Art Monthly | No 379

Una Knox

sounding out: plant hunters, space seekers, listeners, fakers, keepers

by Nick Warner


When a tree falls in the woods, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? I always felt a personal affinity towards this philosophical conundrum: when I was a child I was napping with my father on an old pier in the middle of Ontario’s vast Algonquin Park, when somewhere in the surrounding wilderness we heard one of the enormous virgin-growth spruce trees fall. The noise it made, cutting its way down through the brush and finally hitting the ground, was something between gunfire, thunder and horses’ hooves. I thought I had solved the puzzle – yes, unheard trees falling do make a noise. I guess I wasn’t as smart as I felt I was at that moment.

Some 15 years later and I’m watching a film of a woman walking through what looks like a Victorian conservatory, one of those enormous cast iron and glass structures where botanists used to keep their collections of rare tropical plants safe from non–tropical climates. The woman is following a winding path through this imitation rainforest and all the ambient sounds – parrots, finches and cockatoos chirping, a distant waterfall – are crisp and audible. The woman keeps her eyes up and her gaze is drawn to each noise. She is singing and humming and crooning back to the birds, and they back at her. The woman is a speech pathologist who is using her voice to ‘sound out ’ and understand the inner and outer atmospheres of the glass house, and the film is Una Knox’s Sounding out – plant hunters, space seekers, listeners, fakers, keepers, 2014, at FOLD Gallery. The audible sounds in the recording make reference to ‘room tone’ – the filmmaking term given to the ambient silence (or lack thereof) recorded in a location or space. The question gnaws at the audience’s mind: can the noises in an entirely artificial environment really be considered ambient? Encouraging viewers to interrogate their relationship to architecture and environment through visual perception, in parallel with aural perception, are three C–type prints from Knox’s ‘Tric Switch Taw Hitch’ series. The images comprise an array of garish colours, all achieved through layering of red, green and blue. With effects produced entirely in-camera, the prints bracket the video, ushering the viewer in and out with an invitation to consider the scientific parallels between sound and light.