A leading role for the audience: Kim Gordon's sonic challenges and visual reflections | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU



Kim Gordon stepping onto a base guitar, 1991 photo by Rien Post

Most people think that when they hear a piece of music, they're not doing anything but that something is being done to them. Now that is not true, and we must arrange our music, we must arrange our art, we must arrange everything, I believe, so that people realize that they themselves are doing it, and not that something is being done to them.
John Cage, 19621

Spinning dreams and angel wings
torn blue jeans and foolish grin
burning down in the night
so cool so right
star power over me

Kim Gordon, 19862

Star power... Over me

From melody to noise, from sound to color, from punk to classical and from electrified concerts to quiet museum halls: Kim Gordon, defying limits and distances, diffuses her work in space and time, leaving strident sounds in mind and stardust on shoes.

It's hard for the audience to consider her work apart from its personal experience that flowed through the channels of Sonic Youth's vinyl disks and the delirium it lived during the band's concerts. However, we shall try to view her work beyond her myth, in connection with its frame: bearing in mind the experimental music and the visual vanguard of the 20th century, we shall stress some important things about Sonic Youth and their connection to the visual vanguard, and finally we will view some artworks by Kim Gordon that focus on the audience.

Let's start from the base: the sound.

Kim Gordon on stage, 2008, photo by Pixxiestails

Sound and image, the ephemeral and art: John Cage listens to the audience

Sound is intrinsically connected to time and space: it has a specific duration and is influenced by the surrounding space. It is born to materiality and depends on it: in an empty space it will hit the wall and come back as an echo; in a room full of people it will be distorted by the collision onto their bodies or will be smothered under their noises and voices.

On the other hand, sound influences the people it reaches: as it enters their bodies it awakens memories of other, long time lost sounds and stimulates thought, feelings and sensations; vice versa, coming from the inner world of the person that produces it, a sound communicates ideas or feelings converted into music or voice. A voice can overwhelm you; a musical piece can fascinate you -and when it comes to the intense sounds of a rock concert, the rhythm takes over and vibrates the entire body.

It is clear that in the field of sound, the roles of subject who produces the sonic stimulant and the object that receives it are interlinked and interchanging: the listener is a potential interpreter and the other way around. It is in this point where the paths of the mid-20th century musical and visual vanguard intersect.

The turn from the artistic object to the environment and the action meant a different attitude towards the work of art: whereas up until then what was important was the unique object and the "artistic genius" that created it, now the focus shifts onto the multiple facets of the same event and the personal experience gained by the viewers when they are inside an environment or when they witness an action. An installation occupies space -the vital space destined for the visitors; so the audience becomes part of the artwork and the artwork's form changes constantly, as the people come and go. A performance takes place in a specific moment -when the moment's gone it exists only in the memory of the audience; any registration is nothing but documentation, so it does not form part of the initial artwork.

It's not only the visual vanguard that embraces the ephemeral: according to John Cage, his musical pieces exist only during the time of their performance; a recording of a musical piece by Cage "has no more value than a postcard"3, a reminder of an action that is already past.

As every moment is unrepeatable, every musical performance is unique: "you cannot pass through the same river twice"4 - the water that flows inside it has changed. Even if we could reproduce a sound the exact same way -as is the case with the digital music archives that are unchangingly transferred from hard disk to hard disk- the sonic surroundings are forever changing, so the final result that comes to our ears is different.

It's impossible to eliminate all surrounding sounds, because silence does not exist.

That's what John Cage found out in 1951, when he entered an anechoic chamber -a room where all sounds are absorbed- expecting to experience absolute silence; however, he came across a repeated sound, which was coming from his own body and its contact with the environment.

This experience acted as a catalyst in the composition of 4'33" -a musical piece where only the duration was defined. During the performance of the musical piece the musicians are not expected to make any sound; yet, there is no silence: someone in the audience coughs, another one drags his/her feet across the floor, another one whispers. In 4'33" the audience from listener turns into the performer of the musical piece, whereas the composer becomes the audience.

In every musical performance there are noises produced by the audience; in 4'33" the absence of music makes us realize them. "Thanks to silence, noise -not just as selection of certain noises, but the multiplicity of all noises that exist or may occur- makes a definitive entrance into my music"5, says Cage.

CLICK ON IMAGE to view 4'33" on Youtube (David Tudor original performance). Photo: John Cage, 1956.

Experimental Jet Set: Sonic Youth's visual and musical ventures

If Cage's listeners become composers by producing involuntary, dim sounds, the public's dynamic is magnified in a rock concert, where everyone dances, sings, shouts, whistles. Thanks to this dynamic -which is a source of inspiration for Kim Gordon, as we shall see later-, and the constant experimentations and improvisations on stage, every musical performance by Sonic Youth is different.

During the 25 years of the band's history, Sonic Youth have managed to create a completely unique musical and visual language, where melodic lines crash onto outbursts of noises and colorful pop references surrender to hastily written words, scotch tape and crumpled surfaces.

Their concerts end up in improvisations on noise, which they explore by bringing the musical instruments to their limits -pulling guitar strings in frenzy and giving birth to unworldly sounds with electronic gadgets- or beyond them -banging guitars on the speakers and the amplifiers.

Their quest into sound results in an unexpected blend of pop with vanguard: among their recordings there are songs by Madonna and musical pieces by John Cage, Steve Reich, Takehisa Kosugi, James Tenney, Nicolas Slonimsky, George Maciunas, Yoko Ono6 and other artists from the musical and visual Avant Garde.

Taking the diversity of their experimentations into account, their presence in visual arts comes as no surprise. The posters, videos and album covers constitute an individual "rough" aesthetic, with fast sketches and smudged words, photos lacking any rock star glamour, flickering videos.

All these things are not some peculiar star system strategy, but an option of the band itself. Both Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo started off their artistic careers as visual artists and parallel to the group's activities they have presented their artworks in museums and galleries all over the world. In addition, Kim is also a curator and an art critic.

On the Sonic Youth album covers we come across artworks by famous artists, such as Gerhard Richter (Daydream Nation, 1988), Raymond Pettibon (Goo, 1990), Mike Kelley (Dirty, 1992) and Richard Prince (Sonic Nurse, 2004). Their song videos and their cinema appearances has got them into collaboration with directors like Gus Van Sant, Richard Kern and Spike Jonze; meanwhile, they are in contact with artists such as Tony Oursler7, Dan Graham8, Michael Morley and many more.

Sonic Youth's multi-facet activities and their collaboration with a great number of musicians, visual artists and writers is reflected on the exhibition SONIC YOUTH ETC.: SENSATIONAL FIX, presented successively in 5 European cities9, from June 2008 to January 2010. The audience fills up the Contemporary Art Centre halls, as their concerts. Sometimes as viewers, sometimes as protagonists...

CLICK ON IMAGES from Sonic Youth ETC.: Sensational Fix to view videos of Sonic Youth performing live. Photos from the exhibition by Locace

Wish fulfillment: Spotlights and Kim Gordon's glance fall onto the audience

Following the same line as John Cage -who let the audience produce the sound of 4'33"- and taking it a step further, Kim Gordon provides the audience with a more conscious role, by ceding her base guitar, drums, guitars and noise producing electronic gadgets.

The installation Reverse Karaoke (2005)10 that she presented with Jutta Koether -also a musician and visual artist- reverses the terms of the popular karaoke. Instead of a recorded music and the audience singing the lyrics, here we have a recording of Kim's voice, onto which the audience is supposed to compose music. The installation is a tent -painted by Kim during the inauguration- that hosts musical instruments and electronic gadgets for producing sounds and recording them onto CDs. The visitors get the opportunity to compose their own music following Kim's hypnotic performance, to record it and create their own album covers. Every CD is burnt onto two copies, one for the visitor and one for the two artists.

The installation scene turns into a field of artistic experimentations. Through Reverse Karaoke the two artists encourage the visitor to improvise on a musical and visual level. The roles are reversed; the audience produces music, whereas Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether become the listeners who collect the audience's CDs. This way the artists introduce us to a different dimension of reality, where the audience turns into a creator and a focus of attention.

to see video: Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether, Reverse Karaoke, 2005.

In a similar way, the audience's image and action were the main focus in Kim Gordon's exhibition Portraits #17-37 presented in Iguapop Gallery in Barcelona (29/11/2007-12/1/2008). The artworks presented were set up in space as the parts of a greater installation: at the entrance there was a huge black and white portrait articulated by hasty black brushstrokes on the wall; in the main space there was Noise painting -an installation consisting of black canvases and black twigs covered with glitter dust.

Kim Gordon, Wall Painting and Noise Painting Installation, 2008. Photos courtesy of Iguapop Gallery, Barcelona

In the main hall, a series of watercolors: faces articulated by color stains. It is our own faces, as they are lit by the color light projectors during the Sonic Youth concerts, the way they are imprinted on Kim Gordon's memory while we are dancing:

"Looking out into the audience light comes from the projector at the back of the hall. It makes the back of peoples' heads look illuminated, like saints. The projector changes and some of the faces disappear into the dark. The ones further back I can't see at all. Towards the front of the hall half cheeks appear dappled with swirling colors from the light show. I'm trying not to look directly at anyone in the front so the spell of concentration won't be broken. Instead they appear as a collective mood. Suddenly something whirrs by my head and smashes onto the stage. It's a cassette. I'm spinning around in a circle trying not to get dizzy but liking the dizziness of the blurry images. It looks like a flicker camera in 360 degrees. I wish I had a camera to record like it looks like"11.

Kim Gordon, Portraits #17, 24, 27, 28 (2007). Photos courtesy of Iguapop Gallery, Barcelona

Once more, the audience is into the spotlight, as the central theme of her work and as a co-creator of the central installation of the exhibition: in the middle of the hall there is a circle on the floor, made of black glitter dust. As the gallery gets crowded with people during the night of the exhibition opening, some people stand inside the circle, like self-appointed living sculptures, others take some of the dust with them, thus subtracting a part of the circle, and others don't realize there's an installation on the floor and step onto the dust, thus deforming the circle. Throughout all this time Kim observes, but doesn't intervene; she started the work, now it's time for the viewers to transform it.

Leaving the exhibition space, the glittery dust has stuck onto the visitors' shoes and is transferred into the streets of Barcelona, spreading the limits of the installation onto the entire city.

Stardust on shoes, powerful guitar riffs in mind...

Kim Gordon, Installation in Iguapop Gallery, November 2007

Suggested references:

There's a lot of reading and audiovisual material about Sonic Youth and the musical vanguard of the 20th century. Here I only make a few suggestions:

Bibliography (selection):

Browne David, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth, Da Capo Press, 2008

Groenenboom Ronald (ed.) and Sonic Youth, Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix (Exhibition Catalogue), Walther Konig Editions, 2009

Gordon Kim, Chronicles Vol.1, Nieves editions, 2005

Gordon Kim, Chronicles Vol.2, Nieves editions, 2006

Gordon Kim, Portraits #17-37 (Exhibition Catalogue), Iguapop Gallery, 2007

Holmes Thomas B., Electronic and Experimental Music, Pioneers in Technology and Composition, Routledge editions 2002.

Labelle Brandon, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Continuum Publishing Group, 2006

Nyman Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1999

Filmography/ Videos (selection):

1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992), film directed by Dave Markey

Kill Your Idols (2004), documentary directed by S.A. Crary

Last Days (2005), film directed by Gus Van Sant

Shadow of a doubt (1986), music video directed by Kevin Kerslake

Death Valley '69 (1986), music video directed by Richard Kern

Beauty Lies in the Eye (1987), music video directed by Kevin Kerslake

Kool Thing (1990), music video directed by Tamra Davis

Discography (selection):

Sonic Youth, Confusion is Sex (1983)

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988)

Sonic Youth, Goo (1990)

Sonic Youth, Dirty (1992)

Sonic Youth, SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century (1999)

Links (selection):






1. "John Cage: Interview with Roger Reynolds" (1962), Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, eds. Schwartz and Childs, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1967, pp. 335-348.

2. From Evol, 1986. Making a reference to Sonic Youth album and song titles is difficult to resist, because there's a strong coherency between their visual and musical work, as we shall see.

3. Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 10.

4.  Heraclitus

5. Brandon Labelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Continuum Publishing Group, 2006, p.14.

6. In 1988 Sonic Youth released the Whitey Album, including covers of known Madonna songs, such as Into the Groove and Burning Up. They changed their name into Ciccone Youth for the occasion -a reference to Madonna's last name.

7. In 1999 Sonic Youth released SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century, an album where they perform musical pieces by 20th century vanguard composers.

For example, in his video Synesthesia (1997-2001) Tony Oursler presents a Kim Gordon interview. On the other hand, Kim has also collaborated with Oursler as a curator (White Columns gallery, 1982).

8. See "Dan Graham Interview", Artland, 15th May 2002, http://architettura.supereva.com/artland/20020515/index_en.htm, where the artist talks about his collaboration with Kim Gordon. Dan Graham also collaborated with Sonic Youth in the video "Rock My Religion", where the band participates in the music score.

9. The cities and the dates for the exhibition SONIC YOUTH ETC.: SENSATIONAL FIX at the time being are the following:

France: LiFE, Saint-Nazaire, 18/6/2008-7/9/2008

Italy: Museion Bozen/Bolzano, 11/10/2008-4/1/2009

Germany: Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 31/1/2009-10/5/2009

Sweden: Malmö Konsthall, 29/5/2009-20/9/2009

Spain: Centro De Arte Dos de Mayo, 3/2/2010-2/5/2010

10. Kim Gordon's and Jutta Koether's installation  Reverse Karaoke has been presented in various contemporary art centres and galleries:

South London Gallery (2005), Magasin-CNAC, Grenoble (2006), MAK, Vienna (2007), Galleria Enrico Fornello, Prato (2007), Life, St Nazaire, France (2008), Museion, Bolzano, Italy (2008).

11. Kim Gordon, November 2007. From the exhibition catalogue of "Portraits #17-37" presented in Iguapop Gallery (Barcelona, 29/11/2007-12/1/2008).