The Sound of James Webb – a conversation with the artist

This was originally published on Another Africa, Nov 2014. You can access the original, with additional images and sound pieces, here.


A pioneering artist working with sound in South Africa, James Webb often crafts cinematic and theatrical installations and masterly subtle public interventions. Inspired by the notions of belief and communication, his conceptually polyrhythmic yet elegantly executed works create environments that function as alternative spaces for thinking and contemplation.

I have seen and heard his name mentioned on numerous occasions, whether through a conversation with a friend or a colleague, from his collaboration with sound artist Francisco López (whose piece La Selva I’ve sampled more than I would like to admit) or through my own research. Having never met him in person and yet to encounter his work in situ, my experience has been limited to reading about and listening to his work online, but recently this has been enhanced through our intercontinental conversations.

To be honest, I found his works initially a bit daunting and intimidating. Despite their clear and almost pop-like form, as well as the sense of humor, the thoughtfulness and meticulous realisation of those pieces made them feel like they were trying to conceal something. It reminded me of watching Matthew Barney’s ‘Cremaster Cycle’ for the first time or a David Lynch film – that you would have to listen deeper somehow in order to understand them. But I knew I was missing the original physical experience of those pieces, and once I started to listen, I couldn’t help but be moved by the elegance and the playfulness in his use of sound to address the socially and politically diverse themes he was exploring. Still, some mystery remains. The following is the first part of our conversation that hopefully will grow in depth in the future.

Ilpo Jauhiainen | You studied Comparative Religion and Theatre as well as Advertising – what prompted you to become an artist, and especially choose sound as your main medium?

James Webb | My academic studies collect, challenge and intensify my interests in belief, economy and communication, and stimulate my ongoing questions as to why we place energy and attention in some things and not others, and how we position ourselves in relation to each other and in relation to the unknown. I have always worked on projects, but only when I was in my early twenties, after playing in bands and starting to compose music based on field recordings and determined by factors of site and duration, and working with ideas of atmosphere and narrative (something I observed during my studies in theatre as well as my advertorial forays into radio), did I really think of these ideas as being part of a contemporary art discourse.

What is it about sound that interests you?

Even if I look back at my childhood games of drawing scenes, building structures, and dressing up and disguising – all common activities for a youngster – I feel that these things were a catalyst. These pastimes were augmented when my father won a Pioneer “one-touch” Tape Recorder in a golf match when I was about 5 years old. We made tape letters for friends abroad, and listening back to them now I can hear that I had a special relationship to the idea of recording, often referring to the tape recorder as if it was some kind of sentient being, asking it questions, etc. I also used to record myself calling for my mother and then play it back in a room while I hid in another room.

How do you think your studies have influenced your artistic practice?

Theatre, Comparative Religion and Advertising might sum up my strategies too neatly, and although they don’t directly relate to Contemporary Art and experimental music, they have affected my work greatly, and continue to do so.

I like that in Theatre there is talk of the “company,” which includes everyone from the director to the lighting operators. This view of a group of people involved in a project together makes a lot of sense to me, especially as it challenges the hierarchical notion of the artist as a hermetic genius.

Comparative Religion probes our differences as well as our similarities. It shows the presence of belief in all the things we do: from simple superstition to the way we regard each other in terms of our private politics and views on an afterlife. Our world history is very much linked to religion. It’s found in our schedules, fashion sensibilities, jurisprudence, and diets. Whether we like it or not, humans are meaning seeking creatures, and religion and spirituality have played vital roles in the way the world is today.

Advertising is about other people, and communicating particular messages. It is also a highly polished financial machine capable of stretching all over the globe and influencing us in many different, positive and negative ways. It should be scrutinised extensively.

I’m interested in how your ideas come into being…I heard you’re a keen collector of sounds, like everyday ones that we rarely pay attention to. How often does the sound give birth to the idea, or is it often the idea into which you start considering the suitable sonic element?

It begins in my notebooks. Here I collect ideas and work with them through sketches, lists and diagrams: juxtaposing questions, referencing artists and non-artists alike, and auditioning ways that works could be read. A visual observation made in a protest march might be noted and then later considered in relation to a literary memory written about while listening to the radio. These come together as accidents, but are the result of years of conscious and unconscious collection, distillation and association. These same strategies are used with my photographic and sound recording studies. All the collected material can, if I am lucky, help generate new positions and ways of thinking.

Are you drawn to sounds just for their own aesthetic qualities first or are you also listening to them as, say, a political or social texture? 

In terms of sounds, I am very interested in what they could represent, and how those meanings change with context and presentation. Aesthetics play a strong part, alongside my interest in the “conceptual” and “social” interpretations that can be generated. There is always an emphasis on the political, poetic and social readings of sounds in my work, but also an invitation for the audience to personalise the pieces in some way. My ongoing, worldwide intervention, There’s No Place Called Home (2004, ongoing), is a good example of this. Here I conceal audio speakers in trees and broadcast the songs of birds that would never be found in that area, e.g. non-migratory Canadian birds in trees in Reims, France (There’s No Place Called Home (Domaine Pommery), 2011). Aside from anthropomorphic ideas of avian musicality, bird vocalizations are generally used to mark territory and attract mates. The introduction of new, geographically unique birdsong into a site generates a multitude of readings pertaining to human and animal migration, ecological contingency, territory marking, communication streams and folkloric magic. And it normally sounds very beautiful too…

This makes me think of a recent comment by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole that he likes birds (who feature extensively in his writing) because ‘they represent other life’ which have as little understanding of what life is about as we do, and who have a different point of view because they’re aerial. One could describe sound in a similar way: because of its abstract quality, it has a certain otherness and multiplicity to it.

The artist Marcel Duchamp said the audience constitutes 50 percent of the work. What is the role of the audience in your work? I’ve noticed that you sort of play with/upon the idea of the audience being anything from absent, accidental or non-human to a crucial element – a spectator, a creator – of the experience.

The multiple ideas of what an audience can be is pivotal for me, and my background in advertising and theatre are influences here. That said, I do believe that the artist is one of the audiences in the reception of the work. The project must speak to me and be meaningful to me, and this is where I stray from the aforementioned world of advertising. I often ask myself what success is to me. This is a question with many contextual answers, but in terms of what we are talking about here, I would say that a good example of success is when the artist learns something new, and this is why I see myself as one of the audiences of my projects.

I want my works to act as distilled events that can be magnetic for the associations and experiences of the audience who would complete the work for themselves. There’s No Place Called Home has a number of audiences, namely the local birds; the people who chance upon the newly introduced birdcalls, perhaps unaware that they are foreign or a recording; the people who are aware of the intervention and thus seek it out on site (bearing in mind that the location of the speakers is not disclosed); and of course I, the artist, am also an audience member to these activities. It might be a case of different parts of the work are accessed by different audiences.

Importantly, my projects are not solely orientated towards exhibition, and also they don’t end in the exhibition phase, but often have other roles to play in other contexts. In my work with the Sultan Bahu Rehab Centre, a drug rehabilitation centre run by a Sufi mosque in Mitchell’s Plain, South Africa, I have been recording the Dhikr ceremonies used by the rehabilitation centre as part of the recovery process. Dhikr (literally, “remembrance”) is a traditional Islamic recitation, where sacred names are chanted with special breathing techniques, often creating trance-like effects. This practice was brought to the Cape with the Mardykers and Malay slaves, the ancestors of the people in this part of Cape Town, and it is interesting given the ‘slavery’ metaphor that drug addiction often carries, and Dhikr’s function as a means of reconnection to the divine.

Every recording made with the Sultan Bahu Centre is shared with the patients, and sold locally – by the centre – to raise money and awareness for the centre. Beyond that, one of the Dhikr recordings was used in my installation Al Madat (2014) and this piece has also been used to generate funds as well as national and international interest in the rehab centre. This is not something that is part of the gallery audience’s experience, but is part of an extended audience / collaboration that the project is involved in.

I love this idea of art extending into everyday and becoming an enabling, helpful asset. There’s also been some talk of music and sound being considered as a form of health practice instead of just art or entertainment. But why do you think it might be difficult for people to engage with sonic pieces, ie. listen? Or have you experienced this in your career at all?

I am interested in the way sound art is packaged and promoted, and how it is theorised and disseminated. An early project of mine that addresses these themes, especially with regards to the numerous barriers people have in terms of engaging with sonic pieces, is Wa (2003). Here, an imaginary Japanese DJ named Wa was booked to perform at a large Cape Town party. I invented her profile, composed the music she would play and sourced an unknown Korean tourist to learn basic DJ’ing skills and perform as Wa. Her original identity was kept a secret and the gig was advertised to the point where people were talking about Wa as if they owned her (non-existent) albums. Her performance of ear-splitting noise lasted 15 minutes in front of a crowd of over 1,500 people. I believe that if it was me up there as the “face” of the music being played the audience wouldn’t have been as interested or excited: this was 2003 in Cape Town, and we were still, in some key ways, quite isolated from the world. By working with the theatrics of media and playing with images of cultural capital, I was able to facilitate an absorbing noise concert for people that might never have experimented with listening to that music before, and to probe questions as to how we consume and stereotype music and culture.

Listening, and by this I mean the proactive submission to sound, is a hard thing to do. It’s about paying attention, and being open to the unknown – a very exciting position to be in. Encouragement and education about listening, and sound as a viable art medium for both truth and fantasy would go a long way to empowering audiences to have meaningful experiences with sonic pieces.

A lot of your work deals with important and topical social, cultural and political issues…how do you see the influence of sound art or art in general on these issues – or does it need to have an effect?

Art can be a very effective and elegant means of drawing attention to the world within and around us, and act as an invitation to engage with the “other.” Sound art, with its emphasis on listening, which is a truly great way of paying respect to someone, can play a major role in generating and sharing knowledge, fostering understanding, and rebutting ignorance and fear.

A project like Prayer (2000, ongoing) where I compose a multi-channel sound installation comprising audio recordings of vocal worship from all the religions in the city where the artwork is hosted (e.g. Copenhagen, 2010 and Johannesburg, 2012) functions as a meeting point for different faiths and philosophies, and an opportunity for the audience to contemplate issues of belief, migration and multiculturalism. Prayer was strongly inspired by the process and experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, with its emphasis on listening and disclosure. Another inspiration, but in a more scientific and anthropological way, was Carl Sagan’s “Golden Record” – a curated collection of images and sounds relating to human life on earth included on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Both these examples point to ideas of sound as a form of sharing.

There’s No Place Called Home is also a way of speaking about global human issues but through the metaphor of birds. Here art can use allegory to inspired personal reflections and revelations.

Differently to my previous life in the advertising world which traded in the business of direct statements, I work towards creating situations that can ignite and challenge ideas in the lives of the audience based on their own particular views, uncertainties and desires.

You’ve said that cinema has been a huge influence for you. Are you trying to create a more interesting reality? What do you hope to convey in the spectator?

I grew up with cinema. It was, at the time, the most “complete” artistic medium that I experienced as a child in that it fused so many elements including choreography, music, text, and scenography into an immerse experience. I see my projects as an expanded cinema, in that I try to consider the full, multi-sensory experience of the audience, even if I am only doing this with sound. In this way, and considering the way I work with people and situations as part of my practice, I view my artistic role as a combination of theatre director, record producer, choreographer and event facilitator.

I don’t think I am trying to create a more interesting reality. Rather I am trying to wake up to the reality, and surreality, around me.

The word ‘isolation’ often comes up when reading about your work or position as a pioneering South African sound artist. How do you think this geographical and cultural isolation (or freedom?) has informed your practice?

The theme of isolation manifests in different ways in my life and my work, and at different times. It certainly influenced me to create Prayer as a means of getting to know other people, and investigating the world that I share with others – an opportunity denied to South Africans during Apartheid. Wa too deals with South Africa’s isolation and exclusion from the rest of the world, both in a cultural sense of Japan being “other” for early post-Apartheid South Africans, and noise music being something hardly spoken of in South Africa.

My mix of cultural and geographical factors are suggested in Children of the Revolution (2014), a re-working of the eponymous T.Rex glam rock anthem into an isiXhosa protest song. The track was rearranged in collaboration with composer and choir leader Bongani Magatyana, and is presented in speaker cabinets visually quoting the Intonarumori noise-generating machines of the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo. These three images (and I believe sound can be an image) of South African political protest, English glam rock of the 1970s, and the European experimental music of the futurists, sit together in a constellation that was formed from my polyphonic background.

If we tease out the idea of isolation, The Black Passage (2006) is a good place to think about this theme. This is a sound recording of the empty elevator cage descending into and ascending out of the South Deep mine, the deepest twin-shaft goldmine in the world, broadcast from a wall of speakers installed at the end of a narrow 20m black tunnel. Visitors enter the long-but-confined space and are drawn towards the frame of golden light emitted from a location behind the speakers at the rear of the tunnel. The sound is diffused at high volume and can be experienced as both an auditory and a physical sensation. The scenography of the black speakers framed with light is a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1915).

The Black Passage negotiates ideas of the unknown. It is a work which exists on several planes simultaneously – mythologically, audiences track the path of Orpheus into the underworld, each visitor experiencing their own ‘Hero’s Journey’. Philosophically, in the vertical dark, its length distorted and unclear, the work takes on the psychic shape of a black hole, confronting the human terror of (but also attraction towards) the void. In addition to its abstract emotional associations, The Black Passage is firmly rooted in place and history, its sound and form boring into the legacy of mining in South Africa, and its links to race and power. Sonically, it’s a profoundly alienating experience.

How do you think the South African sound art scene could evolve? Or does there even need to be one? I’m also thinking of the new urban music coming from South Africa, it has sort of assumed its own style and freedom, far from the expectations of the Global North…

I can’t speak for a scene. What I can say is that there are many South Africans making excellent work with sound, even if it isn’t spoken of in terms of “Sound Art,” which is a term I struggle with too. There is so much to do, share, and draw from in South Africa, and if we keep this in mind, the evolution that you ask after will be a very exciting one. Maybe one thing we could do is celebrate our eclecticism more.

I believe that art, sound and music are dynamic ways of bringing people together and for producing knowledge, and if we can apply the metaphor of listening to our dealings with other people and the way we inhabit this planet, then we will have more than just a healthy art scene, we will have a few more peaceful revolutions.