Alexandra Bell

Sound Artist

  ︎︎︎ ︎︎

Reflective Journal: Critical Studies

Photo: Lookinginlookingout 14, windows & mirrors, Alex Bell 2020

Week 1: How to Critically Analyse SFMI

Reading: Hendy, D., 2013, Noise: a h
uman history of noise & listening, Profile Books. Introduction pp vi-xiv, Echoes in the Dark pp 4-10

“Expand your listening to continually include more”.

Hendy explores the humanity of sound, investigating sociological & historical evolutionary loops of sound beyond the purely intellectual or anthropological. The author challenges the concept of noise (unwanted sound) as influenced by geographical or psychological context. Hendy describes sound evolution from oral to literal to industrial. It would be interesting to extend Hendy’s timeline to predict future sound in the digital and electrical era (how will we know an electrical car has started). This week I was also intrigued by Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening theory and subsequently have been testing locations as instruments or effects.

Listened: Oliveros, P., Gamper, D., Lyon Rose, J., 1998, Ghost Dance, [CD], US, Deep Listening Label

Week 2: The Society of the Spectacle

Reading: Debord, Guy, 1967, Separation Perfected, The Society of the Spectacle, pp 10-24

“Illusion only is sacred, truth profane……”

The “Spectacle” describes a visually dominant consumer culture, where the drive for materialism and status controls us; and doing or being is devalued. “The Spectacle” itself not really defined and so can evolve and remain relevant through technological advances. Today, I can see how visual culture is reinforced by our reliance on phone screens, social media, celebrity/influencer culture and impacts our behaviour and interactions. On the contrary, for every ‘separation perfected’ we have ways to connect which were unavailable previously. 
I trialled the Derive app, but I found the card system too curated.  I used Debord’s Dérive strategy to feel and sound out some recording locations for my Sound Alone project.

  • Drifting with Debord, 2020 [Film], Archibald, D. & Lavery, C., Glasgow Glamrock Dialogues, Uni Glasgow College of Arts -helped me understand the Spectacle.
  • The Matrix, 1999, [Film], Wachowski, L. & L. Dirs, USA, Warner Bros & Village Roadshow Pictures -inspirational diversity of sound & music, crisply layered.

Week 3: Modernism

Reading: Kahn, D., 1999, Noises of the Avant Garde,
Noise Water Meat, pp 45-67, MIT Press

Marx: “Utopia is naïve, idealistic and ultimately futile, which reinforces the status quo”.

The Modernist movements (Futurist, Dada, Surrealist) were exclusive clubs with specific joiner criteria - paradoxical internally and combative externally. Each reminded me of (i) the human condition and (ii) evolution of our view over time. (i) We justify our actions with a singular rationale, often driven by personal interest, and struggle to empathise with alternative positions. The avant-garde rails against the establishment until embraced and profiting from it; and then the next avant-garde evolves. (ii) Commentary on women & other groups is reported using the standards of today - women only got the federal right to vote in Switzerland in 1971! The Futurists’ use of war mechanics & machinery was innovative -subsequently I’ve been looking out for new technology to include in my work.

  • Pi, 1998, [Film], Aronofsky, D., (Dir.), US, Protozoa Pictures -inspirational big themes and an illustration of what can be achieved in a first feature film on a budget. 
  • Bartok, B., 1940, Mikrokosmos Vol. 2, [Musical Score], Budapest
  • Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for Pi (clip below)

Week 4: Classical Hollywood and Soviet Cinema

Reading: Joyce, M., 2012, The Soviet Montage Cinema, Nelmes, J., Introduction to Film Studies, pp 446-469, Routledge

FEKS: “Consider art as a tireless ram, shattering the walls of habit & dogma”.

The Soviet film philosophy used montage editing to change audience perception of and participation in the storyline. The piece changes depending on the edit of a collection of film clips and whether their meanings collide, construct, build rhythm, or cut at a predefined metric. I found the Kuleshov effect especially interesting,  exploiting how the human brain creates connections and storylines depending on the visual & sonic cues presented.  I also enjoyed the irony that the sophisticated intellectual format of propagandist films was not understood by the mass Soviet audience; and in turn Battleship Potemkin was banned in the UK until 1954 in case it incited working class revolution.

  • How Eisenstein Used Montage to Film the Unfilmable & Influenced Hollywood’ by 100 years of Cinema 
  • The Lighthouse, 2019 [Film], Eggers, R., (Dir.) US, A24 & Regency Enterprises.
  • Stump the Guesser, 2020, [Film], Maddin, G., (Dir.), Canada, Julijette Pictures  -my favourite film of the year because of a mystical realism storyline merged with a Soviet Montage-style monochrome aesthetic.
  • Darkfield Radio -terrifying immersive sound experiences
  • Bjork (Director, Composer, Performer), Bjork Orkestral,  livestream concert performance with the Icelandic String Orchestra, October 20201, Harpa Hall Reykjavik. Big thumping punches of emotion.

Week 5: WWII - Cities, Film Noir, Noise

Reading: Platte, N., 2015. Chapter 3: Postwar Hollywood 1947-1967 In Kalinak, K. ed. 2015. Sound: Dialogue, Music, and Effects. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Rothko Chapel : “A stillness that moves”

Platte reviews the interdependent evolution of film technology, the Hollywood film industry and the social & domestic sonic environment after WWII.

I was struck by the broad reaching impact of a technology-led change, following the introduction of magnetic tape – socially, creatively and organisationally. Being interested in the challenges of driving adoption for new technology paradigms, I was fascinated by the infrastructural disconnect between studios (creating & producing magnetically recorded soundtracks) and theatres (with variable means to exhibit the new tech). Some studios had to reconvert their soundtracks to mono/ optical for theatre distribution. Great reminder to be aware of the potential diversity of audience experience in reality.
Creatively, I was also struck by the elegance and positivity of Quincy Jones and Sydney Poitier - trailblazing socially and artistically as role models through output; with the virtuosity to be stylish, innovative and accessible simultaneously.

  • Surge, 2021 [Film], Karia, A., (Dir.) UK, British Film Institute. Ben Wishaw’s moving depiction of a young man having a breakdown is underpinned by long hand held visual shots and a dynamic soundtrack from Tujiko Noriko.
  • Documentaries featuring sound designers Ben Burtt (Wall-E & Star Wars),  Kristian Eidness (Antichrist) , Nicholas Britell (Moonlight), Harry Midgeley (Harry Potter, The King’s Speech). I loved the mechanical apparatus created to make new sounds; the re-imagining of Handel’s music with classical performers for AntiChrist,  and am already a fan of Britell’s music after hisaward-winning score for TV show ‘Succession’.
  • Ceyerhofer, G (Director of Les Cris de Paris Ensemble Intercontemporain), The Rothko Chapel by M Feldman, concert performance Sep 2017, La Cite de la Musique, Paris. I have visited the Rothko Chapel, where I felt physically pulled into the paintings so much so that I lost my footing, but have not heard this music before. Beautiful spaces.
  • Edvaldsdóttir, S. (Dir),   Piano and String Quartet by M Feldman, concert performance Sep 2013, Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik. I found this hard work and wanted to chop the piano phrases into something more melodic.

Week 6: Cold War: Communism in the Atomic Age

Reading: Bell, J., ed., 2014. Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder. London: BFI. The cinema of catastrophe (pp. 20-27) , Breathing the same air: Cold War Sci Fi (pp. 60-63), Chronology (pp. 158-159)

Catastrophe is spectacle wrought to its uttermost”

Cold War Sci Fi becomes more interesting when we remember the proximity to the end of WWII. The political landscape remained fragile whilst military-industrial science, the space race, the nuclear race and the consequences of Hiroshima & Nagasaki were evolving quickly. The world knew that something dreadful had happened and may happen again - with emotional fragility on a mass scale; and film reflecting the trends and socio-political wrestles of the day in real time.  The stories playing to our greatest fears remain the same now: mind control, mutation, contagion, war, internal alienation, external alien, infiltration and domination. The alien can be anything - stranger, AI, tech, virus. Do we like catastrophe and horror films because we experience thrill and risk from safety, blame is resolved and leaving the theatre is a consolation?

I was a child when the public information broadcasts about nuclear warfare, like Protect and Survive1 , and films like When the Wind Blows2 were routinely screened on television. ormalised at the time,  the sonic notes of (1)  are a chilling memory. On reflection after lecture discussions, I wonder if this has affected my work, coupled with growing up in Belfast during the Troubles.  Often there is black humour and dark subject matter in my work. 

  • (1) Protect and Survive, 1974, [TV public information broadcast], BBC & UK Home Office,
  • (2) When the Wind Blows, 1986 [Film], Murakami, J., (Dir.), Meltdown Productions & Film Four.
  • The Human Voice, 2020 [Film], Almodovar, P., (Dir.), Spain, El Deseo & FIlm Nation Entertainment. I watched this adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play adaption twice, to fully appreciate the lush mis en scene and double check that the acting is in fact a monologue -totally engaging.
  • The French Dispatch, 2021 [Film], Anderson, W., (Dir.) Germany, Indian Paintbrush & American Empirical Pictures. Full of micro twists.
  • Harryhausen, R., c. 1960, Titan of Cinema, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2, Edinburgh (October 2021). Excellently curated insight into stop go animation of some classic 1950s/60s films. I particularly liked the split screen projections which showed scenes in layers -I’d like to do that in my own work.
  • Ogboh, E., 2021, Song of the Union, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (October 2021). I originally visited this 8 speaker array sound installation in situ within The Burns Monument as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.  Singers from the 27 EU states who now reside in Scotland, all sing Auld Lang Syne as a commentary on the Brexit farewell in EU chambers. I found the concept really interesting but was unmoved by the work itself. 
  • Britten, B., 1946, The Rape of Lucretia, [sound recording], Performed by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden conducted by Benjamin Britten, Amsterdam, IMC Music. Emotion-laden recording which is said to have affected the orchestra so deeply that they needed extra breaks.

Week 7: Colonisalism and Cultural Stereotyping

Reading: Francis, T., 2012, Part IV: Cinema, Identity and the Politics of Representation, Chapter 13: Spectacle, Stereotypes and films of the African diaspora. In Nelmes, J., 2012, Introduction to Film Studies: Fifth Edition. Oxon: Routledge pp 329-357

“in the study of ……race, ‘Spectacle’ means representation”

The article explores ‘the spectacle’, stereotypes and racism in film, focussing on the African American experience within the USA.
The perspective on colonialism is specific to the racial culture & history of the USA. (I’d love to see a broader lens included when this topic is reviewed e.g the European slaves taken to the Barbary Coast; or the colonization of Ireland). I found parts of the article to be paradoxical. For example, stereotyping can be negative. But psychologists’1 also identified it as part of our evolutionary safety mechanism and often accurate - both the powerful and powerless exploit stereotyping. Similarly, the commentary that everyone can claim to be marginalized in some way undermined arguments referring to ‘othering’.
As we tend to portray our own experiences, perhaps the only way for the arts to be authentically representative is for creators from all walks to be involved, and care taken of the ‘spectacle’ in the work.

Read: Listened:

Week 8: Post Modernism & Counter Cinema

Reading: Von Trier, L., Vinterberg, T., 1995. Dogme 95 The Vow of Chastity

“The anti-bourgeois cinema itself became bourgeois” (Von Trier 1995)
Only the bourgeois criticise the bourgeiosee” (Bell, 2021)

DOGMA 95 presented ‘The Vow of Chastity’ as a set of rules (Von Trier, Vinterberg) to purify film by focussing on realism and truth, removing special effects and post production. Similarities with French film critic Francois Truffaud’s 1954 essays and Auteur Theory. I’m sceptical of the agenda (arrogance?) when someone develops a personal, undebated, non-peer-reviewed manifesto/religion /law. As with the DaDa-ists, the avant-garde becomes mainstream as the protagonists accept the patronage of the bourgeoisee they claim to despise. Both Von Trier and Vinterberg quickly broke their own Dogma rules, so was this just an exercise in intellectual elitism, narcissism or personal PR? There’s also the paradox of inclusion – culture for all but vilify populist art.

Similarly, does Counter Cinema counter cinema? “Cinema, sɪnɪmə,ˈsɪnɪmɑːa theatre where films are shown”.
This category of film is usually shown in an art house or gallery environment rather than a theatre, so does it really counter cinema or use cinema as a creative foil to develop a multimedia art experience? 

Having said all that, I do find constraints (rules, themes, resources) placed on my artistic process useful and will add add some to my next project -perhaps even a manifesto.

  • Ai WeiWei talk/book launch tour, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, Nov 11 2020.   The artists’ considered, measured responses to questions and the experiences of his incarceration as well as his father’s and grandfather’s were humbling. 
  • Hell Bus,  McCullen, D. & GSASA /GSA Sculpture & Environment Dept. In sharp contrast to my experience of Ai Weiwei, this piece of work - positioned to represent Shell greenwashing- was full of poor research, misrepresentation and lack of understanding by the artist. Undermines itself and the issues.

Week 9: 1968/2020: Revolution & Rights

Reading: Excerpts from Kholeif, O, ed. Moving Image Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art pp. 28-29, 112-117, 143-147, 157-163, 180-181

The chapters cover a range of treatments of the moving image, placing art movements and experimental performance approaches into context with advances in technology.

Whilst I feel that the socio-political aspirations of the Fluxus Group and Oreet Ashery remain as problematic as any art activism, the exploration of TV as an art form is especially interesting (Birnbaum, Warhol & Naim June Pak). To rethink a populist, accessible media and then repurpose it technically and creatively as a tool for the use of the individual rather than a passive home entertainment appliance has lots of inspirational elements. Today that could mean rethinking the dominance of social media as a creative or abstractive device, rather than a communicatory /sales /reactionary tool. It was also interesting to read about Scratch and New Romantic media from the critical perspective of an art/film historian, compared to the actual experience of living through through movements, which seemed much more dynamic and spontaneous in real life than presented retrospectively. 

  • High-Rise [FIlm], 2015, Dir Wheatley, B., BFI/ Film4/Recorded Picture Company/HanWay Films/NI Screen. Fantastic visuals and mis-en-scene in this adaptation of J.G.Ballard -an author whose books I have never been able to finish because of their brutality. 
  • Ammonite [Film], 2020, Dir Lee, F., Transmission Fiolms /Lionsgate. Gentle period drama of the relationship between 2 women, and the challenges of being a scientist in the 19th Century. Ultimately I found a lack of chemistry between the characters but enjoyed the fact that career rather than sexuality was the focus for our heroine.
  • About Endlessness, 2019 [Film], Dir. Andersson, R., Magnolia Pictures, Sweden.  Love the dream-like quality of the highly styleised sets.
  • Film, 2011, [Film], Dean, T., Tate,’s Cherries, 2005, [Film], Rottenberg, M., Tate Shots,, 2018, [Film], Prodger, C., Turner Prize 2018, I feel I’ve taken this film so many times (train, tram, bus) that the only thing interesting is how this visual was repositioned to be interesting to the art world.

Weeks 10/11: Independent Study & Peer Review 

Independent Study: W.A.S.P.s Artists’ Residency, Admiral Roddy’s Studio, Isle of Skye
I spent the week with two other artists -a painter and a ceramicist- living together in the Admiral’s Cottage on Skye. The title of the residency was “Breakthrough”, with the aim for me to unearth poetry and music composition, aided by the local landscape. Storm Arwen helped with singing winds which inspired the three of us to create siren sounds one night, which in turn led to my compositions. Evenings were spent reviewing each others’ work and offering ideas for development. We all had previous careers in medicine and social care, so also discussed the comparative value of art & culture in society. 

Critical Bibliography Peer Review: Following discussion, I revisited the previous critical studies lectures looking for informative links to my topic of The Manifesto in Audio Visual Culture. I read some further manifestoes (e.g. Grayson Perry) and joined artist & social entrepreneur Daniel Edelstyn’s Power Collective. He believes that a manifesto is like a compass for his work, “orienting him towards the true north of his values….. knowing why you do what you do…..and your ethical viewpoint”. Then I wrote my own manifesto!

  Alex Bell NAIF SMOTE* 2021 (* anagram of manifesto. Alternative anagrams ‘I Tons Fame’ or ‘To Famines’).
  • Present the contrary/ contrarian /counter view. 
  • Respect the views of the minority. Respect the views of the majority.
  • Hold artist activists and associated organisations to account e.g. for misleading, poorly researched, inaccurate information or hypocrisy.
  • Challenge the stereotype of art school participation e.g. young, left wing, upper middle class.
  • Engage using limbic and humorous approaches, never aggressive ones. 
  • Communicate self reliance not victimhood. Promote building resilience for independence.
  • If it’s ugly it’s ugly, regardless of the positioning.
  • You might only understand later.
  • Think big. Bigger. BIGGER.
  • If it’s not fulfilling, JFDDI.
  • The Art Life [Documentary Film], 2016, Dir Nguyen et al, Duck Diver Films. Insight into the approach of David Lynch which reinforces the single mindedness (and selfishness) required to reach the top of any industry, and the sacrifices required -not necessarily for the artist, but those around them. Jury’s still out for me whether Lynch is a clever Emperor with no clothes.  
  • Furneaux, P., Mado, RSA Edinburgh, November 2021 Solo Exhibition . Talking with Paul gave me an understanding of the years of training required in Japan to learn the Mokuhanga printing technique. The delicacy of the colours inspired the palette for my Short Sound Film.
Furneaux, P., 2020, Tokyo Spring Haar.                                    Furneaux, P., 2020, Black Moss.

Week 12: Imagined Futures 

Reading: Shaw, J., Weibel, P., eds., 2003. Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. MIT Press 16-27.

“The machine is always social before it is technical”.

The article overviews a thirteen-chapter exhibition of contemporary media art practice delivered by the ZKM Institute for Visual Media (Karlsruhe), where the authors are academics. The exhibition explores how technological innovation enables individual creativity and deconstruction of the industry cinematic apparatus, changing the interaction between spectator and screen.
    The authors talk about globalization but focus on Hollywood as the dominant cinematic format, which is only true from a Western gaze. This is irrelevant if you live in Delhi and disregards the likely future economic & cultural dominance the East as part of the cinematic future.
    In terms of interactive technologies, I agree these have enhanced theme parks, game events, shopping experiences, and galleries, but am not sure this translates directly to cinema. Narratives that allow permutations in story line sound attractive but also remove the community aspect of viewing & sharing the same story. Also, technology adoption is not always fast. The tech start up bible ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (Moore 1991) describes the conditions required for mass adoption of new tech. For example VR was invented in the 1960s and does not yet have a business-viable global user base (StoryFutures 2020).

  • Succession, Series 3, 2020, [TV], Dir. Mylod, M., Warner Bros TV. Nicholas Britell’s amazing score dominates this for me, inspiring me to think that the ‘Score is the new sound design’ (rather than the other way around). Traditional sonata-like classical treatment with variations on a theme, drives the tone of the drama.
  • Society of Scottish Artists’ 123rd Exhibition, RSA Edinburgh. Wonderful variety of contemporary and new graduate art. I especially liked Lousie Black’s works, where a fabric body is contained in a glass bottle - it made me think of the balance between psychological, imagined and real physical contraints.
Black, L., 2021                                                                     Bourgeios, L., 2011, Steilneset Memorial
Seeing Her,
RSA Edinburgh