Tucked away among the cloth and textile manufacturing firms of London’s north-east, Sound Fjord can lay claim to being the only gallery dedicated to sound art. Almost deliberately hidden from immediate view by founders Helen Frosi and Andrew Riley, the year-old gallery expresses a commitment to spreading the word (or sound) of sonic art through educating and supporting institutions and artists across the UK and the world.
There’s no signage outside the small live/ work studio, except for a piece of paper at the door with a phone number to call when you’ve found it –that’s if you haven’t noticed the buzzer out the front gate already. When someone does let you in, you’re greeted with the minimal surroundings and sound proofing catering to taking in the work of any number of artists on show.
Today, it is one of the final days of the three-month-long exhibition, Active Crossover. It is both a solo and collaborative effort by artist Simon Wetham, as well as a compendium of the sound and field recordings from Eastern Europe and the UK. With white walls and soundproofing, the dimly lit space is cooler and infinitely more relaxing than the sunny afternoon outside.
In one room, a languid flight through a mind’s eye of cluttered, yet somehow logically sequenced, sounds resembles that which often accosts an inner ear on the edge of sleep. The surround sound of Wetham’s own recordings in the space following, means one can stand in the passage connecting both rooms and bare witness to an overlap of the two works. Even time is of little consequence as the collective consciousness of the collaborative work that runs for four hours intermingles with Wetham’s work clocking in at half an hour. Thus, generating a shifting score of infinite configurations.
Soon, fine artist Frosi invites me upstairs to where she and sound designer Riley live, work and evidently breathe progressive art and thought. A conversation interspersed with myriad digressions –including odor art, post modern thought and the original acoustics of Stone Henge –reveals Sound Fjord and it’s co-founder as one with an inclusive outlook and inquisitive approach.
Here’s an abridged version of our conversation…
aqnb: How long have you been here?
SF: We’ve been here for about four and a half years, something like that. The space below us is a live/work unit and there was a chap living down there making music. He moved out to a bigger place and we thought, ‘okay, do we have someone below us making music all the time or do we make our own music instead? So we took it over just over a year ago and did it up. Before we did it up I thought I’d quite like to work with people a bit more, so we decided to open up as a new gallery.
We chose sound art because, to be honest we’re interested in all of the senses, and Andy is a sound designer; that’s why we chose sound. We’ve been running for just over a year now and it’s gone fast!
aqnb: It’s also good to specialise, especially if you’re the only gallery here.
SF: We’re the only gallery that specialises in sound. There are other galleries that put sound on, even the big art museums are going ‘what is this sound art stuff. It’s getting attention, let’s put it in’ but yeah we’re the only one’s that specialise.
aqnb: Perhaps that’s because of the increased interest in new media…
SF: That’s the thing, everyone thinks it’s this new art form but it’s not. It’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s just whether people want to look at sound particularly or whether it’s sound in film. If you’re a good filmmaker, you definitely think about it. I was always interested in performance and with that you have to think about many different things. The way you look, the way you move, the way the room smells… [laugh]… I’ve always been interested in sound, so the idea of it being this new medium is funny to me.
aqnb: It’s interesting because language itself has such a broad vocabulary, but the first way we would have ever communicated would have been through sound and body language; performance art and sound art are two of the least explored mediums but they’re probably the most profoundly human ones.
SF: I would say so. I’m also interested in smell within an art context because it’s completely attached to memory. I think we have a problem with not having and object to focus on. We’ll be like, ‘oh, there’s a speaker. I’m going to stare at, or fetishize, it.’
aqnb: It can be frustrating writing about sound because there’s really only two words you can use in a paragraph without repeating yourself, ‘sound’ and ‘sonic’.
SF: …and audio. Yeah, and they probably have different connotations as well, like ‘audio arts’ and ‘sonic art’. Some people prefer to use one thing over the other. It’s a bit like the difference between field recording and phonography. You’re never going to please everyone, so you just have to choose the one that you’re happy with. For me, I often just use a word because I like the sound of it [laughs].
aqnb: Do you think people can be less critical in the sound art world? That they feel less qualified to judge?
SF: It’s a difficult one because obviously there are musicians or sound artists that have worked with sound their whole life. They know the difference of one speaker to the next, one make to the next, so they’ll know if someone’s just shoved something together and haven’t put any thought into it. It depends where you come from, I think. If you just come from the visual arts, then you maybe just want to experiment and it’s more the concept. I think that’s where you actually get people saying, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘this isn’t art’.
But I also think, in some respects, you’re right because people don’t know how to talk about it or even how to enter a space where a work is being shown; whether it’s in a gallery or a site-specific location. People will say, ‘it’s sound and I don’t play a musical instrument’ or ‘I don’t read music, how do I…?’ Sound art isn’t music though, it has completely different values, even if music can still be associated with it.
You might reference music or popular culture or something like that in a sound art work and I guess people could perhaps understand that a little bit more because the have these previous reference points.
Again, going back to smell, how do you even judge? Is there an aesthetic? Do you have an aesthetic or is it a gut feeling? To be honest, if someone walks into a sound artwork and they don’t like it [laughs]… In the same way that if they walk into a painting or a sculpture, aesthetics are always an important part of it, even if you want to think beyond that, because it’s the first thing that strikes you.
aqnb: But if you do only think beyond the work itself then you don’t really need to see it at all. If you’re only thinking about the concept, you can just talk about it, or write about it.
SF: I would say that’s been a problem in art for many years. The fact that a lot of the time we overly conceptualise things. Especially when you’re at university, where you’re told you need to write about this, you need to say why you’ve done this. Why you’ve painted the room yellow and why you’ve actually chosen that space. But sometimes it’s like, ‘well, it seemed to work and it was a gut feeling rather than, ‘I chose that yellow because I’m referencing this artist that used that colour in 1953’.
aqnb: It’s like creative referentialism versus absolutism, isn’t it? Creating for the sake of creating. The visual arts and sonic arts (and smell) are supposed to be different forms of media, with different modes of communication.
SF: I think when I was at university I noticed everyone was referencing other people and it makes them feel intelligent. I can do that if I want to but I have my own ideas. Are they less valid? Maybe sometimes they are because they haven’t been thought through enough but other times… Everyone started from somewhere. All these philosophers they talk about things we think about everyday, just in philosophical language.
I always think that we do have thoughts that are valid and we don’t need to back them up with something else. I mean if you’re writing a paper, sure, back them up to prove your point.
aqnb: That’s why maybe it has less cultural currency to reference. I don’t have to have to have read all of Schopenhaur to know his ideas because I looked at the wikipedia summary.
SF: That’s if you believe it! [laughs] Well, Wikipedia is an artwork in its own right, isn’t it? It’s truth and fallacy all at once, especially if you go to a politician’s site. It’s really interesting conversation, really, because I don’t think you can answer that and there’s always going to be those people that come from the visual arts that say, ‘I need to reference’.
To be honest, I find that more in experimental music where they’ll be, ‘this is very niche and you’re only going to get this because you listened to this John Coltrane album.
Although sometimes it’s just that somebody absolutely loves it. Like Vicki Bennet and her Plunderphonics. Her work involves appropriating samples from popular culture and that’s a completely different matter. But referencing for the sake of making one seem bigger than they are is… pretentious, really.
aqnb: I think people specialize a lot more now because a lot of people just feel like they’re skimming the top of everything.
SF: There’s too much in the world. Every day on facebook you get four or five people sending an announcement about an event and you think, ‘so if they’re doing that and I’m not really looking, then if I put my event on is it just reaching other people that are not really looking?’ There’s too much of a proliferation of events and people doing things and it can get really overwhelming. You think, ‘where do I start and is what I’m doing even worth it?’ But you can’t do that, you have to just do your own thing and hope people are interested too.
aqnb: Not everyone’s going to be into what you’re into.
SF: A lot of people say to me that they like the way that I’m open to everything. I’m not condescending in any way; I just make stuff sound interesting because it is to me. I think if you carry on doing that then people will gravitate towards you and those who are too cynical will die an early death in a very sad and twisted way.
aqnb: I hate when people think that way: ‘music is the only valid art form in the world’.
SF: But what’s music informed by? What’s art informed by? What’s science informed by? It’s everything. It’s just pigeonholes that we use so we understand things a bit more. Art and science are the same thing, pretty much [laughs]. And music is an art.
Robert Curgenven – Live @ Cafe OTO in London 30.03.2011, show put together by Sound Fjord