On Photographing Sonic Culture

Review of the photobook Cat on a leash by Ronja Falkenbach, written by Fabio Ney

In the act of listening, the sounding world reveals itself as a multitude of acoustic events, each one co-existing with others. They are surrounding our bodies, traversing space and objects within it, emanating from different directions with different things to cause them, and yet they are all perceivable at once. In our experience of sound, we might focus on something specific and appreciate it while disregarding the “background noise”. We might sweep through all the sounds present in a given moment and try to define them, or we might simply hear a tapestry of sound without actively distinguishing different sounding objects. While a listener can concentrate and change his or her mode of perception, one substantial feature of sonic events is that sound spreads out without a fixed focus.

Cat on a leash translates these auditory concepts into a visual one, when Ronja Falkenbach, driven by a way of knowing through images, uses a 35 mm point-and-shoot camera to grasp and determine her experience with the subject at hand: Seoul’s lively electronic music culture. Using the on-camera flash, she partly concentrates on clear details, be it the materiality of a club’s interior, a moment of dancing-ecstasy or an artistic tattoo on the back of someone’s head, while also dealing with the flow and ubiquitousness of situations, people, and the condensed social cohesion they’re experiencing by making use of time exposure in wild, picturesque images of moving bodies and light effects on the dance floor. Just like sound affecting any material around it, flowing around corners and into voids, Falkenbach’s photographs don’t focus on a specific location or character, but instead comprehensively examine transnational phenomena, namely electronic music played, listened and danced to in underground clubs. Through many aspects of nightlife, from the street food before a night out to the skyline rising up into the first light of day, we find hints of the uniqueness of cultural life in the city of Seoul, and yet these sceneries suggest a general representation of urban lifestyle in western or Westernized metropolises.

The use of a point-and-shoot camera unifies intentionality with coincidental extractions of a seemingly never-ending night, thus fusing a subjective, biographical story with an insight into universal memories and dreams of a young generation. As these images are taken in a context of music, it is worth appreciating the phenomenological nature of images always showing part of something but simultaneously suggesting more than can actually be seen. In Cat on a leash, looking at photography might stir acoustic memories, depending on the overlap of the viewer's experience and the book’s content. Thus, it can be read as an attempt of transforming the excitement of music into still images.

Sound coming out of a club’s soundsystem could be described as mediated immediacy – hearing a song played live by a band produces a more direct experience of the acoustic material than hearing that same song being played back by a DJ in a club, each event having its own qualities, one is not superior to the other. Mediated immediacy is also part of Falkenbach’s narrative. The immediacy is constituted by the individual relation between viewer and picture, the mediated consists of the music, the atmosphere, the spaces, the people and the author’s memories - all of which we can only get a clue of. What we see is joined by our own thoughts and experiences. This associative process is addressed by use of photographs printed on stickers, which are subsequently put on different pages throughout the book. The fascination of keeping a moment on film and thereby conserving it is juxtaposed by the rather short-living nature of stickers, which put the photographer's representational quality up for discussion.

In the end, Cat on a leash deals with abstraction and alteration. If a dancing body or a throbbing crowd becomes a still figure in the light of a flash, are we dealing with an artifact of movement, a notion of music, or a new idea in its own right? How can something as vibrant as club culture be translated into a different format, detached from direct experience? The answer lies within the process of transformation, the outcome has to become something new, something independent. Cat on a leash is an autobiography as much as it displays shared meanings. While based on being affected by and the affection for sound and techno music respectively, it explores the power of the image – the epistemic value of photography. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to either rush through the nights in ecstasy, merging the pictures into a movielike continuum, or to appreciate each fragment for its own beauty.

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