The moment when British artist Haroon Mirza (*1977, London) presses the power button, his large scale installation comes to life. The garage-look assemblage of used household objects and electronics turns into a carnival of sound, light and animated creatures: a 1980s hi-fi stand becomes a platform for a 1990s computer monitor; mirrored coffee table is inversed to house a laser triggering soundtracks; a pair of domestic speakers becomes supports for a table top. Like an alchemist, Mirza reorganizes the invisible waves in the invisible acoustic space. The orchestrated sound is then injected into discarded malfunctioning objects like soul reincarnated in a body.

An artist operates within the visual realm by using sound as a material to make visible the otherwise invisible, Mirza upsets the distinction between sound, noise and music while pushing art towards the periphery of music.

During his residency in Atelier Calder in Saché (France) where we met for the interview, Mirza experimented a “day-in-the-dark” with a blindfold which allowed him to concentrate on the auditory perception as a way to explore the acoustic environment of a physical space.    
Selina Ting, August 2013

The Residency in Saché

Selina Ting [ST] : I am very curious with your project in Atelier Calder. I read in the press release that you actually came to Saché with the idea of blindfolding yourself during the first part of your residency in order to experience the space. How was life in the dark while birds were singing around you?

Haroon Mirza [HM] : It was like a torture to be here at the beautiful nature and not seeing it! [Laughs] I initially planned to do it for one or two weeks but it was very difficult! Finally I did it for the first 24 hours!! But even after the first three hours, that kind of sensations that I thought I might achieve happened immediately – my hearing got more acute, I could hear sounds that the others couldn’t hear, like the crickets chirping. My other senses also became clearer and more sensitive. Then I started experiencing a kind of hallucination… But very quickly it became so frustrating and boring to be blindfolded like that! [Laughs] At the same time, it seemed to me that there wasn’t much I could do. I am not a performance artist! [Laughs] So I refocused and blindfolded myself only when I came to the studio. In the atelier, I drew from my hallucinations and also the space of the atelier that I imagined it. The idea behind is that I wanted to learn the space acoustically by touching and hearing.

Haroon Mirza’s presentation in Atelier Calder during his residency there. In collaboration with the Korean Cellist Okkyung Lee, a small rehearsal was staged on 20 July 2013 in the Alexander Calder’s studio in Saché, France. Courtesy of the artist and CNAP. Photographed by Selina Ting for InitiArt Magazine, 2013.

ST : Is it a new concept of working that you have just for the residency here?

HM : I am also doing this with the another project. I am invited to do an intervention in the famous Villa Savoye of Le Corbusier in the outskirts of Paris. So, at every visit to the Villa in the lead-up to the exhibition, I went blindfolded! The idea is that I will never see the house with my eyes! [Laughs] I will produce the work in my studio in London and then install it in the Villa but always without seeing the building and the space. Maybe I will never see the Villa with my eyes in my life! But of course, I knew the house because I have seen the images of the house and the architectural model.

ST : The contradiction here is that a visual artist tries to experience the space without any visual aid but then interpret the space with all the possible visual means…

HM : Yes, it’s kind of strange! The whole concept is to question the importance of visual culture but still try to operate within visual space. The West is very ocular-centric whereas the East maintains a balance between the visual and the acoustic. In Japan and China in particular, sound is perceived differently. All types of sounds are perceived in a pleasant or informative way. If we think of the word “noise” which comes from the Latin word “nuances” and basically refers to “bad sound”, it’s like an industrial word that provokes discomfort. But in East, an equivalent word for “noise” doesn’t exist and there is a higher awareness of different types of sound. My background is predominantly Western even though my family origin is from Pakistan, so I wanted to explore the differences between perceptions. Also it’s not only about sound or acoustics but having a balance between different senses. Of course, I am still ignoring touch, taste, smell…
Another idea that interests me both in the Atelier Calder and the Corbusier Villa is that, if someone goes to an architectural masterpiece and says, “I am not going to see it…” Some people might get offended when I arrived blindfolded! [Laughs] I think it’s interesting to question the desire to see things, particularly in the context of tourism and cultural capital. You are still experiencing it though negating the value of cultural capital.

ST : The opposite of culture is nature. You were born and grew up in London where you still live and work. I imagine that you rarely live so close to the nature for a period as long as this time in Saché. Is the work that you created here inspired by the natural environment?

HM : Curiously not. Maybe something is unconsciously integrated into the work. The only thing that comes from the nature is the bamboo. My wife, Gaia Fugazza, is totally inspired by the nature here and she made several sculptural pieces with natural elements from Saché like bamboo, stones, etc. These bamboo tubes in my piece are in fact discarded components from her work. The different sizes and shapes of bamboo give different tones, so I tried to get the right size and shape to create a semi-harmonious sound out of bamboo. This is an example of how I work with other artists. But I am working on another project here that involves the nature! This time, ants!

ST : Ants?! Plenty of ant supply in Saché, I imagine! But it can’t be a sound-related project this time! Ants don’t make a sound!

HM : [Laughs] They do!

ST : You need the blindfold in order to listen to them! [Laughs]

HM : The idea is to build a structure which would make the ants go in a certain direction and microphones will be installed at certain points to amplify their sound. It’s still at the research stage. Basically, there are three projects that I tried to do in Saché. There is the blindfold experiment, the ant construction research and an installation project that I will present featuring the Korean cellist Okkyung Lee during the Edinburgh International Festival and this is what you see here in the studio.

Haroon Mirza’s presentation in Atelier Calder during his residency there. In collaboration with the Korean Cellist Okkyung Lee, a small rehearsal was staged on 20 July 2013 in the Alexander Calder’s studio in Saché, France. Courtesy of the artist and CNAP. Filmed by Selina Ting for InitiArt Magazine, 2013.

ST : In your installation, maybe “constellation” is a more appropriate word, the way the objects are dispersed or “composed” seems to be effortless, even pretty arbitrary, but in fact there is certain flow. Can you take this work as an example to explain the logic of the arrangement and the way you work?

HM : Yes, there is a process of logic, everything is a cause-effect. If I know that putting a light bulb next to a radio would create interference, then they have to be next to each other. The cause is the interference, the effect is the buzzing sound –these are the elements or materials for me to compose my work. The question is how to present the work in real space and in real time since I don’t want to present the recorded sound, and at the same time, I have to do it in the simplest possible way. So there is the problem-solving process to find out the best way to work and to make it present itself. It’s like a kind of function-based logic, so this is a lamp and a radio becomes the most reduced way of presenting it.

ST : For example in this structure, how would the chain effect of the cause-effect logic take place?

HM : In the structure, there is this video featuring the Kinks playing Lola on Top of the Pops, a BBC music chart programme. The French channel Arte re-broadcasted it and someone recorded it from Arte and put it on Youtube. Then, I took it from Youtube and played it back on a TV. I have made a remix of part of the song. It’s made up of 9-second loops of samples from the Youtube video. Both the audio of the video and the code from individual frames of the video has been remixed. An audio signal from the video is sent to a micro-controller that causes the LEDs and light bulbs to switch on and off. The bulbs interfere with the radios causing them to buzz. The LEDs are directly connected to active speakers. Whenever you see the LED flash, you hear the electricity that passes through them, so that’s another visual acoustic source.

ST : And the cellist Okkyung Lee would improvise with the work?

HM : No. We have some basic scores or motifs that will provide a kind of structure throughout the performance and Okkyung Lee would improvise on it in a canon style. These scores are based on one of my earlier works called “Adhān” which is the transcription of the Islamic call to prayer. It’s basically a critique of the idea of religion or belief system. These motifs that Lee is going to interpret in her own beautiful way are based on the verses of the Adhān. The title of the work is “The Calling”, referring to idea that sound has the ability to draw you. If you hear a nice sound, you want to come closer; or if you hear a horrible sound, you try to run away from it.

Haroon Mirza, Taka Tak, 2008. Mixed media installation. Dimensions variable. Duration: 7’30” loop. Courtesy of the artist.

ST : Take away the cello part, do you see your work more as a sound structure or a music structure?

HM : All these elements are kind of combined, structured and laid out to create a composition of sound. After that, whether this is music or not, is just a question of our generalized idea of music. It’s like some people might look at a painting and found it not a painting. I think this is just a pedagogical way of thinking. If something can be perceived as something else, it can grow and expand through our imagination. Actually, in mainstream music everything is done digitally. Even the vocal is manipulated. It’s like a reproduction of the audio that you are hearing. So, this work is closer to music than pop music, in an analogical way, I would argue! [Laughs]  

ST : Is there an hierarchy between noise, sound and music in your work? If we translate these elements into the visual world, that order or priority would be between material, structure and art.

HM : No. I think the endeavor is to break down any hierarchy that there might be. Sometimes in an installation, I would include an existing artwork by another artist, either by loan, purchase or simply by working with another artist collaboratively. In the end, it’s about material. I have to break it down and treat it as a material form like a cable or speaker or television, whatever. It can also be a medium or simply an element that can be composed with all the other elements, both acoustically and visually. Then it becomes once again what it was before.

It’s not about Sound Art?

ST : When we talk about sound art, the vocabulary becomes very loose and fluid as if all the visual terms and musical terms are interchangeable. Indeed, artists working around the concept of sound or noise, be it the Fluxus movement or the so-called “sound art” today, are themselves crossing the border of the two domains.  

HM: It’s very much to do with disciplines and semantics. Artists do the same thing as musicians. What Nam June Paik or John Cage or [Karlheinz] Stockhausen did was pretty much the same but organized in different ways, i.e. an artist organizes space and visual materials, whereas a musician organizes audio or acoustic materials. You can apply the same kind of language to describe paintings and music – gestural, abstraction, geometric abstraction, etc. It depends on how you rationalize it and from what discipline or context you are looking at it. Even before the Fluxus and the avant-guard contemporary music from the 1960s, there is always the tradition in noise making, then the organization of noise, adding structure and pattern, and make it into what we call music.
The reverse that you’ve just said is interesting. There are people coming from the basics of music and they are very familiar with the performance of music. What happened in the 1960s, I think was that this group of artists / musicians, such as Max Neuhaus, Stockhausen, Cage, etc., successfully pushed music to the realm of visual art. Now, for me certainly, artists are doing the opposite. I was trained in fine art, coming with a visual way of understanding the world, and then push things towards the acoustic. So, I think, yes, there is the reverse happening.
There is also the idea of recorded sound, which is a reproduction of the sound and not the sound itself. Whereas, my installations are generating the sound itself, it’s not the reproduction but the production as you hear it. Besides, it’s always different because electricity is always different. There is an element of chance by default.

Haroon Mirza, The national pavilion of then and now, 2011. Anechoic chamber, LED’s, amp. speakers, electronic circuit. Courtesy of the artist.

ST: Are you fine with the term “Sound Art”? Is there is a common understanding if not definition of “sound art”? Can we say “the visualization of sound”, for example?

HM: The genre of “Sound Art” that we perceived today is a very specific thing. There are many good artists, such as Florian Hecker (*1975, Germany), Carsten Nicolai (*1965, Germany) who are doing very specific work but also very technical and very visual. Within the genre, there is the tendency of presenting a technology…  “The visualization of sound” can be a very didactic investigation into acoustic space and how the acoustic space operates.

ST : Why are you interested in the acoustic space from the very beginning of your artistic experiment?

HM : My interest in acoustic space pretty much comes from Marshal McLuhan’s writings on media and extension of man. He was interested in the pragmatics of acoustic space which is also a nice metaphor for how media works. His example is that if you make a sound, it travels omnidirectionally from one point, while the media works in the reverse direction meaning all the information on a newspaper, for example, comes from all over the world and ended up on the page in front of you. It’s interesting to see how information travels to that point (newspaper) and how it spreads out to reach you. The process is very much like the acoustic process. That was how I started thinking about sound and space and how the relationship of the two differs to that of object and space, or light essentially.

ST : Do you sometimes purposely synchronize different types of sounds?

HM : Yes, sure! The idea is that any noise is a sound. Any sound can be music if you listen to it in that way. If someone who doesn’t know my work, s/he would probably find a lot of noises when they encounter my work. At some point, s/he might find it quite musical. The perceptual shift occurs from something annoying to something perhaps less annoying.

ST : After they got used to it…

HM : Yeah. Even me, when I first listen to it, sometimes it sounds terrible! [Laughs] And after a while, it sounds like something else. It’s purely perceptual. I think it’s more interesting that you encounter something and it works on you rather than you anticipate something or understand it right away…
And it’s not even a question whether you like it or not. I think one of the problems that art has or the arts have right now is this question of whether you like it or not. I like to think that art is a question of seeing the value of it, what it says or does or generates afterward about the world. Music allows a more subjective approach. You can either like a song or not at all or totally passionate with it. Contemporary art is less into that.

Haroon Mirza, Sanctuary, 2009. Mixed media. Diameter: 220cn H: 48cm + light fixture to ceiling. Courtesy of the artist.

ST : In recent years, we talked quite a lot about Sound Art, MoMA is opening the show Soundings : A Contemporary Score (10 Aug – 03 Nov 2013) in which you participate. In your opinion, what are the new elements or ideas that Sound Art brings to contemporary art? In what ways did Sound Art expand the possibilities of art and art-making?

HM : I think it’s not necessarily the Sound Art but a combination of things, such as how information is exchanged and disseminated. It’s more about opening up different types of experience and materials, and sound is just a material, as much as paint or a piece of wood, only that it operates in the media or multi-media realm. What MoMA is doing with the exhibition is too late – they kind of missed the point! [Laughs] Exhibitions on sound-based works have been happening everywhere in more low-profile spaces. What MoMA does maybe is to solidify it, but solidification is not a good thing to do in art since it will encapsulate, categorize and delimitate things. The curator of MoMA tries not to use the term “Sound Art” which I think is a clever approach, even though insiders casually referred it to the “Sound Art Show”! [Laughs] I don’t really think that there is a thing called “Sound Art” because Performance is “sound” art, video is “sound” art, etc. etc. As I said before, sound is a material, an element or a component that allows me to work.

ST : Thank you very much!

Haroon Mirza, Digital SwitchOver, 2012. Installation View. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

About the Artist:

Haroon Mirza during his residency in Atelier Calder, Saché, France. July 2013 (with support from CNAP). Photo by Guillaume Blanc.

Born in 1977 in London, Haroon Mirza continues to live and work in London.
Mirza studied MA in Fine Art at the Chelsea College of Art & Design, and MA in Design Critical Practice and Theory at the Goldsmiths College. He won the DAIWA Art Prize in 2012 and the Silver Lion Award at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.

His most recent solo shows include: The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield), o/o/o/o/,Lisson Gallery (London), Untitled SongMIMA (Middlesbrough), DAIWA Art PrizeSCAI The Bathhouse (Tokyo), all in 2013. Preoccupied Waveforms,The New Museum (New York), A Sleek Dry YellManchester Art Gallery (Manchester), –{}{}{} {}–{}{}{}{}–{},Ernst Schering Foundation (Berlin), \|\|\|\| \|\|\,Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen (St. Gallen, Switzerland), /|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|/|, Spike Island (Bristol), all in 2012. Major group shows include: in 2013 – Soundings: A Contemporary Score, MoMA (New York), Game ChangerSharjah Biennial 11(Sharjah), Ruins in Reverse, Tate Modern(London), New works at the Walker, Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool). In 2012 –Montage of Attractions, ARTIUM (Spain), SOUNDWORKS, Institute of Contemporary Art (London), 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale (China), Intense Proximity,La Triennale Paris,Palais de Tokyo (Paris), x_sound : On and After John Cage and Nam June Paik,Nam June Paik Center (Korea); and Illuminations, 54thVenice Biennale,Venice, 2011.

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