Review

This review by Salome Voegelin appeared in Diffusion – News from the Sonic Arts Network 04 August 2004

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‘Forgotten Fairytales’ some thoughts on a CD box set of interviews compiled by Iain Armstrong with illustrations by Jayne West.

Produced by The Northamptonshire Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance.

The box’ design is very ’70s, brown with some stripes on one side and a carefully chosen font brightly displaying the word forgotten in white, whilst the letters spelling fairytales are a brown that grows faint and disappears in the darker background. This is an emphasis that is not sustained by the voices recorded on the CDs. And I have no idea why the authors insist on creating such a victimized position. The voices are strong and clear, telling you their narrative of life, love and choices that some people have to make and others never need to think about, without lamenting their position. I am not particularly interested in the content of the interviews however. I don’t think that its focus on the issues of the Gay Community of Northamptonshire is what makes the work interesting in relation to art. Rather, I am focusing on the voices as sonic material and the status of this collection of interviews as an archive.

To foreground the issue of gayness, when considered from an artistic point of view, marginalises the work in a swamp of socially engaged practices struggling to apologise for a sense of artistic purposelessness and enjoyment via the righteousness of a civic cause. Such a strategy renders the communication of any cause secondary to the overall description of social worthiness. What jumps out, if I insist on an issue based reading, is the mental image of a funding application, and all of a sudden I know why forgotten takes such a central place.

By contrast the status of this work as a sound work or in relation to the conception of an archive, invites ambiguity and produces a multiplicity of perceptions. The first provokes the engagement in the work as fairytales beyond the obvious pun: narrations that are particular but temporal. Not fixed in time or place but inviting listening and re-narrating in the listener’s own voice – contingent and fluid. The second considers the box set as an object, as a collection of sounds and images to be preserved but never listened to. Maybe here lies a new sense of forgotten, without the self-depreciation.
Box sets overcome the flimsiness of a single CD. They have more stature and authority, a sense of worth beyond the sonic content. I have several box sets at home that I have never listened to. Their function and purpose on my bookshelf is a totally different one. Box sets are things I want to own, thinking their presence on my shelves might reflect on my sincerity about sound work and music. It is a display of abundance, a collecting and hoarding of sonic material rather than an invitation to listen. This is the work as archive, where the sleeve notes and the design determine its appreciation. The details of the content are secondary to this overall sense of the set as a material document.

This element was drawn out and amplified by the installation of this work as part of the SAN SoundCircus at De Montfort University in Leicester in June. A bright, hi-tech lecture theatre formed the context of the work. A computer was set up so you could choose individual interviews and photographic illustrations of the interviewees hung on a panelled wall in a row. The Institutional framework emphasised the scientific aspect of the work: the status of the work as document becomes foregrounded. The voices do not so much produce as relay an experience. They are heard as a means of transmission rather than as sonic material. In this context the actual artwork is the ‘laboratory of interaction’ set up by the curators. The criticality of this installation lies in the aesthetisation of the scientific discourse and its methods of investigation and documentation.

By contrast, once the CDs had arrived at my home and I pondered and handled their little brown box, things became a bit more personal.

The first CD, Prelude, greeted me with a mix of voices. This is a composition of human sounds: spaces are moving in and out of focus, time becomes a matter of perception. These undulating rhythms reveal and disguise different characters. I hear what intrigues me and what speaks to me rather than what is being said. I am building my own narratives from between the stories of these disembodied voices. In this engagement the work becomes about me and my sexuality. I bounce off from the documented experiences into my own history. This is where ‘Forgotten Fairytales’ works as a sonic piece. Here its criticality is tied up with the treatment of the material and how it opens itself to a generative perception by the listener.

This one CD is the sound work. The rest of the collection is what constitutes the archive, communicating a concern for research and a sense of scientific (or social) responsibility, not however contributing to my experience of the sonic composition.
The remainder of the CDs in the set are the footage from which the Prelude is edited. A good ten hours of recorded interviews. They are very staged, the questions are removed but artificially signalled by their forced introductions at the beginning of each answer. It feels too tidy and scripted, breathless and heavy in its lack of human noises, stutters, and pauses. The bodies disappear in a carefully observed rigidity of convention. This over-preparedness and tight editing disables a visceral engagement with the speakers. They ‘other’ themselves from my speaking experience, and not in terms of their sexuality.

As a sonic artwork the first CD intrigues and provokes a visceral engagement, as an archival artwork the installation/box set convinces, as a whole the work is interesting only if the listener understands this relationship.

Review by Salome Voegelin a London based artist and writer.