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The Work of Sound Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction

stone, vibration

This piece itself consists of two pieces, as well as sound and text. The two objects are stone carvings that I made during a study of the Late Stone Age, early Bronze Age carvings on Ilkley Moor, and particularly of the iconic cup-and-ring marks found there. More information on this research can be found in my paper The Cup-and-Ring Marks of Rombalds Moor as a Conceptual Point of Intersection, in which as case is made for an experience of these works as traceries of prehistoric sound art practice. This forms a conceptual and artistic link between certain practices within contemporary art and those of the distant past to include notions and embodied strategies of process, repetition, entrancement, mapping of the body onto material, ASMR, the possibilities continue…. Additionally, the formation of such a linkage serves to allow contemporary practices to seek their roots further back in time than in 16th/17th/18th/or 19th Century artistic practices or specifically those of the European artistic contruction. For example, should sound artists wish to sever their ties to Classical Period music, and its attendant listening practices, while not severing their ties from the entirety of a cultural project, such alternative roots can allow for a different reading of history and embody another tradition.

​Thus one proposal could frame the cup-and-ring marks as a form of recording. Formally speaking, this presents a satisfying link to their morphological similarity to many a contemporary loudspeaker design. I decided to elaborate this by placing two of my own cup-and-ring mark carvings together (in stereo). These are exhibited together with an elaborate title card that combines standard title and materials information with a set of footnotes lifted from Walter Benjamin’s famous and similarly titled essay, but now rendered in a stylized “old English” typeface. These footnotes serve as footnotes for my piece as well as Benjamin’s essay, underscoring and elaborating many of the concerns embodied by this work or played out in an encounter with it. Consideration of what “mechanical reproduction” might mean in light of the original cup-and-ring carvings that dot West Yorkshire and Northumberland is revealing. It is additionally fascinating to consider these objects as simulacra, in the sense developed by Baudrillard, that is, copies without originals.

Some notes on the first exhibition of The Work of Sound Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and related works:

​Three of my works were shown together in the Sound Art exhibition Space as an Instrument, held between Saturday, February 9 and Thursday February 14th in Huddersfield, United Kingdom. Space as an Instrument was curated by David Velez of Impulsive Habitat link. The exhibition space was 21 Market Place, a former jewellery shop that was occupied by the Making Space, a local arts and crafts collective and creative initiative.

21 Market Place had by this point been in continuous use over a period of 2 years or so, and had provided a publicly-accessible base for workshops, film screenings, and concerts of experimental music (co-produced by the Making Space and local groups AME and New Weird Huddersfield), as well as studio space for Making Space artists. Before the opening of Space as an Instrument, the Making Space was notified that they would be evicted on the 21st of that month by the management of the adjacent shopping mall and local arts advocacy organization East St Arts.

​This impending eviction lent an ironic tone to the exhibition as the initial theme of the planned event was “architecture as instrument”, and the show was intended to be a sounding of, or sonic exploration and mapping of, or sonic response to this building. Artists in the show interpreted this in various ways, David Velez recording the sounds of the building, for example, and collecting them for broadcast in a dark basement space, with the sounds creeping out, emanating from the metallic wall on one side of the room. Meanwhile, Ryoko Akama gathered various bits of material from around the space and assembled them into a lyrical kinetic sculpture that repurposed an overhead projector and fan along with a brass tube left behind from a recent performance upstairs by Boris Bezemer. Akama’s piece used small DC motors to activate movement among pieces of wire and cardboard creating a counterpoint to the strong electrical hum that perennially filled her chosen basement exhibition space, a stooped and cramped room whose ceiling was steadily graded and proved dangerous for anyone over 6 ft to stand inside. Bathed in room hum, the sound of the spinning fan and one of the motors repeatedly striking the brass pipe with an attached wire, listeners where confronted with a continuous but also continuously varied cloud of sound. At the same time, the room regularly cycled through periods of light and darkness as the second small motor alternately interrupted and revealed the beam of light from the projector, in the manner of an endless eclipse.

​My own response to this space, chose to view it from a multiplicity of perspectives. Rather than a single objective reading, I sought to create an installation that addressed 21 Market Place as a place, and a place that has changed its identity not only in space but in time.

​Therefore, I assembled the three works together with certain bits of connective material present, in, for example, the design and layout of the title cards and in the extra and excessive information furnished on these cards. The audio tracks broadcast by and through each of these pieces also created strong links between the three otherwise discrete works. I intended the three pieces to be read together as a stratified, yet non-hierarchical, pile of information. The experience of the works would be thus constituted by participating visitors by their own navigations through this material and the comparisons they made for themselves between the pieces.

Obviously, in another context these works might be shown separately and aspects of them might be changed. As two of the works consist of living plant material, they will likely have changed form by the time they are next exhibited. Sound tracks may also be altered, as in fact they were in the case of this exhibition, due to mechanical and spatial constraints. That is just how it goes.

​This piece was exhibited in Space and an Instrument accompanied by the soundtrack Order in Nature, which I previously used for another work, What the Moss Heard, first exhibited in May 2015 in a group show called Discrete Positions, held in another DIY space, Unit 9 Gallery, Huddersfield. Audio specifically composed for The Work of Sound Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction exists, however. This audio is subtitled Mossy Seat and is an iterated and processed treatment of a line from the Syd Barrett song Octopus in which Syd sings “the drones they thong on mossy seats”.

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