Symposium Sense of Sound

May 22nd, 2014, z33 - House for contemporary art

Overtoon, BAM and z33 invited 6 curators to discuss the topic of sound art within visual arts.
Below you can read the transcription of this symposium held within the frame of the exhibition Sense of Sound. You find the full report on curator presentations and panel discussion as a pdf document here. Video documentation will be published on the research platform of z33.
Carsten Seiffarth, Aernoudt Jacobs, Joost Fonteyne, Bernd Schulz, Nicole Gingras, Justin Luke, Carlo Fossati – Panel discussion

Aernoudt Jacobs: Overtoon’s interest for this symposium is to assess what the relation is between sound art and visual art. What can you say about the relationship between your involvement with sound art and visual art, Carlo?

Carlo Fossati: Collectors are definitely interested in art with sound involved. But you understand that some installations require a lot of technical attention. I personally don’t deal with this technical type of work. Rolf Julius has work with loudspeakers, some contain water or dirt or ash. But in the end you just switch on the amp and it works. For museums and certainly for collectors it is very difficult if not impossible to deal with machines if it entails actions that go beyond the simple power-on switch. I try to curate shows which present non-exclusive art work. Otherwise sound art becomes a ghetto. That can be helpful for funding or projects but it doesn’t help the work or the art. It is visual art. In 2001 a show with sound was new and people were a bit shy perhaps. That is different now. I told people that Julius is not a conceptual artist, it is very sensorial. Anyway, I’ve noticed children are best audience for it.

Carsten Seiffarth: It’s two different things that we are talking about here. First, the discussion whether it’s art or music is no longer interesting; it has been discussed many times in the past. The other thing is that the art market is the main institutional form to decide what art is. MOMA and other big museums only deal with galleries because they have money behind them. That is a problem. To be part of the art scene as a sound artist is not as conservative. Sound art needs solitude and time. ZKM presented a circus with 15 art works in one space. We need respect for sound artists not for the art market. That is business, not curating. What is important for Overtoon is that they are able to mount an exhibition in a House for Actual Art like z33, not just in their own studio’s. We can not forget we are dealing with (visual) art and thus with exhibitions. Also, if we’d focus only on sound, we would be wrong as well. We would get 90% of shit and 10% of quality. Sound art students produce a lot every year and they are now able to generate great algorithms, but I cannot say they are always working with art, or deal with space and how to exhibit in space. On the other hand, you can already observe that artists involved in shows curated by great institutions are working with sound. In Documenta there were, I think, 10 pieces that used sound. Of course there are qualitative differences.

Joost Fonteyne: How do you deal with that within a non-funded framework, Justin?

Justin Luke: I’ve established a design career creating work on the side and that is how income is generated for the gallery. However, this model needs to change, because the gallery space needs to develop and that is a full-time job.

Nicole Gingras: As a curator I think about space and then you must conclude that every space has its restrictions. When working with sound you really deal with the space because it’s a specific volume of air. It conditions the way you program work. But you know Justin, in your case, since you have a limited one-room gallery, you could also consider a year exhibition as a group exhibition that you present over time. You work with a different scale than other and you can translate that into a concept.

Carsten Seiffarth: Yes, let’s say that I work with a 30.000 euro budget for the production of an exhibition. Justin, you work with totally different conditions so that means that you are in a different type of curating. Lots of American people would love to curate with funding conditions similar to Europeans, I understand, but you are doing it according to the limitations your region hands you.

Justin Luke: Residency programs in Lower East Side and New York in general are happening, also for international artists, but also a lot of them are framed in the music discipline.

Bernd Schulz: This is a time we can look across generations. On YouTube you can find music lessons by Stockhausen. It’s wonderful we have the opportunity to listen to lectures like this. That’s the beginning of how you can define what listening really is. We have this paradox of perception: 10 octaves to listen to and only 1 octave for viewing if you count the audible and visible frequencies. It’s a conundrum and we cannot really understand why it is like this. It started to change in the 80ies. End of 70ies I programmed lectures on biology on the radio. I was angry at seeing scientists transforming everything into objects and then images. You need time to understand. We have many good artists working with sound but people have less and less time for perception. It is also a form of culture: the first bridge we have in perception is language (as a child). From the stay in the uterus onwards we already have ears fully developed before the foetus reaches 5 months. In France you have 3 words for listening: ouïe (ears pick up sound), écouter (focused listening), entendre (to know what it is). You need time to go through the stages. This time can stretch across more than one generation. To understand what it is to work with sound.

Joost Fonteyne: I wonder also in the differences about documentation specifically for sound art. I was visiting Bernhard Leitner’s studio in preparation of the exhibition in Kortrijk. Leitner documented his work so well, even how the works were built and how they were researched in their own time. Documentation, Aernoudt, how do you deal with this as an artist?

Aernoudt Jacobs: My work relates to the transition between what is audible and what is visible. The visible element is very important. To present my work, it’s important to see to every detail as well as possible. How to capture the sound on documentation, often depends on a personal feeling.

Joost Fonteyne: Do you work on a technical or on an aesthetic level when you document?

Aernoudt Jacobs: When I do it myself, it is mostly technical, invited photographers chose their own aesthetics in the pictures they make of the work.

Nicole Gingras: Sound installation is based on duration. Documentation of a work on video usually doesn’t last much longer than 5 minutes, so then how can it represent a whole day of duration? Again, you have to work with the limitations of the translating medium.

Carsten Seiffarth: In Leitner’s case it’s quite easy. As an architect he even has blueprints, not just sketches. It’s always good to have a lot of material, I’d tell artists, please take hundreds of pictures. To make a reconstruction of a 30 year old work is really problematic. With the help of a trained visual artist we could go back to documentation on the technical level, but it’s hard to find out what kind of sound and with what kind of sound quality the work produced originallly? We have to find a way to present some key works, therefore it was important to present Leitner’s sound tower (Vertikal) in Kortrijk. One time, when I had to reconstruct a seminal feedback work, I invited a feedback pro from NYC to fine-tune it for half a day. No one else could do it. It’s important to find the right people to carry out specialised work professionally. And to have the money for it.

Nicole Gingras: Once more, Rolf Julius is a good example. He did not only work with the space by laying out sound pieces as a landscape; the works within this one space were also talking to each other, as in a dialogue. This made the composition.

Carlo Fossati: The problem is that a seminal piece perhaps signified a lot in one, particular location or room. To reconstruct it in another room can be problematic. Rolf Julius told me about John Cage that in the case of the reconstruction of a work, certain people around him would have final word to agree with this particular reconstruction or not. If the risk is too big and presentation sounds awful, it might better to do it not at all.


Ischa Tallieu: Perhaps more a remark than a question. I think that the question of expertise in sound art versus visual art should be dropped anyway, because when it comes to hanging a drawing or painting in a gallery or museum, you also need to know about specific things, like how the sunlight or the lighting will affect the presentation. The work of a curator requires knowledge and attention, whether it is sound art or fine art.

Natacha Roussel: Another remark. The translation of issues in the acoustic domain into the visual field can also bring about questions in that visual domain that people are not considering.

Carsten Seiffarth: Still one thing about the reconstruction of seminal work: most important than detailed reconstruction of the original, it is about reconstructing the experience of an artwork. It’s also personal, I mean it depends on the type of artist you work with. In the case of Leitner it’s not possible to do big new pieces. Other types of reconstruction are also important: in the studio Leitner appeared to be digitizing all his tape stuff. And by the way, the sound tower (Vertikal) was destroyed after Documenta 1982, but of course the paintings by visual artists were not. Both me and him thought it was great we could restore it, I myself was 19 at the time and behind the Iron Curtain anyway.

Nicole Gingras: Some artists will reconstruct an old piece, but some will re-interpret and re-create it in a different way.

Carsten Seiffarth: Oh, for example, in the case of the Vertikal installation being reconstructed in Kortrijk, Leitner gave us the go-ahead to implement one new sound, added to the two original soundtracks. But in the end he deleted the new sound after all and he reverted to the original work because it was a good work as it was. So it’s important to keep track of a history of sound art and video art, especially if it starts to disappear, being ephemeral art forms. The existence of key-works is a school for perception.