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Valencia Biennale
Interview for catalogue
Spain 2001
by Jose Miguel G. Cortes

Given that the Spanish public are not familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about your musical and artistic roots, your influences and experiences, as well as something about your collaborations with artists such as the filmmaker Derek Jarman, the musicians Bryan Ferry and Laurie Anderson, or the visual artist Mike Kelly.

I am a London based artist who works with diverse media. Though I studied literature at University I have always worked ostensibly with sound since the earliest age. After the early death of my father, at school I spent an entire two years in self-imposed silence, so rigidly enforced that I had to drop out of my French course because it contained an oral exam. With the advent of the first domestic tape recorders my brother and I would record my family eating dinner, not towards any kind of art aesthetic but simply because you could. Nothing more. In a sense this playfullness has continued in my work. I bought one of the first recording Walkmans and began recording everyday as a form of diary entry, capturing my holiday in Italy at the age of 17, my brothers 21st birthday party, conversations on the London Underground, all held now in my domestic archive.

Discovering the actual Scanner device itself around a decade ago, which is a relatively sophisticated long range radio receiver, provided me with the chance to tune in directly to the language and lives of private individuals. The first Scanner recordings featured these intercepted cellular phone conversations of unsuspecting talkers (Scanner 1 - 1992 & Scanner 2 - 1993), edited into minimalist musical settings as if they were instruments, bringing into focus issues of privacy and the dichotomy between the public and the private spectrum. Sometimes the high frequency of cellular noise would pervade the atmosphere, at other junctures erupt into words and melt down to radio hiss. Intercepting the data stream, transmissions would blend, blurring the voices and rupturing the light, creating audio transparencies of dreamy, cool ambience.

Over time the work began to receive some recognition and constantly shape shifting with projects my scavenging of the electronic communications highways has led to a multitude of collaborations. They have ranged from supplying soundtrack work to the late UK film director Derek Jarman, to producing songs for english pop icon Bryan Ferry, collaborating with Laurie Anderson and 100 violinists on a live show or most recently recording the sound and image of ghosts with Mike Kelley towards a show in 2002. The ability to exchange and share ideas is crucial and these collaborations allow me and the collaborator to work as both negatives and positives of each other, recognising spaces within the soundfields and ideas of the other. It teaches the respect of space but also the relevance of context and extension of ones ideas to the other, as well as always accessing a new audience, a key factor in any collaboration I feel.

One of the most striking aspects of your work is the somewhat odd or 'disturbing' use of noise (particularly noise from the immediate surrounding environment). Your links with elements or media seldom used for the creation of music, such as telephone calls, radio or traffic sounds, remind me of a number of experiences from the modern movement as well as of some mythical musicians. What relationship do these experiences have with musicians such as John Cage?

Cage has been a consistent figure on my life. At the age of 11 my piano teacher played my school class The Prepared Piano works which left me feeling so inspired. I remember running home and hammering on our cheap piano and causing my poor mother great distress with my actions. Subsquently I went on to read all of his published works, attended concerts and was lucky enough to meet him some years ago. It was his influence that led me to zoom in on these spaces in-between - between language and understanding, between the digital fall out of binaries and zeros, between the redundant and undesired flotsam and jetsam of environmental acoustic space, taking the ordinary and attempting to make it extraordinary
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The effect of Cage taught me that sound is ever present, sometimes as a constantly shifting whir, as a damp grain of footsteps, the drone like spangle of distant traffic, or as the seemingly motionless air that ripples past our ears, the elegant stuttering trill of a bird overhead. How influential was this common envelope of space, the environment in which we consume sound and music? How does one define the spaces between music and sound? When we listen to a Walkman how do we distinguish between that which is intended - the sound carrier - and that which is incidental - passing traffic, the roar of a plane, the screech of a train door, your own footsteps? Whether active (creator) or passive (listener) we set up a virtual space in which we are free to each explore the sonorous and acoustic strata of what is an intimate yet global expression of space, a simple translation of the social transformations wrought by new technologies.

To what extent could we draw a connection between the use of distorted and acoustically disruptive elements and the contemporary human being's lack of communicational ability?

Can the functioning of your music be understood as a comprehensive palimpsest of a vital and social reality based upon estrangement and loneliness.Interestingly in the first work I created I was interested in the juxtaposition between loops of environmental sound against voices, but after a while I began to dissolve the voices, so that they became merely a texture, like a grain. As I am city dweller and much of my time is spent experiencing industrial city life it follows that much of my work explores these solitary roles we play in a larger distanced space. Living in cities communications are problematic, the scale of interaction, or rather the lack of it, can be overwhelming. The boundaries between the roles we play are ever changing, almost as if in a movie, questioning where the ‘real’ and the ‘not real’ is within ourselves and our environment. Perhaps the work I create captures this dystopian conscience in an abstract manner.

We are ever more mobile, the office is no longer a singular place, our home space often temporal. Wherever our lap top, our mobile phone and electronic organisers lie becomes our new inhabitant. With wirelessness amplified by mobility and the postmodern imperative to be transit, the noise of transmission drowns out whatever sense of individuality and person-to-person privacy we once associated with the telephone, revealing instead the electronic, ethereal interference that has never been entirely filtered out despite the rhetoric of hi fidelity, transparent, unmediated communication that twentieth century communications is supposedly all about.

All voices are subject to the overriding interference and interruption that the space of transmission imposes, all talk is subject to amplification, exposure and surveillance. Out of my sound mixes the voice barely emerges from a sonic ambience that is viral, meshed, conspiratorial, dank, introverted, and organic.

The action you carried out in London in 1998 in response to an invitation from Artangel, entitled Surface Noise, contains a certain air of agitation, advocating both the use of technology and common everyday noises. Could this have something to do with an ambition to construct a more democratic attitude to what the creation and enjoyment of contemporary music should be? Could it be understood as a questioning of the categories of "high" and "low" music?

Let me just give you a context for the work. The 'Surface Noise' project explored the wow and flutter of my own city taking people on an infamous red Routemaster bus journey across the city from Big Ben to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the sheet music of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ became the score and A-Z for both musical and geographical direction following a Cageian use of indeterminacy. Where each note fell onto the map of the city between these two points not only suggested a location to record at but also one which the bus would later follow with public aboard. Performances followed this routing every night for three nights, at intervals through the evening, each re-assembling fragments of the city in terms of sound and image, suggesting the slight shifts in tone and shape in similar places but at very different hours, so that a busy West End street at 18.00 would transform into a ghostly empty presence at 21:00 and ‘Surface Noise’ would become a form of alternative film soundtrack where the film was simply the view through the dusty window a double decker bus. The work was a very successful public adventure, opening up an often perceived private ‘art’ space to a wider arena. Many of the more recent projects I have concentrated on have followed this move, offering a more democratic approach to ‘difficult’ ideas in a popular form, a shared sensibility. Many of my more accessible public art projects in recent years have allowed me to exercise my rather peculiar talent for cracking open the shell of consensus reality. I welcome opportunities like some of these public art commissions that look towards an audience, as I am aware that the technology itself can become transparent rather than a distraction for the public.

Cities are increasingly turning into macro-spaces where tens of millions of people live; places where a huge variety of religions, races and ways of loving and relating mix together and blend. To what extent is your music with its ensemble of interferences, noises and distortions - a direct outcome of your attraction towards urban life and the loss of any concept of purity or integrity defining life in these large metropolises of today?

This question follows closely to my answer above actually. My work is often a kind of motion across a city, an architectural electronic scanning of an almost invisible sound wave. Time based artwork explores this obsession with space filling, emptying, transforming, sound joining, annexing, (re)contextualising, publicising, privatising space and our filters as artists and participants are dependent upon so many contributing factors. As I said before I am a urban artist exploring and creating an urbanised form of work.

If I'm not wrong, it is possible to find in some of your works a number of references and a vivid interest for everything which has to do with memory both individual and collective- past or lived experiences You are known to be interested in the work of the French filmmaker Chris Marker who has turned memory into a central element of his creation. To what extent do you believe the recovery of memory and the fight against amnesia is important in the construction of a cultural discourse projected into the future? What, in your opinion, is the role played by the relationship memory-amnesia in your work?

All of my works have explored the hidden resonance’s and meanings within the memory and in particular the subtle traces that people and their actions leave behind. The ‘ghosts’ within sound and memory point to where I am currently propelling myself. Like rechargeable batteries that can develop ‘memories’ I believe that buildings and spaces also retain a particular memory, a sense of time or place, the stories that were once told there and are now embedded into the walls of the place. Capturing these moments, storing them and redirecting them back into the public stream enables one to construct an archaeology of loss, pathos and missed connections, assembling a momentary forgotten past in our digital future. What if we could find the ghosts, the lost narratives, the stories that once echoed around a building, how would we fill in the narratives, how would we colour them today?
Whether accessing my archive of personal recordings or exploring public spaces memory plays a crucial role in my approach to any project. My personal memories of some cities are ones of loss, having explored the city for the first time with someone I was very close to, or some of simply joy. My works can reflect the disappearance of someone and with that my own attempt to escape the transcience of these memories.

More recently it has been interesting for me to begin exploring my own history. In a work like ‘Diary’ (2000) I created a performance piece that used memory as a crucial part of the performance. A diary is a means of recording our history, moments that are lost each and every day, our passions and ideas. I have kept a diary since I was twelve years old, never missing a day since 1976. For this series of multi media shows I read extracts from these entries according to the day of the performance and in so doing revealed a layer of my own personal history. Passing inconsequential moments became the focus of this show alongside a form of documentary, taking into account the physicality of performance and touring. Poignant moments, insignificant in isolation, would absord their way through accumulation into ones imagination.

Time has the remarkable ability on occasions to mute incidents that form us into who we are today. Re-reading entries about my first sweetheart, how impossible it seemed at times, how familial pressures repelled us, how our childish devotion to one another could seemingly never be damaged. Remembering how a school friend had his future cruelly ravaged by foolishness and striving to comprehend such a loss whilst another friends only way to deal with it is to play a rough laddish game with me to expunge the compressed pathos. How each of these moments still burns a nerve long since immersed beneath the skin.

One of the most relevant features of art in recent years is its concern for the links between different binary aspects regarded as mutually exclusive by the mainstream. A good example of that would be the relationship between the public and private sphere. In what way does your use of ephemeral, irrelevant or everyday noises express a desire to explore musical aspects from the physical surrounding environment, and help to erode the differences between music and noise, creation and everyday life, public and intimate space?

With the technology to peel open virtually any zone of information and consume the contents I used the scanner device to explore the relationship between the public and private spheres. Working with sound in this manner suggested a means of mapping the city, where the scanner device provided an anonymous window into reality, cutting and pasting information to structure an alternative vernacular. It was a rare opportunity to record experience and highlight the threads of desire and interior narrative that we weave into our everyday lives. Whether eavesdropping on an illicit affair, a liaison with a prostitute, a drug deal or a simple discussion of "what's for dinner?", all exist within an indiscriminate ocean of signals flying overhead, but just beyond our reach.

Some years ago the French artist Sophie Calle disguised herself as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel to gain access to the private environments of the guests and take photographs of their belongings without being seen. Using a police scanner, you controlled, intercepted and used the phone conversations of anonymous callers which were later used in an art work from a series you entitled Sound Polaroids. How does this intrusion into the privacy of others avoid a certain voyeuristic sense, a desire to see without being seen? In what way does this action bring to the surface the lack of protection and vulnerability of daily activities vis-a-vis social control?

Remember, there is no such thing as a secret anymore in some ways. Information held by one person isn’t very valuable. To gain value, information needs to be passed between people, often quickly. Your vulnerability lies in the voice communication paths through which information passes. Email is just as vulnerable as cellphones, as fax machines and so on. It is interesting to recognise the way in which our perceptions have evolved. I would point to the dictionary definition of photography here:

"The inception of these visual documents of personal and public history engendered vast changes in people's perception of history, of time and of themselves. The concept of privacy was greatly altered as cameras were used to record most areas of human life. The ubiquitous presence of photographic machinery eventually changed humankind's sense of what was suitable for observation." (Columbia Encylopedia)

My work is concerned with capturing, hunting sound from many inaccessible spaces and bringing it out, whether it's the private phone conversations I find in an airspace that proved more public than anyone thought, or location recordings from the restricted access sites which my art projects take me to. It once seemed through experience that everyone wanted to listen but no one wanted to be that person being listened to, everyone wanted to watch but no one wanted to be that person being watched, but with the advent of commercial television ventures like “Big Brother’ around the globe we are beginning to exist ever more in a culture that consumes more real people than ever before. The earlier Scanner works are almost less about sound or music and more about the space of telephony and the atmospherics of transmission. As an aural corollary, the lo fi telecommunications grunge in these works evoke the omnipresence of the corporate datasphere, revealing a nineties form of surveillance.

In the mid 1960s, Guy Debord predicted an urban landscape where the mass-media would be so influential and determinant in the new social configuration that they would lead to a society of the spectacle, clearly hierarchical and closely monitored, which would decisively influence all sorts of political, social and/or cultural relationships. What, in your opinion, is the role the mass-media and the micro-computer revolution will play in the development of that society of the spectacle? To what extent do you believe art can act as an instrument for resistance in this dense media landscape?

Again this question connects clearly to the previous one. One could argue that today everyone will be famous for 15 megabytes. In our time of smothering and suffocating ourselves with such swift advancements in new technologies, we are rapidly moving through a period of (mis) communication, of disappearing bodies and diminishing voices, of talk subsumed within a datasphere turning toxic, the sound of the individual losing its clarity. Mass media exerts an ever more powerful and emotive effect on us. The screen - on our computers, on our mobile phones, on our televisions - has emerged as an increasingly potent force in our learning. We watch, we listen, we watch the news, we watch theatre, entertainment, movies, write letters, music all through the narrow margins of a 14 inch monitor.

Art as a process, not as an objectified ‘thing’ still has the ability to subvert, to explore these issues, to reveal new layers. The surveillance of the private sphere which induced a kind of media voyeurism, has been replaced by something entirely more raw. The body and the ‘self’ has lost its relevance in the datasphere for many people, erasing issues of privacy. Art can force questions, opinions, tear open the electromagnetic sphere itself and provide content where there is no content anymore in the wider mass media.

Your interest for language and for the development of the human voice your work for the BBC, The Human Voice (based on the play by Jean Cocteau) is well known- reminded me of the film Blue by Derek Jarman. In that film, the spectator only sees a fixed blue image on the screen and hears a number of voices expressing a deep pain. In both works the bare voice, without any other support, proves to be a simple but effective tool able to unleash the most profound effects. How do you think the voice can be used as a first rate element of communication in a world so full of environmental noise?

Within the electronic datascape that my work inhabits I still like to use the human voice for its physical presence. Even if the language, the meaning, the accent or the narrative is not understood it is the telepresence of this disembodied voice that can still carry a special resonance for us. The voice still acts a fleshy transmissive virus that we can all relate to still, creating a sound language that relates to our own natural system. The ‘ghostly’ voice on these readio works for example still has the ability to move, to emote, to throw up all manner of images through sound and our own imaginations that no other form has the ability to do.

Your project for La Gallera of Valencia is an installation entitled The Spirit of Speech experimenting with the memory of the venue itself, its history and the ensemble of voices, noises and sounds generated in this space and informing its history. Could you explain your project a bit further? How was the idea born and what do you consider to be its most important elements?

As I wrote about previously my work has consistently explored notions of architectural space, memory and location. ‘The Spirit of Speech,’ as an immersive sound and image installation, will unite these varying strands in a manner which explores the resonance of memory and in particular traces of the memory of the artist as explorer, the nomadic temporary inhabitant, in unknown geographical territories. A floor projection of my face with surrounding speaker system waill be displayed in the circular Galleria. With my eyes open you will be able to hear the sound of my speech, my breaths, the sound of my blood flowing through my system, the interior dialogue of the artist in a sense. When I close my eyes images of Valencia that I have filmed previously will seize the screen: images of crowds, people, places, incidents, both trivial and magnificent, the architecture, the shape and colour of the city. These are only present as long as my eyes are closed. If I blink swiftly then the images will literally flash across the screen. If I rest my eyes that much longer then the image can breathe in its own space and be seen for a longer time. Sound will balance these images, cutting and pasting the environment into the sounds of the body, intercepting the data stream.

Again it is another way of mapping the city, where my imagination within the screen frame will provide the eyes and the ears with which to see and hear, an architectural and visual form of digital sampling through the application of memory.

The 1st Valencia Biennial has taken the theme of The Passions as its generic title. Passion is an enormously important aspect in the historical development of mankind. But, what do contemporary music or visual arts have to say about the experience of passion? In what way can we say that music has sex and practises it? To what extent is sound the by-product and/or result of the lowest instincts of the human being? What place do pleasure, promiscuity or excess occupy in your musical creation?

Well, I wish I could begin to answer this huge question simply. Sensuality and passion is a key issue to any creative act, the absorption and reception of forces beyond logic and reason and clear understanding. The very history of efforts to close down, cease, erase art and music that might deprave and disturb people, is in itself a demonstration of the power of this unknown dynamic. The lust for immersive environments within artistic practice in the last century has been symptomatic of our desire and ability to transform our locality, our inhabitance. With computers able to simulate the real world and the gaming experience becoming one of a super hyper reality, art is there to search between these spaces, to make connections, to seduce and amplify.

Working with sound as a form of stimulation is key to all work that I produce. Promiscuity in the form of sounds pulled from all around, with no respect for place, time, code, image, history and so on enables the sampling process of music to become one of digital copulation, with one sound devouring another, deflowering and possesing each other in a nano moment.