On the eve of Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic Ear Room took time out to talk to curator and artist Cathy Lane about the three-day event which investigates feminist discourses in sound and music through a programme of talks, performances, discussions and film screenings. The event is organised by CRiSAP (where Lane is co-director), Electra and Tate Modern.
ER. Can you talk about your initial research in gender and sound art practice?
CL. Since the beginnings of the Sound Arts department at London College of Communication (LCC), the first course of which I developed in 1998, I began to observe the work produced by female students had significant differences from the work produced by male students. While I did not want to set up a meaningless binary – men do this/women do that – kind of thing, I was interested in taking some time to investigate whether this was in fact true and what, if anything women students both past and present thought about this in relation to their experience as sound students at LCC. In the 80s and 90s I had been involved in many initiatives to get women and girls involved in music and sound technology, yet although they theoretically had more access to equipment and training, women and girls were still generally very under-represented among sound arts students at LCC (around 10% of the total). I thought that I could use the creative work produced by women students, past and present, to challenge aesthetic perceptions of what sound arts and design at LCC is and can be, and maybe as a result attract more female applicants and widen participation.
ER. What type of projects were you involved in during these times?
CL. A project called: “A suitable job for a woman? Using creative work to challenge perceptions of Sound Arts and Design at LCC and widen participation” is a good example. It focused on two main areas, on the one hand the experiences of female students when they were at college and on the other, the work that they produced. I tried to locate this within a wider context of contemporary research and related areas. Female students often do not see sound as an area of possible study until relatively late may have come through a ‘circuitous’ route. They are often older than male students and more likely to drop out. My interviewees reported that they often felt alienated by aspects of what they felt was a male-dominated culture and excluded from ‘techno-communication’ among male students. Many felt technically unconfident and found technical aspects of the course difficult but often accepted that they didn’t have to learn all the technology themselves to realise their creative ideas and were happy to work with others and collaborate to realise their creative ideas. Women are more attracted to technology when they see how it can be used as a tool to help them realise a creative project.
With regards to the work produced by female students I was interested in finding out whether it could be said to be gendered in terms of a number of different aspects including how is gender difference is manifested, for example, through the physical or social environment or cultural issues represented. As well as whether the actual methods were gendered and whether we could talk about the techniques of sound work as being either masculine or feminine? Ancillary questions related to the use of the voice in the work – in particular the singing voice, how works created different stories about gender and the listener’s knowledge of the artist’s gender inform their understanding of the work in any way? Finally I was interested in finding out whether women talked about their work differently from men?
There is no doubt that female students have produced a significant amount of work, which can be seen as gendered. Happily those interviewed did not feel that LCC has done anything to prevent this. From this a member of the department began to think how we could then develop gender as part of the sound arts curriculum and this is why we were so keen to house the Her Noise Archive at LCC.
ER. How did you first come into contact with the Her Noise archive?
CL. Typically it’s a classic kind of ‘ one thing led to another’ story. The opportunity to bring the Her Noise archive to LCC arose during and out of this ongoing research – my colleague Salomé Voegelin met Lina Dzuverovic at a conference and the conversation led to women in sound arts. Salomé talked about my research and Lina talked about Her Noise and Electra’s desire to move it somewhere where it would have a different life and the possibility of widened access. We jumped at the chance to bring the archive to LCC (where it is now housed in the University of the Arts London Archive and Special Collections) as part of a desire to raise the profile of womens work in sound within academia and to investigate the archive as a springboard to developing discourses about gender within sound arts practices.
ER. What does the archive comprise of?
CL. The Her Noise Archive is a complete collection of materials pertaining to the Her Noise exhibition that Electra curated in 2005. It took place at the South London Gallery in 2005 with additional events spread across other London venues such as Tate Modern and Goethe Institut. The ambition of the project was to investigate music histories in relation to gender and to bring together a wide network of women artists who use sound as a medium. The original exhibition featured five new commissions but it also included an archive with research material such as books, fanzines and catalogues as well exclusive interviews with a number of artists.
The collection has been re-catalogued and organized for University of the Arts (UAL) and covers the archive as it was displayed as part of the exhibition, all the research and planning for the exhibition, documentation of the exhibition and related events including press reviews and documentation of later touring exhibitions and events.
ER. When it arrived at CRiSAP did you already have plans for an event at the Tate Modern or has that come through engaging with the collection?
CL. There was quite a long process of organisation and re-cataloguing after the archive arrived at CRiSAP. Once we had decided to try and place it within the UAL Archives and Special Collections we worked with the archivists there to get it into the state that they required. We had always thought that we would have a small launch event just to say, “it’s here” maybe a study day at LCC. However Tate were interested – Electra were interested – and it grew from there.
ER. Is there anything in particular that strikes you about the collection?
CL. The collection very much reflects the artistic interests of the curators and as such concerns sound arts and experimental music practices at a particular time and to some extent place (or at least cultural place). It is situated in aspects of post-punk, no-wave, DIY aesthetics, riot grrrl as well as sound art and experimental music histories. As such it concentrates on breaking down the divisions between amateur and professional and reveals alternative, creative and distribution networks outside the mainstreams.
ER. Can you tell us a little about the symposium itself and what it hopes to achieve?
CL. The content of the symposium and related events has been synthesised from the various interests of the organisers. I am interested in developing some of the findings from my original research with Holly Ingleton who re-catalogued the archive and has been very instrumental in shaping the events. Electra have been interested in extending the debates raised by the original exhibition and Tate is interested in widening this to a more general audience.
The symposium engages with three main areas of debate and discussion that emerge from these influences, namely feminist genealogies and histories; DIY approaches to music making and distribution and the formation of personal iconographies; investigating women’s use of their own voices as a device to challenge existing languages and women’s varied uses and abuses of technology. I guess we all have slightly different aims but in general we are all interested in developing the depth and breadth of the discourse around these subjects, involving a wider audience in the discussion, forming a network of people interested in these areas and of course enjoying listening to some fantastic presenters.
ER. Clearly gender is the topic of debate, do you think there is a lack of gender discourse in the realm of sound in art? If so, why do you think this is?
CL. I do think that there is a lack of gender discourse in sound arts. I’m not entirely sure why this is but I suspect that it is largely because sound arts could still be said to be an emergent discipline so up until very recently it has been largely concerned with trying to trace its lineage and mark out its territory or set its boundaries very broadly. More recently the discourse has extended into the details of areas of practice but I think there is probably about to be a large expansion in the way that sound arts are practiced, viewed and talked about.
I also think that although gender discourse is relatively established in fine art theory, sound art also draws on music and, popular music studies apart, as musicologist Susan McClary has observed “music lags behind the other arts; it picks up ideas from other media just when they have become outmoded.” In electroacoustic and electronic music in particular a lot of the theory revolves around technology.
ER. How did you choose the line up for the events; have they (artists/presenters) engaged with the archive in any way?
CL. We tried to put together a programme of great presenters drawn from different theoretical positions – theorists, curators, practitioners, who are in a good position to answer some of the questions that we want to address. Some of them have been involved in the archive as users, some helped to collect the archive and some are represented in it but each of them will have some kind of position in relation to it and the issues and debates that it encapsulates.
ER. Obviously you’re in the role as curator/facilitator within this context. Could you talk a little about your own practice as an artist and when/how sound became your main focus?
CL. I came fairly late to working with sound although I had relatively low-key piano lessons as a child. Looking back many of the seeds were there – I asked for a reel-to-reel tape recorder for my 8th birthday and used to spend loads of time recording anything and everything, although I have no idea where that desire came from. Before that I had an old valve radio in the shed and used to play games which involved pretending to contact people. I actually grew up in a totally non-musical and non-technical family so it’s a bit of a mystery why I got into this. In the early 80s I found myself performing in a cabaret at the Edinburgh Festival – I was a pretty bad performer and actually hated it but we were accompanied by two musicians playing with electronics, synths and tape machines. I had a total “that’s what I want to do” moment. Over the next few years I tried everything I could think of to learn about making and manipulating sound – I volunteered to help people engineering, I went to classes in the studio at the wonderful Morley College and …well there wasn’t much else you could do then, so I started my first faltering steps of composing and making work using technology. At the same time I was really getting into playing music – with other women and also in a political street band that was incredibly active in the peace and anti nuclear movement so I was going on actions all over the UK and sometimes in Europe.
One thing led to another and I got a job in a newly built community recording studio in Poplar – part of a kind of initiative to widen access to facilities to lots more people including I guess, people like me. I was also active in the Women’s Media Resource Project which set up a women only recording studio and video editing facility and then had a series of jobs in other community initiatives including six months working in North Ethiopian in “the field” with the cultural troops of the TPLF (Tigrayan People Liberation Front) who were guerilla fighters at war with the Ethiopian government. When I came back from Ethiopia I felt and kind of responsibility to widen and deepen my knowledge. There were very few ways to do that then, so I did an MA in Music Technology in York and then a PhD in electroacoustic composition at City University. So you could say that sound has always been my focus but that there were a few periods of time where I lost it for a while.
In terms of my practice I guess it has transmuted over this time from playing in bands to electroacoustic composition (although I was never a ‘pure’ electroacoustic composer) to collaborations, most notably and probably the longest standing with choreographer Rosemary Butcher. In that time my work, methods, tools, aesthetics and the ways of presenting my work have of course changed and developed but my primary interest remains the manipulation of recorded sound in the studio and to me projects are most satisfying and successful if a decent percentage of the entire time is spent on this rather than all the other things that you have to do in the life of a project – documentation, rigging etc.
ER. Would you say you work with any consistent/particular themes in your own practice?
CL. I don’t think I could list these –but I’m interested in listening, I’m interested in the sensuous qualities of sound – the thrill of a being immersed in small sounds in a big space kind of thing, I’m interested in what sound can tell us about people and places, I’m interested in texture, I’m interested in bass, I’m interested in language and talking……… What my official bio actually says is that my current interests include how sound relates to our environment and our collective and individual memories; composing with the spoken word; sound and gender and cross arts collaboration, but I don’t really feel this captures it. In a way you kind of get stereotyped and even trapped by how you define yourself – I would like to think that I am always about to do something completely different.
ER. Going back to the archive. How do you think archives can be used in a creative, progressive way?
CL. Much of my own work has involved the use of archive materials, either using the materials themselves such as oral history recordings or to learn about the details of something that I’m also researching through sound. I personally like the way that the small details that are often represented in archives can in some way cross time and enable you to relate to the past in quite a ‘real’ way – much more than the kind of broad sweeps of history that you might get in a book. I also like the different characters of the archives themselves. But I also think that archives generally offer the opportunity to challenge “dominant” readings of history – the Her Noise archive does this – other people’s interpretations. A good example of this in sound is Milo Taylor’s ImmApp project which offers new readings of sound arts histories by interrogating its documents in different ways from the sort of criteria that have led to early establishment of the sound art canons of who is important. I think the important thing with archives is that they need to be kept alive used, re-used and maybe abused and reframed in the lens of the present.
ER. CRiSAP encourages ways to animate archives, how has this been undertaken within LCC?
CL. One of the things that CRiSAP has been interested in is developing new kinds of archives, for example distributed archives where not all the material is in one place but is held together by a central digital core of some sort , as well as new interfaces for digital archives so that they can be approached and searched in different ways – maybe through typeface or colour of paper or of course sound – for example finding instances of the different people using the same word in digitized sound archives.
At the moment we have students working with the archive of the London Musicians Collective, which is housed at CRiSAP and of course, with the Her Noise archive. Students studying for an MA in Sound Arts have just finished a project where they had to research and make work in response to an aspect of the Her Noise archive. They have produced some really exciting work and engaged with the material, and almost more importantly, what the archive stands for, in a way that for many has really challenged the way that they would normally work. We are also using the archive to extend our activities in all sort of ways – on May 18th we have a postgraduate research event on entitled Sound:: Gender:: Feminism:: Activism again built around Her Noise but also aiming of building up a network of researchers who are exploring these subjects.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
CL. I always prefer to think of it as sound arts because to me that recognises the plurality influences, practices and most importantly possibilities. I guess to me it means exploring the unique specifics of the sonic and “doing interesting stuff with sound”.
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Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic runs from Thursday 3rd of May-Saturday 5th of May at the Tate Modern. Dr Cathy Lane is a composer, sound artist, lecturer, researcher and co-director of CRiSAP (Creative Research in Sound Arts Practice). For comprehensive information please visit:
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