Interview: Sian Hutchings

The vast majority of people I interact with through ATTN share my general perspective on sound and the importance of listening. Of course, there are countless other artists for whom sound plays an entirely different role: it’s a subordinate force that affirms or embellishes the experiences of sight, or a force that must be carefully shaped – using the universal moulds of spoken language and music – before it can become the subject of undivided attention. Rather than seeking refuge in the like-minded, Bournemouth artist Sian Hutchings engages those who experience sound in an entirely different way. Through multi-disciplinary collaboration and listening workshops with members of the public, her work emerges through the negotiation of disparate understandings, nurturing commonalities between artistic practices to identify new utilities of sound and listening.

Her latest exhibition – simply titled “A Painting Exhibition” – will take place at Bournemouth Band Stand on 13th January 2017 between 6pm and 9pm, featuring the work of current students, alumni and lecturers of the Arts University Bournemouth (where Sian currently holds the post of Graduate In Residence for Fine Art). Go here for the Facebook Event. Below, Sian and I discuss the importance of acoustic ecology, her listening workshops in the New Forest and the potential intersections between sound and painting.

How did you first become interested in working with sound? 

During my foundation [degree] I was doing this horrible work with textiles, like knitting and felting. And then for my first year, one of the first exercises involved making an installation in groups. For some reason I picked up a video camera, and for the first year and a half of my degree I was doing video work. I really enjoyed collage as well: combining my footage with archive footage, messing around with sampled sound, mashing it up with the video. I was heavily influenced by the work of Norman McLaren. When he was making work there was an abundance of 35mm filmstrips, and he would work directly on the film by drawing and scratching onto the optical sound strips of the film before it was developed and so the sound was inherently connected to the film.

One of my lecturers then did a workshop on sound. We were looking at John Zorn’s “Cobra” and improvised composition, and I started to realise that it was the sound element of the video that I was enjoying more and that sometimes I feel we can be overwhelmed with visual media. I decided to cut out visuals altogether.

Had you had any musical experience before that?

I play the guitar really badly. I did a BTEC in music at college but I wasn’t very good at performing. I think that college took the fun out of music, even though I was interested in it. It’s strange that previously when studying ‘music’ working only with sound it didn’t initially go well, and now my whole practice is based around it…

Do you think the context played any part in that? Previously you were working with sound in a strictly musical framework, whereas now you’re working within a context that tends to be much more liberal about how you can utilise the medium. 

Yeah. In the first year of Fine Art, the lecturers urge you to experiment with your materials and your context. They encourage you to work with lots of different mediums, but also to question why you use a particular material depending on the theory or context behind your work. It allowed for a lot more freedom; you didn’t have to stick with rules. Music is all based on scales and tabs, and I’m really bad at reading online tabs. I think that’s why I created my own format for reading and writing music when I did my work last year. I’m not musically trained at all, so I created my own score where the sounds were represented by graphic notation.

And how did you become interested in acoustic ecology?

In my second year I was looking at post-humanism and technological advances. I did a sound installation in Bournemouth Lower Gardens where I hid speakers behind bushes and recorded the sound directly from the gardens, and then messed around with it and played it back into the same space. For people hearing these sounds, there was a blur between that sound that was “real” and the sound that was not. I also found a TED Talk from Bernie Krause, which I really engaged with.

And then there’s the fact that I love going for walks in the forest. My boyfriend and I went for a walk one day and were trying to look for a deer, so we were trying to be as quiet as possible. As soon as you try to be quiet, you can’t. I stepped on a stick and inevitably it snapped, which made that magical sound that is so distinctive of a forest. Everybody knows it. I wondered if I could take this sound and reproduce it in another environment. I did a piece called 48 Bags Of Sticks, where I went into the forest every day for four weeks trying to carry as many bin bags full of sticks as possible. I put them all into a single room and created a piece that was very much about how the audience can design their own soundscape. I just put the material in the room; the sound would only be activated by them walking around it.

48bagsofsticks

48 BAGS OF STICKS

I read that this piece was partly concerned with the isolation of individual sound objects, and how such experiences are increasingly difficult in loud urban environments.

I was trying to bring the forest into that room, and it was only from doing that exercise that I realised that I’d…not ruined the sound, but transformed it. The whole environment was different and the sound became overwhelming. Several different factors would affect the sound: the number of people in the room, the architecture of the space…the room that I worked in had heated flooring, so as I gradually filled up the space some of the sticks ended up being damper than others, and that changed the sound as well. It was never “truthful”. Towards the end the sound became dry and brittle, which isn’t what we hear in a forest.

You also created a piece called The Composition Of Sway, which also has a strong connection to the natural environment. I understand this piece was founded on workshops?

After 48 Bags Of Sticks, I became interested in audience participation and how their engagement activated the sound. When I was reading about R. Murray Schaefer for my dissertation and his way of teaching sound, I found out about his “ear-cleaning exercises”, which are used to re-engage people with listening and how to control their hearing. I started running these workshops in these little church rooms in Sway. Two people showed up from the village [laughs]. These two old guys. They were great. I was talking to them about the concept of Keynote sounds [sounds that, according to Schaefer, “outline the character of the people” living in a particular environment], and we were walking around the village and deciding what these sounds were. After a while they were really starting to engage with it, talking about things like the sound of the mechanic who always left his door open.

I started thinking about what would happen if I took people with an existing assumption about what they think sound is, and then had them engage with new ways of thinking about sound and composition. I put a massive call-out to 16 amateur orchestras around the south asking for people to participate in sonic workshops, and people from various orchestras got back to me. The first workshop was across the whole day in Sway. I bribed them with tea and biscuits, and then I started off with a lecture on R. Murray Schaefer, Bernie Krause, soundscapes and acoustic ecology. We then did some ear-cleaning exercises where they had to write down everything they could hear for 10 minutes. Initially they all started writing about the sound of pen on paper or the sound of feet shuffling, but after a while they were picking up on those sounds outside of their immediate vicinity, like the birds outside the room.

Then we did a sound walk to a place I selected in the forest, and I asked them all to walk out of earshot of each other so they could all immerse themselves in sound. Afterwards there were a lot of discussions about the sounds we heard, and I was recording all of the sounds we heard and playing them back. When we were in the forest, I asked them to play the soundscape without their instrument and directly engage with the sounds already around them, as opposed to playing something that they thought sounded like the forest. We then spent a number of sessions trying to replicate the sounds they were making in the forest, so rather than trying to make a musical representation of a lark rising, they had to directly play the sound that they were playing in the forest. One of the musicians had a load of bracelets on, and when she jangled them over the keyboard it would make the sound of logs falling. She only plays one note for the entire thing, because in the forest you can actually the hum of a generator.

performancefinal_front_platform

THE COMPOSITION OF SWAY. (PHOTO BY SAMUEL BARRY)

It feels reminiscent of some John Cage compositions, in how a very liberal attitude to sound is being brought into a traditional performance context. Why is it important for you to bring your work back into the performance environment?

When I did the call-out, I stated that the incentive for the musicians was that they’d get to do a performance in London – like “wow, you get to do a performance but actually you’re doing this all for free!” [laughs] Actually I am really thankful for all their contribution and they have taught me a lot about my work. I could have easily gone out and done the experiment myself, but it would have been restricted to my point of view and interpretation of it. I didn’t just want to get the musicians playing the soundscape; I wanted them to think about how they could take the soundscape away with them and redesign it in their context of traditional performances.

In the first session you could see that a lot of them were struggling and saying, “well what sounds do you want? How should I play it? Should it be floaty?” I was like, “no, no, no.” They’re used to being directed and working from music that already exists. I wanted them to be part of the decision-making process, so all of the sounds are their responses. They have their own artistic integrity and it’s important that it came across in the performance.

In the video of the piece you seem to be “conducting” the musicians, although not in the traditional sense. Could you take me through what’s happening there?

Once they were generating these sounds in the first session, I got them to sit in a circle and each play the sound they’d just made. I’d say, “okay – whoever thinks they can play a wind sound, play a wind sound.” From this, we tried to create the narrative of the sound walk we did and tap into the timeline of when things happened. For the first workshop I tried just pointing at them to signal for them to play, which just got really confusing. Because I can’t read music, I can’t conduct them in the traditional sense. There were two or three weeks between each workshop where I would break it down for myself and figure out how I could progress it for the next workshop. I’d start thinking about who would fit into each category of sound, and then draw out graphic notations that easily correspond to a hand signal. I would create a key for them to learn with. So wind is an “S” shape [gestures an “S” shape with hands], so in performances I signal using that. It’s meant to be as easy as pie.

Rather than the sounds being in note form, the sounds in the composition are based on “whole” sounds. Each musician knows that sounds that they play. There are three musicians that play “bird” sounds, which involves them making vocalisations or playing the mute of a flute. There are variations between a singular bird and birds in conversation.

How did the musicians handle the vocalisations? Sometimes there can be an anxiety when people are told to use the voice in a socially atypical way.

It helped that it was their response to the soundscape. There was a lady called Karen who plays the flute, and naturally she started using her voice to try to mimic the birds she was hearing. They are the ones making the voices about the sound, rather than me being like, “hey – make some silly bird noises with your mouth!” Karen is great. Because she plays a wind instrument, her voice was her natural go-to as she didn’t have her instrument with her. It’s the same with the percussionist – she picked up sticks and started drumming, which naturally went with the instrument she usually plays.

I saw that one player had stones in a box that he’d “play” with his feet as well. Was that the percussionist?

[laughs] No, he’s actually a flautist. We decided that the sound was quite sterile until we put in the trays. The composition represents the first sound walk we did as a group, which was our journey from ArtSway into the forest and back again. So one tray contains gravel taken from ArtSway, while the others have sticks and debris from the forest. That acts as a guide for our journey into the forest and then back to ArtSway.

Another piece I’ve seen of yours is called Listening To Paint Dry, which literally involves you recording the sound of paint drying. It resonated with me for several reasons: firstly because I enjoy the premise of focusing so intensely on an everyday sound, but also because the phrase “listening to paint dry” has been used as a derogatory jab at some of the music I make and listen to. For me, the phrase carries connotations of listening impatience, and the boredom that can often surround sonic pieces that involve minimal activity. What was the idea behind the piece?

When we had our studio space in Sway, we had a new temporary technician whose whole practice is based in painting. He’s a really brilliant painter. I’d never touched painting before. To be honest, before I met him I thought painting was a load of crap. [laughs] I just didn’t value it as much. But there was all of this stuff in painting that I took for granted: making grounds with rabbit skin glue, using chalk to make your primer, making so many layers of it then sanding it back, making your canvas, mixing the oil…he taught me basics around painting. I started to make some paintings, but just as you said, it’s based around the saying “ugh – it’s like watching paint dry”, which is often applied to something that’s not visually stimulating. I was thinking about how I could take that statement into a sound context. You can’t actually “hear” paint drying, but obviously there are sounds happening during the drying process. So the piece is just the sounds of the environment that my painting resides in, and how engaging with that sound becomes interesting. You pick up on all these little noises.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. We hear everything all of the time, but our brain will only remember and listen to a certain percentage of them. It’s about re-engaging with listening.

I guess that’s another advantage of utilising traditional performance contexts for the exhibition of “non-musical” sound. The environment instigates the expectation that there is something to be listened to. Again, it’s like John Cage in the sense that you’re misdirected as to the focal point of listening, and it also leaves a lot down to the listener in terms of what they derive from the experience.

I’m still working on that now. I’m making a series of paintings at the moment where the dimensional ratio of the paintings depends of the sound level of the room I’m working in. I got a really crappy decibel reader app on my phone, and really quickly recorded 10 seconds of audio from different areas of the room so that I had a quadrilateral shape. The average decibel reading for each of those 10 seconds would inform the ratio of my painting.

I still want them to be paintings in a traditional sense, so I’m making my own canvases and grounds. The paint is hand-made as well, using a lamp black pigment and linseed oil. I wanted to make my own paint rather than using pre-made oil paint.

Why is that important? 

I just like the process to be involved in my work. I’ll take the hardest route. I like a challenge. It’s hard to make the shape of the stretcher and it was slightly off at first, so I spent days sanding it down into shape by hand instead of using a machine.

I’m painting on three different surfaces as well: one is on canvas, one is on board and one is on aluminium. Visually, they’ll all look the same – similar to Listening To Paint Dry – but the way that sound reacts to each of those paintings would be different. I see them as panels for acoustically treating a room: the canvas would absorb the sound, whereas the aluminium would reflect it. Even though you can’t see the difference visually as they’re both made in the same way – they’re both stark, black paintings – sonically, they would be perceived differently.

dullpainting

I hear that you’re doing another painting exhibition where the paintings themselves are entirely absent. 

It’s a further development from Listening To Paint Dry. But where the paintings I’m working on at the moment are visual paintings that started from a sonic perspective, the paintings of this exhibition will be visual paintings that get transformed into sound. I’ve been doing workshops with graphic students where I attach contact mics to their drawing boards, so that they can hear the way they draw. I was thinking about how people always expect to see paintings. Everyone always thinks about visual influences. Studios are always messy and full of people’s work, and you hear them saying, “I was influenced by your work – I saw it in your space”. People don’t tend to think about how their auditory surroundings influence their work. I’m getting the painters to think about this.

It’s important that it’s still their practice and their way of painting, but I want them to think about the auditory connotations of what they’re painting. So they can record the process of painting, or it could be a sonic expression of the context of the painting. Some people are doing live performances as well. The actual exhibition will only feature the sound of the painting rather than the visual representation. It’s still a painting exhibition, but it’s just not what people expect.

What sort of ideas are the painters coming up with?

When I briefed them on this exhibition, I gave them a deadline for a proposal. I asked them about their painting style and the context of their painting, and how they think sound plays a part in it. From reading everyone’s proposals, I made smaller tutorial groups of work that had certain similarities. Some people are looking at the soundscapes based around painting, other people are focussing on the process of painting and others are looking at speech. There’s one person whose work revolves around labour in art. He worked as a tradesman for years before coming to university, so his work involves going into B&Q and listing all of the ridiculous names of the domestic household paints you can buy. There’s someone else working on the materiality of paint, and she’s looking at the actual chemical properties of it. Carbon-based paint can conduct electricity, so she’s making a painting where the materiality of the paint will generate a sound in a circuit.

How are you planning to present the exhibition? 

The actual exhibition is in the Bandstand at Lower Gardens. I could easily have the exhibition in a gallery that’s specifically made for showing work, but I wanted to display it in a venue that reflects the context of the exhibition. Even though it’s labelled as a painting exhibition, the Bandstand is a listed building so you can’t hang work there anyway. The Bandstand is also a place for sound, so the venue has a relationship with the work in the exhibition.

Some people want their work on headphones because they want it to be an intimate experience. Other people want it to be a group experience so they’ll have their work on speakers. There’s a microphone for those doing live performance. I see the setup as quite simple in terms of there being a couple of speakers, microphone stands and nothing else.

I’m also making a catalogue for the exhibition that will feature the visual paintings. It is important to still feature the visual element in some format, the exhibition is not to disregard the value of vision but rather establish a value of sound within painting. I want the advertising for the exhibition to set the expectation that they’ll see the visuals. So then it’s like, you’re playing with the audiences expectations, the total of the show is just A Painting Exhibition. There won’t be any mention of the context of the exhibition. Just the title.

Is that a means of trying to engage people that usually wouldn’t interact with sound art?

Yeah. I would like to be able to adapt people’s perceptions of what painting can be. There’s the book called The Expanded Field by Rosalind Krauss where she talks about sculpture after modernism, and how sculpture can now be pre-fabricated objects like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It’s similar to that, but expanding what a painting can be classed as. The way I explained it to the artists involved was that as soon as you’re putting pigment to a canvas, you’re making sound – even though you’re ultimately making an image with paint, you’re also making a sound with your brush.