Field recording has often been used to represent Nature as a realm apart from human influence, appreciated for its harmony and balance. This Romantic aesthetic began when Karl Reich’s “Song of a Nightingale” was released on Victor in 1910. This popular 78 RPM disk was given the red seal usually reserved for opera singers. Avian performers were hence incorporated into an established mode of cultural production, their performances judged according to the aesthetic expectations of European art music. The rise of soundscape studies in the 1970s addressed this relationship with a sheen of scientificism (under the banner of ‘acoustic ecology’), but betrayed Romantic roots by deriving its key term from landscape painting. Robert Curgenven bases his work on field recording, but is entirely skeptical of the term ‘soundscape’. Rather than presenting abstract sounds, his works emphasise political context, personal histories, and the physicality of listening bodies.
As Curgenven’s first solo exhibition, Locate Yourself bore the heavy burden of representing a decade of his sound and video installations, commercial record releases, live performance, and collaborations with visual artists. The theme was indicated by the title and the artist’s description of his work as ‘spatial research’. Curgenven investigates how place is constituted through our perception. Underlying this is a radical rethinking of what constitutes ‘place’ in the first instance.
When we study the world and its effects we are engaging with the discipline Ptolemy codified in his Geographica. Our world of Google mapping and satellite imagery is predicated on a model of space as isometric, homogeneous, and universal, an empty medium waiting to be filled with places as secondary attributes. The dominance of this model of place is a measure of the success of empiricism in Western philosophy.
Yet geography was only one approach to place known to the ancient Greeks. Ptolemy also wrote the Apotelesmatika, a catalogue of effects that identified klimata, regions of the Earth associated with Gods of varying temperaments. Where the geographic lines of longitude and latitude measure and delineate, providing a universal grid, klimata act as regions of difference, psychic zones of influence. This concept permeated Curgenven’s exhibit. Visitors entering Wandesford Quay Gallery were confronted by a maze of black screens. Navigating these passages put them in proximity to voices issuing from ten hidden loudspeakers. Babel (2017) consisted of a thousand tongue-twisters, delivered in over thirty languages. The piece plays on the sensual experience of voices tickling your ears, while also being a positive and playful response to the increasing cultural diversity of Ireland.
While living in Cornwall, Curgenven discovered a Skyspace, an architectural light installation designed by American artist James Turrell. Curgenven subsequently traveled to fifteen of these structures worldwide, activating the interior volume of each space with oscillators tuned to produce beat frequencies. Back in the studio, Curgenven mixed these heterogeneous recordings into an integrated musical piece. The title of the album, Climata (2016), explicitly acknowledges Ptolemy’s alternative formulation of place. This project asserts that, though geographically dispersed, the Skyspaces nonetheless create a zone of similarity. Climata was presented in the current exhibit as an ‘interactive sound atlas’. Visitors could mix sounds from different locations by selecting them on a computerised representation of a map. This experience seemed superfluous to the original piece, the arbitrary interactivity reasserting a perspectival hierarchy.
Walking into the darkened crypt, Unbalanced Architecture (2016) was apprehended first through a surge of low frequency energy, issuing from a hidden subwoofer. The darkened stone walls were illustrated with collages by Marta Kowalczyk, dystopian visions of futuristic cities. Four soundtracks were available through headphones situated about the space. The listener’s sound perception was hence a combination of the bass waves, experienced in and through the body, and binaural sounds located in the middle of the skull. It was fascinating to explore different volumes of air in the crypt, listening with the headphone off and then on again. There was indeed something sciencefictional about this encounter, the crypt providing a perfect venue.
Less satisfying was Dances & Airs (2017), three previously-released sound works combined with large video projections. Fog Line consists of drone footage of enormous flowering plants (filmed in Tasmania), paired with Climata drones. Excerpts from the album Sirène (2014), itself a wonderful exploration of organ timbres, were used alongside footage of the Cornwall coast for Cornubia / Imperial Horizon (For Caliban). Similarly, A Room at the End of the Earth matched footage from Patagonia with music from Oltre (2010). The project as a whole resembled a nature documentary: beautiful sounds repurposed from previous projects to accompany landscape imagery.
Less conventional was They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them (2014). This piece has a long history, beginning with field recordings made over a period of twelve years at thirty remote Australian locations. The results were compiled as the twelve-channel installation Unsilenced Landscape in 2009. These field recordings were subsequently augmented with musical instruments (guitar, piano, organ) for an album released in 2014. The artist continues to add new material, in an ongoing process of accretion. For this exhibit, the work was presented with three screens of video. Bookings were taken for this installation, which seated only three people, in close proximity to vivid visual stimulation.
The sonic material contrasts drones with harsh, textural fragments, generated from contact microphones and dub plate scratches. This material is an expression of a tactile engagement with place. Abandoned buildings are left to rot in the dry heat, and we hear the wind through wooden apertures and the creak of a rusty hinge. Sculpted riverbanks of dry red grit funnel sound from hidden banks. Their sculptural forms are proof that water once coursed here. When the first-person camera tracks suddenly, it follows a possible walking path through a history of erosion and deposition. Harsh overtones emulate the burning sun. Scratches and clicks build as wind whips sand into cyclones. They tore the earth articulates the way we encounter and remake place at every moment.
No human or animal life is seen in the footage, but traces are everywhere: burning bushes, abandoned lots, whitened skeletons, a buzzing insect. Nonetheless, the piece is all about presence, not least the artist’s own interventions in a land that seems to actively reject occupation. The piece suggests that Australia is pregnant with a violence that issues from the terrain itself.
They tore the earth is explicitly about colonialism, the ‘mortal struggle’ of settlers and an ‘arid interior’ (these quotes from the artist’s notes). The land is alien to them, and their engagement with it will always be confrontational. This conflict extends to the brutal treatment of the native peoples, a history that Curgenven documents on his website with a list of suggested readings. This raises fundamental questions: Does the same adversarial relationship exist between the native peoples and this place? Is it equally as ‘alien’ to them?
In this way, this piece both addresses contemporary political concerns and also challenges the assumptions of post-colonial discourse. It embeds this analysis in a phenomenological model of place as the accumulated record of all those who have gone before, who have shaped the land, and been shaped by it. The sonic record that Curgenven retrieves and then constructs, over years of mixing and augmentation, belies any simplistic interpretation of field recording as being inherently documentary. With its irruptions and interruptions, the sonic result refutes the soundscape model of harmonious composition. It is an important work, a fruitful approach for further provocations.
Finally, this review must note the curatorial problem inherent in sound installations. These pieces need space, not only to support the volume of air they shape as material, but also to provide a suitable acoustic buffer between individual works. Even the largest galleries do not always provide sound works a fitting home. In Wandesford Quay Gallery the six works that made up Locate Yourself were, despite some ingenious constructions, cramped. This was occasionally distracting but could not, in the final analysis, detract significantly from such a strong show.
Locate Yourself was on view 8 – 30 September 2017.