“Why did this gentleman blow up our speaker, mom?” “It’s sound art, dear.”
About ten years ago I co-curated an arts festival in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. There were sections for the visual arts, architecture, sound and film, and my responsibility was for the sound related events. For these there were two main series: micro concerts in cars and mini concerts at alternative spaces (like people’s homes). While we were editing the artist bios, the curatorial director asked me to use the term ‘sound artist’ for all of the invited performers. That was something of a watershed moment; after this show most of those performers also changed their title to ‘sound artist’.
I felt that putting music (and sound art) into cars for an audience of only one or two people was a nice idea; and concerts in the spaces of everyday life was also great. These events reflected how I feel about music: it can happen in any place and on any occasion. In the line-up for this festival there were only two or three artists who were already working with sound installations, sound poetry, sound related art works, and so on. The rest hadn’t touched such forms before (and, for the most part, didn’t touch them again afterwards either). Those artists usually performed in the music venues and released audio works on CD and internet forums. Their works may have been extremely loud, or even fairly sweet, but they mostly used traditional musical developments, tones, or harmony-like structures – that is to say: they were musicians. They may have been experimental musicians, noise makers, improvisors, or electroacoustic composers, but that was before we knew the term sound artist.
So, you don’t have to change what you are doing; just change the label!
Same as the situation in Taiwan after the 1990s: there was already an established noise scene there, but in the 2000s those same artists (here I am using artist as a general term) and their performances were changed into sound art.
Same as nowadays: if I send my bio to an art space there is a 90 per cent chance they will correct my title from musician to sound artist.
Same as John Cage: he is called a sound artist these days, although I’m not sure if he had ever heard this term when he was alive.
Same as when you compose a piece of musique concrète: your friends will all call it sound art.
Same as when you do any strange thing, a prank, or some stupid piece of self expression: in the Chinese context people will always explain that what you are doing as performance art. Yes! Performance Art! or xing wei yi shu! “Why are those ladies in police uniforms jumping onto the football field, mom?” “It’s performance art,dear.” “Why did the government take back what they promised, mom?” “It’s performance art, dear.” This term reveals that people need a word for things they don’t want to understand. Nowadays sound art has a similar task to fulfil: “Why did this gentleman blow up our speaker, mom?” “It’s sound art, dear.”
There are now many books explaining what is, or is not, sound art. I haven’t read most of them, but somehow I have a feeling that there is only one kind of sound art that all those authors recognise as such: sound installation.
Of course, some would say that in the 1950s there was sound art before the term sound art came into existence, that once we invented this term we could abolish musique concrète or at least place it into a sub-genre. So can we do the same with sound poetry? Luigi Russolo, part of Xenakis’s work, and why not Satie? Indeed, since the late Ming Dynasty there have been whistles tied beneath the wings of pigeons and on top of kites. Were these not early, local, pre- and authentic sound art?!
I have nothing to say about this really; I think I’m not authentic enough to talk about naming things. So let me get back to sound installation, about which I do have some ideas. I think sound installation is a mutation of modernity. Music since Romantic times has been dominated by strong egos. Then the modern period provided other strong egos to fight them – the war between romantic giants and modernist giants! Then we have some little men such as Satie, absurd movements such as Dada, quiet men such as Duchamp, and smiling men such as Cage. Then we have Cage’s younger friend Alvin Lucier trying to remove the ego (much as Cage did for composition) by using his uncontrollable brainwaves. Then the use of clocks and feedback, and other objects to reveal physical phenomenon. Once you put some objects that automatically make sounds into a gallery you don’t have to stay with your work anymore. There’s no need for the artist to be present anymore! No giant ego! Cheers!
Sorry for my English. I could speak more rationally in Chinese. I would then speak more about physics and phenomenology. Perhaps it’s wrong to say this, but I’m not doing Performance Art. Sound installation has less to do with the composer’s self-expression or the presentation of humanity. At least it appears to be so. And the (old) modernity (still) has issues with the centre/periphery, self/other, scenography/nature, order/chaos, and so on, while we are already talking about accelerationism and media/nature theory.
There are actually a lot of exceptions to no ego, or objective sound installations. For instance, many artists are attracted to special sound sources, such as spiders, cosmic rays, ancient ice, statistics, New York traffic lights, etc. They transform them into pure sound with their own particular aesthetic using formulaic square waves or sweet tones. They ask, “Why can’t sound art be subjective and self-expressive?” Well… But let’s leave such questions for a moment.
Sound installation also arose after the appearance of new funding policies and museum systems. It did not grow up in a punk rock club, nor from Jean Dubuffet’s collection. That said, nowadays sound installations are getting less and less funding in Europe and, of course, North America. But in my country, sound installation still suggests richness, good education, fanciness, and they provide more chances to have cocktails at the opening party. The term suggests this, but they are not really this way, because there is almost no such thing as sound installation in this huge art scene. Actually, many artists are poor, crazy and smell bad. I can’t really understand why art sounds as if it is about riches. Perhaps the small group of winners takes over the large spaces to exhibit their works, while the real estate price is too high for the losers?
Anyway, I have almost never done sound installations, and I have rarely ever received money from the visual art side of things. According to the festival organisers who apply for funding for my travel costs and fees, I’m in the box marked music. How about in China? Luckily, I have not been cut out and put into any box. There is no box, nor any funding there.
I’m not against sound art in itself. I know some people dislike dividing art according to material, such as sound art, visual art, audio-visual art, post-hardedge-digital-audio art, or scent art… however if someone has already named it I won’t bother to go against their label. For me music is already very complicated and enough of a challenge. I can make music with no sound, with a huge noise, with only my body, with the chaos of a happening, in my sleep, with or without a concept – there are so many more possibilities. The title artist is also fine for me, as in general I think music, performance art, dance and the game of language are all art. Why not: “An artist who does strange music”? Then we have a chance to think about what music can be, how far can it go? Where is the boundary between music and everything else? If you name something sound art or xing wei yi shu (performance art), people will stop and give a polite smile that implies, “Now I get it.”
Many of my colleagues use sound art to describe our kind of music. I’m always OK with that. But there is a logical consequence of that: music is over, music is not worth extending and challenging. Then there is a second consequence: any ordinary musical structure and idea can be saved by using sound as material. This is the same as the situation for sound installation: by using special materials the artist sets marketing key points prior to the idea taking shape. Perhaps you are using the signals from the earth’s magnetic fields at a holocaust site – but your composition is still a work of electroacoustic music! This use of symbolism is no different than that used by 19th century singer-songwriters.
I’m not sure if I am or am not a sound artist. I hope the people who are certain one way or the other know why they are. Or are not.
Special thanks to Edward Sanderson for his help with this piece