Oto Sound Museum Offers Something Unique

CLASH explores the nomadic sound gallery...

Always have I lived my life romantically in pursuit of novel, brave and beautiful art. Sound, cinema, etc, etc. It’s why I, and surely everyone else, get outta bed every morning, what makes things worthwhile.

This weekend, this pursuit brings me kicking and screaming to Zürich, an utterly charming city just north of the Alps, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Its exquisite cobbles host one of the global financial epicentres, and the lake it encircles makes it one of the prettiest cities in Europe, but that is not why I am here – oh no, oh no. I have traversed Europe for something all the more unique. 

The Oto Sound Museum is a nomadic sound gallery, which today marks the beginning of its fourth year with a whole new programme. Each year, the Pan-European art collective Zaira Oram curates a programme of interventions and installations from artists on the cutting edge of their field, and brings them to public spaces across Switzerland (and occasionally beyond). 

This year’s Sound Museum programme will feature installations and interventions from the likes of Christophe Fellay, Cathy Van Eck, and Rahel Kraft, and it’s the latter, whose ‘Changing of the Guard’ intervention will raise the curtain on the Oto’s 2024 edition.

This year’s programme takes place in the Kasernenareal, a big park in the city’s centre, which is home to the ruins of one of Switzerland’s oldest military complexes. A once grand building stands sentinel, backs onto a grassy forecourt – where drills and marches would have taken place in the late 19th and early 20th century. The location is particularly important, in the case of Kraft’s work, as her energetic performance is a bustling response to the spectres of its history.

On the lawn, a group of 22 enthusiastic Afghan immigrants are playing a colossal game of cricket, and sixes are flying left and right on the alpine breeze as Rahel Kraft sets up her intervention. The sound of leather (or maybe a plastic imitation) on willow will soon give way to something all-the-more novel – although I can’t help but assume that a cricket match in Switzerland is also a relative novelty.

Two period-piece porticos (pictured above), unearthed from Kraft’s anthropological and architectural research, sit in prime location on the road, will form the centre of the performance, but first spend the day as part of a free sound installation. As part of this, they are rigged up with speakers playing some of the artist’s own oblique field recordings from her cultural excavation of the Kasernenareal’s barracks area, and members of the public are invited to sit on a bench taking it all in. 

This installation is more typical of Rahel Kraft’s other work, quiet recordings at-first abstract. you have to tune your eyes to the right frequency, the glean any meaning, but you soon fall under its intimate spell. 

The intervention is now ready to go, under blistering sun – the cricketers on the lawn have stopped for a drinks break, or a change of innings perhaps, as they too wander over to see what the hundred-strong crowd is staring at. 

For ‘The Changing of the Guard’, her mesmeric intervention, Rahel Kraft sets up a drum kit in a square around the porticos. The bass drum and a floor tom in one corner, cymbals and snares on opposite corners about fifteen metres apart. It is a socially distanced drum kit, a callback to the milieu of military marches that have come before it. 

During the performance, Kraft, and two runner-drummer helpers, be-decked out in a uniform of yellow alice bands and black gymwear, jog between them, striking to create a writhing improvised percussion piece. As the piece goes on, the jog becomes a bound, and then a sprint, the sound getting more and more frenzied as adrenaline takes hold. 

It’s liberating to see something so novel, in a freely accessible public space. Everyone is entranced as the sound art takes shape; echoes of the past and the idiosyncrasies of the present entwine, as you watch realising you’re now part of the lineage, the heritage, of one of Zürich’s strangest buildings. 

To me, seeing something like this is wonderful. For it gives a shape to something innocuous I’d never really considered, as it puts a melodramatic flight path before your very eyes for the act of composing a taut drumbeat. As the runners swarm the kit with ever-increasing frequency, a rhythm and a groove take shape, and somehow they keep time with military precision. 

The piece’s name, ‘Changing of the Guard’ is fitting, Kraft and co. keeping a tempo up that matches a marching regiment throughout the vigorous 20 minute runtime. 

Rahel Kraft later tells me that she’s operating outside of her usual comfort zone here; “normally my work is a lot more intimate”, she tells me later. “I originally wanted to do something with 30, 50 people’s voices, but that wasn’t possible in the time we had.” The compromise, however, makes ample use of the space, a cacophony capable of drawing in a captive crowd of Zürich’s art heads, cricketers and intrigued passers by.

A great thing to be a part of, it’s so novel, and rare, in my experience of public art, that something involves and incorporates sound, let alone in such a stark manner. There are lessons that could be learned by all from this arresting performance. A really bold start to a fascinating program, if you are able to find yourself in Zürich at the same time as this nomadic sound museum you must drop by.

Find the rest of the Oto Sound Museum’s programme here, alongside digital interventions from other sound artists. https://oto.museum

Words: Cal Cashin
Photography: ‘The Changing of the Guard’, Rahel Kraft, performance and sound installation, OTO SOUND MUSEUM, Zeughausareal, Zürich, curated by Francesca Ceccherini, Zaira Oram, 2024_ph Axel Crettenand

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine