I’d never previously given any thought to the potential for collaboration between sound and ceramics, although artist / curator Joseph Young has spent much of the past few years exploring the innumerable ways they may intersect and interact. Many of these explorations have been alongside curator and ceramicist Kay Aplin, and together they recently launched In Camera: the first gallery dedicated to collaborations between ceramics and sound, based at The Ceramic House in Brighton. As I mention to Young in this interview, I’ve always associated ceramics exclusively with ideas of grace and placidity. In other words, I’ve naively divorced the gloss and finesse of the finished product from the fire and viscera that comprises its creation. Listening to Young and Aplin’s collaboration Base Sound :: Sonic Gold (Young’s audio guide to one of Aplin’s ceramic exhibitions, composed from recordings made during the creation of the work), the physicality of ceramics becomes very clear.
Their current project is Landscape : Islands, which pairs together ceramicists and sound artists for a month-long residency project. The artists have been split into two pairings – Anne Lykke (Denmark, Ceramics) and Mike Blow (UK, Sound); Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir (Iceland, Ceramics) and Iris Garrelfs (UK and Germany, Sound) – with each pair generating collaborative work based on the theme of “Landscape”. The finished pieces are displaying at Phoenix Brighton as part of Brighton Digital Festival (until 25th September). Below, Young and I discuss his work with Kay Aplin, the hazardous nature of ceramic creation, and the influence of John Cage’s collaborations with Merce Cunningham.
So I understand that you held a talk last night, with the artists and curators of Landscape : Islands discussing their part of the project.
Yes. It’s a regular feature at Phoenix Brighton. They have a series called Spotlight, where the residency artists in the building talk about their practice and what they’re doing. Last night was a bit different as there were six of us: the two pairs of visiting artists, along with myself and Kay Aplin. Kay is the ceramics curator I’m working with to lead the project. Together we hosted the discussion. I suppose it was a bit more like a panel discussion. We had a really nice reception from the artists there. This collaboration between ceramics and sound is really interesting to talk about – it’s an unusual one. It hasn’t been done very much, which makes it a fairly new area of artistic work.
So how did it all come about? I understand that you did a collaboration with Kay back in 2011.
That was the first year that Kay opened The Ceramic House, which is a venue at the Artists Open Houses in Brighton. We’ve now got the addition of a new gallery space called In Camera, which is a dedicated white cube space for ceramic and sound practice. I think it’s probably the first one ever to be dedicated to the particular study of ceramics and sound.
The piece that came out of that project in 2011 was Base Sound :: Sonic Gold, which was looking at the correspondences between sound and ceramic practice. What I was impressed by was this process of putting a lump of raw clay into a kiln and having something beautiful come out the other end. I’m very interested in everyday sounds, and so I saw that as a mirror of the sonic alchemy that happens when you take a field recording as a base material and turn it into some form of “sonic gold” – hence the title of the piece. I made what you might loosely call an audio guide to accompany the exhibition, which was a headphone-based piece that allowed you to listen to the “making” sounds from Kay’s studio as you walked round. I made these abstract compositions from the sweat, physical labour and machinery – the kiln sounds, the mixers, the glazers, all of these rather industrial noises – which became the background soundtrack to the exhibition of these beautiful-looking ceramics. So there was quite an interesting contrast there, but it was all about this comparison between the two making processes – specifically the alchemy of that.
In some ways, Landscapes : Islands is a continuation of that project. Last year we worked on In A Shetland Landscape during a month-long residency on the Shetland Isles. We went out walking together every day. The weather is very extreme a lot of the time, so you don’t get anything big growing there. There’s one place on the island where there are trees, but they’ve been deliberately planted there and they’re tended and cultivated. I went there to record them – as it’s quite unusual to hear the sounds of the trees in Shetland – but on reflection I couldn’t use them in the actual installation because it sounded so out of place alongside everything else. Kay was collecting samples of this tiny little micro-flora which you would normally ignore, and then blew them up to larger-than-life size and made ceramic panels out of them. That was the visual element of the piece. The sound component was a layered composition of four-channel sounds. I composed all of these hours and hours of recordings into four movements, forming what I guess was a classical sonata form: it started with “Birds and Sea”, then “Wind and Rain”, then “Humans and Animals”, and then finally to “Sea and Birds”, which returned it to the initial theme.
We had the idea to extend the whole project and invite other sound and ceramic artists, who had never collaborated together before, to work together in a month-long residency programme. That’s what we’re opening tomorrow night.
As someone with little interaction with ceramics, I’ve always perceived the art form to primarily be affiliated with ideas of grace and placidity. What’s been really interesting is listening to Base Sound :: Sonic Gold and reading Iris Garrelfs’ blog about the project – both of which highlight the physicality and viscera within ceramic art. Particularly within the creation process.
It’s a hazardous process as well. We’ve had some kiln disasters during this residency. Anne Lykke spent two weeks on this big figurative sculpture of the mythical god Pan, which was beautiful. She finished it, came back an hour later and the sculpture had collapsed due to some flaws in the clay. She tried to patch them up during the making process, and it was only when it was finally done – with the full weight of it there – that the structural weaknesses were exposed. She had to start again from scratch and now she’s actually made something really different. That’s the nature of an experimental residency; you have to be ready to literally pick up the pieces when something goes wrong and start all over again. That’s all part of the research and development process. Even though we’ve got an exhibition of finished work tomorrow, I refer to the whole project as a research and development programme. We’re all learning all the time about how these things work together, and the limits of this kind of collaborative process.
Do you feel as though you’re still at the very tip of the iceberg, in terms of discovering what’s possible in this collaboration between ceramics and sound?
Absolutely. When Kay and I started this collaboration, we worked in parallel. The title In A Shetland Landscape refers to a piano piece by John Cage from 1948 called In A Landscape. After spending a month out in the landscape, we realised that we wanted to represent this idea of immersion. I was less interested in going into a gallery space and having landscape represented in a traditional way through a frame at a distance. When you view landscape painting, you’re viewing it as an objective observer. I’m much more interested in trying to recreate the feeling of being immersed in a landscape and being part of it, which is what you get when you’re actually walking within it. That’s part of the pleasure of it – you get this feeling of being one with nature. When John Cage worked with Merce Cunningham, the two parts of the work – the dance and the soundtrack – didn’t meet until the opening night in front of a live audience. Cage would not go into rehearsals. They’d have a title and a duration, and that would be it. I was interested in the parallels between this and our own working relationship. We were both working side-by-side, but the parts didn’t meet until they actually came together in the gallery space. So that was just one approach.
One of the reasons I asked Mike Blow to be a part of this is that he’s a specialist in interactive sound objects. I was really interested in seeing what happens when you embed sound in a sculpture. How does that change how you read a piece of art? I think Mike’s also interested in boundaries as well; the notion of sound challenging the idea of physical boundaries in an object. If the sound travels out of the object, where are the boundaries of that object? As for Iris’ work – she uses field recordings in her practice, but in a very different way. She often uses her voice as well, as often has a much more musical approach. Again, it’s another way of working. To answer your question: there are so many different types of ceramic practice and sound art practice, and I’d imagine that the number of potential combinations of those is quite a number.
I’m very familiar with the idea of immersion in relationship to sound. Perhaps this question would be better placed to Kay, but how does one achieve immersion through the ceramic art form?
It’s very particular to our work. During In A Shetland Landscape, she was taking ordinary everyday flora – the kind of things you would ignore when walking the landscape, often no bigger than a thumbnail. She was blowing these things up to larger-than-life size and giving them hyperreal colour and texture, so that they take up the field of vision. When you’re sitting in the space and have an arrangement of these things in front of you, there’s a lot to take in. You’re overwhelmed sensually. They’re not minimalist pieces. Obviously it’s not the same as sonic immersion, but it’s analogous in some way.
I read your joint blog about the project, and Kay talked about opting for those hyperreal colours in conscious reference to the modus operandi of John Cage. It was really nice to see that cross-pollination between your respective art forms.
Yeah, it’s great.
So what else is happening with this project over the coming months?
In A Shetland Landscape is being transferred from Shetland Museum to our much smaller space at In Camera, and on September 2nd we’ve got an event for it. We’ve got sound artists Cathy Lane and Felicity Ford performing that evening as well. Their work fits in really well. Cathy has done a piece called The Hebrides Suite, so she’s going to perform and talk about that. She’s spent a lot of time over there and she’s really immersed in it. As part of Felicity’s work, KNITSONIK, she’s been doing a project about the Shetland wool industry. In fact, when we arrived in Shetland to do a week’s R&D in advance of the residency, I saw Felicity’s book in the Shetland Museum bookshop. We got in contact with her and found out that she’d done this whole work about the development of the wool: from the sheep being born through to the production of sweaters and hats at the end of it.
These two exhibitions are then on for the whole of the Brighton Digital Festival. Then we take a selection of the work we’ve been doing over the past year on a mini tour. We’re doing a two-week exhibition at Rochester Museum from September 25th until October 6th, before we do a one-off performance event with Ingrid Plum at Dover Arts Development Project Space on October 8th.
So it’s been a really interesting project, and hopefully that won’t be the end of it either. We’re already looking toward next year’s project at The Ceramic House called Made In Korea. That’ll be with Korean ceramic artists. We’re also talking with Echoes, who create these locative audio experiences. It’s augmented reality with audio, basically. We’ve been talking about working with them to embed the work of Korean sound artists into the exhibition at The Ceramic House, and also to produce an online audio experience to accompany the work. I’m hopeful that what we’ve started here will continue, and that we’ll be working on this intersection for a few years to come.
Landscape : Islands at Brighton Digital Festival – brightondigitalfestival.co.uk/event/landscape-islands