An insistent buzz, a background noise, a tangle of voices filling the space and spreading to the entrance… Days – Bruce Nauman‘s installation created in 2009 for the retrospective Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens at the Venice Biennale[i] – greets the visitor in this way.
It is the ICA – Institute of Contemporary Arts to host the first presentation to the British audience of the latest sound work by the American artist. And, as usual, it does this definitely in style: not only by devoting an entire season of its excellent screenings, talks and performances programme to the various branches of sound practice in contemporary arts, but also realizing SOUNDWORKS: a collective exhibition that, at the same time, is a tribute to the American artist, a survey on present sound research and a web platform accessible to a large public.
SOUNDWORKS is in fact designed as a freely accessible and permanent online archive that collects audio tracks of a hundred artists selected by many international institutions and invited to respond to Nauman’s work. The tracks are transmitted in the upper room of the ICA, but it is much easier (and interesting) to connect to the website http://www.ica.org.uk/projects/soundworks/ and get lost in the endless listening paths inside the platform. It is a wide exploration, that of the ICA, serving alongside famous names such as Cosey Fanni Tutti, David Toop, Liam Gillick, Scanner, Brandon LaBelle or Florian Hecker, also young and perhaps less known voices: from Haroon Mirza to Tris Vonna-Michell, Jesse Ash or the Italian Alberto Tadiello[ii].
Days, which is installed in the lower hall of the English institution, radiates throughout the exhibition space – in the ticket office, the library, the café – completely occupying it with a diffused vociferation. The only visual elements in Nauman’s work are fourteen panels, fourteen white, minimal sculptural appearances suspended in space on two parallel lines. They are directional speakers broadcasting seven different voices, which endlessly recite the names of the days of the week (monday, tuesday…) in unexpected sequences, giving birth to a cacophonous sound corridor. The voices haunt the space with a fusion of sound, which at first “sight” seems quite indecipherable, a vague and elusive chatter. Each voice becomes recognizable only when the visitor, entering the installation, finds himself in axis with two of the speakers. Only then the semantic component of language comes into action, further destabilizing the listener due to the changes introduced in the order in which the names of the days are pronounced. These are voices with a strong American accent, women and men, young and old, articulating this trivial litany with different tones, rhythms and pronunciations, creating a continuous and progressive change in the sound amalgam. They are doubled and dislocated voices, simultaneously coming from two different points in space, celebrating the inexorable and banal flow of time.
Days can be considered an exemplary embodiment of Nauman’s interest in the relationship between voice and space: a nexus that the artist explored since the beginning of his long career, and that seems to remain a central issue in his aesthetic practice.
Consider, for example, Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1969), a small and completely empty environment in which four speakers hidden in the walls propagate the artist’s recorded voice, incessantly repeating the sentence of the title[iii]. Nauman’s voice gasps, shouts imperiously or growls angrily, directly addressing us, the audience. It commands or implores us to leave the room that we have just entered and, at the same time, creates a discomforting situation as we cannot properly locate the source of this voice.
Consider, again, Raw Materials (the unforgettable site-specific installation created for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2004), made from the oral translation of twenty-two texts taken from previous works by Nauman originally made in a variety of different media (in textual form, drawings, neon, video or installations). This installation becomes also a sort of sui-generis retrospective, a reenactment and, at the same time, a metalinguistic reflection in which the artist traces some of key artworks in his career through a transcoding, employing language in its oral form in order to establish a dynamic relationship with space [iv].
In Days, like in Get Out and Raw Materials, the language is therefore placed in relation with space through its sound materialization, its vocal embodiment, through a real process of language “spatialization”[v]. It may perhaps seem paradoxical to speak of “materialization” referring to sound – an ephemeral and intangible medium par excellence – and of “embodiment” for a recorded voice, irremediably separated from the body that produced it. In fact, in much of Nauman’s work, language is in relation with subjectivity and context.
In her brilliant essay, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, Writings and Interviews, Janet Kraynak proposes a suggestive and convincing interpretation of Nauman’s use of language: Nauman’s linguistic expressions are essentially mundane, they are in relation to the world rather than to the linguistic system (and this is the very aspect differentiating him from many contemporary conceptual artists’ practices)[vi]. At the same time, the spaces articulated by Nauman essentially turn on the relationship between subject and environment by creating complex and multiple expressive and perceptive possibilities. Sound, in this nexus, is one of the privileged mediums, such as Get Out, Raw Materials and finally Daysseem to confirm.
Language, voice, verbal deformations and endless repetitions are also at the heart of many of the over 100 tracks in SOUNDWORKS, and constitute a sort of sounding board of Nauman’s practice, of its influence on the current artistic research, of the many possible approaches and perspectives on his work.
The Uruguayan Alejandro Cesarco, interested in repetition, narration and translation, recorded himself while repeating his own name, literally, “pronounced as if it were on the surface of the moon.” The extreme dilation of the pronunciation and the phonetic division to which the name is subjected directly translate in oral form Nauman’s famous neon signature My name as though it was written on the surface of the moon (1968) re-proposing the process at the base of Raw Materials.
Also Floriano Romano‘s audio track is based on one of Nauman’s artwork: in this case Please pay attention please. The sentence is subjected to a reversal but also to a process of repetition and vocalization similar to Get Out: the imperative “do not pay attention” is circularly declined in multiple intonations, ending to almost become a mere expedient for a rhythmic exercise.
Brandon LaBelle‘s 365 is directly related to the topic of time flow, which is at the foundation of Days. It is a sound diary recorded during one year, 1997, repeating every day at different times and places the phrase “365 is a significant number”. The repetition of the same sentence in different contexts and tonalities quickly deprives the words of their semantic value, resulting in an intimate yet impersonal passing of time and compressing a year long existence in the 24 minutes of the audio track.
Repetition, in this case linked to a marked interest in socio-political issues, is also the core of We will be here forever by the Italian artist Rossella Biscotti: a reenactment of a sentence of African-American activist rapper KRS-One (Lawrence Krisna Parker) repeated until the end of the tape. “We will be here forever. Do you understand that? We will be here for ever and ever … ” repeats the voice, articulating tension and expressing a “passive resistance” – as the artist declares – based on the “physical presence over time”.
Mattin plays instead with paradox in My work is entirely my own and contains no third party material. A distorted voice reads what seems to be an e-mail with which the Director of the ICA invited him to participate in the project. The recording includes every detail: the description of SOUNDWORKS, the procedures to upload the files on the online platform, the remuneration offered to the artists, the invoicing, the e-mail addresses, the biographical information… When the text specifies the policies relating to copyright, requiring artists to declare “My work is entirely my own and contains no third party material”, the recording stops, and the formula is repeated in a loop, like a mantra, for more than 10 minutes on a total of 20 that make up the track. This work, on one hand, continues the deconstruction of the notion of intellectual property that is at the heart of the Basque artist’s research. On the other hand, it questions the very institution in which the exhibition takes place.
These diverse and often distant researches also represent a wide sampling of the expressive, conceptual and formal possibilities of sound recording. After having explored, in the past years, the influences and occurrences of videos, cinema, fanzines or television in contemporary arts, the ICA looks at sound in order to investigate its various paths in current artistic practices. As stated in the introduction to the summer programme, “Founded by artists, musicians and composers as a medium that is immersive, accessible, and transformative, sound has become increasingly important to artists and audiences in recent years, perhaps as a compelling variant of more orthodox forms of artistic delivery”[vii].
ICA’s “sound season”, in fact, is only a further confirmation of the growing interest of the official art system in the universe of sound. Just the year 2012 (with the help of the centenary of the birth of John Cage) has seen a plethora of events, festivals and exhibitions: from the monumental Sound Art. Sound as Medium of Art at ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe to A House Full of Music. Strategies in the Music and Art at Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. At the same time publications, meetings, discussions on these researches (which until a few years ago were considered, if not marginal, at least sectorial) multiply… Also the ICA chooses to put an important part in this mosaic of studies and exhibitions and, at least in the case of SOUNDWORKS, the resonances will be, if not permanent, surely very long
[ii] – The project SOUNDWORKS has just won a Bronze award in the art category at the second annual European Lovie Awards – the European Award to honour different kind of contents created for the internet – for its innovative use of technology.
[iii] – The soundtrack of Get Out is also one of the five recordings which lead to Studio Aids II (1967-1968), together with the sound of four films and videos created in the same years (Jumping, Violin Tuned D.E.A.D., Rolling on the Studio Floor e Walking in the Studio).
[iv] – The processes of transformation of the initial texts varies: sometimes the sound of a video is separated from the image and then assembled in a loop (Thank You Thank You, 1992); in other cases a text originally presented as a poster or a neon installation is acted and recorded for the first time in this occasion (Left or Standing/Standing or Left Standing, 1971/1999; The True Artist Is An Amazing Luminous Fountain, 1966). From this point of view Raw Materials can be considered the macroscopic evidence of Nauman’s attitude, visible in the whole of his reseach, to use the same “raw” material in different contexts. See the exhibition catalogue: Emma Dexter (ed.), Bruce Nauman – Raw Materials, Tate Publishing, London 2004.
[v] – But also Sound Breaking Wall, presented in 1969 at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, used the same concept: the sound installation was composed by recorded sounds – almost inaudible whispers, laughter and loud thuds – spread in the exhibition space through invisible speakers. In this regard, Nauman declares: “The idea was of the whole room being the sound, the whole room resonating, really locating the sound”; quoted in Joan Simon, “Hear Here: Bruce Nauman talks to Joan Simon”, Frieze, no. 86, September 2004, pp. 130-37, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/hear_here/.
[vi] – In reviewing some crucial phases in the debate on linguistic philosophy in the late 1960s, Kraynak shows us how “throughout Nauman’s art an outgoing investigation on language can be found: one predicated, however, less upon the rules and laws of the semiotic sign than upon the workings of the speech act or the ‘utterance’” (Janet Kraynak, Please Pay Attention Please…cit., p. 6). The ‘utterance’ is a central aspect of the broader concept of “dialogue” proposed by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin who, rejecting the traditional encompassing approach of the linguistic theories of Saussure, focused on the individual speech act emphasizing its intersubjective and contextual character. For this reason, Nauman makes extensive use of personal pronouns and verb forms that directly call into question the spectator, as, for example, also in Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room. Janet Kraynak (ed.), Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words Writings and Interviews, MIT Press, Cambridge-London 2003, p. 6.
[vii] – Gregor Muir, “Foreword”, in ICA Programme, June-September 2012, p. 3.