3.13 / The Sound Issue

Conversation about Invisible Relics

By Art Practical Editors April 19, 2012

Image: Mauricio Ancalmo. Dualing Pianos: Agapé Agape in D Minor, 2011; mixed media; dimensions variable; installation view, Bay Area Now 6, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Courtesy of the Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco.

Invisible Relics opens at Park Life Gallery in San Francisco on May 12, 2012, and includes documentation of works by Chris Burden, Paul Kos, and Tom Marioni, as well as contemporary works by Mauricio Ancalmo, Guy Overfelt, and Josh Short. All of the artists but Burden and Kos were present, along with curator Andrew McClintock, Park Life director Jamie Alexander, and Art Practical editors Tess Thackara, Victoria Gannon, and Patricia Maloney for the conversation in Marioni’s studio to unpack the exhibition’s premise: that sound is a potent and lasting element in each of the conceptual and performative works included. Much of the conversation focused on sound as a compositional element in conceptual practice and the familarity of everyday experience it brings to such practice. It may not be hard to surmise that in a beer-and-whiskey-fueled conversation about gun shots, pissing, burnouts in a muscle car, and fish fryers, a certain masculine energy predominated, which in turn led to a line of inquiry into gender.

Sound is necessarily intrusive and disruptive. We have to anticipate when we seek to create new relationships between objects or activities that a certain dissonance might prevail. If Invisible Relics aims to call out a new point of inquiry into historical and contemporary conceptual art, hopefully one result will include an expanded position on what that inquiry means and who might be heard.


Andrew McClintock: Shoot was my introduction to Chris Burden’s work, and that piece really stuck with me for a long time. I’ve thought, “What about this piece is so special that it keeps coming back into my head? Is it the act of him getting shot? Is it the sound?” Basically, this show is a way for me to look at three historical works and then look at contemporary work by artists that I know, to see how they tie into each other or what similarities exist. The whole idea of Invisible Relics came to me because it occurred to me that [the special aspect of Burden’s piece is] actually the sound. I think the show is a way to examine art in a way that it hasn’t necessarily been examined before, to take in the idea of a sound as a relic.

Patricia Maloney: In juxtaposing the work of the three contemporary Bay Area artists against these historical pieces, are you trying to create a particular historical trajectory around their practices?

AMcC: It’s more of a dialogue. It’s continuing the tradition of very strong, conceptually based California art and figuring out a way to combine the past with the future and see if they can meld together. By having these different sounds or the idea of certain sounds in the same space, will they create something new, and if so, what is that?

Tom Marioni: Paul Kos, Chris Burden, and I made these works in 1970 and 1971. In 1970, I organized maybe the first sound art show anywhere at my Museum of Conceptual Art. It was called Sound Sculpture As, and Paul Kos was included in that show with his eight microphones trained on ice melting. It was conceptual sound because people were straining to hear the sound of the ice melting, and it became a conceptual experience because there was no sound. You could only imagine the sound. I did my Piss Piece, as it was called, from the top of a ladder after drinking beer—because I was famous for drinking beer with my friends—that same year in the Oakland Museum. There were nine artists in that show who were all sculptors, and each one did a work that demonstrated the physics of sound. In my case, as the water level went up, the sound pitch went down. It was not Chris Burden’s intent to make a sound piece, although there is sound when you fire a rifle.

PM: I had a conversation with Lynn Hershman Leeson, in which she points to the genesis of [her project] the Dante Hotel in 1972 or ’73 as her rejection from a group exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum because the sculpture that she created had a sound component, and she was told that there wasn’t room for sound in the institution. But obviously, you were already producing exhibitions of sound works at that time. Was there an audience for this type of work? How were [curators] approaching that work at that time? Were they approaching it as art or as performance? What kind of parameters were being placed on this kind of work?

Chris Burden. Shoot, 1971; Super-8, 16mm film, and half-inch video documentation of performance of artist shot in the arm on November 19, 1971 at F Space, Santa Ana, CA.

TM: The Fluxus artists that followed the Happenings artists in the ’60s did festivals, and a lot of it was about sound, but it was not sound art. Fluxus was more influenced by John Cage, so Fluxus events were either readings, or theater or music, and not visual art. Most of the Fluxus artists didn’t come from visual art. The idea of sound as a material in sculpture, as a sculpture idea, came about in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s; it became a movement in the ’70s, especially in Europe. Sound is an area of conceptual art; conceptual art has language, has systems, and it has action. It’s mostly action in California.

PM: By focusing on the sound, [the exhibition] shifts the emphasis for these historical works away from the conceptual and back toward a sensory, material experience. How might sound become tactile?

AMcC: There is the idea of sense memory that comes from, I believe, a certain style of theatrical acting. We each have triggers for our specific memories, but they’re triggers that we all have; they’re something we [hear] every day, like urination, or a car burning out, or the sound of food being made, or a phone ringing. I think it’s putting art into the context of real life—it’s like, “This is art, but it’s also real life,” you know? It’s trying to look at it in a different way.

Jamie Alexander: At Park Life, we generally show more standard works of visual art: painting and drawing and photography. I thought this would be a great opportunity to do something more conceptual. I’m excited that this will be the first show that we’ve hosted in which the work is more ephemeral, a lot less visual, and more auditory.

PM: What is the potential for sound to become a relic of a performative work of art? How might that inform your decision when you’re creating work?

TM: In the Catholic Church, a relic is like a piece of bone from a saint. But a photograph of the bone wouldn’t be a relic, it would be a record. So in this case, we’re using the word relic, and it’s not really a relic if it’s a photograph or a video or audio recording.

PM: Right, that’s a good point. But my understanding is that one often wore relics or one could kiss them, so in some way there was this transference—so that one could embody the saintliness or the holiness of the saint…

TM: …get the power…

PM: Exactly, just by your physical interaction with it. So the idea that sound creates a very physical, visceral transference of an [object’s] experience to you suggests how sound operates as a relic.

Victoria Gannon: From what’s being described, it seems that all the included works have a component of sound, but that hasn’t necessarily been the sense that’s been singled out. Are you going to exhibit them in a way that is going to distill them down to just the sound? Are you exhibiting them in a different way than they’ve been exhibited before? Are you drawing attention to sound through the conceptual framework that you’re offering?

AMcC: It’s just looking at them in a new way. The sounds are going to be present for all of the works, and as Tom mentioned, the recordings from the ’70’s take on an abstract quality. For example, Chris Burden’s piece is like white noise—you hear a little mumbling and then some static and then the gunshot and a shell hitting the floor.

Josh Short: When Andrew approached me about this show, I had to scratch my head for a minute because I don’t consider myself a sound artist. I make functional or performative objects. I don’t make things to make sound, usually; they just end up making a lot of sound. Now that I’ve been working with FM radio transmission, sound is definitely more of the subject. Andrew presented this [exhibition] to me when I was doing the residency at Ever Gold, and I was saturated by sound every day. There was live music, and I would hang a mike that would capture the sound of the audience and whatever was happening in the gallery along with music. I also really love crowds and the way people interact. It made me think about the work differently.

When I was asked to do this piece, I thought immediately of a fish fryer that I made. I always have food as a part of the work I do now. I’m fascinated with regional forms of barbecue, the way people cook food. A fish fry in Oakland looks very different than one in Memphis. So I try to use those cues when I create a piece of art. This time, I plan to make a thing I call Pit Bull, which is a piece that’s attached to the fish fryer by a chain, and it makes a loud noise directly related to the sound of the fish frying. It’ll just amplify that sound, which will also be broadcast into the gallery. I guess you can experience it in two places at once. It might [be transformed] further, but that’s the state of it right now. I like the idea of a broadcasted signal, almost like a cook saying, “Order up!” It’s a way to reference this usability, this kind of creative practice in an everyday culture.


Josh Short. Pit Bull, 2012; mixed media. Courtesy of the Artist and Ever Gold Gallery, San Francisco.

Mauricio Ancalmo: I like the juxtapositions, when sounds clash together out of nowhere. In a way, this auditory editing happens, and I find it every day, with bells ringing or cars passing by. I really like where these things crisscross and chance comes into play, which goes back to Duchamp and John Cage, an amazing sound artist. I like the idea of throwing something different into our normal everyday experience, and sound is one of these things that can do that.

Andrew and I haven’t made any kind of official decision, but I’m thinking about two different pieces that are very similar. One piece is a slide projector combined with a turntable; the light of the slide projector hits the turntable and it shoots the shadow of the turntable onto the wall. As it moves, switching from slide to slide, it has a sound, so it keeps this metronome beat. It activates the turntable, which shoots sounds through a speaker, and you can hear the record playing just when it spins. And what ends up happening is this visual reaction followed by an auditory reaction, dual experiences that I find similar to what I’m doing every day.

I’m always trying to process the visual and the auditory together, as we all do. It’s like two different soundtracks or audio tracks—these two things that happen in unison—and they don’t match, but we force them to match. I like this idea of putting things together that weren’t meant to be together and redefining function—a slide projector isn’t meant to

MA (cont.): pull a turntable, and a turntable isn’t meant to spin at the speed of a slide projector.

Tess Thackara: You’re all artists that work in a range of different media, and I would like to hear your ideas about what sound can do as a medium that other media can’t achieve. 

TM: I would assume everyone here is a sculptor and sees the world from the point of view as a sculptor. For me, conceptual art comes out of a sculpture sensibility. I assume that Mauricio’s work is as much about music as it is concrete sound. Is that right? Is your intent to make music, too?

MA: It’s a tough definition, though, because music is harmony, melody, chords, and notes combined. If sound has those elements intrinsically, then yes, but as far as composing and that realm of music, maybe not so much.

TM: One of the pieces that I have in the show is my book Beer, Art, and Philosophy nailed to the wall and open to pages ninety-four and ninety-five. I describe on those pages that, if an artist hammers a nail into the wall and the intent is to make a sound as a material coming from a sculpture sensibility, then it’s sound art and not music. Music is an organized arrangement of sounds, and [sound art’s] intent separates it from music.


Tom Marioni. Piss Piece, 1970 (still); performance, Sound Sculpture As, Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

PM: Guy, how does sound come to play in your work?

Guy Overfelt: I don’t know.

PM: Can you elaborate on that?

GO: I can with more beer.

PM: Get this man more beer! While we’re waiting for libations, I’m curious to hear more about your progression, Tom, from making sculpture to making sound as sculpture.

TM: I studied music as a child, and then later I was influenced by John Cage a lot. The idea of choosing sound as a material happened in 1969 with my One Second Sculpture. I threw a metal tape measure in the air, it made a loud sound, made a drawing in space, and fell to the ground in one second. I made a musical instrument that was a sculpture that performed itself. That led me to do a sound art show that I organized, which included a piece in which Mel Henderson fired a .30-caliber rifle at a moving picture with about a hundred people in the room. Immediately following that, Jim Melchert had a telephone ring for fifteen times and then stop and then ring another fifteen times. So the ringing of the telephone followed the ringing of your ears after Mel Henderson fired the rifle in the room. That was the beginning of my interest in sound.

Guy Overfelt. Burnout, 1998; video documentation of a burnout at the 18th Street / Rt. 280 freeway entrance, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Ever Gold Gallery, San Francisco.

PM: Okay, Guy, you have more beer now.

GO: What I need right now is five thousand dollars to buy a Trans AM on Craigslist so I can burnout in front of Park Life, for which Jamie will help get the proper permitting so I don’t get busted by the police again and taken to jail. But if that doesn’t happen…I mean, there’s still time, right? We’re looking for investors. Send me money.

JA: What if we dropped your crushed Trans AM from the three-story roof of Park Life?

JS: Maybe we can drop your Trans AM on my fish fryer during the opening. That would be epic. What a sound that would make.

PM: Guy, the sounds of [tires squealing] and the car flooring the engine—in what ways do they potentially outlive the visual experience of watching you burnout in the car?

GO: You remember when you did it. You remember what you felt like when you did it. You remember who you were with, maybe, or why you were doing it. Out of frustration, out of trying to be cool, out of just pure accident because the road was wet—I can neither confirm nor deny these allegations.

TT: Josh, are we going to get to eat the fish?

JS: Not if Guy drops his car on my fish fryer. We could deep fry your Trans Am, bro’. That sounds like a good idea: beer-battered Trans AM. Yes, people will be able to eat the fish. 

TT: That was what I was thinking, that you’d be eating the fish and then would go into the gallery and hear the sound of the fish cooking. It privileges one sense—hearing— over tasting it and smelling the fish as it’s cooked. Is that how you conceived of the piece or how you intend for people to experience it? Is the sound about experiencing the act of the fish cooking in some other way? Or is it just about creating an abstract sound removed from that act and creating something through chance?

JS: Yeah, it’s an experiment but also a question: how far can we push this experience? I mean, I’m pretty proud of my fryer that I made; it’s pretty novel. I don’t know if that has anything to do with how the fish will taste, but maybe by amplifying the sound, by turning it up to eleven, somehow you heighten that experience.

Paul Kos, Sound of Ice Melting

Paul Kos. Sound of Ice Melting, 1970. Two twenty-five-pound blocks of ice, eight boom microphone stands, eight microphones, mixer, amplifier, two large speakers, and cables; dimensions variable; installation view: Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco, 1970. Courtesy of the Artist. © 1970 Paul Kos.

PM: Andrew, is there any kind of reactive force underlining your creation of this exhibition? I have to point out the fact that it’s all dudes. 

AMcC: I get this every day: “How come you only work with guys?” And I actually don’t.

PM: But this show is only guys. And one of the pieces is a guy getting shot, and another piece is a guy pissing, and so it’s just, like—that’s what guys do.

AMcC: Well, I don’t know, it’s a male-owned gallery so maybe you should ask the male gallerist. I’m sorry—every time I go out, people bring that up to me. I’m not really aware of any pieces in particular that have been done by women artists. I’m sure there are many that relate to the way that I was curatorially thinking about this exhibition. I would say that none of the artists involved in the exhibition consider themselves sound artists. I hope the show is going to be interesting because these are artists that work in different realms that end up producing sound as the main relic.

TM: I can tell you why. Conceptual art comes from sculpture, and generally, the majority of women artists are painters and not sculptors because sculpture is more physical. So that’s why males dominate sculpture, just because it’s much more physical. I always got accused of not supporting women, but I supported every single woman who was doing performance art based on the idea of sculpture in the ’70s, Marina Abramović and so on. But there were fewer women artists in Conceptual Art than there were male artists because painting is not a part of Conceptual Art, and most women are painters. Conceptual art is free to work in any medium except painting.

PM: If we look at the late ’60s, going through the ’70s, into the early ’80s, you had this incredible eruption of work by women who were working in a very performative vein. They understood performance as a practice in which there was no prior history, and that therefore they could construct their own history. To fold this back into the conversation that we’re having about sound, performative work and conceptual work was very much about creating these disruptions and ruptures around our understanding of what a creative practice could be and what a person’s identity could be. How does sound come into play? It is perhaps the most intrusive of the senses in which we operate and can be the most disruptive.

AMcC: If I knew Yoko Ono, I would have asked her to be in the show for her Cut piece.

MA: I just want to say, this whole male/female gender thing is interesting because those are labels and words, and I think that’s the stuff that gets in the way and discriminates. I wasn’t even aware of that fact until you brought it up. Not that it’s a good or bad thing; it doesn’t really matter to me personally. You might as well ask who has long hair or short hair, who is brown or white—I really don’t care. To me, it’s just a matter of Andrew thinking about these things and putting the show together.

VG: What’s interesting about the response to Patricia’s question is that she didn’t actually make any conclusions based on that observation. She merely pointed out a very objective fact, and it was immediately met with a defensive reaction of how gender doesn’t matter.

TM: A true artist has no sex.

VG: That’s interesting, but are there implications to the fact that it’s all men in this show? And if there aren’t, that’s fine, but was it an intentional decision?

AMcC: No, and I’m sorry my reaction was so abrupt. I’m approached with this question a lot about the programming at Ever Gold, and I’m very sensitive to it because, like Mauricio said, I don’t look at people in that way. Everybody, we’re all human and that’s the only thing that I really see.

VG: I would suggest that by ignoring the issue and not taking gender into consideration ascribes your act a certain intention.

TM: A true artist has no race, also. When this subject comes up, you might say, “All right, who was not accepted in the exhibition? Who was not invited?” I would like to know a woman sound artist from the ’70s who should be in this show that could be an omission, a mistake. Maybe you could think about that. 

AMcC: It includes artists that have been influential on the way that I think about art. Tom and Paul and Chris are very important artists, not just in Conceptual Art but in art in general. And they’ve all influenced me. I know some of them better than others, or their work, or the combination of both. It wasn’t intentional. As Damien Hirst recently said, “I make art about what’s around me, and I'm around money,” so he makes art about money. I’m relating to what I know and what my surroundings are. I have ongoing conversations with a lot of the artists in this show, and we talk about life, talk about art, talk about the meaning of art in life, talk about how life is art. That’s really the basis for the people that I chose for the show, besides the fact that all the artists in the exhibtion are amazing at what they do. 

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