YSI/Corridor8 residency day 4: opening day

Tarek Atoui's Shuffle Orchestra on Saturday 22 June 2019 was moved from the Leeds Armouries to the Calder at the Hepworth. It had been moved because of the previous week's rain and the long forecast for thunderstorms. It turned out to be a warm, sunny day. Given the move, this meant I could now go to Huma Bhabha's enlightening conversation with Clare Lilley from Yorkshire Sculpture Park about sculpture, materials and place. It was sold out, but not everyone turns up to free talks and Poppy (YSI’s volunteer co-ordinator) kindly let me in. Between these I had enough time to check out the exhibitions. I had been watching the installs for the last couple of weeks on social media,and it was great to start seeing them for real. The smell in Wolfgang Laib's is something else – it struck me more than seeing the arrangement, the lungful of rice and pollen with every inhale. But let's start at the start – I'll take it from Shuffle Orchestra.

Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui has assembled an international team of inventors and sound artists like himself to construct and perform Shuffle Orchestra on various dates throughout the festival. I could barely hear him when he talked – his soft voice was lost in the huge space and I couldn't quite hear the names of the others. I managed to jot down Sergei, Alan/Allan/Alain? and Igor. There were, I think, five local artists also helping and I did not hear their names. Meghan (YSI’s engagement curator) later informed me some had been recruited through the engagement programmes and used personal objects against the invented instruments to make the sounds.

The space is huge and the acoustics – as far as I can tell – ideal for such voluminous sound work. There is a tremendous amount of detail and I took pages of notes. I could easily get overwhelmed in trying to describe it all, but I'll outline some things as they come to mind and try to focus on engagement, using the residency remit of responding to the engagement programme to limit me. I made an audio recording because I have my gadget back. I'm not sure if we'll have permission to use any in the online publication, but listening to it at least helps to transport me back into the space. It is good to just hear it, as it was a visual bombardment as well as aural.

materials: invented instruments, percussive, stringed, tubed, brass, ceramic, plastic, balloons, air
<construction noise>
humming, electronic, recorded voices, engineering, ball bearings
verbs and adjectives: scraping, sliding, tapping, shaking, rattling, shiny, sustaining, staccato, gyrating, rotating, pendulous, carefully placed, marked, handprints
building rhythms and sounds, magnets, elaborate set-ups cymbals, base, bongs
People draw close as the first artist begins, then spread and move around as others gradually join.
teasing strings with a special bow
Elements positioned to pass vibrations through and cause noise and its amplification.
Rumbling. Reminds me of film soundtracks. Jurassic Park, A Quiet Place. Sustained tones and deep rumbling. Right in the chest cavity.

I listen closely to two helium-filled balloons next to microphones. If you blow in the clear tube between them, the movement changes the sounds. A Hepworth helper saw me listening to the balloons and suggested the blowing. Fostering and encouraging participation. A rare invitation to play with the artwork, even if only your breath can touch. The vibrations and changes can only be heard close up. Proximity is key in finding the details. Same as with vision. Some of the lighter rattling comes from a small brass bowl filled with tiny brass spheres and ball bearings sitting on a large, flat brass disc which is made to vibrate. They jiggle quietly with occasional passersby noticing and bending down to hear the effect.

Liveness and contingency. We slowly become drawn into the work. All the many people milling around, watching and listening, are sculptural, if ephemeral, elements of the work – as ephemeral as the sounds.

Atoui holds court at the digital mixing desk, controlling aural focus, moving sound around the speakers.

Some of the set-ups control the sound dissemination – one is attached to several black pipes of various lengths spiking out in different directions.

Experiencing sound bodily. Some people found a perch at the beginning and did not leave. Most traversed the space. Again, so rare to not be separated from musicians by their stage. Is it more democratic this way? It takes more trust and reverence for sure. There were some children too. Curious. Not one complaint, just engagement. Learn by doing.

Tension, immersion, joy at the inventiveness and labour and love going into producing the objects and the ways they work together to make this incredible range of sounds.

There was construction noise outside. It was hard to separate from the live work – it absorbed it (which is which, I cannot tell). It reminded me of the Fluxus life-technology-art relation. Where are the boundaries? The stopping and starting places? Too slippery for that. Life must go on alongside and regardless of art.

When it was over, the space was left open for people to mill around. Some asked the artists questions or chatted, and some artists demonstrated and explained their inventions and what they could do to small groups. Many of these inventions had not yet been named, which made me feel better about struggling to find the appropriate descriptive words. I remained peripheral, writing in my journal, observing others interacting and feeling utter astonishment at the collection, the mass of objects and the clever things that had been done with them to create incredible, terrible, beautiful, affecting noises.

Huma Bhabha's talk was fascinating. I knew so little about her work before. She explained that she didn’t think about 3-dimensionals for a long time, but instead painted and made collages while studying at Columbia University. This residency has offered a serious opportunity for me to consider life and work post-academia, and interestingly Bhabha stated that working for an artist (painting, finishing and colouration for a taxidermist) gave her a better art education than her degree. This came minutes after an opening speech from Frank Finlay, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures at University of Leeds.

It was from the taxidermist that Bhabha learned about armature – the skeletal structure used to build sculptures and figures for stop-motion animation. This is where she learned that the inside, unseen part of an erect work is as important as the outside. This then led to talking through examples of her work shown in photos of installation views from Sleeper in 2006 right up to Receiver, the piece made for public display in Wakefield city centre for the duration of YSI2019, and situated within view of a statue of Queen Victoria, which apparently is already sparking dialogue about listening and transmitting to/with the period of the past the former monarch represents as well as more generally.

The talk ran much over time so there was no opportunity for questions. Throughout, Bhabha named many influences and inspirations which were mostly if not all white men, for example Francis Bacon, Albert Finney, Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray and Auguste Rodin. Perhaps it’s an obvious observation that this could be a marker of the overbearing white maleness of the western culture in which she has been immersed for her whole adult life. However, in much of her work these influences are fused with anger at extensive violent death in conflict zones – conflicts often facilitated by western countries which appear to want to help, but instead tend to benefit from them, and are often unkind to those who make it out alive and need a new home.

After a break there was a roundtable of presentations chaired by Joanne Crawford of the University of Leeds on sculpture and place. Martin Zebracki (University of Leeds) spoke about the intersections of public art and sexuality, describing how a religious rainbow sculpture in Warsaw was appropriated by LGBT+ activists and was subsequently destroyed in an arson attack; Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, then funded a hologrammatic version on the site to replace it (if I’ve understood that correctly). Nigel Walsh (Leeds Art Gallery) spoke about Statuemania, the impermanence of memorials and how meanings change through time.

I didn’t catch the full name of the third speaker (Justin, I think). He described himself as an architect who teaches civil engineers and offered thoughts on ancient Greek buildings like the Parthenon in Athens that exemplified a synthesis between buildings and sculptures as statues were worked into the fabric of the building. This includes memorials to even older building traditions, pointing out parts made to look like timber and nails – a monument to a way of making things. He also pointed out that people who wouldn’t normally engage with art respond positively to, for example, Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and we should be doing more of this kind of public engagement.

Stella Butler, a historian and librarian at University of Leeds spoke of her shock that when she was employed there the institution did not own a Hepworth while many other universities and museums across the country do [including my beloved Ulster Museum]. To redress the lack of public art on campus she helped put measures in place to ensure there would be an art commission with every new building. She spoke about how interactive sculpture should be, that it invites touching, and student involvement in Liliane Lijn’s Converse Column commissioned by the university.

I didn’t catch the sixth panellist's name (perhaps Kiki?) who talked about sculptural commissions at National Trust properties bringing sites to life and moving away from the ‘stuffy stately home’ perception of the estates.

Provocative comments came from an audience member who brought up Barbara Hepworth’s satisfaction when her works were returned from exhibitions sticky and dirty from play and interaction. They pointed out that not only is it no longer considered appropriate to approach and touch an artwork, viewers are treated as if they are trespassing. The desire to engage sits in tension with the need to preserve the work for future generations and the demands of insurers, not curators and artists, which, as Butler explained, is why we sometimes see ‘notional’ barriers in tape on the floor to negotiate between different stakeholders’ wants and needs. However, being able to touch sculptures is a vital way for visually impaired people to ‘see’ work, and this is a different kind of touching.

In the 40 minutes before the Hepworth closed I had a quick look around the exhibitions. I enjoyed them all, but of the YSI installs I was most struck by Jimmie Durham’s (because trees) and Tau Lewis’s. Perhaps I ought not to choose favourites, but Lewis’s made me feel both a serene joy I hadn’t felt since seeing the underwater scene at the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern five years ago and urgency to address pressing ecological issues concerning our polluted seas, clothing waste and the deaths of coral reefs.

Writing this as I return to the Toon at the end of residency day 7, much of what I experienced on day 4 is firming up my ideas for the shape and content for the final product of this project, so very much watch this space for summaries of the next three days.


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