Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Wavelength: On Drawing and Sound in the Work of Trisha Donnelly Involuntary Drawing

This article considers the relationship between drawing and sound in the work of American artist Trisha Donnelly (born 1974). Against recent theories of the demise of individual media, Donnelly’s work is seen to indicate a more complex set of cross-modal and inter-medial relationships.

The waves keep at it,
Arnold’s Aegean Sophocles heard, 
the swell and ebb,
the cresting and the falling under,

each one particular and the same – 
Each day a reminder, each sun in its world, each face,
each word something one hears
or someone once heard. 1

Robert Creeley, ‘Dover Beach (Again)’, 2005

In Michael Snow’s groundbreaking film Wavelength (1967), the camera zooms slowly across a New York loft, where isolated actions intermittently occur. Furniture is moved, a record is played, and a man collapses dead on the floor, leaving the apartment’s owner wondering what to do about this anonymous corpse. Over the course of forty-five minutes, the scene is mediated by coloured filters, shifts into negative, and changes in focus. These visual modulations are accompanied by the electronic wail of a rising sine wave, which increases in frequency and in pitch to reach an almost unbearable level of intensity. Finally, the camera focuses on a black-and-white photograph taped to the wall, a close-up of the ocean, its waves gradually filling the frame.2

A similar photograph formed the conceptual core of Trisha Donnelly’s first solo show at the Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York, in 2002. Black Wave 2002 is a black and white image of a cresting wave, seen close-up as if threatening to engulf the spectator. Wilder than the waters captured by Snow, the photograph was said to record a specific oceanic phenomenon: ‘the unbroken wave in deep water that occurs before and after a storm at sea.’3 Related images have appeared sporadically in Donnelly’s exhibitions over the past ten years, often seeming to mark a sea-change in her artistic practice. This article will explore their significance, without purporting to explain or decode her determinedly reticent body of work. Taking its cue from Snow’s landmark film, it will propose the waveform as a means of thinking through the oscillatory play of sound, light and matter in Donnelly’s artistic production; her interest in frequencies, vibrations, involuntary reactions, and ripple effects.

Since the late 1990s, much of Donnelly’s work has been concerned with the transmission of messages from distant times and places, encrypted or distorted like the word-of-mouth accounts of her unrecorded performances, which she prefers to call ‘demonstrations’. Her diverse artistic production, which encompasses drawings, photographs, sculptures, films, and audio works, thus conflates the technological and spiritualist connotations of the term ‘medium’. Responding to this eclectic body of work, curator Hamza Walker has written: ‘Although it is tempting to cast her as the consummate post-medium artist, in her case that is already an over-determined category, for Donnelly genuinely has no medium. If anything she is a pre-medium artist, where “medium” could just as soon refer to a psychic.’4 Indeed, Donnelly’s practice exposes the roaming polysemy of the term ‘medium’ – as an intervening substance, a set of artistic conventions, a technology of communication, and a psychic intermediary. The waveform, which spans individual media and transcends the limits of human consciousness, offers a means of conceptualising this perpetual transgression of modalities and boundaries.


Asked about her drawings, Donnelly has said: ‘I think that they relate to objects the way that you listen to the radio, if you have a radio on. I draw when the radio is on. When I’m drawing, I just wait a really long time because I have to do the right thing. So I don’t draw all day, but when I have the thing I am supposed to be drawing, I draw all day and all night.’5 This account of waiting, listening, and exhaustively inscribing recalls the surrealist practice of automatism, in which the artist acts as a ‘modest recording instrument’, the dutiful scrivener of a ‘magic dictation’.6 Like the courier, the scrivener is a kind of medium, the carrier of a message that originates elsewhere. Yet the message is also transformed in the act of transmission – from speech into writing, or from writing into speech. For the receiver, this entails a displacement across sensory pathways – from audible to readable symbols, or vice versa in the case of the courier reading aloud. The scrivener of sound is both a mediator and a translator, an agent poised between senses and media.7

In Donnelly’s 2002 show, twelve drawings were pinned side-by-side on the wall, traversing one of the gallery’s corners. Each depicted one or two tubular forms, meticulously rendered in green coloured pencil. Like many of Donnelly’s drawings, they were neither representational nor fully abstract. Drawn in perspective, the forms appeared to occupy three-dimensional space, their curvatures rendered tangible through careful shading. Yet despite the precision with which they were drawn, the cylinders did not resemble any particular object – unless some crucial detail had been withheld, forestalling their identification. The checklist deferred clarification once more, instructing visitors to ‘see front desk for title’. Upon approaching the gallery assistant to request the missing information, visitors were played a sequence of electronic beats.8 This substitution of a sound for a linguistic sign could be seen as another manifestation of Donnelly’s reluctance to verbalise the experience of her work. Her exhibitions often lack artist’s statements, press releases or catalogue essays, and when these do exist, they contain cryptic pronouncements or exhaustive, formal descriptions that conscientiously eschew interpretation.9 Donnelly’s engagements with interviewers and critics are similarly elusive – in one public dialogue she answered ‘pass’ to some questions, and played tracks on her iPod in response to others.10 Her strategic use of sound might thus be indicative of what artist and writer Salomé Voegelin has called a ‘sonic sensibility’, which contests the hegemony of the linguistic sign, seeking to communicate differently.11

Yet besides functioning as an act of resistance, the use of sound to title a drawing could be seen to extend the drawing’s properties, giving an ostensibly silent object an aural dimension. If one were to ask what these rounded, repetitive forms might sound like, the answer could conceivably be a rhythmic series of beats. To equate visual forms with sonic sensations evokes a kind of synaesthesia, where the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to an involuntary response in a different pathway. Sound to colour synaesthetes perceive colours triggered by certain noises, while others describe metallic waveforms hovering on an imaginary screen a few inches in front of their eyes.12 These involuntary visualisations are another kind of automatism, operating beyond the conscious control of the person experiencing them. Indeed, the language used to describe synaesthesia is distinctly mechanical, even cybernetic in tone. The condition has been said to arise from ‘abnormal cross-wiring between brain regions’ or ‘disinhibited feedback’, figuring the brain as a kind of machine, whose faulty wiring might trigger unexpected, automatic operations. These abrupt transitions between forms, senses and media are a recurrent theme in Donnelly’s practice, where images are insistently ‘permeated’ by sound.13

Donnelly’s ‘bulletin board project’ 44 Days to Hanoi, presented at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, in 2003, centred on a libretto by Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915), the Russian composer who developed a synaesthetic system whereby colours were assigned to musical notes using a formula based on Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704).14 In Donnelly’s project, the full text of Scriabin’s libretto was juxtaposed with letters spelling out the work’s title and two black balloons arranged in an inverted ‘V’ formation, these three components encased in adjacent glass cabinets. The libretto was from Scriabin’s unfinished symphony Mysterium, a week-long multi-sensory performance including singers, dancers, musicians, a procession, incense, lighting effects, fire, and water, to be staged in a purpose-built temple at the foot of the Himalayas and accompanied by the sound of bells suspended from zeppelin-like airships. Throughout the libretto, opposing forces named the ‘Masculine Principle’ and the ‘Feminine Principle’, ‘Wave’ and ‘Light’, interact and are unified. Scriabin believed that soul and matter would separate under the highest tension induced by the music’s vibration, engendering a psychotropic state in his audience and bringing about the end of the world.15  In The Vortex 2003 Donnelly played a recording of the Slavyanka Russian Men’s Chorus singing Mikhail Lermontov’s poem Borodino (1837), named after the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars. She instructed her audience to ‘Take the highest male voice. Listen and track it throughout the recording. The sound can compress like a photograph. While listening, flatten it into an object. It’s a comb-like structure’.16 This cross-modal interaction, whereby listening becomes watching becomes pressing, facilitates the imaginary transformation of the medium of the work, from sound to photograph to sculptural object. In Donnelly’s work, the interaction of the senses prompts a consideration of inter-medial relationships.

During the 1960s, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously argued that all media were extensions of the senses, and that the relationships between media were organised according to patterns of sensory perception. Depending on the dominant media of the age, some senses would be heightened and others diminished, so that ‘new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture’.17 Despite this continual recalibration, however, McLuhan implied that the individual senses would remain distinct, as would the media that functioned to extend them. More recently, media theorist Friedrich Kittler has claimed that the digitisation of channels and information erases the differences between individual media, reducing sound and image, voice and text to mere ‘surface effects, known to consumers as interface’.18 When information is transmitted as a series of digital numbers, Kittler argues: ‘any medium can be translated into any other … Modulation, transformation, synchronization; delay, storage, transposition; scrambling, scanning, mapping – a total media link on a digital base will erase the very concept of medium.’19 But while Kittler’s account of this erasure is decidedly dystopian, writer Steven Connor has suggested that with the convergence or aggregation of media ‘new, more dynamic relationships began to become visible, not only in our present, but in our past’.20 Rather than policing the boundaries between media, or fending off processes of digitisation, Donnelly’s work embraces the modulations, transformations and synchronisations that Kittler so ominously describes.

Drawing sound (sounding drawing)

Discussing the various strands of her artistic production, Donnelly has said: ‘Some of the objects are sounds; some of the sounds are drawings, but I think that the drawings that I do are more of a physical realisation of what I am thinking than of myself (i.e. an action).’21 She has likened the act of drawing to ‘pulling at a receding image’, attempting to grasp something inchoate and drag it into visual form.22 Drawings are described as ‘triggers’, ‘batteries’ or ‘receivers’, imbuing them with an operative, transformative potential.23 The Volume 2004 is a pencil drawing of three large, concentric circles, the outer two connected by radiating lines. Abstract on first impression, the drawing’s title implies that it depicts a volume knob, albeit without numerical markers and massively inflated in size. As art historian Julian Myers succinctly puts it, ‘the pencil is imagined as a noisemaker, another kind of instrument’.24 Strategically placed in conjunction with other works, The Volume assumes an imaginary modulating function, as if promising to amplify or attenuate their sound. This relates most obviously to the audio-works, while lending a sonic potential to those drawings, sculptures and films that are ostensibly mute.

If The Volume is an iconographic representation of a mechanical device used to control sound, then HW 2007 has a different relationship with the aural. It consists of two cotton panels hung at the entrance to a gallery, each bearing a configuration of lines in black and blue embroidery. On the left, curved lines increasing in length resemble the sign for noise emitted from a speaker, while straight, parallel lines decrease in length, indicating a vibratory movement that diminishes with distance from its source. The letters ‘W’ and ‘H’ are embroidered underneath the lines, with the entire arrangement repeated in mirror-image on the right-hand panel. Elsewhere, Donnelly has elaborated upon the work’s acronymic title, remarking that it stands for a ‘Harvest of Waves’.25 HW was first exhibited with the drawing R. Creeley + Levitating Wave 2007, which, like Black Wave, depicts a mysterious oceanic event. It is dedicated to the poet Robert Creeley, whose poem, ‘Dover Beach (Again)’ aligns the rhythmic cycles of the ocean with the mnemonic recurrence of words once heard.26 This latent aurality is central to HW which, hung at the entrance of an exhibition, coaxes viewers not just to look, but to listen to the works on display. In contrast to the gauche mimeticism of The Volume, these lines visualise the invisible, symbolising sound as a vibratory, wavelike movement.

A further, indexical representation of sound occurs in Diagram for Double Gong 2006, a drawing based on an audio-work Donnelly exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2006 called Gong 2005, for which she designed a system of speakers that related to the specific architectural space of the New York museum. Two separate surround-sound speaker systems were concealed within the ceiling, to project the same sound in opposite directions and around the perimeter of the room.27 Positioned between these dynamic sonic forms, the listener experienced a metallic whirr, followed by a moment of silence and the sound of a gong being struck. Yet instead of emanating from a single source, like a gong, the sound was both doubled and mobile, consisting of two reverse acoustics describing each side of an invisible U-shaped form. Sound was conceived spatially as well as temporally, as visualised in the accompanying drawing.

Diagram for Double Gong’s exact method of production remains unclear, and Donnelly has only ever released a scan of the original.28 It includes two waveforms indicative of stereo sound, but instead of moving from left to right along a horizontal axis marked time, they move upwards along the vertical axis that would usually indicate voltage. Donnelly appears to have reoriented the graph so that in addition to signifying time and power, the area between the waveforms indicates the architectural space between the two surround-sound systems. This results in an unusual conflation of the flat, abstract space of the graph and the three-dimensional space of the room.29 At once the visible trace of an invisible phenomenon and the spatial record of a temporal event, this graphic trace visualises the sound as two striated, wavelike forms, which back away from one another to occupy opposite sides of the gallery. Not only does the sound produce an involuntary drawing then – it exerts an almost sculptural presence within the limits of the architectural container.

Transcribing sound into drawing, Diagram for Double Gong spans senses and media, while visualising imperceptible oscillations. It constitutes what Kittler, discussing the invention of the phonograph, has called a kind of ‘writing without a subject’, a graphic trace generated not by hand, but by the needle of an oscilloscope (or computer software that mimics its effects).30 This mechanical mode of inscription escapes the binary model proposed by art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who has divided twentieth-century drawing into the ‘matrix’ and the ‘grapheme’. In Buchloh’s account, the first kind of drawing (epitomised by the systematic grids of Sol LeWitt) imposes a predetermined structure on the drawn mark, deliberately restricting its expressivity. The second (exemplified by the desultory scrawls of Cy Twombly) uses automatist strategies to disengage the mark from technical skill and authorial control.31 Despite their evident differences, both approaches problematise the causal relationship between the graphic trace and the authorial hand, bypassing conscious decision-making in an attempt to generate marks automatically.32 Yet however strenuously they resist human agency, both the matrix and the grapheme are fundamentally hand-made, and thus latently anthropocentric. The machine-made mark of Diagram for Double Gong constitutes a genuinely ‘automatic’ mode of drawing, which is nevertheless oddly expressive in its febrile tremors and convulsive waves.33


Remarking on the prevalence of waveforms in art, film and music of the 1960s, the composer Alvin Lucier has suggested that ‘there was something about the purity and neutrality of waves and their motions that attracted artists who wanted to make non-subjective and at the same time expressive works’.34 He was thinking specifically of Lee Lozano’s Wave series (1967–70), a group of eleven paintings based on different wavelengths of light in the electromagnetic spectrum. Although rendered painstakingly by hand, the paintings’ undulating lines evade the autographic, alluding to electromagnetic processes beyond human control. Nevertheless, they harbour an innate sensitivity, appearing to respond to imperceptible changes in the atmosphere. For Lozano and others, the waveform offered a linear model that was both systematic and gestural – both matrix and grapheme – while interrogating the very conditions of perceptibility. In 1998 Lucier composed Wave Songs, For Female Voice with Pure Wave Oscillators, in which two sine wave oscillators were tuned to the size of the waves in Lozano’s paintings. Here the drawn line was used to generate sound, making the graphic trace audible.35 The composition recalled Lucier’s own landmark work Music for Solo Performer, For Enormously Amplified Brain Waves and Percussion (1965), in which electrodes were attached to the performer’s scalp as he entered into a meditative state, aiming to produce alpha brainwaves at eight to ten hertz. Amplified, these alpha waves produced an electrical signal that was used to vibrate percussion instruments such as gongs and snare drums positioned around the performance space. Inaudible, invisible brain activity was thus rendered audible and visible, as the various instruments appeared uncannily to play themselves.36

Conversely, the waveform offered a means of contesting the deep-seated ocularcentrism of the visual arts. Following early surrealist experiments with automatic writing, André Breton’s experience of the collaborative game ‘exquisite corpse’ prompted him to entertain the idea of ‘a tacit communication – occurring only in waves – between the participants’.37 This wireless communication surpassed Breton’s earlier conception of the surrealists as ‘modest recording instruments’ (les modestes appareils enregistreurs), a phrase derived from telecommunications practices of the late nineteenth century.38 As media historian Jeffrey Sconce has argued, the dawn of telegraphy in the 1840s carried the animating ‘spark’ of consciousness beyond the confines of the physical body, facilitating speech between spatially distant agents. With the development of wireless communication at the turn of the century came ‘an increasingly uncertain world, one populated by citizens cut loose from previous social ties and now suffused with electromagnetic waves set free from tributaries of cable and wire’.39 Such waves spanned senses and media, extending beyond consciousness to an imperceptible yet infinitely dynamic world of radio waves, micro waves, and ultraviolet rays. While reconfiguring the relationships between the senses then, the development of electronic media also rendered the limitations of sensory experience unsettlingly apparent.

Later, in the 1960s, the waveform contributed to conceptual art’s deconstruction of sensory pleasure, since it is a physical phenomenon that could nevertheless be invisible and inaudible. Its implications were most extensively explored by Robert Barry in a series of works using radio waves, carrier waves and ultrasonic waves. In pieces such as 88mc Carrier Wave (FM) and 1600kc Carrier Wave (AM) (both 1968), hidden radio transmitters emitted carrier waves with no modulation. Instead of carrying information, the waves were presented as objects in themselves – invisible forms occupying space and interacting with its inhabitants. In Ultrasonic Wave Piece 1968, forty kilohertz ultrasonic sound waves were bounced off the interior walls of the exhibition space to create invisible patterns and designs.40 Barry’s Telepathic Piece 1969 built upon these earlier works, and the artist observed that ‘The nature of carrier waves in a room – especially the FM – is affected by people. The body itself, as you know, is an electrical device … A person is also a source of some kind of a carrier wave. Let me call that telepathy.’41 Like Breton, Barry saw electromagnetic waves as a means of bypassing verbal or visual communication in the hope of establishing an unmediated relationship with one’s audience. His interest in wireless communication technologies was shared by other conceptual artists including Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, both of whom described the artist as the ‘transmitter’ of an idea and the viewer as its ‘receiver’.42 By the 1960s such terms were central to the developing field of information theory, which precipitated the onset of digital communication.

This artistic appropriation of the language and technologies of electronic media offers an alternative perspective on ‘art in the age of the post-medium condition’.43 Granted, art of the late 1960s and early 1970s moved beyond conventional materials and techniques, heralding ‘the termination of the individual arts as medium-specific’.44 But conceptual artists also embraced a more wide-ranging definition of the term ‘medium’, which extended beyond artistic conventions to encompass electronic media and, in some cases, parapsychological notions of ‘mediumship’. With her interest in vibrations, wavelengths and coded messages, Donnelly inherits these concerns at a moment when interpersonal communication has once again been dramatically reconfigured by technology. The Receiver 2006 is a suite of eight drawings displayed pinned one on top of the other, the uppermost drawing placed at the bottom of the pile on a weekly basis. This seriality institutes a temporal unfolding that can only be witnessed by repeat visitors to the exhibition. Each sheet bears a blue ink drawing of a robe that appears to clothe an invisible body, uncannily contorted into a series of animated gestures. Emblazoned on the robe is a single letter which occupies a different position on each drawing. Together, the letters spell out the word ‘RECEIVER’, the radiating lines combining with the word and the gesturing figure to invoke a ritualistic or technological process of communication.45 As in other drawings by Donnelly, these lines resemble the ‘streamers’ seen in Kirlian photography, which make visible the electromagnetic field surrounding living organisms.46 Once again, the body is presented as a communicative device, capable of transmitting messages verbally, visually, or electromagnetically.


Donnelly’s solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery in 2010 harboured echoes of her previous shows while introducing new, resonant elements. On entering the gallery, the visitor was confronted with a vintage desk, located in front of the functioning kiosk manned by the gallery’s staff. Unoccupied throughout the exhibition, the desk was entitled The Secretary, conjuring an invisible scrivener at the gallery’s portal. Moving into the next room, one encountered a lustrous chunk of Rose of Portugal marble, roughly hewn except for two symmetrical, striated scoops taken out of either side. These machine-made marks had neither a decorative nor an illustrative effect, but instead appeared oddly functional, without their purpose ever being clear. One reviewer called them ‘comb-like’, recalling the imaginary structure generated by a sound in Donnelly’s demonstration The Vortex.47 For another critic, the jagged incisions resembled ‘the crests and troughs of waves’.48

In the second gallery, a long slab of Black Portoro marble was raised from the floor on wooden props, incised with parallel grooves to create a ridged cylindrical form embedded within the larger slab (fig.1). Like all the works except The Secretary, it was untitled. Propped against a wall was a piece of sand-coloured travertine, into which parallel lines had been cut, this time creating two shallow, oval shapes on either side of a columnar structure, concealed just below the surface. They resembled some kind of speaker or vent, an illusion heightened by the fractured, percussive sound of sleigh bells emanating from an invisible source. The third room contained a thin, brittle-looking sheet of quartzite propped against a wall, an amorphous shape scraped into its surface. Together, the four monolithic sculptures exerted a sombre, weighty presence in the gallery space. By comparison, the final work in the exhibition was easy to overlook, its impact being of a more cumulative nature. Before exiting the gallery, the viewer passed an unframed, black-and-white photograph fixed to the wall, a close-up of a gathering wave, sweeping across a calm but gently undulating sea (fig.2).

Anomalous on first impression, the untitled photograph engendered a mnemonic ripple across time that worked against the synchronic structure of the exhibition. It resonated beyond the 2010 show, retroactively charging earlier works such as Black Wave and HW. Yet its vibratory motion also inflected the surrounding sculptures, imbuing their weighty, monolithic forms with a latent fluidity. Inherently transgressive, the waveform troubled the neat circumscription of the exhibition format, while operating across and between ostensibly discrete bodies of work. It reappeared in the untitled film Donnelly presented in a 1950s cinema at Documenta 13, Kassel, in 2012 (fig.3). Here, a series of images rich in association yet impossible to pin down were projected in an endless loop. Silent and almost static, these transitory images (which Donnelly has likened to ‘transmissions’) shared a rippling, oscillatory motion that made tangible the passage of time while resisting any form of narrative or climax.  Like the wave photographs, they seemed to stake out a space for the future, indicating that their significance would only be gleaned retrospectively.49

Installation shot, Trisha Donnelly, Casey Kaplan

Trisha Donnelly
Installation shot of Untitled 2010–ongoing, at Documenta 13, Kassel
Courtesy Trisha Donnelly, commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13)
Photograph © Nils Klinger

In her book Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound, writer Shelley Trower explores the role of vibration in the cultural imagination from the late eighteenth century to the present day. During the nineteenth century, she writes, ‘physicists, philosophers, poets, physiologists, medical writers, patients, inventors, geologists, engineers, mathematicians and novelists developed a preoccupation with those different speeds of vibration known as frequencies’.50 This preoccupation manifested itself in multifarious measuring and recording instruments, designed ‘to bring to light that which lurked just beyond consciousness, or, perhaps more appropriately, to make audible the silent vibrations that were shaping the experience of modernity’.51 Yet however meticulously these oscillatory phenomena were recorded, they remained amorphous and elusive, escaping formalisation. Sound, which had long been recognised as a wave-like phenomenon, provided a model for conceptualising other forms of vibration. For the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘The sonorous outweighs form. It does not dissolve it but rather enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude, a density and a vibration or an undulation whose outline never does anything but approach’.52 Trower suggests that the inherent dynamism of vibration – its perpetual transgression of modalities and boundaries – might offer a means of rethinking the relations between the senses.53 Vibrations can be visible, audible, and palpable, challenging conceptions of the senses as distinct or opposed. The oscillatory movements so central to Donnelly’s practice might thus function to unsettle our expectations of the senses and the media that augment them. What results is not necessarily the experiential depletion envisaged by Kittler, in which ‘sense and the senses turn into eyewash’, but a more dynamic range of cross-modal and inter-medial possibilities.54