Oil & Cotton, the Dallas-based community arts organization is showcasing experimental sound art in a new exhibition. Janeil Engelstad curated “And then I whirled to the sound of” to show the breadth and depth of the field. It features artists across the spectrum of experience – from renowned and respected experts to young children from Oil & Cotton’s arts summer camp. In fact,, arts education is much of the point here. With classes, workshops, summer camps and various exhibitions, the Oil & Cotton “creative exchange” is not strictly a gallery space. It’s more akin to an arts-focused community enrichment center.
“And then I whirled to the sound of” is the latest Oil & Cotton project exploring a less well-known branch of the arts, and Engelstad hopes visitors will leave with an appreciation for both sound art and the artists who make it.
Because Engelstad feels most people don’t really know much about sound art, she wants “And then I whirled” to show more than one style or approach to the medium. “There’s all these ways that people think about sound who are thinking of it as a medium,” she says, “who are thinking of it like a painting or a sculpture.” For Engelstad, this exhibition is about demonstrating what separates sound art from other kinds of contemporary art. “This is more meant to have you ask questions, to have the mind not relax, to have the mind be active, and to be noticing these sounds,” she says.
In curating the exhibition, Engelstad says, “I was looking for a variety of pieces, and I was looking for pieces that conveyed a certain emotion but with no preconceived idea of what those emotions were.” She listened for pieces that inspired an authentic emotional reaction. “I was either wondering what that sound was, it was pleasing, or it was challenging. Some of the things I actually didn’t care for but I found them to be really well-composed, thoughtful pieces. I could recognize their strength and their depth.”
The pieces run the gamut from field recordings of a thunderstorm to a mash-up of hundreds of movie sound clips. “Some of the things are much more industrial, technical or intellectual, and some are much more romantic and softer and more melodic,” says Engelstad. The diversity emphasizes that sound art is broader and more complex than it might seem.
For the artists, the exhibition was a chance to explore the genre, even if they lacked experience in the field. “This was the first time I had thought about doing sound art,” says Dallas-based artist Carolyn Sortor, whose piece “Monument Valley” was made out of an assemblage of over 100 audio clips from Western movies. “It’s definitely not narrative,” she says, “there is an arc, but I would not call it narrative. It’s more conceptual, or thematic.”
Because of the lack of cohesion between the phrases and disconnected sounds, the audience for “Monument Valley” is made to pay attention to the patterns that emerge, the similarity in lines from across dozens of movies that Sortor says were just there. Instead of looking at the piece as a disjointed arrangement of sounds, the audience, she hopes, will be able to appreciate the unity and cohesion in the piece. In her words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“That’s what makes anything great actually. It does tap into concerns that are eternal, archetypal, something in that vein; they come up in anybody’s life no matter what time or location you live in.” Originally, the piece was made to accompany a video of these clips strung together for a previous exhibition, but she worried that the audience’s dependency on the visual element of the piece did not allow people to grasp what was happening on the sonic level. She hopes that, with the video removed, the audience will be able to understand the ideas being explored in the piece more thoroughly.
For other artists like Jeff Gibbons, working in sound was not a new and unusual field. Gibbons talks about how his work has been informed by his early love of music. “Any installation I’ve ever done is usually something to do with the senses, either all of them or a couple. But I actually made music before I ever did anything else in visual art. I started playing guitar when I was about 12, then I tried to be a serious musician for a while.”
Having his work featured in galleries is somewhat new. For his piece, “___ Just Too Good to Be True” Gibbons edited the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons song “You’re Just Too Good to Be True” with a loud and jarring beep covering the word “you” throughout the entire song.
According to Gibbons, the piece is heavily influenced by the themes he tries to explore in his work, as well as his romantic life. “A love song is a fantasy land, you listen to it over and over again and it’s always the same,” he explains. “And that was the idea behind bleeping it. The bleep itself is kind of violent, but then when you bleep something out it’s usually a swear word, it’s usually something that alludes to violence, so there’s this kind of aggravation to that.”
“__ Just Too Good to Be True” examines the emotions that are tied up in our musical tastes, and Gibbons manipulates those expectations by making the song a commentary on the conventions of a love song. He notes that music has a special way of making people think back to a particular emotion or sensation, and that his piece attempts to make that sensation not so pleasant or nostalgic but more uncomfortable, even painful: “It’s kind of taking this reverent song and killing that in a way, so as to say that life is everything but a movie, everything but a reverent situation.”
For her part, Iris Bechtol looks to her frustrations over digital photography as a source of inspiration for her work. The element of the manufactured or heavily edited in that medium pushed her to pursue work in other fields, like sound. She focuses on making art that has little alteration, and becomes more immediate and present for the audience. “Much of my work that I’ve done in the past, whether it be installation, or sound, or any kind of sculptural work, it’s very minimal,” Bechtol said. “It’s not very gaudy, there’s not a lot of different materials involved, I don’t do a lot of manipulation. So the piece entitled “Everyday Wanting” is a piece where I’m exploring this idea of vulnerability… in a way of being minimal, not having a façade, not putting on all these fronts.”
“Everyday Wanting” follows this minimal approach. It features just the sounds of her dancing, with her feet hitting the floor in a large, echoing space. Bechtol explained that the piece was heavily informed on her shyness, and the work is meant to explore that feeling and make people actively listen and be aware of the sounds they’re hearing. However, as she says, the piece is more than just about her insecurities. While an audience might think that there is only one artistic intention in a piece, she says that’s not always true. “I just really want them to explore the idea of sound and listen to it. Sound is a powerful thing. And even if you don’t know what it is you’re listening to, it can have a profound, sublime effect on you.”
While Bechtol is focused on creating an intimate relationship between herself and the audience, artist Martin Back works on delivering pieces that make the audience more aware of their ambient soundscape. His piece is simple but succinctly demonstrates Back’s aesthetic priorities. He says he heard the sounds of rain hitting a small metal watering can outside his home, and these stood out so much, he rushed to grab his recording equipment to capture the moment.
Unlike some of the other more consciously organized pieces, Back’s is more spontaneous and organic. His recording of rainwater exemplifies the artist’s ideas and thoughts when he makes art. It’s satisfying, he says, “to have that moment that the piece came out of. That’s part of an ongoing process and is sound-specific, and it’s bound up in how I think about the world as connected systems of sound.” He went on, saying that his work is focused on “thinking about the world as if it is performing itself, and you just have to turn your attention to it to have an aesthetic experience, and to me that’s much more valuable, personally and aesthetically, than trying to create it with an object or a mechanized sculpture.”
“And then I whirled to the sound of” will run until July 27.