Interview with Ed Osborn by Yumika Tanaka (This interview took place on May 9, 1996.)
SoundCulture'96 was the third transpacific festival of contemporary sound practices. The first was in Sydney, the second in Tokyo, and this time it came to San Francisco. Sound Artists, artists, researchers, cultural theorists, presenting organizations, academic institutions, and others working with sound, from all walks of life came to participate in the sound events.
SoundCulture'96 is the only festival of its kind in this country and most of the shows, which took place all over the Bay Area from April 3-13 th, sold out, proving that there is a strong demand for these types of events.
Ed Osborn, an active sound artist from Oakland, was the director of SoundCulture'96. After receiving his MFA from Mills College in Music Composition with an emphasis on Electronic and Recorded Media, he became interested in installations and working with sound outside of musical forms. His works have been shown throughout North America, Europe and South America.
YT: What is SoundCulture? EO: SoundCulture means different things to different people. The focus of the festival is the way that different cultures work with sound outside of the area of music. Music is the most obvious area of aural cultural expression, but there is a wide terrain of communication and expression that happens in sound and not in the form of music. So SoundCulture is a broad term that serves to highlight some of these different ways of using sound and gives some focus to existing sound practices that don't otherwise get much attention. The festival focuses on activities in the Pacific Region because there are a number of things that happen quite differently than they do in Europe: different ways of thinking and different manners of working with sound. When the festival was first put together in 1991 it was designed to be a Pacific Region Festival and we decided keep it that way for this edition of it. We had a meeting of the international committee here during the festival and we talked a little bit about expanding into Europe and we decided for the moment not to. Mainly it came down to the fact that 1) the Pacific sensibility is a special thing which is worth preserving; and 2) although there are a great deal of interesting sound activities in Europe, there are already plenty of venues for it so they are not hurting for more.
YT: How was SoundCulture developed? EO: It was started by a number of artists and organizers in Sydney. In Australia there is a particular stream of sound art work that has been developing for quite a while, and eventually some of the people involved with it wanted to put together a showcase for it. There is also a long-running program on ABC radio (Australia Broadcast Corporation) which is the nationwide radio network there called "Listening Room." Every week for two hours there is a broadcast of all sorts of experimental sound work. So in terms of national consciousness there is already something on the air every week, and all over Australia you can tune into the program - although I am sure it is not one of the higher-rated programs on the radio.
So there is a regular representation of experimental sound work in a relatively mainstream venue, and this has certainly helped to alert a wide audience to the fact that this kind of sound work exists and is a flourishing field. So the combination of that and the presence of a number of artists doing interesting works made a good situation in which to start the festival. At that festival in 1991 there were people from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US, giving it the Pacific flavor that it has maintained. A small working group was formed at that festival to plan the direction of future editions of SoundCulture, and it was decided that next ones would be in Japan and then the US. So the one in Tokyo happened in '93, and then it was our turn here. Originally ours was going to happen last year, but for various reasons it was not going to work to get all the organizations involved at some point during '95 so we decided to put that off to '96. The next one will probably be in New Zealand, but it is not certain yet. If it does happen there then it will be '98 or '99. YT: How did you get involved in SoundCulture? EO: I knew some of the people who have been in the previous editions and a couple of people who would had been the key organizers here ended up moving to Australia. They were not around to organize it, but there was still a group of us who were interested in trying to make it happen. We got together and started planning about two years ago, a little longer actually. Eventually, just to make this run more smoothly, I agreed to be the director so that we could be more focused and have one central person who would know what was going on. Everything was run on a volunteer basis, and of course that makes it difficult to do things efficiently, but with me as the director and some other people taking care of specific things, we got everything to happen. We didn't have an office or anything, I just ran everything out of my laptop computer.
YT: What did you think of it overall? EO: Oh, I thought it was quite successful. I was amazed that most of the events were sold out and that there were huge audiences. I don't know where they all came from, I have no idea.
YT: I think some people found out about it from the web, but I found out about this through a friend, then I checked out the web site which was very helpful during the festival. EO: Our web site was informative, but it was not like one of these really snazzy web pages or anything like that. There was an article in the S.F. Bay Guardian that came out that helped to draw a lot of people in, but I think it was also good word of mouth more than anything. A lot of people kept telling me that they only kept hearing good things about it, that it is a fun festival to be at, with a lot of interesting people and a lot of different kinds of work going on. So that sort of kept people interested. YT: Do you think SoundCulture changed you somehow? EO: It is hard to say, because it is still fairly soon after the festival has finished up. I am a lot more organized now than I was before I did this, but that just comes out of necessity. The thing I really value about it is that an event like this gathers all these interesting people who are working in sound. For me that is even more valuable than having the exhibitions or concerts - although that is certainly important part of the discourse that goes on as well. But it's pretty huge amount of work to get it all to happen.
YT: How big was the event? EO: When all was said and done we included the work of 228 participants in 17 exhibitions, 10 panels, and 55 performances and other events. These occurred at 33 sites throughout the Bay Area and involved 32 presenting organizations. It's really huge. I didn't realize that it was so big until I sat down and added it up. YT: Didn't you expect things to get this big? EO: Oh, no. I knew it's going to be big but I thought there were probably going to be maybe 40 artists or something. I've never bothered to add anything up until a couple of months before it started and then it turned out to be a lot more than I had expected. YT: Do you have any disappointments, regrets, or something you wish that could have happened? EO: It's hard to say, because a lot of stuff got included. Fairly early on when we were planning everything we made a list of different kinds of work that we want to have happened and I think they are all included. We wanted to have noise bands, something on acoustic ecology, panels, computer network stuff, high tech work, instrument building, installations, radio pieces, activities for kids, and so on, and there was something from all these categories on the festival. I think the only shortcoming is that one of the things we tried to do is to find some innovative indigenous sound practices from non-Western cultures among the Pacific Islands, Native American groups here, or cultures from Central and South America, and our efforts didn't yield very much. We had the call for entries translated into Spanish and distributed here, in Mexico, and in South America, but nothing came back from it. It probably would have been better to have more actively curated that area rather than just seeing what showed up in the mail, but that certainly would have required more time and resources than we had available to us. Even with a few of the SoundCulture organizers having good contacts in those areas, we weren't able to find anything that fit the bill.
For example, we had heard about a particular storytelling practice among the Chinese Hmong people that involves playing a wind instrument by singing into it and dancing at the same time. There is a Hmong community in Bakersfield, but of the people there none had maintained this practice enough to feel comfortable presenting it to an outside audience. So in that case it meant if we wanted to include it in the festival then we would have to find someone in China and bring them over here. And there wasn't the money to do that. There is also a really interesting artist in Indonesia, Heri Dono, who we wanted to bring over, but again there wasn't the money to do that and the Indonesian government doesn't pay to send their artists abroad, so we were stuck. I think that that was the only thing that was something of a disappointment in that it didn't happen. But that was mainly due to lack of money, and lack of money is no surprise nowadays. But other than that we had representations of all the different kinds of work that we had planned, and I was happy with that. YT: During SoundCulture'96, were there any surprises or any successful stories that you want to talk about? EO: There were a lot of nice surprises. Projects that looked like they might be hard to realize under particular circumstances ended up turning out very well. Kathy Kennedy's piece which was held at the Town Center Mall in Corte Madera took on a lot of different transformations during the course of the planning. Originally it was going to be with a choir and it was going to be a slightly different piece in a different location, then a choir couldn't be found. So then Public Art Works (the organization producing that event) found a site in the mall where something could happen. When they told me I thought, "A shopping mall? Well okay, whatever." Shopping malls are usually pretty deadly places, but I thought the piece worked really well in the site. So that was a really good surprise. Also I thought that the panel on "Acoustic Ecology" at Headlands Center for the Arts were pretty good because there were whole range of work that was represented there.
We also got Negativland to perform at the Trocadero Transfer, which I was happy about. That performance looked kind of dicey for a while because of logistical requirements, but it got pulled together really well. Since Negativland has been doing their wonderful show on KPFA for years, they are at the forefront of appropriation practices, and they have had a large influence on contemporary sound practice, I wanted to make sure that they be included in the festival. If SoundCulture had happened here without hem, it would have been a really serious omission. YT: Are you going to get involved in the next SoundCulture event? Can you tell us anything about it? EO: Since I am on the International Committee, I help keep things running from this end (the US) as much as I can. But because this is a festival that moves around from place to place, I am not really going to be doing whole a lot for the next one so far as I know. It will be probably be New Zealand in '98 or '99, but it's not certain yet because the people there haven't committed to organizing it yet. I know there are some people that are meeting there about it some time later this month. They are going to be talking about to see how it looks, and they will probably be looking at all the same issues that we did when we started two ago.
One of the things that I imagine that they'll try to do is to find one organization to take on the project in-house. When were first talking about doing the festival, we wanted to have an existing organization to do exactly that. But while the organizations we approached about this were all interested in participating in the festival, none of them wanted to take on the responsibility for organizing a big project like this. Because the funding has gotten so peculiar lately, taking on something big like this is, quite understandably, just asking for trouble. Ultimately, not having the event centered at one site worked very well in terms of the overall contour of the event, but it did make it very hard to keep everything organized properly. YT: Is there anything that you particularly want to mention about SoundCulture? EO: Well, there was hardly any budget for the event. For the amount of money we had raised, we were planning far too many events. In that situation it would have been eminently sensible to have just given up, given the money back, and just forgotten about it. But it's a credit to everyone involved that they stuck with it, put in a lot of time and energy, and made it happen. It's really a miracle that something this large could happen given what the funding situation for the arts is right now.
There is also a reluctance among arts organizations and funding agencies around here regarding involvement with large festivals. This is a result of what happened with Festival 2000 in 1990. Festival 2000 was designed to be San Francisco's equivalent to the LA Festival: a big, cutting-edge, multi-cultural arts festival. It was supposed to designate San Francisco as the art place to be for the 21st Century, and there were a large number of arts organizations and funders involved. But it was badly managed and they didn't have as much money as they really needed, so after one week of a three-week festival they closed it down. And this left a lot of performers unpaid and a number of funders and organizations that had done a great deal of work for the event with nothing to show for it. So after that there exists an understandable reluctance for any of these organizations to get involved with large events.
So although SoundCulture wasn't planned to be as large as it turned out, it grew big because there was a lot of interest among the organizations in making it happen and it seemed feasible to do with their help. On the other hand, I don't recommend this as a model for making a festival occur. Trying to stretch a tiny amount of money into covering lots of things basically means that a lot of people have to work very hard and end up getting burned out. But over all it's a good thing that happened and good to know that a lot of people were willing to work hard to make it go. YT: Do you consider yourself a sound artist? EO: Yes, but that title doesn't say very much about what I do. It says something about technique but it doesn't say anything about the work. In addition, the term doesn't mean a great deal to anyone who isn't already familiar with the field, so even though I use the term to describe what I do, it is of limited usefulness. The vagueness of the term points to the fact that the field isn't as recognized as it should be and that there isn't a formalized practice of it. The variety of forms in which artists are using sound preclude a solid definition of the field. This is related to the fact that most arts-presenting institutions are usually ill-equipped to deal with sound art - no surprise since almost none of them were designed for it.
Gallery spaces are generally set up to look at art but not to listen to it. In those spaces there are often problems with sound from one piece bleeding into another, or the sonic qualities of an exhibition space aren't suited for sound work - the flat walls cause lots of reverberation which may not be desirable.
In addition, the structures of institutions that present music or performance can sometimes also be a detriment to the presentation of sound art. Sometimes a theater-type space is all that is available and that is sometimes not suitable to particular types of sound work. In addition, sound art performances are occasionally scheduled on concerts with music. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, at the very least it is difficult for a listener to change their way of listening from musical habits to other modes in the middle of a concert.
So generally it is difficult for those kinds of institutional structures to accommodate the variety of work that is found in the field of sound art. All the organizations that participated in SoundCulture were, to their credit, very open-minded about all of these issues. But even the most generous program director is going to think twice before rebuilding their gallery space to handle a special project, no matter what it is.
In some senses, the closest ideal institution is radio because it is experienced only as sound and listening to radio tends to be a personal kind of experience. But of course there are no visuals with radio, so that knocks out a great deal of possible work right there. That aside, radio is a very good medium for sound art. The main problem lies in acquiring radio space for experimental projects, since all of the commercial and non-commercial broadcast channels available are very tightly formatted. And that formatting has set up a rather rigid set of expectations among both programmers and audience about what the possibilities of radio are. So spaces on radio that are open to experimental work are not that common. Fortunately for SoundCulture, we had the cooperation of KPFA, which offers much more space for experimentation than any other radio station around here except maybe for the unlicensed radio transmitters.
So it's an art form that takes on a wide variety of formats, but one of the artifacts of that is that doesn't fit very well into any existing institutional frameworks. In pursuing my own career, I have lost count of times when a gallery director would say, "Well, that's very interesting but you know, we never had a sound piece here before and we wouldn't know what we would do with it." It's not really that hard to deal with but it is true that galleries generally are not set up for it. I had a review recently of an exhibition I did in Michigan where the writer said that sound did not belong in gallery or museum settings; he missed the fact that those places are not designed for sound in the first place. But that review did make clear two things. One, there is a real need for education and the inclusion of sound in the standard arts practices and two, there is likely to be a great deal of resistance to the form in part because by its nature it slips across the boundaries and categories that everyone is used to in visual arts culture.
Since SoundCulture highlighted the fact that sound art is a solid field, hopefully it will help to overcome some of this resistance and garner the area a bit more attention. As that happens, describing oneself as a sound artist will not be quite such a novelty, nor will it lead to the kinds of puzzlement that I am now used to encountering. YT: I saw your exhibition at Center for the Arts Yerba Buena Gardens. Can you tell me about the piece? How did you come up with the title "Parabolica"? EO: "Parabolica" is an Italian word for parabolic, and a parabolic curve is a particular form that can be described mathematically. In Italy, there is an automobile race track, Monza, in which one of the curves is named Parabolica because of its shape; it's actually the last one before the finish line on the track and it is well-known in automobile racing culture. I watch car racing obsessively, it's just about my only interest in sports, so there is always a lot of generally useless information about it rolling around in my brain. Once in a while, as with this piece, something relating to it makes its way into a project I am doing.
The statistical form of the bell curve is a parabola. Since measurements of a great variety of human activities show up as a bell curve when plotted out and that some of the studies that show this have ugly implications about the distribution of skills and intelligence across social groups, it seemed that the parabolic form of the bell curve could be used as a reference both to the Darwinistic tendencies in human culture generally and, if sports are viewed as a simplified abstraction of these tendencies, to the specific forms of competition found in them - car racing being one example. As the curve on this particular track is right before the finish line (it's the last spot for the cars to pass one another before reaching it) and discrepancies in performance between automobile racing teams is largely a result of unequal access to financial resources, the title seemed apt in referring to the inequities that affect outcomes resulting from human performance and capabilities on all levels.
The piece itself is made from a materials used to build a model train set, and an engine that pulls a special car equipped with a speaker circulates around it continuously. The track is designed as a loop with one part of it splitting into many different paths that feed back and forth between one another. Each time the train goes around the track, the switches that determine what route the train will take get reset randomly so that it takes different one through this matrix of paths. While the train starts out each loop at the same point, it will end up at one of five different segments each time around depending on how the switches happen to be set. Because of the way that the paths are laid out, the train will take the routes through the middle more often than it will the ones on the inner and outer part of the loop. So over time the train is describing with its motion the form of the bell curve.
As the train does this it broadcasts sounds of people talking about making decisions and plans, describing confidence and certainty, and sounds of highly stressed mechanical systems. In the piece it is possible to hear the sounds of trains and racing cars and some other machinery. There are also sounds referring to human activities like applause, laughter, crowds of people talking, and sounds referring to forces of nature. So there are aural representations of human and natural energies being expended, all referring to some notion of determination. As these sounds are heard, the vehicle carrying them (the train) is illustrating a tendency towards the average, its course determined at random and beyond its control. YT: Some of the sound are hard to hear especially when people are talking. Are they speaking in English language? EO: Yes, it is in English. The sounds that the train broadcasts are picked up from the rails, and as the train rolls along them dirt accumulates on the track. The more dirt there is, the fuzzier the sound; it's a problem we've been battling with for the course of the exhibit. It's equivalent to playing a vinyl record: the more it is played the less clear it becomes. Even when we clean off the track and wipe everything down, it gets dirty again very quickly; it's a technical shortcoming of the piece.
But the idea of the sound actually coming through the rails is important. You've probably seen an image of someone putting their ear to a train track or done it yourself to hear if a train is coming. Sound vibrations travel better through solid materials that they do in air, therefore an "ear to the ground" will allow listening at a greater distance, and I wanted to have this idea present in the piece.
YT: What did inspire you to do this project? EO: The original inspiration for the piece occurred when was when I was looking at a train track and realized they are often used to carry electricity, so they could be used to carry audio signals. Since they are designed to allow something to move along them (a train car),this system could be used to provide an audio signal to a moving speaker, and having a moving sound source that is possible to have some control over is something that I've been interested in doing for a long time. With model trains there is a mechanical system already in place designed to pick up signals from the rails (to provide power to the engines), so I had to modify it a little bit to get audio, but it wasn't difficult. So that's how it started. It took a while after that to figure out how to use this system in a way that made sense as a piece, but eventually it all came together. YT: I have noticed that the rail sways slightly which is very nice. EO: It's sort of hypnotizing. Since the track is suspended, it sways back and forth a little bit when the train goes around. Originally I was planning to have supports coming up from the floor to hold everything in place, but that would have been too impractical. When we were putting it together and trying to figure out how to hold it off the floor, the crew at Center for the Arts suggested to hang it. At first I didn't think that it was going to work, that there would need to be too many cables hanging down from the ceiling, but we only needed five so it worked out very well. The whole staff at Center the Arts was very helpful in putting the show together, I certainly couldn't have done it all myself. They always made sure that I got what I needed to complete the project. The shape of the track is wavy in order to emulate the roads found in Dr. Seuss's books. I wanted the look of those curvy, one-lane roads with no guard rails that the characters are always driving pointy little cars around on.
YT: Are you doing anything right now? Do you have any plans for future? EO: There are a couple of projects that I am working on now that I had to put on hold during the organizing of SoundCulture. One is a project working with blind people in San Francisco. I got a grant to develop a project working with the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It's a community-based project, and I am working with them to develop an aural portrait of some of the people in it. Once we get the audio material together it will be played through a very specialized locating system for the blind that is being installed in a number of different locations in San Francisco. The plan at the moment is for it to be installed in Yerba Buena Gardens when the whole system gets put in place there. Since it is a public site, it has to be approved by lots of city agencies and the whole process is very slow, but that's the way it is. So the project probably won't be done until next year sometime.
I am also working on a project in Seattle which involves a bus shelter at the University of Washington. We are still talking about how that's going to go, and since that also is a public project, it will take a while too. "Parabolica" will be shown in Berlin later this year, so I'll be going over to set it up and maybe doing some other projects when I am there as well.