For the second installment for [in sounds not chosen] SoundFjord interviews artist, Mark Peter Wright.
[in sounds not chosen] is a collaboration between Jotta and SoundFjord and takes place over two websites. Its connected page, [on sounds chosen] details an individual artist's close connection to specific sounds, and may be found at:
Mark, I recently sat in on a presentation you gave on your PhD research to date at the British Library (Sound Cases). It was entitled Listening to Nature and Industry and focused on research conducted at South Gare (Redcar & Cleveland). What I found most arresting about your research, and the works your presented was the obvious intertwining of nature and industry as a concept, whereby both live with, and are affected by one another to form what I can only consider to be an hybrid state where the line between nature and industry is continuously crossed, moved, and often dissolved. Could you share a few examples, and talk about your work at South Gare in relation to this 'hybrid state'?
South Gare certainly blurs that line continually. It’s a man-made stretch of land, built from slag (by-product of steelmaking) and acts as a breakwater between the North Sea and Tees Mouth Harbour. It has spectacular wildlife, sand dunes and recreational activities like wind surfing and horse riding – it’s very picturesque visually. In the same frame you have the Steelworks – continually billowing out plumes of smoke from all the processes that go into steel production. So these juxtaposed elements mix together; of course they share acoustic space as well. That’s what I’m most interested in. The acoustic relationship between the Stonechat and the steelworks is one example I’ve been listening to over the last spring/summer. The track published via musicworks titled Peripheral Conversations deals with these aspects. It’s asking whether or not there can be such a thing as audible heterotopic space. The more I talk to the people who work or visit the area, the more I understand how complicated and complimentary that relationship between nature and industry is; the two are almost indivisible. So I’m trying to keep that in mind at all times – I’d hate to go in there and try and separate or reduce those aspects from one another.
Living in London but generally working in other locations - specifically places un/inhabited, colonised by humans for other purposes, or reclaimed by nature - must position yourself as an inquisitive outsider. I'm interested in how you view you position within the landscape when working at such locations - do you try to integrate yourself within the landscape and people, inculcate your own presence on the land, or remain as an invisible observer?
Most of the places I work with, including South Gare, are in the area I grew up (North East England), so I have an innate familiarity with the place(s) already. As always it depends on the specifics of the project, particularly the time of the project. I’m always talking to people who are somehow active in that particular landscape. So with the South Gare works, I’ve been interviewing former steelworkers, natural historians, bird specialists, fishermen and those who are there purely for recreation. But I would never say I’m trying to represent others, or in some way stamp the place with any reductive authority. I don’t necessarily fill up on historic texts before working in/with a place, as I want to retain a sense of not knowing. Fundamentally all I can do is mediate my own experience of that place.
I like Irit Rogoff’s use of the term ‘fieldwork’, which for her meant being spatially inside, whilst at the same time being paradigmatically outside. I also like the term ‘field’ as it implies a mental space as much as it does physical. Fieldwork, field recording, whatever you want to call it and however you want to record it, whether it’s sound or spit, there’s always that push-pull relationship which Rogoff describes; I suppose I’m trying to embody and flesh that out, like in my video piece Here & There.
And what of London as a place of inspiration and investigation? I remember you saying that once you had produced Vent, a work constructed from air vent recordings within and around the city, and London became much more interesting to you? Had familiarity bred contempt, or was the grass greener on the other side, so to speak? And if so, what changed to make you explore the city in which you live?
London has been a real motivator for me, its energy forces me to confront things I might otherwise shy away from. With the Vent project I had reached a point of frustration for sure. I remember feeling a bit lost in terms of how to engage with the place I was living. After a conversation with a friend I realised I just needed to go ‘do’ so I started to explore London and really embrace this sort of background texture which so many vents produce. With London it’s the people and friends I would never have met that have made it such a great move.
Notions of listening and place are revisited within your practice time after time. As someone who works across media, what is it about listening per se that intrigues you? For me, I believe listening and place are so intrinsically combined that place is always present within listening and listening informs a place, its characteristics and one's personal memory and perception of it. Could you tell me a little about how/why you choose to work with a specific place; what specifically, if anything, are you listening or looking out for?
For me ‘listening’ automatically puts the emphasis on process, not necessarily form, which I guess ‘sound’ does more so. So that’s an important start point for me. Listening puts me in an expansive frame of mind. It’s hard to pin-point why I’ll begin working with a certain place. With South Gare it was literally going for a walk one Christmas some years back with the in-laws and being immediately fascinated by this contradictory yet co-existing landscape. What I’m listening for is a very complicated issue – I’m still not sure myself. Although I work with sound it feels like I’m not actually listening for sound, which in itself sounds a little odd! I know that what I’m trying to listen to are events, situations or occurrences; whether they are past, present or future; personal, political or universal doesn’t really matter.
The indivisible relationship you talk about is certainly true but I also feel sound continually attempts to tear you away at the same time – so it’s a real struggle to remain in place when in sound, to stay specific; that’s really the over arching theme of the 30 Minutes of Listening exhibition.
Site-specificity is something that is integral to your work. However, I think that site-sensitivity - a deep consideration of place, history, environment and its people, and such - may be more apt a description for your practice. Could you tell us about your relationship to the human, natural and artificial in this sense?
That’s a nice thought. The word ‘site-specific’ is interesting for its contradictory relationship to sound and listening. As somebody who uses field recordings you are aware that as soon as you hit record you’re displacing the sound of a place to somewhere else, in this case, to the internal world of a digital hard-drive.
I like to re-animate and re-position ideas of ‘past’ or interact with narratives and symbols that have in some way made up a particular landscape. I also want to try and accommodate a sensorial depth and emotional weight within my work, otherwise it’s just an austere and discriminatory procedure. In that respect, like you say, ‘site-sensitivity’ is a useful way of re-imagining that term.
As an intellectual nomad, I consider that your work chimes with the thought of geopoetics: you pay close consideration to interaction with the environment, and the investigation of specific locations seems to be an important factor within your practice, and especially within your research and the language which forms from, and is adopted out of, the place and thus the work that is created. Could you tell me how you form a language of interaction with a specific place and how this language is presented to a listening or viewing audience, say at a gallery/museum, at home on a sound system, or a live performance?
My interaction is over as many registers as possible. So my practical vocabulary consists of sound recordings, photographs, objects, actions, talking to people, writing, reading and importantly spending time listening. Time usually dictates how I work. In terms of presenting that in a gallery or in performance/publication, I’m trying more and more to keep that language as expansive as it is in the process as when it comes to its formal re-presentation.
When presenting works made in response to a place I think it’s important to remember that the public are effectively the listeners; more than likely, they will never visit or have any connection to the site itself. The presentation of works then is the creation of a bridge. It is not the enforcement of didactic rules, nor is it the presentation of hermetically sealed nodes of information. It is first and foremost about the encounter of the receiving body (public) and my own disappearance within that exchange. The site of study is what remains, not as a prescriptive mirror but as an abstracted, psychological and emotional reflection in the body of the receiver.
Your sound works feature field recordings, which are often manipulated to create composed pieces. Could you tell me about your relationship to field recording? How do you consider the sounds you collect - as a medium and method, it seems more a mirror to the world, a conduit for political, social or emotional communication, than simply a material interest.
You’re right in that I certainly don’t set about amassing a collection of recordings in a manner like objects in a cabinet. Of course some sounds are effective in themselves but like I said before I like to work with the situational aspects of a recording.
For composed pieces or CD publications – I really don’t do as much as you may think. I just layer tracks and work on moving from one sequence to another in a way the piece demands. The South Gare recordings I’m accumulating are really just documents of certain events. I’m certainly not a purist when it comes to recording and composing - I’m doubtful as to whether a ‘pure’ recording can exist.
What is your position when collecting/recording the environment of your focus, i.e. do you work through the eyes of an ethnographer, environmentalist, or simply reference their techniques?
I wouldn’t align myself with an ethnographer, or anthropologist for that matter, I can’t help but feel those disciplines, at least traditionally, are a little imperialistic in some way. I’m more interested in the Sensuous Geographies which Paul Rodaway’s book describes or the work being done by people like Ernst Karel at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. I think a lot of my scepticism towards disciplines relates back to my own distanced view on technology, probably more so in the fact that I actively stray from knowing what microphone I’m using or how it even works.
I think when you work with a place you enter into a dialogue. It is not the mere removal (e.g. sound recording) of artifacts from a given area. The site impacts upon myself, leaving its own traces and abrasions. It moves and positions my body in accordance to its contours and tributaries; I must accept, and wrestle with this mutual sharing of agency.
Your website (markpeterwright.com) has a subtitle: artefacts of listening. This brings to mind three things: I.) sound can be material, that it can leave traces, specifically in relation to memory and experience; II.) objects and other art forms can instil a sense of sound/ing even if the things do not themselves sound; III.) sound and specifically listening can shape a place as matter of fact as the wind or a coal mine. It also reminds me that your practice is not purely sound-based - that you work across media, and also that many of your works are released in object-based formats such as CDs, book(lets), photographs; and may also be seen as installations with AV and objects. Could you tell me the significance of the material(ity) within your practice?
I don’t want to reduce the experience of listening to sound alone, I think it’s much more multi-sensual than that. So using other forms just feels like the right thing to do for me. I remember a book, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa had a big impact on shaping those thoughts.
In terms of using objects directly from the site in my work, they have an indexical role as much as anything else. They point towards another place, another time and I’m interested in that dialectic. I want to explode the processes at work in listening, so all the things that surround the sound document (for instance) are important to me. This includes books and CDs, again I like to think of them more as containers – whether or not it’s a container full of context or completely abstracted depends upon the project and proximity in relation to the place/subject the work is encountering.
30 Minutes of Listening, is your latest exhibition at IMT Gallery, London. Tell me a little about the show, and anything else you have in the pipeline.
30 Minutes of Listening is a (conceptually) contained way of exploring most of what we’ve been speaking about. The exhibition centers around this one, 30 minute period of listening in South Gare on the 12th of May 2012. I remember talking to my brother some time ago about how some people had managed to calculate the physical weight of the Internet and it measured something like 50 grams. I love the idea of this, I don’t really care if it’s true or not, and of course the real weight is in the information and knowledge out there, but it’s the leap of faith required that I’m interested in. So, I started to think about how listening can be dissected, measured, even weighed; in fact one of the earliest titles for the show was something like 75 kgs of Listening.
I want the exhibition to push the potential of how we document time and space in relation to the process of listening, how all the things that aren’t necessarily heard in a sound recording, but are part of that same experience, can be integrated into the dissemination side of the process. It’s also trying to embody the struggle to stay ‘specific’ when listening whilst unhinging both the self and the place across many physical and mental registers.
I’m working on lots more South Gare related projects and I definitely see the exhibition as the first step of (hopefully) many. I’m working on interview pieces, some object-based work using steel; possibly something specific to the site that can only be experienced there. There’s also lots of writing and text pieces. I’ve always liked the idea of working with one place or subject for a very long time. Hopefully I’ll still be saying that in a few years from now.