James Bulley: on sound art

In this article James Bulley charts a short history of the definition of sound art, highlights how constant changes in technology might test the durability of work and explains why collaboration is vital.

From its early beginnings, with the cacophonous noise makers of Luigi Russolo, the growing canon of works exploring the outer edges of sound performance and composition have provoked and challenged notions of listening. Sound art provide a listening environment, a breaking down of the existing physical and historical barriers between the audience and the artwork. It’s protagonists often find themselves developing creative ways to support their work, from the Dream House of La Monte Young to Jem Finer’s Longplayer – the array of collaborators, collectives and patrons is long.

The term ‘Sound Art’ is a relatively recent one, ventured in the writing of Dan Lander in the early 1980s and extrapolated through as series of exhibitions and festivals in the early 2000s. The term provokes continual debate, as does its status as a viable contemporary art form and not only an experimental outsider, a fringe operation. Vitally, the term delineates the difference between sound that is conveyed in exhibition and installation formats and conventional performance in the concert hall environment.

Openly accessible commissions and residencies for sound artists are not as uncommon as you might imagine. Organisations are keen to hear from those working with sound, and opportunities can be found through various mailing lists and websites, a few of which are listed at the end of this article. It’s always worth contacting in advance of an application, personally introducing yourself and your work. This can provide a chance to explain your intention, and to clarify whether the opportunity is appropriate for you.

If you don’t succeed with an application, the procedure of planning, budgeting and explaining will have proven valuable, often leading to further areas of investigation and other iterations of your work. The knowledge of a deadline for an application approaching can lend a structure and urgency to the conception of a work, in much the same way as an impending gallery show, commission, installation or performance.

Whilst the interest in the collecting, documentation and exhibition of sound works is growing, the near complete absence of sound works in some of the worlds biggest art collections is notable. There are exceptions – John Wynne’s Untitled (2009), for 300 speakers, a Pianola and a vacuum cleaner, was bought by the Saatchi Collection, and Susan Hiller’s Monument (1980-81), is owned by the Tate Collection.

Problems of presentation, technologies and durational aspects hinder the exhibition and conservation of sound-based works. Constantly changing audio formats and sound systems are just some of the areas that ought to be considered for future durability. Large durational generative installations, for example, centred on complex software, provide their own unique challenges of stability, exhibition and accurate documentation. The testing of these complex works through small showcases, talks and festivals can prove invaluable in attaining a well-documented and durable system – these challenges are as intrinsic and unavoidable as the work itself – they are key to the acceptance of sound art as a viable contemporary art form.

Collaborations and skill-exchanges with other practitioners are a further cornerstone of sound art practice. Some of the most adventurous and provoking sound works have been achieved through collaboration, whether it be working with graphic designers and film makers on documentation or software engineers and acoustic specialists to resolve technical issues, collaborative practice allows for conceptual realisation in rigorous and often unimagined ways.

Outside of sound art, the skills involved in creating sound works are highly transferable – collaborations with other artists, composing sound elements for film, dance, and radio are all enriching ways of supporting a career. Knowledge of editing sound, sound design, sound engineering, mixing, and mastering are common to many other industries and can open up an array of differing opportunities for making a living. The intractable dialogue between music and sound art can also bear fruit – in many cases, sound artists operate within both music and sound art, publishing records and performing in venues.

Resources and organisations

  • Sound and Music – Promoting challenging contemporary music and sound art in the UK
  • PRSF – The UK’s leading funder of new music across all genres
  • Arts Council England – Champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives
  • Sound Fjord – Gallery, research unit and venue dedicated to the Sonic Arts
  • Artsadmin – Making art happen through collaboration, consultation and funding opportunities
  • Ubuweb – Web-based educational resource for avant-garde material available on the internet
  • Resonance FM – A radio station that makes public those artworks that have no place in traditional broadcasting.
  • Café Oto – A venue for creative new music outside of the mainstream
  • The Wire – British avant-garde music magazine

Twitter: @JJBulley

James Bulley is an artist, composer and researcher whose practice explores the dialogue between music and sound art. 

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