Peter Bogers’s “Untamed Choir”

July 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

The past couple of weeks in Østre (the Lydgalleriet’s new space for sound art and electronic music in Bergen, Norway), Dutch artist Peter Bogers has been working on the installation and fine tuning of Untamed Choir, a new work that he produced for RESONANCE, and which will premiere as part of a short summer-exposition at Østre (from July 25th until August 11th, 2013), also featuring The Beaters, by Jitske Blom and Thomas Rutgers.

Peter Bogers’s new work is a spatial composition that uses 30 vocal tracks, played back through a set of 40 small loudspeakers that are hanging from the ceiling of the room into which the piece is projected. 20 of these are positioned on a large circle, with their cones pointing inwards. The others are spread over the rest of the projection space.

The following picture shows a sketch of a possible positioning of the loudspeakers, but the precise distribution of the speakers will obviously depend on the properties and dimensions of the room in which Untamed Choir is presented.

“Up until now the installations that I made, were more like sculptures; visual things; things that are,” Peter said. “The visitors might contemplate them and listen to them for as long as they liked. This is sort of a first time that I present a work that actually has a definite beginning and a definite end. Untamed Choir is a composition, a thing with a fixed duration. Of fifteen minutes.”

“The installation nevertheless does have a strong visual component. It consists in a projection of images of noise, moving between white dots on a black background and black dots on a white background, that illuminate the space into which the piece is projected. These images are of a ‘positive’ and of a ‘negative’ kind, just like one might consider ‘screaming’ to be the ‘sonic negative’ of ‘singing’ or ‘chanting’. The projection thus reflects the transformations: from ‘screaming’ and ‘crying’ to ‘chanting’ and ‘singing’ to ‘screaming’ and ‘crying’.”

How did you go about collecting the vocal material that you needed for the work?

“Much of the material consists in samples. Of singing, of choirs… I took anything that I could get hold of and that I thought might be useful. And then there are parts that I sung myself, and parts that I asked friends and acquaintances to sing. Originally I had planned to do a lot of the necessary vocal recordings in Bergen, in cooperation with a number of students here. But unfortunately, due to several changes in the work schedules, that has not been possible. So I ended up doing most of the recording and collecting of the sound in Amsterdam.”

“The things that I recorded myself were primarily related to the many transitions that I needed, in various tonal pitches, between the crying/screaming and chanting/singing. Often such transitions had to be very, very gradual. So gradual, that it becomes impossible to pinpoint the precise moment of change… In the singing parts I aimed at a very stylized… eh… well, yes, I may indeed just say: at a kind of ‘beauty’. I wanted it to be the sort of thing capable to seduce the listeners.”

Many of the fragments that I heard, in your preview video (which you will find embedded at the end of this article), struck me as almost Wagnerian in atmosphere…

“The singing had to be beautiful. Parts of it – including the end – are indeed kind of ‘dark’, kind of ‘heavy’. And some parts get kind of ‘psychedelic’… The piece has been conceived as a single, continuous, expiration. I removed all the breathing from the samples and the recordings. And I distribute the 30 vocal tracks over the 40 loudspeakers. This allows me to actually move sounds in the space. I can make them go round in a circle; and I can freeze them, keep them in one specific spot. Most of the singing is located everywhere in the space, including the circle; but the screaming is concentrated within the circle. When the chanting turns into screaming, the transformation initially takes places within all of the channels. But then gradually it is pulled towards the center. Until the scream occupies nothing but the middle of the room, where it literally is running around in circles. At varying speeds. So it is a pretty … yes … physical work.”

And with the extensive spatial configuration, the listener, when moving around, will experience a continuously changing perspective?

“The idea indeed is that one moves through the space, and that one will encounter changes in the sound on, say, every square meter. But these changes and these shifts are very subtle. They do ask for some concentration, so it may help if one closes one’s eyes… I am actually very happy with the acoustic conditions that I have been given here in Østre. My studio in Amsterdam is a bare space, with a lot of reflections. Here the sound is muted. And that is what this piece needs, because it allows for a far more precise localization of each of the sounds.”

Along with the noisy images that illuminate the space, also a running time code is projected. What do the numbers refer to?

“The numbers actually do not refer to anything specific. It is just a counter that is running, all through the piece.”

Like the transitioning noise images, they seem to suggest, though, that there is also something rather formal about the piece; in contrast maybe with the expressionistic – the untamed – ‘romanticism’ of the singing; ánd of the shouting…

“Maybe… I have to confess that I still have my doubts about the use of the counter. It will be part of the show here in Bergen, but I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I will also include it in the subsequent renderings of the piece… But there is a system to the numbers. When screaming transits into singing, the noisy projection simultaneously transits from positive to negative. So if at first the images are very light (white noise on a black background), then during a transformation from screaming to singing the picture will gradually turn into something very dark (black noise on a white backgrond). And the tipping point will correspond to the counter’s transition from plus to minus. Via zero. The counter also indicates the beginning and the end. When the work begins, the noisy image will just show you the dots, standing still. The dots do not move. And the counter is at 0. Untamed Choir then starts with a scream. And at the same time the counter starts running. The piece ends fifteen minutes later with a transition from low singing to very low screaming, which eventually turns into a kind of sigh, while the counter runs to 0. There it stops, in a still image of noise…”

“So there is a beginning. Then there is an end. And in between it is a cycle.
Like a life cycle.”

“My earliest fascination, in the 1970’s, was for performance art, with its very challenging physicality and direct confrontation with the audience. Around that same time, the first handy video cameras became available, and I realized that I actually preferred this use of technology, as an intermediary, between myself and the audience. I specifically remember one of these early works, of which no documentation has survived, but which was crucial in my development. I was sitting on a chair, surrounded by lights, making sounds with my mouth directly in front of a camera. The close up image of the lighted inside of my mouth then was shown on a monitor above my head, along with the amplified sounds – I started with baby like gurgling and vocal noises – that I was producing. That was how I began apply technology as a means to put up a separation between myself and the onlookers.”

It also shows a very early fascination for the human voice.

“I did an awful lot of recording of the vocal sounds of my first born son. Babies just begin to make noises. It’s a very free form of vocal experimentation, something that I find absolutely admirable, really. And then language starts sneaking in. This transition I find extremely fascinating. I made a work in which I imitate the sounds he made. There are two images, on two monitors. One showing his sounds, and on the one above there’s me. And the alternation of the two produced this very strong rhythmicity… So, yes, the human voice has continued to be a focal point.”

Your background is quite obviously in the visual arts, but do you consider yourself to be, nevertheless, in some sense, a composer?

“Actually I think that music is the best there is. So, to be honest, I really would have liked to be a musician…”

Do you play an instrument?

“Ah, well, a little bit of everything, one might say. I have a pretty good sense for rhythm, so I can do some drumming, play a bit of mouth organ. Nothing properly, though. But sound always had a strong presence in my work. It is only now though, with this work, that some sort of composing is involved. That I find myself being concerned with decisions about pitch, frequencies, timing, the combination of voices, and so on. With real musical components. Before, my point of departure always were the images. But when you turn on a camera to capture images, you also get the sounds. And I always have used this immediate link between image and sound. I would never add a soundtrack to images just to create a certain atmosphere. Sound that is being used to manipulate the viewer into a certain mood while looking at images usually makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. There has to be a connection between the two, a natural link.”

There is quite a long tradition within music and sound art of works that quite specifically address the distribution of sound sources and musicians within a space. Is this something that you have looked into?

“No, not really. I have to admit that my historical knowledge is pretty limited. Especially when it comes to this field of ‘sound art’, which as a matter of fact is sort of new to me. Even though some of my works, in hindsight, actually might very well be labelled as such. ‘Heaven’, for example, a work from 1995, installed in a little working-class house in the center of Utrecht. I had a great many of these old, small black and white surveillance video monitors, which were scattered around the three rooms. And each of the monitors showed an image lasting no more than one second, playing forwards and then backwards. With the corresponding sound, playing forward one second, and then in reverse for one second, on and on and on, in endless repetition. These were all sorts of images of small things, that you might see happen in such a house. Someone’s neck that is turning this way, one second, and then back the other second. And the second hand of a clock, going one tick forward and then one tick backwards again. A baby sucking milk from his mother’s breast. All the time there’s this repetition, this back and forth, and it becomes like a machine, something very rhythmic, going… ta-duh ta-duh… ta-duh ta-duh… which makes it, in a way, highly oppressive. So like ‘Untamed Choir’ this was a piece in which the spatial distribution was central, and the visitors had to walk through the piece.”

“The title ‘Heaven’ is that of a Talking Heads song. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. That’s a wonderful image. When this kiss is over it will start again. It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same. Heaven is a place where events do not devalue. Here on earth, for us, that is not the case. And maybe that is indeed our problem.
Things continue and repeat.
But they will hardly remain fun.”

Peter Bogers – Untamed Choir | Thomas Rutgers & Jitske Blom – The Beaters. Two RESONANCE sound art installations presented by Lydgalleriet at Østre, Skostredet 3, Bergen (Norway). From July 25th until August 11th, 2013.

The following YouTube clip gives you a 4’50” preview / walk-through in stereo, of Peter Bogers’s Untamed Choir.

Ephemeral Sustainability 2 – Curating, Presenting, Writing

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…

[ 1st day: Sound Art ]

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.

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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.

Soundless.

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.

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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!”

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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…” ]

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“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

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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: }}

Ephemeral Sustainability. A conference about presenting, documenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art, in Bergen, Norway.
Day 2, November 2nd, 2012. [Gimle] (Moderator: Christoph Cox)
Gruenrekorder soundscapes: Lasse-Marc Riek (de).
Video lecture: Seth Cluett (us). Presentations: Nicole Gingras (ca), Maia Urstad (no), [[panel discussion 3]]
Presentations: Daniela Cascella (it), Asbjørn Tiller (no), Salomé Voegelin (ch), [[panel discussion 4]], Joost Fonteyne (be).

Ephemeral Sustainability 1 – Sound Art

December 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is the first in a series of reports on Ephemeral Sustainability, a conference about presenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art, co-organized by the RESONANCE Network and the Lydgalleriet in Bergen, Norway, curated by Carsten Seiffarth & Jørgen Larsson. It all happened on the first three days of November 2012…

[ 2nd day: Curating, Presenting, Writing ]

« 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

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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?

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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.’

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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…”

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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: }}

[ Read about the second day … ]

Ephemeral Sustainability. A conference about presenting, documenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art, in Bergen, Norway.
Day 1, November 1st, 2012. (Moderator: Raoul Mörchen)
[Østre] Gruenrekorder soundscapes: Lasse-Marc Riek (de).
[Østre] Presentations: Helga de la Motta-Haber (de), Aernoudt Jacobs (be), [[panel discussion 1]], SØS Gunver Ryberg (dk).
[Gimle] Presentations: Signe Lidén (no), Kabir Carter (us), Edwin van der Heide (nl), Christina Kubisch (de), [[panel discussion 2]].
[Stiftelsen 3,14] Performances: Origami Boe (no), David Toop (uk).

Ephemeral Sustainability. A conference on Sound Art

October 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

A conference in Norway, on – what else? – sound art, is the first big, public event of the new, the second, two year round of RESONANCE activities. Organized by Lydgalleriet in Bergen (one of RESONANCE’s current co-organizers), the event goes by the name of Ephemeral Sustainability. As the buzz words that make up its title indicate, the Bergen conference invites and intends to thoroughly reflect on the presentation and documentation, the collecting and archiving of the fast growing corpus of sound based contemporary art.

“Is it only through documentation and human witness reports that this sound based, and hence fundamentally ephemeral, form of contemporary art can be appreciated in hindsight, or are there other strategies to strengthen its bonds to the past?,” the organizers ask. “Is this field of art in its nature and ideology impossible to transport, collect and re-act, or does it have a potential in more traditional art collections and museums? Do we need a new practice and new venues to collect and present it, or can this be done within the frames of already existing structures and organisations?”

On the first three days of November, a large group of ‘conveyers, artists, curators and thinkers within the field’ will gather in Bergen to look at these questions from many different angles. Together the contributors make for an impressive list indeed, too long to be clearly readable on the image above, which is a reduced version of the announcement of the Ephemeral Sustainability event in the current issue of The Wire.

Among the invited speakers we find David Toop, Edwin van der Heide, Gruenrekorder, Christina Kubisch, Origami Boe, Carsten Seifarth, Seth Cluett, Helga de la Motte-Haber, RESONANCE artists Aernoudt Jacobs, Signe Lidén, Maia Urstad, and many, many more.

The conference program for Thursday November 1st includes a performance/lecture by Seth Kim-Cohen, the author of In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art This contribution to ‘Ephemeral Sustainability’ bears the title “Knifey Through My Buttery Silence” and if the following short video of a recent performance of Seth’s at the Diapason Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, is anything to go by, we might be in for a fun surprise.

It will not be the only one…

Ephemeral Sustainability. A conference about presenting, documenting, collecting and archiving sound based contemporary art. Bergen, Norway. November 1st-3rd, 2012. Click here for the detailed program.

‘But what about the children?’

February 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Maia Urstad and Paul Devens at the Lydgalleriet in Bergen


Friday February 24th saw the opening of a second Norwegian Resonance event, staged by the Lydgalleriet in Bergen, one of the network’s associated partners.

City Chase, Bergen

An indoor version of Stefan Rummel’s Resonance piece Articulated Chambers, and Extended Speakers, one of the components of Pierre Berthet’s Extended Drops piece, were part of the sound art exhibition Extensions (curated for the Lydgalleriet by Carsten Seiffarth) that could be seen and heard in Bergen last summer.

The coming five weeks the Norwegian sound art gallery will showcase the Bergen installments of Resonance works by Maia Urstad (“Meanwhile, in Shanghai…”) and Paul Devens (City Chase), in two rooms of the gallery’s temporary premises, at Skostredet 16.

Meanwhile, Bergen

“There were a lot of interested people, a good response and a very nice atmosphere,” Maia Urstad reported about the opening of the exhibition in Bergen, which continued to attract quite decent numbers of visitors during its first days.

A lot of people.
Maybe almost all of the inquisitive art loving people of Bergen.
But what about their children?

There was at least one visitor who wondered why they weren’t at Friday’s opening. In his ‘Wyatting’-blog entry on the event, Sven Sivertsen, who shot the pictures of the opening of Lydgalleriet’s Resonance exhibition, observes that there are hardly ever any children around when he visits Bergen’s Lydgalleriet. Even though, Sven writes, “much of what can be seen and heard there seems to be perfect for inquisitive people of all ages”. I think he raises an interesting point. Children – and maybe even especially children – will surely love to watch the little sounding cars move along the tracks of Paul’s City Chase, and wander through Maia’s suspended forest of old, whispering transistor radio’s… So let them see and let them listen. This is the music of the future, it dearly needs our childrens’ ears.

Maia Urstad and Paul Devens in Bergen

Paul Devens’ and Maia Urstad’s works can be experienced in Bergen every day, from 12h till 18h, until April 1st. If you are in or near Bergen, be sure not to miss them. And do bring your children along…

Resonance in Bergen

Paul Devens and Maia Urstad at the Lydgalleriet, Skostredet 16, Bergen, Norway. February 24th-April 1st, 2012. Open daily from 12h-18h.

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