Tag Archives: John Cage

Sound Sculpture: Bill Fontana

Earlier this week I went to a lecture by the sound artist Bill Fontana at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was skeptical, sound art? Please. Wouldn’t you call sound art music? I braced myself for noise/ screeching and howls, but oh how awesomely wrong I was!

Who’s Bill Fontana?

Fontana (American, b. 1947) studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, focusing on philosophy and music. He was influenced by the work of John Cage and specifically Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, zoning in on the idea that sound could be a sculptural medium and the act of listening could be a form of music. On his travels to Australia, Fontana was fascinated with the myriad of unique sounds in the region. Using the human and natural environments, the artist records often ‘overlooked’ sounds of everyday life as well as sounds inaudible to the human ear. These recordings create networks of listening sites that act as a kind of sculpture. Fontana’s sound sculptures attempt to capture the “true” representation of a sound, his works question how sound is able to create a sculptural image/ environment in the mind more immediate than visual art.

Recurring themes in Fontana’s work are recordings of water, birds, bells, and traffic, giving it a distinctly natural, elemental feel; tempered with the cacophony of human life.

One of his early works, Distant Trains/ Entfernte Zuege (1984) recorded the bustling train station in Cologne and projected it at the remaining bombed-out facade of the famous Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin. The Anhalter Bahnhof was sealed off in 1952 by the Soviets (the station was in East Berlin and ran through West Berlin, a big problem for the Soviets). The bombed out Anhalter Bahnhof stood as a ghost platform, eerily reanimated by Fontana’s recording, projected from eight giant speakers buried in the ground. Fontana’s work reflects on the destruction of WWII, the destructive divide between East and West- however, it also connects the two with a recording of the Western Cologne train station piped to the Eastern.

Fontana’s more recent work aims at connecting sound sites in real time. Currently ‘up’ in London is White Sound: An Urban Seascape (Sept. 22- Oct. 16, 2011) which connects the sound of the ocean shore of Dorset with the gridlocked Euston Road. Speakers on the face of the Wellcome Collection building projects a live feed of crashing waves, creating a dynamic listening experience that is at moments dominated by the natural ocean that recedes to reveal the pulsing traffic. This ebb and flow of different sounds revamps how we actually listen, becoming attuned to sounds we tend to block out.

To read and explore more about Bill Fontana (give it a listen!), check out his site here.

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‘Pataphysics: A Philosophy of the Absurd

What is ‘Pataphysics you ask? Surely something high-minded and science-y; like physics but “pata”…? Well, yes and no; but mostly no. ‘Pataphysics is the study of imaginary solutions; a supposition based on a supposition, what lies beyond reality. Assumptions built on assumptions, the fearful imaginings and anxieties of life- for instance seeing someone you know and then assuming they are ignoring you and then wondering why they are ignoring you.

‘Pataphysics has its origins with French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), an Absurdist to the core. Jarry shot to fame at the age of 23 with his play, Ubu Roi, a humorous, satirical and biting 5 act piece that was shut down after its opening night. Might have had something to do with the first word in the play being “Merdre!” (or “SHIT-R!”- Jarry had a unique way of speaking that was the inspiration for the title character where he pronounced everything, even silent letters)- which caused pandemonium in the crowd. (Alfred Jarry on a bicycle which he called “that which rolls”)

After his brief bit of fame, Jarry succumbed to the life of the bohemian, drinking heavily and dying in poverty. However, his impact and that of ‘Pataphysics is one of those strange, invisible hands that helped shape contemporary culture. Picasso, also a frequenter of the Parisian scene, became fascinated with Jarry after his death, wearing Jarry’s pistol around his neck.

(drawing of the character “Ubu” from the play Ubu Roi)

In 1948 ‘Pataphysics acquired a second life with the founding of College de ‘pataphysique in Paris. Members included notables like Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Eugene Ionesco. Even the philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified himself with the absurdist philosophy. So we can definitely see a clear lineage from Jarry’s absurdist ‘Pataphysics to the work of Dadaists and Surrealists. In the 1960s Asger Jorn also subscribed to ‘Pataphysics which influenced his work with the Situationist International. From there Pataphysics hotspots popped up all over the world. Oh yeah, John Cage’s seminal Black Mountain College performance in the 50’s? Chalk it up to ‘Pataphysics!

The ‘pataphysic effect has influenced not only visual art, but also music and literature. The Pataphor (coined by writer and musician Pablo Lopez) is an extended metaphor that describes two degrees of separation (rather than one, which would be a metaphor). It describes a new and separate world where the idea has taken on its own life (for an example click here.)

Beatles fan? In “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” what is mentioned as the course of study for Joan? That’s right, “Pataphysical Science.”

And the best thing!? It’s still around! After going underground in 1975, the College de ‘Pataphysique reemerged in 2000. The London chapter especially is thriving with an actual journal, documents, and all the trappings of sophisticated officialness. So there! Art doesn’t have to be serious to be great or influential. Sometimes the greatest truths are found within the absurd.