Seth Cluett

Seth Cluett (b. 1976, Troy, NY) is an artist, performer, and composer whose work ranges from photography, and drawing to video, sound installation, concert music, and critical writing. Engaging the boundary between the auditory and other senses, his work is marked by a detailed attention to perception and to sound’s role in the creation of a sense of place and the experience of time. Cluett’s work has been performed and exhibited by numerous institutes, galleries, and labels throughout the world. Cluett also maintains an archival collection of materials related to the exhibition of sound as art and provides access to these documents as a curatorial and research consultant. For comprehensive info please visit


ER. In your forthcoming essay for Bypass Magazine called A phatic topography: two recent works with sound, you write about familiarity, in a way ‘spending time’ with a sound work may create ‘objects of an aesthetic nature.’ How important is duration in your works? Do you think an extended listening experience can somehow physicalise sound?

SC. Duration is hugely important to me. Sound mediates the experience of time, and can deliver content or context or both, which can have a big effect on how time is experienced. Sound is also physical, but for me it is precisely more a question of how this physicality is experienced in time. In particular, the notion of ‘time spent’ is super-interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by the role of the site in the production of a subject or its contribution to a sense of self, but lately I think I’ve been working more and more on making the subject the site-specific condition of a kind of site-engaged work. In this situation, time becomes increasingly important, or maybe it’s the importance of attention span over time.


ER. What about our everyday, environmental sound and time?

SC. So much of everyday life these days consists of shorter and shorter, small chunks of narrative. I think this emerges from the so-called 24-hour news cycle, rss feeds, the micro-updates attached to social networking, playlist-shuffle listening, and the immediacy of texting and cellular communication. It seems to me that these pervasively technologized and mediated forms of communication do a very specific kind of work on our consciousness. The dominant mode of our social experience is becoming an atomized, massively parallel series of state change observations that deliver constant notifications of the ground conditions in our social circles at any given moment. I don’t think this situation is inherently good or bad; it’s just a condition. But I think the tension between this fragmented mode and the odd freezing of time is presented in social space of cultural venues – galleries, museums, concert halls, what have you – has gradually become another subject of my work. I think that there is something fundamental about sound that is very effective at highlighting these kinds of shifts in perception. Sound cannot be turned away from, and in an exhibition space the decision to spend time with a fixed visual work can easily become subject to the most flitting, first-sight judgments so I’ve been creating a kind of visual object, which is mediated by sound that reaches you before you can (fully) see the work.

It’s a kind of semiotic avant-garde for the kind of details I’m interested in exploring about the boundary between urban and rural space and between public and private experience. Shifting the tenor of the space from an environment whose mode is one-work-after-another to a place that can be explored and discovered is difficult. I’m not trying to mirror something from nature, or reproduce environmental effects, but rather present a situation in which the experience rewards exploration in the same manner that any new place might unfold when one is given time to spend. In a strange way, time is becoming a form of currency in the microeconomics of this installation space.


ER. Going back to the idea of physicalising the phenomena of sound. Having worked extensively with gallery based sound installations do you think such an environment demands a certain awareness/appreciation of a visual/physical anchor?

SC. I don’t think that the gallery or museum environment demands a visual anchor, this trope shows up a lot actually and I think it’s a bit of a myth that speaks more to the practicalities and financial needs of gallery culture than it does of work. There are a number of artists whose work is successful in the absence of any visual element (save the room) Michael Brewster sculptures from the 1970s that consist only of sound and Mark Bain’s work with sound and architecture come to mind. Both of these artists have suffered from an undocumentableness though, and this I think is a shame given the strength of their work. If you’ve ever been in one of these pieces you can speak to the effects of the work, but the career of someone like Brewster has developed far more on hearsay than on the distribution of catalogues. I think this is because these pieces present a very particular problem for the curator and historian. The work itself is palpable, sensorially enormous, and embodying, but most available means of representation and documentation are inadequate to the nature of the work – it becomes ephemeral and renders photography, audio recording, text, and video, alone or in combination, insufficient to prepare (pre-exhibition publicity) or document (post-exhibition archive) the work. These pieces don’t “lack” a visual element; to suggest that would imply they aren’t complete without it, in Michael’s case the works are about the materiality of sound on par with Turrell or Irwin’s contemporaneous interrogation of light. In Bain’s work it is about architectural volume and spatial conditioning similar to Olafur Eliasson but his pieces also explore power relationships. In my own it’s about patterns of social movement and the paths of people who inhabit a space of familiarity. Any visual element has to be treated very carefully because many people will search for the easy connections and then most will stop searching.


ER. Do you think sounds aloof nature has led to a lack of acceptance and understanding in terms of curatorial awareness and nuances?

SC. Because of my archival work I’ve had occasion to speak with a lot of curators about the particularities of curating sound as an art practice. There is quite a bit of curatorial anxiety about the criteria for the legibility of a sound work. What I mean to say is that I think some curators feel less literate about how to read the content or implications of sound in a work of art – their training for this is most likely in the purely visual domain. The vocabulary for discussing sound is messy: language is sound, but gunfire, music, bird songs, and wind are also sound. Because of or alongside this perhaps overwhelming variety, there are a host of artistic practices that employ sound in so many different ways, ranging from acoustical phenomenon, social by-product, to emotional/nostalgic placeholder and everything in between.


ER. Regarding your archive, do you classify its contents as ‘sound art’?

The bulk of the archive has to do with the exhibition of sound as art, broadly conceived. This was my point of departure, and it continues to be the main criterion for my information-gathering efforts. It is very possible that some people see the distinction I’m pointing out as identical or a non-distinction. For me, though, the latter (sound as art) includes the former (sound art), and the former (sound art) is very often separated from the latter (sound in art) in our theorizations of most sound practices in the art world. Two simple examples would be Bruce Nauman’s 1969 Acoustic Wall or Jean Tinguely’s 1955 Relief Meta-Mecanique Sonore, both artworks that consider sound as a material (granted, in different ways) but which both occurred before a notion of ‘sound art’ as such existed. It is the broad idea of the treatment of sound as artistic material that I’m interested in, and I prefer to not limit myself by engaging in the process of reduction or pruning that often accompanies theoretical naming and classification.


ER. When did you start to build an archive and has collecting always, to some extent, been ‘in the blood’?

SC. The archive started 2001 in the nascent stages of a now-defunct book project. For some years before I had been developing a bibliography related to the topic, and collecting grew out of my searching and compiling. Rene Van Peer’s Interviews With Sound Artists (Het Apollohuis, 1993) and Dan Lander and Micah Lexier’s book Sound By Artists (Art Metropole/Walter Philips Gallery, 1987) were some of the first texts I came across on the subject and both are really wonderful resources – so wonderful that I really couldn’t wait to see this kind of work expanded and so I started doing it myself. There are terrific essays by practitioners in the Lander/Lexier book, but I think the really amazing thing about it is the catalogue essays it reprints. The Van Peer was a product of the second edition of the Echo – Images of Sound group exhibition at Het Apollouis. I began collecting the catalogues themselves and haven’t stopped since. I collected rocks when I was 8, comic books at 12, model trains, sounds, lists of the best sandwich shops in New Jersey… you get the idea.


ER. Do you have a physical collection of materials? If so, how conceptually, and practically do you go about the process?

I do have a physical collection, around three hundred catalogues and between seven hundred and one thousand pieces of ephemera, including but not limited to exhibition postcards, gallery information sheets, posters, pamphlets, press releases, periodicals, cds, and dvds. Conceptually, I mentioned above that the focus is on the exhibition of sound as art. That is a fairly broad category that I’ve yet to exhaust and keeping it open in that manner means that I’m constantly surprised. Practically…well, I’m a bibliophile and an obsessive collector generally, so I hunt for the rare catalogues while picking up new things as they come out. I really enjoy the searching/sleuthing part of collecting and have out of necessity become rather good at finding things. It is also important to mention here that I rely heavily on and am immensely grateful for donations from artists, publishers, curators, and galleries. Well over half of the catalogues and around three quarters of the ephemera has arrived in envelops from generous individuals who I’ve solicited directly or who have otherwise heard about the project.


ER. Two fundamental issues for archives in general consist of preservation and access, lets start with access. Are there any plans, in so far as exhibition opportunities for future public engagement?

SC. This collection is meant to be a resource for researchers, art-goers, and audiences. A number of institutions have expressed interest in possibly housing it and I’m in the process weighing the options at the moment. Next year, a small sampling of the materials will accompany an exhibition curated by Micah Silver at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York in the States. It is important to me to develop exhibitions of some of the more rare catalogues and ephemera because this work is very much alive and these documents help frame it – it’s helpful for building a collective literacy for how to talk about sound as a medium or material within art practices. These things have proven to be a marvellous pedagogical tool… when I’ve been a guest in art classes and unpack boxes of catalogues, students light up. It’s not just a textbook or their sound-obsessed teacher; it’s a four-decade history of fascinating work.


ER. In terms of preservation, is the collection of materials in any state of fragility or degradation?

SC. There are some older postcards that are beginning to yellow and fade. The acquisition of archival sleeves and boxes is gradually taking care of that, I hope. At the moment, the cassettes are the biggest problem. There is some urgency in getting them digitized, because unlike reel-to-reel tape, which has some resiliency, cassettes were never meant to last and the ones from the 70s in particular are beginning to degrade to a point where I’ll have to do something about it within the year.


ER. Do you see your collection as part of your own artistic output or a separate entity? Can you see its influence upon your work?

SC. The collection is more a part of my tendency to collect. I have collections of collections – shingles, photographs of water, hinges, recordings of rain, streams, waterfalls, children’s’ books illustrated by Arthur Rackham, springs, interesting rocks. I’m a hopeless collector, it just happens that the research archive is useful to other people, and that makes me happy.


ER. Can you remember what drew you to sound as an artistic medium?

I think that my approach to sound as a material for making art was a slow and natural outgrowth of the way I’d been hearing since I was very young. I grew up in a very, very rural part of upstate New York. My parents’ house is built in a clearing on a very large bit of forested land that borders 700 acres owned by the Boy Scouts of America. Sitting on our back porch, you could hear the wind coming from a long way off. When you finally felt the wind on your face you had been listening to it for quite a while, it was amazing. This tangible, strange experience has been with me no matter what I’m making. Also, I think there is a certain ambiguity possible with sound that I really like when I’m working. Text and image can be read quite literally and that can make ambiguity a real challenge. It isn’t that sound can’t be literal, it can rather easily, but it is much easier for me personally to limit the possible ways of reading a sound element or allow it to simply suggest an open reading. As an artist that aspect of sound is very attractive to me.


ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?

SC. As I said before regarding the archive, I don’t see ‘sound art’ as a very productive term. That said, what the term does suggests to me is a community. Painters are not paint artists, they’re painters. When they speak with one another they are part of a community of people who draw on a similar set of references, techniques, histories, influences, materials. “Sound artist” is the closest thing we have to that kind of community-marking moniker.. As an artist who works with sound, I find it very helpful to feel like I’m part of a community of people who, whether they share my particular concerns, understand (in a very real way) the vocabulary with which I work, and the problems and joys I encounter in the studio. For better or for worse, I think that there is a certain kind of translation necessary to talk to people who don’t work with sound as their medium. This has become less and less of a problem in recent years, but it is still refreshing to be able to speak natively to other practitioners. The gathering of artists under the banner of ‘sound art’ is an easy way to locate those conversations.




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About mark peter wright

Artist-researcher involved in "humanimentical" doings.

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