Interview: Susan Philipsz at Fundació Antoni Tàpies

One of the biggest problems in contemporary society is how to deal with all the shouting. Internal and external, intellectual and emotional, sometimes it seems as if the noise will never stop.
Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, winner of the 2010 Turner Prize and a recipient of an OBE in 2014, creates audio installations that soothe even silence the most assaulting of environments. Snippets of music, songs or sounds are released into city streets, train stations, rivers, or, in this case, into the vast chambers of the Antoni Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona. Here, Philipsz’s piece You Are Not Alone forms the centrepiece of the collective exhibition, Interval. Sound Actions, described by curators Lluís Nacenta and Laurence Rassel as ‘an exploration of the condition of listening’.

You Are Not Alone a sound installation by Susan Philipz. Photo Alx Phillips

The 16 sound or sound-inspired artworks on display include those by Laia Estruch, Octavi Rumbau, the collective EVOL, Hanne Darboven and Brian Eno and are all interesting in different ways. Yet the majority seem guarded about their own space, be it a stairway, the cargo lift, or the basement area, where Eno’s The Ship resides behind a heavy curtain (hear him describe the piece by clicking the link below). Philipsz’s seems unique, however, in the way that it wanders with unrestricted access into almost all areas, its presence sometimes felt before you notice it’s there.

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Interview with Susan Philipsz

You Are Not Alone, the artist explained, was inspired by the pioneer of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, who thought that sounds once generated fade but never die, living on as sound waves that reverberate across the universe. Her piece consists of a series of radio interval signals recorded on a vibraphone and played one after the other in a continuous stream. These brief musical sequences, like signatures, once enabled listeners to identify each station before digital radio made them obsolete. With many originating in the Cold War period and some associated with clandestine stations, these chimes seem like callings ‘from the other side’, connecting histories with the present.

Susan Philipsz

Susan Philipsz

What made you decide to move from the public space into a collective show in a gallery space?

SP: This show is a new experience for me. The piece was originally shown in Oxford yet was chosen for this space in particular – and I think it’s a good choice, given the location and the concept for the show.

What is the piece about?

I think Marconi’s dream was to be able to tune into a conversation that happened a thousand years ago, although in fact sound dissipates into something more like white noise. But I thought it such an evocative idea that all those sounds, while they become fainter and fade, will live on. This inspired me to work with those beautiful radio interval signals, and while we listened to a lot from all over the world, I was chasing ones that were interesting for other reasons than sound, that came from clandestine stations, for example, and so had political undertones.
Some people might recognise these chimes; some are still used and some are quite well known, for example, the state-sponsored East German radio station Radio Berlin International used this familiar music box-style chime. Others are less known, such as that of Voice of the People of Ho Chi Minh City. But I’m also interested in how sound itself can activate the architecture; make you experience a place in new ways.

And how is your work experienced?

It’s really interesting that what I’ve heard people said, again and again, whether they heard my work in a gallery space or in public space; whether they’re happen upon it unexpectedly or whether they’re waiting in anticipation… that it’s that moment of waiting, when they’re unaware and then all of a sudden they hear something; that moment when the sound comes, that they always want to tell me about. What they were doing, what the weather was like… and then the sound came. I mean, it’s almost as if your senses are heightened when you hear a sound interjecting through all the other ambient sounds, you suddenly become aware of the place you’re in, from the people you’re standing beside, to the architecture around you.

Where is the best place in the Fundació to hear You Are Not Alone?

My favourite place is upstairs where you can really get a sense that the sound is being transmitted by a radio; you can see the receivers and the transmitter and the horn speakers, themselves quite sculptural. But then this is an ambient work that doesn’t need to be contained within a room. So while the sounds can be very subtle, perhaps at those times it’s like you don’t know the sound is there until it’s gone.

List of radio stations in You Are Not AloneHow has your other work been displayed?

I’ve worked in many different types of public space where you’re often battling with the sounds of trains or traffic but then that becomes part of the experience and you can’t imagine it being separate from these (external) ambient sounds. In 2012, I prepared a piece for the Documenta 13 art fair based on a composition called Study for Strings that was written in a concentration camp by Pavel Haas. I deconstructed the piece and played only the cello and viola parts through these large horn speakers in Kassel train station, the station from which they transported people to the concentration camp where the composer was killed.
The tones were projected out on the train tracks, no louder than any of the other sounds you may hear in a train station; so you could be on the platform’s edge staring off into the hills and hearing the birds tweeting in the distance as well as the sound of the trains passing. And while the music certainly has a presence at times it blends in with the other ambient sounds, and this is all part of the experience.

Is it less authentic to hear your work in a gallery?

Well, actually this same piece was shown in the MoMA, in a box, in a darkened, soundproofed room and people said to me, ‘how can it work in such a closed context!’ But actually, it was like going back to the origins of the piece for me. I didn’t have a train station set up in my studio, and actually I was pretty nervous about putting it out there in the public space as I didn’t know what to expect. So with the MoMA exhibit you actually get all the intimacy back; you can hear the musicians breath, the strings, all that is lost in a public context … it’s just a different experience of it.

Distance or exile seems to be a theme in your art.

I’m Scottish but based in Berlin. And actually recently in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof (a former train station turned contemporary art space) I showed a piece related to the film scores of Hanns Eisler, an exile who fled Hitler and ended up in Hollywood. He was one of those who brought 12tone composition to Hollywood, working it into film scores and making it accessible, in a way, even though he got no credit for it! It was an interesting time for Hollywood, all sorts of people ended up there – not just musicians.

What new projects are you working on?

Currently we’re working on a project funded mainly by the Imperial War Museum in London to commemorate the First World War. We’re making recordings of war damaged musical instruments. It’s an evolving project, as I’d already made some recordings in Germany, where I took professional horn players into various music museums to record the sounds of war damaged horns. I’m currently exhibiting a show of that work called Broken Ensemble at the gallery Eastside Projects in Birmingham, but this next step is to have recordings of First World War instruments played from flagpoles around the city of Cambridge.

War damaged horn a promotional image from 'Broken Ensemble' a show by Susan Philipsz at Eastside Projects (Birmingham)

War damaged horns?

Exactly! There was one with a bullet hole straight through it and the poor horn player was turning purple trying to play it. Now while German music museums were very strict about things, with the white gloves going on and us not being allowed to remove the horn from the museum, they were more welcoming in the UK. In fact, we were trying to find these things for ages and then suddenly we find the Aladdin’s cave of war damaged musical instruments in Kneller Hall. They even let me play the balaclava bugle from the charge of the light brigade! Apparently, it got damaged as a Cossack tried to lance it with his sword to take home as a souvenir! Each horn has a story.

Is it difficult to get permission for such a project?

Well, at first I was apprehensive. We’ve the backing of Kettle’s Yard but Cambridge is a traditional university town, and at first they were showing me potential sites that were the size of a shoebox! I had to convince them that I was thinking bigger. But I gave them a complete plan of the project and they said, ‘ok! Let’s do it!’ The flagpoles are a different matter; each college has its own and so you have to approach each college individually for permission to use it. But we’ve got permission from one of the main colleges, so we’re hoping the others play along.

Susan Philipsz interviewed by Alx Phillips
Interval. Sound Actions – Fundació Antoni Tàpies
until 15th February 2015