Magazine Beaux Arts

What is a sound artist?

Publié le 29 mars 2010 par Paule @patty0green
Getting ready for the next History and Theory in Digital Art’s class about « Hactivism / Culture Jamming / Remix / Mash-up », I got particularly interested in Mendy and Keith Obadike’s website To be more precise, I got interested in their essays about sound art. What is a sound artist? Please, don’t talk about John Cage! It was also my first reflex when I taught it last semester. Not that I think that he’s not important, but I think we should have something else to say about Sound art.
Although I’ve always been very interested in this “art form”, the way it has been theorized by “theoretician” until now doesn’t sound relevant to me. It seems like it has been written by people that don’t actually manipulate sounds themselves (even some of the people that label themselves “sound artists” don’t really manipulate sounds!). They put sound art in the experimental music history and category or, as Keith writes :
Many popular histories of sound art trace it back to early Italian Futurist performances by Filippo Marinetti and Luigi Russolo or the American John Cage. This European-centered narrative of sound art is no help in explaining my practice or that of many American sound artists.
How to describe a Sound artist's practice?
The transdiscplinary aspect : Sound IS images and texts
Keith Obadike questioned his own status as a sound artist. As the Obadikes work at the junction of art, music and literature and more recently, got interested in architecture, one can then ask "what does it mean to be a sound artist?" We could say that their practice is related to text as they integrate synthetic voices and speech in their sound artworks. Their practice is also linked to images : “The primary question in my work is: How can the sound of our music and speech comment on or create an internal mental image?”. If Remix culture, as Lessig puts it, is inspired by oral tradition, Obadike mentions that “oral tradition is a tradition of images”. He therefore says that the most astonishing shift in American music and literature is not the digital tools or the self-publishing but is rather “the unlikely prevalence of recorded speech-based artworks between music and literature” (rap, sound poetry, hip hop…etc.). By integrating speech in songs, (hip hop has brought this process to the mainstream) it blurs the lines in between literature and music and, funnily, we can still call that visual art! It seems that you just can’t pull apart words and images from sounds, although sound as a specific language. But the common language, allowing the merging of these different languages, is probably rhythm. Rhythm allows transdisciplinary remix.
sound artist = transdisciplinary approach to/through sound
The blending of theory and practice as a commitment
Keith and Mendi are engaged in what they call “the black visual tradition” (see blackness for sale). Their sound art is, in part, about it/through it. I don’t want to make a generality, but it appears to me that this particular commitment brings something original and interesting to the theorization and the creation of their sound art. They build up their practice through what they are and what they identified with :
But the early part of the twentieth century also produced the musico-poetry of the Negritude movement. In the US, the poet Langston Hughes not only created poetic forms based on the moods and structures of blues and jazz, but also developed his own talking music by performing with musical groups. (Source)

As sound doesn’t have very imposing theoretician yet, sound artists also blur the lines in between theory and practice by building it upon their own historical background. Keith Obadike says that he has become “increasingly concerned with constructing a metalanguage that can function as a personal art history and sonic praxis.” The manipulating of the voice in Obadike’s artwork creates something that is in between talking and singing, meaning and feeling. Therefore, the meaning of “sound artists” as being people working in an interdisciplinary context while also being practician/theoretician gives irrelevancy to the idea of a “sound art theoretician”. History is made through the sound and from it. This allows the sound art field to open up without the weight of a unique “tradition”. It also allowed to open the field of art theory in general as the reflections that are made through sound art are very relevant to any art forms. The way the Obadikes define sound artists is, for me, the way I define any artist and also any contemporary theoretician of art.
sound artist = transdisciplinary approach + commitment to a subjective micro-history + blending of theory and practice through sound
I do love theory
I hope that I don’t sound like I’m against theory, or that I put art higher than theory, because, in reality, it’s almost the opposite. If it was the case, I wouldn’t loose my time being a theoretician. I considered my favorite artists as the greatest theoretician! The equilibrium in between art and theory makes the most amazing theories and artworks. Dj Spooky is “academic” and I don’t think he could have come with this very inspiring theory, and amazing music, without the academic background and a lot of readings. I criticize a lot what people do with the theoretical background, not the fact that they have it. A heavy theoretical background is great when one can see what he can make out of it. Otherwise, it becomes a plague to creativity and paralyses him. But it’s not the theory itself that does that, again, that’s the tradition in which we learn to manipulate it. To see an infinity of possibilities, you need at least some knowledge. To make your own path, you have to make it through something! Socrate’s “all I know is that I know nothing” sounds empty in the voice of somebody that doesn’t make any effort towards theory : to really know that you know nothing, you first need to at least have tried to know everything…
If sound artists = transdisciplinary approach + commitment to a subjective micro-history + blending of theory and practice through sound, sound artists therefore = very relevant models for an art historian/semiotician!

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