Opening the large format booklet that comprises part of Mark Peter Wright’s latest work, ‘Tasked to Hear’, the reader is presented with the title, and then, turning the page, a table of different ‘data sets’ occupying the centre of the page, flush with the margin: time, date, temperature, wind, humidity, sound pressure. Accompanying these readings are a collection of altogether more personal readings:
N’wood wa hovering frail and thin; barking and piping high; somewhere, around; lapping and scraping on horizons far; flapping and turning on pages near; a phone call, whistling, whood whood whood whood skating; a sudden drop; the sky tearing above; two screeching plumes falling down my neck.
These are in turn accompanied by some ‘physical and psychological observations’, and a set of photographs, one of the ground, another of the sky, on the facing page. This format is repeated for twelve consecutive monthly entries, followed by a closing page which features another title, this time the author’s name, in large type, centre, flush with the page edge.
‘Tasked to Hear’ is therefore conspicuous in having no introduction, foreword, afterword or endnote. There is nothing to ground us, except the work itself, whose very theme is the difficulty of such a task. Wright’s use of language steers us away from easy referents. Is that a bird he’s describing, or something else? Machinery? It’s a fascinating encounter to read these descriptions whilst listening to the accompanying sound recording – to play a game of spot the reference. The enmeshing of sound and writing extends and complicates the idea of ‘field recording’ – it questions the purpose of such ‘capture’, and our ability to re-present the experience of place.
Needless to say, a Q&A with the artist can’t help but ground us in his work, and will therefore sabotage it, to some extent. Perhaps you should bookmark this page and read it after experiencing ‘Tasked to Hear’ itself.
1. Can you tell us something about the genesis of the work?
I’ve been thinking about this lately and although the project is practically framed within 2013-14, it actually began in 2010. I developed a problem with my back around that time which left me immobile for large periods over the following 18 months. It affected lots of things, one of which being the relationship to my own body: its limitations, potentials and sense of scale. I spent a lot of time lying on my living-room floor and I started to think about long-term studies of relatively small areas – literally no larger than what was under my body surface. So there was a definite scaling in, physically, but I was also aware that sound had the ability to pull me out of such parameters. There’s always this dislocation in being ‘here’ (body-listening) and ‘there’ (source-imagination) in my work. I find that a very creative space to operate between.
2. What were your criteria in selecting a location? It should be mentioned that you precis the work by declaring ‘no attempt to detail, in any immediately identifiable way, the specifics of what I listened to, nor where it took place’. For a site-specific work, this is quite a strange, and bold, move.
South Gare is a place I’ve been working with for over fours years now. It’s a 2.5 mile stretch of reclaimed land that houses Europe’s second largest steel blast furnace alongside a diverse ecology of fauna, flora and birdlife. The actual one metre-square area I returned to each month was based on a realisation that it was where industry and nature seemed to most audibly coalesce. So I wanted to locate myself within these margins.
I’ve done various projects around the area, some more directly referencing the geo-politics of the place than others. For this work, the idea was to play with the elasticity of place and experience. I wanted to work within a very specific time and physical framework, knowing that sound isn’t really a frameable thing or something that can be pinned down in such a way. So the parameters I set up were to encourage a generative constraint in relation to the more nomadic processes of the medium. Of course my body is the site as well as South Gare, but I was always straining or moving away from my body (site), as much as I was inside it, whilst listening.
I’m not sure if site-specificity is even achievable when thinking through sound and listening, at least when recording and re-presenting a place. The whole thing could be a piece of fiction, and I like that ambiguity and non-essential relationship to place. The quote you mention is mostly in relation to how I tried to describe what I heard in words. I was translating sound more as a verb, a ‘doing’ or a ‘going on’ rather than an identifiable (specific) object. This applied mainly to birds. I would write them as something more onomatopoeic rather than a traditional taxonomic naming process. I’m not an ornthithologist so it seemed more apt for me to represent such species and sounds in a way that focused more upon their own relational activity rather than a representational identity.
3. So, rather than reduce that ambiguity through documentation, you actively embrace it – the writing, through its onomatopoeic quality, becomes an extension of the sound recording – it becomes a form of field recording itself? This idea of reducing the amount of identifiable referents in your ‘observations’ is – perhaps serendipitously – played out in the sound recording itself, when we hear you questioning whether it’s the 24th or the 25th of May. It’s something we all do, but in this context it seems as though factual certainties are becoming unmoored, and are being swept away by the breeze.
It strikes me as a brave thing to do, to include these private, vulnerable parts of a recording, which other field recordists would leave on the cutting room floor. In fact, the whole recording actively embraces these imperfections, and we can even hear you making notes, turning devices on and off – the whole thing is alive with the sounds of record making itself; sounds that are normally suppressed. What can you tell us about this, and how do you situate what you do within the broader context of ‘field recording’?
This embracing of failure and vulnerability came out of the back injury I mentioned earlier. I began to turn away from the idea of chasing or ‘capturing’ sound – I had no other practical option at the time. I also began re-evaluating the ethics and politics of what it is I do with a microphone and the recorded material; I moved away from ‘composing’ with environmental sound; I began to think about my work more as an attempt to listen to listening, or practically, record recording.
This is how I think of these moments you describe on the audio download. I wanted to leave all my presence and uncertainty in there amongst everything else. So, hearing me making notes, being confused with dates and positioning the microphone – it’s important for that to remain in the audio document. Having said that, it’s not all me that you hear thankfully: I certainly don’t think you have to be audible to be present in a recording.
Technology parallels this to some extent. For example the device beeping as I took my body temperature. Although these apparatus were audible, their presence was also notable through their own performative silence. They would constantly malfunction, give blank readings or tell me that it was clear blue skies above as I was being drenched in rain. So unhinging both human and technological veracity was very important. I like the idea of amplifying these things as a practice itself. It shifts the emphasis onto process rather than a final object and brings the whole notion of ‘truth’ into question. It was great to work these themes through with you in the design. The temptation was to remove lens specks and bend information when devices failed, but it just felt like all these anomalies were the point of the project – I’m glad you kept reminding of that!
As for the final part of the question. Field recording has been a great way to learn about my relationship to people, environments, animals and myself. There’s a pedagogical aspect to the actual recorded material that I find very interesting, but in terms of its function, as an artistic document, personally, I’m not always convinced. I like working over a diversity of media and throughout the last four or five years field recording has become more of a tool or method I use to explore an idea but it’s not necessarily what gets presented or shared publicly. So I find the activity, and material generated, a bit like reading a great book. It informs much of what I do and provokes ideas, which I might then go onto explore in other ways, forms or contexts.
4. It seems to be the case that some kind of trauma can effect a shift in our perspectives. For me it was bereavement, for you it was a physical injury. There’s something about ‘wounding’ that opens up the psyche to revelation. Over the ensuing years I came to be acutely aware of the impact of my own ‘incursions’ into natural landscapes, and I subsequently turned away from making recording ‘en plein air’. You’ve dealt with the similar issues in your work – the aforementioned aggression implicit in words such as ‘capture’, for example – and you’ve even gone so far as to ‘release’ sounds back into the environment, and then deleted the audio files from your computer’s hard drive. Can you elaborate on the motivations behind such gestures, and describe how your position in relation to landscape and environment has evolved?
That’s really interesting. I’ve also become more economical with my body now, and I think that too has spilled into my practice in terms of re-assessing my views on amassing sounds. You know, the extraction of sound from an environment or species may not be mining a finite resource, nor for that matter leaving a tangible footprint, but does that mean we shouldn’t think through the ethics and consequences of its ‘capture’? It might sound absurd but sometimes I think sound is being treated with all the social responsibility of fossil fuels. Or conversely like a pest or exotic trophy, something to be hunted and re-animated as in taxidermy. So I’m interested in disrupting the assumed inconsequentiality of ‘taking’ sound. I use hypothetical propositions and fairly absurd actions like swapping language or chasing a microphone to explore the agency and dynamics of these subject-object relations.
When thinking through sound in the digital world it becomes even more ambiguous. I remember CDs being sold as ‘perfect sound forever’ and today it’s all about ‘lossless’ compression, but loss and decay are part of any attempt at preservation. The project you mention, about releasing sounds back, came about when thinking through how I access my own archive of recorded sounds. The answer was fairly simple: I don’t. I never pull out a hard dive, find some ubiquitous sound I can’t really remember recording, and have a listen.
I decided to re-hear particular sounds from my archive by taking them back to the place they were recorded and play them into the space. This re-broadcast method has quite a lengthy history within sound art or bio-acoustics. I like that, instead of me discovering somewhere down the line they have disappeared through inevitable hard drive failure, I actually get to re-visit them a new, in a physical space. There’s an active blend of past and present during the playback. It’s as though a new memory of that recording is branded upon the phantom presence of the original – like an auditory double exposure.
It’s fascinating how people interact with this process, passersby stop and talk to me about what I’m doing and I love that side of it. It becomes like an alternative gig or public intervention, depending on location of course. The deletion part is more problematic. But again, for me listening is 90% about loss, I’m often losing the meaning of a conversation, sound always seems to be exiting or transgressing an environment, sometimes I can’t even hear my own thoughts. So this final act is an affirmation of loss as a productive method: erasure becomes a poetic, symbolic device, yet one that is also a very real ‘action-gesture’. It also ties into a commitment to rejecting undertones of accumulation and possession. There’s a lot of leisure fishing that goes on in South Gare, where people catch and throw fish back into the water. I think that’s a practical analogy for the work in some way. I’m still figuring the project out. I’m an individual working with my own personal archive. I’m not a national repository so I have a little more freedom in that respect. The discussion and intervention aspect is most important to me so I think it will become some kind of social gathering project or alternative workshop based activity.
5. Turning back to the title of this work, ‘Tasked to Hear’ – you draw attention to the process of listening, not as something automatic, like breathing, but almost as something willed into being. You make it sound almost onerous. With the accompanying download card is a suggested ‘listening scenario’ – so you’re tasking us to hear, as well. What would you like the listener/reader to come away with, after experiencing the work?
The accompanying audio download and its instructions came out of something I did for an exhibition in 2012 called ‘30 Minutes of Listening’. At the back of the gallery I had something resembling a recipe list for everything that was in the show. It was an attempt to demystify the process and offer a kind of do-it-yourself opportunity for anyone inclined. So, the instructions, much like the word ‘tasked’ within the title, hopes to use a potentially onerous framework as flint for a shared sense of inclusion and ownership once the work is out in the public realm.
Whether people take the recording anywhere and listen to it in their own site, I’ll never know, but the invitation is important for me and extends this idea of displacing and creating a collaborative site anew. What people come away with is up to them. All I hope to provide is space for the listener/reader to feel their own pathway and subjectivity is equally shared amongst whatever it is I do.
Explore more of Mark’s work here:
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