Commonwealth and Council

The Ownership of Onomatopoeia

Alison O'Daniel


Commonwealth and Council presents The Ownership of Onomatopoeia, Alison O’Daniel’s first exhibition with the space. An offshoot of the ongoing body of work surrounding and including O’Daniel’s feature film, The Tuba Thieves, the project touches upon concerns with access, interpolated through a rash of thefts of the titular instrument from high schools across Southern California. Like the negative space which shapes an absence, the sudden loss of a sound-generating apparatus exemplifies what—if anything—rushes to fill the vacuum left behind. 

The Ownership of Onomatopoeia expands upon a brief moment in The Tuba Thieves, in which a character’s injured hand is commented upon. The character, Awet, reveals that he sliced his hand with a Japanese saw, remarking that “luckily,” it was his non-dominant hand—and he could therefore still communicate one handed.  O’Daniel explores the registers contained within this incident—shifting from the everyday life of an artist and the potential threats of physical harm via tools to the specificities of Deaf reality and perspective. Moments of comprehension, displacement, confusion, and practicality, as well as, crucially, a reshifting  of hearing norms of communication, are centered here. O’Daniel’s practice explores the greater matrix in which these collisions occur, revealing (or proposing) a politics of sound that is defined as much by its absence as its excess. An area rug affixed with acoustic underlay (both materials which “swallow” sound) in the shape of Awet’s arms illustrates this precarity of language in the exaggerated and persistent silhouettes of saws and blades that adorn the carpet as well as the gallery’s ceiling.

In working with sound by working around it, O’Daniel forces the audience to navigate sound the way Deaf/Hard of Hearing people may be more accustomed to. Transducers placed in the gallery walls cause them to vibrate and rattle at the same frequency as airline flight paths from LAX—a long-contested source of noise pollution in surrounding neighborhoods—expressing sound tactilely, somatically. These qualities are no more apparent than in the phenomenon of the sonic boom, in which an object such as a jet’s speed exceeds that of sound (what is known as breaking the sound barrier), causing the pressure accumulated in its wake to manifest visually, essentially eliding the categorical and sensory divide between hearing and Deaf. O’Daniel has wallpapered the gallery space with a collage of images of jets breaking the sound barrier and stills from The Tuba Thieves depicting a character reminiscing about a childhood injury received in the aftermath of a sonic boom. They casually discuss this moment in which sound becomes felt and seen, not only heard, therefore breaking the sound barrier discursively as well. 

Instances of sound segregation are scattered throughout the gallery in the form of film captions from The Tuba Thieves excised from steel slats. A term coined by O’Daniel, “sound segregation” describes inequities in access to sound or safety from sound, wherein precarity can be manifest in ways ranging from airport-adjacent communities being denied access to soundproofing (and thus air conditioning) to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing fighting for access to language. The captions include the incidental yet obligatory harmonies of birdsong and construction noise, acknowledge  the risk of hearing damage faced by day laborers who operate leaf blowers, and articulate the way sound travels, propelled like debris by the Santa Ana winds. There is a cycle of hearing, wounding, gaining, and depriving that skirts the edges or defines Angelenos’ day-to-day experience. The topography of Los Angeles owns an intimate onomatopoeic language. Its expansive, rolling landscape throws a smooth auditory whooshing sound. The mmmmmhhhhh in the constant rush or crawl of traffic and the shhh-aaaah rhythm of waves breaking, for example, are twin sounds, sometimes hard (for O’Daniel) to tell apart. The history of sound segregations is deeply embedded into the city through the design and mediation of sound and experiences of sound.. These choices declare an ownership over space and air, how sound travels through these substrates and who is allowed or obligated to hear it. Onomatopoeia appears a symptom of sound, another transposition—but O’Daniel’s works make us consider that sound is a symptom of larger economies of access, containing within it spectra of experiences that exceed the auditory.

Alison O'Daniel (b. 1979, Miami, FL; lives and works in Los Angeles and San Francisco) received her MFA from University of California, Irvine in 2010; Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK in 2005; and BFA from Cleveland Institute of Art, OH in 2003. She is currently faculty at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Kunsthalle Osnabrück, Germany (2021); McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (2019); Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha (2019); Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2019); Los Angeles Nomadic Division (2018); Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles (2018); Nightingale, Chicago, IL (2017); Centre d'Art Contemporain Passerelle, Brest, France ( 2015); Aspen Art Museum, CO (2014); and High Desert Test Sites, Joshua Tree, CA (2014). Selected group exhibitions have been held at Centro Centro, Madrid, Spain (2020); Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2019-20); Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY (2019); FLAX, Tin Flats, Los Angeles (2018); Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (2018); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2018); Garage Contemporary Art Museum, Moscow, Russia (2018); The Drawing Center, New York (2016); Serpentine Gallery, London, UK (2016); and Bergen Council, Norway (2016). O’Daniel is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship (2022); Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2019); Speranza Foundation Lincoln City Fellowship (2020); Creative Capital Award (2019); Sundance Creative Producing Lab (2019); Department of Cultural Affairs Grant for Artists (2018); Mike Kelley Foundation Grant (2018); Center for Cultural Innovation Investing in Artists Grant (2014); Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2014); Art Matters Grant (2012); and Critical Disabilities Studies Artist Residency, UC Irvine (2012).