May 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
[ david Helbich's Kortrijk Tracks. A soundwalk. ]
“Louis the Sun King made a number of very strict scores for garden walks. He laid down, in Louis Quatorzian French, how precisely one should walk through his garden in Versailles. Louis walked with his entourage through that garden. And where the Sun King stopped and looked to the left, everyone stopped and looked to the left. So here’s this very complex garden, and it appears to be quite a different one when you are in this place and look to the left, or when you go a bit further and look to the left. There’s different perspectives, other details, other things… This kind of let’s say: absolutism, is something I love to play with. It is the composer, the artist, who decides when and where you will have this, or maybe rather that, experience.”
“The second of my Kortrijk Tracks is called The Garden. It is a track for the Houtmarkt. Which is a square that is called the ‘wood market’, but in fact is just a parking lot. There I put to use Guy Debord’s situationist technique to find your way somewhere, relying on a map from a very different place. Like stubbornly consulting the map of Paris while walking through a German forest. I project part of one of Louis the Great’s garden maps onto that parking lot and ask the users of the guide to move over the Houtmarkt along those lines, as precisely as possible. As a result, already at the outset the audio guide’s absolutism gets undermined. Because the situation there will not allow you to do so, at least not exactly. The place is full of cars. So you are forced to make your own decisions. “
“There is, of course, a touch of irony: ‘this Houtmarkt must have been such a sweet little square, and now they turned it into a parking lot’ … But a parking lot has its own kind of beauty, with its geometrical play of drawn white lines, delimiting the paths and spaces where cars are allowed to ride and stand.”
Which gives it a certain very formal quality.
“Exactly. It is like a score for the movement of cars. And drivers adapt themselves. They might simply ignore the lines. But they hardly ever do. They all stick to the choreography.”
David Helbich was born in Berlin in the early 1970s, and has been living and working in Brussels for more than ten years. Starting out as a composer (he studied composition with Daan Manneke in Amsterdam, and in Freiburg with Matthias Spahlinger), David soon manifested himself also as an installation and performance artist, as a choreographer and as a conceptual artist, while his main field of action gradually moved into public space. All of these interests and disciplines converge in Kortrijk Tracks, an audio guide commissioned by the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk and the RESONANCE Network.
“I started writing for air guitar. This means that as a composer, I left out the instrument. I wrote the piece for a guitar player, but it actually put me right in the middle of movement theater (bewegingstheater) and gave me a link to Fluxus, which I have always felt strongly attracted to. At the same time I remained attached to contemporary music, and in practice I ended up somewhere in between. So I asked myself: what if you would really compose these performative actions, instead of just developing them from movement? What if you’d write them down as scores? So I continued to be a composer, but left out the instruments. Somewhat later I started to do performance theater, with sound and movements. I worked with a dancer, and I let the audience move around: ‘Have a look at her here, and then go have a look at me there’… I was still composing, arranging things in time, putting them in a certain order. But what actually excited me most, was the movement of the audience. As a result, I left out more and more material. All that music. All those media… I was fed up. I didn’t want them anymore. I had already stopped using instruments, and now I also no longer wanted video beamers, no more slides, no loud speakers … I wanted nothing but an empty space, but then had to reflect upon what there was left for me to do. So I walked around with people in a theater. I continued to think of this as composition, because I still strictly organized things. But ultimately this was more about us being our own material, which is something you will also find at the heart of my audio guide. Then finally, at some point, I said to myself: ‘Hey David, you are still working inside a theater! Why not get rid of the theater as well?’ So I stepped outside…”
Like but few others David is aware of the rich history of his field. Between October 2006 and January 2007, he organised in Brussels a series of 12 Walks, each of which related to a different concept taken from the history of walking in the arts.
“What especially mattered to me in the context of those walks, and which also is central to my Kortrijk Tracks, is that you have to be aware that, in a manner of speaking, ‘you never walk alone’. Whatever form you choose, you are never alone with your medium, with your form, with your content. You are always part of this immensely complex world. So you have to find out how much of that world you want to let in, and to which extent you want to lock yourself out in order to do your art. That complex world is the outside, but it also includes the audience. And the agreement – I like to call it a ‘conspiracy’ – to get involved in … well, yeah, in a work of art. In what I sometimes call ‘the offer’. The word ‘soundwalk’ of course is deceptive. For it always is also a walk-walk and a visual walk, it is a traffic walk, an architecture walk and an urbanism walk. And it is a social walk, as in general you will be with a group of people. So you are walking next to who? And how is the group moving?”
A couple of years ago in Brooklyn I participated in a soundwalk where the participants were led through the streets blindfolded.
“I myself have worked with earplugs. Because the more you are shielding off your ears, the more you will be focusing on your hearing. And obviously also when blindfolded you are not walking by your ears alone.”
Touch becomes very important. We were going hand in hand, like a little train.
“I find some form of minimalism to be essential. I offer but little, which makes the experience all the greater. That’s my minimalist principle. The world is chaotic, but what I offer is highly structured. In that sense I am still very much composing. Those walks were usually very strictly timed… ‘and then we go to the left, and then we are here, and then there is another group coming from that side, suddenly crossing our path’ … That’s a score. But there are no ‘offers’. Like actors that suddenly appear and do something. I will not suddenly come out and say something, or show you something… I say nothing. I show nothing. The thing is showing itself. That’s because there is a context, a framework. It makes the audio guide far more than just a piece of sound art. Above anything else, it gives you a context for very different experiences and a very varied focus on a town. And it all starts with the decision to go to the tourist office and pick up a set of headphones, an mp3 player and the book.”
The sounds that we hear in the headphones, are they sounds from Kortrijk? Or do they originate in very different places?
“I want to think of them as functional sounds. There’s a certain number of effects that I like to create. Some of the sounds are field recordings that were made at a number of different places, but there’s also recordings made in Kortrijk. This is related to a basic technique that I already usesd in the very first audio guide that I made, in 2008, together with the Belgian composer Paul Craenen. We recorded the streets in the vicinity of the art workspace (kunstenwerkplaats) in Elsene (Ixelles), with binaural microphones. The idea for the sound walk then was to have people listen to a street while they were walking in that same street, thus effectively doubling the sound scape. It’s a very simple method, but one that creates a fascinating shift.”
You are walking in the street and you hear its sounds. And simultaneously, over the headphones, you are listening to a sonic transposition in time of the very same spots in that very same street.
“You do not know whether the car that you are hearing is real. You think someone is passing by, but when you look, there’s no one there. Or the other way round: you hear somebody walking and think it’s the recording. But then suddenly a real person appears. This corresponds head on to the reduction that I am looking for: the reduction of material, the reduction of composition… You reduce all intervention. And the result no longer is a composition, because you simply are listening to that same street. But again, it is very strictly organized. I then used this principle in an audio guide for the Elsensesteenweg (Chaussée d’Ixelles). This is a busy, quite narrow and sloping street in Brussels. A lot of people get off the bus at the foot of the slope and walk to the tube station at the top. Often that will be quicker. The bus regularly gets stuck in the traffic. This struck me as a particularly funny social phenomenon that I wanted to make use of. The audio guide should, in some way or other, relate to the city. Then, pretty soon, I mix in other field recordings. First these are sounds from the neighborhood, like from inside a shop somewhere along the street. It will give you the impression that you are listening through a wall, because the basic track continues to be a recording of the street’s sounds. This confusion somehow opens up a space. As soon as you are no longer sure about what you are hearing or what you are seeing, as an artist I can do to you whatever I like. I actually prepare you to become receptive to surprises, because you are no longer sure about what is real and what is not. And then I add more exotic field recordings, from Caïro and other Arab cities, which (for example because of the Islamic prayers) have a soundscape very different from that of Brussels. So people start their walk in Elsene, and in the course of some fifteen minutes, via Caïro I lead them back to Elsene.”
It reminds me of your installation Public Sound, which was part of last year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk. There you had two loudspeakers mounted at the top of the gate of the Begijnhof, and played back recordings that were made in Nablus and Jerusalem.
“Indeed. One of the Kortrijk Tracks is based on that installation. It uses the same sound material, but in combination with a little choreography that tells you how to listen to the sounds. ‘Walk around the tree, stand still at a certain spot…’ The title of the track is Holodeck, please. You remember that? The Holodeck in Star Trek? It is no more than an empty space, but it will give you the illusion of a virtual reality. It will fool you into thinking that you are somewhere else. This also was the crux of my Public Sound installation. You find yourself standing inside this Begijnhof, but are given the impression that there’s a different city on the other side of the wall. The Beguines that used to live there always stayed within the Begijnhof’s confines. They only heard the city outside. Its sound was all they had.”
“When I started to work on the audio guide, my first idea was to limit myself to this technique of audio doubling and to pick a number of places where this technique would be the most effective. I never wanted to make one continuous walk. It’s more interesting to choose a number of different spots, and make more specific relations with the city. I even thought about sending people outside, to the outskirts. Because an audio guide has to be more than just an mp3 player with a set of headphones and a set of sounds to listen to. It should be a tool for much more than only sound art. It gives you reasons to do certain things, reasons to act. I can send someone somewhere to go. But then what should happen when he or she gets there? This I where I began to radicalize things. And because I found there was still something missing in my idea for an audio guide, I decided to accompany it with a booklet, which to each of the track adds a score, a set of instructions for performative actions at that particular spot. This is how I obtained a very close relation between the Kortrijk Tracks and the rest of my work.”
So what you offer is much more than just the listening to tracks via a set of headphones, at selected spots in Kortrijk. There’s a number of other, very different, activities involved. Each track comes with very explicit instructions on how to listen, how to move, where to stand, what to do…
“There are nine tracks, and nine places. The walk starts at the tourist office. From there it makes a helical movement, which leads you in a number of steps to the center of the city. And each of the nine tracks tries to redefine the meaning and the potential of an audio guide.”
“Three of the tracks – one in the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end – are exercises. They are called Warm-up, Keep-warm and Cool-down. The first is meant to warm up your ears, the second to keep them warm, and the final one is kind of a finishing off. They emphasize the fact that this is all about your ears; though it remains to be seen whether that indeed always will be the case. For the Warm-up, the beginning of the walk, I composed the gestures of mounting your headphones. You carry them to a small hill in front of the tourist office. It’s a spot where you can look out over the city. There you begin by warming your ears. You’ll need both hands free, so you put the headphones down. You then bring your hands slowly closer to your ears, press you hands against them, and so on. This is of course a highly conceptual way to prepare a soundwalk, leading up to this grand gesture of: now, now it begins! You pick up the headphones, you very slowly put them on, the track starts playing … and then what you hear is the sound of hands that manipulate a set of headphones. It’ll make you very aware of the fact that you are wearing this… thing… this plastic contraption. So here I directly address the materiality of the headphones, and the idea that you have to push buttons, that you will follow instructions. In a way it explains what an audio guide is. I explain the machine, then the audio guide, and finally the situation of you walking through Kortrijk. So this makes for quite a bit of reflection and self-referral. But of course it will not always be as pure as in the first track. After having enjoyed this fine view of the city and the Begijnhof, for the second track you turn around and within seconds will find yourself in the middle of the parked cars on the Houtmarkt. Or maybe it’s the garden of the Sun King’s Versailles. And so you spiral onwards through Kortrijk, from one place to another, through a shopping mall, across the Schouwburgplein, the Grote Markt, the Begijnhof, the parking in the Magdalenastraat, the busstation… There you perform what everyone else is performing: you stand and wait. And like quite a few others that will be listening to music on their iPods, you are wearing headphones. The difference is that you are not waiting for a bus. You wait for nothing. But it is only you who knows. So in fact you are cheating. But then, well, first of all nobody cares, and second nobody will notice. You have become an integral part of that particular situation. It is an act of perfect integration.”
“I had a related experience as a young man in Paris. I was waiting for my father, who was there for work, and I had some free time to spend. I loved Paris. I was from Bremen, it was a beautiful day, there were all these people speaking a language that at the time I did not speak myself, and it was all like… Maybe you know the feeling: you are in a city that fascinates you and, especially when you are still young, you very much want to become someone who’s at home there. You almost envy all those people that know all the unspoken rules and to who all of this is nothing special. So I tried to integrate. For those couple hours I wanted to become a real Parisian. I threw my jacket over my shoulder and began to walk fast, like everyone else. I stood and wobbled impatiently at pedestrian crossings, waiting for the lights to turn green, so that I could rush over to the other side. I was in a hurry, like everyone else. I was going somewhere, and I had to get there as quickly as possible. Well, I was not going anywhere, of course, but this is how I adapted myself to the city, to the situation: this is where I am, there is where I’m going… And during these few hours in Paris, people just kept on stopping me and asking for directions. It was hilarious. Suddenly I was no longer a tourist, I was someone who belonged there, someone who knew his way around. I found myself integrated in Paris… But I was just acting. And the same holds true for the audio guide. When people are walking around wearing headphones and holding a booklet, the world for them has become a theater. But it is also a stage. And they are the actors.”
May 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
At the time of this conversation with Signe Lidén about her ‘Writings’ (an installation commissioned by the RESONANCE network, that premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, as part of the Festival’s Sounding City sound art program), the space that would come to host the work, on the Buda tower’s ground floor, had nothing in it and still was little other than a hole, a cave, a cavity in the former brewery building: a floor, a ceiling, three concrete walls and a fourth one, made of glass. With words and gestures Signe tried to evoke an image of how that ‘cave’ would look like in a few weeks time. Not an easy task. But in this case it was an appropriate one. For holes, cavities, caves – ‘things’ that are both nothing and not nothing – are key elements in Signe’s work.
“Holes are a fascinating phenomenon. They consist of nothing, they are nothing in themselves,” Signe explained. “Holes are always defined in terms of their surroundings. Holes are matter-less. We perceive them because of the matter that surrounds them. And it is in this sense that a hole nevertheless is not a no-thing; it is not nothing. This is part of what I’m trying to come to grips with. I try to understand what this not nothing is. A hole has more in common with a material object than something abstract like, for example, a concept. Holes are localized, they are somewhere in space and time. A hole has dimensions, a form and a whereabout.”
“Throughout history holes and caves have functioned as time capsules. The earliest works of art were made and found in caves. But also these days works of art are being created in caves. Caves have always been places for religious and magic rituals. Because they offer protection. But also due to their acoustics, which transforms the sound of voices. And of instruments. Because of the way in which holes and cavities filter sound, I very often choose these types of places. In different holes sound has different qualities; it gives the surrounding another kind of layer, or the feeling of really being in that place.”
Holes are time capsules… This also refers to the fact that many important archives are kept at a safe distance from the turmoil of our big cities, where bits and pieces of our culture are stowed away, hidden indeed, in ‘holes’ and in ‘caves’. During much of the Second World War, for example, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was kept safe in a limestone cave not far from Maastricht. Also the Voyager Golden Records spring to mind, that in 1977 were put in a spacecraft and sent off into space, which, of course, is the ultimate hole…
Over the past couple of years, Signe was inspired by a number of rather special ones of these manmade time capsules. Like the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, sort of a botanical Noah’s Ark halfway between Norway and the North pole, where the seeds of as many as possible food crops are being preserved. And Onkalo, a repository for nuclear waste, which is currently being built, deep underground, on an island in the southeast of Finland. Or the Temples of Humankind in Damanhur, Italy, a ‘new age’ complex of caves and tunnels, hand-dug between 1978 and 1991 and filled with murals, sculptures, mosaic and strained glass with motifs and structures inspired by religious and occult societies from all over the world, dedicated to the divine in man and the preservation of spirituality. “I find that very special,” said Signe, “for how do you preserve spirituality? Pictures of these Temples of Humankind show some sort of a spatial choreography, in which all imaginable religious and spiritual images collide, in a kind of mega-kitsch ballet. But the question continues to fascinate me: how could one preserve intangible things for the future?”
Signe’s most recent source of inspiration is a mysterious Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge (she doesn’t know its actual name, and invented this one herself), located in the vicinity of Yangshuo, China. It is dedicated to the storage and systematization of knowledge about traditional crafts, literature and art, that was lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). “As with the Temples of Humankind also here I asked myself: how would you do that? How do you save knowledge that has gone extinct? It is no longer there. So is it written in books? Is it in drawings, maybe? Are there still traces? I have been trying to figure it out, but it is very difficult to get information. I sent a number of mails, but didn’t get any answers. So the question remains: can you keep the knowledge of a craft without keeping the objects that it produced? Can you keep what surrounds a thing, without keeping the thing itself? Is it possible to preserve the aura of a work of art, without the actual work?”
Then the thing or the work of art becomes a hole itself…
“Yes, without the thing one would say that there no longer is any material memory. You disconnect memory from matter. If you make something, then there is the thing that you make. But there is also the ritual of the making. The thing corresponds to the technical part of its making; the ritual corresponds to the non-technical part. Does the non-technical part maybe generate as much material memory as the technical part? But then how can you preserve that kind of knowledge, which is not pronounced, but experienced knowledge? Knowledge that relates to ritual, to a practice? Who or what creates the aura of a work? This is the starting point for my Resonance installation. ‘Writings’ wants to be a work about material memory, without creating something that is specifically material. Its focus is on the process, and the process is something without an end. What is being created, remains unfinished forever. It opens up a field of continuous molding, without a final result. It is the idea of inscriptions as a ritual. But also as something auditive. What you hear is part of the things that happen. And visitors will obtain an auditory access to the interior space of the things they are looking at. But for this they will have to move to smaller, separate, spaces within the space.
Do I make myself clear? Do you understand what I mean? “
Could you describe the installation as you now envision it?
“The space in the Buda tower is particularly suitable for this work. Long and narrow, and with a large glass wall. Outside, in the small garden that you can see through the windows, I want to do an archaeological exhumation. In the garden’s soil there must be a lot of things that come from the old brewery. The result of this exhumation of course is a hole, a dug out space, that you can see from the inside, through the glass wall. Inside I will make piles with the sand and soil that I dig up outside. On the ceiling of the space there will be an electromechanical construction, with chains driven by gears of different sizes, which will cause movement in different directions and of different durations. This time aspect is very important. The mechanism will drive circular plates, from which sticks are dangling down. The sticks touch the sand piles. Via their movement they will shape the piles; a shaping that, at the same time, is a writing. They inscribe, they make inscriptions, leave traces. I will put (contact) microphones onto the sticks. The signals from these microphones are sent to boxes attached to the walls. There will be four of them. In one of the boxes there will be a score, with drawn patterns, similar to the patterns that the sticks will be drawing in the sand. Via loudspeakers in the other boxes you will be able to hear the intimate sounds, the sounding interior, of the inscriptions that the sticks are making.”
Is the score pre-made, or is it drawn as part of the process?
“In a way both are the case. I already drew the score, but there’s also the play of light and shadow, that continuously will give rise to new constellations.”
The moving, writing and wired sticks are the heart of the installation.
“The sticks are tapping sticks, that are sort of scanning the piles of sand and soil. You can think of them as blind man’s sticks: – ‘I am a blindfolded person walking within a landscape where I attempt to resonate everything I come across with a tapping stick. And at the same time I am a deaf person walking on the same road, trying to understand which language the landscape is speaking’ – . It is a thinking, an understanding, a grasping through listening; and then analyzing the absorbing complexity of the landscape that surrounds us. I also mean the cultural and social landscape. This image of a blindfolded person is closely related to my phonographic practice. I do a great many recordings, and I connect them to an awareness, a sensibility of places; or of surroundings and things; of the places within things. All this is quite essential for the work. Gaining knowledge through abstract listening, or gaining abstract knowledge, through the sensing-knowing-understanding part of the brain, through listening to sound and its resonance in matter. This is material memory, which is one of the most important, interwoven, concepts that I find useful for talking about my work. It is a concept that is directly linked to ‘Writings’.”
Did you ever have, or tried, to find your way blindfolded? With a blind man’s stick?
“Yes I did! As a kid I went to school blindfolded. Almost every day. A friend picked me up at home, and the game I played was that I still was so tired that it was necessary for me to continue sleeping on my way to school. My friend made this possible by guiding me. He held my arm and led me with instructions like ‘step up, step down’, et cetera. And I could hear him, for I was not really sleeping, of course. But there was no light entering my eyes. Later I also often used a blind man’s stick as a way to investigate the resonances of a spot or a space. It is a great way to get to know the acoustics of a space.”
In all of your earlier works field recordings play a crucial role. In works inside you integrated recordings made outside, in a different place and time. You are not going to do this in ‘Writings’. All of the sounds will be generated by the installation itself. There is an outside (the hole in the garden) that you can see from the inside, and an inside that you can see from the outisde, like two poles; like a negative and a positive. But once inside, the work is entirely self-contained. It is a closed system…
“It is indeed for the first time that I create a space in which everything is related to one spot and happens at this spot. As such, ‘Writings’ combines in a very direct way the two sides of my practice as an artist. That is pretty exciting, en I am very curious to find how it will work out. Because, of course, I haven’t seen it. Yet…”
[This conversation with Signe Lidén took place on March 27th, 2013.
The technical realization of the work, during the first three weeks of April 2013, will be done by Signe in collaboration with her Norwegian colleague Roar Sletteland.]
Four weeks later, in Kortrijk…
What ‘Writings’ looked and sounded like, and what had become the material form of that what Signe had imagined and described in our earlier conversation, I found out four weeks later, on April 21st, 2013, at the opening of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City.
The space in the Buda tower was filled with the low rumble and clanking sounds of the mechanics of the installation, very present, but not too loud or obtrusive. The windows were covered with tracing paper, permitting the light to fall through, but not giving visitors a chance to look out, thus isolating the work from the rest of the world. It felt like stepping into an abandoned factory hall (which I guess are fine examples of contemporary manmade caves and which, in a way, in this former brewery building, it indeed was), where a number of machines had been left working, indulging themselves in a mechanical routine, the purpose of which had been forgotten a long time ago. Six limbed sticks were being moved around by the three circular plates on the ceiling, hitting and thus, though ever so slightly, re-shaping the piles of soil below them on the floor, that, for some reason, had been left there, and by the contingency of their material substance and form now were commanding their proper tracing, for ever and ever. The amplified sounds of the sticks’ hittings and tracings could be heard inside the two pairs boxes, as through a ‘sonic microscope’. One pair of boxes was facing the brick wall of the room. The second pair faced the covered window, combining the sounds with the sight of ‘writings’, the tracings of Signe’s score (pictures of which are illustrating our conversation above), making it reminiscent of what – in Dutch – is called a kijkdoos.
‘Writings’ in Kortrijk turned out to be, in sights and sound, an atmospheric, but also a rather hermetic work, impregnated by a sense of ‘formality’ and ‘philosophy’ that seems to be teasing the visitors, asking for a sudden flash of insight, an illumination, on their part, to make sights and sounds fall into place. “Yes, it is strange,” Signe said. “Several times during these weeks of creating ‘Writings’, together with my collaborator Roar Sletteland, it felt as if nature took us by surprise. I think it is the strangest piece I ever made…”
April 14, 2013 § 3 Comments
by Joost Fonteyne
Tourist offices will make any effort to seduce people to visit their cities or regions. The key word is experience. Visiting a city needs added value, we have to feel the city. Hip tools such as tablets and smartphones are thrown in to make it happen. In this context also soundwalks have been discovered. Equiped with smart tools, visitors are sent into the city. Just have a look at soundwalk.com to get the idea. Then take e.g. the walk in romantic Paris Saint Germain des Pres. To quote the website: ‘Virginie Ledoyen saunders through the streets once walked by the likes of Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert and Sartre. These wandering ghosts of French poetry lure around here, creating a dreamy atmosphere as she enlightens us with the richness of Saint Germain des Pres. Strolling the streets aimlessly at first, the young beauty is captivated by the aura of a young man…’ Through the app you become part of a cinematic, augmented reality. You boldly go where fellow app-owners have gone before.
It’s all nicely wrapped up in an ‘infotainment’ package. The apps are made in a professional way and artists collaborate to make your visit unforgettable. Apparently creative entrepreneurs do good business. Soundwalk.com lists already 32 different soundwalks on their website. And they are not the only providers who make money with these touristic apps.
From 2013 onwards, Flanders Festival Kortrijk in Belgium starts a collection of soundwalks for the City of Kortrijk. Also these walks will be quite an experience. And made by artists who will guide people through the city. We start with two walks and in the next years we will add new projects to the collection.
So what’s the difference?
Well, we will not make money with it. But most important, the starting point is the production, presentation and promotion of art projects, the work of interesting sound artists and composers.
Some people are rather sceptic and raise questions. Are soundwalks sound art? Is the effort worthwhile when ‘deep listening’ as a practice is vanishing?
For some academics and professionals sound art relates to the interaction between sound and space and takes ‘installation art’ as a point of departure. This point of view is e.g. deeply rooted in the German tradition of Klangkunst. Personally, this question seems less important. Sound art and consequently soundwalks were revealed to me through musicians who experimented with the boundaries of music. Artists who take music – or let’s call it organised sounds – to another dimension. Out of this grew numerous exhibitions and performances. And a rather childlike definition of sound art: art that makes sound. Not an attempt to make a stirr or to evoke cheap discussion, but a way to not isolate the genre. A way to allow artists who work with sound in a relevant way to be ‘part of the game’.
The loss of the ‘deep listening’-tradition is indeed problematic. But let’s elaborate. Is it not a problem of concentration in general? We can easily make an analogy to e.g. ‘deep looking’. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts (New York) found out that the average time visitors watch one painting is 17 seconds. It is even worse in the Louvre (Paris). Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is worth an average look of 15 seconds per visitor. Of course the enormity of paintings in display does not help. But still, we are talking about exceptional historical world heritage.
We are told that we live in a world that sends us thousands of visual stimuli per day. But we hardly hear about the equal amount of auditive stimuli. And even no one seems aware anymore of the auditive quality of her or his direct environment. Maybe, just like Steve Roden in his latest exhibition in Singuhr – Hoergalerie (July/August 2012, Berlin), we should do more 4’33”-practice (in reference to John Cage’s so often wrongly called ‘silent’ piece). Becoming aware of what our lives sounds like.
Already, more then a century ago the question about sound awareness was raised. With the industrial revolution from the end of the 19th century onward, our sonic environment has changed drastically. Factories and machinery and its noise were new phenomena. Even to the point where noise pollution and noise itself became a source of inspiration for artists and composers. Next to the experiments of the avant-garde, scientists studied acoustics, psycho-acoustics, techniques of recording and sound analysis. We learned that eye and ear are well connected to perceive our surrounding world. But still today the auditive is underestimated, hence the proverb ‘to see is to believe’. Already in 1916 futurist Luigi Russolo stated that when looking at a landscape painting we miss an important – if not the most important – component: the sound of the landscape.
And this is precisely the point where soundwalks can be helpful. Artists who invest in soundwalks – of course also a relation between sound and space – invite the audience to ‘deep listening’. Each in their own way they use techniques to provide a context for listening, to discover sonic environments. This can be done by filtering sounds, being silent and listening, using compositions with city sounds, via the use of ‘artefacts’, adding comments to the sonic environment or narrative elements.
In 1974 soundwalk-pioneer Hildegard Westerkamp defined it as following: ‘A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment… The intention of soundwalk is listening. Soundwalks can take place in the mall, at the doctor’s office, down a neighbourhood street or at the bus stop. The focus on listening can make this a meditative activity (…)’.
With this quote we plunge in the history of soundwalk. The text ‘Soundwalking: creating moving environmental sound narratives’ by Dr. Andra McCartney (draft for a publication in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies’ by Dr. Andra McCartney, Associate Professor, Communication Studies, Concordia University Montréal) is strongly recommended. She brings us to the first use of the term by the World Soundscape Project, under the leadership of composer R. Murray Schafer. Hildegard Westerkamp was a member of this research project that expressed a strong concern about noise pollution. Interestingly enough, her text touches the historical practice of ‘listening while walking (…), as well as practices of walking meditation, in which attention to listening figures prominently’. In the prolongation of this more philosopical approach, it is worthwile to investigate the work of J.F. Augoyard at Cresson (Centre de Recherche sur l’espace sonore et l’environment urbain) founded in 1979. Their research includes ‘acoustic architecture, urban acoustics, anthropology of space, sonic environment, urban sociology, and theories of architectural and urban ambiances. Auguyard is a philosopher and musicologist (…) His doctoral dissertation (…) is a methodogical and theoretical consideration of ways of walking in an urban environment’.
Dr. McCartney guides us through the history via listening walks by Gregg Walgstaff, blind walks by Francisco López, electrical walks by Christina Kubisch, the sound pilgrimage of Olivier Schroer, the shadow walks of Viv Corringham, the audio walks by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and finally – the starting point of this text – soundwalk.com.
Strange enough her text does not mention the LISTEN-project by Max Neuhaus. From 1966 until 1976 he organised some 15 listening walks in Canada and the United States. In the context of the work of Gregg Walgstaff, Mc Cartney defines listening walks as ‘led by a guide with the intention of encouraging active listening among a wide audience to the surrounding sound environment’. Max Neuhaus’s approach was simular, but different. Het did not add sound to the environment, but unless others he did not have a sound ecology point of departure: ‘As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sound into the concert hall (…) I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside – a demonstration in situ?’ (Max Neuhaus, Listen – 1988, 1990, 2004). In this context he should be added to the historic gallery.
But let me take you through a personal history of soundwalks.
Here are four examples of influential projects:
In 2005 the exhibition ‘Her Noise’ was organised in London (South London Gallery and Goethe Institut London, 10 November – 18 December 2005, by Electra Productions). It presented the work of female sound artists and musicians, a.o. two ‘electrical’ works by Christina Kubisch. One of them was the ‘Electrical Walk London’. Kubisch develops these walks since 2003 as a result of her research on electromagnetic induction as a sound source for her sound installations since the 1970′s. These sounds emerge by the interaction between magnetic fields, such as electrical wires traversing space in which sounds circulates or selfmade headphones with magnetic coils. In her walks you are equipped with one of these headphones. The headphones respond to the electrical fields in the city environment. Or you could say, they unveil hidden sounds. Experiencing this for the first time is quite a treat. A map suggests listening spots chosen by the artist: ATM’s, shops security panels or tubular lights to give a few examples. Each of them has a specific sound, ranging from respectively white noise, to heavy noise and a string-like sustained sound. The fun begins when you take time to explore it yourself. London – but also Kortrijk where it was presented for the first time in 2007 – has a lot of deep listening to offer. To be continued from April 2013 onwards.
plan b are Dan Belasco Rogers and Sophia New, who got to know each other in the British theatre company Reckless Sleepers. Not unimportant to understand their work. Dan Belasco Rogers’s strong interest in sound was presented through performance, while Sophia had a strong performance background. This explains the more narrative and performative context of their projects. Peninsula Voices is a sonic walk through the spaces of the Greenwich peninsula area, London. It talks about the huge transformation of this area through personal journeys of the participants, sounds and comments added by plan b. These form a new map, with sound as guide. The GPS-software triggers the sound: entering a certain spot will distribute the connected sound through headphones. For a few hours you are drawn into the history and the present of this London borough: an abstract narration in a non-linear way. From the rise and fall of the East Greenwich Gas Works with its gas holders to the construction of the much debated Millennium Dome.
A similar project was produced by arts centre Buda Kortrijk for the area known as Buda Island under the title Into the Light of the Night (plan b in collaboration with the great Belgian field recording artist Els Viaene).
In the summer of 2008 the Japanese artist Akio Suzuki realised for the Singuhr – Hoergalerie his oto-date in Berlin. oto-date is a series of works in which Suzuki only uses the existing sound of different cities. His walk is very close to the soundwalk definition of Hildegard Westerkamp: ‘…any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment…’. In the case of Suzuki we need to add: perceive the environment. The 72 years old artist makes ‘audiovisual slices’ of the city. He creates points of listening and points of – literally – view. On chosen spots he paints ears that resemble feet on the ground. By using these positions you enter his world. Two examples make it clear. Suzuki lets you face the edge of a house. With your left eye you look to the street left to you, with your right eye to the street on your right. The same ‘split’ happens in your ears. Next situation: Suzuki offers a close view in front of a tree trunk. Your left eye looks into a street with a tower at its end, your right eye is focussing on the trunk. Again the same dichotomy happens to your ears. This project seems so simple, yet it is so precise. The perception the environment becomes totally different. Regardless if you live around the corner and you have already walked there many times or if you visit the neighbourhood for the first time.
I never had the occasion to experience a walk by Janet Cardiff myself. But this book totally hooked me up. ‘The Walk Book’ is ‘stricto senso’ an art book. It remembers several art projects – immersive walks – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller presented in different cities, a.o. ‘Her Long Black Hair’ for Central Park, New York. This publication is a book, a cd, text of the walks, texts about the walks, drawings and inserted photographs. Of course you do not get the real stuff, but Cardiff makes it happen while you are sitting at your table and you listen to her voice, giving instructions to browse the book in a non-linear way. From the moment you hear her voice a mental soundwalk is commencing: ‘Do your headphones on. You won’t get the full effect of the audio unless you do. This is the right ear. And this is the left ear. (…) I’m in Berlin right now, sitting on my coach with the walk book in front of me on the table. Maybe the book is also on your coffee table. Open it up. Turn to page 233. I took this picture of an arrow the other day. I don’t know why it was in the park, directing me as I walked, pointing at things. Like stones and trees. I’m gonna go back there today and see if it’s still there. Now turn to the last page in the book. (Sneezes) Excuse me. I used to collect these types of photographs from detective magazines (…) Put the book down now and go over to your window (…) I woke up really early this morning, this is what it sounded like then. Sit down again, I want to show you something else in the book. Turn to page 121 (…) I want you to walk with me…’ (The Walk Book, Janet Cardiff – cd, track 1). Please do, I can only recommend it.
These four projects do work with ‘deep listening’. You need to reserve time to discover them. No hurry. These are not projects that have the ambition to promote a city or a region. They grew out of a necessity of artist and their artistic pratice. They do not have a commercial goal. These projects are reflections, contradictions, comments, raised questions, different points of listening, of view in relation to space, in case the city environment. Please continue dear artists. Doing so is a stimulant to not be superficial, to go deeper. To listen deeper. To look deeper. It’s a pleasure to concentrate on your propositions on our daily environment.
On Sunday 21 April 2013 the first two soundwalks for the new collection of sound walks for the city of Kortrijk will be premiered. Christina Kubisch did an update on her ‘Electrical Walk Kortrijk 2007′. The city went through a tremendous change. Blocks of houses were demolished since her first visit in 2007. They made place for a completely new commercial centre. Curious to hear how she will deal with this.
The Brussels based artist David Helbich presents ‘Kortrijk Tracks’. It started 2012 with his installation ‘Public Sound: Kortrijk-Jerusalem’ for last year’s edition of Sounding City. The sounds of two totally different cities merged in a field recording composition and was distributed at the entrance gate of the Kortrijk beguinage. For ‘Kortrijk Tracks’ Helbich prepares several tracks, field recording compositions, for different places in the city. These will form a spiral on the city map. A spiral that leads you out of town, or inverse, that brings you from the outskirts to the centre. To be continued.
Oh yes, these walks will be available in a permanent way from 21 April 2013 onwards. They will be made available to the audience via … the tourist office. I guess nobody’s perfect.
March 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Over the past couple of years, the Dutch duo made up of designer Jitske Blom and sound artist & composer Thomas Rutgers has been creating quite some public hubbub (Openbaar Kabaal), by their occasional invasion of public spaces with a small army of remotely controlled ‘ticking devices’. Little percussionists, like tiny electric woodpeckers, that Jitske and Thomas stick, in the abstracted form of transparent wireless boxes, to lampposts, litter bins, traffic signs, benches, doors, shop windows, and to whatever else that through its materiality will provide an interesting sounding response to the ticking stimuli of the mechanical mini guerrilla musicians. And then they have the little buggers play… To the often not little surprise and astonishment of unsuspecting passersby.
“The pretty unobtrusive small ticking boxes (they’re almost invisible) incite us to have a new, fresh look at the space that they – and we – are in,” Thomas said, “because through their ticking, they all of a sudden make us hear that space. This public hubbub work actually started out as a fixed composition, for eight of such tickers, that was performed at each of the different locations that we installed the piece. Later on it became more of a live improvisation, in which I manipulated the ticking via a Pure Data interface.”
Openbaar Kabaal / Public hubbub was the starting point, the genesis, for The Beaters, a work devised by Jitske and Rutger for the Resonance Network, which will premiere at the ECI Cultuurfabriek in Roermond (the Netherlands), between March 15th and April 15th 2013.
What is the precise relation between your variable public interventions with the ticking boxes, and The Beaters? Is the new work a more formal version, a dynamic public intervention captured in a more static installation?
“It actually involves quite a major shift of attention,” Thomas explained. “In our work with the little boxes the goal was, so to say, the creation of a little ‘symphony’ made up from existing objects; the objects that we glued the boxes to. In The Beaters our attention has shifted from these objects to the subject: from the thing that is being ticked against, to the thing that is ticking. The focal point now is the ticker itself.”
“It is still all about materiality,” Jitske added. “But now it is about the material of the ticker itself.”
And the ticking, the beating, will be all the time agains the same object?
“Yes, for The Beaters we actually built sort of a gigantic wooden sound board. It is almost like a fake wall,” Thomas said.
“It really is like a wall,” said Jitske, “wooden boards separated by a layer of air. We made four of them, that function like modules that can be put together in different ways, depending on the space that is available. Each of them is about 2 meter and 20 centimeters by 1 meter and 20 centimers. In Roermond we will put them together into one huge rectangular panel, but elsewhere we might make two little walls out of the four boards; or even place all four of them separately in the space, like four musicians.”
Did you pick a special kind of wood?
“Not so special; it’s just wood,” Jitske explained. “We ended up choosing a type of plywood, not for some deep technical reason, but because that was what to us sounded best.”
So The Beaters are the black things that we see on the wooden panes in this picture of the work under construction? They really look like ‘stylized’ woodpeckers, don’t they? They also remind me a bit of little pumpjacks (jaknikkers).
“They are all of different dimensions, all have different sizes, and all are made from different materials,” Thomas said. “Some of them are solid, some are hollow. Some are made from plastic, others are made of wood, metal, rubber, styrofoam… They form a family. Like you have families of classical instruments: violin, viola, cello, et cetera.”
Or maybe even more like the different kinds of sticks, of different sizes and materials, that are used by a percussionist…? Did you compile this collection of sizes and materials in some sort of a systematic way?
“We wanted to use as many different ones as possible,” said Jitske. “But with the condition that they’d all have a similar visual appearance. As you can see, the beaters all look the same. Their materiality is being disguised. We don’t want the audience to be able to see what kind of material a particular beater has been made of. So that has driven our selection: use as many different materials as possible, but sticking to the condition that they all should look the same. That has been an important part of my research, experimenting with all sorts of different kinds of plastic, et cetera.”
But all the beaters are powered in the same way?
“Yes, they are all moved electrically, by small electric motors,” Thomas replied. “And it now is an essential part of the work that you actually can see the movement. The little transparent boxes of the Openbaar kabaal series all contain the same small ticker, and there is actually not much to be seen there. But in The Beaters, the visual information conveyed by the movement of the beaters is an inextricable part of the composition.”
So that the composition will actually also be sort of a choreography?
“In a way The Beaters are not unlike kinetic art,” added Jitske.
But each of them has its fixed spot on the wood. They do not move along the panes, from one spot to another, do they?
“No, each one has its fixed spot on the board,” Thomas confirmed. “And that’s where they are going back and forth. An important part of the composition consists in bouncing mouvements, like that of a ball bouncing on the floor.”
But then vertically …
“Indeed!” Thomas smiled. “So that is one little devious play: it suggests that gravity is being defied. A question that is at the heart of the work is whether it is possible to manipulate the sound, or one’s expectation of a sound, via the visual information that comes with it. If I pretend that I am going to hit you, you will startle in a backward direction already quite some time before I will actually hit you. So with the movement of the beaters, long before you hear a ‘hit’, you will feel that it is coming because you react to the visual information entering via your eyes. Also, the bouncing effect and the bouncing movement convey a sense of time. If we disregard friction, two objects on earth will bounce in the same manner. So what if things suddenly seem to be bouncing slower, or faster?”
Because you are hiding the specific materiality of the beaters, it will not be easy for a viewer to anticipate on a beater’s sound; unless he or she already has been watching and listening for a while, and formed sort of an auditive catalogue of the work…
“We use a number of ping pong balls,” Jitske replied. “Their sound is very recognizable; so these you will be able to pick out rather quickly.”
Are there more duplicates? Or are most of the beaters different?
“There are some duplicates,” Thomas said, “but most of them are different.”
How many beaters do you have beating? And why?
That question made Rutger laugh. “There are 31 beaters,” he said. “And why 31? … Well, you know that often when programming things, or putting things together with electronics and computers, you end up working with powers of two. So this is … well, it’s odd, so maybe it’ll give you one as an extra …
31 is the 5th power of 2 minus 1. So it is more than just ‘odd’. It is also a prime number. Actually it’s the 3rd Mersenne prime. OK, I guess that’s a good enough reason to pick 31… Joking apart, what I have been wondering about in the context of specifically the Resonance project, is why you decided to construct something fixed, something that is like an instrument, instead of taking the opportunity to ‘invade’ spaces like you have been doing before, and use the beaters to investigate the different locations that the work will be presented in, make use of the different materials and their different acoustic properties, etcetera.
“That has been the outcome of quite a long process,” Thomas explained. “Our starting point indeed was closer to that of the public hubbub, but while thinking and working on the project it occurred to us that for practical reasons it would be much better and far more convenient to build, say, our own wall, and bring that to the different locations. And actually, I am very curious to experience how this will work in the different places, each with its own and very different acoustic properties. In Roermond it will be in a very open, very high space, and floating freely as one large rectangular panel, at some distance from a wall. In April, at the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, The Beaters will be in a very different space, much smaller, and far more closed; also a space that in relation to the visitors fulfills a very different function… All these are very interesting aspects, and it is in this respect that the work will still continue to be a work in progress. It is a composition. But it is also an installation. It is the relation between the two that fascinates us.”
You are still working on the details of the composition. Which will indeed be a composition, I mean, a piece that has a well defined starting point, a fixed development, and a well defined end.
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It will be a fixed composition, with a duration of about 10 minutes; a composition for clicks, and, of course, to have nothing but clicks is a major limitation for a composer. A click in itself is not short or long; it has no duration, and therefore gives you almost no means for expression. There is just the moment of ‘click’; that’s infinitely short. So what I will be investigating is whether the visual information makes it possible to add expression to this click. Can visual clues make a click last longer? Or shorter? The beaters are pulled towards the wooden panel by some sort of a gravitational force, but sometimes, halfway that movement suddenly will stop dead. This gives a kind of tension that is being released, or not released; almost like in a classical harmonic progression. So these may provide equivalents of musical building blocks that can be applied in a visual manner. This is the type of research this composition will be concerned with. Research that is situated somewhere in the borderlands between choreography and sound; somewhere between sound and music.”
Isn’t it also typically a work, a situation, in which you would expect some sort of an interactivity? Between the actions of the beaters, and those of the visitors of the installation? With the density of beatings depending on the number of onlookers? Or vice versa?
“That would of course be possible,” said Thomas. “And certainly not too complicated to implement. But of course, it would add another infinity of possibilities. And personally I am not very interested in such forms of interactivity, that necessarily imply that the music gets some sort of a generative character. I find it difficult to make that interesting, because it mostly implies a relation that is very one to one; or, if it is not one to one, the relation is unclear… so… No, my preferences lie very much with a fixed form composition.”
But does a fixed form composition, of a very limited duration, that is continuously, literally, being repeated (a sound track), not contradict the idea of an installation work, which in itself does not impose any duration, no beginning and no end? Which would suggest some form of variability or evolution (not necessarily interactivity or generativity), instead of strict and unrepentant repetition. Sometimes, also for that reason, sound installations make use of a number of fixed composed parallel tracks, each with a different duration, which upon playback therefore will result in continuously shifting layers. Which, I guess, is more of a pseudo solution than a real solution…
“For the time being I am going to stick to the fixed composition, of about ten minutes, that will be continuously repeating,” Thomas insisted. “It will be a piece with very gradual changes, and of course people can step in somewhere in the middle of it; or leave in the middle. But it will be a relatively short cycle, that’s true. It remains a fascinating problem indeed, how to compose for a sound installation. And a problem, that, I think, does not have an easy and straightforward solution. When you use such shifting layers, to me that feels like giving up control; you then already switch to another level, far more abstract and far more ‘macro’; which can be OK. If you are willing to accept that. For me it remains a challenge, to look for forms that continue to provide me with enough control, but that also allow me to make something that remains dynamic…”
Even though it was maybe not intentionally conceived as such, The Beaters is – besides many other things – also clearly an instrument, a percussion instrument. And Thomas now is writing the first score (in Q-Base) for this instrument. Could he imagine inviting other composers to write pieces for The Beaters?
“Yes, that is definitely a possibility,” Thomas replied. “For this of course is another border that we are investigating. Is The Beaters an instrument that is playing a composition? Or is it one piece in which image and sound tell one story? The fact that this is not at all clear is, we think, part of its charm and its force. And I am actually considering using The Beaters in the future in performances. One can easily imagine pieces for The Beaters and all sorts of different ensembles… That would be fantastic to do!”
… “The Beaters” has been produced for RESONANCE by Stichting Intro in situ in Maastricht, the Netherlands, with additional support from the Dutch Province of Limburg.
February 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
For the first in a new series of expositions presenting sound art works commissioned by RESONANCE, French artist Pascal Broccolichi created a next version of his Table d’Harmonie. It can be experienced as a mono-solo-exhibition entitled Invasive Harmonie, produced by RESONANCE co-organizer Le Bon Accueil at the Galerie EC’ARTS of the Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres in Rennes, France, until March 22nd. A couple of hours before Invasive Harmonie‘s opening on Thursday February 7th, Pascal gave detailed insight in the background and motivations for this impressive piece, which is a new phase and step in one of a number of continuing, evolving (research) processes that are an integral part of his method and approach in the making of art.
“With the notion, the concept, of table, comes always a scene: the scene of a meal, of things that are being discussed around it. The table’s top shapes relations among those that are gathered there. A table installs some sort of a game. A dialogue. Communication. Negotiation. A table dramatizes in and by itself. When I started to work in the EC’ARTS gallery’s space, I quite literally circumscribed a table on the floor: a surface, dimensions… Except, of course, that in the end the Table d’Harmonie is not perfectly flat. On the contrary: it has an awful lot of relief.”
“I always try to keep things evident, to keep things easily perceptible. And at the same time I try to have them border on paradox and tautology. Which is why this show is called Invasive Harmonie. Harmony is always total, always global; and invasive, almost by definition. This incites a repeat, a tautology. But you can also read Invasive Harmonie in a more indirect manner, and find two ideas that actually annihilate each other. So I am always steering near to either a ‘sur-definition’ or a ‘neutralization’. Which is also contained within the idea of a cartography. A map gives you a view of a territory that is global, but also local in its details. That allows for a circulation of energy (from the global to the local and back again) that, mind you, may very well be wasted, because in the end it leads you nowhere: while you are reading the map, you’d better stop moving; unless you want to break you neck…”
“Over the years, as part of my artistic output, there of course are what one usually calls ‘works’. But there are also a number of things, projects, that are more like research processes. Things that I started at some point and that I have continued doing ever since, without a foreseeable end. One of these processes is Table d’Harmonie, which I started as long ago as 1998. In this particular process I try to reach a way of thinking about how to organize the possible dimensions of listening along two quasi-contingent axes: one that leads to observation through the eyes – via the image – and the other to observation through the ears – via the sound. Here the interest and difficulty are not so much a differentiation, a separation of image and sound, but – on the contrary – the enrichment of an existing perceptual phenomenon. I am convinced that the majority of sonic contexts in which we find ourselves are, arguably, sonic images, sonic interpretations. An awful lot of the sounds that pass through us as part of the flux of our day-by-day environments, are intimately linked to sonic images.”
“Table d’Harmonie is a long term experiment, which means – and this is important – that each of the successive installations is like an instrumentarium through which the research advances. You will notice that I am careful not to speak of instrument. It is not a musical instrument. The sounds you hear are not being generated by the heaps of sand. In fact, you may consider the sound to be fully independent of the installation. Again this is the sort of relation that interests me. A lot. But at the same time, Table d’Harmonie – which is French for sound board – is a term that strongly refers to music and musical instruments. The sound board of a piano is an intricate architecture (maybe we should call it a theatre of operations) that makes it possible for the instrument to resonate. In its metal structure you will find these holes for the air to circulate. Similarly, in the Table d’Harmonie there’s multiple streams of sound circulating inside of the little craters.”
“In my approach to this process, memory is the dorsal spine; it’s memory’s time-lapse, the time that it takes for things to install themselves, before they either persist or disappear. Before they reveal themselves as remanent and re-appearing, or as essentially furtive, leaving nothing but an indeterminate and very vague impression. What I want to try and understand is this permanent passing from the one to the other, in more or less concomitant or in fully separate ways…”
“When you enter the gallery room, on the floor you see all these heaps of black sand, material that, by the way, is an important ingredient of my research. I made all of these heaps (there are 66 of them) from precisely the same quantity of sand. Each of the heaps has an identical, conic, form, initiated by versing the sand on the floor, at very precisely indicated spots, the location of which is also of the utmost importance to me. The visual and the sonic image – evidently – will simultaneously cooperate and work against each other… as images of lines, as images of waves…”
“Over the years the forms that I use have evolved. For Invasive Harmonie the gesture that I applied – and this is exactly what it is: a gesture – is a very simple one. When I speak about ‘inscription into memory’, I refer to the fact that there is something – quite literally – being engraved. It is the repetition that lends the gesture of my silting a temporality, which, like a metronome marking rhythm, also marks memory. Therefore, within this process, the artistic gesture is so very important. All of the time that I spent developing the installation has been marked by these gestures that, to me, are like a ritual: the pouring of always that same heap of sand on the floor, making it conic, then taking the end of a vacuum cleaner’s tube, bringing it to the cone’s summit and then going down, aspirating sand until the tube is touching the floor… The result is this little crater, the remains of something that first was erected, then reduced and aspired, dissolved. Very simple. But I like these simple repetitive rituals. A lot. This room is about 80 square meters, and it is the ritual making of the ‘drawing’ on the floor that lends it its density, its massive presence; that enables it to invade all of the space.”
“The repeating of modules – four, five, four, five … – lend it an undulation which makes it a resemble a sound drawing, a drawings of waves, some interpretation of a sonic rhythm. Well, that’s close, but no cigar! It is more like a spatial cartography, like an atlas. For I think that the essence of one’s listening is the building of a set of benchmarks, each one its own, in order to be able to resize a perceptual space. The more rigorously things have been subjected to an order, the more they all will seem to be equal… at first sight. But that is merely an impression, an hypothesis that will collapse again very quickly. Because it is untenable. Because absolutely identical things do not exist. Not in reality; and even less so in the reality of your perception.”
“When you place yourself at one of the corners of the installation, you will get the impression that the surface over which the sand craters are spread out is larger on one side than it is on the other; also the light plays a role, that comes falling through the side windows. The rhythm of the light and the relief, the thicknesses, that it creates … all are very important. The end result, as a reality, is almost paradoxical.”
“I do not favor the visual part, nor do I privilege the sonic part. It is all about the material and about the context within which the construction takes place. The precise rhythm and the repetitions are dictated by the space. In a different room (for example one that would be less formal, less rectangular) there probably would have been less regularity. But it will never become random or discontinuous. There always will be this continuity, even though I would not want the repetitive pattern of the image to prevail over the presence of the sounds. Neither should it be an illustration, like the image of the propagation of a wave. That would be too specific. One would lose the ambiguity between image and sound that I find so essential.”
“The material that I used for this version of the Table d’Harmonie is black Corundum dust. The gallery floor here has a light grey color, the walls are white. So for reasons of contrast I picked a dust that is both very abrasive and very brilliant and crystalline. At the same time it is very black, and has the massive presence that I am looking for. On the other hand, when you watch it from a distance, it creates an almost velvety atmosphere. Like if it were a sort of foam. Which is yet another thing that disrupts reality.”
“In the end, what we get is a synthesis: of the image, the physical presence of the material and of the sound. Together they constitute the cartography that corresponds to a landscape that has been imposed by the space. It is a landscape, with emerging lines of horizons that shift according to the point from where you watch it. The sonic landscape, however, eludes you. The sounds you hear are not meant to provide you with the listening comfort of a kind of sonic illustration of what you see.”
“In earlier versions of Table d’Harmonie I used granular synthesis to work with sound in ways corresponding to those in which, say, a liquid flows. But here I used exclusively recorded, untreated, sounds. And though some have a sort of watery quality, most of them, appearing outside their original context, are pretty difficult to pin down. If we manage to focus and decontextualize, in any natural environment with exceptional qualities, we will seize sonic moments that are pure abstractions. For me these are musical forms at their peak! It’s there that I find musicality at its freest, its most autonomous and with the fullest potential of power.”
“I chained my Rennes recordings together into 4 separate tracks, each of which is playing back in a loop from a CD in one of four CD players. And in 16 of the 66 little craters there’s a loud speaker at the bottom. Some of these are for the low frequencies, others for the high frequencies. So the high and the low frequencies are strictly separated, and are being projected from different places, which correspond to distinct listening points, to listening axes that will allow as to remember what we heard at another spot. This, as a matter of fact, is what for me constitutes the sonic landscape: its the thickness of the relief, that comes into play as the distance to what we heard at an earlier time.”
“For some time already I wanted to work with other phenomena of flow and fluid. And in Rennes there are canals, with locks, that are still extensively used to transport goods by boat. So this was a great opportunity to investigate what is happening under water in these canals. I spent many days recording under water sounds in Rennes, using hydrophones with several tens of meters of cable. These are usually applied to reach great depths in oceans and seas, but I used them to cover great distances, by throwing them into the canals like a fishing line, and then dragging them along, while capturing the very rich and unusual sonic universe inside the water (in fresh water, sound travels at about 1500 m/s, as opposed to its speed of about 340 m/s in dry air), including the frictions, and all of the sounds that came from the many mechanical and motorized devices functioning in and around the canals. All of it I kept just as it was recorded, but I sorted the sounds according to their color, tonality, character, and in relation to the different points of diffusion in the gallery space. Out of this black landscape of identical, black craters, sounds emerge of many different colors, and with a temporality that, because of the different lengths of the 4 looped tracks, is continuously shifting. It is a sonic landscape with no beginning, and no end. The heart of the work as a composition is the spatial distribution of the divers sonic particles. In fact, before I created the landscape of craters, I placed the 16 loud speakers on the floor, at the exact spots where you see them now, by precisely defining the space’s geometry via a grid of thin wires that I spanned across the floor. This was then followed by a rather pragmatic process of playing back the sounds and listening, thus creating, in a way, a table of depths, relief, accidents, colors, temporalities… until I arrived at a spatial distribution that convened. So I worked at placing groups, families, characters of sounds, according to what later would be the route taken by the beholder of the piece. For, as you see, the space and the disposition invite you to go around; it is like a sculpture that you walk around. That there is a part that you see, and a part that you have to imagine (a hidden part, a part that is behind) has always fascinated me in the apprehension of a sculptural piece. In the Table d’Harmonie it is the sound that functions as the hidden part. The sounds are evolving in a pretty much autonomous way, and when you walk around the crater field, you will do so with a foresight of the sounds that will come after. That’s unavoidable, it’s familiarization. The problem that I have to solve – and this is where for me the work (much like that of a sculptor) really starts – is the following: how can I create accident, fracture, misunderstanding, confusion and paradox in the midst of all this? Something that departs from the evident that one tends to imagine?”
“So Table d’Harmonie is indeed, and profoundly so, a sculptural work, as much as it is a sound work. And creating a ‘sonic landscape’ also means, in a very deep sense, that you are doing a painter’s job; besides being on top of it all, at least partly, also very cinematographic, even though there is nothing like a ‘scene’. What I mean of course is a ‘cinema for the ears’, the construction of which will strongly depend on each of the separate beholders’ psychological states. For me, there are a number of quite heavy and melancholic moments. Others, on the contrary, are almost ethereal. But somebody else may experience it in a very different way. I do think that listening encourages this type of solitary relation to the self. And whether the listening will take place for a mere couple of seconds, or for several hours, for me this does not change the way in which I approach the work as an artist. In all of the possible cases my investment and my concern will be the same.”
January 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is the 2nd in a series of reports on Ephemeral Sustainability, a conference about presenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art, co-organized by the RESONANCE Network and the Lydgalleriet in Bergen, Norway, curated by Carsten Seiffarth & Jørgen Larsson. It all happened on the first three days of November 2012…
Ephemeral Sustainability took place only days after Sandy, the hurricane-that-became-a-tropical-storm, hit the American East coast hard. In the after-disaster confusion, with airports closed and thousands of in- and outbound flights being cancelled, some (though not all) of the American participants had, quite understandably, thought it wiser to stay at home instead of to try and embark on a Norwegian adventure.
Was it a coincidence that they were both called Seth?
Friday, November 2nd 2012
In Towards small events – the second lecture of the conference’s second day – Nicole Gingras (a researcher, author and curator from Montreal, Canada) presented two case studies from her practice as a curator: Distance, a 2009 presentation in Montreal of work by Rolf Julius, and the exhibition Raymond Gervais 3 x 1, which provided a comprehensive overview of solo works produced between 1975 and 2001 by the Canadian artist Raymond Gervais, who over the years had been turning from music and sound towards silence.
The picture below shows ’12 + 1 =’, an installation from 1976, in which Gervais played 13 vinyl records on 13 gramophones, simultaneously. It was also part of the 2011 retrospective curated by Nicole, at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery in Montreal. There, however, the installation was not ‘re-created’. It was soundlessly represented by this photograph, made by Roland Poulin.
The flat and soundless representation, thirty-five years after its original creation, of a relatively elaborate, three dimensional and originally probably rather loud sounding work (a look at the impressive ‘Eliminator’ loudspeaker boxes behind the table allows one to imagine its decibel potential) as a photographic black-and-white print, in this case of course is indicative of the particular artist’s development from sound towards silence. But ’12 + 1 =’ also is a fine illustration of one of Ephemeral Sustainability’s major themes and questions: should we re-install such installations, and make them re-sound, again and again? Wouldn’t it be better to just leave them be? Say goodbye to works, that where made for a certain place at a certain time?
There’s the ‘should we or should we not’ (and the better/wiser). But there also is a can we [as in: are able to] or can we not. Whereas the re-creation of a work like Gervais’s ’12 + 1 =’, either with the ‘vintage technology’ seen in the picture, or using contemporary equivalents, in a technical sense (nowadays still) will be relatively straightforward, it is equally clear that coming generations will never be able to experience works of sound art that over the past couple of decades were produced and installed at locations that meanwhile have changed, disappeared or that no longer are accessible. Even in case the location is still available, it may prove undoable to identically re-create a given work at the same location, as producer and curator Carsten Seiffarth knew from experience… It will be impossible to ‘know’ (to experience) these works. It will only be possible to ‘know about’ them, via the available documentation, whether’official and intentional’ (in catalogues, textbooks, magazines, monographs, via authorized audio and video recordings) or ‘unofficial and accidental’ (through hear-say, or on the web, in blogs, YouTube clips, et cetera). In such cases, as some argue, it is the col-lected (or se-lected) documentation, that becomes the work. Here Raymond Gervais’s ’12 + 1 =’-as-a-picture may be a case in point.
In her contribution, Nicole showed deep respect for the perceived ‘intentions’ of the artists with whom she collaborated and whose shows she curated. Maybe even too deep? At the end of her talk, some of the conference participants protested vehemently.
- “I find it very strange,” Christina Kubisch said, “to listen to all this talk about Julius, to look at the pictures of his exhibition, but without getting to hear any of the sounds. Why didn’t you let us hear his sounds?”
- “The installation was a very complex installation,” Nicole replied, “there was a lot of silence. It was a composition in itself, that you could hear from different places, approach from different sides and directions. A very quiet work. I don’t think you should ‘play’ such a work in a situation like here at this conference. I think that it is really essential to protect the way in which Julius wished the audience to experience the work.”
Soundless sound art. Tant pis for us, for we are here. In the wrong place at the wrong time. “We should have been there…”
Yes?! Or maybe, of course, not!? Not all were convinced by Nicole’s insistence that, despite the principal role played by their sonic components, only words and images could and should be used to ‘communicate’ works like Julius’s. What makes the words, or images of such works, presented as pictures in a slideshow, ‘more real’ or ‘more faithful’? And would this not mean that, eventually, we are constructing a theory of sound art that rather is a theory of the images of sound art, as Salomé Voegelin remarked?
Parallel to his practice as an artist and researcher, the archiving of sound art related documentation for many years has been a focal point for Seth Cluett. Even though – because of Sandy – he did not make it to Bergen in person, it was Seth that opened the series of lectures and presentations on the second conference day, via a pre-recorded video registration.
In his lecture (Ephemeral, Immersive, Invasive) he focused on his archive/database of catalogues of sound art group exhibitions since the mid-1960′s. Though ‘sound art’ then was not yet presented and talked about as sound art, the use of sound in art could no longer be considered to be merely incidental.
Art had begun to embrace time, exuberantly.
In 1966 Ralph T. Coe, who then was the curator at the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, saw ‘sound, light and silence’ as the polarities in the art of the late 1960s. As Seth argued, the exhibition that T. Coe organized (Sound, Light, Silence – Art that Performance), is a remarkable example “of the timeliness with which conscientious curators may be able to assess and assemble the work of their era for consumption by the public”.
Here is a vimeo-extract of his talk:
It is an intriguing fact that there is a considerable, growing, body of art that, if it is to ‘survive’, will have to do so almost exclusively as documentation. That is: via a (fragmented) re-presentation in a number of different media. The relative short history of the ‘sound art discipline’ notwithstanding, there already is quite a number of site specific sound art works that many, or even most of us, only ‘know’ like one knows, say, the Battle of Waterloo, or the 2010 world soccer championship final: via its – official and unofficial – documentation, the written (and sometimes highly divergent) reports, the (possibly) audio and video recordings, and from eye & ear witness accounts by those that ‘have been there’ (the ‘survivors’, the ‘lucky few’ … “The blows of the sabres on the cuirasses sounded like braziers at work,” one of the commanders on the Waterloo battlefield observed; even though no sound recordings were being made, this we know until this day.)
In the panel discussion that followed the day’s third presentation (in which Maia Urstad gave an overview of the technical and logistic intricacies and difficulties of re-creating, at a number of very different locations, her installation pieces Sound Barrier and “Meanwhile, in Shanghai…”), Friday’s moderator Christoph Cox observed that “even in really crappy documentation” there will be “some value”. Carsten Seiffarth, on the other hand, admitted to destroying the videos of many of the seminal sound art events that took place in the Berlin Singuhr sound gallery, “because they (the video registrations, not the events) were so bad”. Despite ‘the spatial and the visual’ being essential to most of the work that he curated over the past 16 years, Carsten prefers we do without such impressions. Joost Fonteyne, curator and organizer of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, had an interesting proposal for a ‘by default’ manner of documenting sound art. It can be applied by curators, artists, producers and organizers alike. Reserve a shoebox for every work, Joost said, and use it to keep material that is related to the piece: photos, flyers, sketches, floor plans, sound recordings, videos, comments, press clippings, et cetera. “I’m convinced that, in a way, such a shoebox,” Joost said, “will reflect on the work!”
Even within a relatively coherent group of peers (some a bit more, some a bit less), sound art dwells like a beast with many faces; a beast with no country, a beast with no home. Which, as one of the participants (I think it was David Toop) observed, may be seen as the neurosis of sound art: it is constantly trying to justify its origin. Would it not be far more productive to let it break itself open all the time, and feed upon its own contradictions, instead of attempting in vain to talk them away?
[ Meanwhile, it seemed as if it were the sounds that went running... ]
“I cannot hear sound in any of these words around sound art,” I overheard Daniela Cascella say. She and Salomé Voegelin were the sound writers that took to the Ephemeral Sustainability stage on this Friday afternoon in Bergen (before and after Asbjørn Tiller’s Amplification and Composition of Architectural Space, a lecture on two of Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim‘s pieces: ‘The Drop’ and ‘Feast at Gløshaugen’).
Both sound writers are based in London, though neither of them was born on the British – European – island(s): Daniela is of Italian origin and Salomé is Swiss. Both of them are expats. Like sound art.
Daniela recently published En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction, a short personal memoir that describes, evokes & investigates a number of key scenes from her past. They all come with a sound track, with music and sounds, in echoing circles, that wave-like emanate from an unattainable (‘past’) center and hit upon the slowly retreating shores of a ‘now’.
Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence is a more theoretical treatise. The book counts an impressive number of occurrences of the adverbs ‘critical’ and ‘contingent’, amidst Martin Heidegger’s thing of things that go thinging, Frankfurt (Adorno) and Merleau-Ponty… But in the re-calling of very diverse works of music and sound art, for me Salomé’s philosophical meanderings function like romantic metaphor, much like the poetic metaphor that Daniela extracts from her literary roamings, reading and re-reading Melville, Pasolini …. Their books are very different, but they are also very much alike: I is central to all that I remember; the sounds that I hear include the ones that are my own; and I am always at the center, of all that I remember, of all the sounds that I have heard …
Curiously and interestingly, it were the sound writers that during these three days in Bergen continued to speak out against. Against institutionalization, against the archive as a burial place, against whatever canon (in particular against a ‘sound art canon’), against icons getting in the way of us doing, of our listening. Against the comfort of academic encapsulation, against a sound art packed in soundless (senseless) power point and common place, against a wherethereispublicfundingtherewillbe-sound art. Against, against, against against… They were spirited, they were the punks, and their message was loud, their message was clear: stop talking, stop storing, start doing, start listening… In It seemed I’d stepped…, an entry about the conference on her En Abîme sound writing blog, Daniela added: “My problem is not with [the sound artists'] works: it’s in how they speak of them, the words they use, the trite and worn-out expressions that say no more.”
Listening is at the heart of the sound writers’ mission and concern: now-listening, a very personal and creative act, because it is – almost instantly, and for ever after – being composed with (entangled states of) a then-listening, comprising music and sounds that we recall. It is our brain-as-a-recorder, that enables both the storage and the retrieval (the ‘playing back’) of sound, as part of a very complex network. Let me call it the memory matrix. The sound writers weave tentative grids of words, words-that-are-sounds, grasping for a handle on the matrix that – being the fabric of spacetime itself – is the every essence of ‘that which can not be grasped’. For as soon as we listen, we start to remember.
[ Almost all of us stayed at the Grand Hotel Terminus, opposite the Bergen railway station. "Come and play with us..." ]
“The shower drains at the Hotel Grand Terminus sound a fluid shape. Timorous and soft it moves apart from the harsh and purposeful stream of the shower. Trickling and rolling it gathers around a metal grid that it holds on to and lets go of to drip, slowly and fast, together and alone, into the gully, dinging and ringing on its way. Not purposeful yet necessary it sounds as a thing thinging the relationship between water, shower, drain and drought without speaking its own name. Autonomous and fanciful, ringing and gurgling after the shower has long stopped. Creating discrete rhythms it hangs on to life in the warmth until as a chorus of its own shape it reaches the end of the shiny metal and falls to its death, below, into the invisible space where all sound ends.”
Salomé Voegelin – SoundWords
Listen to a chronological collage of pseudo-random snippets of lo-fi audio impressions of the second day of the Ephemeral Sustainability conference in Bergen:
December 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
This is the first in a series of reports on Ephemeral Sustainability, a conference about presenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art, co-organized by the RESONANCE Network and the Lydgalleriet in Bergen, Norway, curated by Carsten Seiffarth & Jørgen Larsson. It all happened on the first three days of November 2012…
« Art is unattainable, it is often said. However, it is actually not so much Art that is unattainable, but rather the dialectic – some would say the rubicon – of Art… »
Arguably the most radical of paradigm shifts in our view of the world over the past century, has been the insight that the universe – from the very small to the very large – can, in an uncannily effective way, be understood as a compound of waves, as a conglomerate of various vibrations. Sound, of course, we have always known to be vibrational in nature. Among the panoply of universal, concrete and abstract, waves and strings and things that, according to current understandings, concordate and discordate in composing our world’s myriad dimensions, it stands out because of its fundamentally material origin. In order for sound to be, some thing has to move. All that sounds, moves; all that moves, sounds. And sound, in a very literal sense, moves us.
It is also over the past century that, hesitatingly at first, but eventually with near to brute force, the use of sound as a means for artistic expression and creation, broke loose from the confines imposed by the traditional collection of tools used to generate and control it (the ‘musical instruments’). Due to the explosive combination of technological developments, that enabled both the capturing (recording) and (re-)creation (synthesis) of whatever sound one could imagine, and the profound socio-cultural changes in the West in the decades following the Second World War, the idea that potentially any sound is a musical sound took firm hold on the music side. Meanwhile visual artists continued to free themselves from the laws, traditions, conventions, materials and techniques that for many centuries had defined art within the boundaries of a number of specialized crafts. They began to adopt any imaginable material and non-material as a means for expression, and put it to use around, in, up, under and at any imaginable place.
Sound is surely the most notable among these materials, as well as the most ephemeral one.
. Sound wants to be free.
. Sound is a liberator.
Sound played a crucial role in the inextricable way in which ‘hi’ and ‘pop’ culture became and continue to be entangled, which led to the transformation of ‘art’, its transgression, from ‘craft’ to a ‘state of mind’, a warp that for some announced the ‘end of art’, while for many others it was a long awaited new start, a new beginning. Art mirrors our times, and each epoch, by definition, gets the art that it deserves… Somewhere in the eddy current of events the term Sound Art was coined, to designate a plethora of artistic activities involving sound, that were felt to be beyond ‘mere’ music, but in many cases neither (yet) did (want or tried to) fit within the galleries and musea that have the socio-economic power to keep a hold on what and what is not to eventually enter the realm of canonized Western … ‘art’…
A lot has happened since. Many doors did open. Sound art – either the one, the other or the other – became the theme of several major museal exhibitions. And despite the fact that the majority of works labeled as such hardly count as ‘collectable’, thus remaining marginal from an art-economic point of view, shows labeled as ‘sound art’ increasingly can be found also in mainstream art galleries. A growing number of galleries and institutions has specialized in what nevertheless continues to be something of a ‘(non-)genre’. For this and coming generations of young, aspiring, artists, (some form of) sound art appears as a viable career choice, even though but a minority of the many artists currently active in ‘the field’ will openly refer to themselves as being just that: ‘sound artists’. Last but not least, something equally vague as ‘sound studies’, in one way or another, became part of the academic curriculum, and has been generating an ongoing stream of (some of them, some of them less) academic books, theses and publications, in which art historians, musicologists, as well as scholars from many another breed, attempt to tie down in learned classifications and – post/French/modern, or whatever – theory, a ‘discipline’ that is both between and transcending categories.
Even though several decades of sound art history did lead to a certain consensus on a small corpus of exemplary works of sound art, what is considered as ‘sound art’ and what is not, remains open to much heated debate. Depending on the background and predilections of the practitioner and/or observer, it may or may not include practices as diverse as improvised sound performances, sound installations, sound sculptures, sound poetry, radiophonic productions, video productions, custom made acoustic or electronic sound generating devices, sonic interventions in public space, sound walks, field recordings, spatial projection of sound, modification of the acoustics of spaces, the production of modified sound carriers (vinyl, cd, etc), generative or other sound related software, certain kinds of ‘un-popular’ music, etc …
The Ephemeral Sustainability conference in Bergen brought together a large, international, group of actors in this (wide and open) field: theorists, writers, artists, musicians, organizers, curators and students. Not so much to try, for an umpteenth time, to set boundaries to what Sound Art should be, and what it should not (though this is a theme that proves pretty hard to avoid), but first of all to discuss and present questions related to the presentation, the documentation and the conservation (the sustainability) of site specific art works that, in the majority of cases, are fundamentally ephemeral in nature.
Thursday, November 1st 2012
On the conference’s first day (moderated by German music critic and radio presenter Raoul Mörchen), the tone was set by German musicologist Helga de la Motte-Haber, an avid and longtime explorer of the phenomenon of sound art, and editor of Klangkunst: Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume, a (German) guide to the history, practice, and aesthetics of sound art, published in 1999. In her presentation (Situation Specific Sound Art – Ephemeral Works) she gave an overview of the emergence of a growing body of works of art that needed to be seen and heard, in the context of developments within the visual arts in the second half of the 20th century. There, ‘sound art’ is found to arise within, most notably, the fields of performance art and site specific art (land art), incorporating strong influences of abstract art, of minimal art, early experimental music and the Fluxus movement.
Helga observed that, rather than deep involvement of a listener, sound art often primarily intends to reveal features of a space, by the setting up of conditions of perception. It subsequently led her to stress a situational aesthetics for sound installations, that in general can be experienced only for a – usually very – limited period of time, at a specific location. After that, what remains, if anything, is the documentation of the work: in the artist’s and or curator/organizer’s archives, in catalogues and in other documents, which, she insisted should – if possible – include architectural sketches. It was undoubtedly the musicologist in her that wondered why there is no notational system for ‘sound situations’, like a musical score. It would greatly facilitate the re-enactment of certain sound installations.
But on the other hand, she asked, why should we try to preserve and maybe even re-enact works that, often quite intentionally, were limited to a certain time and a certain place? And yes, even more generally: must all art survive?
A bit later that morning, in the first of a series of panel discussions, moderator Raoul Mörchen asked the panelists to oppose the listening experience proper to ‘sound art’ to the ‘analytic, structural listening’ that we practice when listening to traditional (‘classical’) forms of Western music. Do we listen to music in a way that is different from the way in which we listen to sound art, or the sounds of everyday life?
Though at first ‘sight’ this might seem to be almost trivially the case, it is an observation that on closer scrutiny quickly becomes problematic, something that was epitomized by Raoul’s own suggestion that “a Beethoven symphony in a toilet is the same as a Beethoven symphony in a concert hall”.
What is most commonly put forward as a, be it rough and fluid, demarcation between ‘sound art’ and ‘music’, is that of sound developing in ‘space’ versus sound developing in ‘time’.
“In general, sound art is characterized by sounds that are distributed in space, and which have no well defined beginning or end,” Helga de la Motte-Haber said. “Everybody can listen in his own time. But when one listens to music, in a performance or concert setting, one shares the same time with the rest of the audience. Music always has a direction, even if there is a distribution in space.”
This very first round of ‘ephemeral’ discussion provoked vehement reactions, on and off stage, from the not negligible part of participants who considered a strict, polarized, distinction between (listening to) sound art and (listening to) music to be a meaningless artefact.
“It conveys a vision of music that is só very, very tiny,” David Toop, a British musician and prolific writer on music and sound, sighed.
London based Swiss sound writer and artist Salomé Voegelin pointed out that also re-tracing the emergence of sound art near to exclusively in the context of the visual arts, fails to do justice to the so very important musical heritage that is an essential part of the field. “You can not separate music and sound art. It makes no sense to insist on a differentiation between a ‘time-based’ music, and a ‘space-based’ sound art. Any discussion opposing music and sound art is a political one,” she said. “We should not start with theory, we should start by listening. It is all stuff with sound!”
All sorts of ‘stuff with sound’ were brought to the fore (and could be listened to, though sparingly), in the series of artist’s presentations, that, like cherries on the cake, were programmed in between the ‘theory’.
Belgian artist Aernoudt Jacobs (who will create a new piece as part of the second two year round of the RESONANCE network) presented a number of his works (e.g., Miniatuur) in which he tries to explore how our perception can be influenced and how sound can be expressed physically, spatially and emotionally. Though often involving a keen and inventive use of technology, much of his work sets out from field recordings. “Making field recordings is a creative, perceptual process,” he said. “The act of recording is itself always an experience and a subjective action. In fact, maybe this is even more important than doing something with it afterwards.”
Also Norvegian artist Signe Lidén, in this new two year period, will make new work for the RESONANCE network. In her sound installations, Signe explained, she uses sound and space to examine social and cultural phenomena by means of an experiential form of research. Her presentation concentrated not so much on the creation of spaces, as on the finding of places as an essential part of her work. “I am searching and re-searching places and objects for their hidden sounds, often the inaudible ones or the potential ones.” Especially holes and cavities are places (or maybe we should call them: topologies) that fascinate Signe, exemplified by works like Rohrism I and Rohrism II, around and about the Gasometer Schöneberg in Berlin.
Accompanied by the amplified sound of an electric fan, Danish composer and sound artist SØS Gunver Ryberg took to the conference stage in Østre hitting (softly, louder, loud, véry loud…) a small gong, enthusiastically bearing witness to her passion for sound: “the timbre, its vibration, its force and – especially – its energy…”
Gunver’s performative presentation, though at times a little naive and still a bit on the bookish side, refreshingly stood out among the lectures on this first day of Ephemeral Sustainability, (too) many of which consisted in little more than the, often hesitant, reading out loud of a pre-written text, accompanied by the usual power point images. Also presenting – even reading – is an ‘art’, that, however, surprisingly few of the lecturers in Bergen, theorists and artists alike, seemed to master. When during the afternoon session American artist, writer and Projects Fellow at the Braunschweig Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Kabir Carter, seated on a settee, rushed through a handheld text which centered around the issue of site specificity as related to the work and heritage of sound art icons Max Neuhaus and Maryanne Amacher, I could not help but being struck by the fact that even the lectures at the very academic conferences on subjects among the most abstract in contemporary mathematics that I used to frequent, were livelier and more entertaining… (Come to think of it: it is the use of chalk and blackboards as presentational tools that makes a lot of ‘live mathematics’ into true feasts of sound and vison.)
It will have been a first time for some, but I found it a pity that, for significant parts, Dutch artist and researcher Edwin van der Heide‘s presentation, Sound in Space – Space in Sound, was a copy of the lecture he gave at the Budascoop in Kortrijk, as part of the Listen: Perspectives on Auditive Space symposium during the 2011 Flanders Festival. But, granted, at least Edwin is an entertaining lecturer, approaching his subjects (‘space’, ‘sound’, ‘loud/speaker’, ‘holes’ …) from a personal angle, with an interesting dose of, illustrative, metaphor.
Though it may very well have been what the organizers had asked for, most of the day’s lectures took the form of pretty dull academic surveys, and came but with little (and that’s a euphemism) attempt at producing new insights or pointing out possible new directions, neither in the study (or non-study) of Sound Art, nor with respect to its documentation and sustainability. As, on the other hand, the lecturing specialists were addressing an audience composed mainly of their peers, I’m afraid that at the end of a long day, and after a veritable tsunami of words, it must have left not only me with a nagging feeling of ‘heard it, saw it, been there before.’
It was the very last lecture that, despite its little promising title (Installation Works in Public and Private Collections) turned out to be the conference’s opening day’s highlight. In her talk, German ‘first generation’ sound artist Christina Kubisch embarked upon what she, very appropriately, called an ‘archeology’ of her own work. She provided valuable insights in the very particular problems that as an artist she encounters with respect to the maintenance of many of her works. Mainly due to the media and the electronics that are necessary to keep them working (to ‘sustain’ them), these works often need continuous surveillance and adjustment. For the artist, from a distance, and especially when there is quite a few them, it is not really feasible (for practical, technical and also financial reasons) to keep track of this, while on the other hand, those that are – theoretically – responsible for the work’s well-being, often fail to do so. As a result, it does happen that over extended periods of time an installation piece gets ‘turned off’, or, because of modifications (accidental or on purpose) in its ‘technical tuning’, becomes a mere shadow of the work that the artist had intended it to be. As an example Christina discussed some of the recurring problems with respect to her permanent (since 2006) light-sound installation Licht Himmel in the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany.
Even more telling was the story of her re-visiting (and restoring), after some ten years, Schlohweiß und Rabenschwarz (Snow white and raven black), a work that since 2001 had been part of the permanent collection of the Centre for International Light Art in Unna, Germany. “What I heard and saw was a shadow of what had been there ten years ago,” she said. “The CD’s that contained the sounds, well, they still were kind of round things, but there was hardly anything left on it. I had given the museum the data, and I had given them instructions to make new copies every six months. But they never did it, and they never informed me about it. So the work had gradually lost its acoustic memory. It was disappearing…”
The first day of the conference was rounded up in a second panel session. Moderator Raoul Mörchen tried to relaunch a reconnaissance of what, de facto, had been the main topos of the day, by the somewhat curious observation that “space has been neglected for a long time”. In the discussion that followed, quite a few of the usual suspects made their appearance: Derrida, Kant, Heidegger… (In a sequel to this report we might find an opportunity to come back to the suggestion that especially the last one (‘Sein und Zeit’) should more broadly be recognized as providing a valuable and quite definite theoretical reference for sound art.) Also worth citing is Helge de la Motte-Haber’s remark (reacting on the often put forward idea – cf. Bill Fontana – that ‘sound art should make us more sensitive to all the sounds that surround us’) that she would become crazy, were she to listen to all the sounds that surround her…
It had been a long day.
Christina Kubisch expressed the onset symposium fatigue, when at some point during the discussion she exclaimed that she started to feel ‘like the lady in the painting’ that decorated one of the walls of the quite beautiful Gimle conference room, in Bergen’s Kong Oscargate. “I’m tired of talking,” she said. “I’d rather do something…”
An evening session with drinks and performances in Stiftelsen 3,14 provided the brackets.
Norwegian artist Tore Honoré Bøe did a short performance, in which, crawling on his knees over Stiftelsen's floor, he improvised with a number of what he calls acoustic laptops, amplified via contact microphones. Their description as 'small wooden boxes containing a variety of small (re)sounding objects' does them little justice. Bøe's acoustic laptops are fascinating visual objects. They lay out intriguing micro-sonic geographies, that, however, are far richer and more interesting when silently contemplated for their relations and potential, than when brought to life as a run-of-the-mill set of 'noise' tools.
Archival footnotes (of sounding/ ignominious and abject; sublime and silent/ for discontinuous listening and permanence in forgetting) was but the first in a long list of bracketed labelings that accompanied David Toop's very personal sound lecture, full of memories, associations, time, space, images and ghosts; full of echoes and full of silence.
Sound needs sound to explain sound.
Now turn off the lights.
Listen to a chronological collage of pseudo-random snippets of lo-fi audio, recorded during the first day of the Ephemeral Sustainability conference in Bergen: