Sound Artist

The Borders – a complex listening environment

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

James Wyness (sound artist) in conversation with Kate Foster (environmental artist).

As a sound artist, James Wyness works on listening environments, in the Borders Region (where he is based) and elsewhere. He compared notes with Kate Foster about settling into work in the Borders, valuing what the area offers our respective practices. Here James elaborates on ideas from a thought-provoking exchange.

KF: You said that a sound artist has to be aware of how space, places, are made. What would an example be, of how such connections develop, through listening?

JW: Yes, my interest here specifically is in how spaces are produced, following the research of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre pointed me towards the fact that the production of space, by people, carries with it intention and deliberation. Produced spaces, many of them complex if we care to investigate, are often taken for granted as simply ‘there’ since time began, when in fact they have undergone all manner of politically directed transformations.

For example, an important part of my artistic practice involves listening to the region in which I live, the sparsely populated (one might even say underdeveloped) Scottish and English Border regions, including the Northumberland National Park. If we listen with a very generalised ear – or, easier still for most of us handicapped by the predominant visual drift in contemporary popular culture, if we look at the region on one of those noise maps which gives a colour coding according to ambient noise levels, what do we see for large swathes of our region? Nothing, or very little. It’s a very quiet region with little background noise from traffic arteries or urban centres. Relatively speaking, for a very crowded island few people live here. Large tracts of land are turned over to ‘wilderness’ with a little sheep farming.

Image and comment by KF: it’s not really wilderness though, is it?

JW: Certainly not in the sense of untouched or left in peace for the sake of it, despite the peace and quiet you might find there. So if large areas of this region are indeed so quiet and underdeveloped, why should that be? I don’t believe for a second that any of this happens by chance, especially in Britain whose governments have led the world in matters of controlling, administering and exploiting land or territory, who had at one time almost full political and military control of enormous tracts of land in the ‘Orient’, from the Middle East to India. Perhaps more than any government or established political system, successive British governments and their administrative machineries with their structures, doctrines and processes would use their home turf for whatever use suited them. So I have to ask why would a ‘wilderness’ be permitted to exist in an overcrowded island?

My theory, and this is only scientific inasmuch as I would love to have it disproved, is that the military/defence interest at Otterburn has determined to a large extent the geographical make-up of this large region. I say this first of all because Henri Lefebvre noticed a similar situation in his native France. I came to my conclusions following his conceptual framework and arguments. This is not a conspiracy theory except of course in the sense that the machinations of successive British governments, in matters of defence, now national security (this is an interesting shift of focus), are in fact usually conspiring towards some undemocratic end.

If I might elaborate, we have a historically troublesome border which always required a strong garrison, in particular on the English side. Over time the mentality of the garrison has become embedded in geo-political thinking. I’m sure that research would show that efforts will have been made to keep the region free of development to allow the free play of large scale military manoeuvres, including low flying. Having trained at Otterburn in my time as an RAF officer I’m aware that the use of tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery requires particular kinds of space. I believe that the creation of the National Park will have suited very well the prolongation of the Otterburn agenda whereas allowing substantial development would in time lead to calls for constraints placed on military activity.

So our noise free region is actually punctuated by bouts of extremely violent military activity on both sides of the border: low flying fighter jets, artillery exercises, helicopter exercises. It constantly baffles me that nobody seems to be able to effect collective action against ‘friendly’ fighter jets flying at lower than 500 feet over primary schools without warning. Having had a privileged inside view I could go on, but the Official Secrets Act prevents me from doing so.

KF image and comment: I keep trying to snap low-fliers

JW: What I’m saying is that the space has been produced, as a result of an accumulation of conscious political and military decisions, affecting freedom of movement and particular kinds of development or uses of space, negating the possibility of differently produced spaces, of the adjoining social space, including the ‘wilderness’ of the Cheviots. This is done by proxy – planning in the Northumberland National Park is tight to say the least. In my reveries I often contextualise the region as a more northerly extension of Hadrian’s Wall.

And of course, going much further back, apart from a few pockets of broadleaf, very little is ‘natural’ wilderness anyway, in the sense of ‘untouched by human hands’. For example the pockets of the Old Jed Forest are as natural as you’ll get anywhere, but the moorland, the bare hills have all been doctored and tailored over millenia, visually and, if we care to listen, sonically.

Such is the complexity of an investigation into soundscape. As a researcher I have several other produced spaces under investigation at the moment. With these I like to keep in mind Lefebvre’s observation:-

There can be no question but that the social space is the locus of prohibition, for it is shot through with both prohibitions and their counterparts, prescriptions.

KF:  What are your thoughts about the relationships between sonic sensibility and ecological literacy?

JW: This seems at first glance to imply a flow between the aesthetic and the ethical, but perhaps in this case the two are tightly bound up together in the first place. Sonic sensibility, real sensibility as opposed to a superficial appreciation of this or that sound, would to my mind require a modicum of physical, mental and perhaps spiritual effort, some form of directed activity towards engaging with the world of sound, at all levels of experience, including the everyday. A bundle of values. This would affect one’s relationship to the immediate environment, urban or rural, how one lives from day to day, physical choices in one’s domestic and social environment and so on. I don’t mean to say that if you can live in a thundering metropolis you cannot be sonically sensitive – I know of one artist whose work in the field has been substantially enhanced and enriched by the urban experience. Nor am I taking a puritanical stance which denies pleasure in contemporary urban living. It’s simply that sonic sensibility requires a sustained effort.

True sonic sensibility would require informed choices in listening strategies vis-a-vis music consumption for example. I cannot reconcile the fact of spending hours of one’s daily life bolted to a mobile media device, cut off from the immediate sonic environment, listening to compressed audio, with a desire to nurture sonic sensibility.

Ecological literacy would be defined as at least some sort of awareness of one’s own stake in the game, as opposed to watching ‘documentaries’ in which David Attenborough becomes a parody of himself and where ecological awareness is given as a highly contrived representation dressed up as reality or truth. In addition I would take into account the choices one makes in one’s material surroundings and contingent actions, the awareness, nothing more, of the interconnectedness of all things, at least some sort of commitment to investigating who is doing well (economically or politically) from degradations and deteriorations in the amenity of those doing less well.

Sensibility and sensitivity to the sonic, or non-visual, often requires a deeper connection with the environment. The visual, especially in urban settings, is often given, forced, thrust in front of us, in the form of corporate marketing, architectural agendas based on maximum profit, as opposed to ethically or aesthetically driven. We fall under the spell of the visual so easily, where everything is appropriated and turned to profitable use. Listening to a soundscape, in my experience, allows a different and perhaps more interesting ecological unfolding than a visual appraisal of an urban bleakscape or a view of a pretty landscape. In fact the whole discourse around landscape and appreciation is fraught with difficulty.

In basic terms, sonic sensibility, of the individual or of the community, can raise awareness of ecological literacy. Finally, although much more research (and investment) is needed into the presentational forms of creative outcomes resulting from deep listening to the environment, the sonic artist working with environmental field recordings has an important role to play in raising the standard of ecological literacy.

KF: You admire how well Susan Fenimore Cooper and Aldo Leopold – American nature writers – listened. If you could magic them back, what sound art would you want them to hear?

JW: I’d give them all a quick primer in the use of modern recording technology and let them make their own art, a combination of sound and text. Just imagine! I’d let Susan loose on a few dawn choruses and some more discrete biophonies with incidental forest and wind sounds. With Aldo I’d focus on some of the long form natural soundscapes in true wilderness areas. Finally I’d watch Thoreau’s smile as he listened to the aquatic life of Walden Pond by means of a simple hydrophone.

(This article was developed by Kate Foster and ecoartscotland is very grateful for the opportunity to publish an original and fascinating contribution to our understanding of the politics and sonics Scottish landscape.)

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.
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Framing the World — An art & ecology notebook

Excerpted From Cathy Fitzgerald’s An Art & Ecology Notebook:

Twelve essays  in four parts, focusing on ecocinema as activist cinema; the representation of environmental justice issues in Hollywood; independent and foreign films, the representation of animals, ecosystems, natural and human-made landscapes and readings of two mainstream eco-auteurs, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Peter Greenaway, Framing the World; explorations in ecocriticism and film, edited by Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, 2010

At last, a book on ecocriticism for film that is more than a review of films with environmental themes (though there are so very few of the latter as well). Lots of very valuable and timely essays on both mainstream cinema but also identifying key experimental filmmakers who have developed ecocentric approaches to film-making, for eg. in the work of independent Slovenian film/sound artist Andrej Zdravic. Also an excellent chapter on the very real limitations and lack of critical awareness in the director Herzog’s popularly regarded environmental films.

Also of note and just published this year is ‘Chinese Ecocinema in the Age of Environmental Challenge‘. I think its great to have this perspective of film from a region that has endured vast ecological destruction and is producing many poignant environmental films. This book is much more academic but again an excellent resource for those interested in the critical development of ecocinema. It’s also made me eager to search out the films mentioned in the book, like this one centered on  the 3 Gorges dam – ‘Still Life’

via Framing the World -two timely new books on ecocriticism and film — An art & ecology notebook.

9 DAYS|3 LOCATIONS|20 SUN BOXES

Sound artist, Craig Colorusso, returns to Western Massachusetts with his latest piece, a solar powered sound installation; SUN BOXES.

For the first three weekends of November Turners Falls River Culture will present Craig Colorusso’s latest piece Sun Boxes.  At three locations, allowing the participants to observe the piece evolve as it moves through the town.

Nov. 5-7      Lawn of the Great Falls Discovery Center, 2 Ave.

Nov. 12-14   Peskeomskut Park, Ave. A + 7th Sts

Nov. 19-21   Lawn at the beginning of the bike path, 1st St

Sun Boxes is a solar powered sound installation.  It’s comprised of twenty speakers operating independently, each powered by the sun via solar panels. Inside each Sun Box is a PC board that has a recorded guitar note loaded and programmed to play continuously in a loop.  These guitar notes collectively make a Bb chord.  Because the loops are different in length, once the piece begins they continually overlap and the piece slowly evolves over time.

Participants are encouraged to walk amongst the speakers, and surround themselves with the piece.  Certain speakers will be closer and, therefore, louder so the piece will sound different to different people in different positions throughout the array.  Allowing the audience to move around the piece will create a unique experience for everyone. in addition, the participants are encouraged to wander through the speakers, which will alter the composition as they move.  Given the option two people will take different paths through the array and hear the composition differently.  Sun Boxes is not just one composition, but, many.

We are all reliant on the sun.  It is refreshing to be reminded of this.  Our lives have filled up with technology.  But we still need the sun and so does Sun Boxes.  Karlheinze Stockhausen once said “using Short-wave radios in pieces was like improvising with the world.”  Similarly, Sun Boxes is collaborating with the planet and its relation to the sun.

Colorusso now lives on the South Shore of Boston with a wife and a cat.

Come be part of the drone.  Craig Colorusso  muudon@yahoo.com 718.809.2349

Lisa Davol, riverculture@montague-ma.gov 413-230-9910

ME’DI.ATE Announces Soundwave Festival ((4)) GREEN SOUND

Bay Area’s Most Innovative Festival Explores Environmental Performances and Works From June 6 to August 13 2010.

San Francisco USA (April 8, 2010) – ME’DI.ATE Art Group is excited to announce the return of the acclaimed Soundwave Festival this summer for its fourth season, entitled GREEN SOUND, exploring the natural world and environmental issues. Arguably the largest collection of artists and performances the Bay Area’s avant-sound scene has ever seen, Soundwave ((4)) GREEN SOUND will feature over 75 participating artists and musicians, in over 35 inspired performances, exhibits and talks, in 18 events over the span of 2 ½ months.

Full festival details at www.projectsoundwave.com. Infoline: 415.320.6685

The astonishing season will feature events in the most stunning environments around the Bay Area including Battery Townsley in the Marin Headlands, the de Young Museum, Civic Center Plaza, Yerba Buena Gardens, Sunday Streets in the Mission, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and a month-long residency at The Lab where ME’DI.ATE turns the gallery into an artist-imagined forest. The most eclectic array of artists will perform including Bay Area luminaries like sound artist Jim Haynes, improviser Cheryl Leonard, singer Odessa Chen, electroacoustic band BarnOwl, chamber ensemble REDSHIFT with composer Mason Bates, avant-jazz band The Drift, as well as, national and international artists such as Texas artist Alyce Santoro, Chicago artist Brett Ian Balogh, Japanese sound artist Takahiro Kawaguchi, Norwegian artist Elin Øyen Vister, French composer Géraud Bec, amongst others.

“These innovative artists will investigate environmental compositions, solar and wind-powered performances, interactive eco-systems, climate change and pollution, natural- and human-powered performances, sustainable productions, reinvention and recycling, real and imagined environments and creatures, endangered species, water, plantlife/animal life, and other artist imaginations,” says Alan So, ME’DI.ATE Director and Artistic Director of the Soundwave Festival. “Soundwave promises to astound audiences with the locations, productions, and artist ingenuity, while challenging people to refocus attention on the beauty and destruction of our world, its needs for survival and implications to our community.”

Soundwave ((4)) GREEN SOUND begins June 6th at the historic WWII site Battery Townsley in the Marin Headlands. ME’DI.ATE is collaborating with the National Park Service for two events at the Battery. Artists will perform without electrical power using only the extreme natural resonance of the structure to amplify sound in this stunning environment. Audiences are encouraged to ‘buspool’ to the remote site leaving from The Lab gallery in San Francisco. “The battery today represents many things to many people – from national defense to the preservation of these former Army lands as a National Recreation Area,” says John Martini, Historical Consultant of Battery Townsley. “The historians and volunteers of Battery Townsley are excited to have artists explore the historic structure in new ways, and make it accessible to a new and diverse audience.”

From the resonances of bunkers, GREEN SOUND takes you to the resonances inside the majestic St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on June 12th featuring over a dozen vocalists and musicians. June continues with special free events in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Gardens June 13th featuring the Bay Area Sound Ecology, a sonic art installation/performance at Civic Center Plaza June 17th and a bicycle-powered music stage at the city’s Sunday Streets in the Mission District June 20th in collaboration with Rock the Bike.

July’s events start on July 2nd with special performances featuring experimental cello/violin duo Myrmyr at the spectacular de Young Museum, the first of two events here. “The de Young is very pleased to be collaborating with ME’DI.ATE Art Group for their Soundwave Festival ((4)) GREEN SOUND on this site-specific concert inspired by James Turrell’s “Three Gems,” says Renee Baldocchi, de Young’s Public Programs Director. “This experimental project is part of Cultural Encounters, which encourages artists to respond to the de Young’s collections and building.”

July 9th opens ME’DI.ATE Art Group’s most ambitious project ever. ME’DI.ATE will present a month-long exhibition entitled “The Illuminated Forest” at The Lab, San Francisco’s premier experimental art space. ME’DI.ATE Art Group is creating an artist-imagined natural world inside the gallery walls with environmental artist works and an immersive multi-media interactive exhibit and performance installation by Agnes Szelag, Jorge Bachmann, Ben Bracken, Alan So, Suzanne Husky, Jessica Resmond, Sam Easterson, Vaughn Bell, Alyce Santoro, and Reenie Charrière. Every Friday and Saturday night during the exhibition run, the Forest will host experiential performances inside the installation by some of the most compelling artists and musicians. “The Lab eagerly anticipates ME’DI.ATE’s residency here for Soundwave,” says Eilish Cullen, Executive Director of The Lab. “Our mission is to support the experimental and the daring, and ME’DI.ATE’s work continues to push those boundaries of presentation and performance.” The exhibition closes August 7th.

August 1st sees the second event at the gorgeous site of Battery Townsley and the festival concludes with a special GREEN SOUND ‘Cultural Encounters: Friday Nights at the de Young’ on August 13th.

Full Calendar of Events with list of participating artists availablehere. Extended descriptions are available at the festival website:www.projectsoundwave.com. Press Images available atwww.projectsoundwave.com/press. Ticketed events will be at affordable rates between $10 and $15 available online starting May 3rd at www.projectsoundwave.com/buy-tickets/. RSVP to free events atrsvp@me-di-ate.net

Soundwave Festival ((4)): GREEN SOUND gratefully acknowledges support from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Black Rock Arts Foundation, Japan Foundation, SF Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum, Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, Meet the Composer MetLife Creative Connections, The M-Line, The Lab, the de Young Museum, National Park Service, Rock the Bike, Yerba Buena Art and Events, and many individual donors and volunteers.

About the Soundwave Festival
ME’DI.ATE’s Soundwave Festival is San Francisco’s premier experiential arts festival held every two years over the span of two months over the summer. Bringing together sound purveyors from across the sonic spectrum (from sound art to experimental to classical to popular music), Soundwave presents experiential performances and activities that challenge the way audiences see and hear sound and music. Each season investigates a new idea through sound that incites diverse artists and musicians to create work that explores the season’s theme in new and innovative directions. Led by Artistic Director Alan So, Soundwave has completed three incredible seasons: 2004’s Free Sound, 2006’s Surround Sound and 2008’s Move Sound. Soundwave has established itself as one of the most anticipated events in the San Francisco Bay Area avant-sound scene and a growing reputation in the global sound and art communities. Among its accolades, Soundwave won Best ’07 Award and called a ‘Future Classic’ by San Francisco Magazine, ‘Inspired’ by 7×7, ‘Unique and participatory’ by SF Chronicle, ‘Magical and deeply personal’ by SF Weekly, featured on numerous local and international radio programs including the BBC (UK), CBC (Canada), NPR (New York), KPFA (Berkeley), KUSF (San Francisco), as well as an in-depth feature on the PBS-KQED television program SPARK* with an accompanying experimental music Educator’s Guide.www.projectsoundwave.com

About ME’DI.ATE Art Group
ME’DI.ATE is a volunteer-driven, San Francisco-based non-profit arts group. Founded in 1998, our mission is to develop innovative exhibitions, products and live events that challenge perspectives and inspire new and unique experiences within ourselves and the world around us; present diverse artists, mediums and places to exchange ideas and collaborate; connect new and diverse audiences to experimental arts and visions; and provide an innovative forum and an essential voice for progressive ideas to be seen, heard and explored critically, imaginatively and without limitation. ME’DI.ATE showcases emerging and established local artists, as well as national and international artists, to bring innovative ideas and perspectives to Bay Area audiences. For more information about us, please visit our websitewww.me-di-ate.net.

ME’DI.ATE Art Group – ME’DI.ATE Announces Soundwave Festival ((4)) GREEN SOUND.

Research in Art, Nature and Environment (RANE) Lectures

University of Falmouth

The RANE ‘Comprehending Nature’ Lecture Series for 2009 will include:

Andrej Zdravic 
9 March
Slovenian film and sound artist Andrej Zdravic has lived and worked across the US and Europe. Inspired by music and nature, he has created over 30 independent films focusing on the energies and spiritual aspects of natural phenomena. This screening of his film ‘Riverglass’ will be followed by a question and answer session.

Linda Weintraub 
20 April
Linda Weintraub is a curator, educator, artist, and author of several popular books about contemporary art. She is currently writing the fourth book in her eco-art series that is titled Avant-Guardians: Textlets in Art and Ecology. This series is designed to highlight and accelerate the integration of environmental principles throughout university art pedagogy.

Entry to the events is free, but you need to reserve a place.

www.rane-research.org

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