by Dilpreet BhullarAug 08, 2021
Earlier this year in July, San Francisco played host to a traveling exhibition produced by Independent Curators International (ICI). The first iteration of this exhibition, Seeing Sound, was seen at KADIST, on view from June 9-July 24, 2021. It was curated by Barbara London, who apart from being the founder of the video-media exhibition and collection programs at MoMA in New York, has been working with sound and video art for well over two decades.
London is a New York-based curator and writer whose expertise in the field has enabled her to write a book titled Video / Art: The First Fifty Years published by Phaidon Press, which delves into the depths of media art history and the artists and exhibitions which defined our initial understanding of the medium. London was also one of the first to incorporate the internet as part of her curatorial practice. Seeing Sound at KADIST, the San Francisco edition of the exhibition comprises artworks of three contemporary sound artists - Marina Rosenfeld, Aura Satz and Samson Young.
The travelling exhibition project features nine artists based around the world - Seth Cluett, Juan Cortés, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Auriea Harvey, Bani Haykal, Yuko Mohri, Marina Rosenfeld, Aura Satz, and Samson Young. Seeing Sound includes artworks in the form of kinetic sculpture, audio-video installation, and visitor-responsive technologies. The exhibition creates complex environmental sonic experiences by eliminating headphones, allowing each artwork multiple modes of communal listening.
The absence of headphones, an otherwise standard sight beside any installation involving sound, creates opportunity for a shared viewing experience. While it reduces the risks which may come with sharing headphones, it also opens up the space for interaction. This setting comes at a time of post pandemic-driven lockdown and isolation, making it a significant part of the experience.
London discusses the challenges of curating a medium as volatile as sound. She says, “Firstly, a curator needs to understand an artist’s aesthetic intention, then assemble the necessary technology for the specific artwork and orchestrate the work as a finely tuned space. Sound and architecture are inherently connected. More than ever artists are drawn to sound because the medium is full of potential, and not yet defined. Artists engaged with sound come from many different disciplines, and this has always caused me to be open to new ideas. Artists push boundaries, and create what we might call hybrid art forms. Today the art of sound questions how and what we hear, and what we make of it”.
Although sound art may be experienced in many forms, through physical and digital spaces, the influence of architecture, equipment and engineering makes it a tricky form to convey both consistently and effectively across venues. This remains the challenge and responsibility of the curator, especially when shifting from one location to another, as seen in this exhibition series. London describes her curatorial choices keeping these obstacles in mind. “The footprint of each work is on the small side, intentional on my part as curator. I chose to curate an exhibition that Independent Curators International would be able to circulate and place internationally in smaller venues. I selected each artwork based on the artist’s ideas,” she says.
Sound is really a newborn material, in the historical context of art. Similar to newborns, it is also sensitive to the harshness of our world. In viewing it, one must keep themselves vulnerable and sensitive as well. The curator says, “Much like other forms of art on the cutting edge, sound as art requires an open mind on the part of the viewer/listener. One might initially be baffled, but then the viewer/listener makes connections to previous experiences with experimental art, whether in the art gallery, in the concert hall or public plaza, or even experienced through streaming online”.
Seeing Sound at KADIST San Francisco shares the work of only three artists, yet representing multiple communities, with two female artists, one from New York and the other based in London with the third male artist representing Hong Kong. This diversity is a welcome sight in an industry struggling to break past hegemonic tendencies.
Barbara London has curated multiple solo shows with prominent names in the media art space such as Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, Teiji Furuhashi, Joan Jonas, Shigeko Kubota, Steina Vasulka, and others, apart from several group shows at MoMA where she worked for 40 years. Her written work has also been shared by Artforum, Yishu, Art Asia Pacific and other notable publishing houses. London currently teaches at the Sound Art Department at Columbia University, and previously taught at Yale University.
Seeing Sound will be touring internationally through the years until 2025.