Lofoten Sound Art Symposium

From 6 - 9 September I attended the Lofoten Sound Art Symposium in Henningsvær. What follows is a short report, some observations, and a photographic record of parts of the symposium. 

The whole event commenced in Svolvær with a network meeting where participants introduced themselves, their organisations and their activities. It became immediately apparent that diversity was the main characteristic of the gathering, both in terms of nationalities (if not ethnicities) and practices. The meeting was combined with the first meal of the symposium, courtesy of artist-chef Øyvind Novak Jensen, ably assisted by two local cooks. They kept the audience well-fed throughout the four days of the symposium!

The first day concluded with a spellbinding performance, Wind Speaker/Language Memory, by Espen Sommer Eide, on a rocky promontory at the edge of the Henningsvær peninsula. Using one of the instruments he builds himself, he played sounds of a dead or dying Sami language, while moving slowly in a circle around a bonfire lit on a former military gun emplacement. 

The second day, Friday 7th. September, began with the first lecture of the symposium, by Christian Blom, director of NOTAM (The Norwegian center for Art, Technology and Music) in Oslo. The title of his talk was "Norwegian Sound Art Today" and he did indeed present some examples of recent work produced in Norway, but the main focus of his presentation was the problematic and marginal status of sound art in relation to both the musical establishment and the visual art world. He berated the Musical Academy for its failure to recognise sound art as a legitimate extension of avant-garde and experimental music practices, while also castigating the Art Academy for not seriously incorporating sound studies into its curriculum. His polemical point was "Sound Art is Experimental Music" - a position with which one could partially agree, but it is not as simple as that. While many practitioners in the Sound Art field do indeed come from a musical background and operate at least in an intermediary space between Music and Fine Art, there are also many who are nominally non-musicians and whose background may be in sculpture, installation, performance, video and other areas of contemporary visual art. However, by at least laying down a marker and making a sort of territorial claim, Blom introduced an important point for discussion, the need for which became ever more apparent as the programme unfolded. It was not so much that there was a lack of a definition for what sound art is or can be, rather that there were simply too many definitions to make a serious, discursive inquiry a possibility. Despite the fact that there exists a considerable body of theoretical and art-historical work on sound art, which should help in clarifying definitions, the terrain here departed radically from the theoretical map, and the notion of sound art became a placeholder into which one could insert a dizzying array of sonic practices ranging from academic electronic music, through underground techno culture, to conceptual audio sculpture and performance.

I left the symposium with a clear sense that some tidying-up in definitions would be helpful in terms of building a critical language around sound art practices within the Norwegian / Nordic milieu. I also had a strong sense that the history of these practices, at least in Norway and Sweden (if not so in Finland, where MUU have made signifcant efforts to document and archive) is fragmentary, indeed almost invisible. Key figures from the recent past seem to be overlooked or ignored, while many contemporary practitioners seem not to be as widely recognised as their work merits. A point that was raised at several junctures during the symposium was the apparent lack of women artists who could be written into this history - paradoxical here in Norway where many of the most significant sound artists are in fact women. To mention only a few, Jana Winderen, Camille Norment, Maia Urstad, Natasha Barratt or Signe Lidén would be representative of the  growing number of accomplished female artists in Norway whose work is wholly or largely based on sound. Of those women artists in Norway who have a long-standing and significant sound art practice, Siri Austeen was the sole representative in the symposium's lecture programme, while Yngvild Færøy and Søssa Jørgensen, who have collaborated on a range of audio projects including radio and podcasts for two decades, were also present as documenters/podcasters.

In addition to the daytime lectures and presentations, the evening programme featured numerous performances by sound artists and (mostly) electronic musicians. Indeed, the preponderance of electronic / tabletop / laptop performance might lead one to believe that sound art per se is a purely digital practice. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear the performance of the Fermented Subjects Orchestra (Arne Skaug Olsen and Anders Dahl Monsen) whose sound work was 100% analog and electricity-free, consisting solely of sounds produced by the gases given off by fermenting liquids. Using several fermentation bins, meters of plastic tubing, and a set of valves to control the flow of gases, they constructed a kind of pipe organ that surrounded the audience in a semi-derelict space at the top of Trevarefabrikken. This led me to consider the deep roots of sound art in sonic practices that entirely pre-date formal musical history, but belong to the early periods of human cultural history. I would guess that it all begins with two categories of sound: vocal utterances and sounds made by striking one object with another.

The symposium programme continued on Saturday 8th. September with several more talks and performances. The undoubted highlight for me, in terms of an intellectually challenging lecture, came from Raviv Ganchrow, an artist/engineer/academic from the department of Sonology at the university of Den Haag. Exploring regions of sound that exist beyond the scope of human aural perception, particularly infra-sound at extremely low frequencies, he gave a fascinating account of the omnipresence of sound waves as a fundamental part of the geological environment. Cagean notions about (the absence of) silence were, for my part, subject to a radical revision. Ganchrow's own projects evidenced a highly advanced understanding of the sonic in all its forms, linked to a rigorous conceptual framework that also forced us to question our many received notions of "site" and "place" - terms that are often central to our understanding of sound art practices.

The symposium offered insights into many other ideas and artistic endeavours, too numerous to describe in this short summary. Perhaps its greatest success, happily reinforced by the beautiful late summer weather, was a striking congeniality and the opportunities it offered for relaxed networking in a stimulating environment. For those of us with a strong interest in Sound Art, whether as practitioners, curators, educators or researchers, there is clearly a great need for more events of this kind, to supplement the fora offered by existing events and festivals such as Borealis, Ultima and Only Connect and the exhibitions promoted by Lydgalleriet and Atelier Nord ANX among others.


In Svolvær, introduction to the programme, with curator Karolin Tampere and director Svein Ingvoll Pedersen of the North Norwegian Arts Center and Stefan Klaverdal of CY Contemporary, Malmo.

Henningsvær - performance the first night by Espen Sommer Eide

First speaker at the symposium, Christian Blom, director of NOTAM, Oslo

Andres Lõo on Estonian Sound Art

Stefan Klaverdal on Swedish Sound Art

Rita Lepiniemi and Timo Soppela, MUU, Helsinki

Kulturribingo, Oulu

Raviv Ganchrow on "Denaturalised Hearing"

Makiko Yamamoto, communing with plant

Makiko Yamamoto - banana concrete poetry

Tine Surel Lange, cello installation outside Treværefabrikken

Alessandro Perini, composer & sound  artist from Italy

Siri Austeen on Lyder som Nordland (Sounds like Nordland)

Espen Sommer Eide again, this time performing as Phonophani.

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