Back in the 1960s, hippies used to liken the experience of taking acid to "seeing sounds" or "hearing colours". What they were describing, of course, was a chemically induced version of synaesthesia - a neurological condition that disorders the senses so that you might, indeed, "feel" sounds or "smell" colours.
New PICA exhibition What I See When I Look At Sound was inspired in part by this notion of synaesthesia. Its curator, Leigh Robb, had visited an exhibition in Osaka by Japanese musicologist Yukio Fujimoto in 2011, and a remark the sound artist made remained embedded in her memory.
"He said "People today hear sounds with their eyes and pictures with their ears' . . . In thinking about this show I was interested in deliberately confusing those registers and wanted to work with some of Australia's most interesting and experimental artists to both visualise and 'sonorise' that idea."
Five experimental artists, including three based in WA (Cat Hope, Kynan Tan, Lyndon Blue) and two from Melbourne (Matthew Gingold, Lauren Brown) explore the relationship between looking and hearing, how our eyes communicate with our ears, and how the interplay of our senses help us to "make sense" of the world around us. The exhibition's title is a play on Haruki Murakami's memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, itself a re-working of Raymond Carver's famous short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Robb says there has been a steady rise in exhibitions devoted to sound art at the international level and PICA is looking to capitalise on that global interest.
"The exhibition is a response to the rise of sound art as a practice," she says. "We wanted to create a platform for Australian artists who are working across music, sound and video art. We've long been engaged with the idea of interdisciplinary practices and experimental music, and it's a focus for us to have site-specific commissions that are designed for and built within PICA."
For some, the idea of "sound art" may sound a bit conceptually intimidating, perhaps not as warm or inviting or as easily understood and interpreted as, say, painting or conventional sculpture.
"Sound art is definitely a challenging concept but it's often connected to music, which is something we all tend to have a relationship with," Robb says.
"The concept of this particular show is to give sound a presence, to allow it to fill space as well as rumble through the body.
"The idea is to create visceral encounters that can be literally felt as well as heard and seen."
Matthew Gingold's work, Filament Orkestra, is a kind of self-playing orchestra in which the instruments are light bulbs, radios and relays which create a "symphony of signals, shadows and electronic chatter", according to Robb. Cat Hope has made a sound sculpture of seven bass guitars and amps, creating a reverb tower of feedback which stands in dialogue with Lauren Brown's work, Sound Wall: Precedence, inspired in part by the work of John Cage.
Kynan Tan's double-projection and multi-screen work Multiplicity (Installation) creates isolated and controlled sonic and visual chambers, which form a counterpoint to Lyndon Blue's interactive installation Altar, which Robb describes as "a strange, mystical and malleable music video in which found film footage and a soundtrack composed by the artist is manipulated by visitors via a theremin".
Across these different interpretations of sound art, the artists ask questions about the way movement affects sound, the subliminal effects of low-frequency sound, how "sound art" does or does not differ from more conventional musical forms, and how the sonic and the visual relate to one another.
"Sound art by definition is unpredictable because sound itself is unpredictable," Robb says. "It moves and bounces around space and it behaves differently to how images can be controlled and perceived. It can be anarchic and a bit unruly. This show is experimental as well as experiential. I wanted to create a personal, meaningful encounter with sound for our visitors, which is where the 'I' in 'What I See When I Look at Sound' comes in."