I often call myself a sound artist, whatever that is. Some time ago I submitted a proposal for a commission. The commissioners wanted to commemorate an historical event, a disaster, which happened in a small fishing town. I thought that my idea was well considered: location recordings, interviews with descendants of the families who suffered, field work on board working fishing vessels, in short a well researched sonic documentary wrapped up and presented as art – a recorded soundwalk and a multi-channel installation. Needless to say I was unsuccessful. They wanted a monument. And why not? After all, when the local rat-catcher and other worthies of the town sat down to consider the proposals they might well have asked, ‘What do we get for our money?’ From me, in terms of material product, some mp3 files on a player, some sound played through speakers, perhaps a CD or two – street value a few quid. Whereas a glass and steel monument weathering slowly over the centuries……
I should have known better when my initial enquiries revealed that the overseeing body was a commercial company (fronted by a public school accent) dealing with overseas tourism and manifesting a vague interest in the arts.
Now I can handle rejection. I am after all a sound artist competing regularly with painters and sculptors. What I couldn’t easily swallow was the follow up phone call in which another posh voice suggested that I might be interested in providing recorded talks for provincial museums. A bit like asking a sculptor for a quote to mend your fence.
Back to the hypothetical panel of local worthies and arts administrators. Imagine a document on the table which proposes a sculpture/monument. The local butcher confesses to a lack of expertise on sculpture at which point helpful suggestions pour forth from the others. Dear Butcher, I can point you towards endless shelves groaning under the weight of endless tomes on the subject. Now, encouraged by the butcher’s humility, the bus driver confesses to complete ignorance on sound art. A profound silence ensues. Where are the authoritative sources? I can think of two or three that are regularly quoted; good efforts, but none which satisfy my criteria for an authoritative source. The experts? The historians? The curators? The curator on the panel is under the spotlight. Did he or she really learn anything about the range and depth of sound art practice at art school or even whilst studying for the MA in curating? Possibly, but unlikely. How do we access the works? Where are the venues? Can we get them online? These questions are at the heart of the problem. I won’t use the word indolence at this point but if I build up a head of steam later it might make an appearance. By the way, I must emphasise that I have the utmost respect for the good work done rat-catchers, butchers and bus drivers in their respective fields.
There is a real problem in accessing works of sound art, in particular sound installations. They are not very visible or viewable, unless they’re primarily visual works with a bit of sound thrown in for good measure. Yet, outside of the site-specificity of the works, artists have to represent them somehow and I’m not going to lay into artists for their efforts. They are often represented by means of fetishistic images of recording or playback equipment. I’ve done it myself. We’ve all done it. The ¼” jack socket as a sex object. The speaker as icon or as sculptural object. The microphone in the natural environment. (with hairy cover) as androgynous naked model, waiting to be touched and perhaps caressed. The low resolution YouTube video, another means of giving an impression, has a success rate of about 1 in 50 for me, but that’s the nature of the beast. And of course CD and mp3 releases. The CD can give a listener pleasure as a series of ‘good recordings’ if that’s the intention. I adore some of the netlabels out there and I’ll refer to them later, but part of me still considers the mp3 as a necessary evil (it’s one of several trillion mp3s out there), especially if you’ve gone to the bother of recording and mixing at 96KHz/24bit. DVD surround formats might help in the near future if anyone can be bothered to set up the speakers. All are valid as methods of boosting an artist’s profile and I have absolutely no problem with that at all. In fact I am inspired and energised by the depth and range of practices and online representations of these practices; beautifully presented personal group and collective sites, spoiled only very occasionally by unjustifiable claims about being at the cutting edge or the forefront of contemporary practice.
I don’t think we’ve arrived at the place yet to be able to judge these things. But, hey – Golden Rule #1 for sound artists. – if you don’t care about your work, nobody else will. Unless of course your work is a commodity, but that’s another discussion topic. I can forgive a little hubris here and there and there’s always the chance that they’re right and I’m wrong.
A few years back I submitted an application for funding towards a show which required that the funder listen to a multi-channel mix by loading four soundfiles into a sequencer and playing them back over four speakers. The work which I chose to represent my practice was a 4 channel mix. I can’t think of any other way to present such work. Stereo reductions can’t possibly render the spatial information which in this case was essential to an appreciation of the work and no amount of descriptive writing or images can do the work justice.
The funder managed to reject the application without having listened to the work. Outrageous perhaps, but in this case the decision didn’t surprise me. Why would they even bother to put themselves to the inconvenience of setting up speakers and software? Much easier to tell me that ‘I could have represented my work better’. This is where I become cynical, so apologies in advance. Of course I could have represented my work better if I had access to their extraordinary skill of being able to audition a work without listening to it. I could have transmitted it telepathically directly to their collective cerebral cortex, bypassing the inconvenience of electricity, wires and cables. Truly remarkable. No need for iPods, stereo systems and the rest.
The remaining feedback I received was edifying. Apparently they had ‘experts’ in sound who did the judging. Following some questioning, these sound experts morphed gradually into experts in new media. Ax far as I’m aware, new media curating expertise does not qualify someone to judge sound works, not the kind I’m talking about at any rate. Such an expert might be aware of the technical matters involved, though, sadly, not to the extent of being able to listen to my four channel work. Anyway, sound isn’t a new medium, it’s an essential medium. The practice of sound art is multi-discursive and multi-disciplinary, borrowing from aesthetic strands inherent in acousmatic music, soundscape practice, photography, moving image, contemporary art practice, ethnography, documentary and archival forms and many more fields. What the funder really wanted was something visual. The very fund had ‘Visual Arts’ somewhere in the title. I would argue that sound work has no place in that particular box. Many would disagree, and the fact that the work I’m referring to is definitely not music might support this view. But that’s binary thinking at its worst – this box or that box. I even found myself suggesting strategies and approaches which used visual media to better represent my practice. But enough! As soon as I start representing my sound work using visual media I’m opening up a foreign discourse. Next I’ll be making work with visuals to get the funding. Then others will see that I’ve been successful and will follow me. The funders will be dictating the form and content of the artwork. So (cue violins and teardrops) I hold on to my integrity and struggle through lack of funds.
I would prefer honesty. I would prefer that someone tell me that my work doesn’t stand up as very good art. Then we could have a proper discussion about good and bad art and how we evaluate sound art. I think that the self-appointed priesthood should say what I suspect they really think: “We don’t really understand your work though we can’t admit to that but in the end we don’t care that much for it though that has to be off the record as well. Besides it’s not worth the bother to invest time and money in auditioning the work. We’re not really sure if it’s art anyway.”
All that’s in the past now and I couldn’t give a b*gger about any of them, but those shenanigans and others since have left me wondering about the real value of works of art which use sound almost exclusively as raw material. By real value I mean aesthetic worth – we’re still a long way off from selling sound installations. Add to that a concern about curators, Arts Councils and other bodies who fund the arts, and what they know about sound art. Not what they claim to know as an extension of their primary field of expertise, but what they really know. That issue leads on to the problem of whose job or responsibility it is to know about these things, whether they really do, and who has or might have the monopoly on the knowing. I have my own ideas and opinions which will undoubtedly spill out sooner or later.
Finally, apologies – what began as an intended exposition of my ‘unified field theory’ of sound art based on location recording has ended up as a monumental whinge. But do feel free to pitch in.
I recently made a strange connection. Many years ago I was struck by reading that the early medieval Celtic nobility (Welsh I believe) judged their bards by their ability to make the company laugh, cry and finally sleep with their music. This seems feasible and would seem to fit in with the social conditions of the era. The threefold requirement is still with us – we all like our music to agitate us, to let us feel some emotion and to soothe us in times of trouble.
Then I read recently in a book about Indian music that Al-Farabi, the 10th Century Afghan (origin disputed) scholar says exactly the same thing about the music of his time! Coincidence, scholarly confusion? Who heard about what from whom? Or did the two come about along the same lines as multiregional evolution? Were people of the time much more mobile than we imagine and the transmission of cultural memes far more dynamic and widespread than perhaps we realise?
Who knows? – but if anyone does know, please enlighten me.