The following essay was written by Karl Richard while studying sound art and design at UAL. It reviews the creative practice of the New Zealand born artist Sally Ann McIntyre. McIntyre’s work is highly responsive to place and includes facets of sound art, the creative repurposing of radio, as well as utilizing field recordings to investigate issues hidden within recording media histories, ecology, society and activism.
Creative Practice Review
New Zealand’s Sally Ann McIntyre, a curator for the international Radia Network, utilizes experimental radio broadcasting techniques, field recording practices and pre-electrical sound technologies to re-imagine and engage in ecological discourses relating to modern-day media programming. (Ingleton, 2015; McIntyre, 2015/c) Given her original background in radiobroadcasting, it’s of little surprise that her works perceptively unravel political and philosophical frameworks about how radio/sound art and sound ecology could be viewed in today’s society. (McIntyre, 2015/b, at 11min)
While Raymond Murray Schafer’s influence is evident, McIntyre is careful to delineate her practice from his, taking issue with Schafer’s “bucolic and nostalgic view” of nature and his problematic notion about radio transmission being “a way of listening without inhabiting”. (Novero, 2013, p. 36, McIntyre, 2015/b, at 5min) Certainly she is not being sanctimonious. As if in respect to Schafer’s notions on acoustic-ecology, her 2009 “Shouting Over the Music, a Dawn Chorus for Walter and Olivier” saw her team up with the University of Melbourne to investigate how traffic noise caused urban birds to change their song’s pitch. (McIntyre, 2010) However, McIntyre wonders (as have others) whether it is problematic to separate man from wilderness? (Thoreau, 2004, pp. 111-366; Hutchins, 2012; Wright to Carlyle, 2015) Certainly Ackerman (2012, p. 38) notes our bodies are made up of 9 times more bacterial cells than human, suggesting man is a type of wilderness.
Aside from investigating boundaries, McIntyre’s work perceptively attunes to Tetsuo Kogawa’s idea about the inherent flaw of analyzing radio via the concepts of ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’. (Kogawa, 2008, pp. 407-409; McIntyre, 2015/b, at 3min) To emphasize this, her work creates active rolls for both producer and receiver, as seen with her “Notes Towards a Library of Superlative Trees, Transmission for Eucalyptus Regnans”, where she investigates common themes running throughout her works: non-human communication, environmental displacement of species, and broadcast as an electromagnetic signaling medium (radio waves being part of the electromagnetic spectrum) to transmit sounds of trees (made-up of electromagnetic matter) in one locus back to trees in another locus. (Novero, 2013, p. 36; Butcher, 2014; McIntyre, 2015, at 1hr 11min)
Coupling interactive “media art” with Kogawa’s “Mini FM” concept, McIntyre makes clear the aspect of mobile activism within her practice. (McIntyre, 2006, p. 55; Novero, 2013, p. 34; McIntyre, 2015/b, at 6min) During her 2012 “Wild Creations” residency on the remote bird sanctuary island of Kapiti, New Zealand, McIntyre drew on Kogawa’s ideas to justify a mobile radio/sound art project (powered by solar panels and battery) that allowed her to interact directly and sensitively within the environment, creating art that better reflected its locality, challenging the anthropocentric “look-a-like” culture of established broadcast media. (Novero, 2013, p. 34; McIntyre, 2015/b, at 13min) As part of this residency she transmitted “Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild”, which used Electronic Voice Phenomenon recordings from two mounted specimens of extinct New Zealand bird, silently in to the forest without any radio receivers to relay the audio. (Novero, 2013, p. 36; McIntyre, 2015/b, at 27min) Here McIntyre uses the silencing of these Cagean silences as a method of mourning for the lost sounds of these birds, driven to extinction by British collectors at the turn of the 20th century. (McKinnon, 2013, pp. 71-72, McIntyre, 2015/b, at 1hr 5min) She also adds that it “acknowledges our complicity in the destruction of complex ecosystems”. (McIntyre, 2015/b, at 1hr 17min) Ironically, this piece highlights an interesting paradox within the idea of ecology itself. As McKinnon (2013, pp. 71-72) writes, “acoustic ecology, while deeply concerned for the audible presence of select sounds, is predicated on the acoustic silencing of others.” While McIntyre does not specify any parallels, the practice of stoat trapping on Kapiti’s reserve poetically reflects this notion. (Novero, 2013, p. 44; Miskelly & Powlesland, 2013 pp. 1+4-5)
McIntyre’s more recent “Edison Ledges (diagram for twelve archival silences)” investigates the materiality of silence by inverting “digital archival sound preservation” methodologies to remove all the programmed sounds from several Edison wax cylinder recordings c.1890-1920, leaving only the “silences” (or “unwanted” sounds). Here she explores the history of sound via the medium it is preserved upon and the processes used to record it. (Madeleine, 2015; McIntyre, 2015/c) As if in a multifaceted manner, perhaps her work with silence (here and elsewhere) nods toward the composer John Cage, addressing similar issues about his dislike of recording performances: “Cage’s work was designed to change with each performance”, while recordings forever lock them in stasis? (McIntyre, 2015/c; Barber, 2016; Worby, 2016) Cage (in Grubbs, 2014, p. 10) also said, records “make people think that they’re engaging in a musical activity when they’re actually not”. Perhaps, here, McIntyre leaves out the music in respect to Cage’s view?
Interestingly, McIntyre’s Radio d’Oiseaux projects (named in reference to Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux) have focused on sounds, particularly bird song, being broadcast from areas they were originally captured in, creating a “temporal stratification of sounds […] through […] a technologically produced mnemonic”. (Barber, 2002, p. 303; Novero, 2013, p. 34) However, as McIntyre (2015/d) lucidly notes, “Music, clearly, can not reproduce birdsong.” In lieu of this, “Collected Huia Notations (like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded)” justifies itself via the Huias’ extinction, whose song can now only be known via anthropocentric perspectives. Noting that “in the absence of the source, we have the trace of a sound, in the form of imperfect, highly subjective notation”, she collated the only four known Western musical notations of Huia song into individual piano recordings. (McIntyre, 2015/d) Each of these recordings was then transferred onto the only recording medium available when the Huia were alive: phonographic wax cylinders. (McIntyre, 2015/d) Each time a cylinder is played, it is recorded, leaving a trace of how the fragile wax medium degrades. (McIntyre, 2015/d) After successive playbacks, the sound of the piano becomes obscured and begins to resemble birdsong. (McIntyre, 2015/d) Could McIntyre again be nodding to Cage?
With manmade environmental degradation on the rise and ecology becoming ever more important, McIntyre’s work resonates shamanically with its mixture of pseudo-scientific practices and perceptive insights (Vaughan, 2016). Over half of the world’s wildlife population has vanished in the last 40 years alone (Knapton, 2014). Despite “narrowcasting”, her work still reaches out to listeners across the globe, countering the incessant fanfare of deeply politicized, homogenized consumer radiobroadcast programming that seems to “dumb-down” (Simpson, 2009). Ironically McIntyre’s silences are often louder, as McKinnon (2013, p. 71) fittingly notes, “(t)o experience Cagean silence […] is to give attention to what […] is most often ignored or […] overheard (as in overlooked), by attention to what is supposed to be heard (music and speech).” Her work also pertinently echoes Bathes’ notion about post-serial music, in that it “has radically altered the role of the ‘interpreter’, who is called on to be […] the co-author of the score, completing it”. (Bathes, 1977, p. 163) While McIntyre’s transmission works provide a better realization of Schafer’s “Wilderness Radio”, his view that “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending evolution of that society” is still a powerful one. (Schafer, 1977, p. 7) As the life support system of our Planet becomes unbalanced through mankind’s inattentive actions, McIntyre’s works prophetically call for our attention in a way that only the Palan birds of Huxley’s utopian novel “Island” ever could. (Huxley, 2005, pp. 7-11; Novero, 2013, p. 34)
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