Josef Dabernig, Excursus on Fitness, 2010, installation view at Contour: 6th Biennial of Moving Image, 2013
“At the entrance to Contour’s main exhibition space in Mechelen’s Court Of Busleyden sits a monitor looping Harun Farocki’s How To Live In The German Federal Republic (1990). Featuring a series of instructional films dispensing advice on everything from CPR to striptease dancing and crossing the street, it’s an appropriately absurdo-bureaucratic start to Contour: 6th Biennial of Moving Image. Themed ‘Leisure, Discipline and Punishment’, the biennial includes over 20 original commissions and works by 26 artists, asking them to respond to some of Mechelen’s civic institutions (its football stadium, one of the city’s many churches, and its prison) and their symbolic functions.”
I wrote a review of Mechelen, Belgium’s Contour biennial in the new, December issue of Frieze.
I just finished editing a video visit to the British Library Sound Archives. I talked to several of the curators and conservators there, recording the digitisation process, and having a tour of the collection that’s held in the extensive underground spaces of the BL. Hopefully it’s an interesting peek into the incredibly diverse collection of sound recordings held by the BL. It’s an amazing resource to have if you live in or near London, especially as access is free (apart from the sometimes daunting task of getting a BL reader card). Here’s the blurb as it is on The Wire site:
The Wire takes a tour of the British Library’s Sound Archive, deep below its London residences on the Euston Road, to talk about sound conservation and take a tour of its collections with some of its key sound curators.
“The 20th century was about audiovisual material, our memory of the 20th century is heavily audiovisual, but our sense of the 21st century is going to be a different kind of audiovisual… archiving is not going to be so much about what we can bring in, but about what to exclude,” says Will Prentice, British Library Audio Engineer and Conservation Specialist.
Nathan Budzinski interviews Popular Music Curator Andy Linehan, Audio Engineer, Conservation specialist Will Prentice, and Wildlife Sounds Curator Cheryl Tipp.
I recently wrote a short online piece for Sight & Sound as part of their current Deep Focus season at the BFI Southbank on the film essay: “A very open show proposal by Turner Prize-winner Mark Leckey.” Click here to read it.
A video interview I did (for The Wire) with Andrey Smirnov, director of Moscow State Conservatory’s Theremin Centre and author of Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia:
“[Leon Theremin] gave technology. The technology was so advanced and it produced such a clean projection of future methods of sound art, that he didn’t need to be an artist or philosopher or composer, but he provoked it”.
Andrey Smirnov talks about early 20th century Russian avant garde experiments in electronic music and sound making, and how he came to inherit a vast and as yet mostly unresearched archive of work by inventors and artists whose work was cut short by Stalin’s totalitarian regime, and nearly forgotten.
Smirnov’s book Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia is published by Koenig Books and Sound And Music. The first iteration of Sound In Z was a 2008 exhibition (co-curated with Matt Price, who also edited the book) at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo. It was part of a larger show called From One Revolution To Another by the artist Jeremy Deller.
Recently I was on a panel discussion looking at the changing ways that sound gets presented in art institutions. It was part of Calvert 22′s exhibition Sounding The Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957–1984 which runs to 24 August. Below is the text (preceded by a video extract that was shown on the night) slightly modified from a short talk that I gave as part of the panel, which also included presentations by the artist Aura Satz and Sounding The Body Electric’s curators David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk of Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź. It was moderated by Calvert 22′s artistic director Lina Dzuverovic (who also used to work at The Wire and co-founded Electra).
I started with this clip from Adam Curtis’s film as I think it’s a good representation of how music gets used and abused in all sorts of different ways – and how work like Curtis’s, which is a hodge-podge of different image fragments, dynamics and ideas, is ultimately held together and taken forward by sound and music. Increasingly I think that seductive-yet-serious approaches like this are taken up by contemporary art institutions – especially in relation to the material of music. For instance Kraftwerk’s recent string of large scale shows at spaces like Tate Modern is a good example of the art world looking outwards to the music industry for like-minded artists (at the same time as engaging, spectacular visitor attractions). At the same time musicians like Kraftwerk look for spaces like art galleries to be able to find new creative and economic opportunities in. There’s a series of events just starting at The South London Gallery that feature a variety of musicians and sound arts practitioners, many of whom I thought belonged to a more underground area of music making, that until recently would have had limited exposure in smaller music venues. This shift could be accounted for by better funding, infrastructure, and adventurous commissioning in the art world – as opposed to relatively less support for experimental or upsetting sounds in mainstream music culture. But it also goes to show that the general culture is more open and has less defined disciplinary boundaries.
And, at least in Britain and Europe, visitor numbers increase, and as a result many art institutions need to cater for this broad array of interests and tastes, becoming more generalist in how they appeal to the crowds – but at the same time become more specific in their programmes so as to make themselves unique and more valuable.
Music plays a driving role in this generalist appeal to mass audiences. Specifically, in its power to give pleasure directly and quickly. There are many assumptions about how music is a communal, even universal, language; about how one is supposed to find it immediately enjoyable, existentially affirming and evacuated of the complexities of life (not to mention the jargon of contemporary art). And it’s these assumptions – on the parts of listeners, creators and commissioners – that allows for music to be so readily accepted and consumed, in a more emotionally direct way than most other art forms.
All culture has some kind of pleasure principal running through it, but the ways that we all express desires and find our pleasures are numerous, surprising, and often upsetting to others. One person’s musical epiphany is another’s annoyance. I think that shows like this one [Sounding The Body Electric] and the SLG series signal that there’s a growing curiosity in listening to more challenging sounds. But broadly speaking there’s still a widespread sonic sensitivity that David Stubbs went towards trying to identify in his book, Fear Of Music, where he asked why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve never been more offended or offending than I have when in a discussion about music – which shows how internalised all of these values about music are.
Performances by musicians like Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth and series like Late At Tate all add an aspect of ‘coolness’ to the institution that they’re playing in – getting new audiences in, and trying to show that art galleries aren’t as stuffy as they used to be – distantly echoing the cultural shift brought on by the introduction of cafes into museums, music in galleries says that you can go there and hang out, drink a few beers, meet people and be noisy – not just chin stroke at paintings and sculptures. On top of that, groups like Sonic Youth are gateway bands to other, more esoteric, challenging and specific types of music, noise and sound arts. So, largely it’s a good thing. It shifts the focus away from erudite, reverential silence and empty ritual, towards engagement and further discovery in a widely enjoyable way.
But pleasure at what cost? Art galleries’ and museums’ seduction by music’s own power to enthrall can easily forget that these things are not equivalent – that though intertwined, art and music have very different cultures and economies – it’s the difference exemplified by the distance between terms like art world and music industry. All of the desires and challenges, the different vocabularies of different musics can become lost or forgotten as a sideshow in the din of the fairground. It’s a progress once described by Will Hutson writing in The Wire where “the ‘Noise dude’ transforms into the ‘Sound Artist’”, finally growing up and dispensing with goofy band names and adolescent posturing. But this supposed maturing loses much of what’s at the core of this music; the closeness in a small venue, the physical impact of the sound, the irreverence – and not least what Hutson calls the anti-middle class reverse snobbery that’s a part of the Noise scene. These are all things that give this music meaning and give its listeners pleasure.
Another problem, though probably not so new, is that traditional mass media and its entertainment economy is fragmenting, and art institutions are grappling with how they are increasingly being perceived as part of the leisure and entertainment industry – along with the money making imperative that this understanding brings with it. Exclusive academic erudition and jargon can’t protect from this economic process, especially as funding is continually choked and getting money becomes ever more competitive. Arts institutions need to be able to entertain as well as educate – but that educating better be entertaining or else the crowds will vote with their feet. And then that’s the money gone. Much like how Curtis’s work is a piece of entertainment that seduces viewers into some deeper arguments, with the sonic components playing a large part in this – music and sound arts seem to be able to play the part of soundtrack to the art institution’s images. So to end with my main question: is that part going to be simply as a powerful mood enhancer, or as an equal voice? At the heart of these last examples is the great problem of entertainment: by definition it grabs people’s attention. But can it do justice to its message, and not just let it get lost while trying to keep all eyes on it?
An illustrated blog I wrote about a recent visit to Kiev’s World War Two memorial complex, and war remembrance in general: “The broad boulevard stretches out under the hot sun for nearly a kilometre. I hear the muffled sounds of distant music being played. Suddenly, a loud and mournful male voice starts singing in contrabass right next to me. The entire boulevard is lined with speakers, blasting out a loop of emotionally piqued funereal songs, the sound crackling and warbling from disintegrating speaker cones and what could be poor MP3 compression. In the distance is a giant sculpture of a steel-plated woman warrior.” Click here to read the full post online at The Wire.
An interview I did with Jenny Hval for Louisiana Channel, a new Internet arts broadcaster, transmitting out of the Louisiana Museum Of Modern Art, in Humlebæk, Denmark. The interview took place in Copenhagen in May, right before Hval’s performance at Jazzhouse that evening (you can see the sun going down if you watch closely), and was shot by Jonas Hjort and produced by Marc-Christoph Wagner. Hjort also made this fun video of yBa-legacy duo Noble & Webster doing a Toulouse-Lautrec avec blindfold act in lithographic form.
One of the more interesting things that Hval talked about here was her interest in microphone technique, and how she thinks about the mic as a kind of focusing (or maybe channelling) device for her interest in writing and singing, literature and music. It would have been great to be able to follow this up in more detail but as always, time ran short. Mic technique is largely an unwritten story in music and singing (at least outside of technical manuals) but obviously it has played an important role in the history of sound recording. I’m sure this narrative could be told using archival footage: BBC Channel 4 if you haven’t given up yet?
“Vdrome’s current presentation – ostensibly a tour of CalArts’ campus – provokes then-and-now thoughts on the prospects for making and showing art in the ‘real’ world.”
A short piece I wrote for Sight & Sound‘s online Bytes section, looking at Vdrome (an online artists’ film platform run by Italian art mag, Mousse), Redmond Entwistle’s Walk Through film, art market value-management and aura-building, and Vimeo privacy settings. A follow-up to my article about current trends in online artists’ moving image in the June issue of their print mag.
Watch a short interview I did with percussionist and composer Eli Keszler, talking about his installation, Breaker NEUM (WP) at Reykjavik’s Harpa, during the 2013 Tectonics festival. Music performed by Duo Harpvik (Frank Aarnink and Katie Buckley).