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Sue Carter Flinn
Halifax
July 16, 2009

Usually it takes new festivals a few rounds before they hit a rhythm. Not so with Halifax’s Sound Bytes, a month-long, citywide festival that “explores the intersection between visual art, audio art and hybrid music practices.”



Ferry ride, June 8

Some of Sound Bytes’ most memorable moments happened outside of exhibition spaces, like the thirty to forty-person choir singing tunes about bicycle travel and kindness to service workers on an after-work Halifax to Dartmouth ferry. (Years ago, an attempted performance piece on the ferry created a bomb scare, police action and hefty fines for the artist, so the cheery attitude of the transit staff this time around was a relief). The Totally Wicked Music Festival, a one-night, one-song performance of bands created just for the evening, uncovered some new musical talents among the arty crowd. Organized by audio artist/musician Eleanor King at the Khyber ICA, a sweaty audience cheered for over twenty bands, including a minimalist keyboard duo and a Fleetwood Mac cover band; once again showcasing the historic intersection between NSCAD and the city’s vibrant indie music scene.

But the most memorable event goes to Halifax Audio Club (HAC)’s Audio Bathhouse, a one-night installation of audio and video art in SeaDogs sauna and spa, which usually caters to the city’s gay and bisexual community. Officially, HAC is an Eyelevel Gallery committee, but this small renegade group of artists works autonomously. Their call for audio and video submissions asked artists to consider seven rooms in the establishment, like the sauna and basement sling room. There was both excitement and shyness as groups of people - some there for art, some for the hot tub, others simply curious about the space - wandered through the rooms, many dressed in bathing suits and towels.

As you would expect, some artists played with sexual content. Many manipulated existing pornographic video with colour and effects, but oddly, most of it was pretty trad, straight porn. That’s why I preferred Monkeyboy and Juana Faulk: (Round Two: Remix), a video by Saskatoon artist Carrie Gates and KERO, which captured two boys in Mexican wrestling masks and goggles, wrestling and battling behind a layer of flashing stripes and patterns. The video played in a series of cabin rooms and, while I loved the mix of playful sensuousness and laser-show cheekiness, it was physically difficult to watch for any period of time for fear of a seizure.

Most startling was Nic Spicer’s audio Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Phallixy, which played in an isolated, dark room starkly furnished with a leather couch and handcuffs. The young Halifax artist and frequent hitchhiker discreetly records conversations with drivers who pick him up. What’s incredible about Spicer’s audio is not the number of older men attempting to seduce their much-younger rider, but the obscene lack of subtlety in their attempts. It’s a safe form of voyeurism really, although standing in the darkness with strangers, listening to these men’s coaxing, felt just a tiny bit dangerous.

My favourite pieces were less sexy and more nautical; there’s a long history in this port town between travelling sailors and its bathhouses. Michael Fernandes and Patrick Burgomaster’s version of the sea chantey Drunken Sailor, playing in a cabin room, provided much-needed levity, and François Gaudet’s lively musical ode to the ghost ship Mary Celeste created an energetic soundtrack for those hanging in the basement sling area.



Peter Flemming, Stepper Motor Choir, 2008 (photo: Paul Litherland)

Resounding, at Dalhousie Art Gallery, was a really tight group exhibition dedicated to the ways and means of making sound. Artist Marla Hlady deconstructed a piano and revived it with various technologies. Lengthy cables made the instrument look like a human body with splayed-out lungs and hands and a brain. Like Hlady’s piece, Peter Flemming's Stepper Motor Choir reflects sound created without direct human contact. Twelve small motors sat on top of concrete blocks spinning panes of solar glass that created ringing sounds based on the speed of the motors. The gallery is in a basement, so the solar power was drawn through cables leading up the walls to the second floor balcony. I made several trips and each time I had a completely different experience, depending on the weather and the number of people in the gallery.



Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Returning a Sound, video still, 2004

It was a coup that Dal acquired Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s lovely video Returning a Sound for Resounding. Allora and Calzadilla shot their short on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques shortly after it ceased to be a bomb-testing territory for the U.S. military. For sixty years, citizens weren't allowed to walk through the entire island, so you’re witnessing—and, more importantly, listening to—pure elation as a young man drives over the island’s roads on a motorcycle with a trumpet attached to its tailpipe.

Eleanor King, whose clever hands are all over Sound Bytes, also has an installation in Sometimes Always at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Co-presented with the Centre for Art Tapes, this exhibition has less to do with sound than the technologies that make the noise. The ten artists focus on obsolescence and the glut of 8-tracks, cassette tapes, VCRs, etc. that we’ll leave behind when we end up in the grave. King created a mad man’s workshop, called Obso-less-sense, jam-packed with individual sculptures designed from radio tuners, tape decks, rainbow-hued record albums and empty, spinning turntables. It’s a gorgeous environmental disaster on a small scale; imagine what our growing pile of big-screen TVs, iPod Touches and cell phones will amount to someday.



Clive Murphy, Untitled (Never Gonna Be Alone), 2008 (photo: Steve Farmer)

New York artist Clive Murphy also obsessively collects audiocassettes—from fields and friends and sides of roads—transforming the tape into a long kinetic drawing that moves gracefully across a wall. Considering that tapes have made a quiet comeback in the underground and indie music scenes, it’s also a reminder of our fickleness when it comes to trendy technologies. As a society we’re often more preoccupied with the means of music and image delivery than we are with the actual content we receive.



Craig Leonard, Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, 2009 (photo: Steve Farmer)

Finally, Craig Leonard created Adventures on the Wheels of Steel by constructing Op-Art patterns with duct tape on bike wheels. The wheels sit on a wall, like a record collection, and you can pick those you like, pop them on a pair of plywood turntables, and “play” them by varying pitch, tone and volume. Completely addicting and joyful, I walked away trying to come up with my own DJ moniker.


Sue Carter Flinn is a Halifax-based writer, editor and artist. She is Arts Editor at The Coast, Halifax's alternative newspaper; editor of Visual Arts News, the only publication dedicated to visual arts in Atlantic Canada; and winner of a 2007 Atlantic Journalism Award for her profile of photographer George Steeves.


Sound Bytes 2009: http://www.soundbytes.ca/

Dalhousie Art Gallery: http://artgallery.dal.ca
See website for current exhibitions.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: http://www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca/en/landing.aspx
Sometimes Always continues until August 30.
 

 

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Posted by L, on 2009-07-16 14:03:44
 
Hey Sue,
Thanks for providing this roundup of all the events at the festival--I hadn't realized there were so many. Love the ferry picture too!
Leah Sandals