Sarah van Sonsbeeck is a Dutch artist whose work is marked by a detailed attention to architectural perception, silence, noise and human interaction. Her architectural training informs her artistic practice and brings to debate potent socio-political themes concerned with power and intimacy. Her recent publication Mental Space – How my Neighbours became Buildings was made with the support of the Fonds BKVB and presented at Annet Gelink Gallery in 2010. For more information visit: www.sarahvansonsbeeck.com
SVS. I had always wanted to become an artist but my parents advised me to learn a ‘good’ profession, one that I could earn a living with – so I went to architecture school (TUDelft, MA). After a few years of working in this field I knew it wasn’t for me so I went and followed my dream: in the day I worked as architect and in the evening I attended classes at the Rietveld (Art) Academy, Amsterdam.
My (art) teachers were very much in awe of this ‘high’ education I had had; they insisted I use my architecture background in my artwork. However, by then I disliked the architect world so much that I wanted nothing to do with it anymore! The teachers promised to fail me in my final year if I didn’t allow any inspiration from architecture to filter through, so I decided to graduate on my (terrible) neighbours out of spite. I didn’t realize at the time but I was doing exactly what they asked of me, and so at that point I really began discovering my own practice through the blend of both art and architecture.
ER. Your work encounters a dominant pre occupation within sound art – ‘silence’. Where does this specific interest in silence come from?
SVS. That’s often been asked of me but hard to pinpoint exactly. My noisy neighbours made me very curious what ‘silence’ is. I’m often contacted by yoga teachers or new age oriented people but I’m not necessarily interested in the ‘inner silence’ they talk of. I’m very much intrigued by the phenomenon of silence. We presuppose the word almost every day when we say things such as ‘Please be more quiet’, or ‘How quiet it is!’ But what does it mean? The more I am working with silence, the more ambiguous it becomes.
ER. Notions of silence extend into particular works such as a Cubic Meter of Broken Silence – what was the concept behind this work?
SVS. Macha Roesink of Museum de Paviljoens, Almere, was familiar with my work from the art academy days. When she saw my work again two years after at the Open Studio’s of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam she invited me for a group show. She asked me to reflect on the still ‘empty’ plot of land in the heart of Almere, where the museum is situated. It seemed to me that the plot was kept open as ground speculation, and in future it would be filled with new buildings. That made me want to reserve a part of its silence for future generations. Together with designers duo Catalogtree I mapped the silence of the plot of land and depicted it as a Silent Landscape. On the most silent point I put a cubic meter of silence, enveloped in acoustically enhanced glass made by Saint Gobain.
ER. How was this idea transferred to the museum?
SvS. In the museum you could take a set of wireless headphones communicating with a microphone inside the object, so the silence could be heard, if not touched. I hoped the object to be a new ‘unit’ for architects and planners to use. We already have the ‘meter’ and the ‘kilogram’; I felt it was time for a unit of silence.
ER. I read that vandals smashed the object. What was your reaction?
SVS. Of course I was sad when I heard the news, however when the museum showed me the first pictures of the broken object that mood changed. I hadn’t been fully pleased with it, the concept was good but I thought to my self ‘Oh no, I have made a Dan Graham’. However appealing it looked it did not feel ‘mine’.
SVS. When it was broken I knew it was right. Unknowingly and unwantedly the vandals have perfected the work for me, they’d shown what silence is.
ER. And you have also used the cracks in the glass to create another work, Breaking the Silence (Triple EP and Silkscreen).
SvS. Triple EP is a ‘mapping’ of the cracks in One cubic Meter of Broken Silence, a way of restoring the cracks back into sound. I silkscreened the cracks onto the (silent/blank) EP’s, the needle scratches away the ink as it plays and the listener will, eventually, end up with silence again.
ER. We touched on this earlier but can you expand upon your work How my Neighbours Became Buildings – its origins and intentions?
SVS. The first draft of this artist book was written as paper for my final graduation at the Rietveld. I did not even think about the possibility of the book being the artwork itself back then. I just combined text, images and drawings in a book, like I always had as an architect. The first drafts of the book were also made at the architect’s office I still worked in, after working hours. Thanks to the enthusiasm of my boss back then, Maike van Stiphout, I might never have kept the work up nor finished the book.
In my own words I tried to describe how your home doesn’t end with the walls but with your concept of silence, and how precarious and fragile this silence can be. In architect’s school I never learnt about neighbours – the ideal home just had no neighbours. In the book these reflections are combined with notes on two projects by other artists I had found extremely inspiring: Gordon Matta-Clarcks Fake Estates and Bruce Naumans Behavioural video’s where he enlarges things he does in his studio claiming ‘If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art.’ My studio at the time was my home, so I realised my neighbours could be my art.
SVS. My final presentation consisted of the neighbours noise, recorded and re-located to the lowered ceiling of the art academy with a book about the neighbours and a letter asking them to pay the same amount of my rent as they were taking up in my home with their noise. I made about 25 copies as a first draft and gave it to a few people around me. From this prototype evolved the English book I presented in 2010 at Annet Gelink Gallery.
ER. Your work seems quite a political, actionist endeavor that navigates delicate power relationships, which occur within everyday environments. Do you consider your works to be politically/socially engaged?
SVS. I guess you could definitely read it that way. However, I do not have an activist agenda other than making people aware of ‘immaterial architecture’: all these aspects of living that are so commonplace we forget to teach them in architecture school, but that are omnipresent, determining the way we live much more than brick, glass, steel.
ER. Can you describe your Machine for my Neighbours and how it works?
SVS. After the book I felt I had reached a wall, I didn’t think I could ever make a better work of art. And yet I felt all these writings did not provide any real solace against my neighbours. So, I started to compile an installation from everyday equipment that most people would have in their homes or that could be easily purchased at low costs. The machine consists of a tiny microphone you could put through a key-hole for instance, leading to an amplifier and outputting to a woofer that was big enough to be heard through the wall and make considerable contact sounds. The neighbours are thus impeded upon their own sword: they are given back their own noise amplified.
However the machine encountered technical problems: whenever you record something, broadcast it and record that again you get tremendous feedback. At first I felt because of this the machine was a failure, but after a while I saw this feedback had an analogy to the mental process of arising irritation. In case of noise you are irritated by the neighbours, so you are more focused on their noise and therefore perceive it as even more annoying!
ER. What would you say are the key artistic influences on your practice?
SVS. As mentioned earlier Matta Clarck’s Fake Estates, and Bruce Nauman’s videos and works such as Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67), Eating my words (1967), Failing to Levitate in My Studio (1966), Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk, 1968), Bouncing in the Corner (1968), Stamping in the Studi (1968), Violin Tuned D.E.A.D (1968) and Wall Floor Positions (1968) were very direct inspirations and to my first steps in art and my neighbours project. Later on I have grown to love perhaps not entire oeuvres but specific works of art such as Jan Dibbet’s Perspective Corrections (1969), Luxurious Streetcorner by Ger van Elk (1969) and his piece The Wall (1968), Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963-5), Duchamps Trois Stoppages (1913-14), Robbert Morrise’s Box With the Sound of it’s own making (1961), Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1969), Gregor Schneiders Totes Haus U R (1985-now), Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960), John Cage’s 4’33’’ (1952), Francys Aly’s Tornado (2000-10), Ryan Gander’s The New New Alphabet (2008), Roni Horn’s Things Which Happen Again (1988), Maria Eichhorn’s The Artists Contract (1996-2005). I can go on and on!
SVS. With kind recommendation by Ann Goldstein of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam I was selected for a residency by the City of Mönchengladbach. It’s a city just below Germany’s Ruhrgebied, with a beautifull museum Abteiberg where I encountered at least ten of the before mentioned works or artist. As it turns out, Gregor Schneider even used to live here and has replicated some of the rooms of Haus U R underground at the museum. From august I will work for three months in Istanbul by kind invitation of PiST. While Mönchengladbach is rich in silence, Istanbul as I hear is definitely not. The transition will be, to say the least, remarkable.
ER. And finally as always, Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
SVS. I would rather not make categories. For me there is just Art. And of course there is sound. Without sound there would be no silence but without silence there would be no music, as rhythm is made by intervals of silence and sound – how strange that would be! My favorite quote by someone who says it better than ever I could:
‘When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on sixth avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that; I don’t need sound to talk to me. We don’t see much difference between time and space; we don’t know where one begins and the other stops. (…) People expect listening to be more than listening. And sometimes they speak of inner listening, or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, it finally comes to people’s minds that I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer. And they say, these people who finally understand that say, you mean it’s just sounds? To mean that for something to just be a sound is to be useless. Whereas I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more. I don’t want sound to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s a president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. And I’m not so stupid either. There was a German philosopher who is very well known, his name was Emmanuel Kant, and he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything, one is music and the other is laughter. Don’t have to mean anything that is, in order to give us deep pleasure. The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.’ (John Cage: In Love with Another Sound (1992) by Miroslav Sebestik).
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