YT: Do you consider yourself a sound artist?
EO: Yes, but that title doesn't say very much about what I do. It says something about technique but it doesn't say anything about the work. In addition, the term doesn't mean a great deal to anyone who isn't already familiar with the field, so even though I use the term to describe what I do, it is of limited usefulness. The vagueness of the term points to the fact that the field isn't as recognized as it should be and that there isn't a formalized practice of it. The variety of forms in which artists are using sound preclude a solid definition of the field. This is related to the fact that most arts-presenting institutions are usually ill-equipped to deal with sound art - no surprise since almost none of them were designed for it. Gallery spaces are generally set up to look at art but not to listen to it. In those spaces there are often problems with sound from one piece bleeding into another, or the sonic qualities of an exhibition space aren't suited for sound work - the flat walls cause lots of reverberation which may not be desirable. In addition, the structures of institutions that present music or performance can sometimes also be a detriment to the presentation of sound art. Sometimes a theater-type space is all that is available and that is sometimes not suitable to particular types of sound work. In addition, sound art performances are occasionally scheduled on concerts with music. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, at the very least it is difficult for a listener to change their way of listening from musical habits to other modes in the middle of a concert. So generally it is difficult for those kinds of institutional structures to accommodate the variety of work that is found in the field of sound art. All the organizations that participated in SoundCulture were, to their credit, very open-minded about all of these issues. But even the most generous program director is going to think twice before rebuilding their gallery space to handle a special project, no matter what it is.
In some senses, the closest ideal institution is radio because it is experienced only as sound and listening to radio tends to be a personal kind of experience. But of course there are no visuals with radio, so that knocks out a great deal of possible work right there. That aside, radio is a very good medium for sound art. The main problem lies in acquiring radio space for experimental projects, since all of the commercial and non-commercial broadcast channels available are very tightly formatted. And that formatting has set up a rather rigid set of expectations among both programmers and audience about what the possibilities of radio are. So spaces on radio that are open to experimental work are not that common. Fortunately for SoundCulture, we had the cooperation of KPFA, which offers much more space for experimentation than any other radio station around here except maybe for the unlicensed radio transmitters.
So it's an art form that takes on a wide variety of formats, but one of the artifacts of that is that doesn't fit very well into any existing institutional frameworks. In pursuing my own career, I have lost count of times when a gallery director would say, "Well, that's very interesting but you know, we never had a sound piece here before and we wouldn't know what we would do with it." It's not really that hard to deal with but it is true that galleries generally are not set up for it. I had a review recently of an exhibition I did in Michigan where the writer said that sound did not belong in gallery or museum settings; he missed the fact that those places are not designed for sound in the first place. But that review did make clear two things. One, there is a real need for education and the inclusion of sound in the standard arts practices and two, there is likely to be a great deal of resistance to the form in part because by its nature it slips across the boundaries and categories that everyone is used to in visual arts culture. Since SoundCulture highlighted the fact that sound art is a solid field, hopefully it will help to overcome some of this resistance and garner the area a bit more attention. As that happens, describing oneself as a sound artist will not be quite such a novelty, nor will it lead to the kinds of puzzlement that I am now used to encountering.