Tag Archives: Harper’s Magazine

the silence of sound

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I love sound but I love silence more. Actually I love the area between the two the best. By this I mean the sounds that you hear when there isn’t supposed to be any sound. For instance where I live I can list all the sounds I hear: the fridge, the tertiary highway with intermittent cars, birds, rain or snow (yep, snow makes a sound), coyotes and wolves very occasionally, when the neighbours are up you can hear chainsaws and some talking, and at night when it is really, really cold you can hear trees cracking and snapping – sometimes making a low gong noise. So, people come to my place and always say, “Wow, it is so quiet here.” But I can hear things all the time. So, no, it isn’t quiet.

We have a hydro pole on our property. After moving here I read a Harper’s article about electro magnetic fields or EMFs. In the article it told the stories of different people who could swear they heard the lives of the people several kilometres away from them through the hydro wires. Some also mentioned the phone wires which are on the same pole. There was also terrifying things in the article like people getting neurological disorders from being so close to EMFs. I chose to ignore the latter stories. For several years I was convinced I could hear other lives coursing through those wires. I would lie awake at night listening to see if I could discern words from these transmissions. Was it my imagination? Possibly. For a time things and places and people would bounce around in my brain. Through this I came to appreciate sounds and the world of sounds and this between world of sound and silence.

Most sound artists are from cities which makes sense since cities are clusters of sound and energy. I always feel like a spark getting plugged into something when I visit. My lights come on and I ‘radiate’ while there. I usually come home exhausted from the experience. I find that city people need to unplug regularly and use places like where I live to do so. I get that. But city sounds never inspire me the way non-city sounds do. There is an ambience to the forest that you can barely verbalise. In the years I have lived where I do I have seen and heard trees falling in the forest. It’s an observation no longer funny but… it still resonates because sound in places where there isn’t supposed to be any seems very subversive.

I have become extremely sensitive to sounds over the years. I go to very few first run movies as the sound systems make me feel like I am having a heart attack. I have been this way long before the reality of a heart attack was something to consider. I also love silent films because they give me even more reasons to use my imagination. During a long talk with a film maker friend a few weeks ago, I realized the problem I have always had with film is that I don’t get to do any of the work. I gravitate to things where I can insert myself, or rather participate by figuring out what I am looking at and listening to. I think that if I went to hell it would have the kind of syrupy soundtrack that roars across the screen amplifying what I am supposed to feel. In fact I have turned off Netflix and other films right away if the soundtrack even hints of augmented emotion. I find it manipulative and condescending but mostly it just hurts my ears.

The thing about sound is that it is mysterious. Years ago 7/11 stores in the US played classical music outside to dissuade loitering teenagers. It sort of worked but lots of adults hated it too. Then there was that great and now campy scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw runs his nails down a chalkboard to get everyone’s attention – a very avant garde film moment in an otherwise extremely mainstream movie. Jaws is one of the few Spielberg movies with a soundtrack I can take. More recently comdedian Aziz Ansari mentioned how the minute you hear that Arabic maqam music in a movie you know that it’s a terrorist lair. In fact he went on to say if perhaps the movies didn’t use such music or motifs perhaps we wouldn’t be in the chaos we are in today. Sound matters which is why film makers that are lazy about using it do not make the kind of films I ever want to see.

Had I to do this all over again I would have gone into the creation of ambient sound and music. I like to think that my work is infiltrated by my being influenced by sound as much as the visual world around me. At night in the woods the trees take on a spiky silhouette pointing toward the very busy Milky Way that I am lucky to see often. There is a rustle in them, and if you listen really closely something even more intense – you hear yourself. The minute one is able to align their heartbeat and breathe with the universe in that way the noise of life is pushed into the background. Snow falling, rain, birds and even the questionable transmissions of EMFs become more of a reality. The tranquil act of experiencing this ‘silence’ makes the occasional nightmare of dealing with the world worth it.

The above YouTube clips are:

Charlie Chaplin in a scene from Modern Times. Chaplin wrote, directed and scored the music. If there had been dialogue in this scene it would not be one of the most effective and brilliant moments in any movie.

An Arctic ocean ice breaker idling in the ice. This video is an exact and wonderful example of a landscape based art work that merges nature and humans, all through sound. The visuals are great too but you will also enjoy this without looking at it.


State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Art and its parts

When art collides with expectation troubles ensue. A recent article in Harper’s Magazine noted that two American artists who work in neon light and video are in a nasty fight with UK customs. The artist’s works were purchased by a gallery in London and shipped from New York. When the work hit customs in the UK the crate was examined and the officials marked the work as components, not art, putting it into a much higher tariff rate. The storm that ensued remains unresolved and the gallery eventually backed out of the purchase leaving the artists to fight on their own.

Essentially the art works in this case may have been art in New York and might be art in a gallery in London, but unassembled in boxes while in transport they are not temporarily considered art. What a decision like this does is say that art work must meet the expectation of a custom official; that they make the decision of what art is or isn’t. And once again we are back at a very old, very tiring discussion about what art should be. Art should look and act like art right? And that is what? And who decides?

For many people art is the Mona Lisa, a painting, a very old painting. For others it is what their kid did at junior kindergarten. And for a lot of people it’s just a bunch of crap the government wastes money on. For fun, try reading a mainstream media’s comments section on an art review. It is eye opening. Art can inspire some openly hostile vitriol. The custom officials at the centre of the article could be ignorant of current trends in art (if you weren’t paying attention or cared you wouldn’t know that tons and tons of art is now made with electronic stuff) and really did not understand what it was they were inspecting or they perhaps hate contemporary art and really enjoyed judging its merits. A tribunal held regarding the kafuffle ruled with the officials because they also agreed that the boxes did not contain art just parts. Here that art world? It isn’t art if it has parts.

As an artist who will be packing up work this time next year to transport to England for an exhibition I found this incident troubling. I work on wood. So, if you follow the logic of this incident, officials at customs could rule that I am trying to import foreign wood into the country and not paintings. The British are super touchy about what kind of wood is imported and I shall have to have custom made crates out of approved wood. But I’m not overly worried because my work isn’t worth a gazillion dollars and probably won’t get flagged.

Duchamp's urinal. Essentially art that changed everything. Art or plumbing material?
Duchamp’s urinal. Essentially art that changed everything. Art or plumbing material?

The implications of all this are kind of creepy. Why would a customs official not trust that a crate containing items from an artist for an art gallery with paper work that details it as art? Trust me, the paper work for shipping art overseas is extensive. Why would an artist and gallery go through the red tape just for components and not art? Why pick on an artist and gallery anyway? I would think a custom official in one of the world’s biggest cities would have much better ways to spend their time.

The banality of a government worker flagging art work and pigeon holing it as they seem fit highlights the casual brutality our institutions can behave toward art. I don’t believe in victimization however and think that the artists or gallery in question must have played a role here. Is this just another example of the public not understanding contemporary art because contemporary art doesn’t want to be understood? Does the art world wantonly keep us regular folks in the dark because perhaps the art world can’t really justify things like getting a low tariff rate on imported goods?

I would guess that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Artists are always on the low rung on the ladder of life. We are marginalized and perhaps marginalize ourselves. It seems like a vicious circle. I remember years ago when I was in theatre and at a symposium many voices complained that a certain national newspaper wasn’t giving live theatre enough ink. I was alone in my opinion when I countered that in fact theatre was given a ton of coverage if you took into consideration that only a few thousand people in Toronto would actually see the performance. And, most of the theatres I worked with didn’t buy ads in the paper so their coverage was even thinner. It seemed to me at the time that a lot of these artists didn’t have perspective on the size of their world nor did they understand how newspapers are run.

Sometimes I think the art world wants the perks of the ‘real’ world (money, stuff!) but they also want to stay naïve about how the world actually works. Perhaps it is a purgatory we are doomed to live in since being creative does need a certain amount of unconventional thinking and a bit of childlike inquisitiveness. I think however that the expectation of art can be mitigated and it should be done by us, not a customs official at an airport.

Pic found at Jamie Potter Blogspot