February 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
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 § 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.