The Family Lea Bertucci, Untitled, 2012, Graphite on graph paper, inkjet print, and plexi, 20 x 74 inches.

Rendering The Invisible

by Ian Sternthal
When Sonel Breslav, founder of Blonde Art Books, wrote an essay responding to Pauline Oliveros’ question ‘Why can’t sounds be visible?’ she didn’t realize that her response would eventually turn into a call to action. Sternthal Books recently sat down with Breslav, and Matthew Walker, on the occasion of the recent exhibition they curated at Present Company in Williamsburg titled, ‘Render Visible’, to discuss graphic scores, the sound art community, and the possibility of rendering the unseen visible. The exhibition is a multifaceted presentation of books, works on paper, and performances. In his book Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation Gilles Deleuze wrote, “Paul Klee’s famous formula – ‘Not to render the visible, but to render visible’ – means nothing else.” He applies Klee’s quote to Francis Bacon’s paintings in order to highlight the artist’s sensitivity to non-visible forces and his ability to render them visible. Using this as a point of departure, the curators invited a variety of artists, including Jo-ey Tang, Hannah Whitaker, and Guy Goldstein, amongst many others, to contribute two dimensional works which together constitute a proclamation of the potential of sound and the act of listening.

Ian: What exactly is a graphic score?

Matthew: Graphic scores are musical scores which are composed of shapes and forms other than standard musical notes. It’s a very open ended term that implies a non-traditional approach to writing out a template for a performance, often using images, and also variations on traditional notation that involve more idiosyncratic and personalized methods.

Ian: I am curious about the title of the exhibit. ‘Render Visible’ can be read in multiple ways – but coupled with the shows emphasis on graphic scores, it implies a bringing forth of that which is unseen into a pictographic form, beyond merely making the unseen visible, which might otherwise imply more open questions about how sound can be experienced other than audibly.

Sonel: The idea for the exhibition began when I started looking at Shelley Burgon’s graphic scores. I was very drawn to them, though I had little understanding of their functionality. The title came from the book The Logic Of Sensation, by Gilles Deleuze in which he writes exclusively on the paintings of Francis Bacon. For many years I have often returned to a quote that Deleuze borrows from Paul Klee where he says, “Not to render the visible, but render visible.” The visible – I understand literally – as referring to what we can see with our sight, and so to ‘render the visible’ is to reproduce what has already been seen. Yet to ‘render visible’ introduces a sense of chaos and formlessness that is present within the production and performance of graphic notation, expanded musical practice, and sound-based art. In The Logic of Sensation Deleuze discusses Bacon’s ability to render the unseen, render movement, force, and chaos through his representations of the human body. Bacon’s bodies merge and come apart again – in a way that exposes the space around the bodies. After seeing Burgon’s graphic scores, I did some preliminary research and exposed myself to the writings of Pauline Oliveros. This brought me back to Paul Klee’s quote in relation to sound.

Ian: How is this project distinguished from other exhibitions on sound art?

The Family A selection of Books surrounded by artworks from the Render Visible exhibit presented at Present Company, in Williamsburg.

Sonel: The exhibition space features two tables of books displaying over 80 titles that relate to the history and critique of sound art, graphic notation, and other various sonically inspired publications. On the walls surrounding the tables are artworks by contemporary artists that have produced works on paper that have a sound element. Most of the books in the show were recommendations from musicians, academics, or artists who are involved in the sound art scene – whether they be musicians, or academics. Amongst our other activities, Blonde Art Books organizes book-centric curatorial projects that examine the connections between traditionally exhibited artwork and the books, magazines, and other printed matter that inform and shape their conception.

Ian: I am curious as to why you have created a sound exhibit which only includes 2D works?

Sonel: The reason we kept out any sound/video installation – including video works and video scores – was so that we could keep the show within the context of printed matter – to show the reference between what is on the walls and what you can see in the books that are in the show. To activate the space and demonstrate the functionality of the many of the artworks, we also organized performances by four of the artists in the exhibition; Shelley Burgon, Eve Essex and Juan Antonio Olivares, Philip White, and Nate Wooley.

The Family Eve Essex & Juan Antonio Olivares, performance detail.

Matthew: Most of the research conducted involved asking the participating artists, as well as others in the field, which books they have in their own libraries, or which have influenced their practice. The research was really organic – introductions were created from one artist to the next – and I really liked how much of the work was derived from conversations with people…

Ian: What was your role in the curation process, Matthew?

Matthew: I have a background in sound performance, and I work at a space in Brooklyn called Issue Project Room – which many of the artists in this show have a connection to. It was an interesting collaboration, with Sonel coming from more of a visual art background, and myself coming from more of a sound background. Issue Project Room shows all forms of interdisciplinary experimental performance. I am involved in some of the programming, but I work more on the development side of things. My focus for Render Visible was primarily on putting the performance events together, and helping Sonel get acquainted with the sound art scene.

Ian: Can you tell me about the range of work featured within the show?

Sonel: Some of the artists don’t typically work with music or sound while others are avant-garde musicians and composers who have made graphic scores within their own musical practice but have never exhibited it as artwork. Jo-ey Tang’s sandpaper works, for instance, represent sounds and images that are made simultaneously. The works are made by rubbing pieces of sandpaper together. Tang describes the small gestural marks that remain as a graphic score and when you view the work you can imagine a familiar sound that was created by his intervention. We might not hear it, but when we look at the work, we can almost imagine the sound in our mind.

The Family Jo-ey Tang, Untitled (1-5), 2011; Seth Cluett; A Loss of Place but a Fragment of Time, 2011.

Ian: Does he record the sound while he’s making them?

Sonel: No. His work is very fast and ephemeral. The works by Seth Cluett, on the other hand, do involve an element of recording. Seth is a composer, sound artist, and a professor. Over the years he has compiled one of the most extensive archives of books, leaflets and various ephemera on graphic notation. His two works on paper in the show titled, A Loss Of Place But A Fragment Of Time were made by the simple act of drawing a line in pencil, while simultaneously recording the sound of the ambient noise that occurred during the duration of time it took him to make the line. Since he recorded onto tape, he was able to cut the tape, and place it next to the line itself, which are equal in length. The tape corresponds to the period of time he spent making the line. The completed work is thus actually made of the sound.

Ian: Walk me through some of the pieces in the show. Why don’t we start with the drawings by Guy Goldstein.

Sonel: I chose three drawings on paper from a series that Guy recently did called Sound On Paper. I went through many drawings – but ended up choosing two pieces that were drawn in a photorealistic way. They are both regular everyday objects – but what interested me was the way he conceives of them as objects that have a strong sonic quality to them, in addition to their literal function. We included one drawing of a comb, and another of the top part of a bottle spritzer that sprays liquid. He is also remarkably able to re-create the sounds that these objects make with his mouth. I think this skill might have resulted from the practice he did recreating sounds with his voice for his handmade publication titled ‘Watermarks’, which is also featured in the curated section of books.

The Family Sounds On Paper, Guy Goldstein, 2012, Graphite on paper, 42×60 cm

Ian: We actually sell the publication in The Sternthal Shop. It was handmade by Goldstein during his residency with Possibility Of A Book which was hosted by The Sommer Gallery in Tel-Aviv.

Sonel: Watermarks is based on the sounds that drums make – and many of the fold out spreads feature sonic representations of these sounds written with letters. The third drawing I chose is based on a collage of existing photographs which is actually a clothesline with rags. The rags are lined up as if they were notes on paper, with all of these intersecting lines. I think he imagines this piece potentially being performed as a musical score. He also creates sound installations.

The Family Watermarks, 2011. Order a copy @ http://sternthalbooks.com/shop/watermarks-p-46.html

Ian: I recently designed a book, and when sequencing the images, I imagined each image as having an ascribed intensity, like a note, and I arranged the flow according to a song. When I think of visually representing sound, I think of how this ‘ordering’ expresses a rhythm and a pacing, like beats in music. Tell me about a piece in the show that deviates from the more traditional graphic score, and embraces a more abstract way of representing sound?

Sonel: Hannah Whitaker’s piece is a good example of what you have just described. The series of photographs, which Whitaker also published as a book, is an exploration of John Cage’s compositional techniques, specifically his piece Imaginary Landscape No. 1. Presented here are four of a series of sixteen photographs. The light leaks are areas where Whitaker allows light to hit the film directly by putting holes in the normally light tight container that the film is in. This is done after the film is exposed normally to whatever she is photographing. She takes the original Cage composition’s structural principle and applies it to the organization of photographs.

The Family Hanna Whitaker, Imaginary Landscape No. 1, (Phrases 1 – 4), 2012, (4) Archival pigment prints, 14 x 11 inches each

Ian: Tell me about these abstract color grids by Ben Hall. They look like some sort of lo-tech futuristic prism from the 1980’s. I am curious as to the conceptual underpinnings…

Matthew: These two images are from a series of eight diptychs created by Ben Hall, and the trumpeter/composer Nate Wooley. Nate has, over the course of several years, developed an extensive personal vocabulary through performing on the trumpet. He was interested, as a retrospective activity, in codifying some of this language that he had developed using a form of notation. He started with the phonetic alphabet, and thought about ways that these different characters of the phonetic alphabet suggest the shape of a mouth, and in turn, how the shapes of the mouth translate into the shapes that his mouth make, as he makes these sounds with his trumpet. He took that process further by collaborating with Ben Hall to create this sort of aetudes called 8 Syllables. Within this book that will actually be published next year, you have these two pages layouts in which one of Ben’s images is interfacing with a stylized version of a character from the phonetic alphabet.

The Family BEN HALL, Nate Wooley 7/24/11 E, 2011, Polyvinyl Chloride, 20 x 23 inches.

What’s particularly interesting about this for me is that while the juxtaposition of these images and characters has a specific denotation for Nate as a performer, because they refer to the codification of a language that he has developed, the images themselves are also supposed to have the flexibility and openness to be interpreted by other performers, not just trumpet players, but people who play a variety of instruments. The interplay between the visual and the character has an abstract open-ended means for instruments. Ben addresses his attention in this artist statement –

“Our conversation revolved around the idea of what a composition asked of a performer, and what the recording remnant remains of a performance offer. I employed a non-verbal coded knock system by black prisoners of war in Vietnam which produces letters and then words to Nate’s score. The letters were then assigned to collections screen shots from Hollywood Films. In terms of the schematic produced, it was mostly a system of input with Nate’s data affecting a replacement set of data, and the POW code which acts as more of a conversion…”

Ian: This totally changes how I look at the image. It’s amazing how much understanding the theoretical background of these pieces changes the way I process them. Matt Marble’s drawings for instance, remind me of archeological drawings – it’s as if he is mapping out the internal structure of these plant-like formations. How does these diagrams relate to sound?

Sonel: Matt is inspired by plant like formations. He uses these organic structures to organize call and response performances. He will specify the instrument to be played but it won’t matter if the performer knows how to play the instrument, it’s more about responding to the instruments around you in an intuitive way. This mapping is used as a basis for the improvised creation of a collection of sounds that he has people perform. Its not that he’ll know what the outcome, its more that he’ll direct when people start, and another instrument enters – and others disappear. I’m not sure how it works in terms of duration…Many of the works are documentations of process, working notes, or visual experiments unto them.

The Family Matt Marble, Frond, Whorl,& Alation, 2012, Ink on paper, 6 x 3 inches.

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Established by Sonel Breslav in 2012, Blonde Art Books is an organization dedicated to promoting exceptional publications about and by international artists. The blog collects and disseminates information about self-publishing, printing resources, and book production grants in the fields of art, poetry, criticism, and cultural studies. Blonde Art Books curates book-centric exhibitions that examine the connections between traditionally exhibited artwork and the books, magazines, and other printed matter that inform and shape their conception. In addition, Blonde Art Books participates in pop-up bookshop events that feature international independent art publications by contemporary artists and small presses.

‘Render Visible’ features works authored by a diverse group of artists, composers, photographers, painters, musicians, performers, engineers, academics, producers, and writers including Lea Bertucci, Shelley Burgon, Seth Cluett, Eve Essex & Juan Antonio Olivares, Guy Goldstein, Ben Hall & Nate Wooley, Matt Marble, Daniel Neumann, Elliott Sharp, Jo-ey Tang, Hannah Whitaker, and Philip White. As a collective, they demonstrate a similar sensitivity to sound’s intimate relationship with visual art practices.

The second component of ‘Render Visible’ is the curated library and bookstore containing over one hundred titles from publishers including Frog Peak Music, Swill Children, FO A RM Magazine, MIT Press, Errant Bodies Press, among others. The collection was compiled following a period of research and dialogue with artists, academics, and publishers participating in the fields of sound art and experimental music. Additionally, the library contains works by independent publishers and artists who have produced special editions, abstract publications of graphic scores, and magazines that emphasize critical analysis of contemporary practitioners.

The final component of the presentation included a series of four distinct performances by artists Shelley Burgon, Eve Essex & Juan Antonio Olivares, Nate Wooley, and Philip White.