Fillip 19 — Spring 2014

Having Been Held 
Under the Sway
Zarouhie Abdalian, Aaron Harbour, and 
Jackie Im

Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im – The great bulk of your works are sensitive to context, produced to fit within or react to sites with wide-ranging characteristics. Often your work touches on formerly vacant or abandoned spaces and the places where the material aspects of a particular site break down. Two projects that come to mind include Away Setting, which you did for the 2012 Shanghai Biennale at the MacMillan Building, and the pieces Certain Spanning Trees (2010–11) and In the Offing (2010), for SC13 [Showcase No. 13], an exhibition space sited in and around a glass case rented at the San Francisco Antique and Design Mall by Chris Fitzpatrick and Post Brothers, who curated it.

Zarouhie Abdalian – Even though I am dealing with a specific space, it is important to me to work with features that are repeated in the everyday peregrinations of the spectator. I’ve focused on features such as cracks in a cement floor, a disused room, a shop window, even white walls. The two pieces that I made for SC13 both used parts of the exhibition environment specific to that show but that were also routinely repeated within and beyond the site of the exhibition. In the Offing transformed the glass door of the showcase itself by darkly tinting it with “limo” film for a couple of weeks, and Certain Spanning Trees filled an existing crack in the concrete floor incrementally over the six-month duration of the exhibition.

In Shanghai, Away Setting consisted of a dozen or so incandescent and fluorescent bulbs on randomized timers that lit an abandoned and decaying former kitchen space within a largely unused building. This space—like many of the other storefront spaces within the MacMillan Building—was inaccessible for the duration of the exhibition; it could only be viewed from the walkway outside, and so the work formed a sort of shifting tableau with over a thousand possible instances. Treating the everyday features of a space with quotidian, familiar, or utilitarian materials, I like to allow the work to extend into other spaces and possibly into the everyday of the viewer, even while the “meaning” of the artwork is expressed as a function of the specific material conditions under which it is nominated as such. In these works you mention, cracks and decaying materials serve as evidence of the transformation of a site over time. In other words, these elements are significant to my work because their forms express historical processes.

Harbour and Im – We’re interested that you mention decay as evidence of a site’s transformation. Since your projects are very much about spaces and their contexts, we wondered how much historical research goes into your work? In Having Been Held Under the Sway (2011), a site-specific sculpture you made for the Istanbul Biennial that year, tactile transducers were hidden in the walls of a room and continuously transmitted tones that fall below the threshold of human hearing, but the bass provides an effect that one feels, bodily. The audible sounds in this space were from the sound waves’ effects on the room’s materials. The only visual part of this installation is a plumb bob, whose use is compromised because of the vibration of the room. There is obviously a lot of history to contend with; how much of that context did you take in and at what point did you let your firsthand experience of the location inform what you wanted to do? Did you want to keep it open enough for viewers to engage with and come to the work with their own personal associations?

Abdalian – I actually don’t want to keep things so open; that is, I’m not pressing for the viewer to “complete” the work. In the works, I commit to certain ideas and feelings and structure them around these associations. I do, however, often think about the way a viewer might immediately relate to a work, with no background about me or art history or whatever. So even though there is plenty to be gleaned from my installations insofar as they’re considered within their physical and historical context, they also often connect to a viewer through her body. Whether this is through infrasonic sound waves she feels in her body, a reflection she sees of herself, or an acoustic experience that changes as she moves through space, the senses provide a very direct and immediate pathway through which the artwork is experienced.

When I was doing research for the Istanbul Biennial, I started by reflecting on my own relationship to that place, which I first knew through my family’s oral histories, which took place east of Istanbul in Anatolia during the Ottoman Empire. These stories are viscerally present for me—they have been part of me as long as I can remember—but my family’s stories about this place either end with the deaths of relatives there around 1915 (during the Armenian genocide) or with a change in setting for those who were able to flee. So I read the memoirs of several Istanbulites, then read historical texts and contemporary Turkish newspaper articles, studied the Turkish language for a couple of months, considered the physical site of the exhibition as it had been described to me, and, finally, travelled to Istanbul to be at the site and make a piece over a six-week period. The resulting artwork, Having Been Held Under the Sway, is very much about the expression of historical forces, but it’s not topical or about a single event.

Harbour and Im – Sound is a frequent component of your work, but as often as you include audible sound, your work also evokes a potential or inaudible sound—as in your works for the UC Berkeley Art Museum exhibition. MATRIX 249: Ad libitum (If I Had a Hammer) (2013) resembles an instrument but is silent and As a demonstration (2013) renders sound waves inaudible through the use of a vacuum chamber. Could you speak broadly about how sound (and its refusal) operates in your practice? As far as we know, you are not a musician (though some artists working with sound are closet band members, or vice versa).

Abdalian – It’s a big stretch to say that artists who work with sound are necessarily in bands or are necessarily musicians or are even very concerned with music. There is a diverse range of artists that prove the contrary: artists like Christine Koslov, Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden, Rivane Neuenschwander, Paul Kos, Robert Morris, et al., all of whom use sound simply as another material that engages with the language of art and the structures through/in which art operates. Though I myself am a classically trained pianist, the way I use sound in my work is not musical. (On the other hand, there are musicians or composers like Alvin Lucier who use sound in arguably “non-musical” ways.) I use sound to articulate the space and material of a site. That is, I’m not interested in using sound insofar as it “represents” anything (much less, another space); instead, I’m interested in how a space or material is expressed and modulated under the condition of excitation. My works generally concern the response of a space as opposed to the impulse, which necessarily precedes it. In Having Been Held Under the Sway, I use infrasonic sinewaves—really low frequencies that one feels in the body rather than hears—as a means of articulating the physical materials of a room. These sound waves cause stress on the drywall and studs of the room in which the work exists, and the stress and movement of these materials is all that’s ultimately audible; the only other component of the work—a plumb bob—functions to register this perturbation, to respond, even as its conventional use is compromised in doing so. Other works similarly use an otherwise unremarkable signal to articulate the physical features of a space, which might be an architectural space or a space created in the context of a sculpture: in both Each envelope as before (2013) as well as Occasional Music (2013), an impulse registers within and against the materials that form the work. In the former, the materials/space is that of sculpture within a gallery, and in the latter, the space is that of the city and the myriad occlusions that characterize it. In As a demonstration, sound isn’t “erased” exactly—it’s just that the sound waves are inaudible because of the material components (or lack thereof) in the work. In order to be heard, sound needs a medium to travel through, and within the near vacuum conditions of an acrylic chamber, the air has almost no material. In the work, a sound producing action is visible: a bell slightly shudders on its axis each time the hammer hits it, yet despite the visual evidence of actuation, sound cannot propagate due to the lack of molecular density within the air of the chamber.

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About the Authors

Zarouhie Abdalian is an artist currently based in Oakland, CA. She has had solo exhibitions at Dillard University Art Gallery, New Orleans, and at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Her work has been presented in numerous international exhibitions, including at the 8th Berlin Biennale, the 2nd CAFAM Biennial, Beijing, and the 12th Istanbul Biennial. In 2012, she received SFMOMA’s SECA Art Award and in 2014 she will present solo exhibitions at David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, and at Altman Siegel, San Francisco.

Aaron Harbour is an Oakland-based curator, writer, and artist. He is Co-director of Et al., a gallery program in San Francisco, and has additionally curated exhibitions at the Popular Workshop, Important Projects, NADA Miami and New York, MacArthur B Arthur, Liminal Space, and Royal Nonesuch Gallery, among others. He runs Curiously Direct, an art criticism blog on Facebook, and has additionally written for Art Practical, Decoy Magazine, Art Cards, and several small publications and artist catalogues.

Jackie Im is a curator and writer based in Oakland, CA. She has contributed to exhibitions at the Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art, the Walter and McBean Galleries at SFAI, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Queens Nails, the Mills College Art Museum, and MacArthur B Arthur. She holds a BA in Art History from Mills College and an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts. She is currently Co-director of Et al., a gallery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with Facundo Argañaraz and Aaron Harbour.

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