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Sound advice: art consumables

Douglas Kahn

Publications relevant to the sound arts are cropping up with increasing frequency, but not necessarily within earshot. A real gem from the past couple of years is the catalogue from Terry Fox’s exhibition at the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken in 1998. Fox’s work is similar to Joseph Beuys or the earlier Vito Acconci, but much gentler. He has worked primarily in performance and installation, and his Children’s Tapes (1974) is one of the most outstanding videos from that period. He has become known over the years for his sly spiritual attention to sound which is detailed in this catalogue (book), Terry Fox: Works with Sound, in German and English from Kehrer Verlag in Heidelberg. Matthias Osterwold, now at The Institute for Music and Acoustics at ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst and Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe) has written an excellent essay for the catalogue and descriptions of the works are very informative. The ATARAXIA compact disc is included, which has also been available independently.

Speaking of ZKM, as part of their “digital arts editions” they have published a wonderful CD-ROM called Small Fish: Chamber Music with Images for Computer and Player by Kiyoshi Furukawa, Masaki Fujihata and Wolfgang Münch (available from Hatje Cantz Verlag, The child-like sensibility of Paul Klee, e. e. cummings or Satie come to mind when encountering this work, so too their subtlety and sophistication. In fact, it was a gift to my 8-year-old daughter (she loves it) before I became addicted to it, composing innumerable chamber pieces and soundtracks late into the night. Furukawa’s music and Fujihata’s graphics seem to encapsulate so many styles of the 20th century—a little constructivism here, 30s percussion music there—but never seem derivative, and the interaction is effortless and engaging, with new devices becoming obvious as time goes by, thanks to Münch’s programming. This past year it has been a real favourite among my media arts students at UTS.

The Wire magazine from London is often a good place to get information but, then again, they just discovered sound art a year ago. The way they announced it, you would think it hadn’t really existed before. This is odd because only a few years ago I attended a conference in Sunderland that had the explicit purpose of introducing England to sound and radio art. Perhaps that was too far north of London? Plagued by the conservatism of the BBC and bereft of the type of institutions here amenable to the sound arts, England has not been a hub of activity. Meanwhile, Australia has the most solid tradition of sound arts and theory in the Anglophone world and is into at least a third generation of artists and writers.

The Wire is mainly musical, but as they exhaust certain areas they move on to others. The move to include sound art was signaled when David Toop, a resident journalist with the mag, wrote an ill-informed article. This proved to be a dry-run for his catalogue essay for Sonic Boom, the sound art show at the Hayward Gallery in London, which he curated. This second essay shows a bit more thought but there’s still little familiarity with how the sound arts have developed in the past couple of decades, or the issues and opportunities artists confronted. The show is heavily weighted towards musicians, some with little or no prior exhibition experience, and not one Australian is included. (A similar thing happened a few years ago with the big German show Sonambiente, its coffee table catalogue in German from Prestel entitled Klangkunst.) While the show had some notable pieces, the consensus fell behind Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag, a video of a live electric guitar being dragged behind a pick-up truck on a dirt road in Texas—the meanings, like bits of the guitar itself, fly off in every direction, but stem primarily from the incident in which an African-American man was murdered a few years ago in the same manner. The catalogue (available from the gallery’s website,, apparently meant as a souvenir, is inadequate as a source of information, although the two audio CDs included almost merit a purchase.

Finally, the latest issue (no. 5, Fall 2000) of the Baltimore arts journal LINK includes a CD worth chasing down ( Curated by Steve Bradley, a media artist who runs the net radio [email protected], the CD contains some old stalwarts—Charles Amirkhanian, Susan Stone, Francis Dhomont—as well as a number of very interesting artists from the Baltimore area. Many of the pieces attend faithfully to the issue’s special theme of hysteria and none are more hysterical than David Snow and Peter Kougasian’s Freud in Konzert, an archival recording of Freud (speaking in English no less) when he was a stand-up comic playing the “small clubs and Wursthäuser along the Tyrolean ‘Schnitzel Belt’”, as the artists explain in their notes. The recording reveals that he is facing a tough house, their difficulty with his jokes arising no doubt from not having read his book on the topic, an unfazed Sigmund gesticulating his cigar like Groucho.

Among others, Christian Marclay will be part of Art/Music: rock, pop, & techno at Sydney’s MCA with performances at The Studio, Sydney Opera House, March 21-June 24.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 34

© Douglas Kahn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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