Curator's Choice: Sam Belinfante on thunder and listening at BALTIC

By Ben Miller | 07 October 2014

Curator's Choice: Sam Belinfante on Listening, the Hayward Touring show which has opened at BALTIC

A photo of a man in a suit standing inside a modern art gallery while smiling
© Courtesy Hayward Gallery
"The call was around January or February. I knew I wanted to do some kind of sonic art show.

My PhD research has been primarily about the voice. I curated quite a few events around the voice and cinema at Ikon and the Whitechapel.

© Courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison
I wanted to open it up a little bit and think more generally about listening. As you walked in you’d be led around by your ears and the choreography around the space.

I got the job in Easter. It was quite a complex installation. I knew it was going to be technically quite ambitious.

I’ve been lucky – it helps having the Hayward behind you as a stamp of quality, but also a lot of these artists, like Laure Prouvost, are my generation of artists.

Because I knew a lot of them, I could kind of push them a little bit more. If you go up to an artist you don’t know and say ‘I’m gonna show your film and it’s gonna be choreographed’, they’re like, ‘I don’t think so.’

BALTIC 39 is a new space. Luckily we still had all the experience of the BALTIC technical team.

You know they are going to install something well. We are very lucky to start there as it irons out a lot of the problems.

It’s basically a big, vaulted white cube space. In some ways it’s the most challenging of all the places we’re touring to because it’s big and open-plan.

© Courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison
When you go in it might feel like quite a normal exhibition with white walls and gallery lighting. Then suddenly the lights will go off and a video will play.

One of the things I’m going after is this mythology of a listener being separated being out. You have to put your neck to a wall or climb into a chamber, so it goes hand in hand with touch and all the other senses.

The thunderclap, by Hannah Rickards, is in some ways such a simple work.

She recorded the sound of a thunderclap and then slowed it down and played it back so it lasted about ten minutes. Then she got a small orchestra to play that sound exactly so a composer can transcribe it, drawing it out as if it was one expansive chord.

She sped it up and in the installation it plays back as a thunderclap. The actual sound is just under half a second, with all that rumbling.

One reason why it’s a key work for me is the idea of forensic listening: pulling something apart. Through protracting it you can really understand it and see what’s going on.

The second thing is this whole idea of illusion and magic which runs through a lot of the works. We’re used to smoke and mirrors and tricks of the eye. The ears can also deceive.

© Courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison
The thunderclap is a kind of metaphor: if you think about the clap and bang, there’s a kind of loose synchronicity.

You see the thunder and then you hear the bang or vice versa. Even though the light gets to you first, quite often it’s the clap that gets to you.

We’ve got four speakers high up in the ceiling. It comes completely by surprise. You’ll just be walking around looking at other works and then bang, it happens.

It’s around 12 times an hour. At BALTIC it happens at the entrance. You might just be quietly looking at the Janet Cardiff piece and then it bangs. It kind of sets the tone for the whole exhibition, really.

Even though it’s quite loud, people double-take: ‘what happened? What was that?’ There’s a Katie Paterson piece as well – as you open a door in the upstairs gallery, this tiny sound of a star dying happens.

People are like ‘what the hell was that? Did I miss it?’ It was in a Haunch of Venison show in 2009. Most people missed it then, and a lot of people missed it here.

It’s quite an ugly sound. When we installed it people said they expected it to be like an angel singing or something, but it screeches.

There are so many fantastical ideas linked to the piece. It lasts for less than half a second, again.

© Courtesy BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison
Those are the shortest works, but the longest lasts for six hours: the Ragnar Kjartansson film, Song.

This sound really messes with your perspective of time and distance.

It’s based on an Allen Ginsberg poem which he misremembers the lyrics for and teaches to his three nieces, who sit on this kind of rock, like sirens, just there all day singing and brushing their hair and engaging with these lyrics.

It’s kind of vacuous and empty. A lot of his works are extremely durational.

The film is representative of one day of this performance.

The camera just continually spins around them. It goes dark and becomes light again.

Sometimes they’re very active or quiet or resting. There’s this constant drone.

A lot of the works are timed or choreographed in some way, but the Kjartansson piece is just constantly on. It’s the same with Haroon Mirza’s siren: two sirens, like a drone for the exhibition.

Some things will stay with you, some things you’ll miss. It’s funny because when we had the press day, some of them were like ‘oh, there’s a lot going on’ – they were at a moment where all these things converged.

But they gave it five minutes and suddenly it was just the Kjartansson or the Anri Sala film.

I’m very, very wary of making a piece which is like a megamix, which has been done. Give it ten minutes, 20 minutes, an hour...I wanted the overlaps and bleeds.

A lot of people have asked me about the order or trajectory of things, but that contradicts what I’m trying to do. Things might pull or push you, and that’s great.

It seems a very simple proposition, listening, but it’s quite complicated. There are reasons why people don’t do these things in galleries: unlike theatres, galleries are not set up for this kind of thing.

Overriding the lighting system or making control systems is unusual in a white cube space. A big sell was that this exhibition is able to contract or expand.

I was surprised I got the commission, but now I’ve done it I feel really proud of it. They told me over 100 people had applied.

I’m not surprised by that because it’s an amazing opportunity. I’m very spoilt, really.”

  • Listening is at BALTIC 39, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, until January 11 2015; then Bluecoat, Liverpool, January 24 – March 29 2015; Site and Sheffield Institute of Arts gallery, Sheffield, April 11 – May 31 2015; Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, Norwich, July 19 – October 17 2015.

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