Monday, December 08, 2008

Sound art is political: the Truman Doctrine at Gertrude St

... Ant Pateras is a genius in many respects, but we don't agree on all things. eg, he cleaves to a notion that sound, "least plastic of the arts" (by his estimation) has a limited relationship to what some of us might recognise as the "real world". & which is fine; everyone is entitled to hold their differing opinion.

I'm fairly sure that at least some, and possibly most, of the other artists in the 21:00:00 exhibition (Gertrude Street Galleries thru Oct/Nov, in association with the Melbourne International Arts Festival), would agree with him on this. OK.

The context of exhibition & performance, however, is always political; it involves compromise and negotiation with inescapable material realities: where is the money coming from/who is making the decisions/which agendas are being supported or suppressed???

(and hence, what I figure to be the elementary inconsistency of Ant's line: composing and recording are likewise subject to these imperatives)

21:00:00 is/was great, and surveys a solid selection of artists/musicians. But the roster of nations they represent looks like Harry S Truman's vision of the globe - a strange way to be be approaching the world in the 21st century...

The principal member-states of the NATO alliance are represented. Finland, Austria and Switzerland have all been oriented Western/capitalist in their recent history. Japan, and the member nations of the ANZUS alliance, are what strategic planners refer to as "out-of-area" Western nations.

And that is it for the world! Africa & South and Central America have been disappeared from this planet, as has Eastern Europe and Russia. (I mean: what kind of contemporary international focus omits the culture of all the BRIC nations?)

So this is/was an exhibition proceeding from the assumptions of the previous century (and the most conservative assumptions, at that): progressive culture is the exclusive province of white capitalists and the Japanese. Historically, this kind of thinking has been a license for the oppression & exploitation of subject peoples (and its the essential reasoning behind the stolen generation, here in Australia).

I can anticipate some of the defences for the omission. I suspect it simply reflects international marketing dynamics (very little of culture, of any description, makes it thru the WestBloc embargo). The widely toured & travelled Lucas Abela reckons experimental music will be found any place there's a prosperous middle-class... And to the extent that sound art involves formal experiment with advanced technology, access may well be limited in poorer nations.

All of which is, hmmm, 'illuminating' in terms of the assumptions it reveals about experimental music & sound art...

Australian culture has a funny relationship to tradition: we adopt them from the distant geographic centres of western culture. The vast bulk of Australian government funding for music proceeds directly to the state & national opera companies and symphony orchestras. Their repertoire is, literally, 'repertory': canonical works of long-dead Germano-Austrian and Italian composers, mostly. So there's a danger of also framing local experimental music as a displaced and introduced phenomenon - which is among the things that Jon Rose warned of in this year's Peggy Glanville-Hicks memorial lecture.

And in the historical context of Australia - an immigrant nation, with a heritage of colonial dominion - and given claims towards anticipating the trends of the new century - 21:00:00 starts looking like a no-brainer (even if it doesn't necessarily sound like one). The curators' adoption of a quote from John Cage fairly summarises things: a tradition of individual genius/heroes in the romantic mould, what my [RIP] friend, Nick Zurbrugg used to refer to as the post-modern avant-garde. But are those assumptions of white & western bourgeois privilege sufficient to address a changing world?

And is this the future for creative music in Australia? Maybe.

But, I gotta say - it looks an awful lot like the past.

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Blogger warmpoison said...

James, as succinct as ever.

I can sympathise with the issue raised.

Experimental / Avant Garde history most certainly seems isolated to the nations of the Euro/Yankee axis. But if sound art or whatnot is to be represented then this is likely to be the case. Certainly other cultures exist but why should they fit into this model? or why should they be squeezed into a frame of Western reference. The bulk of (recognised) 20th Century art / thinking in the West was attached to this model of avant garde/experimentation but with regards to these, erm, 'other territories' is it necessary to include them in our 'models' as a token gesture of worldwide acknowledgment? Is this not unlike the Christian missionaries entering so called 'primitive' societies back in the day in order enforce a new ideology upon their long established order? Or even
America entering every possible porthole to spread the infinite joys of Democracy?

If sound art is restricted to particular regions there is likely good reason for this. One can find 'accidental avant garde' in all regions of the globe (easy entry: the entire 'sublime frequencies' catalogue) but the personal / social reasons for coming to this creative conclusion are very different to most of those represented in the show you speak of with pedigree, knowledge and now well established lineage all playing a significant role in the output.

I think Ant is referring to this Western model which is really the only way to discuss this and with that in mind I can personally agree with his point if it is recognition of the 'luxury' that such an approach to audio art for both the creator and the listener.

Despite the political/philosophical concerns of John
Cage and his children I would argue the output has little impact outside the subsequent generations of sound art practitioners and this itself is a very narrow hallway indeed!

Hoping some of this makes some sense.

Adios Amigo!

7:14 am  
Blogger jim knox said...

Hey Mark,

Thanks, you are spot on - I think I would agree with all that. Kagel's relationship to Argentina is an exemplary case.

But: there is certainly creative & experimental music outside the WestBloc - fact.

I'm thinking not of SubFreqs (at all), but of Reynols, Dubravko Detoni, Halim El-Dabh, Konono, etc etc (there have been centres for experimental electronic music right thru S/America since the 1950s). It may not be covered in the wire, or for sale at your local emporium. It is perhaps more marginal, and has a different relationship to local cultural tradition, by reason of a constrained economy.

And what does all this suggest for the future (& the immediate present): given that there are new mechanisms of information exchange in existence... given that (at least some) developing nations are in a greater position to exploit their own resources???

Beyond that, I think the whole scenario reveals some of the prevailing assumptions within the culture of experimental audio. In some ways, it might be considered a fairly reactionary sub-culture.

Personally, I'm less (& not at all) interested in exporting Western ideology, than in finding out what other people think - & digging on their music. A situation of mutual exchange is surely possible - maybe even desirable?


1:48 pm  

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