Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Unraveling the history of a medium somewhere between music, visual art, and literature
Smells Like Booty: Plunderphonics, Samples and Bootlegs
Sound artists in the ’80s began incorporating samples into their music. Inspired by everything from Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète and recent developments in hip-hop turntable culture, they built media samples into complex, layered, and often political works. In 1989, the Canadian artist John Oswald released a CD of cleverly manipulated samples of various artists including Bing Crosby, The Beatles, Glenn Gould, Public Enemy, and James Brown. They were stitched together in truly inventive ways, creating remixes or versions of the originals. Oswald called his practice plunderphonics. In a nod to the general non-economy of sound art, Oswald distributed the disc freely to radio stations, libraries, critics and musicians. It immediately became an underground cult classic, even more so when Michael Jackson‘s lawyers threatened to sue if all copies were not destroyed immediately. Ironically, what bothered them was not Oswald’s plundering of Jackson’s songs, but rather the cover, which showed Michael Jackson’s head collaged atop a photo of a nude white woman’s body. Subsequently, Oswald was forced to destroy the entire stock, making the disc a rarity (of course today, high quality sound files of the album are everywhere, including Oswald’s own website).
Negativland, too, suffered similar troubles when they released a hilarious spoof of U2‘s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” simply called “U2,” which was mixed with some profane outtakes of American radio personality Casey Kasem. It provoked Island Records to sue them. A long legal battle ensued and Island Records won; the single was destroyed, leaving Negativland bankrupt. However, they incorporated all the legal battles into an artwork and the legal suit became a sort of process piece, well documented with books and audio files. Like Oswald’s work, today you can download the disputed single from Negativland’s website. Legions of plunderphonists have followed Oswald’s lead, most notably People Like Us, Wobbly, the Bran Flakes, The Evolution Control Committee and Stock, Hausen and Walkman (who’s 1997 single, “Flogging,” includes samples of Henri Chopin). A label from New Hampshire, Illegal Art, has a slew of releases based on altered material including Deconstructing Beck (yep, Beck songs shredded and pieced back together again); Hollywood is targeted in Extracted Celluloid; and the advertising industry gets slaughtered in Commercial Ad Hoc.
There’s no doubt that the advent of the PC has created countless new sound artists, just as Photoshop has made graphic designers of virtually all of us. In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of a new phenomenon: the bootleg. In the 1960s, a bootlegger was most commonly known as someone who illegally taped concerts or dubbed recordings and sold them illegally. Whatever the circumstance, its connotation was “outlaw.” Today, the word’s connotations have drastically changed. Over the past few years, a new phenomenon has emerged in popular music called the “bootleg remix.” It’s when a DJ seams together two or more disparate songs, syncs them up with a computer program so that their rhythms and pitches are the same, and creates a new pop song out of it. A famous bootleg by Freelance Hellraiser was the combination of Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Destiny Child‘s “Bootylicious” to create a new song called “Smells Like Booty.” Although it was a phenomenon that started by musicians remixing and swapping their songs on the web, it rapidly spread into mainstream culture. In 2002, The New York Times observed, “It is something that is completely different, often illegal and, thanks to the Internet, becoming explosively popular.” The trend was picked up by the corporate world when Island Records released a “legitimate” bootleg, which entered the UK pop charts at No. 1 in May of 2002. Like what happened with Laurie Anderson, a trend that has its roots in sound art is now mainstream.
Back in the gallery, there’s probably no one who has done more with sound than Christian Marclay. Since the 1970s, this Swiss-American sound and visual artist has explored the intimate relationship between the visual record and recorded sound through cutting, collage, and juxtaposition. Fusing the performances of Vito Acconci and Joseph Beuys with the energy of punk rock, Marclay lives in both the art and music worlds. His production has been voluminous and includes gallery installations, recordings, DJ’ing, LPs, CDs, and film.