The 10th Articulating the Medium Festival :: Camilla Hannan

January 26 – 28 2007, San Francisco USA

Since the beginnings of recorded music, the use of field recordings have been integral to the development of sound as an art medium. Field recordings feature from the European traditions of Music Concrete to its mutant lovechildren Noise and ‘No Input’. Due primarily to the fast paced development of software, the humble field recording has become further reincarnated in the form of abstraction. No longer are we satisfied with the literal soundings of Parmagiani and Schaeffer. The field recording is hardly recognisable from its source. It becomes a texture, a drone or a multi layered symphony of tone and gesture.

The 10th Articulating the Medium festival (ATM) in San Francisco set about investigating a smattering of contemporary proponents of abstracted field recordings. Field recordings form the central tenet of my own art practice. For this reason, I was invited to participate in this year’s festival. Organised by the San Francisco sound art advocacy group 23 five, ATM spanned four days and 14 artists. All derived their source material from location recordings and the results were a diverse mix of soundscape composition and performance. The 10th Activating the Medium Festival was held from Friday the 26th to Sunday the 28th of January (There was a 4th and final night held in mid February at which I wasn’t present). Friday and Saturday nights were held at the Exploratorium, a museum of art, science and perception located in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. The festival was curated by Jim Haynes and Randy Yau, both sound artists and the main parties behind 23five. Artists performing alongside me were Olivia Block (Chicago), Keith Evans (Oakland) BJ Nilsen (Sweden) Steve Roden (Los Angeles), Matt Shoemaker (Seattle) Tarab (Australia), Aaron Ximm (San Francisco), Joe Calley (San Francisco) Scott Arford (San Francisco). Jeph Jerman (Arizona), Seth Nehill (Portland) Antimatter (San Francisco).

The physical dimensions of the Exploratorium influenced the nature of the artist performances. The space is a converted aircraft hangar that by day holds many of the interactive science displays. It’s a massive space, approximately 50 metres wide, 30 metres long and a ceiling close to 40 metres tall. It’s a highly reverberant space with a natural 5-6 second decay. Due to its physics, particular sounds were more distinct than others and it became imperative for the artists to ‘perform’ the room as well as their own compositions. Come 5pm on the performance night the exhibits were moved out of the way and the museum became the ATM performance space. The stage was framed by two 20 metre angels which leant the dimly lit room, a distinctively ‘Wim Wenders’ edge. A screen was hung between the angels for Keith Evans and Olivia Block who on the Saturday night incorporated video into their work.

The festival was fortunate to secure funding to hire an impressive PA, a Meyer system of a 3000-watt stereo capacity with a 1500-watt sub woofer. This meant that delicate work could be clearly defined in the space and that loud bass heavy work could remain distinct. This was most evident with two of the artists on the Friday night. BJ Nilson from Sweden delivered a set derived from field recordings in and around his home in Stockholm. Most recognisable from their source were his abstractions of wind. He began the set quietly and then built his composition over 45 minutes into a howling tornado of bending trees and diabolical whelps. Tarab (Eamon Sprod) from Melbourne took a different approach with his delicate miking of objects collected en route to ATM. A broken tile, some plastic bags, and pieces of miscellaneous metal formed the central axis of his performance. Eamon mixed these live gestures with field recordings and a delay to create a gentle and evocative set. Due to the nature of the room, the delay resonated against the back wall creating a surround effect despite the stereo set up.

On the Saturday night, Los Angeles artist Steve Roden took surround into his own hands by placing portable ‘boom boxes’ around the audience. These played a running series of high frequency bips that acted like a click track to what was happening on stage. Roden used simple electronics to manipulate field recordings and found objects into quiet reflective compositions. He created what he calls ‘possible landscapes’ through live sonic manipulation. Seattle’s Matt Shoemaker presented a set on the same night that investigated the field recording as a remnant of authenticity. Shoemaker uses minute detail to document a space. These details are layered and manipulated to build massive walls of sound. He used dynamics and frequency structure to reverberate the composition around the exploratorium space creating a work of almost spiritual transcendence.

Interestingly, I found the weakest performances came from the two artists who incorporated video into their ATM sets. In one of two pieces she performed, Olivia Block used video footage and audio recordings of fireworks. I found the minimally processed field recordings less than engaging and as was the case with Keith Evans, the video distracted from the listening experience. Perhaps it was the literalism of the video that kept me from immersion into the soundscape works. Notably, Block’s second more abstracted piece was more successful in merging sound and vision into a cohesive execution.

Sunday night was held at Recombinant Media Labs (RML). This San Francisco facility contains a flexible black box environment that houses a high definition multichannel audio-visual system known as Surround Traffic Control. This full fidelity array consists of a design specification for 10 screens in 360 degrees supported by an ultra impact 16.8.2 horizontal and vertical sound diffusion system. BJ Nilson performed a spatialised piece incorporating sine wave manipulation. Joe Calley performed a work that used light sensors to trigger sound recordings of beehives. Both performances took advantage of the high fidelity system to utilise frequency structure and bass clarity. Scott Arford premiered his 10 channel video work derived from footage of the San Francisco Industrial area. Dissolving images of abandoned silos and cranes in the night sky accompanied a soundtrack of mesmerising industrial drone.

It was fantastic to see such work in a dedicated space without the usual sound and image compromises that such a large scale work would usually inherit.

For my own performance on Friday night, I was interested in how my processed recordings from the Mt Isa Mine and Central Station Sydney would be translated in the space. I also wanted to incorporate the resonant frequencies of the space and its natural acoustic properties into the performance. In this way I would be creating a site specific performance that bridged the geographical expanse from Northern Australia to Northern California. I investigated the Exploratorium and performed some tests on the resonant frequencies in the space. As a result of this I manipulated my field recordings live using EQ and filtering. This meant that through frequency and volume, I could manipulate the sonic structure of the room. The skylight rattled and the metal bins at the rear of the room shook which added a physical dimension to the performance. It also gave the performance an immersive quality

There were many great things about participating in ATM. Firstly, witnessing other sound artists working in a similar area of interest to myself. In Australia, we can often feel isolated from a central discourse and ATM enabled me to put my own work in an international context. I was inspired to further develop my recording and processing techniques from talking with other artists. I was also inspired to create new projects in Australia that would incorporate other artists.

On my first night in San Francisco, I performed on a the ‘No Other Radio Network’ an experimental music program on KPFA FM, perhaps the oldest public radio station in the USA. It was a great opportunity to present my work in a radio format.

I went on a field recording trip to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay with fellow artists Eamon Sprod and Jim Haynes. It was fantastic to conduct what is usually a solitary exercise with other like-minded artists. I could see how other people record in the field and its inspired me to set up group field recording excursions in Australia.

During my trip I expanded my professional networks through meeting artists and curators. I found out about future professional opportunities and investigated potential residency prospects.

But the greatest benefit of my participation in ATM was that I have returned to Australia eager to produce new work and as an artist, that’s the most fantastic feeling in the world. I’m extremely grateful to ANAT for giving me the opportunity to attend ATM 2007.

NB – The grant was awarded in 2006

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