December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
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: }}
April 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
Extended Drops currently can be heard and see at the Archéoforum de Liège, Belgium, from March 30th until April 29th, every day (except on Mondays), from 10h – 17h.
Pierre Berthet this spring also does a number of concerts. In Germany. He will perform on April 21st in Kunsthaus Kloster Gravenhorst, in Hörstel (Staubsauger und Tropfen – Two sound performances with air & water, 19h), on May 4th in the Maschinenzentrale/Lohnhalle Zeche Westfalen, Ahlen (Staubsauger, Messertisch und Blumentöpfe, 19h) and on May 5th in the LWL-Industriemuseum / TextilWerk Bocholt / Spinnerei, Bocholt (Staubsauger, Messertisch und Blumentöpfe, 19h). Details can be found on the Kunsthaus Kloster Gravenhors web site.
February 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
Resonance & Sound Art at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the Netherlands
The Jan van Eyck Academy is an internationally renowned post-academic art institute, located in the quiet and quite beautiful ancient Latin Quarter of Maastricht.
On its web site, the Jan van Eyck describes its position within the academic art world as being one that, through research and production, is characterized by a profound multidisciplinary approach, and not led by whatever predetermined leitmotivs. Research at the Academy covers a wide range of subjects, from ‘replicas as artistic strategy’ to ‘the publishing practice of the punk movement’; from ‘the transformation of urban areas’ to ‘the crossroads of art and politics’…
Given the decidedly multidisciplinary nature of a great many, if not all, sound art installations, Intro in situ‘s choice to have the second Resonance presentation in Maastricht take place not in a gallery space, but in the Jan van Eyck Academy’s building, thus was both an interesting and a logical one, as it fitted perfectedly with the Jan van Eyck’s aim at encouraging collaboration, also outside the confines of the academy.
In his opening speech, on December 9th last year, Jan van Eyck’s director Lex ter Braak stressed the importance of such cross-fertilization. “I am very glad that, during the period of the setting up of these installations in the Jan van Eyck, there indeed was a quit vivid exchange between the Resonance artists and the researchers and artists working at our institute,” he said.
Three Resonance installations could be seen and heard in the Jan van Eyck Academy building, over the last three weeks of 2011.
At the entrance, at the very beginning of the front hall, looking “as if it had been there forever”, visitors of the Academy building were welcomed by Evelina Deicmane‘s A Long Day.
“When you are walking under Evelina’s work, somehow you think of a cloud that is moving,” Lex ter Braak said about the piece. “But it is not a cloud, it is a lake, that is like a carpet. A carpet that is flying above you. With this work, the artist is referring to an old Latvian tale that says that people are living under a flying lake. And if you talk about it, or even think about it, it will come down, and swallow you completely. For me, this is like thinking about all the bad things in life that can happen. As soon as you think about something bad, it is bound to happen. But if you don’t think about it, then you remain happy…”
This interpretation of her work made Evelina smile. “I like it,” she said. “It indeed is more or less like that, though I’d say that Lex ter Braak’s story is a bit more dramatic than what I had in mind…”
The Maastricht installment of Maia Urstad’s ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai…’ found a nice and quiet spot in the (old) auditorium of the Academy, where the many radio’s voices softly hummed, far from the Academy’s ongoing to-and-fro.
“My first impression of Maia’s work,” Lex ter Braak said, “was that I had entered some sort of a bazaar, where you can buy all kinds of different old radio’s. But looking a bit better, I discovered the movement of time. For there are radio’s from the 1950s, from the 1960s, from the 1970s, the 1980s and even contemporary ones. Some of them you might recognize. As a radio that you once had yourself. Or as the radio that was playing in your neigbour’s house…
In that sense, ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai…’ is a stroll through time. You realize what is happening with yourself, with images, and with the instruments that are part of our world and our lives.”
Whereas the Resonance presentation in Riga was a homecoming for Evelina’s A Long Day, the Resonance exhibition at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht meant a homecoming for Paul Devens’ City Chase. A double homecoming even, as not only has Paul been a Maastricht citizen ever since he was born there, in 1965, he also once was a student at the Jan van Eyck Academy. In this version of his City Chase installation, Paul presented the piece that he created from sounds recorded while biking through his hometown, at his former school.
The ‘made while moving’ field recordings that he uses for the pieces played back in City Chase (a new one for each city to which the installation travels), have no evident ‘focus’. In City Chase, the origin of sounds always transits from one source to another. One hears these prerecorded sounds only when the speakers move along the four metal rails, with one loudspeaker for each of them. Computer-controlled motors move them according to the ‘choreography’ that Paul devised for them.
“The speakers run like little racecars along their tracks,” Lex ter Braak observed, “where they play back sounds from the everyday life in our city. Together it sums up to more than a city soundscape: it becomes music. Or rather, I’d say, sounds that remind one of music…”
This last remark, brought up an interesting point, a question that continues to recur whenever ‘sound art’ is at stake: is it ‘art’, or is it ‘music’?
In his introduction, Lex ter Braak referred to a discussion he had on the subject with Bart van Dongen, Intro in situ’s artistic director. Lex made it clear that he considers the three Resonance sound art installations mainly as art. “For me,” he said, “this is art, with sounds.” Bart van Dongen, on the other hand, explained that for him the Resonance pieces are primarily about music. The artists are working with sound as a way to deal with, and think about, music. From this point of view, sound art becomes an investigation into new ways for presenting (and making) music.
It is an interesting, and – due to many semantic pitfalls – pretty hard discussion, though at closer inspection many of the differences-at-first-sight, in opinion and interpretation, will turn out to be due to differences in background and focus (in ‘culture’) of the beholder. The director of an art academy will obviously look at the installations with his ‘artistic’ eye, while the director of an institute that mainly focuses on the production of musical works, will hear them with his ‘musical’ ear. It was not in the least place this very difference in culture and focus, that made the meeting of two worlds, last December in Maastricht, such a valuable and fruitful one.
Lex ter Braak and Bart van Dongen both expressed their eagerness to continue these ‘meetings of worlds’ on a more regular basis. Thus, over the weekend of 10-11 February 2012, the Jan van Eyck Academy will host a co-production of Intro in situ and the Rosa Ensemble: Europa 5.1, an interactive performance in image and sound, in which musicians create their ‘own Europe’ …. including ‘all the noise, misunderstandings, brilliant ideas and megalomania’ that come with it.
Will it be ‘music’, or will it be ‘art’?
You best go, hear, see and decide for yourself…
[ The photographs of ‘Resonance at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht’ were all made by Moniek Wegdam. ]
August 11, 2011 § 7 Comments
From August 12th until September 11th, Kunsthaus Meinblau in Berlin shows A Long Day, an installation developed by Latvian artist Evelina Deicmane during a project residency for the Resonance project. Earlier this year, while I was in Berlin performing and recording with the Dutch-French electroacoustic alliance Diktat, I met Evelina at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in the Kottbusser Straße. There she had just finished another Berlin residency, which also had given rise to an installation, then at view at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Exhibition space: Burt Nieks (The flying lake looked down upon the village).
‘Burt’ means to bewitch, or to enchant. And ‘nieks’ stands for easy, effortless. It is a split up into two parts of Burtnieks, the name of a lake near the Latvian village where, in 1978, Evelina Deicmane was born, and which plays an important role in Latvian mythology and folklore. Like Burt Nieks, also A Long Day is inspired by the myth of the flying lake. The villagers knew that if the flying lake’s name were mentioned it would fall upon the village, submerging it and its inhabitants. A Long Day depicts the village as it now stands, indeed at the bottom of the lake. It is not necessarily a tragic tale, Evelina says, but flying lakes should not be ignored: each one of us has its own flying lake …
“In ancient times lakes flew around, looking for a place to land. Also the people of current Lake Burtnieks valley saw a lake flying as a dark cloud. It roared and howled. The day became dark as night. Petrified that it will fall down on their head, people lamented and screamed because they did not know its name. Then they went to the sorcerer and pleaded him to talk the lake away. The sorcerer just said ‘man burt nieks’ (to bewitch is easy for me), and it fell down right away. This is how the lake got its name.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 1
I found something that was quite different from what I expected, when on Monday June 20th Evelina opened up the door for Carsten Seiffarth and me, so together we could enter the room at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien where her Burt Nieks was installed. It was very ‘art’, very ‘gallery’. Quite empty (or maybe I should say: spacious) and white. One wall was covered with a great number of drawings on paper, all lined up, bare. On another wall there were a couple more drawings, framed.
There were also two wooden sculptures. Very clean sculptures, of a simple geometric shape. There was this wooden triangle, for one. It took a while before I realized that the triangle was moving; it was balancing, slowly but continuously. Inside the wooden structure one could hear the sound of the water, responsible for the back and forth movement, but so faint, that one really had to put one’s ears pretty much against it… Then there was this big rectangular wooden shape on the floor, an enormous chordophone, that looked like a blown up abstraction of an 11-string zither, a dulcimer or a cigar box guitar.
The huge instrument of course tempted me to crouch down over it, to pluck its long strings and hear what it would sound like. But when I did, the seven small motors suddenly came alive. Their ‘wings’, all simultaneously, hit the strings and made a deafening chord resound; it was as if a large boulder had suddenly materialized and, out of the blue, plunged right in the middle of the rippleless surface of, indeed: a lake on a bright summer’s day. Then it sank, and disappeared again, so that just little after one already wondered whether it was real, or merely something one imagined.
The chord was repeated every few minutes or so. There was but this one sound, that faded into oblivion no sooner than it had come into being, that could be heard while visiting Burt Nieks, an installation that needed time to discover and explore. The near to septic neatness of its presentation turned out to be a decoy; a cover-up for a fascinating turmoil of images and mystery; a text with many layers, to be read, again and again. A stubborn text, one that did not easily reveal itself, but that proved well worth the effort made to conquer it.
“In my childhood I dreamed of becoming Baron Münchhausen – a man who went to conquer the Moon sitting on a cannonball. After the teacher instructed me ‘to choose a more useful profession’ I decide to become an ice-cream seller.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 11
A little later that afternoon, in her studio Evelina made me a coffee, and we talked about her work. I started with sort of an obvious question, and maybe even a silly one. But then of course Resonance is a European network for sound art. So I simply had to ask her this:
Evelina, even though ‘sound art’ is a term and notion that is notably vague and open to a whole range of different interpretations, the Burt Nieks installation that I just visited, is not a work that on a first encounter anyone would easily classify as sound art; even though it does involve sounds. How does your work (this one, and in general) relate to sound? Would you describe yourself as a sound artist?
“No, I guess I would not describe myself as a sound artist. At least not in the way that I understand this. Because at least half of my work, a very important part, is visual. Even though there is always, of course the sound, it’s…”
What do you mean by: ‘There is always the sound?’
“Several of my works include mechanisms that were built to make sounds. They were constructed to produce sounds, but the way the mechanisms look – the visual part – is equally important. Here, as part of Burt Nieks, there are the strings, of course, and the triangle. But also in my earlier works … let me tell you about SeasonSorrow, which was at the 2009 Venice Biennale. It actually had two parts. One was a video projection in a small room, which had 12 speakers built into the floor. The video showed close ups of a group of people stuck in the snow. But much of the story was told with the sound, which included like ice cracking, and all these kind of cold sounds. The main sound was that of the person’s breathing in the cold. Because the sound of breathing in the cold is very different from the sound when one breathes in the summertime. And I recorded each person, so each of the 12 speakers was very personal. And I used this breath to make the sound of wind. The sound, like, of a very cold wind…”
“SeasonSorrow, like all my pieces, is about the people that live in my country.
Often the works are even more personal, and deal with my grand parents, or the village where I was born. It is always kind of a looking back to where I came from.
Also the piece here at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, which is based on the lake Burtnieks near my village.”
So the people we see in SeasonSorrow are not actors, but people from your village?
And they let you bury them in the snow?
Evelina laughs. “Yes! Mind you, we were very careful of course. No one got hurt. Everyone was happy. Actually, the trick was that I made a very large table… And then we choose the right position to shoot the images, matching up with the horizon…”
Ah, that is smart! So the things are not always what they seem…
“But there is no additional digital trickery, or whatever, afterwards; like in Photoshop or something… And then there is the other part of the piece, this mechanism with metal gears, cog wheels, like in mechanical clocks.”
“At the one end you see a motor. That is moving the smallest of the cog wheels, which transmits its movement on to the second, larger one, and so on, like a chain, up to the big one. And the big one is playing a vinyl record.”
A record! One that you made?
What’s on it then? What do we hear?
“It is the sound of a snow ball rolling, from very small to very heavy. Which is, of course, what is reflected in the construction of the mechanism, the series of ‘growing’ cog wheels that set the record player into motion. This is the story: sometimes someone is making a snow ball, having big goals. The person is starting from a very small thing and then is like, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling until the ball has become so heavy that he cannot move it anymore. But then spring and summer come along. And nature will just melt the thing away. That’s very emotional. You cannot do anything about it. You can see it in the box that I use to transport the mechanism. At both sides there’s a little round window. If you look through, you will see a video. One is of a man, who is rolling the snow ball. And in the second one you see the same man in spring time. The snow ball is no longer there. It is himself now that is rolling.”
“It is what I call an ’emotional machine’. I really like to take some parts of some mechanism, and then make them play something really intimate. I built this machine because of all the wasted time and work. It doesn’t make sense that the human makes a snow ball, because always the spring will come, and the snow ball will melt away. So I built a machine. Now the work is done by a machine, and not by a human. Here is another example, that I made last year. It is called Grandfather’s Summer.”
It looks like a pair of lungs …
“I wanted to build a machine to play the instruments. There’s so many people that are going out, and try to earn a little bit of money by playing accordeon in the street. And I again found a mechanism to do that. You spin the handle, and then the accordeons are being lifted up and down, which is making the noise. And then certain buttons are pressed for the melodies … “
“So I say about myself that I am not really a sound artist. But there are some noises in my head that just do not let me in peace; and that is why the sound always comes back. Like the sound of coldness…”
Are these sounds that you remember?
“Sounds that I remember, or sounds that are in my head.” Again Evelina laughs. It’s an open and transparent laugh. Crystalline … Then she continues: “Or maybe the sounds are just in my head, I don’t now. It is certainly not only memory. It’s something… in general I get more inspired… Let me see … All things considered, when I look at what inspires me, it is often the sound, the noise, that then makes me see some kind of a visual… Let me show you…”
Evelina opened up a picture on the screen of her laptop. “See, even for this work, which is actually just a photograph, I was inspired by the noise.”
Oh my, oh my! Oh dear, oh dear! I must say, now those can not have been pretty, pretty sounds! Is this the sound that you hear inside your head?
“It was a very hot summer last year, and every morning there was a man working with a saw and things. And I remember this moment when you kind of wake up, and you still do not understand if all is just inside your head, or if things are happening in reality. It is then that I became interested in this thing… like machine sounds. It just made me so much like… maybe not in peace… but that I should make some work… early morning, and…”
And this is how you feel like when you wake up in the morning?
“Yes,” she says, “when I wake up with a drilling. Especially here in Berlin everyone likes to drill things in the summer. So…”
Evelina then laughed one more time, a third time. It was a curious, modest little laugh, into which – because of our conversation, and because of the drawings that I saw, and all that she told me – I could not but read a great many different meanings. Meanings, that now make me look forward an awful lot to seeing and hearing A Long Day.
Meanwhile, I will not lightly forget this one image, part of Burt Nieks, which, besides many other things, for me that afternoon in just a few simple lines seemed to sum up what ‘sound art’ could be all about …
“A man asked me if I wanted him to make my world smaller, this way it should be easier. I said yes. The man set out to work. He cut the world into halves and started to roll it smaller. Soon he got tired and did not finish the work. I guess sometimes men get tired of what they say.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 26
February 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
For the official finissage on sunday January 30th that wrapped up nearly two months of Resonance in Maastricht, Stichting Intro in situ invited Peter Kiefer. The German sound artist and scholar presented his book Klangräume der Kunst (Sound spaces of art) in the Selexyz bookstore in the Dominicanen church. Kiefer (who originally is from Aachen in Germany, some 30 kilometers from Maastricht) is a classically trained percussionist and composer. He has been working as a sound artist for nearly 20 years. Kiefer taught for 15 years at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, where he set up the sound lab. Currently he is teaching at the University in Mainz, which has a college of music.
“In Cologne I was bringing music into new media. In Mainz I bring technology and new media into music,” Peter told us. “Since 2010 Mainz University has a master program in sound art composition, which is the first studies focused exclusively on sound art at a college of music in Germany.”
Klangräume der Kunst appeared in May 2010. It looks and feels like a bible or similar holy book. The work has nearly 400 pages, weighs more than 3 pounds, comes with a DVD that has over 1,5 hours of video and sound material. And – not very usual for a work focusing on the art of sound – there are near to 300 images in it.
“One of the notable differences between sound and the visual is that one perceives sounds unconsciously. That is because sound touches much more our emotions,” Kiefer explained. “Our listening is connected to the eldest brain part. It is an organ for alerting, a sense for alerting us. That is why you cannot close your ears. It is a warning sense, which creates a social space. If you sit in a cinema, watching a movie and you just have a look at your mobile phone, nobody will be disturbed. But if the mobile phone is ringing the people around you will get very annoyed. Because the sound is creating a social space. That makes sounds very different from images. We are continuously living inside a soundscape. Sound is created in space, and the way in which our brain locates sound within the space is very complicated. There is a horizontal level, left, right. Then the next level is up and down. And then, is it in front of you or in the back? On the neurological level one actually finds that the brain already knows where the sound comes from before you get aware that you are hearing it.”
Klangräume der Kunst found its origin in an exhibition that Peter Kiefer curated in Cologne in the summer of 2004. Klangraum/Raumklang started out as a quest for a possible – or impossible – museum of sounds, and came with a two day expert meeting and symposium on sound art.
“The symposium was very well received and it is an academic tradition that such a symposium is documented in a book: the symposium book. Usually that means a lot of text on a great many pages that take quite a bit of persistence to go and read through. I also experienced that the research in sound art, basically, came from musicology, which makes it difficult to explain to curators, which are often exclusively concentrating on the visual arts,” Peter said. “I therefore decided to make a book that would be more than just a report of the symposium, but which includes many other aspects and which has a lot of examples: visual examples. I think of sound art really as a combination of sound and (visual) art. It therefore should be placed also within the theoretical frameworks used by those working within the visual arts. This then really started my ongoing research into the relation between art and space and sound, and the uncovering of a lot of interesting examples, which show that already since thousands of years sound and image have been thought of as one union.”
More than just looking at sound art’s ways of melting sound and vision, Klangräume der Kunst thoroughly investigates different ways in which sound relates to space. Space of course is the ‘container of reality’: it provides a stage for all that we hear and for all that we see. The bulk of the 20 articles by 19 different authors that together make the book, cover the wide and varied ways in which sound determines space, and space is shaping sound. The complex and multifaceted relation of space and sound indeed is central to Peter Kiefer’s view on sound art. Klangräume der Kunst offers a useful, a practical, framework for discussing a great many, though obviously not all, works that generally are classified as ‘sound art’, without attempting to tie them down within a rigid, a for-once-and-for-all, theoretical construction. The view is kaleidoscopic. Reading the book, one is led through architectural sound spaces, musical sound spaces, museal sound spaces, public sound spaces and virtual (media) sound spaces, via a varied collection of fascinating historical examples (several of which were new to me), extensive descriptions of a number of recent works, many pictures, interviews, artists’ descriptions of and reflections on their work, and a number of more general theoretical and philosophical ponderings.
Most curious among the many contributions is Martin Carlé’s dia-lyrical report of an expedition that in the autumn of 2003 set out to Li Galli (also known as Le Sirenuse), an archipelago of little islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the largest of which has the form of a whale. A research team (comprising among others a media-philosopher, a conductor, a biologist specializing in animal sounds and a musicologist) took opera singers and amplifiers to the islands as their tools for an experiment in acoustic archaeology, aiming to re-construct the sound of Homer’s Sirens as it might have been heard by the blind bard’s sailing hero. Though for me, even on repeated reading, the precise results of this acoustic excavation remain hidden somewhere between the Pythagorean comma’s in the article’s whirling and near to never-ending German sentences, this is a fascinating paper. If nothing else, it managed to make me re-think these phrases from James Joyce’s book of the Sirens (the 11th episode of Ulysses), which is so brimful of musics and sounds: “The sea they think they hear. Singing. A roar. The blood is it. Souse in the ear sometimes. Well, it’s a sea. Corpuscle islands.”
As sound waves unfold and propagate through one space or another, when hearing the sounds we always experience a passing of time. Sound of course is intimately linked to both space and time. Peter Kiefer refers to these as the ‘Einstein parameters’ of sound. Projecting the four physical dimensions onto a two dimensional space-time grid provides an interesting means to intuitively position specific works involving sounds with respect to the weight given to the respective ‘coordinates’.
“Music compositions will be positioned primarily along the time-axis,” Kiefer explained. “They start, and they have an end: these are what we call ‘musical pieces’. Sound space compositions will be primarily positioned along the space-axis: you can walk in and walk out, there is no end and no beginning. As a listener you may yourself decide what are the bounds. In the lower left corner we place ‘signals’: very short sounds, with nearly no time or space. And in the upper right corner we would put, for example, surround music compositions: music which also involves space in its compositional process. Now basically all works of sound art can be positioned somewhere in this plane, between sound space composition and surround music composition.”
Time was flying that afternoon in the vast, old space of the Dominicanen church in Maastricht, where Peter took us on a dazzling tour of the many subjects and sound works discussed in Klangräume der Kunst. We heard music written for the Cologne town house carillon, Jens Brand explaining his Global Player (which uses the live-data of satellites in order to play back the earth’s surface as if it were a CD) and Christina Kubisch talking about her Electrical Walks (sounding the city and other public spaces via the omnipresent electromagnetic fields). We learned how thinking about sound spaces in architecture appears to be something of a forgotten knowledge, as witnessed for example by the acoustical vases that were used to manipulate the sound in churches and the brass vases that funcioned like amplifiers in amphitheaters, and that we only know about through written accounts of the different phases in sound construction in Greek theaters. We visited whispering galleries, saw how kings used the simple physical properties of the reflection and propagation of sound to eavesdrop on their guests, and learned that the very first transmissions of the live sound of concerts and performances (in 1881 in Paris) were, as a matter of fact, stereophonic.
Based upon a more abstract aesthetics are Xenakis’ architecture and music, derived from mathematical forms like the hyperbolic paraboloid. But also Traverse Frequenz, one of Peter Kiefer’s own works, an installation inside the Deutzer Brücke, a bridge in Cologne. In differently sized spaces within the concrete bridge he placed large wooden resonance sculptures, with a microphone inside. “The resonance frequency of the bridge is about 2.8 Hz,” Peter said. “You cannot hear it, but of course it is creating overtones and it’s creating octaves. The microphone is recording all the time the sounds which are resonating in the wooden resonating chamber inside the huge concrete resonance chamber of the bridge. If there would be no noise, you would hear nothing at all. But it is a bridge. There are cars going over, there are electric trams going over, which are continuously making sounds. These are then recorded and played back by speakers inside the bridge. This creates something like a feedback, which is only correlated to the dimensions of the space. It is creating a standing wave. That means that the wave in the space will have valleys: silent knots. And if you walk through the space, at some places you hear really nothing of the sound. But at other spots you will hear a very, very deep and impressive noise. It really sent a shiver through your entire body, and a lot of people had to walk out because they couldn’t stand it…”
Yes. Sound is physical. It not only acts on one’s brain. Sound acts on the whole of one’s body. This is why even the most abstract of music and sound art is able to (and should) evoke direct and intuitive reactions from whoever is present in its ‘sounding space’ to hear. This is not always, or merely, a matter of loudness or volume. One of the works that was part of Klangraum/Raumklang, the sound art exhibition in Cologne that was the basis for Klangräume der Kunst, was by Thomas Ankersmit. It was called Inverse. “In this piece Thomas was working only with the space,” Peter Kiefer told us. “He had just put a microphone in a space of a gallery. And then there was a computer system that was reversing the time. So this installation was a very pure installation. There was not really a lot to see and it was quite intellectual to grasp what precisely was going on there. At the end of the show, we had organized a small breakfast at the gallery on sunday morning. The people were sitting at the front, and the installation was running in the back. Now someone had brought a dog, and this dog was running in the space. He was barking, like wroe-wroe-wroe-wroe-wroefff. And when he did, of course he heard fffeorw-eorw-eorw-eorw-eorw. Backwards. Because Thomas Ankersmit’s installation was reversing the time. Now at first the dog was running completely like crazy, because he could not understand what was going on. But at some point, he suddenly got it. And he was going back and started to play with the time-reversed echo of his own barks. He was barking, listening, running out, going back again…”
Remembering the performing dog on that sunday morning in Cologne, almost seven years ago, brought a broad smile upon Peter’s face. “So, there you see,” he said. “The installation may have seemed to be something pretty much intellectual, but if even a dog can understand it, then the audience should have no problems at all…”