RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Redirecting the focus

img  Tobias Fischer

Soundings: A Contemporary Score, a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York may not have been without its critics. But even the most ardent opponents had to admit that the event marked a milestone. For three months, one of the world's leading art spaces highlighted the work of sixteen artists either directly representing or associated with the sound art scene, providing for perhaps the biggest acknowledgement of that discipline's continually growing influence and importance. One of the undisputed highlights of the exhibition was Richard Garet's Before Me, which coaxed an astounding sonic depth from a deceptively simple set-up of an amp, speakers, a turntable, a light bulb, and a mic. At the same time, Soundings did raise some very important questions about the presentation of sound art in museum spaces and galleries: Although guided by the conviction that 'how we listen determines what we hear', the installational character of many of the works made many visitors appreciate them in a visual way, excluding them  from the acoustic potentials hidden underneath.

Half a year on, we spoke to Garet about the implications of the exhibit – and his perspective on the future potential of sound art in general.

Soundings: a contemporary score ended over a month ago. How do you look back on the exhibition with some hindsight?
Well, I think that it was a very important exhibition for NYC and I think that it resonated worldwide. I’m saying this about NYC because there is a very strong and vast community of sound artists and experimental musicians in these parts, which have been working with very limited attention for a long time, and subsequently executing a practice in a more underground field or within a community of peers. Often there is a group show here and there with a sound piece in it, whether in museums or art galleries, and even MoMA has been showing sound pieces for a long time before this exhibit, but this is the first time that an institution in New York says: this is the first Sound Art show we have ever done – and puts a strong stamp on it. The most significant by-product of this show is that it created a lot of momentum around it and it fired up the practice of artists working with sound. The publicity reached a wide audience, creating a lot of attention – I mean – it has been pretty global, I think. So yes, it had an impact, a strong one, and some people really liked it, and others did not. But I think that the most important thing is what it brought to the awareness of all people in general, and then of curators, gallerists, institutions, and to the context of the art world, which is: that there is such a practice - or focus - as Sound Art, and that there are artists whose practice has much emphasis on sound as their center force. Therefore I believe that there is more hope and opportunities now for a community of artists that haven't had much of an outlet for their work in the past. So now, when they go out there looking for opportunities, people will be more receptive to it.

From your visits to the museum and your impressions, what was the response from visitors like? Were there active discussions, did you witness any enthusiastic or negative reactions?
On opening night there were close to 1500 people circulating the galleries of MoMA, and at a certain point the entrance to the exhibition's gallery was restricted because you virtually couldn't move or walk, and the organizers were regulating how many people went in. And – obviously – it was impossible to listen. As much as it is desirable for openings to be that successful, and bring that much attention to the project – and this goes for any exhibition – if you're really interested in the art: do not go to the opening night, or if you do go, then go back again; because otherwise you won’t appreciate what the work is supposed to do. This was an extreme case for this exhibit. For instance: over the three-month period I heard from many “I saw your work at MoMA during the opening and I really loved it”, then I asked if they had been back since, and some said “no”. Well, to me that was just disappointing because I knew that they had missed the listening aspect completely if they had literately only 'seen' it. The ones that were truly sensitive needed to go back, and I have received from them very interesting and diverse comments. The difference is huge; and that’s a good example of receiving information visually (versus aurally), even when the work is visual as well. Other than that, I personally went back many times, and the traffic was very active and consistent, and that felt very rewarding. Many people were stopping by my work, capturing video, pictures, or audio. It was a great feeling seeing so many visitors focally checking out the work and taking it in. I also felt the reception was very positive, and there was a general and natural optimism from visitors; the conversations that I randomly picked up on were very inquisitive and refreshing. However, I can only speak from my own personal experience through my work in the show.

There were some active discussions organized by the curatorial department of MoMA, and that opened up an interesting discourse expounding on the context of sound art at large, and bringing in different layers of observation and voices into the conversation, which was interesting and motivating. Something critical to be said is this: people sensitive to the world of sound - and many sound artists themselves - did not hesitate to criticize the exhibit dissatisfied with the scale of the show and the selection of artists. My feeling was that many artists felt misrepresented by the show and perhaps even bitter because of it. Notwithstanding, there were many positive reactions and responses by others too. So in my opinion, I feel that it went pretty well, and that such ambiguity is to be expected. However, with regards to press and some of its critics in the matter, the harshest criticisms came out before the show was even open to the public, and without the work being fully installed, leveled, and experienced. Then I observed how, for a while, it triggered a series of similar responses where people were feeding off of this response to make their own. Then, after the show opened, that fell into balance, because the responses started taking their proper course. At the same time, and generalizing the overall response, I think that it would have been too easy if everyone liked it. I feel like this was a very challenging and risky exhibit too. Barbara London the curator, Leora Morinis the assistant curator, and the whole curatorial team, worked really hard on this show, facing many challenges while also dealing with a very difficult medium that required it to be organized and negotiated within a small and limited space. That being said, not all the pieces emitted sound and not all the pieces that emitted sound were immaterial. I think that there was a good balance between works that were driven by ideas and concepts, and works that, in addition to that, were also intended for listening and for a more immersive and experiential encounter. There were also listening rooms, and much in between materiality and immateriality. I feel and think that this exhibit really brings many different angles of what anyone can encounter today within what it has been referred to as: sound art.

What did your inclusion mean for you personally?
For me, being included in this exhibition meant quite a lot. Although I’m a US citizen now, I’m not a US native, and I was in fact born in Montevideo, Uruguay. That meant that I was the only person in the group show of South American origin. I have been in NYC since 1996 and I have worked very hard ever since. So to me this was a great reward for many years of hard and consistent work.

With sound art splintering into many different niches, what, do you feel, can an exhibition as broad as this convey about the state of a creative community?
I think that the impact that this exhibit had on people, and on artists that work in the field, was invigorating. Now Sound Art might not be so obscure and rejected – like it was before – after all. Also collectors, gallerists, et al, might have a different mind-set now too, because they can observe that it can happen at a more centralized institutional level, after all MoMA is MoMA. That being said, I think working with sound is still a very challenging medium for many, because the majority of people in the art world tend to be visual people. Also, I have observed that, in many cases, audiences have more access to it through thought processing instead of listening. Then two things to add: if the work doesn't have a visual component, and if it is durational, and lets say over 5’, then it could be really problematic for art audiences because also the attention span for long pieces is very limited. So, without generalizing, an art form – outside of music – whose main element is in fact sonic, and requires time to be appreciated, can reduce not only its audience size, but also the capacity for it to be properly experienced. But it is also true that not everyone can hear sonic relationships to begin with, and – like everything else – this is a development that occurs over many years of being exposed to the work. So that’s also why this was such an important show. It made a strong point of reference for people that were not exposed to sound art.

Do you feel as though there are still some shared objectives and lines of questioning among artists?
In NY there is a natural inclination towards working with sound that is quite free, pure, authentic, rich, challenging and unique, and which is connected to many historical lineages; but at the same time it is something that operates in the margin of everything else and occasionally it filters into the art world. It is not dictated by the economics of art or manipulated by the power-dynamics from the art world, or by any establishments dictating in which direction to go. So there is no pressure really, and people are very free to make what they want because truly, artists are not making money from it, and the power-dynamics of the art world are not affecting their choices. With regards to questioning: without questioning and challenging oneself, and others, then the conversation is over, and the possibilities are pointless. Art is an open conversation – I feel – so without that we are lost, which I do not believe to be the true case of the moment. There is always going to be conservatism, conformism, and an art that imposes itself over the audiences. But some artists have the capacity to keep the conversation going and the good stuff happening. That, to me, and the other stuff too, is inevitable.

What are the sharing objectives and lines of questioning you ask? Well, I cannot say with such conviction, because every artist has their own, and there is a collective responsibility and integrity in the way we all participate as artists. But I don't think that anyone can say in a tangible manner what they are. I think each artist has his or her own struggles and things to say, and collectively we create a gravitational pull that brings things in this direction or that one. It is a really big creature. All we can do is observe, participate, not to be left out and do the best we can do at every given moment. That’s our job ...

You've stated that you enjoy both working in the studio and in a live setting. What, on the other hand, is the pleasure of presenting an installation, where you're not actually present most of the time when audiences visit it?
When I mean in the studio, "presenting an installation", is included within that part. It means really a different approach to: time, material, practice, and space. Instead, in a performance, everything becomes reduced to the moment of the execution, and to the directness and physical connection with time, space, and audience. However, in both scenarios there is much, and different approaches to studio, space, time, and audience reception. Installation work starts in the studio and it merges into the space, and much thought and effort is articulated into tailoring the experience, and the perception of the work in the space when I’m developing the piece. I would not say that there's a pleasure per se, and instead I would refer to it as a stream of evolving layering of actions over time, articulated and constructed to a specific purpose and effect. Yet, it’s a process. It changes every time and the work becomes alive in the space. So it truly is a challenging process that occurs and activates through time. The satisfaction appears when realizing a successful project though. With live performances it sort of departs from the same arena but then it becomes a complete, different ramification that triggers different aspects of perception, experience, psychology, and thought. It’s reduced to a constrained duration, a real-time tactile execution, physicality, and directness – due to the nature of what the work is. It happens in the moment. But then it also starts from the studio and many years of equal exploration.

From what I've read, your contribution to the exhibit was repeatedly singled out for being one of the more engaging pieces. After dealing with the topic extensively over the past few years, what are some of the results of your creative research into the large complex of "materiality and objects, information theory, background noise, commodity and function”?
Yes it was because, within its many layers of form, meaning, and complexity, it had the capacity to connect with all levels of expectation, meaning: being direct and concrete, playful and serious, or in reaching the audience with profound complexity—audibly, visually, functionally, formally, intellectually, and with active imagination. So, I think that it was round in that way, and achieving that result tends to be difficult, and it's the kind of thing that no one can foresee and make happen intentionally. Practice and experience over time alone, brings you to these outcomes where a voice has been parsed and matured. And after over two decades I feel I’m beginning to do that. In terms of the things that you are bringing into attention, I feel good because I sense there is some clarity in terms of content and in the investigation of these subjects as content. After many years of working with sound I felt that some responsibility was necessary in trying to understand and relate to the sources, not just because it sounded interesting, but also because sound is attached to something tangible whether it is deliberate or consequential. Then, awareness complicates the choice of materials, and selection process in the work; and it brings into the practice a sense of consciousness that becomes both powerful and liberating. I guess I just had some issues overtime with working with sound just for the sake of sound, and I needed to develop and discover what was really at the core of my interests. This is something that didn't just happen right away, and it also had to do with my background and academic formation as an artist, rather than my background as a musician. So the experimentation with objects as materials that participate in our lives, which have their own-shared history, as well as being a product of the culture of consumption in which we partake, is quite significant to me. Also commodity and discarding of commodity as a culture of its own is interesting to me. Then, of course, we live in such a polluted world, where although information is better than ever, it produces more debris than what we have the capacity to absorb, subsequently generating both noise and distortion of perception. And lastly, background noise is just the manifestation of the collective participation of society in motion—it also changes from place to place. It is the sonic world that never stops, that we all contribute to, and that we naturally tend to cancel out because we think it's noise. Regardless, it never stops to be absorbed by our brains. So I actually like to think that my work redirects the focus of it and I make work that takes that model, and brings the noise and debris from the background, and places it right in the foreground. But then, of course, once we start analyzing what goes into it, and dissecting it, it becomes incredibly political and interesting. And the difference between information and noise is that, in information noise, the noise truly is what gets in the way of the message, and this can be quite powerful, psychological, and political as well. Functionality is in one way a manner of avoiding gratuitous gestures, and what’s there is there for a reason. Then, being functional also relates to achieving roundness and self-contention in the work – also making a piece that can be perceived as self-sustained is the goal too. Then, the other, is about approaching defunctionalization, where for example: objects of commodity are taken out of context, dismantled, modified, and decontextualized by simply changing their functional purpose. Regardless, I do not want to say that this is so black and white in these terms. These are ideas that inform the work, and participate in the process shaping the work I do.

At least in Europe, projects like Soundings are starting to appear more frequently. It appears sound art is arriving in – or returning to, depending on your point of view - museums and art galleries. How do you feel about this?
To me, it has been my knowledge that sound art had less issues and a deeper history in Europe than in the USA. Aside from the history, everything else is perception, and information that travels and makes us interpret our own notions of things, but then I do not live in Europe, so I cannot really tell, and be an advocate of that. In the US, sound art started to become present in the sixties, but then, the makers simply called it art. Then of course John Cage and his peers did much with sound that filtered into both the art world, and the music world. But in conclusion, I think that there still is a general confusion in the US about what sound art is.

Now I’m represented by a NYC art gallery: Julian Navarro Projects, and that has been opening lots of possibilities for my art where I have been given support and a wonderful space to develop my projects the way I have envisioned it. In addition to my artwork, and without establishing any hierarchies, I continue making experimental music, performing live with sound and moving image, and exploring sound in many ways. I’m saying this because these are creative practices that exist in different contexts and situations, and the public is never the same for both. Regardless, I feel that the explorations and materials start from the same point, but then it expands onto different realms. I mean for example: an installation, objects, performance, and a CD, are quite distinct things. Therefore, the way in which we absorb this media is quite different, often changing the environment and the way in which we experience it.

What have been some of the most fruitful spaces for presenting your work?
NYC has been good to me and I have been able to push the envelop and develop very ambitious projects. Especially through residencies and in places such as Issue Project Room, the Clock Tower, then others such as Diapason Gallery, Experimental Intermedia, Roulette, The Invisible Dog, and more; even long ago: Tonic, NY. Meaning: these are places that operate strictly with a very powerful cultural agenda that facilitates the opportunity for artists to present new pieces, that often may result just in the enjoyment of them by a few. There have been many others, but these are the ones that come to mind now. Also, I’m focusing my commentary on places that have supported my sonic practice. So a lot of my pieces start in places like these, and then – over time – became further explorations that shape into installations and more self-contained works that then can be presented anywhere.

A comment from the New York Times about the exhibition reads: "Formally speaking, much of it isn’t sound art in any pure sense. It’s sculpture, film, installation and work on paper with audio components“. I'm curious about your opinion on this, as you very naturally operate within all of these different realms. What's your take on the relationship between different modes of expressions as well as between the different senses? Tell me about the continuum between sonic and visual aspects in your work, please.
The writer of the NYT was not mistaken per se. However, all pieces were driven by sound or a notion of sound at its core. Even if it did not feel like it. And that was the focus of the exhibition. I mean sound art does not mean that it is just for the ears; it can also encompass the use of the eyes, body, and the mind. It becomes a matter of contextualizing the focus and the experience of it, in my opinion. It’s about the signifier and the delivery of the work and how it enters your body and anchors in your brain. It can be about how we absorb it, and process it, but it can certainly be more than one thing. I mean, all works variate significantly and some of these artists from the show disliked very much being called sound artists, so there you go. In this particular case I would like to add that it was also about curatorial vision, and by definition: what the curator wanted to say, and with what, and with whom. There were some works that were drawings for example, and they were gorgeous, so I think that it's simplistic and it lacks dimension to think that sound art is an empty room filled with speakers playing stereo or spatialized sound. That’s just one of the many aspects. Perhaps that’s sort of the general confusion that exists in the US about what sound art is. For me still, no matter how sonic it is, sound art still belongs to the traditions of the visual arts world. That’s one of the many doors, so to speak. Perhaps one of the latest dislocations from it since the pluralistic 70s. Sound Art shall not be confused with experimental music, electronic music, expanded music, etc. Or like Caleb Kelly states – I'm paraphrasing him – perhaps it should not have been called sound art, but sound arts instead; something along those lines.

Richard Garet interview by Tobias Fischer
Images: Richard Garet, Before Me, 2012; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Soundings: A contemporary Score, 2013; Photographs taken by the artist

Homepage: Richard Garet
Homepage: Museum of Modern Arts New York

Partner sites