These are the notes from a lecture originally given at Hull School of Art & Design on 26th April 2017.
So, in this lecture I’m going to talk about my work for Fountain 17. The work is called ‘The Sound of Duchamp’s Fountain’, but before I go onto that, it’s important to briefly describe my practice in general, just to situate the Fountain work within a wider context. I use a variety of mediums within my practice including photograms, performances, videos, installations, and sound works. I explore the politics of listening and spectatorship and this often means that a work can’t be fully realised until a body is interacting with it.
Today, this idea isn’t revolutionary, indeed it was postulated by Marcel Duchamp, as Steve Roden describes in ‘Active Listening’: “Marcel Duchamp spoke of the viewer contemplating a work of art and that a work of art has no meaning without a viewer to bring meaning to it.” Often within my practice the work exists in the liminal space in the encounter between subject and object. This means that the restrictive dichotomy between subject and object isn’t clear, it’s this idea that lies at the core of my practice.
This concept is described by Vivian Sobchack within ‘The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Sobchack is a writer I have returned to again and again, within both my writing and my practice. Within Address of the Eye she discusses the relationship between a cinemagoer and a film as one that is not black and white: “The direct engagement, then, between spectator and film in the film experience cannot be considered a monologic one between a viewing subject and a viewed object. Rather, it is a dialogical and dialectical engagement of two viewing subjects who also exist as visible objects.”
In this talk I’m going to focus on the concepts and theories that surround my sound work. Some occurred to me before and during the process of making, some occurred after. I feel that there’s almost too much within the work to unpack, so I mainly want to focus on the nature of recording and sound and architecture. This will lead me to a number of theorists as well as my own thoughts about the work. I’m also going to be displaying some photos and videos whilst I’m talking. These are from the day round the factory and I think they’re important when discussing sound and architecture
I’m just going to briefly explain two of my other works, just to provide a bit more context into my practice. Photo Piece was first performed in 2012, with The Angel Orchestra, an amateur orchestra based in Islington. They improvised using my photograms as visual scores, which were projected. The performance took place part way through a classical concert, in front of an unsuspecting audience. The performance was not only an exploration of cameraless photography, and visual scores, but an intervention within the strict modes of spectatorship allowed within a classical music concert. The work was then performed at the ICA as part of Bloomberg New Contemporaries. I’ll just briefly show an excerpt of the video work, which both became a separate work and documentation for the performance.
This next work ‘Aural.Effect’, was recently performed at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. It came from watching Tree of Codes at Manchester International Festival and being able to witness the physical effort the dancers put into their performance, but nobody could hear that effort. This idea was then worked through in several rehearsals with the dancer Elinor Lewis. Aural.Effect seats the audience in the dark, whilst the dancer improvises dance movements, some normal movements and some specifically choreographed to have a sonic output. The idea is to showcase the sonic potential of dance and the physical effort of movement, each breath and each footstep.
This image, as I’m sure we’re all aware is the Fountain work by Duchamp, or rather the replica version that sits at the Tate Modern.
The work sits on top of a plinth encased in glass within the Materials and Objects section of Tate. The Fountain work seemingly sits in silence. The work and ideas surrounding it are busy, noisy, anything but quiet, and yet the work sits just humming along…if you had to describe its surroundings as a whole you might refer to it as beige. It’s only in beige visually and emotionally however, not sonically as I’ll get onto later. When thinking about Duchamp’s Fountain and the impact it had, it’s a little daunting. How can you respond to the action, the object, the impact, the conversations it sparked, and the artists it influenced? In the promotional video recorded for Fountain17, I described the work as a lightning bolt, a cataclysmic event and that it’s ripples are still being felt today. Now how do you make a work in response to this? The answer is that it’s next to impossible to make a work which sums up all of this…Duchamp’s Fountain and all its repercussions are almost sublime, it’s too large, too awe inspiring to comprehend in one lump. I decided to think about the sonic potentials of the Fountain, about sonically activating the sculpture in some way.
This is due, in part, to the fact that I was reading Fred Moten’s ‘In The Break’ as part of a class at Goldsmiths University. The class was led by Kodwo Eshun and we read the first chapter over the course of two terms. Moten uses sound to think through new ways of objecthood, and states that sound, more specifically a scream, is an object’s resistance. The object in this case is a slave, but it also works for a wider theory about objecthood. Not only is ‘In The Break’ a sonic way of thinking about the subject/object position, but Moten thinks through and voices these approaches using language that conjures up imagery to do with the sonic. This thinking through sound can heard in the following sentence: “We move within a series of phonographic anticipations, encrypted messages, sent and sending on frequencies Marx tunes to accidentally, for effect, without the necessary preparation.” Now, we could take a whole hour to examine this sentence alone, and although I’m loathed to move past it so quickly, this sentence does illustrate Moten’s way of thinking through sound. In the class we digested this sentence for a while and spoke of the idea that Marx was the operator of a ham radio, tuning into different frequencies.
So, when thinking about Duchamp’s Fountain I kept coming back to the idea of the sound of this object. I started to imagine the journey of this urinal, from production, to use, to gallery, and started to think about the sounds of this journey. The finished work, which is just under 80 minutes long is the result of that. Before I go into any further detail about the work and the process, I just want to play a small section for you to listen to.
When I initially voiced this idea, my intention was to produce a vinyl record. Now my reasons for this were more than the fact that vinyl is trendy or that the resulting work would carry the aesthetic beauty of any vinyl album. It was because vinyl produces a far superior sound quality…a classic example of this can be heard in ‘I Am The Sea’, the opening track in The Who’s Quadrophenia. Within this track, a cat’s meow can be heard once, now it can be heard far more clearly within the vinyl, than the digital copy and it can hardly be heard at all on the CD. Unfortunately, the visit to the factory to record the process of making urinals ruled vinyl out at an early stage. The durational capacity of one vinyl record is quite small, about 22 minutes per side. The recording at the factory was larger than this on its own. I didn’t want to break up the sound work into lots of vinyl sides. This immediately breaks up the fluidity of the work, when the original idea was to have it as one continuous sonic journey from start to finish, with no gaps. Therefore, I was forced very early on to consider the CD, if there was to be any physical object that came from the work. A CD can hold up to 80 minutes of sound, quite a lot when compared to the 22 minute sides of vinyl.
When walking round the factory I kept my recording devices on at all times, this captured each and every aspect of urinal production, from the clay being moulded in machines to the radios playing music. When walking into the factory you could be forgiven for thinking that all you were listening to was white noise, with no variation, no tone or depth to the sound. However, the factory was full pockets formed of different rhythms and colours all linked together. This recording process captured my walk around the factory and each sound I encountered.
The act of recording is itself worthy of analysis. Like Vivian Sobchack, Michel Chion is a theorist I have returned to again and again. In ‘Sound’ which was recently published in English for the first time, Chion discusses his reluctance to use the term ‘recording’. Instead he prefers the term phonofixation or fixation. Fixation can apply to existing sounds, like Beethoven, birdsong or the sounds of a factory. It can also apply to sounds being produced in a studio especially for recording, like the latest Lady Gaga album or Sgt Peppers for example.
Chion continues to give a description of phonofixation by stating that takes the fixated sound turns into an object, one that is separate from the original event of production, as he states: “More radically, fixation has enabled the re-creation of a sound by turning it into a repeatable, specific, novel, and observable object that is at the same time totally different from the captured event. Yet this revolution continues to be thrust into obscurity by the ongoing investment in notions of recording and ‘fidelity’, as well as by likening recording to a simple mode of deferred sound transmission.”
It’s easy to dismiss this statement in the light of digital recording, but there still exists a physical trace of the sound, within the iPhone that holds my sound, the album cover that comes with it, the title of the work, and the headphones that I listen to it on. All these factors, still reinforce the objecthood of sound through fixation.
For Chion, recording implies the simple taking of sound, fixation is more than this. It transforms sound into an object. For Chion, fixation is separate from the original event and normally I would agree, when considering a standard album. However, things are slightly different when the album is a live recording of a band’s concert or recordings such as my own response to the Fountain. The result is separate object but still intrinsically linked to the event and space of original sonic production. Recordings, such as ‘The Sound of Duchamp’s Fountain’ are indeed sonic objects in their own right, with their own objecthood and indeed, to extend Moten, with its own space of resistance. But it is also tied to the architecture of its origin. In fact, it binds and brings that architecture into its own objecthood.
In my MA dissertation, I looked at the audiovisual environment with the cinema and the gallery. There’s a section I intend to draw out and build upon further. I took Brandon LaBelle’s theories on architecture and sound and postulated that the sound, architecture, projection and cinemagoer come together to form the cinematic experience. Architecture is key within the reception of sound. As LaBelle states in “Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art”, architecture is fixed whereas sound floats, moving in, around and through architecture, he writes: “Architecture is a sophisticated graphic practice. In contrast, sound operates through zones of intensity, ephemeral events, immersive and noisy, vibrating through walls, from under floors, from bodies. It operates according to a different notion of border and perspective – it is unfixed, ethereal, evanescent and vibratory; whereas architecture is fixed, drawn, charted out, and built. To bring sound into play as an architectural material or experience thus partially counters the inherent dynamic of building, binding to space and the architectural imagination an element of the experiential and sensual immediacy”. Sound plays with architecture, it teases it. There is a sensuality to sound that passes through the cold, hard concrete forms of architecture and animating it. This is the case within both the recordings at the factory and at Tate Modern. Though it’s easier to be seen at the factory. The factory is not the factory without sound. The factory building is animated, is activated by the sound. It drags it into life, pulsating with the sonic rhythms of machines. As I was walking around the factory I noticed that the stairs beneath me, or the walls I brushed past vibrated with the noise of the machines. The sound makes the factory a living, breathing thing. The architecture vibrates.
The recording of the factory and Tate Modern takes this architecture, or at least a trace of this architecture and brings it into the sonic object, the fixated sound. Now a factory you expect to be alive with sound, but a gallery should be relatively quiet or indeed just filled with people talking and contemplating the works. I sat on a bench by the Fountain work for just under half an hour, and yes there were people talking about the works, including a few groups of people discussing the Fountain work, which can be heard on the sound, but I also heard people humming and singing, which is not the sort of noise you’d expect to hear.
Now when I was recording sounds at the factory, of course everyone knew I was. At Tate Modern, however no one knew I was, which for me adds another layer onto the work, a sense of undercover recording. I never enquired, but would Tate have allowed me to record? Would people have talked so freely if I had put up a sign saying I’m recording sound, people would have probably whispered or moved right past the Fountain and onto another section of the gallery, and I certainly wouldn’t have got people singing and humming. Therefore, I felt to get an honest reflection of the sound that day in that section of Tate Modern, I had to undercover record. The recordings of the factory and Tate Modern are sonic snapshots, in the same way Roland Barthes states that photographs are memento mori, reminders of death, a snapshot of time now preserved one photographic aspect. These sounds are sonic moments, preserved by the recording. Just like a photograph can only take one angle, the recordings are only one aspect of the sound on those particular days in those environments. They are honest recordings of that moment in time, no staging, no actors.
I’m aware that I haven’t spoken about the middle section, the ‘use’ section of my urinal’s journey. That’s probably because, although that’s an intriguing section and could be examined and explained using theories surrounding performance. The other two sections involving architecture, for me, have the most potential for discussion. I am, however, aware of the humorous element of the sound of someone peeing, and just to clarify these are several visits to a bathroom put together. I think this is the first instance of humour in my work, I’ve certainly been cheeky in my work before, getting audiences to experience dance in the dark might be one example, but ‘The Sound of Duchamps Fountain’ is the first instance of real humour. When I listened to the 15-minute excerpt during the opening day of the exhibition I suddenly realised how key the middle humorous section was. It provides a break in between the architectural sound. In an issue of Tate etc David Toop writes on ‘The Art Of Noise’. Toop examines many artists that work with sound including Christian Marclay, who himself was influenced by Duchamp’s readymades. In his article, Toop writes that sound is both a function of time and environment. The environment aspect I have briefly touched upon within the architecture section. Time, I haven’t really mentioned, but listening to this work in a gallery is an exercise of time. How long will the gallery visitor listen to the work for? If you purchase the one-off CD, I do envisage that you will listen to it all the way through each time. This is not the case within a gallery environment. So, this work is both an exercise and a document of time, which is a characteristic of most sound art works.
It only seems right to end with Duchamp really. During my research for this lecture I stumbled across a quote by Duchamp. In ‘The Green Box’ notes, Duchamp imagined a musical sculpture. He writes: “sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts.” Duchamp’s statement seems to be an early thought, which signifies most sound art. David Toop echoes this in ‘Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener’ he writes: “…which in its vague inclusiveness could be a prototypical definition of audio arts…” That sort of sums up Duchamp really. His approach can be seen as a prototypical definition for most modern art.
Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, 2015, Bloomsbury
Michel Chion, Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, 2016, Duke University Press
Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 2003, University of Minnesota Press
Steve Roden, Active Listening. In: Sound, edited Caleb Kelly, 2011, Whitechapel Gallery
Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, 1992, Princeton University Press
David Toop, The Art of Noise. In Tate Etc, Issue 3: Spring 2005