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Review: Funny Noises

Exhibition: Funny Noises
Brown Gallery, 207 Whitecross St, EC1Y 8QP
July 27 – Sept 1

I caught the last day of Funny Noises yesterday, an understated show that describes itself as “an egalitarian presentation of selected experimental recordings from 1924-1981”. Although walking in there it feels about as egalitarian as an aggressively independent record shop, it’s a curatorially rich show, with a lot to say about the relationship between sound work and visual arts spaces.

As far as the audio itself is concerned, the egalitarian stance of the show is neatly played out. Records and CDs are stacked in the same tabletop browsing boxes you find in shops, sorted under titles like “Earlybirds”, “Talkers”, “The Italians” and “Square pegs who had no scenes”. It’s certainly easier to house audio work in an egalitarian way than it is with visual work, since CDs and records come in standard sizes and since, after all, it’s what’s inside the box we’re interested in. Flicking through cover after cover is a time-honoured way of choosing what to listen to, and (assuming the sleeve designers are all up-to-scratch) it has a good go at putting all the recordings on an equal footing. But for all the good the record shop setup does, it isn’t a seamless resolution of the friction you get when you try to show sound in a place that’s designed for visual art.

First there’s the practical issue. The matching boxes stack nicely into equal rows but what about the sound itself – how does that fit in to the room? The invigilators kept a flow of records playing in the background, while a notice on the wall invited me to listen to CDs on headphones using the domestic hi-fi in the corner. But the diversity and size of the curator Justin Lieberman’s formidable collection means you’d have to stay for hours even to scratch the surface. It’s a problem faced whenever time-based and durational artwork is shown, and there’s no easy solution. Perhaps for this show something like an offer of free coffee while you listen – or the kind of seats you can settle into – might have allowed the drawn-out visits it was crying out for..?

Then there’s the question of context. Being promoted in the press as an art exhibition while presenting itself in the flesh as a record shop, Funny Noises grapples with the conventions of the visual art gallery. The two sit uneasily together, and to an audience more at home with visual art, the stuff outside the sound risks turning the whole thing into an installation with an audio component, the scrappy overpainted posters and ephemera, the unfinished floorboards, and the felt-tip announcement blu-tacked to the wall saying “shoplifters will be anally raped” becoming the stars of the show.

Lieberman’s attempt to reposition the early years of experimental recording within the contemporary art context has a fine line to tread. Because sound work is seen as difficult, institutional pressure from visitor numbers means it’s hard to come across examples that haven’t been coupled with more palatable installation or video work. Associating his sound archive with the strong physical and visual aesthetic of the record shop looks just like this kind of superficial window dressing, and it seems like an opportunity missed. But at the same time the visual context makes a link between the modern-day gallery space and the democratic, experimental and, yes, out-dated subculture of the record shop. I’m inclined to see the aesthetic of the show as a deliberate and even aggressive homage to a way of experiencing sound on its own terms, in a way that the exhibition itself demonstrates is no longer possible.

Tamarin Norwood

3 Responses

  1. Tamarin,
    You have really hit the nail on the head. Of all the things written about my show, yours has by far the most comprehensive understanding of my intentions. Thank you for giving it so much thought.You are absolutely correct in your conclusions involving the impossibility of experiencing sound on it’s own terms. It is my belief that these terms were hopelessly utopian to begin with, and to a large extent this is what I hoped to demonstrate with my little excursion into curatorship. However, I have enjoyed listening to this kind of music for years despite the issues I take with much of the music’s highly problematic ideology. And I have enjoyed it and been introduced to it in just such a setting as the one in the gallery. The real problem with my show, I believe, was that I was unwilling to put my collection up for sale. This would have made it a truly “egalitarian” experience, extending beyond the gallery and into listeners homes. To that I can only answer that I hope some listeners will have been piqued enough by something they heard to seek out the recording elsewhere.

    -Justin Lieberman

  2. Justin,
    Thank you for taking the time to respond, it’s good to hear your perspective. You’re right, the issue about selling the collection is certainly an interesting one. Not only would selling mean the collection would stop being yours, but it would also defer responsibility for the sound’s physical context to the listener – to some extent. One thing it wouldn’t do is turn the exhibition into a shop. If you as curator had chosen to sell the work, then presumably its sale would have been part of the curatorial proposition you were making. If that were the case then you’d still maintain some curatorial responsibility for the fact of the sound being played outside of the gallery space, and in a space that’s precisely outside of your control. Could it be that framing the sound as artwork defies once and for all any egalitarian hope for its reception, even if visitors could have put it in a bag and taken it home? And in this light, I wonder how we can look at listeners later seeking out the recordings on their own, as you rightly hope they might?

  3. […] hall bring-and-buy sale. The effect of the art gallery context is something I’ve discussed before, and here it’s at its most vocal, in my view almost wholly obstructing the work. The gallery […]

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