Synaesthetic Presences: new sights from old sounds
Professor of Fine Art, Northumbria University
‘The storehouses of memory … are ecologies where the materials of the world are living, dying, and being devoured.’1
Throughout my childhood there was a box of home-made gramophone records in my parents’ loft. The box had been in storage since the 1940s when my father, following demobilization from the Army, earned extra cash during his first three post-war summer vacations recording messages for families with relatives still committed to military duties abroad. He had built the recording equipment himself and undertook many phonographic experiments using primitive shellac discs before launching his short-lived entrepreneurial venture. By the end of the decade magnetic tape had become commercially available and my father’s project lost viability. The test recordings were stored away and forgotten.
This paper explores my reasons for retrieving these records and rethinking their status in the context of my practice as a visual artist. With my father’s disintegrating shellac ‘storehouse of memories’ rehoused in my studio I have been able to examine the forms of personal remembrance forced upon me by a sound world now almost certainly beyond recovery. Curiously, the records hold my attention precisely because my ability to listen has been eclipsed by the scope I now have to look. This discovery, an unexpected encounter with the synaesthetic, substantially extends my exploration of the creative interface between contemporary art practice and museum display – the area of practice I have specialised in throughout my career as an artistcurator.
From both personal and cultural perspectives, the significance of my father’s recording project changed as I incorporated his discs into improvisatory ‘overdrawings’ based on the work of the German artist Arnulf Rainer. The type of transsensory experiences generated by these drawings suggested the theme of this paper: if it is possible to speak of ‘synaesthetic presences’ (a concept that invites comparison with George Steiner’s notion of ‘real presences’) then perhaps there are museological, as well as artistic, conclusions to draw from the creation of, as my title has it, new sights from old sounds.1. Miles Ogborn, ‘Archives’, in Stephan Harrison, Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift (eds) Patterned
Ground: Entanglements of Nature and Culture, 2004, p 240.
14:30 (PRM Lecture Theatre) Saturday, November 24
Session 3: The art of practical Sound Objects