Where sound meets vision
The artist Martin Creed is performing a rock gig tonight, and a soundscape is a contender for the Turner prize. Gillian Orr patrols the shadowy borderlands where art and music collide
Wednesday 20 October 2010
If a band plays a song at Glastonbury, they are just playing music. But if an artist performs a song as part of an exhibition, then it becomes art, right? It is a grey area, indeed, and many exhibitors, curators, artists, and musicians are putting on events, each with their own differing response to that very question.
Of course, there is a long and rich history of music and art being intertwined; some of the best-known examples being the Dada movement's sound poetry and Andy Warhol's Factory. The two genres have enjoyed a cosy relationship throughout much of the last century.
At present there is a real trend to combine the two, with museums and galleries particularly keen to put on festival-style events and one-off performances showcasing both art and music.
Tonight Martin Creed, the Glaswegian conceptual artist who won the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, plays a gig with his band at Edel Assanti, an art space and gallery in London.
Last month Be Glad For The Song Has No End – a festival of artists' music, took place in the grounds of Wysing arts centre, Cambridgeshire. Among the host of artists playing was Mark Leckey and Bob and Roberta Smith, as well as Creed. There was also a record-swap which allowed festival-goers to bring along their discs to exchange. In addition, Kim Gordon and the artist and musician Jutta Koether created a reverse karaoke, which encouraged people to record themselves singing to Sonic Youth's lead vocalist. It all took place in a field, much like a regular festival, with stages designed by the artists involved, various stalls and film-screenings.
The idea was to present music by artists who use music as part of their practice, rather than just artists who play in bands. A film and events programme also explored the idea of sound art and the links between music and visual art. The music ranged from straight rock to indie, punk, spoken word and improvisation.
Andy Holden, the sculpture artist who has recently had a solo show at Tate Britain, curated the festival. He explains his reason for wanting to put on such an event: "I also run a record label alongside my art practices, so I've often been putting on gigs and working with different bands. I started the label really to put out my own things when nobody else would, so in a way the two have often been entangled anyway, but it's the first time it's taken the form of a festival. I've put on art-multimedia, art-music crossover gigs but nothing on this scale. Sound art has always been quite hard, it's not so much even sound art any more; it's more artists making music as part of the practice, but a way of making music which is both music and also something else at the same time."
Martin Creed believes the music he creates, described by organisers as "an amazing mix of post-punk, minimalism and conceptual art" is linked to all his other work. "I think about it all in the same breath," he enthuses. "I don't personally distinguish between songs or sculptures or whatever. Each work for me is trying something out to see if that makes me feel better in my life. So colours or shapes or sounds or words are all quite mixed up together. When you're listening to something, you're always seeing something so it's impossible to separate the senses in that kind of way, let alone try to separate them from feelings. The way you feel is always going to affect what you're looking at or listening to."
When asked about where music ends and art begins, Creed says "The word 'art' is a very difficult word to use. If I was going to use it, I'd use it for everyone who made things on their own, whether musicians or people working with visuals or writers or scientists. People trying to make things up, I suppose."
But Holden believes there are differences between the two. "Art, I think, is more reflexive. I think it's more cognitive in a way. And I think music relies more on effect, it relies more on simultaneous feeling. The two operate in quite different modes but you can borrow, in the way art can borrow the mode of the written word, it can assimilate almost anything now. It can use the mode of music but still retain the fact that it is art."
One artist whose primary tool is music is Susan Philipsz, who is one of the four shortlisted candidates for the Turner prize, with Lowlands. Exploring the line between art and music with her "sound installations", Philipsz creates soundscapes by playing out her own singing voice at unlikely venues, including bus stations or, in the case of Lowlands, for the Glasgow International Festival, under three bridges over the river Clyde. She started off in sculpture, and when asked why she started to work with music and her voice, she says: "I started thinking about sound in sculptural terms. The physicality of singing and the emotive effects of song and how it can trigger memories interested me... I consider myself a visual artist; I'm not a musician and I'm not a professional singer. That's part of it: I don't have a trained voice. It could be anyone's voice."
There are also occasions where "regular" musicians are featured alongside more conventional notions of art. Another recent art and music hybrid event was Frieze Music, run as part of the Frieze Art Fair, which has been established to "develop the crossover between contemporary art and music". Originally conceived by Steve Mackey and Dan Fox, Frieze Music's varied programme has included bands, work by the avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen ,and pop series, such as that co-ordinated by Franz Ferdinand in 2004. Last weekend, Hercules and Love Affair performed at Club Debut, and Baby Dee, a classically trained harpist and pianist, played alongside the Elysian Quartet at Shoreditch Church as part of the Frieze Music programme.
Concrete and Glass, an annual festival of music and art that takes place around Shoreditch, east London, is another hybrid event. In May this year, bands such as the Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells performed across various venues, and art was exhibited. Clarisse D'Arcimoles won this year's Heart of Glass open-submission exhibition with her installation The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Watts.
More than anything, let's not forget that ultimately mixing up art and music can be an interesting concept, whether just for fun or for deeper reasons. The art world is often viewed by outsiders as an industry that takes itself very seriously and is lacking in mirth. The artist Patrick Brill, better known by his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, says, "The thing about the art world is that it's full of cliques. People are very uptight about being a professional artist and they wouldn't do something that was with graphics, or they wouldn't do something that was to do with illustration, and if they played in a band then somehow they'd look uncool. I think that's all nonsense. I think it's good if you're a creative person that you want to be creative in lots of different fields." A sentiment it's hard to argue with.
Martin Creed performs at Edel Assanti, London SW1 ( www.edelassanti.com) tonight
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