An Interview with Jay Ticar: Depth Sounding

What is Sound Art? You may perhaps imagine classical or experimental music. Perhaps you think of something avant garde, something closer to noise. According to some institutions in art and art history like the Tate, Sound Art is art which uses sound as both its medium and as its subject. These include Noise Machines created by Italian artist Luigi Russolo in 1913 and the Kinetic Sculptures of Bill Fontana from the 1960s.

Visualizations of sound too have been part of our everyday understanding of sound, from waveforms to spectrum music visualizers on computers. But what about visual works of art that use sound as conceptual material or as an idea that guides the work? The Tate also says that Sound art is art, including painting and sculpture, that draws one’s attention to sound. An attention or focus on sound has certainly been a part of the development of modern art, especially with the rise of abstract art and installation. Examples include Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings inspired by Jazz and the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk or the total work of art, an idea similar to Bauhaus’ idea of integrated arts.

Broadway Boogie Woogie 1942-43, Piet Mondrian

With Hidden Noise, 1916, Marcel Duchamp

For the past 4 years, Filipino contemporary artist Jay Ticar has conducted research on the definitions, history, and practice of sound art, the focus of his Asian Centre Fellowships grant from the Japan Foundation. The research has brought him to countries like the Philippines, Japan, and countries in SouthEast Asia.

With this expanded understanding, sound and concepts of sound art have found their way into his practice as a visual artist. In 2018, he and Amy Aragon Ticar held an exhibit of paintings, drawings, and maquettes called “Sounds like Home '' at Galleria Duemila. The works were based on the idea of the sounds of home and building materials as acoustic accommodations. In 2019, he curated an exhibition called “Whether You Hear it or Not” at Altro Mondo. For this exhibition, participating artists inquired into the role of sound in art or the definitions of sound art. And as practitioners of abstraction and concept-based works of art, they were all challenged to include sound in their artistic concerns in order to expand their practice.

In this interview with Vintana, Jay Ticar explains why Sound Art is not music but closer to abstract art. He also touches on painting’s integral relationship to sound art development and how the understanding and development of sound art has been pivotal in the understanding of some landmark works in the visual arts. For instance in the abstract compositions of Wassily Kandinsky and one of the first important art installations, Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau.

Merzbau 1937, Kurt Schwitters

Vintana: Over the past 40 years “sound art” has slowly been hailed as a new artistic category. Most are still new to the term or have misconceptions about it. What is important to know about this genre? Can you explain why many sound art practitioners and curators refer to it as “not music”?

Jay Ticar: Misinformation is fuelled by literal interpretation in many cases within art. For example, installation, an art form that addresses or creates an immersive experience, space or environment is always thrown as a word to describe just about anything that you literally install in a gallery, regardless of how a piece actually works. The words “sound” + “art” can be tricky because most would assume “art” refers to music. This is because of a general understanding for music to be the only art form where sound as literal material is being used. What further muddles the understanding is the question of how can sound be a visual art material when you can’t actually see it.

For a long time, it has been established that visual art engages various conceptual materials, some are ephemeral and others relate to matters that are purely mental. Informed by this knowledge, it is easier to be open to the fact that sound and even music can be subjects and materials for visual art.

“Not music” comes from the understanding that sound has its own integrity which can be observed outside the constructs of music. There are established concepts that define how music is understood, “not music” means seeing sound outside and sometimes separate from these arrangements. We can understand easily that sound applied in the concepts of painting and sculpture are examples of “not music”.

V: In some of your exhibition notes, you mention sound as conceptual material for art making. I’ve also read that “the concept of sound as material is the essence of a sound artwork.” Can you expound on this?

JT: Many of what is recently produced in visual art is concept based. This means we also work with meaning as material other than physical material. The manifestation of sound art can be anything, Josef Albers for example expresses sound through abstract painting. It can also be expressed in photography, drawing and all manners of artistic expression that will be hard to differentiate visually from other artworks. The knowledge that an artwork expresses ideas pertaining to sound makes the experience different as it is informed by a particular meaning. What mainly defines sound art from other genres are the meanings related to sound behind it.

Fugue 1926, Josef Albers

V: According to Barbara London, curator of the first sound art exhibition in 1979, sound art pieces are more closely allied to art than to music. Why is an understanding of sound art in terms of music so restricting and limiting? Why do we need to frame an understanding of sound art from a visual art perspective?

JT: I believe she is referring to the idea that music is defined by constructs established in the past. If sound art will be seen in the scope of music then it will just be interpreted under the context of its history and thus being limited and restricted. On the other hand applying sound outside music such as in visual art expands its possibilities. The “need“ relates to the fact that the conceptual domain in visual art provides an open platform where sonic expression can access to expand its engagements.

V: From a cultural perspective, why do you think it is important to expand the appreciation and understanding of sound art?

JT: There are many aspects that relate to the cultural value of understanding sound art. The progression of art education, art making and other art engagements are primarily the fields of its resonance. If we view art as an intellectual practice and a means to express other intersecting concerns then sound art is a development we have to engage to expand. Since sound art is a global phenomena, participation in its dialogue is a cultural contribution as well.

Although art is used to express subjects pertaining to social, historical, political and other known agendas, it doesn't need to focus on subjects outside of art to assume important cultural value.

V: In a 2020 exhibition which you curated at Altro Mondo called “Whether You Hear It or Not,” you sought to help the participating artists reach new directions in their art production by engaging with sound art or sound as conceptual material. Can you explain how this might happen and what resulted (even from the perspective of your own artmaking for that show)?

JT: When I began to be more interested in sound art, I was not thinking of becoming a sound artist. The only thing I wanted is to offer my participation through expanding what I was already doing, but I needed to know the rules of the game to do it well.

Basically this is the same mentality I applied as a principle for the exhibit. I have regular dialogues with the participants wherein I inform, suggest ideas, discover existing qualities and question about sound art. The result is being able to give information, and being able to collaborate in the process of tuning in and responding to the ideas of sound art.

Some hypothesize on the potential of their works to sound, others relate to vibration and energy as a means to signal and receive through the metaphysical. There are works that deal with memory of sound, and some that deal with abstract visualization. There are participating artists who are already exposed to sound art. Some worked on alternative notations and another piece wanted the audience to imagine the sound for his video.

Most of the works don’t physically sound because not all experiences of sounds are engaged by literally hearing. I believe this show and the one I did in 2018 are among the first if not the first in the Philippines to really engage sound art as “not music” not only through the works itself but through the conversation it clearly articulates.

Untitled 1921, Wassily Kandinsky

V: Abstraction seems to take a special place in this discussion of sound-based visual art. What is the abstract visibility of sound? Abstract art is also deemed as some of the most progressive works in sound art. Why is this so?

JT: Abstraction is vital and I don’t even know where to start given the many entries to discuss this subject. Despite sources say for “sound art”, to be first coined during the 1979 show, sound was explored in visual arts way earlier. Sound in art is given birth through waves of abstraction by progressive artists.

Luigi Russolo, the Futurists, Picabia, Kurt Schwitters and Dada, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Josef Albers and Bauhaus. It has always been the progressive practitioners of abstraction who carry out the engagement of sound in the visual arts. The silence piece of John Cage was inspired by the white paintings of Rauchenberg after he saw how all that passes through the painting became framed by the work.

Silence also does the same; it frames all existing audible sounds around. Can we say that John Cage saw an abstract visualization of a sound phenomena in Rauchenberg’s pieces that prompted him to do an equivalent work utilizing actual sound.

4'33" (In Proportional Notation) 1952/1953, John Cage

How else can you imagine the artistic expression of sound outside the musical framework if not by way of understanding abstraction. Without the knowledge of abstraction the invention of instruments can occur for instance but it will always be intentionally played in context to music. Hence abstracting sound and how you complicate it defines a kind of progression.

V: To expound on the previous question, I’d like to point out that you’ve discovered in your research how painting has acted as a knowledge base for understanding sound art. You’ve also mentioned how painting or two dimensional forms of art can express sounds. Can you explain this?

JT: Painting is a good vehicle to understand sound art because it is far from the literal interpretation of “sound” +”art” and therefore brings the engagement to a conceptual level-which is much closer to the actual “not music” rubrics. Painting has an inherent educational quality, because its plasticity can be a platform for abstract and representational possibilities in art even in relating to other physical materials. I for one use painting to express imaginative spaces akin to installation. Furthermore, I believe the accessibility of painting can accommodate more artists to try it out than having to deal with the technicality of sound as actual material.

V: In your exhibition notes for an exhibition of paintings with Amy Aragon called “Sounds like Home,” you talk about a sound-based visual art practice or using sound as material for the paintings of this show. Can you expound on how this was realized?

JT: Great question, this show is actually more advanced in the sense that the 2019 bigger group exhibition offers explanations to participants who I am in dialogue with. In the 2018 exhibition, the subject matter is on “how abstraction influenced sound art making” modelled from how John Cage was influenced by the white paintings of Rauchenberg and also how fragmentation used in Kurt Schwitters installation is used for his sound poetry. Here we actually wanted to say “we already painted” to challenge the sound artists to build off their sound out of our paintings. There is a provocation here to inspire conversation, even though we don’t know who will answer at the other end or if they are capable of responding. The idea of sound here is mainly on the use of sound art history to inspire discussion. There are some sensibilities of sound in the details of each work but for the bigger picture it's more about what I stated.

Jay Ticar is a Filipino contemporary artist who has had several solo exhibitions here and abroad, represented over the years and at different times by globally recognized galleries such as OTA Fine Arts, Richard Koh Fine Arts, and Valentine Willy Fine Arts. He is also a recipient of the Monbukagakusho Scholarship, Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship research grant, and Asian Centre Fellowship. As a lecturer, he has given several talks on sound art and the artist as a worker in a number of recognized institutions that support the arts.