I first became interested in sound art well before I became interested, or even knew anything about, curating. However I was heavily influenced from a relatively young age by considerations that are essentially curatorial. I’ll have to give you a bit of background. In the late ‘80s I spent the school holidays in Kuwait. The Western movies, toys and games on sale there were generally bootlegged copies. All the movies we would hire from the local video store were pirated in blank sleeves and all you had to choose from were the titles. Everything was otherwise identical. When you eventually watched the films themselves they were often heavy edited to remove sex, nudity, or scenes that might be politically sensitive. These edits were made regardless of how they would affect the narrative of the story; there would suddenly be a chunk missing. Characters in films would mention events that had been excised by the censor and so these mentions could take on a bizarre significance.
Likewise videogames also seemed to exist in an alternate universe with names of the Atari 2600 cartridges were often misspelled with surreal effects. Superman became Suppermen; Spider Fighter became Spider Fitter; and they would have completely unconnected images stuck onto the cartridges. It all felt experimental and interesting. I believe this had an immense influence on how I would start to perceive cultural artifacts. Nothing was sacred or could be considered complete, and sometimes that incompleteness could be more meaningful or profound. Everything was fair game. So I started to make my own edit tapes of audiotapes: bits of pop songs, cut in with bits from radio plays, messing about with recording techniques. When the first gulf war broke out I forgot about it for a bit but I eventually came back to this a few years later while I was studying for my degree in Fine Art.
I started making tapes again but pushed the experiments further and incorporated more of my own ambient recordings into them. I thought I was being quite radical. It was only when I was introduced to William Burroughs’ tape experiments from the ‘60s and ‘70s that I realized how much of this ground had been covered. His arrangements of audio material kicked off my interest in this work as a curatorial process.
I still occasionally make things now, but usually only for specific purposes or as a collaborative activity. My practice developed along lines that are seen as consistent with the kind of things a curator might do, so I prefer to see these activities as curatorial. When making things it’s easier to have a frame that makes more sense to more people. Most of what I currently do would be classified as coming under the job description of the curator, so even when I make something that might be art I prefer to not call myself an artist. It makes explanations more convoluted than they need to be.
The majority of spaces in which I work are spaces that favour visual art forms. The demand for maximized flat wall spaces in art galleries is not particularly kind to the way sound bounces about. Also the relationship sound art has with technology cannot be overlooked. The aestheticisation of technology; speakers, amps, wires, etc; versus some kind of pure acousmatic, spiritualist manifestation of sound … I am often surprised about how the presence or absence of things in space can end up becoming decisions made by curators or by budgets. I’m not sure this is the best way to go about it.
Obviously sound is less easily contained than images and more difficult for visitors to ignore. This and the time-based nature of sound is part of the problem with participation. It can inherently distance the visitor from any sense of interactivity with regards to the way they may choose to navigate sound work. In your average painting show the visitor has much more freedom to navigate their way around the material. In comparison, sound can become quite authoritarian. This is something I try to avoid as much as possible, often at the risk of appearing abstruse or illogical in how the exhibitions I work on might hang together or where individual works begin and end.
One of the main threats to authorial intention in sound is the problem of exhibiting multiple works, particularly in art galleries. These are spaces created to be able to see things well whether they were purpose-built gallery spaces or converted warehouses, shops or power stations. This makes curating sound works for group exhibitions an ecological exercise, things must become part of a broader composition. There are some works that are, of course, able to do this better than others. Navigating these issues is frequently about how much of the work’s autonomy the artist might be willing to let go of. Sometimes this can be to the point at which the work is reduced to being only a hint of what it could be alone, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good for art to talk to each other, even if this ends up becoming messy. Who wants to be alone?
Headphones are a common retreat to retain some kind of autonomy, but they are alienating devices. Artists who make work specifically for headphones, such as Janet Cardiff or Christina Kubisch, demonstrate how crucial it is for sound artists to be aware of the impact the technology has on the environment of the exhibition. John Cage’s famous silent composition 4’33” reminds us of how the often subliminal noises of the audience are part of the experience. What is the purpose of being in a sound art exhibition if the space around us and the people and objects we share it with are ignored? Works like Cardiff and George Büres-Miller’s The Muriel Lake Incident from 1999 are significant in this respect. The Muriel Lake Incident not only plays the soundtrack of the film the one is watching but also chucks in some exceedingly disconcerting audience noises. Experiencing that work was a really important thing for my understanding of curating sound. I remember someone laughing behind me and turning around with one of those spontaneous smiles that appear in awkward social situations only to find that there was no one there and it was all on the tape. I might just as well have ignored that laugh or made a mental note that I was sharing the gallery with idiots. These different responses to an imagined threat had a huge impact on my thoughts about the use of sound art in a gallery.
I’m also very interested in audio archives and how they are reshaping the kinds of things we might put in art galleries as artistic propositions. I’ve mentioned Burroughs, and have curated a number of exhibitions involving his tape experiments, but I’ve always wanted to do an exhibition that would have, at its center, tape recordings by Andy Warhol. I went to a lecture by the art historian Jean Wainwright, who is an expert on Warhol’s tapes, but when I contacted her afterwards she told me that there’s an embargo on them for at least another 20 years or so. Warhol is a specific case, but there is an interesting apprehension in such things being made public. Time-based materials made in such quantities are expensive for estates to vet. Yet re-evaluating such things now that there is more of an awareness of the potentials of sound as art is a really interesting place to be.
Of course sound art is still regarded as a niche art form and a little bit mischievous. I still regularly come across the preconception that sound artists are ill-disciplined iconoclasts making a noise in a space for quiet contemplation. Also the way people are used to engaging with things in art galleries seems to come more from a visual approach to meaning-making. Art galleries are not just spaces for displaying art, they serve a whole load of other functions for visitors and sound art can get in the way of this. It’s harder to socialize and to teach, for example, when you have to also just listen. To speak about a piece of sound art you often have to turn it off or, as it’s time-based, interrupt a moment that your companion might never get back. But these are not necessarily limits. It might be more valuable for visitors to an art gallery to be aware of just how complex the experience they are having can be. Sound art seems to be a very good way of exploring this.
Having said that I’m more interested in inter-media projects than projects that are only about sound. Many years ago I spent a lot of time recording the sounds around famous paintings, and they revealed to me things that the visual record alone couldn’t. People make very distinct noises around specific types of visual work. How the visual, the aural, and the tactile work together is more interesting to me than prioritizing only one of these things.
The Internet seems to be an integral battleground in how contemporary artists are articulating their relationship to sound and the relationship of sound to other arts practices. I’m working on an exhibition at IMT Gallery in London with a young Danish sound artist called Lotte Rose Kjær Skau. She comes from both a musical and a sound art background, yet what’s exciting about her work is how visual it is and yet how it still feels fundamentally to be about sound art. I like the fact that it doesn’t necessarily matter. Sound art is a comparatively recent articulation of something people have been doing for a long, long time; it seems a shame to be purifying it into a separate discipline now. Artists like Kjær Skau are beyond that.
By Mark Jackson