Soundings: Richard Garet
by Esther Bourdages
As Singapore-based art and technology specialist Yvonne Spielmann states, “sound has been something of a neglected orphan in the larger considerations of 20th century arts.” The history of sound as an artistic medium is still young, and for many years developed in the shadow of its visual arts counterpart. It was in the mid-1980s that artist Dan Lander first used the term “sound art,” and in recent decades the discipline has found its place and is now coming into its own. It wasn’t until 2013 that Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its doors to a major exhibition of sound art. “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,”which took place betweenAugust 10 and November 3, 2013, brought together 16 international contemporary artists that work with sound across several disciplines.
According to sociologist of art, Pascal Gielen: “in the case of museums, we can hardly ignore (their) conservation function…, (which often manifests in) an interesting tension between innovation and conservation.”The tension that Gielen refers to is indeed felt in “Soundings,” for it is by no means easy to install sound practice within the museum space, such as MoMA, dominated as it is by the Western tradition of visual arts. This problematic is brought to the fore by Barbara London,curator of the exhibition and the MoMA’s associate curator of media and performance art. Having worked at the museum for the past 42 years, London has organized video and sound exhibitions since the 1970s. In “Soundings,” her curatorial approach highlights sound within its close relationship to technology, multidisciplinarity and the experience of the visitor, in view of a “better understanding of our environment.” The 16 contemporary soundworks presented come out of varying fields and practices, such as field recording, history, musicology, ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology and psychology, to name a few.
Each of the works is isolated within its own context, both conceptually and scenographically speaking: their presence substantiates their technical possibility of being. Barbara London underlines this emphasis on sound as medium, and recognizes that introducing the subject of soundto the public comes at the cost of losing some of a conceptual framework that might encompass the works. She explains that “in the future sound will inevitably be more integrated. An institution has to start somewhere.”
Of the works in Soundings, Florian Hecker and Richard Garet demonstrate that sound art does not necessarily require advanced technological means. The German artist Florian Hecker’s three-channel electroacoustic piece Affordance, 2013, was installed in the MoMA’s Bauhaus staircase and projected from wall-mounted speakers positioned on three different horizontal levels. It is the only work in the exhibition to play with site-specificity; situated in a busy walkthrough area, the sound spatialization is in harmony with the space, as the piece asks to be listened to by using the stairs to get closer to the individual speakers. The work’s presence is very subtle, both in terms of the small size of the speakers, which don’t draw attention themselves as objects, and the modest playback volume of the sound, and through the piece’s integration into the permanent collection and the architecture.
While much of contemporary sound practice tends towards a dematerialization of the artwork, Richard Garet, a New York artist of several years originally from Uruguay and the sole representative of South America in the exhibition, presents a sonic assemblage with a strong sculptural dimension. Before Me, 2012, is largely made up of found objects from the street: a turntable, a pair of speakers, and a clear glass marble. His alteration of the identity of household objects and use of the aesthetics by way of recycling and DIY bring to mind the approach the European Nouveaux réalistes of the 1960s. When I met with Richard Garet at Julian Navarro’s—his art dealer—he told me that at first, the piece appeared to be no more than a pile of audio equipment left in a corner of the museum space. Consequently, he asked the museum to construct a custom platform for the work, giving it a more imposing presence and asserting its status as sculpture.
Richard Garet works with sonic material in many different ways. I set up this interview in hopes of finding out more about the role sound plays in his practice, both materially and conceptually.
Esther Bourdages: According to the historian of media arts and experimental music, Douglas Kahn: “Comparing the artistic utilization of the mechanical recording of the objects of the two major senses, that is sight and hearing (what John Cage calls the public senses), we can note a remarkable historical lapse: approximately 100 years between the eyes and the ears….” It took a while for sound to gain independence from the image, becoming an artistic form in its own right. Whether in performance, music composition, photography, installation, moving images, or as a signal to generate sound and/or images, sound is at the center of your practice: it is the major component. Do you consider yourself a sound artist first?
Richard Garet: I think that I consider myself an artist, a contemporary artist, whose work utilizes sound at its core. Rather than distinguishing between whether sound or visuals are the most important thing I would indicate that, for me, time is the most sensitive thing. My pieces are time-based and even when they reach complete stillness time is still very present. Also my pieces range from total immateriality to material form depending on the work, and that changes the focus too. Especially if the work is also comprised of visual elements that are orchestrated and articulated within the work. Also there are at play elements of interdisciplinary approaches to media, and a wide range of media sources are involved from analog to digital. However, if someone calls me a sound artist this is accurate too, but I find the term somewhat limiting and boxing… I prefer to be seen as an interdisciplinary artist.
About the formalism and the materiality of your works: you interlace the analogue and digital, your videos hide in a way what is digital and what is analogue- those that you named Perceptual – the series has a similar look to Mark Rothko paintings, it combines algorithmic and analogue systems and is usually presented as projections or on computer screens. The video The Four Horsemen, 2013, combines old 16mm footages with digital treatments. In your sonic constructions field recordings are always combined, whether mixed with other sources, as noise, electromagnetic waves, modified tape, cracked media, sonification of light, computer processing…with a view to build a sonic field. The sound sculpture that you have presented in the MoMA exhibition is the most object oriented piece in the show, and focuses on old technology. Can you tell me how this piece was chosen by the museum as representative of your practice?
I cannot speak for the curator in terms of the how or why. At the time and during mid to late 2012, I was getting ready for my first solo exhibition at Julian Navarro Projects, New York, and I developed a body of work for the show focused on sound alone. This exhibition was going to be just about sound and for this I left everything else out. Barbara London and I met on December 2011, and from then on we kept in touch and Barbara started to visit my projects consistently throughout the year. Subsequently, by the time she visited my studio on October 2012, I had the opportunity of showing her what I have had coming for the gallery, and over time she selected Before Me, 2012, (consisting of a turntable, microphone, pair of speakers, and a clear glass marble),which in fact was planned to be the center piece of my solo show. Instead we took it out from the exhibit and MoMA had the opportunity to premier the piece.
Barbara London states within the show’s catalog “Garet’s Before Me is a sonic construction with tangible form. The work consists of an old LP record player with an upside down platter revolving at 33 1⁄2 rpm. A clear glass marble placed at the upturned edge of the platter’s smooth metallic surface advances slightly before rolling back to its starting point. This action is repeated again and again, ad infinitum. The scraping sound of glass against metal—the sound of the marble’s sisyphean ordeal—is picked up by a microphone and amplified by a speaker standing on the floor. Unlike the maddening stutter of a scratched LP, the sight and sound of the marble’s endless to and fro elicit sympathy and wishes for its speedy deliverance.”
In terms of the technology the work was orchestrated by a series of direct events. I did not wake up one day and say I’m going to make a piece like this or like that. This piece came together over the course of various years. I’m very interested in people’s relationship to commodity, technology, function, and how collectively we not only absorb it but also contribute to a polluted world of general noise, subsequently the politics of this feel very strong to me. Background noise is very important for me as well; mass media noise and the effect of technology modify our experiences in life. In the case of Before Me all the devices came from the trash in my neighborhood, everything with the exception of the stand, the microphone, and the lamp. This piece took shape over the years by exploring the functionality of the equipment and experimenting with all possible outcomes. Eventually it just clicked and it became self-contained and round. Much else had to do with thinking and understanding what it had just happened and that probably took another year or so. Then of course the work is a metaphor of life. We go in cycles, everything is in motion, moving in circles, things change but we pretty much stay in the same place. Life is mundane and is absurd… that’s also why the myth of Sisyphus was ideal to use as a point of reference in this work.
I wonder if you can expand upon the ideas about time and perception in your works. Your exhibition titles sometimes reference this: I am thinking about The Spacious Now and the Scale of the Instantaneous, 2012, a solo exhibition at Studio10 in Brooklyn, where you quote the philosopher Jacques Derrida. From your work as an improviser, it is clear that the moment of performance is important in your practice.
Time is very important and so is perception. Reality is perception, we all know that. But I like to think that in my work what happens is like sculpting in time. I think that time and scale go together, and the instant of encounter with the work, or anything really, is like an enveloping experience that give us the center, the axis. From there everything expands in every direction: physically-experientially, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, existentially, etc. And all these complexities exist because there is time to expand into and from. Also there are many times and not just one. One would think there is a past, a present, a future. But truly it feels like there is only a constant present, we are in touch with the past through memory and we can only grasp the future through imagination and expectation. Therefore, in my work the notion of how the visitor would encounter him/her self enveloped by the work in time is very present. The works often disorient the audience, not allowing one to become aware of the narrative in such a way that you can tell what came first and what comes after. I like to think that we’re just in the work, like floating and suspended. Aside from what the work is or does, long durations are a characteristic of what I do. I have come to make pieces that are very long and can get you in there for long time; I think that’s now a signature and characteristic in my work. If the work is generative then it becomes infinite.
Based in Montreal, Esther Bourdages works in the visual arts field as an independent writer and curator. She study sculpture in the expanded field in relationship with sound and digital art. Performing under the name Esther B., she plays turntable, (man) handles vinyl records, and records soundscapes.
Translation: Simon Brown
Thanks to Christopher Haworth and Gascia Ouzounian.
 Yvonne Spielmann, “Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts”, Leonardo Digital Review, February 2001. http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/jan2001/bk_NOISE_spielmann.html
 Alan Licht, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, New York, Rizzoli, 2007, p.11.
 Theoretician Douglas Kahn prefers the term “sound in the arts”, which would also include other disciplines that might interact with sound. These practices have developed in recent decades in the context of artist-run centres, independent structures with an avant-garde and explorative approach, and sound art already asserts itself and is widely showcased outside of the United States in official institutions such as biennales and museums. Douglas Kahn, “The Arts of Sound Art and Music”, special issue on sound art, ed. by Ben Basan, The Iowa Review Web, Vol. 8, nº 1 Feb/March 2006.
 Pascal Gielen is professor of sociology based to Groningen, Netherlands. Pascal Gielen, “The Biennal: A Post-Institution for Immaterial Labour”, Open, nº 16 2009, p.15
Andrew Russeth, “Now Hear This: For 42 Years, Barbara London Has Been Making Noise at MoMA”, Gallerist, August 6, 2013. http://galleristny.com/2013/08/now-hear-this-for-42-years-barbara-london-has-been-making-noise-at-moma/
 Niels Van Tomme and Barbara London, “The Ability to Shape Our Physical and Collective Experiences: An Interview with Barbara London about Soundings: A Contemporary Score”, vol. 4, nº 16 2013, p.31.
 Barbara London sets forth the technological aspect: “Today, museums are fully adept at incorporating video and media installations, and by extension, sound art, into their contemporary programming.” Barbara London, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, Exhibition Catalog (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, August 10 – November 3, 2013), New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2013, p. 9.
 Idem, Artpulse.
Douglas Kahn, “Audio Art in the Deaf Century Sound By Artists”. In Sound by Artist, ed. by Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, Toronto/Banff, Art Metropole/Walter Phillips Art Gallery, 1990.
This interview was originally featured in BlackFlash Magazine Issue 31.2