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).

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