McMahon Interview

In Australia he most recently featured as one of the 5 finalists of the new Contempora 5 art competition, now Australia’s largest (in monetary terms) art prize, the winner receiving A$100 000 over two years, this year awarded to Fiona Hall. Helyer’s piece, Silent Forest was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria and, somewhat controversially, publically received a personal commendation by Victoria’s Premier and Arts Minister, Jeff Kennett.

The harder you listen, the less you hear. The harder you listen, the less you hear and the more you find yourself an instrument in a soundscape. Listening to a voice, when transcribing an interview for example, the less you hear what is said and the more you find yourself immersed in a parallel drama of breath, tone, speed and slowness, a series of peculiarly intimate yet not quite human events, disturbing the flow of what we want to hear and want to say.

Sound seems to have a special kinship with the affective interruption of an event, with the incidental, in two senses: this amorphous rustling or, at the other end of the spectrum, the officious abruptness of an air-raid siren or a radio broadcast. Did you hear the news? In Helyer’s Silent Forest, inspired by the empty imperialist edifice of the French Opera House in HaNoi topped by air-raid sirens, the sound artist runs over the spectrum, selecting and creating a new bandwidth, a new fabric from these rents:

“In the sound piece, for [Silent Forest], you have the kind of wail of the siren, you have fragments of Vietnamese instruments tuning up, which often have that wail as well, so they’re formally quite similar, and then you have out-takes of fragments of Western art music, kind of heavily reconstructed digitally… and the final sort of element in that sequence is recreating the sounds of a kind of forest, in that sound that swirls around overhead.

Now those sounds were all taken from very early archival recordings of real environments, of rainforests and things from South-East Asia and Australia, but they were taken from ‘78’s, which were so old and degraded that what happened was we actually stripped the signal out of them, and left the artefact, the needle noise, the scratching, the blips and cracks, and then remixed that into a kind of rustling, which actually sounded like a forest – although someone thought it was the ocean…”

Between the two poles are any number of combinations whose reverberations shape, orient and combine the private and public, the silent (un-heard) and the announced. There is a constant preoccupation in Helyer’s work and in his conversation with the notion of situation, and while Helyer has described himself as a “sound-sculptor”, a better way to approach perhaps the relation between the visual and aural components of his work is if we consider them as the work of an architect:

“The thing about sound is that it doesn’t travel throughout the universe, it’s kind of locally bounded and it’s locally produced. It’s incredibly site-specific in that sense, so you and I talking in this room are sounding differently than we would in any other room, although we’d say the same things… Through acoustics you actually sense volume, texture and configuration…

I’m acutely aware, when I go into a space, of listening to the space, and I can tell you, you know, what kind of air conditioning there is andwhat kind of surfaces that the building’s made of and so on and so forth… I always want to maintain that idea of a balance between the physical, palpable and vibrating or resonant source, and the actual, you know, content of the sound, it’s kind of very much the medium is the massage, er, message… “

At the same time, while sound gives an immediate sense of a specific situation, it can also blur its internal coordinates, the frequencies of communication preceding the physical and personal boundaries from the perspective of the inhabitant. This psychical blurring is a frequent theme in Helyer’s writing, and feeds into his preoccupation with the possibilities of a collectivised “public space”, for which he draws inspiration from such disparate sources as South-East Asian streetscapes and Gothic cathedrals:

“I think that [in relation to] a notion of public space, it’s sort of silly to think about space as a physical thing, and it’s really much more to do with transactions and transmissions and flows and circulations and exchanges, and so I think work which deals with those things, or encourages those things, allows those things to happen in a multiple way, is actually really interesting work, and I mean, how you do that is kind of a) hard to imagine and b) very plural solutions I think are needed for it. Cathedrals were market places for a long time, and there were all sorts of weird things that happened in them…

As I child I used to sing in one, as a choir boy, and there’s an incredible experience of that sort of reverberant space where the voices literally kind of fold around everybody, but also the kind of active situation of being one of the kind of little fleshy things that produced that sound, and I think being in a choir is one of those really transforming experiences, and I think that’s probably one of the things that I find that a lot of people don’t understand, because I don’t think people go through those type of experiences in contemporary kind of situations enough, people aren’t collectivised at that kind of level…

There are very few places, like Sydney and Melbourne, which even have a sense of civic space and centres, where people do feel to be part of some kind of civic collective, and all the political rhetoric is obviously against that – to privatise, to dismantle the public. But in a sense it’s only those collective experiences that allow us to understand things beyond ourselves, so yeah, it’s kind of strange, I kind of think of myself as being an almost medieval character.

I think there is quite a difference in some cultures of feeling that public space is still a viable situation as a kind of a vis-a-vis between people, and that there is more possibility for a kind of expression, or in fact there’s almost an imperative that somehow expression takes place… The last time I lived in South-East Asia for 6 months, when I came back I think was in a state of shock for 2 weeks, I was trying to find where the people had gone to, because the streets were empty, and the only people you saw were in vehicles, and it was a kind of silence or emptiness.”

It is again, on a different level, the “homelessness” of sound as an artistic medium or discipline which is a point of attraction for Helyer:

“In being part of the sound culture thing, this pan-Pacific organisation, we’ve had these sort of discussions about the theoretical and historical status of “sound art”, in inverted commas, and the fact that there isn’t really one, there isn’t really a history, no one’s really written it, it doesn’t live anywhere, I mean sound exists as a sort of subset of almost every discipline you can think of, like engineering or architecture or dance or whatever, they all have their relationship to sound, but sound is somewhere in the basement, somewhere, and it also, in a sense it sort of flows between everything, and so I tend to think of it as a kind of connective tissue that sort of joins things together, and a lot of the discussion has actually been that it’s actually an incredibly positive thing that it doesn’t live anywhere in particular, and that no one actually has kind of pegged and staked the territory, because it leaves it in a sort of fairly productive, mobile, if not slightly anarchistic sort of state…it’s not deregulated, it never was regulated in the first place.”

At the same time, there is nothing formally “anarchistic” about Helyer’s work, which on the contrary is striking for it’s clean and polished surfaces and finely-tuned technical and technological finish. All qualities which, as if by contagion, were regarded with a kind of suspicion at the moment Helyer became “the artist who shook hands with Jeff Kennett”. Helyer likes the anecdote that “if you are a computer company, or if you are a nasty government agency, and you wanted to find out what you could actually do with a computer, you’d give them to music students, and they would do all the kind of R&D work for you, innocently thinking they were creating culture, in fact what they’re doing is road-testing your technological device.”

Helyer notes that “you can drive that equation in a fairly critical way”, but the point of complicity is reversible: perhaps the “nasty government agency” “innocently” thought they were road-testing their technological device when “in fact” they were creating culture. It’s in terms of an “incidental” overlap between disparate agendas that Helyer considers the meeting of the artist and the establishment in the context of such events as Contempora 5:

“It’s sort of what you would call, like in a sort of sound studio, an “artefact”, artefacts are the products of the recording process, so like needle noise is an artefact for example, and in a sense things like competitions in the art world, they are in a sense artefactual, they’re separate from the process of creativity… and in a sense they’re conceived of as being separate from even the market place although I suppose they do have a kind of relationship to it, so what I’m trying to say I suppose is that they’re an entirely artificial situations, and they’re designed for particular reasons, they’re designed to draw media attention, and so they have an agenda which is entirely outside a kind of creative realm… I don’t know what goes on inside [Jeff Kennett’s] head, and I would imagine he liked it for reasons which were entirely different from my intentions.
So be it.”

On the one hand Helyer emerges as a somewhat medieval figure again, a meticulous and dispassionate artisan:

“In a sense I think of my practice, and always have done, in quite detached terms, I mean, I’m not an artist who works in a particularly autobiographical way, and I don’t see myself as an expressive sort of artist, I don’t necessarily use my personal psychology to produce work. I certainly use my personal experience to produce work, but I think of it much more as a sort of production, I think of myself as a very small production company.
In some ways I think it’s a sort of red herring, the whole issue [of a conflict between art and technology], because if you think about medieval culture, the mixing of oil paint was probably one of the most technically complex things, or the casting of bells, was probably one of the most technically complex things that were done during that period, and I mean, it’s a sort of truism but: artists have always worked with technology, and they’ve always had a very strong interest in technological edges. I certainly don’t believe that artists are the people who develop it, I think artists are quite often sort of the dumb followers of science, but what artists seem to be… the position they seem to take are as people who actually critique technology.”

On the other the technical attention of the artisan blends with a portrait of the artist as one who creates and critiques not through direct refusal of environmental givens, but through a process of constant testing, refining, listening:

“One of my strong interests has always been in the idea of a relationship between a world of poetics and a world of technics, and that in our culture they’re seen as very separate things, whereas I think I’ve kind of… grown up almost, thinking they were the same thing, I mean, growing up in a kind of post-industrial Britain, or sort of being kind of fairly familiar with industrial archaeology, like ruined primary industry sites and things like that. I’ve sort of always seen technology, and especially the sort of heavy end of technology as part of a culture. I suppose I feel like I’ve always had a kind of critical relationship to it, and that’s been a thematic interest, and not much in a kind of refutation of it, but more as a kind of acceptance of it, as an inevitable part of a cultural fabric.

My first day at art school is actually a good example of, probably, why I’m the way I am. I remember that the first thing that actually happened when we got to our home base or our studio, is we had to undo our Stanley knife, get the blades out, the new blades, and sharpen them, because they simply weren’t sharp enough, we were told, and I thought that was a very interesting thing, and that really stuck in my mind, that things could always be a bit sharper, literally and metaphorically, and that you shouldn’t simply, you know, you don’t just walk into the hardware store and buy the blade and use it, you think about the blade and you think, well, is it actually adequate for the job, and often it isn’t, and that goes for computer programmes, the lot, you know.”

© The artist and Melissa McMahon October 1997