Haroon Mirza talks to Emma Williams, Exhibition Organiser, British Council
‘I wouldn’t really call myself a sound artist’
Haroon Mirza talks to Emma Williams, Exhibition Organiser, British Council
24 April 2012
EW: The first thing you notice when approaching one of your installations is the sound – a distinct (often electronically generated) pulsing of noise which entices the viewer. How do you create or select the sounds that you work with?
HM: Mostly the sounds are created – and this is a basic principal in my work – where I amplify the sound of electricity passing through LED lights or use the interference of electrical items such as light bulbs (specifically energy saving light bulbs) with transistor radios. So basically, what you’re hearing is actually electricity - the sound of electricity. And then there’re also other sounds which are more organic sounds: recorded sounds from video or physical sounds of things striking things.
EW: You talk a lot about the immersive qualities of your work. Is this immersive experience something you aim for when creating a work?
HM: Kind of. I’m interested in sound in space: how sound exists within space, and how you identify sounds with a certain space or a certain point in space. Auditory space is very different to visual space. Visual space is very direct and straight (you can see in front of you but you can’t see behind you); but acoustic space is spherical, and so if you make a sound like this (claps), the sound travels omnidirectionally (in all directions) at the same rate and so it forms a sphere which can go through walls and objects. If you hear a sound from behind a wall you can still hear it but you can’t see what’s behind the wall. So, whereas objects sort of get in front of visual space, they don’t with acoustic space and I’m interested in how sounds exist within this space. By placing things that generate audio around a space, that automatically creates an immersive environment because sound is all around you rather than just at one point. I don’t specifically try and create an immersive space but it just is immersive from the very nature of it.
EW: There has been a lot of discussion around the balance between sound and music within your work. What are your thoughts on the distinction between the two? Is there a difference? And if so, how do the two different spheres operate for you?
HM: There’s a couple of things here: one is the idea of sound or sound art and then music as a genre or a discipline (or as disciplines), but there’s also the idea of music as organised sound or organised noise. So if you have sounds or noises and you put any kind of structure to them, it can be perceived as music. So I guess those things, those nuances are very interesting to me. I wouldn’t really call myself a sound artist because I’m not really interested in the sound, or a sound itself, but I’m interested in what can be achieved by composing with sound. So, I’m a composer, but I’m organising sounds rather than music (which you could obviously argue is a form of organised sound also), but not in a traditional or conventional way. I’m using objects and materials which are presented in a space to generate sounds, and that is my interest – to kind of define and look at the distinctions between what is sound, what is noise, what is music and what makes those distinctions.
EW: Of course, your work is not only about the sound elements. They are also quite complex and multifaceted sculptural installations. How do you go about composing your installations? And what comes first for you: sound or object? Or maybe something else?
HM: The point where the work begins is always different – sometimes it’s a sound, sometimes it’s an object, sometimes it’s an idea or an investigation into some kind of phenomenon or some kind of cultural or socio-cultural interest. There’s no kind of formulaic way of making a work for me. But the one constant thing is that my work is a very studio based practice where I really kind of play around with materials: the materials could be physical things or they could be ideas, or just something that I find interesting. Then that usually evolves into a work. But I guess the most common thing is that I always try and compose things: to put things together and you know, try things out in relation to other things, whether it’s a reference to something or whether it’s an object or a sound.
EW: Your sculptures quite often involve ready-made objects (furniture, turntables, lamps, fairy lights etc) but you have also used other artists’ works in many of your pieces – particularly the work of Jeremy Deller, Guy Sherwin and more recently your studio assistant James Clarkson). What draws you to these artists’ works in particular?
HM: I get interested in artists’ works for various reasons but it’s always something that they weren’t usually intended for in the first place, especially with existing works. With Jeremy Deller’s work for instance, the thing that interested me when I first saw his film Memory Bucket (the film aboutTexas which was presented at the Turner Prize), was this scene at the end with the bats flying out of the cave for feeding. The thing that struck me most about the film was the audio – the sound of it - and you know speaking to Jeremy about it, it was impossible to actually record or document that audio, because the sound (the echo-location of the bats – their voices) was just so intense that you couldn’t capture it. So he [Jeremy] said it was quite an intense sound but the reproduction of it also had a very sort of intense thing about it. Speaking to him about the bats, he also kind of liked the idea of this being part of a composition. At some point I asked if I could work with this footage, so he gave me the raw footage that he shot so I could work with that.
That content then became a component or an element – a sonic element – in my work. It always had its own kind of history and reference as what it stood for within the film Memory Bucket, but then in the context of my work, it became something else as well as what it already was. So it’s somehow kind of changing the function of the work, which is the same as what I do with ready-made objects you know. I take the ready-made object and alter its function to do something else. And this is the same with Guy Sherwin’s work. With James Clarkson’s work it was slightly different in that it was more of a visual thing. The idea was to produce an album of several works that made sound, and I mean it’s a strange kind of an abstract thing, but I commissioned James to design the album artwork, which were these sort of sculptures. I was more interested in his kind of work as a sort of assemblage, and the mode of displays that he uses and the references to Modernist design that are evident in his work. So it was more of an aesthetic visual thing that I was interested in in that sense, and then I modified these works afterwards to generate sounds.
So it’s always different when I work with other artists: sometimes it’s existing works, for one reason or another, either an audio reason or a functional reason. For instance, Giles Round, I’ve worked with before, and he makes these light flex pieces, so it’s flex in floor to ceiling forms that reference letters, and they have bulbs on the end so they’re kind of lamps. So his work does one thing, but in my installation, the bulb in the end interferes with the radio so it has another function. So it’s then again used as a lamp, which is its intention anyway, but it’s doing this other thing as well. And also it was the letters – MW - which refer to the medium wave of a radio signal. So, it’s always different when I work with other artists but it’s always in dialogue with the artist if they’re obviously around, and it’s always a conversation.
EW: In addition to artistic and art-historical references, your works quite often draw on particular cultural references relating to Islam (eg the Qu’ran box and the Sufi figure in the work Taka Tak or the inferences in Adhãn, which features the singer Yusuf Islam – formerly Cat Stevens). You’ve spoken in earlier interviews about the place of music in Islamic culture, and I wonder if you could talk us through the combination of music and Islamic references in your work. Is this an ongoing area of interest for you?
HM: I guess it is, but it’s quite an abstract thing. Originally when I was interested in religion, it was more to do with just religious faith and it was kind of a critique of religious faith in general and religion’s relationship to death, rather than anything specifically to do with Islam. I was brought up Muslim and so I had a much wider knowledge of Islam than I did of any other religion, so it was kind of an easy thing for me to be concerned with. I guess the critique for me was about music and the place of music in Islamic culture, as in certain regimes [in Islam] music it is sort of frowned upon and related to things like infidelity and other terrible things if you listen to or engage with music. But in actual fact, the religion itself is very musical: the way the Qu’ran is recited is musical; the way the Adhãn (the call to prayer) is recited is musical and poetic; and so there is this huge contradiction about what music’s place is in Islamic culture and for me that was a way of critiquing religious faith or the dogmatic side of religion. It wasn’t specifically about Islam, it was more to do with just religious faith in general. It also became about death, so looking at religion as a symbol for the fear of death somehow and music’s relationship to the fear of death.
So later works, after Adhãn and Taka Tak for instance, are more about these things - I’ve kind of moved away now but in an abstract way. There was a work that I made called Birds of Pray, where the word ‘pray’ was spelt P-R-A-Y, instead of a bird of ‘prey’. The work was based on sirens from Greek mythology and their kind of acoustic calling. Like the adhãn is an acoustic calling (a calling out to come and pray), the sirens would do the same thing but it was to the sailors’ demise. So it was this kind of idea that religion is somehow to do with this fear: connecting religion to death through music. That was the kind of thing that came out of this and I guess it’s a sub-text to my work somehow.
EW: Moving to popular music references, your work has often borrowed from popular music culture (whether it’s the 1970s club scene in Paradise Loft; Cat Stevens playing guitar in Adhãn or Ian Curtis performing with Joy Division in Regaining a Degree of Control). Is this something that you see continuing within your work? Do you feel that music is a big influence?
HM: Yeah, music is definitely a big influence because of what I do, which is kind of creating a musical composition or audio composition. I think there’s definitely always a degree of borrowing or kind of referencing popular (or not so popular) musical culture. But also, in all those instances, there’s always been another subject that’s more at the forefront. For instance, with Adhãn and Cat Stevens, it was the fact that he gave up his career in music when he became Muslim, and it was to do with this kind of religious dogma. He of course later changed his mind and started making music again, but that was more the interest with him. With Ian Curtis, it was more his epilepsy actually that I was interested in. That work (Regaining a Degree of Control, 2010) was a portrait of Ian Curtis and his relationship to epilepsy (it featured this kind of strobe light that was illuminating him). That was kind of a personal thing because I also suffer from epilepsy and so it had this other sort of connection. With Paradise Loft I guess, I was more interested in the form of beatmixing – mixing two records together as an art form – and what that did for music and culture. But of course these things are direct musical references, and so it’s less the sound that is influencing the works but the cultural histories around them I guess that are the most interesting things for me in those works.
EW: You’ve described your new work Untitled Song featuring Untitled Works by James Clarkson, which featured in your recent solo exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol, as a concept album or composition in 6 sections. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the work, it’s a large, room-sized installation made up of 6 individual sculptural compositions which each flicker into life, sometimes simultaneously, to create new and dynamic interactions between the sculptures and the sounds that they make. Do you see yourself moving into the realm of a composer or producer in some ways?
HM: Yes I think so. I mean I’ve started to think about what I do – the work I do – as the work of a composer, but not in a conventional sense I guess, because I’m composing things in space (objects and visual material in space) as well as sound in time. But then with moving image as well, it’s kind of composing both visual and acoustic material at the same time. I feel more comfortable with the idea of ‘composer’ than say, ‘sound artist’ or ‘kinetic artist’, or any of these other descriptions of what I do. Composer somehow seems a word which is ubiquitous with visual arts in terms of composition and also with music and curating I guess. More so than the word ‘producer’ somehow because, producer doesn’t seem to encompass all those different things in such a neat way. So, I guess, yes, is the short answer, but at the same time you know, it’s more complex than that and not that easy to just label, as it might not be understood if you were to say ‘oh, this person is a composer’ - you might have a different understanding of that and so it’s not really that easy just to say that.
EW: You recently won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Biennale. Has this made any difference to your career to date? Are you experiencing more recognition or notoriety as a result – particularly from an international audience?
HM: Yeah I think so. After Venicethings definitely changed in that people became familiar with my work internationally. I think before that time I was pretty much unknown actually, certainly internationally I mean. There was definitely interest in my work in Great Britain, but internationally, none whatsoever, so it was a huge change for me and it’s good, but it’s also very demanding.
EW: And finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any new exhibitions or projects that you can tell us about at all?
HM: Yes. So currently I’m working on a trilogy of exhibitions: one just opened on Friday in St Gallen in Switzerland and one previous before that was in Ann Arbor in Michigan and the next one is opening in a few weeks in Berlin (24th May 2012). It’s three exhibitions that explore features in gallery spaces – really common features in gallery spaces – so, you often will find pillars in gallery spaces and shadow gaps (which are the spaces between the wall and the floor where people hide cables) and so I’m trying to occupy these spaces that don’t usually get occupied, and at the same time reducing the material in my work down to its bare minimum. I’m trying to get rid of elements like furniture and other materials that are usually propping up LEDs and speakers and things and actually just use the architecture of a space to house this material. So it’s more of a minimal approach to installation I guess, and also trying to occupy the spaces in galleries that don’t usually get occupied.
EW: So do you think you’re composing exhibitions across different spaces now, rather than just within one exhibition?
HM: Kind of, yeah. It’s almost like using, or taking or incorporating a space as a readymade object as well, you know, thinking about it in that way. So the work - the space - becomes part of the sculpture. I know this is kind of a tradition anyway but this is more about occupying the space rather than making it site-specific. Also, the new shows have these typographical codes almost, which spell out ‘Occupied’ and then the space, which also has a reference to the Occupy movement which is another political position that it takes. This will maybe culminate in another exhibition at the end of the year inNew Yorkat The New Museum.
 Both Jeremy Deller’s film Memory Bucket (2003) and damaged off-cuts from Guy Sherwin’s film Cycles #1 (1972/1977) were included in Haroon Mirza’s installation An_Infinato (2009).
 James Clarkson’s works featured in Mirza’s installation Untitled Song featuring Untitled Works by James Clarkson (2012)