In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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