November 26, 2016 - January 14, 2017
Releasing Record Release
Saturday January 14, 4pm
A sound performance by Christof Migone
Christof Migone: Sound Art With and Without Sound
by Jim Drobnick
While primarily known as one of Canada's most accomplished sound artists, Christof Migone's practice is not limited to sound per se. Noises, thuds, scratches, language-defying vocalizations and somatic rumblings certainly echo in his installations, arise from his recordings, and resound in his performances. Yet the artist also addresses other, non-aural, aspects of sound, in particular its fulsome variety of visual, tangible, and material presences. This diversity reveals Migone's versatility as a creative agent; he occupies roles such as artist, performer, curator, writer, theorist, educator, historian, producer, and more.(1) Such range also reflects sound's protean nature: as much as it seems ethereal and invisible traveling from source to listener, it causes visceral affects upon bodies and objects. Sound art exemplifies the postmedium condition whereby artists are no longer compelled to concentrate on a single style or medium and instead devise multiple intersections between materials, techniques and practices according to the specific intentions of every project. A driving force behind Migone's investigations is that sound exists simultaneously as a method, a type of content, and an overall mindset. The end result is that sound art does not require actual sounds, for it is an approach to the world as a whole.
This exhibition, Press Play, fulfills all of the traits of an expanded sound art practice by employing photography, sculpture, multiples, and interactive, process-based works. The plenitude of media on display here provides an engaging cross-section of the artist's interdisciplinary practice. Even the title of the show bears a multiplicity of meanings. It first refers to the ubiquitous start function of analog and digital audio devices of the past half century. The title also voices an instruction to "press play" -- addressed to no-one and everyone -- and implies a form of audience engagement that will be realized in some of the works in the gallery."Press" also refers to the method of printing records, and the kind of intense physicality music depends upon to get manufactured. "Play", too, is important for signaling the artist's ingenuity and sense of humour. In two words, then, Migone hints at issues about technology, sociality, materiality and process before visitors even step into the gallery.
Two sonic artifacts predominate in the works comprising Press Play - microphones and record albums. Both have a "mass" dimension. Microphones were instrumental to the formation of the mass media of radio, television, and public oratory, and records revolutionized the widespread distribution, consumption, and collecting of music. For over a century, these technologies have epitomized the broadcasting and dissemination of sound. Beyond their functionality, the two artifacts serve as symbolic touchstones in Migone's practice, for they show how he works with, against, and through popular sound paradigms. Sometimes common idioms are taken literally, such as in the artist's multi-part publication Greatest Hits (2016), which features a CD of his Hit Parade (2007+) performances that pounded microphones against pavements and floors a thousand times each. The violence of rendering "hits" as actual, physical hits evidences a punk/critical attitude towards the popular and its corporate power structure encoded in passive consumerism. Yet in destabilizing the hegemony of mass culture, Migone also manifests a belief in the potentiality of sound -- a generative ethos that considers any material or situation to be an occasion for sound.(2)
Microphones tend to be overlooked as part of the functional apparatus of recording and amplification, things that spectators ignore when concentrating on the singer or speaker.(3) In Migone's works, however, microphones take centre stage to become pre-eminent performers and soundmakers themselves. The largest photographs in the series Micro (2014) magnify the faces of microphones and endow them with the detail and importance of portraiture. The torn foam of windscreens, the dented lattice of steel casings, and the exposed transducers all reflect the damage inflicted upon the mics during Migone's Hit Parade and other performances (some mics were pummeled until they no longer worked). Indifferent to the quality or brand of the mic -- whether cheap, standard or Shure -- their fragility is revealed as much as an aging human face or injured body. To musicians or sound engineers, the trashing of the mics must seem like sacrilegious acts; to those familiar with the history of audio art, the attacked mics continue a defiant theme and critique of mainstream music (e.g., Nam June Paik's smashed violin or Gustav Metzger's destroyed piano). But the anthropomorphization found in Migone's photos elicits a surprising poignancy conveyed by their respectful monumentalization. Like athletes or heroes who have sacrificed their personal well-being for the higher goals of spirited competition or saving lives, Micro affixes attention upon the neglected workhorses of the recording and broadcast industries and empathetically documents their destruction.
Records form the other main constituent of Press Play, and Migone riffs upon their material, symbolic and relational aspects. Firstly, Record Release (12-inch) (2016) presents twelve wooden displays holding twelve recycled record sleeves, each with a customized photo organized by themes such as arrows, shadows, circles, hands, or rocks. The photos are more than just formal, however. Each shows the "release" of a pellet of vinyl -- the petrochemical raw material used by the industry to produce records.(4) Secondly, the limited edition Greatest Hits contains a grooveless record struck with a microphone by the artist 1,000 times to impress a unique, if nearly imperceptible, set of indentations.(5) Thirdly, Record Release (7-inch) (2014+) consists of seven pristine plastic discs that the audience is invited to scratch -- their efforts approximate the lathe that cuts vinyl, though the playability is questionable. Contrary to the supposed obsolescence of vinyl, audio artists have maintained an attachment to the record format for its sound quality, cultural history, and iconicity as a multiple. Yet all of Migone's works in this show defy the ostensible purpose of records (for sound production); instead, they foreground the record's material reality, its format for visual expression, and its possibility for interaction (either by setting up a quasi-record store display or engaging viewers as groove-makers).
As much as my title for this text includes the phrase "with and without sound," in Migone's practice the distinction may be one without a difference. Press Play incorporates pieces that emit sounds - visitors will hear the ambient thumps of Millionaire (machine) (2015) and, if they are lucky, the ringing telephone of Publick (2013) (6) - but all of the works, even the soundless ones, depend on an imagined, metaphorical or historical engagement with sound. For instance, the neon sculptures of 4 feet and 33 inches (2014) translate the temporal parameters of John Cage's watershed "silent" performance 4'33' (1952) into linear measurements of lines, arcs and circles, creatively misreading the single and double quotes indicating minutes and seconds as feet and inches.(7) Such a transmodal shift from time to space is indicative of the intersensory equivalencies and morphings that inflect much of Migone's oeuvre. "With sound" and "without sound" turn out to be side A and side B of the same record, so to speak, for visual, tactile, spatial and kinaesthetic phenomena can be just as sonic as sound itself. The potentiality of sound that Migone so wittily demonstrates not only draws upon the richness of audio art as a medium, but also on sound's complex intertwinement with objects, experiences and everything else.
Jim Drobnick is a critic, curator and professor at OCAD University, Toronto. He has published on the visual arts, performance, the senses and postmedia practices in recent anthologies such as The Artist as Curator (2015) and The Multisensory Museum (2014). His books include Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006), and in 2012 he co-founded the Journal of Curatorial Studies. His curatorial collaborative, DisplayCult, foregrounds performative and multisensory projects.
(1) Recent highlights of Migone's diverse practice include his book Sonic Somatic: Performances of the Unsound Body (Los Angeles and Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2012), his curated exhibition Volume: Hear Here (2013), and the catalogue Volumes (Mississauga: Blackwood Gallery, 2015), co-edited with Martin Arnold and containing a 10-inch record. The artist also has constructed a comprehensive website: http://christofmigone.com.
(2) Interview with the author, October 5, 2016, Toronto.
(3) Exceptions to the mic's invisibility occur when it becomes a romantic stand-in for crooners who "make love to the mic," a symbol of authority identifying the holder with an enhanced power to speak, and a dramatic prop for rappers and comedians to gesture expressive finality (mic drop, thud!).
(4) For a sense of scale, one 180-gram 12-inch record is composed of over 6000 vinyl pellets.
(5) Greatest Hits also comes with a CD, two prints, and foil-stamped lettering on the sleeve.
(6) Millionaire (machine) is a collaboration with Marla Hlady* and features two microphones animated to alternately hit the gallery's front window -- one counts up to a million, the other counts down. Publick comprises two dial-free telephones that ring intermittently; when the receivers are picked up they transmit the sounds of licking.
(7) The lights in each version blink on and off in a time sequence appropriate for the three movements (33 seconds, 2:40 minutes, 1:20 minutes) of Cage's original score.
*Marla Hlady is represented by Christie Contemporary
Christof Migone is an artist, curator, teacher and writer. He obtained an MFA from NSCAD in 1996 and a PhD from the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University in 2007. His installations have been exhibited at the Banff Center, Rotterdam Film Festival, Gallery 101, Art Lab, eyelevelgallery, Forest City Gallery, Studio 5 Beekman, Mercer Union, CCS Bard, Optica. He has performed at Beyond Music Sound Festival (Los Angeles), Kaaistudios (Brussels), Resonance FM (London), Nouvelles Scenes (Dijon), On the Air (Innsbruck), Menagerie de Verre (Paris), Experimental Intermedia (NYC), Meduse (Quebec), Images Festival (Toronto), Send+Receive (Winnipeg), Kill Your Timid Notion (Dundee), Liquid Architecture (Melbourne), Mutek, Victoriaville Festival, Oboro, Casa del Popolo, Theatre La Chapelle, DHCArt, CAFKA, Museum Leuven, Whitney Museum, etc. He has released nine solo audio cds on various labels (Avatar, ND, Alien 8, Locust, Oral). A monograph on his work, Sound Voice Perform, was published in 2005. In 2006, the Galerie de l'UQAM in Montreal presented a mid-career survey of his work accompanied by a catalog and a DVD entitled Trou. He has been the recipient of commissions from the Tate Modern, Dazibao, Kunstradio, Centre for Art Tapes, New Adventures in Sound Art, Radio Canada, New American Radio. He is a founding member of Avatar (Quebec City). He currently lives in Toronto and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University in London, Ontario.