Wednesday 31 October 2007

A curious relationship with physical objects.

Culturally, with the ubiquity of digital media, we are developing a curious relationship with physical objects.

I think it's a good idea to look at these developments historically. Definitions of art forms are always up for debate and negotiation. For example, the category now known as "sound art" didn't appear from nowhere, and it isn't purely a product of technology. For me, sound art means dealing with the poetic qualities of the physical apparatus used to create, distribute and reproduce the sonic work. It also means dealing with the complexities of historical conditions and social interactions that surround it .

In my own example, 30 years ago, I had spent three years of my time in the sculpture department of an art school. This was the best way I could find of exploring my practice of "multimedia" – meaning a convergence of categories between artforms and nothing whatsoever to do with computers. I explored photocopy, screenprint, film, sound, the postal systems, and what was then called "environments" (something like, but slightly different to what we now call installation art). I liked the Fluxus idea of the art multiple. Some people interpret Fluxus as part of the process of dematerialising the art object. To me the importance of Fluxus was in questioning art-as-commodity. In other words, dematerialising the artist-as-commodity - negating art as an alienated career path within modern capitalism.

In the late 70s and early 80s there emerged a context known as "cassette culture", wherein marginal musicians and performers could operate in opposition to the capitalistic aim of maximizing profit. I spent most of my time active in this DIY scene,. I produced sound pieces that were home-produced and distributed on hand-made cassettes through the Sterile Records label I ran with my partner. There was great diversity amongst such labels, some were entirely 'bedroom based', utilising new home tape copying technologies whilst others were more organised, functioning in a similar way to more established record labels. Some also did vinyl releases, or later developed into vinyl labels. Many compilation albums were released, presenting samples of work from various artists. It was not uncommon for artists who had a vinyl contract to release on cassette compilations, or to continue to do cassette-only album releases (of live recordings, work-in-progress material, etc.) after they had started releasing records.

A lot of the ethos of file-sharing networks, appropriation/remix/collage of elements of existing recordings, which is now associated with the internet emerged within that period.
But there was still a physicality. It was using things that could be put in the post. It overlapped with the concerns of mail art and many mail artists made sound art and vice versa. Digital audio can be "instant", "free" and "accessible to millions". But a physical object could also be used for other purposes than those it was intended for. It can be contemplated, touched. A physical object exists in time and space, it can wear out and assume new qualities in its degradation and scratches. It is never just pure code.

Composing/improvising/editing for cassette, vinyl, radio, or CD or download, or live performance, are all qualitively different processes. There are also different degrees of intimacy involved. Giving or receiving a compact disc has different ritual meaning to giving or receiving a download. The experience of "live" acoustic sound is qualitatively different to that of recorded sound.

It's important to think of these "object quality" elements - as well as social interaction - as formal poetic elements within arts that use digital platforms. They are the ecological elements that give them their meaning.

Thursday 18 October 2007


"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
That's what Pablo Picasso said.