Dawn Scarfe is an artist whose work investigates resonance, perception and environmental atmospheres. She works across a variety of media and contexts including site-specific installation, performance and field recording. Recent exhibitions include Klinkende Stad Kortrijk, ZKM Karlsruhe, Q-O2 Brussels, La Casa Encendida Madrid, TONSPUR Museumsquartier Vienna, Bios Athens and 176 Zabludowicz Collection, London. For comprehensive information please visit: http://www.dawnscarfe.co.uk
ER. Can you describe some of the main themes and pre occupations behind your work?
DS.’Sensitivity’ is an ongoing concern, how people or things respond to changes in their surroundings. I’m interested in how the sound of particular atmospheres can seem to convey an emotional charge, and I’m drawn to instruments that are thought to extend the senses.
ER. Do you know when/where this interest began?
DS. It’s partly because I’m aware of the quirks and limits of my own senses that I find the detail of how we hear or see very alluring. I’m often trying to change the way I relate to things, to find ways of re-focusing my attention, shifting from foreground to background, substance to shadow. My interest in atmospheres comes from time spent exploring the wilderness, urban and rural, where I’ve felt that ephemeral aspects of the environment were expressing something.
ER. Air Traffic (2006) was the first work I heard of yours and one that deals explicitly with issues of resonance and materiality. Can you talk about that work.
DS. When I first moved to London I kept waking up to the sound of planes. It often took me a while to realise what I was listening to. I would be drawn into this sustained tone hovering in the distance that slowly descended in pitch in a mournful way. After a while I started noticing how weather conditions seemed to influence this sound. On overcast and windy days it took on a more thunderous and ominous quality.
At around this time I attempted to make and record my own Aeolian Harp. I began to notice parallels between the harp and the planes. Both gave the weather a voice. To my ears they often sounded similar, so I decided to record a duet between the two, and that’s essentially what Air Traffic is.
ER. Was there any overarching political/noise pollution statement on your part?
DS. Despite its mournful quality, I found the sound quite pleasant. If the piece is saying anything on the subject, it is that noise is matter of perspective.
ER. Would you say you are interested in abstracting the sound of an environment – whilst connecting it towards a musical appreciation of the everyday?
DS. I’d say that I’m interested in using the idea of music as an incentive to listen, as a starting point in a journey that has more to do with exploring our surroundings, and our own ways of listening.
ER. This (Air Traffic) was an 8-channel playback piece, which you’ve gone on since to develop through performative works like those as part of your lenses series. Can you talk about that project a little.
DS. Lenses, in all its forms, emerged from an experiment with a wine glass, small speaker and sine tone generator. I held the speaker above the rim of the glass, started at the lowest tone the generator could put out, and then swept through the spectrum to the highest. I noticed that the wine glass would re-sound a certain part of the spectrum, the one closest in pitch to its own sound, which I confirmed by tapping and rubbing the glass. My interest was in the way the glass seemed to sound of its own accord, and how I could produce the voice of the glass without touching it.
I also made a recording of the glass being sounded, by rubbing the rim, and played this back into the glass with the speaker. This had the same effect of producing resonance, but had more perverse associations of attempting to return a recorded sound to its ‘source’. So there were a few different tangents I wanted to explore. Those relating to the act of recording were more suited to an installation, but others to do with tuning and ‘action at a distance’ made more sense as a performance.
ER. Listening Glasses is another series of work that deals with issues of resonance and perception. How did that project come about?
DS. I was researching how resonance could be demonstrated in acoustic experiments when I came across devices called “Helmholtz Resonators”. German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz developed these acoustic tools to help the ear detect specific musical tones. He came up with a few different designs but the one that really interested me was the tuned glass sphere with a funnel at one side (inserted into the ear) and circular opening at the other. I was intrigued by how elegant and delicate it seemed, and the intrusion that occurred when it was inserted into the ear.
I thought about how these resonators could be used like the wine glasses in Lenses, to re-sound and amplify particular sounds. But what really excited me about them was the realisation that Helmholtz had taken them outside his laboratory and put them to his ear to seek out musical tones in the sound of his environment, such as ‘the whistling of the wind, the rumbling of carriage wheels and the splashing of water’. There were lots of things about this act that appealed to me, the notion of finding ‘music’ in the sound of our surroundings, of conducting experiments in the street, of using antique glasses to listen to the contemporary world…
ER. There seems to be a very research driven focus to your work. Do you distinguish between your research and practice?
DS. I’m aiming for a circulation, from practice to reflection and research and back again. It’s important to me that my works function on an intuitive level, supported by the layers of exploration that have gone into them, but not dependent on an explanatory texts as crutches.
ER. How important is collaboration on your projects. I’m thinking here of the Listening Glasses work; having glass blown etc…
DS. I often rely on other people’s expertise to realise projects, but I like to be in on the action as much as possible.
ER. There’s a strong scientific aesthetic that comes through in the presentation of your works, is this something you like to play with?
DS. I like to think of my works as experiments, in the sense that they allow things to happen through a process. I find it useful to borrow objects used by scientists, such as retort stands and white gloves. As well as being practical they suggest a kind of investigation is happening. But I’m not setting out to prove or disprove a hypothesis like a scientist. I like to play up the elements of improvisation and uncertainty. The form of the works sometimes reference minimalism, which can come across as clinical or scientific too.
ER. The body itself is perhaps the biggest resonator we have at our disposal. Do you, or have you use[d] the body as a resonating material? What is your relationship to sound and the body?
DS. My interest in resonance is closely related to my interest in sensation. There is something unsettling about a resonating instrument that seems to sound on its own, because that kind of agency isn’t something we expect from objects. It’s as if they could hear.
Helmholtz had a ‘resonance theory’ of hearing, which he demonstrated by raising the dampers on piano strings and singing towards them, at the pitch they were tuned to, prompting them to resonate. He speculated that the individual hair cells in the cochlea functioned in a similar way to piano strings. I don’t think he managed to prove this theory, but nonetheless it stands as a very intriguing metaphor, one that imagines the ear as a musical instrument.
There is something very fascinating about the notion of resonance in our bodies, particularly in the vocal tract and the scull, but I am wary of making work that reduces the body to a resonating vessel. There may be ways of using sound to achieve particular bodily effects, but I’m not seeking a pre-determined response from people who encounter my work. I’m far more interested in the nuances of personal experience, and the complexities of our sensations. A friend of mine claimed that the closer she got to an installation of Lenses, the more she could feel the sound through the skin on her face. Other people have said they experience the sense of a wave passing across the wall. I’m often hoping to evoke a feeling of sensitivity to do with the body and interferences between the senses, but not one that is the same for everyone.
ER. Can you talk a little about your recent commission with the Forestry Commission and Sound & Music.
DS. It is a fantastic opportunity to explore. I’ve been clocking up the miles, getting a sense of the variety of forests and woodlands, walking official and unofficial paths, getting lost, bivvying overnight and being quite scared by strange nocturnal animal sounds. I’m working on a number of outcomes to do with sound on the fringes of audibility.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
DS. It is a label, useful for research. Sound art can be hard to distinguish from a work of art or music but for me that’s part of the attraction.
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