artistic practice. Background Noise connects the sonic with the visual, using the photograph and printed image as a starting point. Many of the photographs in this publication trigger sonic associations because of simple cognitive functioning. If an image contains an object or gesture that is characterized by the noise it makes (a bomb for example), we see the sound almost automatically because our perception is based on a vast semiotic archive. Consider Yann Gross’ avalanche, an inherently violent gesture, which allows us to quickly feel the rumble and hear the cacophony of moving earth. Many other images contained in this book also reference aggressive movements or objects either as they are happening or after the fact. Although making that sonic association represents standard cognitive functioning to an adult, the neurology remains complex and fascinating.

Some synesthetes claim that their cross-modality sensory experience is actually what they might experience. For example, the letter “A” isn’t just associated with red, but it appears red in the external world. Or in the case of Gross’ avalanche, they actually hear the rumble of the avalanche or some other sound (a bird chirping) as a result of the signifier. That sound actually exists in their objective experience. Most other synesthetes allocate their experience to purely internal perceptual associations. “The letter ‘A’ feels red,” subjectively.


© Stephanie Gygax


Other images in Background Noise evoke sound in a more subtle matter. Stephanie Gygax’s diptych navigates memory in a way that parallels the viewer’s neurological response. We see the image, understand its sentimentality and once again reference our personal memory archive which may, in the example of Gygax’s images, set the backdrop of city noise. How does each image in the pair elicit a different sonic association? In one the figure is sharp, in the other the figure is blurry, an automatic association most people connect to memory because of the history of the printed image. Do they sound the same or different?


© Marten Lange

Marten Lange’s chaotic display of technological wires, pipes, and containers exploit the lay man’s distance from the technology that dictates his life by disorienting the viewer in the familiar. Many photographs attempt to disorient viewers, often through a hypothetical synesthetic knot. That knot encourages childlike free associations that break down the normal perceptual scaffolding. In the case of synesthesia, those childlike free associations are quite literal, as recent science has shown.

© Ozant Kamaci


Artists choose to model process and object after synesthetic experience to relay information that exists outside of normal singular modal boundary. Crafting works that attempt to stimulate in multiple modalities often makes the difference between a much more passive, “reception” of objects, and the much more whole, totalizing quality of aesthetic experience.


Daniel Shea


Thumbnail Image © Shane Lavalette