Barbara London, Associate Curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art spoke to MutualArt on the occasion of the opening of her exhibition, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, at the museum, August 10 – November 3, 2013.
This exhibition has a specific focus on the contemporary. There is a rich if under-recognized history of artists engaged with sound. In developing the exhibition, what artists most influenced your thinking, and how did that manifest in the concept for the show?
Over the many years that I’ve worked with media, a number of artists opened up my mind to understanding sound. For example, Nam June Paik studied philosophy, at the same he was a talented pianist. He relished new ideas, about art practice and performance, to new technologies, economics, and history. He thought a lot about distribution of ideas and about how information systems functioned. In the late 1970s I worked with Laurie Anderson, who had training in violin before she turned to sculpture and then to performance. Both artists made work in response to the here and now. I can say that each has had a lasting impact on my thinking about sound as art.
Christine Sun Kim. Pianoiss . . . issmo (Worse Finish). 2012. Transcript, pastel and pencil on paper, 38.5 x 50 .″
The exhibition feels contemporary because it is deeply interdisciplinary including works that incorporate drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installation, architecture, and performance. Within these diverse practices, what are the boundaries of sound art for you?
For me there are no boundaries. Artists create work that best suits the idea or concept with which they started out with. In developing the exhibition Soundings, my only limitation was space.
Do you have a working definition for sound art as a genre?
I don’t have a hard and fast definition for sound art as a genre. Soundings is the realization of a longstanding commitment to bring sound by artists into the Museum. It began in the 1970s. Back then sonic work then had a candor, a do-it-yourself sense of experimentation. It broke new ground, pushing the capabilities of institutions willing to exhibit it and the sensory thresholds and understanding of audiences who were curious to experience it.
Within contemporary art today, the energy of the counter-culture has dissipated, and sound is no longer marginalized as a medium. Nevertheless, artists are more than ever drawn to it, perhaps because it is still so full of potential, and not yet quite defined. Today the art of sound questions how and what we hear, and what we make of it.
How useful is this label “sound art?”
The label “sound art” is a handy phrase that to some might be seen as limiting. Definitions are handles that serve a moment but always get redefined.
Haroon Mirza. Sick, 2011. LED’s, amp, speakers, speaker cable, LCD monitor, strobe, electronic circuits, gold nugget. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery
Do the artists included in the exhibition identify themselves as sound artists?
Most of the artists in Soundings see themselves as artists first and foremost. Many don’t like the term “sound artist,” because of the limitations. They want to be considered in terms of their ideas and the art work itself.
Hong-Kai Wang. Still from Music While We Work. 2011. Multi-channel sound and two-channel video
installation. Courtesy the artist
What are the challenges of presenting an exhibition of sound works?
Sound is fugitive so the biggest challenge is how to create installation spaces out of which sound will not bleed. Each work, whether installation, drawing, or sculpture, has integrity and needs to be considered on its own terms.
Sergei Tcherepninm. Motor-Matter Bench. 2013. Wood subway bench, transducers, amplifier, HD media player. 28.5 x 20.5 x 126.5 in / 72 x 52 x 321 cm. Unique. Image courtesy of Murray Guy, New York. Photographer: Fabiana Viso.
Sound art is a time-based medium. Statistics tell us that museum goers today spend an average of about 7 seconds in front of a painting. How do you get people to spend the time with the work?
We have made every effort to create environments that are inviting and comfortable. What we have tried to provide is a commodious situation so that our audience will slow down and listen, rather than simply hear. We hope that people will pause and spend time to engage with each work.
With terms in the vernacular like “sound sculpture” and “sound spill,” how does sound and sound art relate to space?
Most of the works in Soundings are spatial. The installations are specially tuned environments. The sound objects are dimensional, so the viewer engages with the physicality of the work as much as sound. The drawings are conceptual and might cause the viewer to think about noise or about the ineffability of notational systems, and about how complex interpretation is.
When it is not performative, it could be argued that sound art is akin to photography in that it is an attempt to represent the audio phenomena that surround us, and that it began with the advent of recording technology. What role does technology play in the creation and presentation of sound works?
The installation works in the exhibition are compositions, rather than simply reproduction of sound. The different technologies used are merely tools—recording devices, editing software, speakers and amplifiers. All of the production tools, or equipment used, to generate a piece recede at the moment at which the audience engages with a work.
Richard Garet. Before Me. 2012. Sound installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Julian Navarro Projects, New York
What is the correlation between sound art and representation?
I don’t see sound by artists as “representation” at all.
We have a large and developed vocabulary to talk about visual perception. How does your exhibition contribute to the development of a better understanding of aural perception?
The field of sound as art is large. There are many people engaged with sound as art—artists, writers, professors, curators, etc. The Museum’s exhibition is the tip of the iceberg, and we hope it will bring awareness to this lively and remarkable area of contemporary practice.
Jana Winderen. Disco Bay. 2007. Field photograph, Greenland. Courtesy the artist