Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Stephen Cornford, Elevator Gallery, London

It is perhaps fitting that sound artist and serial London Olympics site trespasser, Stephen Cornford, should have his first solo exhibition in a gallery on the edge of the Lea Valley, where the Olympiad's troupe of ill-conceived stadia will soon be dancing on the grave of the local community. It is here, in the interstices of Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, that Cornford has staked out his psychogeographical stomping ground by pronouncing himself 'artist in residence' of the Olympics site and repeatedly breaking and entering into the place in the name of art. "You could place trespassing in the context of walking as art practice," says Cornford, "Probably begun by Dada’s 'construction of an aesthetic action to be effected in the reality of everyday life' and continued more famously by the Surrealist deambulation and the Situationist dérive, with that thread continuing through the rather more populist practices of ‘land artists’ such as Richard Long. The act of trespassing is not only a walk however, it’s the deliberate performance of an antisocial act, it’s intentionally trangressive. Although there is an important element of exploration once inside ‘the zone’ the performative disregard for the barrier is central to this notion of practice." But being artist in residence has not always been restricted to mere trespass, "Before the fence went up I tried to make a kind of sound portrait of the area, which ended up drifting from documenting to using the landscape and objects as instruments with which to play and compose music. I‘ve briefly considered doing this again but such projects are just too polite an intervention to really tackle what is actually happening there. The only logical extension of the trespassing project would have to be called Vandalising the Olympic Site."

Cornford's sound work tends to involve traditional instruments (piano, violin, electric guitar) being played in a non-traditional, often mechanical, almost always aleatoric, fashion, in order to bypass, as he says on his website, his own "untrained hands": "I had maybe a dozen piano lessons at primary school, but I hated them. That said I did used to love playing on my step-father’s piano, though never from a score, playing very much in the childlike sense of the word, just listening to the piano really. It’s been very important to me in my current musical practice to distance myself from the creation of sounds – usually using technology, so that my relationship with the music is first and foremost as a listener rather than a player." The present work, Three Piece, involves a similar hands-free instrumentalism, giving us three mobile sculptures, each made largely out of bicycle parts and discarded construction material (Cornford was initially trained as a sculptor and sees, inherent in this kind of bricolage, "a critique of the society that deems objects to no longer have a value and disposes of them.") along with an electric guitar or bass - choosing, at all times, the cheapest, most non-specific looking axes available on Ebay - and a loudspeaker. Each guitar spins in perpetual motion, both on its own axis, and around a central pivot, like a planet in orbit, and as it does so generates its own noise. The audience are invited to walk around the sculptures as they please, experiencing the change in sound from place to place across the room, something done by most with a certain apprehension, not to mention a sense of personal danger given that any moment the headstock of a Les Paul Special might come careering into the small of one's back. "My sculptures have tended to be slightly confrontational for years now, but this is the most explicitly confrontational thing I have ever done – it invades your space, it’s greedy, it’s dangerous. The work without a member of the audience isn’t really a work at all, it’s completed by your interaction with it, by your hearing and your movement. I didn’t set out to make something necessarily confrontational at all, I was more interested at the time of construction in the way that the audience’s movement constructs their listening experience, it was a reaction against the passive standing or seated reception of frontal stereo music, that has been my normal concert/gig going experience. I wanted to make a concert that you could walk among, so the listener decides what’s in the foreground of the mix." The title refers to the guitar-bass-drums set-up of a standard rock band, and this kind of deconstructive approach to the rock tradition clearly owes a certain debt to Christian Marclay. "I am drawn to the iconographies, both of the classical and rock tradition, particularly of the piano (as the site of serious composition) and the guitar (as a rite of passage of youthful exuberance amongst other things). And no matter how many times these iconographies have been meddled with or completely overturned they still hold an incredible amount of cultural power." The appearance of the sculptures themselves recalls the ad-hoc neo-dadaism of Robert Rauschenberg's combines, and the sound they produce, in its drifting sonorities and relentless guitar distortion, is reminiscent of drone-rockers Earth and Sunn O))). "I never had a sound in my head that I wanted it to make," claims Cornford, "But ultimately that is the point, to make something which is unpredictable, that has a life of its own, that is experimental in the literal sense of the word, something, as Cage said “of which the outcome is not known”. Along the way the resultant music has gone through phases of being both deeply frustrating and very pleasing. One day it’s subtle, full of detail and variation, the next it’s virtually flat. That's life."

For tonight's private view, the 'rock band' formula is completed by two improvising drummers, Patrick Farmer (whose MySpace page claims proudly, "I love rhizomes"), and Rob Gawthrop (half of the Automated Noise Ensemble, and senior lecturer at Dartington College of Arts), brought in to accompany the spinning guitars. Unfortunately the relatively quiet output of the guitar mobiles was almost immediately dwarfed by Farmer and Gawthrop's somewhat relentless percussive assault, pedalling through a battery of avant-garde tricks and turns (bowed cymbals, rubbing different textures across drum skins, heavy use of the drum rims, knocking things over, etc.) with scant regard for respecting the softer, subtler sound of the work they were supposed to be backing up and enhancing. Once Farmer and Gawthrop had left Cornford's work behind, they seemed to find it very hard to find it again and thenceforth relied largely on playing off each other, building up, here and there, some delightful interlocking polyrhythms, but ultimately engulfing, rather than enriching, the experience of the sound sculptures. Cornford agrees, "I thought both Patrick and Rob excelled themselves, but I never felt that their playing and the sound produced by the guitars melded into one. This was mostly a problem of balance. I mean when a rock band plays a gig, no matter what sort of music they are playing there’s a standard way of micing, mixing and amplifying them so they can hear themselves, hear each other, and the audience gets a perfectly balanced mix. Achieving that effect while completely re-writing the rules was always going to be hard: the drums being all acoustic, the guitars only going through little 40W amps and very cheap un-housed speakers, and the whole thing being spread around the room, so with hindsight the ensemble effect I was hoping for was pretty unrealistic. Even on a good day balancing the three streams of audio from the guitars was hard, let alone with drums on top. Add to those technical issues the fact that the drummers were improvising and no matter what they do, the machines are just not going to react, so in the end I think they were playing more off each other than they were off the guitar sounds. Like most of my work the performance was an experiment, and a strategy I would like to explore further in the future." Given greater amplitude on the guitars, or a more delicate, nuanced approach to the drums, it could have been an extraordinary performance, doing, perhaps, for David Toop's work with Max Eastley what Glenn Branca did for American minimalism. It remained, nonetheless, a thrilling and quite beguiling experience.