3.13 / The Sound Issue

Fast. Slow. Loud. Soft. Freak-Out: Joshua Churchill and Chris Duncan in conversation

By Art Practical Editors April 19, 2012

Light and sound are ubiquitous but immaterial elements; essential to any sensory impression, they are most often registered subconciously and effortlessly. Artists Joshua Churchill and Chris Duncan interrupt our unconscious processing of what we see and hear by inviting us to participate in their respective site-specific installations and live performances. Churchill describes his installations as "recreating and touching upon the pulse of the space and the site." In collaborating with filmmakers, he turns his back on their projections and immerses himself in elaborate orchestrations of sound. It falls to the audience to stitch together the visual and aural components into a cohesive experience. Duncan has frequently relied on abstract geometric patterning and color to create dynamic environments and perceptual shifts. But lately his practice has drawn on the parallels between optical patterns and rhythm to explore sonic harmony and discordancy in space. Significant to both artists is the element of chance and the generative potential inherent in sound. Both artists encourage the audience to use the sounds generated by the performances to create a relationship to the space they occupy and the other people there and to make meaning of what they see and hear. What follows is a conversation between the artists that attests to their familiarity and mutual appreciation of each other’s practices and affirms the sublime moments that can arise in the transition between orchestration and letting go.

Image: Chris Duncan and Jason Leggiere. Sound and Shape2011;  collaborative, interactive sound sculpture; installation view, Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery. 

Chris Duncan: I've always had an itch to engage with sound, but it never felt quite accessible enough to me. Everyone I knew was in a band or very active in some scene, but it took going down to Los Angeles in 2008 to see the 88 Boardrum performance organized by the Boredoms to push me over the edge. I've seen a lot of bands, but this was the first time in my life that I was blown away by the chaos, the synchronicity, the color, and the flow of the whole performance. I wanted to be a part of it so badly, it killed me. The weight was so incredibly amazing that I just needed to do something like that.

Within a couple weeks of that performance, I had applied for a fellowship at Kala, which is traditionally a printmaking fellowship that offers money and studio space. I told them I would buy a drum set with the money and use the studio space to learn how to play drums and invite people over—musicians or not, didn’t matter—to have jam sessions. I would record them and we would eventually make a record that sandwiched together all these recorded moments.

I was interested in experimentating with sound in a way that I didn’t know how to do by myself. I had drumsticks, I had drums, but I didn’t know how to do it yet. Working with a group of people—regardless of their skill—was a very freeing moment. It was amazing. For roughly three months, once a week, we all got together and played. I started to find my place and to find what interested me about making sound, about music in particular. I taught myself Garage Band and created one twelve-minute song out of over twelve hours of raw recording.

Chris Duncan. THE SUN, 2010; performance, Southern Exposure, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

The fellowship required me to give a lecture, but it felt kind of silly to show my object-based artwork when I had spent all my time there trying to engage with these sonic aspirations. So I bought fifty sets of drumsticks, and I gave them out to everybody. I prefaced the project—which was the first Sun performance—[saying] that this gathering was a physical manifestation of the concepts of my work and an acknowledgement of the energy in the space, the moments of chaos, and even the overwhelming nature of things that ebb and flow to [create] these moments of connection. That connection might transcend from a bunch of dots on a piece of paper or a bunch of string in a room or human beings with sticks making an absolute sonic mess for twenty minutes. But then for three minutes, all of a sudden, [everyone] just got together.

I found beauty in both those moments of synchronicity and of chaos. I know it was an experiment that has a history—John Cage—but this was my attempt to reinvigorate it with a different concept, coming from a visual space and entering a sonic space. It blew my mind.


Chris Duncan and Jason Leggiere. Sound and Shape2011;  exhibition poster. Courtesy of the Artists and Guerrero Gallery.

Since then, I’ve been thinking so much more about the role that sound can play and about the accessibility that is lacking in visual culture. I'm really quite interested in that accessibility and immediacy. I am now drawing these parallels between what I’ve been trying to achieve visually and what I’m trying to achieve sonically, so much so that I've started to make sound sculptures. Last year, I had the pleasure of collaborating with another Bay Area artist named Jason Leggiere. We installed a double-sided triangular harp at Guerrero Gallery that used music wire instead of the crochet yarn that I've used in my installations. I'm still investigating line, but now these lines are going to resonate and react.

I spent a lot of time watching people engage with the piece and seeing how they dealt with it. As a stagnant form, it was just a very subtle, minimalist sculpture: one piece of metal, four pieces of wood, and then a lot of thin lines running down it. A light hum from the amplifier, but beyond that not much. People would either hit it and it would freak out, or people would try to find these really beautiful moments with sound making, and it was very satisfying. Within that, Jason and I organized a whole series of performances, inviting experimental musicians to engage with it as well. So there was both the opportunity for a viewer to play it whenever they wanted and this moment where the experimental music community—we have a very rich one—could perform and use this sculpture as an instrument. That’s what I want to do. I want to satisfy my curiosity to work with sculptural, aesthetically interesting forms that could be activated sonically for anyone to engage with but then offer a platform for people that are interested in really exploring sound to find new ways of using it.

Josh, you were one of the people that we were excited to have engage with it. And I actually want to preface this with the fact that as far as my entrance into sound making, and of bridging that weird gap to jump through, Josh was really inspirational.

Chris Duncan. THE SUN, 2009; limited edition one-sided LP recorded at Kala Institute of Art, Berkeley. Courtesy of the Artist.

Joshua Churchill: Thanks. It was a great collaboration for a lot of reasons. One of the things I liked the most about that sound sculpture was that it wasn’t a traditional instrument; it was a sculpture. It was built in a way that didn’t make it immediately obvious how you might interact with it or what its response was going to be. You couldn’t have this predetermined relationship with the object in terms of playing it, which was nice, because it created this element of randomness or chaos for every single person that approached it. It almost leveled the playing field for anyone who approached it, whether it was a person that was a trained musician or a passerby coming in off the street. Some of my favorite moments with that sculpture were actually in between performances or before and after performances, when people came up to it and discovered what it did or could do and just explored the object itself. That was also my favorite thing about interacting with it. It was this thing that I never had any prior experience with, and even with an hour of preparation, I still couldn't really wrap my mind around what its exact behavior was. It was almost a call and response between me and the sculpture. The whole performance was developing that relationship with the instrument and finding out what it is, what it can do, and what it can't do. It is almost more interesting, a lot of times, to discover the limitations of any particular instrument.

CD: You play all the time. You play shows in more of a traditional sort of rock [performance]. It’s definitely art based, but you play shows, you perform, you have bands. Can you speak on the differences between that and your installation?

JC: The majority of the performance work I do is actually fairly experimental and/or improvised. There are a couple projects that fall into the structure of a traditional music project, but for me, the line between the two is pretty amorphous. A lot of my earlier noise performances were pretty in line with some of my current installation work. A lot of it took place in nontraditional spaces. It took a lot of preparation before the show and actually involved strategically placed interactive lighting as well. The experience—the visceral and physical experience—of the show itself was more important than any sort of musicality, and I'd say that runs through almost any part of my sound practice. I'm not that interested in traditional music in terms of making it and in some ways even in listening to it. I'm more interested in sound as an element and as something that constantly exists and shapes or affects our environment. That is how I approach both ends of the practice. My performance work definitely leans more toward a musical form, but my goal is more about creating an atmosphere, movements, and shifting moods.



Chris Duncan is an Oakland-based, interdisciplinary artist who employs the use of color, repetition, and reflections, along with a wide variety of materials, to ponder such ideas as perception and balance in both conceptual and physical forms. Duncan has also been publishing books and zines and releasing records for over a decade. Under the moniker Hot and Cold, he co-published a seven-year, ten-issue series of hand-built art books that included work by over one hundred artists. Under the current imprint Land and Sea, he and his partner, Maria Otero, release monographs and records of artists they believe in. As THE SUN Duncan creates sonic happenings that, by design, dismantle the idea of audience and performer and offer a space for anyone to contribute and participate. Duncan received his BFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts and is a 2013 MFA candidate at Stanford University. He has performed and exhibited at or is in the collection of the following: Eli Ridgway Gallery; UC Berkeley Art Museum; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco Arts Commission; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Southern Exposure; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Halsey Mckay Gallery; and the Kemper Art Museum.

Ed. Note: On May 10, 2012, Duncan will celebrate the release of a recent print/sound project titled THE SOUND OF PAPER at Will Brown, in San Francisco, and on June 20, THE SUN will celebrate the summer solstice at Liminal Space, in Oakland, with a twelve-hour participatory experimental sound gathering.

JC (cont.): That’s one of the reasons that I'm so interested in working with filmmakers and video makers, because it feels very similar to me. Video and film are analogous to sound in a lot of ways, in capturing light and capturing sound and representing that inthe creation of new work. It’s these elements that are free-floating in space; they're not completely tangible, but they can become tangible when you re-create them. It’s easier to focus on them when you project and amplify them. That’s why I'm interested in working with sound and light. I’m trying to bring the audience around to the fact that these elements are always around us, creating ever-changing forms and shaping our environment.

CD: You bring up filmmakers, which makes me think about Paul Clipson, who you’ve worked with quite a bit, and what I would call soundscapes—when you perform to his films. Because of the sound of the projector, his films become a completely minimal version of what you do. I could watch a film by Paul before any sort of other sound comes in to hear the repetition of that projector. There’s a rhythm within that which I pick up on with the performance-based things that I've started to do. There’s a beat that comes, this repetition that starts to transcend what the object is sonically, and then you're forced to contend with his visual investigations. It’s quite stunning, and when he does engage with other musicians or artists, you just receive this additional, beautiful layer.

JC: That’s one of the things I find most satisfying about that collaboration. What a lot of people don’t know is that it’s actually a conscious decision to not discuss what the content of the film is ahead of time. At least I ask him to not tell me. (Laughs) We really just try to form the structure of the performance around time, knowing that it’s going to go from here to there in a certain amount of time. Otherwise that type of performance is about creating two parallel collages that are free-forming in time and about letting the audience put together the final product. A lot of it is relying on the audience’s subconscious to sew those two elements together.

CD: But Paul’s is premeditated at a certain point.

Excerpt of collaboration by Joshua Churchill and Paul Clipson, live >sound and Super 8 film respectively, 2011.

JC: Yeah, he’s edited the film, it’s been cut together, and it’s a certain length of time. But that’s the reason we create that limitation. I'm not scoring the films. I actually usually face away from the projections when I play because the idea is to subconsciously integrate the sound and light, to let these two things exist and resonate in space, to let the audience choose what they're going to focus on or not focus on and let them create unified form between the two. I'm not going to deny that I can't sense this changing of light and things in the room, but I don’t see forms.

CD: So you're responding to the shifting of light, which takes it back to anything he provides for an audience member or a viewer at an installation.

JC: Yeah, but I would say that even in the performances I'm not necessarily reacting to the shifting of light because in my manner of performance a lot of it is based on loops and delays and layers. Sometimes when I do something, it doesn't surface until a few seconds or minutes later. It constantly holds this element of chaos and chance and lack of control, which I find really satisfying.

CD: I've seen you perform quite a bit, and I can generally follow you and what you do for about four minutes. I look, and I don’t even know if I'm even hearing anything in a lot of ways, but I'm a keen observer trying, at a certain point, to figure out exactly what you are doing, because you generally have a lot of pedals.

JC: There’s a lot of processing and manipulation of the sound going on.

CD: I've always wanted to ask, how aware are you throughout this whole process? As it’s processing, I get lost. Then I fade back into what’s happening and I enjoy myself, and I hear things.

JC: In terms of the relationship between what I'm doing and what you're hearing?

CD: And also in terms of what your relationship is to those pedals. Where are you within that at a certain point? How do you know? Because there’s so much in front of you. You’ll do these little minimal gestures, a strum, and then maybe three minutes later, I’ll hear what might have been a strum through three other pedals .

JC: I am self-admittedly obsessive when it comes to creating systems with signal routing and things like that. It’s what I spend a good amount of my time doing, especially when it comes to performance work. Not only figuring out how I'm going to create sounds, but how those sounds are going to continue to regenerate, morph, and decay over time. A lot of what I do is pretty untraditional in terms of setting up music equipment and is about figuring out ways I can use equipment to subvert their original uses. How can I route the signal and feed it back in on itself in multiple different ways so that it cascades into different layers of chaos? Often it’s a collaboration between myself and  the sound that I've put out there. It’s almost like a self-generating and self-changing system or animal that I’m trying to tame while it's active and wild.

CD: How much control do you have? Or do you embrace the lack of control?

JC: I have quite a bit, but I strive for a balance between the two. I try to create an environment where the sound can take off on its own and maintain energy of its own that I can react with or not react with, and that’s satisfying too. At any point, something could feedback like crazy, which I could either let go or rein back in, see what happens from there, and build it back up. How can I accumulate these elements—these sounds—and pull them apart to create something that’s dense and minimal at the same time or something that’s very articulate and very chaotic? Witnessing the Sun performances, I think you have the same interest. There are a lot of the same things going on.

CD: Indeed, just with human beings instead of pedals.

JC: In a way, that’s why I'm so obsessed with them. It’s a way for me to create this little universe and interact with it on my own and then present that to people. I want to create a density that could possibly exceed multiple performers playing at the same time, yet have the control to bring that back down to little or nothing.

Joshua Churchill and Andy Vogt. Sustained Decay, 2009; site-specific, mixed-media sound and light installation: wood, lights, speakers, tactile transducers, and electronics; installation view, Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Adobe Books Backroom Gallery.

CD: My interest is creating a platform and considering loose ways to orchestrate a moment but then letting go at a certain point. And there’s the magic in both of those things: the orchestration and the letting go. The performance we did at Southern Exposure really had what I felt was a very wonderful ebb and flow. I had an overhead projector and a bunch of transparencies with different words: fast, slow, loud, soft, singing, sticks. It transformed from people being in a room to a performance when I asked people to respond to the words that were put up. And people did. Changing words from “soft” to “loud” or “freak-out”; people responded, and the sounds that were created were completely chaotic. I think the most successful moment of that night—and of my art career— was when we had been going for almost forty-five minutes to an hour and I was feeling tired. I walked away and a stranger came up and started doing it, and the performance went on for another hour. It became its own thing. It functioned by itself through accumulation, through repetition, through all these variables, and I just sat back and watched. It was really quite fantastic. That’s something that I'm still investigating and trying to harness. I have no interest in control at all in that regard.

There’s magic in offering a group of people that may or may not know each other this moment in which they can come into a room and have whatever experience that room dictates, or they dictate to that room through this really immediate moment. You want people, strangers, to work together and have the sense of connection, because we’re so disconnected from each other. I don’t think visuals do it, but I think sound has the opportunity to do it, and I have had some experiences where it has. And it’s felt quite beautiful.

Joshua Churchill. Fathom, 2008; site-specific mixed media installation with sound and light, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

JC: There’s something to be said for that. Because sound is so ingrained within our everyday lives, it’s not necessarily tied to an art form. It’s something that’s all around us. There is an immediacy of experience with it in terms of production. I feel that sound is more universal, which is something that’s always interested me as a medium. It even feels weird to describe it as a medium. It’s an element that’s constantly defining our environment. The opportunity to immediately shape your environment around you is pretty amazing and pretty powerful.

CD: One thing that I've felt most comfortable focusing on—and why the gatherings have felt as if they have worked—is that they are percussion based. There is an inherent quality to percussion that hits everybody. You don’t need any training for a super-minimal drumbeat or hand clapping or sticks. It’s just there. It’s a heartbeat. You can think of indigenous cultures and of a group of people hitting a drum with their heartbeat and then singing prayers. You start there and trace how people either become virtuosos of it or just become participants in prayer or are just freaking out together. There’s a connection in some way that string instruments don’t let you go to.

JC: An interesting quality of sound is that it forces the person that’s hearing or feeling it to put it into some sort of context. And they're not forced to put it into this overarching art context. It’s integrated into the larger context of life; it’s something that they’ve experienced from birth. Even those that are deaf can feel sound as vibration. It’s a very physical thing. It’s one of the first things you know. Before you're born, you're experiencing your mother’s heartbeat. It’s something you can't disconnect from.

Joshua Churchill. overnight field recording (excerpt), September 6, 2011; Djerassi SMIP Ranch, Woodside, CA. Courtesy of the Artist.



Joshua Churchill is a San Francisco based cross-disciplinary artist whose immersive site-specific sound and light work takes the form of both installation and performance, very often blurring the line between the two. Interested in exploring the aesthetic, emotive, and structural qualities of the environments he works with and within, Churchill utilizes resonant frequency drones, field recordings, and processed acoustic and electric musical instrumentation to compell those that encounter it to become critically aware of their surroundings. Joshua Churchill has exhibited and performed extensively both locally and abroad.

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