Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Field recordings

Went to a talk today between LCC sonic art lecturer Salomé Voegelin and artists Jennie Savage and Peter Cusack. Cusack showed his Favourite London Sound project (which has now expanded to many other cities around the world), and got me pondering field recording practice and how it can be understood to correlate with other forms of sonic art.

It seems to me that field recording is much like photography - some of it is artistic, and some isn't (journalistic). The line between the two is often blurred severely. Similarly, field recordings are used functionally, as well as being archival material. What I find particularly interesting is the new(ish) kind of artistic field recording exemplified by labels like and/OAR. This kind of practice seemed worlds away from the documentary style of Cusack; figuring out why this is is a bit of an issue.

The first reason seems to me to be to do with the recording's position relative to its source location. Artistic field recording on CD is necessarily removed from its source; Cusacks sounds were directly linked to their sources by the means of a map. Voegelin suggested this added a temporal element to what was essentially a static visual image; and beyond that the location is 'evoked' through a combination of the sound and the view from above.

The second reason seems to be the motivation lying behind the work. I assume that most of the work on and/OAR exists because it sounds interesting (or at least, the sound is judged on an aesthetic plane somewhat removed from its source context) - the idea being here that when the sounds of an environment are appropriated into an aesthetic structure they obtain a further reality, separate from the 'actual' reality they depict. This 'imaginary' structural reality of the work may or may not incorporate aspects of the 'actual' context; needless to say, aesthetic judgement usually operates on a different plane to socio-political assessment of a situation (the latter occasionally being incorporated into the former). Cusack, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in the aesthetic worth (from his point of view) of the recordings - at least, not as long as this aesthetic worth can be considered any different from the information present in the recordings of the source they depict. Cusack's aesthetic then is, literally, documentary - the 'beauty' of 'beautiful' information given to the listener through sound about a surrounding. This beautiful information is also conveyed through interview on several occasions - with participants describing unrealised sounds in their memory.

Though Cusack showed a devotion to sound (and has done his entire career), what was evident from this project was its larger social implications. It is rather inappropriate to call the Favourite London Sound project an 'artwork' - at least, it seems to me to be so. Cusack would say that this probably was unimportant to him - indeed, he seemed indifferent to whether he was actually an artist at all.

I do sympathise with Cusack's position (particularly when it aligns with my own sonic taste, as in his recording of a Nightingale by a electricity substation, or recordings of Old Jerusalem), but I came away from the talk wondering whether my own, largely removed aesthetic sense (which I use to measure and judge sounds I hear, things I look at, or for that matter any sensory experience) was inadequate because of its isolationism. My tendency to divide experience into aesthetic and non-aesthetic was artificial... (but I mean, let's face it, you can't judge everything all of the time, there's too much experienced by the human brain, you have to take a break!).

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