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  • phildunn641


Updated: May 11, 2021

Following a discussion in our MA fine art seminar on The Canon and how we situate our practice within it, we were asked to undertake a piece of work paying homage to another artist. This is a tricky one... at what point is it paying homage to, as opposed to ripping off, the work of another artist.

For this work I have created a sound installation which I hope celebrates, and is not just a meaningless copy of, the work of Susan Philipsz. Susan Philipsz is a Turner Prize winning (2010) artist who is best known for her sound installations where she records herself singing a cappella. I'm most familiar with two of her works:

Surround Me (London 2010), which I never experienced in its original installation, but which I've come to know through Iain Sinclair's short film for TateShots and has made an impression on me because I'm so familiar with the sites of the installation, particularly the St Alphage High Walk exit from Moorgate Station.

Muffled Drums (Philadelphia Contemporary 2020), a DIY installation that came about as the original work, which took inspiration from an Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Tell Tale Heart”, published while Poe was living in Philadelphia, could not be installed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The work was released as four audio tracks that could be downloaded and played from devices distributed and hidden about the listener's own home. The story on which the original work was based was one of murder and madness which follows a narrator who believes a sound emanating from the floorboards is their murder victim’s still-beating heart. I installed this at home when my daughters were around and we had a surfeit of mobile devices.

Often a sound installation would be site specific, or perhaps it is more the case that site specific commissions lend themselves well to this type of work, and in writing about the work, I'll refer to Tansy Spinks' essay Introducing a Model for Live, Site Specific, Sound Art Performance, from Sound Art and Music: Philosophy, Composition Performance (Dack, Spinks, Stanovic, 2020), to explain the relationship between site and sound. While this essay presents a "strategic AAA model" for a sound-as-art-event in performance, I think it can equally well be applied to sound-as-art in installation, particularly as Susan Philipsz's Surround Me installation is referenced within it. The three As refer to the "actual within the site", "the activated, or activate-able, as a performer", and the "associative as the contextual material of the site", and are presented as analogous with reading visual art by looking from, around and into an art object.

Given the timescale in which I'm working the site of the work is imagined by me rather than being one which is "found, presented or offered; as an inspiration, by invitation or by commission for an event" (Spinks 2020). As an imagined site it cannot be subject to the deep research required of such an opportunity were it presented to me as a commission. My site is some former underground coal mine, or shaft (it could equally well be copper or tin as when the sounds are understood there may also be resonances with such sites), most likely in England, but could also be Scotland or Wales. In some ways Scotland would be more natural as I lived, until I was 10 years old, in a coal mining community in South West Scotland, but there is some retrofitting going on here and an English location makes more sense.

Being fairly vague about an exact location allows me to skip over the discoveries that might be made on site visits, in conversations with interested parties, by visiting site-related libraries or museums and by experiencing qualities of the site that I had not previously been exposed to that might take the work in a completely different direction. Also, as my focus is on paying homage to one particular artist, I would not want to be waylaid too much by considering other artists for context.

As I stated in my NFT blog, I've had a passing interest in blockchain for a few years, and the recent record valuation of Bitcoin at over $50,000 and the exposure given to the NFT art market in the past few months has renewed my interest. One of the most prominent features of recent discussions of Bitcoin and Ethereum (the cryptocurrency that underpins most NFT marketplaces), is the vast amount of energy consumed in making the computations required to verify the transactions made on the blockchains that enable these cryptocurrencies.

Before introducing my work further, it is perhaps necessary to explain blockchain a bit more as that is key to the form, or what I will call, with reference to Spinks' AAA model, an associative-technological reading of the structure of one of the tracks of sounds I am using. Much of my understanding of blockchain technology comes from Michael J Casey's and Paul Vigna's book, The Truth Machine (Casey, Vigna, 2017), but some short extracts from Wikipedia are perhaps enough to convey the context of the work:

"A blockchain is a decentralised, distributed, and oftentimes public, digital ledger consisting of records called blocks that is used to record transactions across many computers so that any involved block cannot be altered retroactively, without the alteration of all subsequent blocks."

"Blockchain mining — the peer-to-peer computer computations by which transactions are validated and verified — requires a significant amount of energy. The Bank for International Settlements criticised the public proof-of-work blockchains for high energy consumption. In a 2021 study conducted at Cambridge University, researchers determined that Bitcoin (at 121.36 terawatt-hours per year) uses more electricity annually than Argentina (at 121 TWh) and the Netherlands (at 108.8 TWh).

Today the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index estimates consumption at 148 TWh, with over 71% of the computation being performed in China which generates much of its electricity from coal (58.6% in 2019 -

My installation consists of two pre-recorded tracks, one is a sung round, Ah Poor Bird, a traditional round often sung in warm-ups and in children's groups. It is the singing of this round by myself a cappella which I think most closely aligns this work with that of Susan Philipsz. The origins of the round are unclear, but it is most commonly referred to as English, or Elizabethan, and its meaning seems to be an encouragement for a dying bird to release its soul. But for me, it evokes two things, both associative-historic and related to mining. One the underground worker stuck in permanent nighttime considering the freedom of a released bird and the other a canary (used to detect deadly gases such as carbon-monoxide in coal mines), poisoned in its cage. (Its worth noting that canaries did not necessarily die in this process, some cages were designed with the ability to resuscitate the birds). The form of a round where new blocks of sound are added and the different voices compete for attention is the associative-technological element of the work representing the addition of new blocks to the chain and the competition to be the solver of the computation.

The other track is one I'd recorded previously in an attempt to create a sound representative of coins being minted. Having watched film of the US Mint in operation producing quarters at a rate of 750 per minute, this track has coins bashing together at this rate as if being struck by a die in a machine. In pairing this sound with the sung track, I have played it at the original speed, and slowed down to 25% and then 10% of the original speed. When listened to in the context of the imagined site, what is the associative-mimetic interpretation? A rock drill perhaps, the hacking away at a coal face, something dropping a huge distance into an echoing chamber. Or, in knowing that the work relates to the vast energy consumption of Bitcoin, is the faster sound, just coins being minted or bashed together.

My site is imagined, so the only installation/performance is in a domestic setting - my kitchen. The tracks are played concurrently on independent devices, one placed at the bottom of a deep, steep sided kitchen bin and the other at the bottom of a heavy glass vase. These placements do not quite create the subterranean effect I am seeking, but give me some satisfaction that the sounds are altered sufficiently beyond the raw recordings to suggest that they have been installed, and are being performed at a site with some element of the actual from Spinks' AAA model. The real actual in my recording of the installation is more likely to be the hum of a refrigerator, the dripping of a tap into the kitchen sink and the wind against a second floor, metal framed window. As for activated, this is perhaps the creak of the floorboards as I shuffle around making my recording of the installation.

This has been an enjoyable exercise as homework and probably one which I have spent more time on than it really merited. However, it has pushed me to articulate some of the thoughts emerging from my expansive coal mining mind map. I've recorded my own voice in solo a cappella performance which is pretty scary. I've read and hopefully applied some theory. And I've paid homage to an artist whose work I admire very much.

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