Sonic boom: Tashkeel’s sound artists are all ears
When Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010 with Lowlands Away, an artwork that features the Glasgow-born artist singing three versions of a Scottish lament, many reacted with astonished bemusement. As the Daily Mail, one of Britain’s most vituperative and reactionary newspapers put it: “It was the first ‘sound installation’ to be shortlisted … rather stretching the definition of an outstanding contribution to the ‘visual arts’.” Others railed that the prize had gone to a “singer”, when Philipsz had in fact studied sculpture.
Lowlands Away was intended to be heard playing beneath three bridges over the river Clyde in Glasgow, a context absent from the more conventional gallery space equipped with a speaker at Tate Britain in London. But regardless of the scenery, naysayers found it hard to conceive of an artist working with sound as a material rather than music.
Fast-forward four years and there have been dedicated sound art exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Katara in Qatar, and Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac). Now, two London-based sound artists have taken up residency at Tashkeel, the Dubai-based arts organisation.
Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver have been living on Jumeirah beachfront for the past three months, watching the sand being carved up by yet another construction project and taking refuge in the relatively quiet environment of Tashkeel’s studios in Nad Al Sheba. From now until April next year, Bradley and Weaver will be busy working on a site-specific installation that combines the acoustic qualities of local buildings with the talents of an ad hoc or “feral” choir, as well as taking part in the 20th International Symposium on Electronic Art being held in the UAE in November. As part of Tashkeel’s education programme, the sound artists are currently leading a series of discussions around central themes in their practice, including definitions of sound art and curating sound art. The very things that Philipsz’s critics struggled with are still being debated today.
Since Weaver arrived in Dubai from London, the soundscape of his new home is challenging the artist for good and for bad. “The environments [here] are predominantly artificial … You go from an air-conditioned environment to your car,” he says.
“We’ve only been here a relatively short amount of time. It takes a while for the background of cars and traffic to subside and then you start picking out the acoustic details of where you are.”
It’s not that man-made sounds don’t interest him. “They do on a certain level,” he says. “[But] I wouldn’t want to paint Dubai and say that is its defining sound … if you switched all this stuff off, I wonder what would be left and that would be quite interesting.”
A recent trip to the relative stillness of the Liwa desert organised by Abu Dhabi Art Hub was a much-needed tonic, as Bradley and Weaver recorded the entirely natural sounds of the wind rushing against the dunes, the base drone of compressing sand and flowing water wells along the border with Saudi Arabia. In doing so, they were following in the footsteps of the US composer and artist Bill Fontana who was commissioned to create Acoustical Visions & Desert Soundings by recording sounds in the emirates, including Liwa’s dunes, for the Abu Dhabi Festival in March.
Listening to the energy of that roaring wind via Weaver’s own sound clip brings nature to life in a far more immediate and powerful way that any words on this printed page. The recording on his website is two minutes 53 seconds long and listening to it transports you to the desert in the blink of an eye.
Freeing your ears, as Bradley puts it, and listening as opposed to, say, looking is key to an appreciation of sound. And so it was that Bradley and Weaver sat in the dark, eyes closed, with a group of almost complete strangers earlier this month during a Tashkeel discussion, illustrated by film clips of sound installations and artist interviews, entitled “the art of listening”.
“We live in a completely visual culture,” Weaver explains. “Everyone knows the grammar of visual language … and so, after all the films that we had shown, we thought it would be good to have a really concentrated piece of listening. It’s a bit gimmicky listening into the dark but it does help focus if there are no other distractions and your only stimulus is through your ears.”
The visceral nature of actively listening may in part explain the growing popularity of sound art. Bradley is keen to stress that the audience who attended this first talk were already au fait with sound art and, for most of them, “listening” was not new. Still, getting into the “mode of listening”, as Bradley put it, is a useful discipline. “In order to listen properly you have to empty your mind a little bit so that you can perceive the nuances and the subtleties of sound,” she says.
“[Sound art] unfolds over a period of time. It’s durational so you have to pay attention and your mind has got to make a track record of what you heard before and where it is going in order to understand the shape of the piece. Whereas with a visual work you’d look at it and think, ‘oh, I see it all’. Maybe things reveal themselves over time to you but on first glance you don’t have to have the patience because you think ‘I see it all’.”
Sound art is not entirely new to the Emirates. Ductac’s dedicated sound art exhibition, Peace in an Open Space, opened last spring. The show included Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, a definitive piece of “music” recorded by the American sound artist in 1969. In it, he replays a recording of his own stammering speech over and over again, allowing the acoustics of the room to smooth his speech patterns.
Visitors to Ductac were invited to sit with headphones and an iPad to engage with the exhibits, which also included the sounds of Bolshevik factory sirens, pulsing billboards in New York’s Times Square and Egyptian religious music. Weaver cites Lucier’s work as a great source of inspiration. It also raises a fundamental question related to sound art that the second Tashkeel discussion tackled on Wednesday: is sound art a specialised form of music? Again, Philipsz’s critics should take note.
“It’s very much about intention,” Weaver explains. “Music is what it is on the surface. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have depth but music isn’t very often trying to be something else. It’s not a mode of communication in the same way that a piece of art is.”
One of the film clips that Bradley and Weaver selected to illustrate their discussion makes this point beautifully. The piece, Water Work by the American composer John Cage, was performed in 1960 on the TV panel show, I’ve Got A Secret. The guest’s secret, to be guessed by the panel, was usually something embarrassing or unusual; in this case, it was both.
The show’s cigarette-smoking host suspends the normal rules of the game and the curtains on the film stage open to reveal a bath tub and a plethora of household goods including a water pitcher, five radios, ice cubes and a rubber duck plus a piano. Cage begins to “play” a series of carefully timed sounds and slowly, the audience begins to laugh and to keep laughing for the eight-minute duration, then there’s tentative applause. Cage, who considered himself an anarchist, smiles. “I prefer laughter to tears,” he says. The unflappable Cage was used to an unconventional reception: he’d premiered 4’33” in 1952, in which an orchestra sits for four minutes and 33 seconds without making any intentional sound, allowing the audience to register the ambient noise in the space.
“Cage was coming up in the 40s and 50s when America was still quite a conservative society,” says Weaver, explaining why they chose to show this archive film footage, which is well worth watching on YouTube. “The idea of introducing a record player into a concerto now is not so hard for us to comprehend but, then, it was unbelievable.”
Sound art requires the listener to reconsider a range of sounds and our learnt responses to them, Weaver says. “The films [we showed] were all around cleaning our ears and saying, if you accept that these sounds can be musical, any sound can be musical. Sitting in a traffic jam can be musical.” Here in the emirates, that’s a most fortunate thing.
The discussion Curating Sound Art will take place on September 17, followed by Sound as Genre and Protagonist on September 24. Both start at 7pm. Visit www.tashkeel.org for more information. To register, call 04 336 3313.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.