The sound of confusion

The curators behind the exhibitions I Wish This Was a Song at Museet for samtidskunst in Oslo and Mer än ljud at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm speak on the subject of music in contemporary art.

Sabrina van der Ley, director of the Nasjonalmuseet’s department of contemporary art, and curator Stina Högkvist pictured in the exhibition I Wish This Was a Song. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

One possible history of sound art begins with Futurism and Dadaism, the two first movements to claim that sound could be of aesthetic interest outside of the realm of music. It is true that the Futurist Luigi Russolo performed his noise compositions within a conventional concert format – although the instruments were replaced with his own intonarumori. However, his work and thinking – the latter committed to paper in the manifesto L’arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises) – mainly resonated with the boundary-breaking avant-garde of the 20th century. Another, more specific axis, adds fifty years and places the origins of sound art in the USA of the late 1960s, where post-minimalists such as Max Neuhaus and La Monte Young began to employ sound in their installations. Regardless of where we position the wellspring of sound art within art history one thing is for certain: experiments with creating and arranging sound have always occupied a kind of no-man’s land between visual art and music. It is alternately referred to as sound art or experimental music, and it seems to be almost impossible to clearly delineate what kind of practice belongs where.

From the opening of the exhibition Mer än ljud: Curator Theodor Ringborg and the head and artistic director of Bonniers Konsthall, Sara Arrhenius. Photo: Jonas Isfäldt/ Bonniers Konsthall.

Two major current exhibitions held in Nordic capitals give new contemporary relevance to this issue of genre. The exhibition I Wish This Was a Song at Museet for samtidskunst in Oslo brings together a large group of artists who draw on music in their work, and the exhibition Mer än ljud (“More than sound”) at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm shares the same objective: To present music in contemporary art. A striking feature of both exhibitions is the way in which they bypass the concept of sound art. The artists shown here can be regarded as musicians of sorts; music, rather than sound art, is their main reference.

Of course there may be good reasons for arranging a contemporary art exhibition that considers music without discussing sound art, but at the same time it is difficult not to see this as a symptom of a blurring of the boundaries between contemporary art and popular culture rather than a historically anchored approach to the interaction between art and music. Taking this position as the point of departure, Kunstkritikk conducted interviews with the curators of the two exhibitions. The interviews, which were conducted with Sabrina van der Ley and Stina Högkvist in Oslo and Theodor Ringborg in Stockholm via email, are presented here as a conversation:

Kunstkritikk: It is quite striking that two exhibitions about music and contemporary art take place at the same time in Stockholm and Oslo. Does this link between contemporary art and music have a different kind of relevance today than, say, 40 to 50 years ago? And if so, is there a specifically Nordic framework for this relevance?

From I Wish This Was a Song: Ragnar Kjartansson, The End – Rocky Mountains, 2009, video still. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

Stina Högkvist: If we look at Norway in the 1960s, it seems as if the music of the day was very open towards experimenting with new technology and new techniques, whereas the art scene was more conservative and sceptical. At that point there was much discussion about whether photography could be called art at all. So in one way you might say that the music scene and its appreciation of new technology, e.g. its use of computers, paved the way for the art scene. Arild Boman, who created the first computer-composed piece of music in Norway (to summarise: a punched-card version of the Bible), said that in order to gain access to computers he had to do his composing at military settings, for that was the only place you could find computers at the time. Arne Nordheim was another important figure whose collaborations included work with Kjartan Slettemark. Frank Zappa, who was very ambitious in his music, was a great fan of Nordheim and made several trips to Oslo to visit him. The last decade has seen several exhibitions in Europe and the USA addressing the historical link between music and art, presenting examples such as Schönberg, Kandinsky etc. and finishing with Cage, possibly including a few examples from the contemporary art scene. Some time ago a large exhibition about the history of the Darmstadt School opened in Darmstadt, and this incorporated many links to the art world, featuring examples from history as well as from the present day. We recently met up with Barbara London from MoMA who was here researching her upcoming exhibition in 2013, which will also address music in contemporary art.

From Mer än ljud: Haroon Mirza, Untitled song with untitled works by James Clarkson. Photo: Olle Kirchmeier/ Bonniers Konsthall.

Sabrina van der Ley: It seems to be a theme that interests many today. In recent years many of the large international exhibitions such as the Venice and Istanbul biennials and Manifesta have shown artists incorporating or addressing music in their work.

Theodor Ringborg: For a couple of years now – perhaps even longer than that – we have seen exhibitions that orient themselves towards music. We have begun to see the emergence of the notion that just because a work of art emits sound it is not necessarily sound art, but perhaps music instead – or certainly musical – or something else. Such a mindset gives rise to exhibitions like Mer än ljud; the idea that art with sound is not simply presented as sound art without including the issue of its composition or organisation – whether that is musical in nature or not.

Kunstkritikk: You have chosen to focus on artists that are said to work explicitly with music; at least that is certainly the impression one gets from how the exhibition is communicated. Why choose to specify “music” from a wider field of experimental sound art? What concept of music are you working with here, and why such a consistent omission of the designation “sound art”?

From Mer än ljud: Scanner live performance. Photo: Scanner/ Bonniers Konsthall.

Stina Högkvist: For purely pragmatic reasons. We had to limit our scope. We also had the impression that there have been several exhibitions and festivals about sound art, so that is why we chose to draw a line here. But of course there are no definite barriers between the areas, and certain works occupy some form of middle ground. The exhibition is about works that have some kind of relationship with music. We apply John Cage’s definition of music, and so we also include silence and silent works. The way we see it, “sound art” is a distinct genre that cannot simply be defined as “music in art”. The distinction is one of being and time. Music is played out in time, whereas sound art concerns the realm of being. Sound art often has a more direct relationship with space and architecture.

Theodor Ringborg: Of course it is difficult to make a distinction between “sound art” and art with musical connotations, and that is one of the underlying questions in the exhibition Mer än ljud. It is an exhibition about music and about “music” as a concept that is difficult to define. That is why we have chosen to exhibit works whose musical touches can be perceived differently – if they are perceived as musical at all – and focus on an idea about the organisation of sound.

A participant of I Wish This Was a Song: Tori Wrånes, here featured with The Opposite is also True 2, Statoil Art Award, Kunstnernes Hus 2011. Photo: Mikkel McAlinden.

Kunstkritikk: Would you say that a red thread runs through the ways in which the artists featured at the exhibition relate to such an imagined distinction between sound and music as artistic material, or do their contributions cover the full spectrum from a strictly materialistic perception of sound to a complete integration in something that must indisputably be regarded as music?

Sabrina van der Ley: We decided to focus on music in order to make it possible for us to handle “the object of desire”. If we had not done this the exhibition would be twice as big. We were interested in examining the strategies employed by visual artists who work with music. Having said that, the exhibition does include a number of works that occupy a position somewhere in the Bermuda triangle, in a realm somewhere between sound, music, and visual expression. These include works by Camille Norment, Tori Wrånes, Arild Boman, and William Engelen to mention but a few.

Theodor Ringborg: There is a very fine and indefinable line between sound and music, and I do not think you can lay claim to any specific distinction. In spite of this it seems that there are certain ways of arranging sounds, of composing, that are perceived as more musical – all sounds are musical, but for some reason some are more musical than others. This is interesting and is brought to light in Mer än ljud because we do not consider similarities between the works, but rather their very different ways of using, creating, or expressing something through musical sound. I cannot say what the artists’ intentions are, but the exhibition seeks to look at the disharmonies between the works rather than harmonies, as it were.

From Mer än ljud: Matti Kallioinen, The Nervous Manifold, 2012. Photo: Olle Kirchmeier/ Bonniers Konsthall.

Kunstkritikk: To put it somewhat simply, one might say that art history offers two paradigmatic approaches to sound as material in art: a modernist (or neo-modernist) approach in which the artist works with abstract, often very simple and pure aural images (Carsten Nicolai, Richard Chartier, Ryoji Ikeda, Carl Michael von Hausswolff); and a post-modern approach where the artist uses concrete, often recognisable sound samples, mixing them to form vast and complex soundscapes. Are these categories relevant frames of reference for the artists you work with, or are other models required as well?

Stina Högkvist: We have examples of both, but I think that such categories are of little use to individual visitors. Delia Derbyshire sampled sounds by means of analogue methods, as did Schwitters. The same is true of the Futurists, who represent the very pinnacle of modernism. If, however, we apply such definitions, we can point to our inclusion of art by Erkki Kurenniemi that could be called minimalist, pure works in terms of their overall expression, but not in terms of content. He invented a range of DIMI-instruments (Digital Media Interface, ed.), DIMI-T, Dimi-O, and Dimi-S. Instruments that read brainwaves, movement, gestures. The live programme is a major aspect of the exhibition, and it will include all kinds of styles. For example, we are planning a seminar about Arild Boman and Erkki Kurenniemi and their collaboration, and we will borrow instruments from Finland that artists such as Mikko Ojanen (PanSonic) will play on.

From I Wish This Was a Song: Phil Collins, The world won’t listen, 2004-2006, film still. Courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Kunstkritikk: How far can contemporary art move out into other areas of culture, e.g. the field of music, and still be considered relevant for exhibition at institutions such as Museet for samtidskunst and Bonniers?

Stina Högkvist: On today’s art scene the artists are free to do as they will, and the institutions must adapt to this. However, the art institutions are not the only ones to be affected. We attended the opening of the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival: two of the opening concerts incorporated projected images and film and might as well have been featured at a contemporary art show. In Oslo the institution Ny Musikk also works with cross-boundary projects that include artists and musicians, and the head of the institution, Anne Hilde Neset, calls herself a curator. So the movement cuts both ways.

Sabrina van der Ley: I believe that in most cases interdisciplinary practices have much to offer. If you take the right approach it can add something surprising, something extra that will occasionally take your breath away. Thinking outside the box is always a good thing. 

From Mer än ljud: Susan Hiller, Vad varje trädgårdsmästare vet. Sound installation, takes place every 15 minutes in the Vasa Park. Photo: Olle Kirchmeier/ Bonniers Konsthall.

Theodor Ringborg: You seem to be asking how far the boundaries can be stretched, and my reply would be that we cannot know until we have tried it. It is quite easy to make a case for the inclusion of music, for that is a highly accessible form of cultural expression that many artists – contemporary and historical – have worked with. Hockey, however, would be a different story. The keyword here would be “adjacent”; we are wont to look at areas that lie adjacent to that of art – music, theatre, poetry, etc. – but it would be interesting to walk down roads that lead further afield – to look beyond the immediate modes of cultural expression at a deeper theoretical and philosophical level. When we succeed in placing art in the public space we are often overjoyed, and we ought to be equally pleased when the public space enters the exhibition space – certainly every now and again.