Acconci's assertion that the tradition of art is one of constant desire and frustration is tied to the idea that the visual spectrum gives an illusion of control is an interesting place to start concerning AL&SO. The control Acconci relates to is purely in a Western context and my experience is limited to that remit also. The connection to the illustrative power of figurative religious artwork in the Christian West up to the Reformation, to show an illiterate populace the word of God (or more correctly the dictate of the church) through images, speaks to this control. Images are hugely emotive things. Acconci's tripartite of desire, frustration and control speaks to what I would say are the three main motivators for initiating an AL&SO project. Perhaps you as initiator have a desire to own or at least see first hand the works of a specific set of artists. Perhaps you have a desire to advance a curatorial career but are frustrated by gatekeeps and a lack of access to institutional jobs. Perhaps you are frustrated by the programmes of the institutions around you due to lack of representation, relevance or quality and desire the control of a programme of your own. That may sound critical though I think otherwise. Those drives are what move the culture sector forward. They encourage innovation and development.
I feel this tripartite also links to Acconci's positioning of the visual as a more private sensual aspect, in opposition to sound as more public. This is connected to the idea that you can close your eyes but you can't close your ears. In the same sense, it is much easier to control the visual elements of space than the audible. Visual arts are the bread and butter of many projects/organisations/individuals in the AL&SO. Ultimately projects with strong visual elements are often more visible to the audience, reviewers and funders. This could be linked to the tradition of reproducibility going back to the invention of the printing press, the dynamics of wealth and power going back to the agricultural revolutions of the neolithic and of course the influence of advertising and social media in more recent times. There is still a lot of importance placed on things that look like art. This ingrained tradition combined with ever-shortening attention spans position the visual still very much as the primary focus. With the rapid development and spread of visual communication technologies everything is now precluded by its visual qualities; often more specifically its flattened visual qualities. The late MF Doom related this in a 2011 interview (1) commenting on the shift from the anonymous MC who you wouldn't see other than at live shows to the highest image-based cultures of the post-MTV era. This specifically connects to focus moving away from the quality of music and towards aesthetic conformity and fashion. This consideration feels even more relevant now with the proliferation of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and others. For me comes back to those three words, desire, frustration and control. Envy economies, desire in all its forms and control both over your public-facing persona and personal narrative driven by social media platforms link into the practices of Amalia Ulman, Arvida Bystöm, Molly Soda, Jaakko Palasvsvo and many more. Many projects are necessarily shifting to online platforms due to COVID restrictions causing digital visual-profiles to be under more scrutiny. There must be care taken that in focusing on the optics of activity the quality is not compromised.
Sight is a human's strongest sense and still most relevant in current presentational methods concerning content and communication at all levels of the institution. However, the audible has played a critical role through the years of human existence also. Oral traditions are still vital in many societies and have given us some of our best-known stories. Music has been central to human development for millennia. The radio fulfiled the role television has played since the 1950s and digital streaming platforms and 24/7 news streams fill in 2021. Polyvocality and polyphony have been environmental conditions for our species since it evolved. It would be remiss to think that sound is entirely subjugated by the visual.
Acconci positions sound as more explicitly public and, as with so many public things we engage with daily, can sometimes be taken for granted. He constructs a beautiful scene of the audio qualities of walking through a city during rush-hour, radios blaring from open car windows, street vendors and storefronts. In this audio-vista, the key point is the inability to focus on any one sound. The jostling of hundreds of radio channels. The range of volumes. This speaks to why we forget about sound so often. It is easier to focus on a visual point due to the directionality of our gaze, the ability to close our eyes, the ease in obstruction of visual fields. Sound gets everywhere. Sound by its nature is hard to control. It bleeds and resonates through things. It bounces around them. These challenges have often relegated its use in institutional contexts to manageable settings, mediated through headphones in an attempt to confine it to a private context, more acceptable to the order of institutional space.
Acconci comments on the presence of sound in institutional space and within his work. He relates how he attempted to position sound in performance works in place of himself as a performer, intending to allow the audience to focus more on the work than him. He also relates how this was a failure. The pervasiveness of sound and the effect of sound in a situational context is too strong. Sound can produce hierarchies within exhibitions (unwittingly if you aren't careful). It can aggravate neighbours or entice passers-by. It can disrupt or focus attention. It can confuse contexts and concepts if not catered for. It can be used to dictate or formulate space. As Acconci notes, this is particularly true of the voice.
The voice is a structural and communicative tool that we humans, as social animals, are hardwired to tune into. It dictates space more clearly than any other sound we encounter. This can be through the communicative possibilities, describing the space in verbal form and allowing the listener's brain to produce its internal visual information. It can also be through the directionality of voice. The structure of the human face engenders the voice to be directional. We innately know through experience if a voice is emanating from behind something or around a corner; to or right or left or back; even what material it may be surrounded by or passing through. This capacity allows us to create spaces through sound, it illustrates the architectural qualities of sound which Acconci mentions.
Due to those architectural qualities, the voice is a useful tool and should also be a constant consideration for any AL&SO project. So much of AL&SO is about communicating well with others. The ability to build spaces of collaboration, belonging, access, representation and productive criticality through communication is a complex skill. It can be aided by finding a distinctive voice for your project. It can be helped even more, however, by allowing space for the voice of others. That may be artists, collaborators, other projects, research groups ad various audiences. The audible is what builds communities, not the visual; it is communities which form the basis of AL&SO. A useful exercise to do occasionally is to write a list of the voices you have heard over the past few months, highlighting which you hear the most, which you hear the least and then identifying which you arent hearing at all. This exercise can be a great way of examining your programming, profile and practice to see where you can improve.
The traditions of the visual which opened this text (desire, frustration and control) may form the drive to initiate an AL&SO project, but, they should not be the backbone of working methodology or practical and ethical strategies within your project. Think about the audible. Listen. Allow the polyphony of voices that surround your project in, don't ignore them as ambient. Train yourself to focus on each individual radio channel in Acconci's metaphor. Learn from them and work with them to produce a stronger more critically engaged and more actively representative project.
1. Mao, J. 2011. Doom. Available at: https://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/lectures/doom-lecture
Joe Rowley - Jan 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.