And she was so …

Joan: I get all kinds of suggestions for what else to do with my sound-only work, which is kind of intriguing (like the sound isn’t enough somehow). For example, Plausible Narration, was originally to be accompanied (or rather the sounds were to be triggered by) a huge, steel-paged book (about six feet tall). But as a sound artist, I found the big object in the gallery space would take away from the sounds and meaning of this ‘text’ in sound.

Seth: I find that rather interesting, can you give some examples? I guess I’m familiar with suggestions of improvements/alternatives of parts of a work in peer review seminars for visual work at college, but it was rarely suggested so explicitly to alter the medium… I think I’d feel a bit crushed after doing all the work!

Joan: I think the best example is with this ‘book’ of sound pages. Actually the physical object of the steel book, with all its sensors triggering sound was a tandem project as I was working on the sonic composition. I was collaborating with a sculptor and an engineer and all the while we worked together, I was feeling more and more that the sound was simply enough, maybe even more powerful a metaphor about our relationship with books, with language and narrative and randomness.

When I decided to limit the project to sound only, there was some disappointment from the others I had initially invited to help me with the material object. And maybe it was disappointing because they wanted to play with the sensors and the steel in a sculptural and tech-driven manner. I invited them to make their own book, triggering some other kind of sound art, so I don’t think they were necessarily crushed since it was a collaboration I was bowing out of in terms of their helping me. But I can tell you it was very freeing, sonically and creatively, to do what I heard in my head without this huge steel book to focus on.

Four of 12 pages of Plausible Narration, Joan Schuman, 1999.

Seth: It sounds like this is one of those occasions where a work through a mixture of collaboration and process ends up being several works. That time and energy is needed in order to decide what its not just as much as what it is. And I’ve definitely had similar experiences of that with regard to The LiteraryMix, and of discovering that the work I had in mind to make actually works far better and closer to what I mean when simplified, even if others might disagree. That disagreement can after all be the beginnings of a line of questioning and provoke the basis of some discussion! It’s treading a fine line between being the artist’s vision and yet open enough to include and engage that of others.

Joan: That’s why I feel like your project, as a strictly digital text, has much resonance with Plausible Narration. It’s ‘there’ and not ‘there’ in the online space rather than a material publication. A useful analogy about online vs. physical texts is by Andrew Piper, who suggests a contrast of the vertebral (books) depending on our bodily uprightness vs. digital texts (more like invertebrates). The latter are horizontal and regenerate quite differently. So, like jellyfish, digital (or aleatory and sound-only) texts always elude our grasp.

Seth: Could you say a bit more about this?

Joan: It’s a distinction I tend to make between reading a physical book and reading texts online. I refuse to succumb to e-readers for a variety of reasons. Mostly I know how distracted I can get if there’s a link provided while I’m reading electronically. But more so, I just love the physical feel of a book, turning its pages, inviting hands, eyes, face (ears!), the whole body, to engage with the book itself. What I find intriguing about The LiteraryMix is how it fades up into its textual experience, so it’s not the same at all as either reading a book or reading a digital text online. Maybe it’s somewhere between Piper’s analogy of jellyfish and vertebral beings. I think you’ve achieved this liminal space, this mystery of what follows, and that’s what I was trying to do with Plausible Narration, to make it more ‘both/and’ and less ‘either/or’, a bit more fluid or elusive, depending on when you enter the sounds. It’s why I didn’t want the addition of a physical book in the space to look at while listening.

Seth: To go back to the question of making a physical book or not, I had to consider from multiple perspectives and weigh up the pros and cons of each.

At present the overall size can be altered relatively easily; new excerpts can be added, additional content (such as this interview for example), anything I choose can potentially alter and append its current dimensions. Equally, now that the work is online, I find myself re-reading it and occasionally think that perhaps I should edit or cut something, I guess no work is ever ‘finished’ but maybe this medium somehow makes this more explicit? With a physical book I don’t have these options, and readers would be able to ascertain its size/dimension/duration, that this would I feel lessen the labyrinthine effect, too. It was important therefore to ‘camouflage’ this information in some way, both for practical and conceptual reasons. In addition, whilst I like books, I know that we fetishize books as objects in a way that I’m not altogether comfortable with, and this was something I wanted to avoid with The LiteraryMix.

This question also reminds me of similar concerns one might have with whether one shows in a gallery the technology one uses to reproduce sound. How does having speakers, wires, computers visible in the white cube add or subtract from the work on display, or whether audiences are so accustomed to seeing and interacting with it that it’s not important? I for one think that what we see and hear and what we don’t is a very important question when discussing listening and sound, and this is equally true of The LiteraryMix.

But one day, she couldn’t seem to …

[… continue the conversation between Seth Guy & Joan Schuman, and listen to Caroline Bergvall’s Together]