Saturday, 21 April 2018

(nb. this blogspot is not regularly updated but I felt this was the right place for this open letter)

Recently an article appeared on bandcamp focused on ‘field recording’ & largely it was an ok attempt by the author to cover a few artists work. The majority of those interviewed managed to discuss the subject and their approach in an open and sincere manner. One section however mentioned work that, shall we say, sails very close to that of others myself included, and there was no apparent attempt to place said work or the approaches used in a wider context that would acknowledge the history and contemporary practice involved. Situations like this, whether the responsibility of interviewer or interviewee, I would argue, have to be taken seriously. When it comes to work we must view such things in the same way as we would with any other art form. If a band used the same hooks, riffs or lyrics as another, despite the fact that all might use the same instruments or methods of playing, we call it out. If a painter drips paint across a long strip of canvas and believes it to be ‘original’ we call it out. If a performance artist employs students and then uses their ideas for their own fee-paying commissions we call it out. So why don’t we do that with sound art that uses field recording and intentionally or by chance mirrors existing work ?

Well, the main excuse tends to be that the sounds themselves, the locations, aren’t owned by any one person. To a large extent this is true, though it can be argued that the recordings of said sounds are either ‘documentary’ or ‘creative’ and the latter certainly should be thought of as the artistic property of said person. I lead workshops that sometimes do involve groups of artists working with the same location, techniques and sound sources so it should be understood that I am not arguing for the ownership of place or its sonic material as such. No, what I am saying is that if work is presented as original or part of an artists career in the arts then the same measure of sincerity and originality should apply as it does with any other form or material used. To some such things are a puzzle, they might look at an installation by Barlow and one by Kawamata and not grasp fully the essential differences that are obvious to those who are more, shall we say, tuned in to such work or who instinctively see the clear and vast differences. Both artists have, for a long time, used construction and what appears often to be scrap or basic building materials in seemingly random or disjointed constructions. They both, it can be argued, use similar materials and some of the same basic techniques required to work with such materials, but it could never be argued that they, or indeed any of the other artists working with similar elements, are insincere in their work or have attempted to distort the history of installation art to serve their own purposes. Elsewhere in the visual arts it is possible to see instances where such distortions have been allowed or encouraged; Pollack / Krasner for example, or Baya and the work of the many artists she influenced but who never attempted to ensure her rightful place in the continuum.

With ‘field recording’ the essential democracy of the practice is being used now, more and more, to support what could best be described as, at best, appropriation and increasingly often outright plagiarism. Again, it is important to state that as someone who leads workshops I show artists techniques that I use and I am not, of course, opposed to the sharing of knowledge or approaches. It is how each person then chooses to use them that is important and if they decide to see me, for example, presenting an installation based on recordings of a building resonating called ‘audible silence’ and use the same techniques to record buildings and accept a commission to create an installation elsewhere and then call it something along the lines of ‘silence that is audible’ I would hope most readers would see the problem. I'd go further and say that the concept itself is a clear part of my artistic output and therefore any work that follows along similar lines should be seen within that context just as I see my work in the same way. 

I am occasionally asked to present soundwalks using electromagnetics & although no one owns the technique, the location would be different from any known works & of course the sounds would be different as they differ everywhere & at different times, I never accept as this, in terms of 'sound art' is work that is a key aspect of another artists well established oeuvre & has been for decades (Kubisch). Now, Kubisch has just released an album that uses techniques that I & others have used for years also and it can be argued that we are ‘known’ for in various ways but there has been no attempt to claim such things as theirs & none of the techniques or material is used in such a way as to promote an ego over the work & that is an important difference in my opinion. It is perhaps a subtle difference in attitude or approach to the work or the use of material but the impact is considerable. In the article on bandcamp I would argue that it was important to ensure the use of certain techniques or material was placed in some kind of historical or contemporary context. A work was discussed that is very close to a key thread of my own work going back almost a decade now, and very specifically one installation element within that aspect of my work. The location is the same, the sound sources are the same, the techniques used are the same and the title is very, very close to one I have used. These things can also happen by chance of course and I am not implying that I believe there was some fully aware 'theft' of ideas involved, but a general concern that this situation illustrates might best be summed up as being about the responsibility of research or grasp of the continuum when presenting work. Let me break this down somewhat; the technique involves the use of geophones for audio and I have established myself as an artist who uses them to create installations. At the time I started using them I was aware of one other sound artist who used them on a specific project and perhaps 2 or 3 works that had used them in equally specific circumstances, none of which were concerned with located sound as such. Neither I or any of these other artists own the technology (I happen to adapt the ones I use but I am referring to the basic geophone technology) and indeed in the last 4 or 5 years more and more artists are using them (again, often without any attempt to recognise the work of other artists who have pioneered their use) and speaking for myself I have what I regard as a healthy dislike of hierarchies. However I would argue that the use of field recordings in a sound art context is at a crucial stage in its development and I always hope that sincere artists who cares about the art form, if asked about their work with any non-conventional technique would make a determined effort to ensure their work is referred to in that wider context, or would perhaps draw the interviewers attention to work by other artists, either that have gone before or who are working now with said techniques in perhaps a different but sincere way. Of course such interviews are at the mercy of editors and I myself have had carefully chosen words and references cut from interviews in the past, but when it comes to ones artistic sincerity there is a simple answer - withdraw permission if an article comes across as only about self promotion and ego due to the way in which it is edited. We must begin to view our responsibility to create sincerity, originality and context as as important as, for example, fair pay for work done. If we do not then we are at the mercy of artists whose only thoughts when asked to contribute to an article or exhibit / perform work are of themselves and we only have to look at other areas of the arts to see what that can mean: elitism, unfair representation, distortion of histories and erosion of trust and knowledge.

Of course journalists and curators have to accept responsibility also. A writer confronted by an artist who pushes their work with a certain technique should spend some time researching and, where applicable either insert some contextual references or edit to avoid self promotional distortion of the form or approach. A curator when commissioning or programming submitted work should be aware of the general context and the work of other artists whose work is either being appropriated or renders the submitted work a copy at best. Can it not be argued that a band submitting an obscure cover version to a label only concerned with new material would immediately be both rejected and called out if they had attempted to claim originality of material ?  The problem perhaps can be seen in that example also; to know said song was indeed an obscure cover version requires in-depth knowledge on behalf of the label manager and the same is true in the arts. With such a vast amount of work being created, the obvious need to avoid the elitism of an out dated idea of ‘the expert’ and the equally important need to celebrate the energy of young curators it is inevitable that some work that is not exactly original will make it. However, if the material itself doesn’t combine with the available knowledge of the curator I would argue that there are two solutions to ensuring a decent level of insight; 1) simply spend 10 or 15 minutes on the internet and its usually possible to work out whether a work might be problematic in various ways, or, perhaps more importantly in a wider context 2) it is usually fairly easy to spot the insincere artist if one spends a bit of time talking with them or indeed looking at other aspects of their attitudes. This could sound like censorship and it’s important to state that I am not arguing for some kind of morally clean art world where only those who don’t have views different from our own are allowed, but I am saying that if one is concerned with an art form and with the importance of both originality and fair representation of those who created or push forward the form then it is possible to use other ways than in-depth knowledge to establish the worth of the work in a contextual sense. 

So, increasingly I hear of work that is not original in concept or material. Work that hides behind the ‘field recordings belong to everyone’ excuse. As documentation of place that argument has some validity as long as the recordings themselves are ones own, but when it comes to ‘sound art’ it does not hold up, nor should it. Work should be a product of individual insights and creative voice, forged through time and work with the material and ones approaches. If one spends time working on a piece only to find another artist is known for something very similar accept it & move on - its a lesson as valuable as the successes, and if one happens to work along similar lines with others always do whatever you can to ensure an inclusive atmosphere in interviews or even when approached to exhibit or perform work. Making a living in the arts is not easy so it can seem a big ask to expect anyone to share the limelight when it falls on them but yes, turn down an offer if you know it, shall we say, sails close to the work of someone else. Better still do so whilst referring the organisers to that other work. But, being realistic, that isn’t easy to do especially if one is young and trying to get established oneself. In my younger days I ploughed on without much concern for history or context - it was all about the energy, but with experience and age comes both knowledge and responsibility and I would argue that how one accepts that and uses it should be part of how we judge the worth of artists who have been working for some years - whether they work with it or in spite of it, it is there. In short no experienced artist should be creating work that infringes on that of others or contains a minimal amount of originality. If they are I would argue they are not an artist worthy of recognition in the form, otherwise the form is diluted and the trust between artist, curator and audience is eroded. As I sometimes say on workshops or in talks, the democracy of ‘field recording’ is vital. We can, more or less, all buy the same equipment yet if we all travelled to the same location and recorded at the same time we might come away with different material and it is in the mystery of that process that the individual creative voice emerges and should always be recognised above those who have been unable or unwilling to find that voice and instead use the approaches of others to mould a career of sonic cover versions and copies. 

further update:

a sleepless night. yesterday, following this post, I was contacted by the artist I refer to in the article on bandcamp. We had a long conversation on facebook and there also followed a bit of a problem with a post on his profile page that misrepresented my concerns in a manner which attempted to dismantle an essential aspect of my firmly held beliefs around the democracy of field recording. I asked him to remove that comment and he did. In return I edited my letter (above) to ensure readers would grasp that my concerns, though triggered by this aspect of the bandcamp article, were about the wider issues it highlighted and not a personal attack on a particular artist per say, though I maintain that we always have a responsibility to ensure our work or approaches don't infringe fully or substantially on the already established work of others. I have attempted to contact bandcamp in several ways but received no reply and comments posted on the article have not been approved. I also tried to contact the author or the article though a series of false leads to their email address meant this was also problematic, however they have now contacted me and a conversation is ongoing.

I stick to my point that if this had been an article on a form of 'music', in a conventional sense, any artist, whether intentionally or not, would not be allowed to discuss work that infringes significantly on that of another (& this is not about only the use of certain fixed technologies). This would, one would hope, be avoided either by a decent level of knowledge in terms of the author but an editorial process that both respects the work of artists and also understands the potential impact of such situations. Myself and the artist concerned did discuss the possibility of one artist creating a work that unintentionally infringes on that of another, and of course that can happen. As I state in my letter that is why research is important, however on thinking over our conversation it occurs to me that there is a fundamental issue again highlighted;  where is the line between an artists right to establish their creative voice and the democracy of field recording ? As readers will know I 'teach' field recording, including the extended techniques I use myself and I build and supply some of the equipment needed. As I always say the technology is the least important part of the process and so, of course, the sharing of such knowledge and equipment is not a self-defeating process when it comes to retaining ones creative identity. In all the years I have been doing this, with the 1000's of people I have interacted with, then yes, often they will have a go at working in similar ways to myself - that's kind of the point of sharing knowledge - but, very importantly, almost all will simply allow any new information or equipment to become part of their process towards their own, individual creative voice. Every once in a while someone might simply 'copy' ones work and, though a complex discussion, for me this isn't about the technique or approach used but in whether said person presents the piece as 'a work of art' - to do so clearly should imply some degree of originality and sincerity. With conventional music it is usually fairly easy to spot any plagiarism; a chord progression, a lyric or a particular overall style copied, but with work involving field recording the situation is both more complicated at one level and yet, I would argue, at the same time equally straightforward. There are artists who have, through years of hard work, established themselves in certain ways and even with certain technologies, and this is why referencing that work or placing ones own that might include some of the same techniques within that continuum is vital. I would further argue that it is part of individual artistic integrity to be aware of the continuum and, more importantly, ones work should involve a level of self examination which questions it's originality and authenticity. This doesn't mean one has to insist on a long list of references in any article or interview but, I would argue, what it might mean is ensuring one doesn't imply in what one says that such things are, as far as you are concerned, one's own discoveries or , especially in articles aimed at an audience perhaps not familiar with the form, one is somehow charting new ground. It can be argued that to do so, by design or accident, is not only disrespectful to other artists but also to the art form in general and contributes to the potential eventual breakdown of its relevance and creative worth. It might not be easy to work out how to do discuss ones work in that way - for some it is natural as they simply don't think of the work in a way that would inform such a way of discussing it - but it is important and perhaps largely a matter of the overall personality of the artist in some form. The belief that its ok to use whatever one can to get the work done and not take any effort, either through research or in terms of how one thinks about the role of artist, to ensure originality is a problem in my opinion and certain aspects of the issues this article raised link to how such approaches perhaps develop. 

I am unsure what will happen next. There has been a significant negative response to the bandcamp article from those who know my work and field recording in general, and there has been a positive response from others, but this isn't about such things really. There's a principle involved around artistic voice and ownership and that subtle but vital divide between the documentary and works of art.