Sound Culture Essay: Ed OSBORN

Taking as its theme the sound culture of the Pacific region, the SoundCulture festival was first held in Australia in 1991, and for the second time in Japan in 1993. The third festival, SoundCulture 96, was held over a period of eleven days in April in San Francisco. Sound artist Ed OSBORN, a member of the host committee and director of the festival, reports on this year's highlights.

Over the course of over eleven days in April, SoundCulture 96 landed in the San Francisco Bay Area. The festival included 17 exhibitions, 10 panels, and 55 performances and other events held at 33 sites throughout the Bay Area. Co-presented by 32 Bay Area arts and culture organizations and including the work of 228 artists from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, SoundCulture 96 was easily the largest sound art event ever held in the United States. As the director and one of the participating artists, I can hardly be objective about the SoundCulture 96; this is an overview of the festivities from someone who knows the event inside-out. Focused on the creative use of sound outside of the field of music by practitioners based in the Pacific region, the festival was planned to include representation of a number of differing areas of sound practice: sound sculpture and installations, radio and telephonic works, performance, acoustic ecology, noise, cultural theory in relation to sound, appropriation, high- and low-tech activities, educational events for kids, homemade sound instruments, sound works for public space, sound for film, and so on. All of these areas existed in some form or another in the festival. In the space here, there is only room to mention a few of the many events and to illustrate some of the broader themes that emerged from SoundCulture 96.
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Ed Osborne

One aspect of the festival that received much comment was the wide diversity of kinds of work represented. What has been common knowledge to practitioners in the field was made clear to even casual observers here: sonic art work by its nature doesn't fit well into established categories of art or artistic practice, hence artists working with sound employ a wide variety of strategies in using it. While advances in sound work have often been facilitated by technological progress, and the development of sound art can be read as a map of electronic innovation, these advances have left a rich trail of methods and practices of harnessing sound, and many of these were in evidence in the festival.
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Kazue Mizushima
While Ron KUIVILA worked with the latest in surveillance cameras, crackling wires, and custom digital signal processing, and Negativland employed a cryptic array of subversive electronics in conjunction with a pair of techno DJs, Julaine STEPHENSON rewired a washing machine to play clean a 7" vinyl disk, and Phil DADSON drew sound out of hand-operated stones, some of which dated back to the Paleolithic era. And where Ian POLLACK and Janet SILK's "Museum of the Future" was driven by computer and heard over telephone lines, MIZUSHIMA Kazue's "Eve of the Future" employed silk thread and paper cups to deploy a vast array of string telephones across an outdoor lawn space in which she performed by stroking, scraping, and occasionally breaking the threads. This wide array of kinds of work was matched by the variety of circumstances in which the work was found. It was possible to venture to find SoundCulture events in museums, universities, non-profit and commercial galleries, performance spaces, warehouses, on a beach, on radio waves, in a shopping mall, in a harbor, in a cinema, on a public transit bus, on the Internet, and in nightclubs.

Where radio broadcasts from KPFA-FM in Berkeley brought SoundCulture to anyone who tuned in and served to give a sense of unified presence to the festival, the essence of the spatial dimension of radio was illustrated on a much more local scale by Kathy KENNEDY's "SoundWalk" performed in an outdoor shopping mall north of San Francisco. Working with a small transmitter and dozens of performers accompanied by radios scattered throughout the mall, she broadcast a spare soundscore to be augmented by the improvisations of the performers; the audience was free to wander the mall catching bits and pieces of the piece from different sites. For half an hour or so, the space of the mall was gently transformed from a place strictly for commerce into a place for social engagement and contemplation; the bounds of that space were articulated by the range of the transmitter, deftly illustrating the nature of radio's twin aspects of locality and omnipresence. Even the usual clientele of the place seemed charmed by the proceedings.

Given that the geographic scope of SoundCulture is centered on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," it was no surprise that fire showed up literally and metaphorically in a number of works. Scot JENERIK gave an energetic performance in pummeling a pair of flaming structures wired for sound. Tony MACGREGOR and Virginia MADSEN's "Cantata of Fire," broadcast on KPFA, looked at the audio culture of the siege at Waco, Texas and the fire that concluded it. In Richard LERMAN's "Changing States," a tiny flame was used to heat metal strips attached to contact microphones. As the metal deformed in slow and unpredictable ways under the heat, its eerie transformations were heard greatly amplified. Evoking at once the micro-world of the grain of metal and the macro-reality of plate tectonics, the piece served as an allegory for the process of generating sound itself: sound like fire is simply an artifact of the transfer of one form of energy into another, expended in an instant and then gone. Later in the evening, Lerman showed a videotape of a swarm of desert ants crawling over a pair of microphones. The high gain on the recording devices again reversed the micro and macro, and as these tiny creatures produced enormous sounds, their energetic activities seemed to be asking us to consider how much these microphones were in service of our intentions and how much we instead worked to fulfill theirs.
Osborne Image2 Ed Osborne Installation

Several events highlighted the functions of sound as it plays out in a social landscape. Don WHERRY's "Harbor Symphony," played on the horns of a number of boats moored in the Port of Oakland, kicked off the festival with a noontime performance for an intrigued audience of tourists, office workers, and SoundCulture participants. Kazue Mizushima's outdoor performance brought automobile traffic on a nearby road to a crawl, and Kathy Kennedy's piece mentioned above nicely undid a shopping mall. Ann WETTRICH's "Aviary Commute" took over an unsuspecting mass transit bus with a flock of performers equipped with tape players and recordings of bird calls. While most of the audience of regular commuters took it in stride, the imposition of these sounds into this mobile public space apparently upset the normal order of authority: the bus driver repeatedly threatened to eject all the participants unless they turned off their recordings. Fortunately for all concerned, everyone arrived at their destination before the situation reached the breaking point.

Later that day, a panel session on the subject of acoustic ecology touched on some of the issues raised in Wettrich's piece: control of social space, preservation of quiet, the harnessing of natural sounds for artistic and commercial purposes. Hildegard WESTERKAMP, one of the foremost figures in the field of soundscape studies, gave an eloquent talk on listening, sound, and silence in relation to personal, local, and global well-being that provided an encompassing view of the way soundscapes can be used to monitor engagement with and connection to our surroundings. Her talk provided a refreshing and well-considered perspective in an area that is often marked by simplistic cultural assumptions about our relation to nature; the spirited discussion that followed the panel presentation centered around these issues.

On another part of the audio continuum, the presence of noise artists was very apparent in SoundCulture. Several local warehouse spaces served as performance venues for high-volume and high-energy performances from Hijo Kaidan, C.C.C.C., Crawl Unit, and others. Trading mostly in aural texture and sheer sonic impact, these events were either exhilarating or alienating -- but rarely anywhere in between. While these noise events seemed at first to contain opposite intentions of those found in natural sound and soundscape activities, their side-by-side placement in SoundCulture revealed more in common than might otherwise be assumed. The search for natural quiet and the pursuit of immersion in overwhelming sound are each a response to living in a machine-deafened culture--enough time spent in either area results in a change of consciousness, and the aspiration to lose oneself in a sonic environment is exactly the same.

Among the other notable works in the festival were Nigel HELYER's "Silent Forest," an installation of beautiful sound horns modeled on those found on the Saigon opera house and used as air raid sirens that broadcast distended abstracts of opera music found in colonial Vietnam. Jack OX presented her stunning visual score derived from Kurt SCHWITTERS' influential text-sound work "Ursonate" on the West Coast for the first time. Ellen BAND showed an installation focusing on subtle, psychoacoustic trickery. At the Pacific Film Archive, a series of events examining sound in film included (among other events) an evening of sound works by filmmakers played entirely in the dark, a lecture by Douglas KAHN on sound and audio art relating to film in the first half of the twentieth century, and an illustrated talk on the development of film sound by Robert GITT of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. A listening room located in the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery allowed visitors a chance to hear a wide variety of recorded sound work from around the Pacific.

The scope of the festival greatly belies the size of its resources. Working with a miniscule budget, a volunteer staff, and a great deal of goodwill from everyone involved, SoundCulture 96 managed to flourish under extremely difficult conditions. However, with the small amount of funding that exists for the arts in the United States dwindling quickly, it is unlikely that an event of this size based around a relatively unknown field like sound art will occur here again in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, SoundCulture 96 provided a detailed and varied look at and a listen to some of the activity that is taking place in the fertile area of the sonic arts. It demonstrated the strength, influence, and viability of the field and served notice that in all its forms, sonic art warrants the same kind of respect and attention that is normally reserved for the more established art and culture practices.

Ed Osborne
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