In 2010 I began email correspondence with French born Taiwan based artist Yannick Dauby, initially to swap CDs and more recently to discuss shared interests in our respective practices. I was pleased to learn more about an artist whose online work and CD output, personal mode of production, generosity, commitment and vision had impressed me for many years.

This article is an introduction to a short appreciation of two of the CDs, Nous, les défunts and Songs of a few crickets from Europe, that Yannick kindly sent me, written in the hope that more people will take a closer look at his online work (home and Kalerne) and shell out to buy some of his CDs, which then might go some way to support him in creating new work, all of which in turn might help to level out some of the misleading perceptions of ‘maturity’ in sound art.

The wider field of sound art in 2011 can be likened to a continent in which two nations, highly suspicious of each other and therefore in a permanent state of cold war, are kept apart by a cordon sanitaire or aesthetically demilitarised zone.

The pre-eminent cadres within each of the two nations are the visual arts establishment and the academic electroacoustic community, and the tension exists between those in the musical community whose electroacoustic music is a bit ‘arty’, perhaps having a taste of subject matter in there somewhere as opposed to being totally self-referential, whose undoubted knowledge of and expertise in sonic spatial practice would seem to allow some of them to appropriate sound art unto themselves, and those who seem to have settled into the visual arts paradigm, looking towards galleries and similar institutional approval for their salvation. In and around the cordon sanitaire or demilitarised zone we find nomadic tribes and settlers who eke out a living making sound art that the two opposing kingdoms have legislated against, occasionally taking day trips to either nation state to make a few pennies on the side. Free improvisers wander freely here, exchanging genes with settlers and nomads alike, as well as finding employment in one or other of the big nation states. These artists are the proletariat (or perhaps even the lumpenproletariat) of the sound art community.

I like to keep abreast of discourse and developments relating to sound art in all its manifestations, whatever those might be. Recently I’ve been following specific online debates on sound art, what sound art is and who owns it, as discussed by academics, artists and academic artists. Sometimes I wonder if I’m living on the same planet.

In relation to the visual arts establishment, by far the most lucrative and codebound cadre (cadavre?), I came across an interesting preamble to a call for papers which runs as follows (I’ll give you the relevant passage in case the URL is taken offline after the call):-

Events in the mainstream art world that took place in 2010, such as the inclusion of John Wynne’s untitled sound sculpture for 300 speakers, Pianola, and vacuum cleaner in the Newspeak: British Art Now exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, and Susan Philipsz’ reception of the Turner prize for her public sonic intervention ‘Lowlands’, demonstrate that this field of sound-based, spatially distributed practices has reached a level of maturity that resonates with a larger public and is embraced on an institutional level that facilitates future production. Significant publications in the past decade including The Soundscape of Modernity by Emily Thompson, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience by Michael Bull, Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life by Brandon Labelle, and Listening to Noise and Silence: toward a Philosophy of Sound Art by Salomé Voegelin, cement a theoretical evolution which supports these practice-based experiments…

Let’s unpack this carefully. First of all, although I agree that one or two of the publications are ‘significant’, those that I have found to be of significance have had very little to do with sound art. This list actually points to a paucity of significant recent publications (some have been around for a fair few years now), and of course the list privileges published books as opposed to artists statements, essays, or online publications, which have been much more significant to me than any of the cited publications. Of deeper concern are the examples given of maturity and the criteria by which they are judged to be mature – ‘resonating’ with a larger public and ’embraced on an institutional level that facilitates future production.’ Future production for whom and to what end? The first example of maturity, John Wynne’s Untitled installation, is described as monumental AND minimal at the same time (can this be?). I don’t know what it sounds like and it probably doesn’t matter much because it looks good and is of course untouchable, given the association with Saatchi, that friend of the artist. It might be a very good work indeed, I’ve never been in its presence to judge, but it looks for all the world like a number (one of several I’ve seen over the years) from the Nam Jun Paik back catalogue. I can’t help thinking of tribute bands when I see this kind of affair, perhaps in this case, by association, a Beatles tribute band – Nam Jun Paik, Fluxus, Yoko, John…..

Susan Philipsz is of interest to ambitious sound artists because of her Turner Prize winning piece which uses sound. Let’s forget about the merits of the Turner for now, which has become about as meaningful (to me) as any number of media driven luv-ups for institutionalised ‘creatives’, a slightly more highbrow version of the Eurovision Song Contest. I imagine her success will have put stars in many eyes. Again, I’m sure her work is excellent, in fact, this is the point, her work over the years has been excellent, with or without sound, certainly in the eyes of the visual arts establishment (check out her wiki entry) in which she has been and is still deeply embedded. You don’t win the Turner Prize for a one-off. But as far as sound and art go together I could point to a raft of artists whose work, conceptually and sonically (by my own definitions admittedly, but to be fair, I have done my research and practice over the years) would put Philipsz’ work well into the background. But many of these artists don’t ‘show’ in the right places, if at all. Neither are they well connected so they won’t be up for the Turner or any other prize for that matter. So let’s not get over excited about ‘sound art’ winning the Turner Prize – look deeper, at how you get access to the opportunities, at what you get to see/hear/hear about and why. As for ‘practice-based experiments’ – they look like finished works to me – what’s wrong with ‘works of art’, or does ‘experiments’ confer distinction by offering a whiff of the street? I can’t imagine Saatchi shelling out to support experiments.

So the question I’m asking is this: are the rest of us in a state of immaturity? Is the work of the ‘mature’ artists mature because of their institutional and gallery connections or are they connected with galleries and institutions because their work is mature? Can we have mature work without such connections? The last thing sound artists need for their self esteem is to be told what passes for maturity.

Having deconstructed two examples of ‘bigger is better’ maturity I nonetheless take the point that the writer is referring to sound based ‘spatially distributed practices’, but wait a minute – this doesn’t seem to include electroacoustic music which has spatial distribution at its core and would certainly offer a very strong case for being the spatially distributed practice par excellence. Believe me, if any one group knows about spatial distribution, it’s the electroacoustic community. Shouldn’t that be mentioned? And isn’t sound as art spatial in its essence? In fact, isn’t all sound spatial in its essence and aren’t these paragons of maturity simply works which offer the listener representations of spatial distribution? If you want to see and hear excellence in spatially distributed practice, watch a peregrine falcon projecting quantum packets of sound around a Scottish corrie to flush out its prey.

Let’s widen the discussion even further to take in the kind of sound art that hasn’t had the luxury of finding gallery spaces and massive institutional support, the kind of stuff you’ll never find associated with Saatchi.  I’d like to recommend that all artists read the first few chapters of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. In relation to the aforementioned examples of ‘maturity’ we are in fact talking about a mélange of merit, distinction and value, subsumed under the catch-all term ‘maturity’, a word that cleverly desanitises the unsavoury part of the agenda of distinction. As I’ve said before I could name a slew of artists whose ‘spatially distributed practice’ is indisputably mature but they’re not so well known or as well supported, and they probably never will be because you can’t get a proper hold of their work as easily as you can that of Wynne and Philipsz. They make their work, and, unless the work finds substantial human and capital support you have to enjoy its spatial distribution on your home hi-fi. However, that’s no reason not to be aware of them. I wrote about Giancarlo Toniutti earlier and when I get round to it I want to talk here about the work of Yannick Dauby.

To top it all off aren’t art galleries the last place you’d want to listen to and perhaps contemplate a work of sonic art, not least because most are acoustically deficient in so many respects? I took my kids to an Edinburgh gallery recently and found the security staff to be more like the confined of one of Foucault’s correctional regimes, with the more intimidating resembling the inmates in Silence of the Lambs. One in particular seemed to be doing his own performance art routine, probably out of sheer boredom, pacing the rooms with exaggerated and distorted gestures,  muttering to himself in strange tongues. I had to keep the kids close by. Certainly no place for a sound installation. And can anyone tell me how the detached and disinterested ‘gaze’ works with a sound installation anyway?

So until something of more substance than a ditty in the bourgeois broadsheets comes along, I’ll continue to make up my own critical toolkit, dialectical, truly multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary, informed by anthropology, critical theory, the ideology of the aesthetic, natural history, music and art, despite the fact that it’s only in the last two that I have any ‘expertise’ to talk of.

In the context of this discussion, Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘partage du sensible’ (‘distribution of the sensible’) is very helpful and extremely pertinent. The distribution of the sensible sets up boundaries between what you can and can’t see, say and listen to. For example, the internet, whatever reservations you might have about its uses, has served us well in bypassing academic and other institutional agendas which insist on controlling the means of presentation, agendas which refuse and refute the presentation of ‘isolationist’ models of working (perhaps one day we’ll have an ‘isolationist school’, an oxymoron if ever there was). Think of the personal site or blog as a regime which creates conditions that allow certain soundworks to appear as art within a very restricted field, a field that seems to have been with us forever but is in fact relatively new. Then, furthering presentational opportunities, we have the double articulation of the artist’s website offering downloads or limited edition CDs, in my view a more elegant solution to promoting work than the ‘get all your work on as many labels as possible with the fastest turnover’ or ‘keep your name in big lights’ approach.

Finally, for deeper reflection we might go along with Bourdieu when he talks of the more mature and considered ‘genuinely scientific intention of grasping the work’s immanent reason and raison d’etre by reconstructing the perceived situation, the subjectively experienced problematic, which is nothing other than the space of the positions and self-positionings constituting the field and within which the artistic intention of the artist in question has defined itself, generally by oppostion.’

I confess here that I am freely and openly paraphrasing many of the ideas of Rancière, Bourdieu, Lefebvre and of course Marx, as they are so relevant to this discussion. In politicising matters as such, I want in my own way to suggest sites where a reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible might be found, to speak up above all for the (lumpen)proletariat of the sound art world rather than simply acknowledge distinction.

Part 2 to follow…