Modulated Everyday Sounds
On the sound sculptures of Justin Boyd (USA)
Sounds of extremely different kinds surround us daily, and the ear is probably the sensory organ that reacts most sensitively to external influences: what is heard penetrates the body at diverse frequencies and is filtered, probed, and stored. At the moment of hearing, whether we want it or not, the noises of the outside world impact on the inside of the body. These dimensions of acoustic experience are made concrete in works by Justin Boyd, in which auditive compositions are combined with sculptural objects, film projections and collaged found objects to create installations perceived by several senses at once.
Boyd has been interested in the changeability of recorded sound since the mid 1990s, and his path to Sound Art led via work as a DJ. He captures the ephemeral sounds of his environment with various technical devices and then filters, edits, modulates and distorts them: the sound of bells from clock-towers, the twittering of sparrows, the rattle of trains; here, the American landscape often acts as a thematic focal point of his works. Days and Days (2012), for example, is conceived as subtle homage to the Texan San Antonio River: in eleven small-format, illuminated boxes with peepholes, he arranged found items from the river ‒ such as scraps of plastic or lumps of clay ‒ into assemblages, and combines these with video projections. Recorded sound frequencies form a dissonant backdrop of sound. The acoustically underlaid mini-dioramas, in which time and space are concentrated while the actual river flows on continually, conjure the complicated significances of this waterway – as a natural biotope, life-supporting cultural asset, and economic transport system.
Vibrational 1 (2013) is also an ingenious interplay of found object and sound collage. A rusting canister hangs on a string equipped with a small bell; from the battered objet trouvé we hear the slow, deep peal of bells – recorded from French 17th century bells –, which is amplified simply by the hollow tin container and gradually overridden by the high-pitched twitter of sparrows. The noises sound familiar, but their counter-factual distortion in combination with the installative display shifts the relations of what we hear and what we see.
Adorno already wrote of New Music that it demanded effort to listen to it adequately, to knock off the varnish of our established patterns of response. In a similar way, sound sculptures by Justin Boyd challenge our perception at the moment of aesthetic experience and demand sensitive observation and listening.
Max Fields (MF) I’m sure that your exhibition will bring out an eclectic audience, some of whom may not be familiar with your practice: when did you first begin recording sound, and what influenced you to use those recordings in your artwork?
Justin Boyd (JB) From the very beginning, sound has been an important part of my life. I had very sensitive hearing as a small child, so lots of things hurt my ears—in fact most of my early nightmares had to do with loud sounds. I also had a small turntable very early on, and loved to play records every morning when I woke up. It wasn’t until the third grade that I actually started to record sounds. My dad had a hi-fi with a small microphone so I would record my own radio show straight to cassette tape. I remember when he showed me how to plug it all in; I was so amazed! It made sense to me that this thing I was holding was connected to a wire that went into this machine, then to that tape, then out to the speakers. I could understand the flow of it. I didn’t record sound continuously from that early age, but I got back into it through the electronic music I started listening to. I started recording found sounds to cassette again to use as source material for ambient dj sets and mix tapes. At this same time I was an undergrad in art school and was encouraged to make work that meant something to me, so at that time I started to incorporate sound into my ceramic pieces. I haven’t stopped since then, so I guess that makes twenty years now.
(MF) There are similarities in the way you explore landscapes and the way that your audience engages with your work. It’s as if when walking through your exhibitions, your memories, personal histories, and the narratives of the local landscapes are instantaneously translated to the engaged participants as new nostalgia. For example, in Days and Days, where you explored your relationship with the San Antonio River and its history, the sights and sounds of the water became a catalyst for your audience to explore their own memories with water, rivers, etc. I’m curious to hear about some of the reactions you’ve gotten from your exhibition audience and friends – if they ever reveal their memories that are related to the sonic/physical landscapes you explore in your exhibitions.
(JB) Sure, there are many. Beyond just my fascination with sound, it has a very direct path to our memory and imagination. In fact I feel very strongly that sound leaves much more to the viewer/listener’s imagination than visuals do. Because of that, I feel no hesitations about making work that might be abstract; the sounds open up a really wide door of access to the work, allowing the viewer to make associations and connections of their own. For example, I often hear many stories about specific sounds reminding folks of their past, a bug sound they heard on the farm, a fiddle tune they used to know, etc… I’ve had people give me records that they owned, whole collections in fact. They may not be getting the use they once had, so they want to share the music with me in hopes I’ll be able to keep its spirit alive. And many times I do, if not in a piece, then playing it on the radio show for sure.
(MF) I’m interested to hear about your personal relationship to Houston. You’ve shown work here numerous times; did you visit the city before your career as an artist?
(JB) No, I don’t remember visiting Houston really until I went to see some DJs there in college. Then a little later in school, once I started taking modern art history courses and realized so many amazing things resided at the Menil, I started to go see art there more often. Since moving back to Texas in 2005 I try to get there at least 3-4 times a year. Art, music, and good friends make me wish I could visit more than I do. There is no doubt about the gravity Houston pulls when it comes to art, and not just the museums; the gallery scene is vibrant and supportive of all types of work. It feels like a bigger stage, but you know you still have mostly friends in the audience.
(MF) Could you talk about the process of finding/creating the physical objects, sound and video, and perhaps give us some insight into the type of research you’re interested in exploring when you’re creating a site-specific work such as the work created for Three Exhibitions?
(JB) The research I do almost always starts with recording sounds. I start there because it helps me to understand a place or environment much faster than with my eyes alone. I was recently in Berlin and I know that if someone played me a street recording of that city, I could pick it out from another European city. Mankind’s imprint on a sound environment leaves lots of clues about what we do and why we do it, so it is a different way to understand a place and ourselves in that place.
(MF) How does the work in this exhibition relate to the themes and histories that you’re exploring in your overarching practice?
(JB) I usually describe myself as a landscape artist because I feel almost all of my work deals with that subject directly. I’ve been really excited to have the opportunity to explore an area of town that is under rapid change and to use a space that mirrors in many ways the upheaval happening around it. I’m very much interested in how houses and buildings in a neighborhood reveal histories, how neighborhoods relate to the others around it, and how the intersection of those things create culture in the city.
(MF) After spending some time in the Axelrad building, and working mostly only with the materials available in the space, how did you approach making work for this exhibition? Specifically, how did the materials influence the direction you took?
(JB) This show is unlike anything I have done before, and I really appreciate the opportunity Suplex has given me to experiment with a new way of working. You’re right—besides a couple of minor things, I chose to only to use materials on site to create the works in the show. This way of working is a real challenge and at times I felt like I was on Iron Chef, using only one ingredient to make several dishes. The main difference being that I imposed the one dish on myself. With that said, I feel the resulting work is unlike anything I have done before and I wouldn’t have been able to create these works without that restriction. The layout of each room and the abandoned objects found in them directly influenced where the works were installed.
(MF) There are threads in the exhibition that can be connected across the four room installations, but I’m curious to ask how you feel about the connections between the works. The materials used in each room say a lot about the histories of the building, but there’s also an emotional thread throughout the works that echo an overarching history of urban housing abandonment, as experienced from the perspective of a tenet who may return again. These are some of the first ideas we talked about as we walked the space, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on these connections after having some time to think about the work.
(JB) Thoughts of dislocation, transience, and transformation were bouncing around my head the whole time I was in the space. The neighborhood and the building have seen a massive amount of shifts. So I really wanted to filter all the work through those ideas and have them come out the other side transformed in time in some way... So the time in one of the spaces feels as if a tenet is maybe coming back, another abstracts time and space with reflections, while the last space is more of imaginative realm of time.
(MF) When we spoke last, we talked about how the recordings would interact in the space within each room, connecting the outside space with the building’s interior—could you expand on that?
(JB) Nowhere is the make up of the neighborhood more visible than at the light at Alabama and Almeda. The transformation isn’t visible though, it’s audible. I spent a long time at the second story window just listening to folks while they sat at the light. The sounds were Tejano, Trap, Love and Drugs, punctuated by the busses announcing their stops. Since there isn’t any real commercial destination at the corner, you get a sense of where the people are going to or coming from. So I wanted to carry that characteristic into the show in some way. I am leaving the windows open on both sides and I am placing a microphone outside to capture the sounds passing by. Those sounds will then be filtered through the cast iron bathtub and the wooden structures in the other room. Again, allowing the building and its materials to filter and process its own sounds, and then have those played back upon themselves. In this way I feel the sound will echo the processes I used to create the objects in the room. END
Ojac interview Patrick Kelly, Curator of Exhibitions, email interview with Justin Boyd
PK: American folklore, sense of nostalgia, cultures, subcultures, traditions, music, etc. are themes that you have explored in your work. Can you tell why these interest you?
JB: It comes from a desire to make work that shows what I am passionate about, to make artwork that speaks to where I’m from and what I’m about. I grew up the son of two West Texas farming families and that landscape and way of living I feel really resonates with me. So it has been a thoughtful investigation into what I’m made up of, and can that notion be expanded beyond myself to see how it jives with what it means to be an American? And when those two patterns overlay, what lessons are learned; what stories are told? We really have such an amazingly complex country that I just want to explore what constitutes our American landscape.
PK: How do you narrow down that search? Maybe you could describe a past project that illustrates something you have investigated or explored pertaining to these subjects?
JB: Good question, narrowing down the subject matter list seems vital within a country as story-rich as ours. So, to begin with, I was using the model of Western expansion. I put together a show at Sala Diaz in ‘05 with work that felt more colonial and domestic in spirit. The next show at Arthouse dealt with the Mississippi River, where the following show at Art Palace used Route 66 as its guide. Looking forward, the goal is to have one to two more shows that speak to Western and Space themes. However, interspersed within these larger shows have been several smaller shows that deal with subject matter that is much more localized to my current landscape as opposed to the broader American landscape. For example my Windowworks installation at Artpace was a site derived sound piece about the Grackle, and how those strange birds affect our local environment. These local investigations really excite me, as I see that what happens here at home on a small scale, begin to resonate out to the larger American landscape.
PK: The titles of exhibitions are intriguing. Since that is the first thing that most people encounter, I think they are very important. Tell how Time Has Slipped Rows came about.
JB: The title came more from a mental image that I had as I was thinking about changing the water during irrigation. About how much work ahead of time has to go into the simple act of directing water along a certain path. Along with that train of thought came the notion that we have constructed lines for time to run along as well, and how difficult it is to have time jump the tracks and flow into a new channel. So for my installation, I feel like I am taking stock and beginning to chart a course of where I am currently and finding where it is that I want to go. So the fence side is there to slow my speed down. Once I've slowed down, the sounds from the fence envelope me in a sound field conducive to future thought. The wagon will then be a vehicle that I have prepped to leave home permanently. It will be loaded with items from home and things that might be needed for a trip to an unknown destination. Time slips its rows as I overlay the past with an unknown future and I make this metaphorical move from a place of comfort and isolation to a place of uncertainty and wonder.
PK: I would guess that you are also referencing the settlers of the American West and their similar plight from comfort to uncertainty. Do you think artists (at least the ones that want their work to evolve) make a similar choice—constantly leaving established comfort zones to seek what is out there or what has yet to be discovered?
JB: I am definitely referencing the American West. I love thinking about our constant Westward stare and currently how it resonates with where I am personally and creatively. The second part of that is how Space has replaced the West as a metaphor for the uncertain Promised Land. My hope is that all artists want their work to evolve. And I know all great work does, it may just be a question of speed. Some could argue that Ellsworth Kelly's work might not have showed an evolution, but if viewed in totality, he seemingly pursued a singular vision through all possible permutations for the span of his creative lifetime. In contrast, my own work seems like it progresses quickly due to the fact that I employ a variety of mediums and locations, but conceptually I feel centered by the anchoring lines of Americana and the American Landscape. The various mediums and installations always supply a challenge due to the specifics of the location or finding which material complements the idea most effectively, but it is through those challenges that I have been able to produce a thoughtfully varied body of work. (BTW, I am in no way comparing myself to the great Ellsworth Kelly, that fine gentleman searched ‘til he found the perfect balance of form and a space that could hold it).
PK: Do you believe that that quick visual evolution and varied body of work makes it difficult for your regular museum/gallery visitor to sometimes “get a handle” on your work as well as others who employ various media? There is comfort in the familiar and an ability to categorize the work…do you think that is why some “fear” or have displeasure in some contemporary art?
JB: I think that if one was looking to my work for consistency in form or medium, that I would steer them instead toward the ideas within the work. Most of the mediums I use are chosen based on which one can best help to articulate the concept within its materiality. So the forms and materials change a lot, but as I had mentioned before, I feel the vein of ideas I'm mining stay fairly consistent. But if pressed I would say that almost all of my work begins as sound or incorporates it in some way, which I know can be really challenging to a viewer. But I always leave doors open in my work. Those doors are usually text or titles but, if paid attention to, they make all the difference. It is cool that the wires of the fence make a noise and create a weird sound in the space, but if you know that the wires are vibrating with the sounds of winds from Jupiter and from West Texas then it changes your headspace immediately, and then you start to question “why did he choose those sounds” and hopefully that line of questions would provide a doorway into the piece. As for contemporary art, most of the time I don't feel it is intentionally trying to alienate an audience. It is just that most audience members may not have a completed guidebook on where to look for meaning. The current of art has been a rapid one over the past 150 years, and if you are just stepping into it, it may seem to be rushing by too quickly to pick one thing up over another. It would be a bit like stepping into a neuroscience lab and expecting that just because you have a brain, you would understand what they are researching and all the jargon they use to describe their process. So that is why I try to leave open doors of entry into the work, small footholds that once used, they can leverage a viewer up and into the full meaning of the work.
PK: I envision the rows of fence in the first gallery as a labyrinth gently leading viewers into a smaller gallery. Can you briefly describe the object they encounter and how you conceived of it relating to the labyrinth of wire?
JB: I guess it depends on how many fence posts go into the first room, but I'm not exactly sure the fence room will be all that gentle. It is meant more to be a slowing down force than a lulling stroll. I'm imagining it more like the crowd management at Six Flags, where folks are forced into switching direction back and forth. It will help to map out that space, make one aware of it, and set the tone and pace for the next room. The sounds of the two different winds (West Texas and Jupiter) are meant to bridge the gap between those two locations, as is the sculpture, Chasin a Drownin Sun, in the next room. Chasin a Drownin Sun is a vehicle that was assembled quickly out of found materials and its purpose is to transport only the most valuable items from this spot we are having to leave to the next spot—we don't know where it is or how long it will take to get there. So what would one have to pack for a journey that won't bring you back home, and will take you headlong into uncertainty? I'm packing the sculpture with some personal things (like recordings from home), some things to trade (gold from a river in California), and some necessities (like fire and gunpowder). This piece is mostly personal, but I feel it speaks to our long running nomadic thirst to always leave one place for the unknown promise just over the hill. Chasin the Drownin Sun is my Voyager. Certainly that spacecraft is lonely and facing the uncertain, but it seems to be relentlessly optimistic, constantly offering up new possibilities and horizons.
PK: I guess we should be thankful to those that take chances (regardless of “success”); otherwise, we would still be in our caves admiring our wall paintings.
JB: For sure, I'm so happy to be in a discipline that encourages chance taking. That we get to make things that can push at the boundaries of imagination and form, with so few requirements, really makes me thankful to be an artist.
When Justin Boyd decided to pursue studies as a visual artist in the mid-1990s, he was also interested in electronic music and had begun actively Djing. Investigating music’s influence on his visual art, he looked at the artistic precedents of The Dadaists, John Cage and Christian Marclay, who also used existing recordings on vinyl to compose original music. This exhibition includes a thirty-minute Dj performance (presented on opening night only) and two sculptures, all created in 2005. (These works were originally shown in Boyd’s one-person exhibition Pulling a Folk Thread Through an Ether Quilt, held at Sala Diaz in San Antonio in 2005, which included a third sculpture not presented here: The Pull of the Rear, The Draw of the Far [Vocal Butter Mix]).
In creating this group of works, Boyd began with the idea of using the sounds of American Folk music as an experiential dimension and as a means to project a meditative space on what it currently means to be an American. He first developed the performance, which lead him to the sculptures, which act as “extra players or extra hands,” as Boyd says. During the performance, Boyd works with three to four hand prepared records of American Folk Musics including, African-American, Native[OK?] American, and Shaker music. He wears a crocheted jumpsuit that his friend artist Elaine Bradford made for him. Her hands at work crocheting are seen close up in a video projected behind Boyd, serving as a visual metonymy for the act of weaving many threads of recorded music into a composition.
He prepares the records with looping grooves, so words, sentences, or groups of notes are repeated time and time again. This aural reiteration also informs the two sculptures. Their long titles both describe the making of these kinetic sculptures and suggest lyrical interpretations of the artist’s purpose. Our Lost Spirit. A teasong composed with: Ashwaganda, Ginkgo Biloba, Bilberry (herbs for strength, wisdom and vision) heat, steam, pitch pipe (in the key of E) is the title of a work in which a working hotplate has been attached to a stool Boyd made with copper tubes; a teakettle rests on top and holds an infusion Boyd prepared using herbs chosen for their restoring capability. Intermittently, the water boils and the kettle whistles in a key of E. The steam wets a copper awning above it, and this distillation is gathered into a jug. A drawing of the USS Constitution is etched on the awning and repeated on the paper score on the adjacent wall.
Boyd selected the key of E because it harmonizes with the sound played by the other sculpture, Revelation Through Repetition (Vocal Thread Mix). Ecstatic Exhales and Anguished Yodels of American Folk singers timestretched into a continuous braid of exploration. Boyd created this sculpture’s sound digitally, then transferred it to tape, which he plays on a reel-to-reel deck. He isolated the abrupt yodels of folk singers and extended them by several seconds (timestretched), creating a protracted single tone that slows down our sense of time. The two reels of the player are hooked onto wooden structures that look like radio emitters or windmills, one lower than the other. In conceiving this work, Boyd looked to Jamaican Dub music, which also uses sound delay methods.
These sculptures are essentially musical instruments of Boyd’s own creation, their simplicity embracing the idea of origins he associates with pre-modern American music. As this minimal music encourages listeners to forget the immediate folk-song context, it also suspends their sense of history with long notes that suggest a growing crescendo (and impending future). And so Boyd forges ahead, spurred on by his hope for soul-restoring revelation.
Born in 1974
Lives in San Antonio
Music is the thread that Justin Boyd uses to stitch together various media and modes—from sound recordings, live performance, DJing, and turntablism, to printmaking, drawing, video, and sculpture—to create conceptually sonorous works that appeal to the emotions and intellect as well as the visual, auditory, and sometimes even olfactory senses. A master of mixing, splicing, and composing elements, Boyd has a DJ’s gift and an anthropologist’s passion for uncovering overlooked historical markers and forgotten artifacts and imbuing them with new life and meaning. The sights, sounds, and signifiers of American spirituality and history are the raw materials from which he spins large-scale, loosely connected tales that nostalgically evoke the past while critically exploring how it has shaped our conflicted and too frequently troubling present. Boyd’s process is nonetheless optimistic: by learning from the past and present, the artist hopes we can find a way to change the future. Since 2005 Boyd has been engaged in a project (eventually to comprise four separate exhibitions/installations) to discover the “true essence of the American spirit.” This search, according to the artist, was inspired by today’s uneasy nationalism, “when politically, socially, and ethically it is unclear who we are as a nation and where we stand, and even more unclear how we as individuals are to act within this nation.” Each show addresses the origins and evolution of this spirit through an investigation into a particular region’s history, culture, and geography. The inaugural installment, Pulling a Folk Thread Through the Ether Quilt, focused on the domestic elements, healing practices, and subcultures of Colonial America, recalling a time when the strength of the American spirit lay within family life and the confines of the home. A DJ performance by the artist clad in a hand-knit suit complemented a layered soundscape of sculptures using American folk music as both conceptual and physical material. Yodels and sighs of folk singers, stretched across time and space, eerily floated through the atmosphere while a motorized wooden butter churn, handcrafted by the artist, played remixed spirituals of early American Indians, African Americans, and Shakers. A multi-sensory object made from a tea kettle, copper dome, and pitch pipe reiterated the theme of healing by playing a “teasong” (the artist’s invention): the steam from the contraption filled the room with soothing sounds in the key of E and with the scents of ashwaganda, ginkgo biloba, and bilberry, described as “herbs for strength, wisdom, and memory.” An Effort Against Being Lost, the second installment (created for Arthouse), leaves behind the comfort of domestic space to embark on a meandering journey following the course of Western expansion and our nation’s long-held and insatiable desire for exploration and acquisition. The Mississippi River region is Boyd’s primary source of inspiration for this installation—including the barges that traveled the river’s waters, the indigenous peoples and later pioneers who settled its shores, and the music and culture that took root there and evolved over time. Woven into the fabric of this dreamy landscape are apt symbolic references to an endless journey of life, death, and rebirth. Incorporating, among other elements, a looping audio track mixing fiddle albums inherited from loved ones, an interactive sound sculpture alluding to Native American mound building, a river raft equipped with navigational tools, and video footage of the multifaceted river itself, Boyd’s poetic experiential voyage is brimming with adventure and conjures memories of both a personal and universal past. When they are completed, the final installments in Boyd’s search for the American spirit will follow the nation’s historical trail westward and beyond, from the rugged mountains and arid desert to cold ocean waters and then to the infinite ocean that is outer space. Through his journey of Manifest Destiny, Boyd may indeed help us find our way.