ART / Art with a message

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The Independent Culture
ART addicts are not normally well served by Paris in the summer, where for the month of August all galleries and museums are shut and not even a stray conceptualist is to be seen wandering the deserted avenues. But this summer help is at hand, by means of a sort of hot line for those in need of aesthetic refreshment. You can dial a number and hear the Canadian artist Ken Lum chatting to his immigrant grandmother in Chinese or, if even more desperate, ring up Noritoshi Hirakawa in order to hear a woman crying, then, er, enjoying herself, then laughing.

There are 22 of these artists' 'sound works' in 'Avant Le Bip Sonore', or 'Before the Beep', an exhibition which incidentally clears up the mystery of what the French actually call that little noise. The inventor and organiser of the show is a young critic, Jerome Sans, who selected the artists and then had to persuade the notoriously snobby Paris galleries to take part.

Sans particularly likes the idea that you don't have to be in Paris to participate in the exhibition (nobody who is anybody is in Paris anyway this month) and you can call from your portable at the beach, from Tokyo or Los Angeles, wherever and whenever you want to hear 40 seconds of art. 'I wanted to use the time of absence,' he says, sounding just as a French art critic should. 'It is a journey without starting or ending point.' It also saves having to traipse round the galleries one by one.

In fact there is a mini-history of the telephone in contemporary art. In the Seventies in New York many attempts were made to set up art-lines, underground circuits of white-hot avantgardism. The Consortium, an art space in Dijon, had a show consisting of several artists leaving messages on their answering machine. More recently, Shu Lea Cheang created a work subverting the automated telephone machine of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, the folks who keep you out of the country, especially if you're HIV positive. When you pressed the numbers to get information on how to report an illegal alien, you heard instead multilingual advice on safe sex practices.

There is only one British artist in the Paris show, Douglas Gordon, who recounts in his laconic Glaswegian brogue a series of cruel, mordant gags (42 74 69 20), which will confirm some people's prejudice that contemporary art is just a bad joke. Particularly effective and funny is a work by Guillaume Bijl, who recorded the curator Claire Burrus talking with her assistant and then left this on the machine, giving you the frisson of listening in to backroom art world gossip (43 55 34 76).

Many of the best pieces use story telling, most temptingly in Martine Aballes' piece, in which a seductive female voice, in French or English, recounts a chilling mystery in ghostly tones; by pressing your phone buttons you can skip from episode to episode as you wish (30 54 58 06). The American artist Sam Samore tells a fairy story (42 78 32 24) and German bad boy Martin Kippenberger sings his own, thankfully unique version of the Sixties hit 'Bang Bang' (42 78 40 44). If some are rather too dry (Marylene Negro using the sound of the phone still ringing - 48 87 50 26), the best of them use the magic of the machine to the maximum. Chen Zhen, a Chinese artist based in France, has added to the multi-cultural mix by providing an extract from the soundtrack to an obscure Japanese film, which leads one into another world and makes compelling listening, even when repeated (40 27 07 16). When the gallery owners and art public flock back in September, a catalogue of the exhibition will be made, as a tape cassette of course, and sold at all the galleries that participated. So the British art tourist can tour all the Paris galleries this summer - even at peak rates it's less than the price of an etching.

Further information in French and English: 33 1 30 54 58 07 or 33 1 30 54 50 07.