Nigel, what are your thoughts in regard to the current status of sound art within electronic arts?
As far as the notion of a biennale of electronic arts per se being read as a biennale of digital arts I find that there is an amazing amnesia built into the whole history of artists working with the technological mode with sound and image or kinetics. There is a lack of a stable or thoroughgoing discourse surrounding those new forms of art. The history seems to evaporate as soon as it’s laid out and whatever is current seems to be what is understood. So digital work tends to mask work that is even 10 to 15 years let alone 50 to a 100 years old.
Is it this amnesia that you have tried to address in curating Sonic Difference?
Yes. I actually wanted to have a show which didn’t have that capacity for amnesia and addressed some of the longer term concerns of artists working with sounds, So packing together the desire for a longer term historical view, the constraints of the building and the severe constraints of economics, I tried to choose a group of artists who would be sympathetic but who are also working with systems that weren’t necessarily analogue, but which were very physical and would relate very directly to a bodily experience and would make people very aware of the architectural envelope that the work was situated in.
Your choice of artists for the show at first seems to challenge the notion of what sound art is. Garth Paine’s Endangered Sounds Sculptural Installation, which seems to reference both Duchamp and political activism, is a striking example:
There’s irony built into an installation that’s totally silent or kind of mute. It also presses a few buttons in terms of public conceptions of sound and how sound is used in the public domain. It is good in that it will ask questions about both the legal and philosophical basis of whether you can privatise such a thing as sound and that we are expected not to hear things. There’s also the whole public idea of asking people to participate and collect. Making them aware that some sounds are in fact endangered or disappearing simply because the acoustic environment and ecology is changing, while some other sounds are being excised from the environment illegally–being put into the hands of a few for profit as it were. Garth is one of those people that can move fluidly across the boundaries of music, fine arts and sculpture. It is an interesting artist that can do that.
A number of artists, such as Shawn Decker with his A Small Migration—Micro-controller sound installation, are choosing to base their work on natural systems that are then filtered through either digital or analogue technology. Do you see this as a major theme?
I am very interested in Sean’s work because of its proposed relationship between natural systems, forms of cicadic patterns and the kind of analogues that he creates. The piece has 16 separate wire channels that listen to each other in the sonic domain, as 2000 lines of C code in an algorithmic relationship. The piece bears a very strong relationship both to your body but also to the notion of architecture. It’s minimal, almost invisible, but sitting behind that simplicity is an incredible complexity that is totally unannounced. Very much like listening to the patterns of insects in the bush.
I am very interested in these ecological and biological metaphors. I am increasingly convinced that there is where my own research area is going. I’m looking at biological metaphors which maybe for the first time may embrace a whole range of sonic art, and this may be the canon! The developing discourse may come out of that.
I found Ed Osborn’s Harvester a powerful mixture of elegance and insectival malevolence, with long thin appendages searching out the architectural space. Do you see a relationship between this work and Shawn Decker’s?
In some ways Ed’s work has a strong relationship to Sean’s as it is very architecturally bounded and a very good example of a sound piece that has to be tuned to the space. Both pieces would work totally differently in a different acoustic environment. This is totally unlike any other art form. With sound art, especially ensembles that listen to one another, it’s the actual architectural space and the amount of bodies in the space. Ed is buying into the notion of interactive ensembles in a strong way so that there are very elegant slowly moving, searching booms [microphones on long horizontal arms] that seek out the resonance, reverberations and sound reflections in the space. It’s almost alive in that sense.
I suppose the overriding issue for all the works is that they are all quite physically simple and almost structurally transparent. They are elegant and stripped back. It’s no more than necessary and no less than sufficient.
Another work that references natural systems is Simo Alitalo’s Viileaa (Sounds cool)–Sound Sculpture. Sitting in front of his ‘acoustic sail’ you are washed over with ambient sounds. Where do you see Simo coming from historically in terms of sound?
Simo is really coming out of a radiophonic background so he has a stronger drive towards a narrative structure in his work. Radio is linear and sequential so it’s very hard to avoid narrative. His take on natural systems is not to sublimate it into algorithms or superpose it in a parallel analytic world of feedback as in Ed’s Harvester, but to get out into the ‘real world’ and make sound recordings of ice flows or whales and then to process this through another live layer, such as a wind harp. That live semi-stochastic system gets mixed in a random way and laid out in this curious array of point sources that become a plainer source. This is acoustically quite confusing as we are not used to dealing with large surfaces that radiate. We tend to think of single point sources. The ubiquitous stereo image is a 2-point source that masquerades as a panorama. So this piece is playing around with that.
You are an unrelenting and passionate advocate for sound art both in Australia and overseas. How do you see your role in regards to the promotion of sound art?
I’m a bit of an evangelist I suppose in terms of sonic art. It’s been interesting working in Australia over 20 years from where sound has originally occupied an obscure position to becoming ubiquitous in particular modes such as laptop electronica. But this is only a relatively small subset of sound art. So in a sense I feel that the crusade must still continue. The last reasonable size museum show of sound art was Sound of Space in 1995 in Sydney, and before that SoundCulture in 1991. Staging Sonic Difference here in Western Australia serves a real didactic educational function. I’m always trying to help people because my philosophy is the bigger the matrix the better for everyone. It’s not a question of trying to protect your position: that is only strengthened by more people working in the field. I wish that everybody felt that way within the Australian cultural domain.
I think the response to the exhibition has been extremely positive and enthusiastic. Do you feel as positive about the exhibition?
I’ve been quite aware of the gap in the knowledge of sound art and the experience of sound art, so just from that perspective alone I think the exhibition has been very useful. Reactions to the show are hard to gauge. Very few people are frank enough to say, ‘that was a terrible show.’ Usually if it’s a bad show people don’t say anything. People have been coming up and saying that it was a really good show and giving reasons for it. Apart from the fact that the work is good and that the art is so interesting, the show is almost like a monochrome, very simple and quite transparent in terms of the motivation and structure. The public is encouraged to engage. There’s not a lot of hype surrounding it. It’s straightforward and people can be with the work, enjoy it and experience it. The work has a mathematical form of elegance, a stripped down, almost precise kind of lucid focus. It’s not a heavily thematised packaged. It’s a frank and honest assembly of work without pretending to be anything else. So, a good response!
Sonic Difference: Resounding the World, Exhibition, curator Nigel Helyer, Moores Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth: SameDifference 2004, Sep 9 — Oct 10
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