Sam Belinfante: ‘For galleries, sound is still a terrifying prospect’
Sam Belinfante talks about the role of listening in the visual arts and the challenges he faced in curating this engaging and impressive show, which features some of the key figures in aural art today
Listening: Curated by Sam Belinfante (A Hayward touring exhibition)
Baltic 39, Newcastle upon Tyne
26 September 2014 – 11 January 2015
by ANNA McNAY
“I wanted to create an exhibition that interrogates the act of listening itself, rather than merely its aural objects,” says Sam Belinfante of the group show that he has curated as the latest in the Hayward Touring Curatorial Open series. Adamant that this is not a “sound show”, but something theatrical, involving intricate choreography and bleeding between the works on display, Belinfante took time to discuss each work’s placement with its artist. A visual artist, musician and a student of the voice, Belinfante’s practices feed into one another and the result is a self-reflexive, engaging and impressive show, featuring some of the key figures in aural art today. But don’t be misled: not all the works included make a noise. Studio International met with Belinfante at Baltic 39 for a tour of the show and to talk about the role of listening in the visual arts and the particular challenges associated with mounting such an exhibition.
Anna McNay: American photographer and documentary film-maker Robert Frank said: “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” Is it not contradictory to talk about “the act of listening in contemporary visual art”?
Sam Belinfante: When I wrote the proposal for this exhibition, I was very specific in terms of the language I used and in pinning the act of listening to visual art. Over the past decade, there have been some very big sound shows, but, as far as I am concerned, these risk further ghettoising sound to something you experience in your bedroom with your headphones on, whereas, for me, music and sound are very visual. So I was intentionally provocative with what I said. Also listening isn’t necessarily a sonic word, whereas visual is fundamentally connected with the idea of light and the eyes. Listening has a different kind of presence – listening is an act. It involves the body in a lot of different ways. It’s not just about sound hitting the eardrum. I feel there is room to have an expanded idea of listening.
AMc: So you wouldn’t necessarily differentiate between listening to something as a musical experience and listening to something as an aesthetic or artistic experience?
SB: No. In fact, historical ideas of the aesthetic really bridge the idea of the visual and the sonic. In both music and art history, we still refer to beauty as the aesthetic. At the same time, I don’t mind contradiction and paradox. We’ve inherited a visual language and you can’t have an exhibition or a show without reinforcing these divisions and hierarchies. In order to write a proposal or press release, you have to engage with these problems and my way of handling this is to foreground these contradictions. I am a visual artist as well, even though everything I do is related to sound and music.
AMc: Do you think society is becoming more visual, in the sense that images are being added to things that would previously have just been sound –radio is being replaced by television or, if you go to a lecture, there is usually a visual presentation now as well?
SB: Yes, and I think one thing that’s being lost is the sense of tuning in. People today are in the street with their iPods on, choosing their own playlist. They’re blocking things out and losing the opportunity for serendipitous moments. I’ve learned from John Cage about allowing these serendipitous moments to happen.
In the exhibition, there’s a work by Hannah Rickards called Thunder. You go in and you’re signing your name in the visitors’ book and then, all of a sudden, there’s a thunderclap. It’s a really good beginning. Rickards recorded it, slowed it down to about 10 minutes, got it played by a small orchestra and then sped it back up. So you hear the thunderclap, but it is actually acoustic instruments making it. Thunder, for me, is a really great metaphor for the relationship between vision and sound because you have this crash of lightning and then the bang. Quite often it’s the crash you see first and then you listen out for the bang, so already it’s being pulled apart. It is also a metaphor for chance. Rickards’ piece happens about 15 times an hour and suddenly it will knock you off your feet. That’s fundamental for me in this exhibition because you’ve got some things that are really carefully choreographed and some things with a really indeterminate rhythm. People such as Philippe Parreno have paved the way for bringing theatricality into galleries. Artists like me are quite often relegated to the lobby or the theatre space or the sound terrace. Galleries all now want a theatre space or a black-box space. Rather than thinking about the space that is already there and engaging with the tension, they want to add another space: a black box inside the white cube. For galleries, sound is still a terrifying prospect, but theatre and opera have been doing it for hundreds of years. I don’t think what I’m doing is anything new.
AMc: But there is a difference between going to a concert or the opera, where you sit and watch – or, rather, listen to – something the whole way through, as opposed to going to an exhibition such as this in a gallery where, although you have choreographed a path through it, people are free to wander and spend as long as they like at each work. How would you define this difference?
SB: That’s a really difficult question. There is a difference. The white cube has gained a sense of false neutrality, which can be quite useful, but I think it’s less about spaces and more about audiences. If you look at statistics, a concert-goer is much more likely to go to a gallery or a museum and just wander in, whereas art audiences are quite closed and don’t tend to go elsewhere. There’s a sense of familiarity. For visual arts audiences, the white cube is their space, their church. People such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass have already put sounds into the street and into the white-cube gallery. There is this fallacy about the snootiness of classical musical audiences, whereas the behaviour of a gallery-goer is incredibly set and that’s what you come up against. I know I’m not answering your question, but to be honest I’m not sure I can. This is exactly the area I am trying to explore. Sound performance is making inroads. There was a section at Frieze art fair this year. I don’t think things are solved yet, but it’s an exciting time.
Fundamentally, the issue with doing a sound show – and actually, I don’t see this as a sound show – but the problem of doing a sound show is that you can go down two paths. One way is to have a megamix, where everything is going on at the same time and you make a new composition, or you can have one work after another in a row and use headphones or speakers like a theatrical event, like Il Tempo Del Postino [“a timepiece, an opera, a group exhibition”, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Parreno]. I wanted to do something different. Also, the idea of a touring show, where every space is radically different, plays a part. Next we’re going to Bluecoat, which is really big, and Site in Sheffield is quite small, so you’ve got to respond to the difficulties of that as well. I came up with the idea of this choreography, which I suppose is indebted to people such as Parreno, who are trying to bring a theatrical language to the exhibition space. There are only two works that are always on here: there’s Ragnar Kjartansson’s Song and Haroon Mirza’s Siren (2012). I see them both as sirens though, really, because Kjartansson’s work is a video of three beautiful women on a rock, singing a misremembered Allen Ginsberg poem. They’re doing it six hours a day in a gallery as a live performance and this video is just representative of one day. The idea is that you have these sirens constantly going and they lead you into the main gallery space, where, at certain times, other things happen as well.
Rather than a sound show, I’m interested in how listening as a sense folds into the other senses: there is no listening without touch or sight. People try to divorce or detach sound from all the other senses, so I really wanted to make a show that was synesthetic in terms of all the senses being involved. There isn’t really much work in the show that is just sound, and there are also works that involve silence, such as Mirza’s Anechoic Chamber, Christian Marclay’s Sound Holes and Ed Atkins’s drawings. These are mute works, but to me they still conjure a sense of sound or listening or just being aware of your body. Cage went into an anechoic chamber in 1952, trying to hear silence, and ended up hearing the hum of his central nervous system and the beating of his heart. Haroon is bringing that dialogue into his work – the idea that there really is no such thing as silence.
I was recently listening to Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussion player, talking about listening, and she was saying that all music education is based on the idea of listening through the ears but there are so many other techniques and processes and parts of the body that are engaged. Amalia Pica’s piece is very important to me. It’s called Eavesdropping and it invites the public to put their ears up against the glass and listen to what is beyond. There is a tactile engagement with it.
Atkins is really well known for thinking about materiality or immateriality in video and high-definition images. This idea, particularly, of the disembodied voice – the voice of the avatar, his own voice – is very important in his work. I love the idea that these voices are being conjured within the text of his drawings where there are a lot of references to sound and synchronicity, lightning, thunder and rain, and different filmic devices to give you a sense of place and space. We’re both very interested in what [French writer and composer] Michel Chion talks about as the acousmatic voice – a voice where you don’t know where it’s coming from – it’s disembodied, it’s off camera.
In the main space, every six minutes, all the lights go off and then you have the Laure Prouvost work or you have the Anri Sala film. This kind of choreography is a big feature of the show. To me, it is more than a novelty, it is about directing the viewer through the space in terms of how they engage with their body. Essentially, there is one big circle. You’ve got two galleries where you just go round and round and you might hear something and it might draw you here or there – it’s not a set trajectory, it’s more about allowing for the possibility to be led by your ears, and some of it might be chance and some of it might be very carefully mapped by me. Galleries aren’t necessarily used to working in this kind of theatrical way and turning all the lights off was a real technical challenge. If you went into a theatre and were going to do an opera, this would be very straightforward, but it’s quite a new way of working within the white-cube gallery space.
The other thing about listening is that sound can stay with you for days, but also it can be gone just like that. I’ve tried to be very sensitive to the fact that, even though there are some clashes and bleeds, there is a moment always where you can appreciate just one work. For the most part, all the artists have been really supportive of the fact that we are trying to do something a little different, but I have spent time speaking to each of them about how I want to use their works, and if they have not been happy, then we have negotiated.
AMc: Do you think events such as Susan Philipsz winning the Turner Prize for a purely audio work in 2010 and Bruce Nauman’s filling the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with a series of sound sculptures in 2004 have helped the public accept sound art and audio pieces as art?
SB: Philipsz is amazing, but I feel there was this situation where she had to put some speakers in the white gallery. Actually her work was all over the city, in terms of the Artangel project, or under the bridge in Glasgow. Then there was this need for her to be part of the Turner Prize exhibition. I’m not criticising Philipsz because it is a really difficult problem, but she was engaging with the magical possibilities of sound out in the world and to try to place that in the gallery is really difficult. The fact that she was there at all though is fantastic. Her position in the Turner Prize exhibition gallery foregrounds a lot of the problems I’m really interested in.
AMc: In a way, it is a bit like land art and the problem of how you can bring that into a gallery – whether it’s just through photographs, for example.
SB: Yes, exactly, and there’s a very strong connection between [Robert] Smithson and some of the people I’m interested in from the 1960s, in terms of the Black Mountain College, [Robert] Rauschenberg, [Merce] Cunningham and Cage. In some ways, we have retreated in terms of the spaces, whereas in the 60s and 70s it was kind of atomised. I recently picked up a 1972 copy of Studio International, which was about art and music, and you have people such as Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars alongside people such as Fred Orton and others from the art world, all on the same pages, and then you realise that this is nothing new. I think it’s to do with economics now and maybe the Arts Council and having to say what is being done and how many bums are on seats. This is defining how spaces are being used. I’m not offering any massive solutions, but I do hope that the people who come in to this exhibition will all have to engage, be that with the difficulties with their own bodies, or the difficulties with the objects they are engaging with. That is a fundamental aim for me with the exhibition. I don’t feel I’m shoehorning it in either, because if they don’t press their ear against the glass, there is no exhibition, there is no work.
AMc: The two upstairs galleries at Baltic 39 are quite different in tone. Was this a feature of the works or the choreography?
SB: I wanted the second space to have a completely different feel. The main room is more of a gallery space with interventions, whereas the second room is more of a black-box space with two works that go back and forth: Imogen Stidworthy’s piece, Sacha, and a two-part film work by Mikhail Karikis, about the “sea women”, haenyeo, of the island of Jeju off the coast of South Korea. This is a really patriarchal society, but most of the money comes in through this women-only occupation, passed down from generation to generation. They go out into the ocean and dive for seafood and pearls, but they don’t have any apparatus. To deep dive 20 or 30 times, they have this special vocal technique, sumbisori, which translates as “breath sound” – as they come up, they make this shrieking sound, which quickly decompresses their lungs so they can go down again. Even though he has a degree in vocal production, Karikis was still an outsider to this, and he has made this amazing observational film.
In her film Sacha, Stidworthy observes a Belgian guy who works for the police and has been blind since birth. He has this terrific forensic ability to differentiate sound: he can identify hundreds of different languages; he can tell you the telephone number you’re dialling; he can tell you if people are lying, if they’re young or old … He analyses police recordings, and Stidworthy’s film observes him at work. There is a voyeuristic aspect, but typically for Stidworthy, it is all been done very sensitively. Also, the speakers have been embedded into the screen, so the whole apparatus of the installation is foregrounded. The whole surface is a listening surface.
AMc: This is a touring show and, as you’ve already mentioned, you’re going to galleries of different sizes. How are you going to adapt the exhibition to deal with this?
SB: In Sheffield, we’re going to be at both Site and the Sheffield Institute of the Arts Gallery, so I’m going to have to deal with going between these two galleries, which are a five-minute walk apart. I’m thinking about maybe commissioning a new work that is like a walk or something, and which takes you between these two spaces. I love the part where you go into the exhibition, from the street, from the world, into the space. When you go into the gallery, you’re removing yourself from another aspect of the world and when you go back out you’re removing yourself from the gallery. Once you enter that space, you’ve already made a contract to engage with something. It’s not like a busker on the street – it’s a different kind of performance and a different kind of engagement. You’ve already made a choice. I’m really interested in Martin Creed and his writings where he says there are infinite possibilities but you have to make a choice. You can either use all the paintbrushes, or you can use one paintbrush. It’s the same with Cage. And for me, too, putting together this show, it’s been about making choices. It’s like an album. An album really is just a white space. What are you putting on there and what are you leaving out? You’re drawing a circle around it and that’s important.
AMc: Has the exhibition changed since you put in your initial proposal?
SB: It’s funny because I expected that after I got the job they would sit down with me and be like, “Oh, I’m not sure about that”, or “Have you thought about that person?” but that didn’t happen. Some of the works have changed, like Laure [Prouvost] making a new work. As an artist, I can empathise because I’m not just saying: “I want your work.” I’m also saying: “And your work is going to be part of a dance.” But in terms of my original proposal and the artists I wanted to include, I’ve got all of them, apart from Laurie Anderson, who will have a work joining the exhibition in its second location. Some people have said there are a lot of women in the show, but that’s not something I even considered. But actually, when you start to think about the practitioners I’m interested in, maybe it is a certain sensibility – those who are less macho and less fixed about what art is? I really like that there’s a real mix of people in the exhibition, a mixture of voices.
AMc: You’re currently completing a PhD in fine art at the University of Leeds and your research is primarily about the voice, is it not?
SB: Yes, my research has been about the voice and I don’t feel I’ve escaped that here because the exhibition is fundamentally a chorus of voices. An idea from linguistics and post-structural thinking is that the voice is already always disconnected, already always gone. Even though it is kind of connected to my body, I’m hearing my voice coming back and there’s always this loose synchronicity between bodies and voices, the voice is always disembodied. Yet there’s still that fingerprint – it’s still coming from the body. Jacques Derrida said that the voice detached itself from the body and that is its way of attaching itself to the body. There is this idea of things belonging to us and not belonging to us, things escaping. The idea that the voice is something detached, something alien to us, something that we have to learn to listen to. I’m not hearing my voice as you’re hearing it.
To me, Marclay’s Sound Holes are like a choir of little voices. Again, it’s about the potential of the sound emerging from the elevator or the apartment building. There is this incredibly intimate thing of being spoken to, but at the same time of possibly being a long way away. For me, sound is a relationship between intimacy and distance.
Directly next to Kjartansson’s Song, you have Katie Paterson’s Sound of a Dying Star, which is a doorbell, so as you open the door to go down the stairs you just hear this tiny little sound of a star and you might almost miss it. People are always saying: “Oh, that’s not the sound I expected!” What do you expect? Angels singing or something? Paterson is working with impossible distances that you can’t even get your head around and then there’s just this tiny little sound. We're getting all this data from the cosmos in a full spectrum of waves and they’ve isolated those waves, which they believe are the sound of the dying star. The amazing thing about Paterson is the amount of research that goes into her work and her engagement with the cosmos. I really like the mundanity and the banality of the doorbell, as well.
Everybody was talking about the choreographic aspects of this show, but the word choreography doesn’t just mean drawing in movement, dance – the word choreo is also linked to chorus, so it’s all these voices singing together or individually. Allowing everybody to have their voice and to speak in turn is a fundamental ambition for me. With a choir, you’ve got everyone singing together but also all the individual personalities. Elizabeth Price’s piece, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, which won the Turner Prize in 2012, plays with this idea of the communal, or groups of people, and then this individual gesture or voice, which I think is really important. It is in the furniture as well: it is in the furniture of the church, or the apparatus of the exhibition. We have projectors and we have speakers and we have walls and spaces. And in our bodies we have throats and tongues and mouths. All the apparatus is just these different spaces and divisions. Bringing it back to listening, there’s the hole or the aperture and then the screen or the surface where it resonates. In the exhibition, it is all disconnected and torn apart, but somehow also still all together – deconstructing the process. Derrida would say that you can’t really take these things apart because that just becomes another form of totalitarianism – you have the complete total thing or you have the complete destroyed thing. Deconstruction isn’t a way of breaking down the hierarchies – saying that the sonic is more important than the visual is still problematic in its own way – it is a way of teasing them apart while still allowing them to be together. One of the first pieces of art I got excited about was Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter, where you’re looking at something mid-explosion, so you have the idea of pulling something apart, but it also has the potential to jump back together.
AMc: Most of the works in the exhibition are contemporary, but you also include a couple of more historical pieces.
SB: Yes, and these set the tone. One, on the ground floor, is the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller piece Cabin Fever, which is one of Cardiff’s early diorama pieces where you put your head in and, using special audio mixing, you feel as if you are there in the woods, witnessing this strange event in the forest. People know of Cardiff’s sound walks but not so many people know of Max Neuhaus’s early walks in the 60s. He was a percussion player, but then he turned his back on the musical world and became a visual artist, so I feel an affinity with him. He would meet people at certain locations in New York and then take them on a walk. There might be performances along the way, or there might just be a point to listen at, but the idea would be that he was taking all of our attention. Cage was saying, let’s turn our attention to the silence and to our bodies and he’s taking that idea, but also taking our attention out into the world, out of the concert hall. One of Neuhaus’s most famous works is installed in Times Square and it is the sound of the ventilation, but it is an ongoing sound work. I really wanted to bring him into this show, because he is an overlooked person. He would stamp “Listen” on to your wrist with a rubber stamp. I could have called the show Listen, but it’s more of an imperative, more of a demand, whereas Listening is about the process of listening, rather than the aural object. You might actually be engaging your body but not finding anything at all, or not making sense of something, but it’s still the process. It’s about the relationship between listening and hearing, because with listening, you might not understand the object you are being drawn to.
AMc: Do you see that as a parallel to looking and seeing?
SB: Yes, exactly. The creative potential for that in between space before it comes together – before semantic meaning. One thing that’s fundamental to all my research is the relationship between the visual and the auditory – between sound and image. Sound, historically, has always been the thing that leads you astray, whereas seeing is believing. It is proof. Even our words “evidence” and “idea” are etymologically linked to the eye. I’m playing with this idea of sound being mischievous and leading us astray. I feel you can flip a lot of these hierarchies. The visual can be completely persuasive and you can lie with images. I think a lot has been written about the siren in terms of gender and the female voice, but if you look back at the idea of the siren, it isn’t even really a body, there’s just this sound emanating from the ocean, and nobody really gets to the body – they get smashed up on the rocks. People have talked about sirens as being animals or chimera. I like taking that idea away from politics of the body or the disembodied voice and making it more about sound and image and synchronicity – or, rather, asynchronicity. There’s not really any such thing as 100% deafness because there is always a resonance or a feeling or a vibration at the most minute level. Nietzsche said the ears have got no lids – we can’t close our ears like we can our eyes, sound will always bleed in. This is something we were constantly talking about as we were putting this show together. It’s the fundamental difficulty of this sort of an exhibition, but, at the same time, it’s the fundamental subject matter.
• After Baltic 39, Listening will be at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, from 24 January to 29 March 2015, Site Gallery and Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield, from 11 April to 30 May 2015 and Norwich University of the Arts Gallery from 19 July to 17 October 2015.