By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THE IDEA THAT ARTISTS ARE CAPABLE of producing organized sound that is somehow distinct from that created by musicians and composers has existed ever since the publication of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo's manifesto "The Art of Noises" in 1913. And although there's been a continuous stream of activity in this nebulous area ever since -- Kurt Schwitter's "Merz" vocal composition Ursonate, Marcel Duchamp's chance compositions, the wildly cacophonous musique brut of Jean Dubuffet, the Fluxus compositions of George Brecht, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, the ritual orchestral drones of Vienna beef mogul Hermann Nitsch -- it has taken almost a century for the concept of audio art to be taken seriously by the art world, and for sound artists to be considered anything more than sidetracked dilettantes or unskilled poseurs hiding behind a fancy title.
This year's Whitney Biennial (opening March 7 in New York) has taken evident pains to include a prominent selection of audio art. Debra Singer, who curated the Whitney's catching-up-with-the-digital-revolution exhibit, "BitStreams," was assigned the task of traveling cross-country to perform the same function for the sound arts. Unsurprisingly, Singer has included major figures like vocalist/performance artist Meredith Monk and turntable-collage pioneer Christian Marclay, but has also come up with a few surprises, including former L.A. Weekly staffer Marina Rosenfeld, whose Glenn Brancastyle electric-guitar massings are given a conspicuous feminist twist through the use of nail-polish bottles as bottleneck slides. Other L.A. artists with sound practices participating in the Biennial include the Mike Kelley/Jim Shaw Destroy All Monsters Collective (showing a mass of their punk-psychedelic band ephemera) and gizmo artiste extraordinaire Tim Hawkinson. Although Hawkinson's piece for the Whitney isn't a sound work, Ace Gallery (excuse me -- the Institute of Contemporary Art) is installing the artist's insanely gargantuan player-piano/bagpipe hybrid Überorgan ("possibly the largest contemporary indoor sculpture yet created") in its New York space to coincide with Hawkinson's Whitney debut. Überorgan, originally designed to fill MassMOCA's airplane-hangar-size space, plays a variety of songs and hymns decoded from a roll of Mylar through enormous, gut-rattling pipes.
But the Whitney's gesture of inclusion is only the culmination of a widespread renewal of art-world interest in audio, piggybacked into the limelight in the scramble to incorporate computer-based digital work into the official canon (not to mention budget). And the connection is far from spurious. The Web-based "media arts platform" Rhizome.org recently hosted a panel discussion at Whose Café in Hollywood, focusing on the fertile subcategories of "glitch" and "post-digital" sound, followed by performances by Kim Cascone, Sutekh, and the Father of Lowercase Sound, Steve Roden. One panel participant, David Cotner, in addition to performing his own work as \\\, maintains one of the most comprehensive Web sites and mailing lists about sound-art events and experimental music at www.hertz-lion.com. Digital technology has allowed artists access to sound-recording, editing and micromanufacturing tools that were unthinkable only a few years ago, and the Internet has provided the basis for an international exchange of ideas and sound files. The high caliber of sound art coming to light, especially compared to the hit-and-miss quality of Net art, is proof of how long and involved the subterranean history of the genre actually is.
Things have been heating up locally in real space, as well. Cindy Bernard, who organized a stellar (if bumpy) sound-art series at the MAK Schindler House last year, has incorporated as a nonprofit called the Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound, and is currently organizing a new season, including a chopped Optigan (a portablized version of the early-'70s analog sample-disc home keyboard marketed by Mattel, if you must know) marathon hosted by Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS) alum Joe Potts. MAK artist-in-residence Richard Hoeck has also been active, presenting a DIY lo-fi electronic-sounds event in January as part of his Lobby in Rearproject. Up on Hollywood Boulevard, LACE will offer Angelenos a rare opportunity to experience one of local legend Michael Brewster's acoustic sculptures. Brewster, who has taught at Claremont since 1973, is one of the few artists who work exclusively in the medium of sound, activating spaces with combinations of standing waves that undergo startling changes as the viewer -- or auditor -- moves through them. In the hardware department, Bay Area MIT grad and techno-geek sculptor Alan Rath has a selection of his hand-engineered stereo systems on view at Track 16 Gallery. Lacking the ominous anthropomorphism of his robotic works, Rath's stereos giddily embody the ne plus ultra of hi-fi hobbyist obsession, a bywater inextricable from contemporary sound art even as it renders the content of the actual signal irrelevant. Ping-Pong, anyone?
PERFORMANCE IS THE ONE AREA WHERE sound artists have been able to regularly penetrate the public's consciousness. While the majority of artists working in sound toil obscurely on projects that are fundamentally incompatible with show business, a few artists have actually managed paying gigs. In March, the long-delayed Sonic Youthcurated "All Tomorrow's Parties" will fill UCLA venues not only with indie darlings from Big Star to Stephen Malkmus, but art-noise from the likes of Destroy All Monsters, the Boredoms, Tony Conrad, and Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, the ultraprolific dean of Japanese noise music (who took his stage name from Kurt Schwitters' all-recycling one-man art movement).
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