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15 September 2008

James Hullick: Independence does not exist

James Hullick Image: James Hullick  


Composer-pianist-vocalist-sound-artist James Hullick – who, according to his website, is 'even better than colour television' – kindly agreed to elaborate on some of the recurring themes of the resonate journal issue three. We also asked him about his own work and let him use the resonate soap-box to point out that it is not necessary for all of us to be artists forever.


You've used the term 'sonic art' to explain what you do – do you find you have to spend time thinking about labels and categories, and if so, why? Do you ever feel tempted to use more conventional terms, say, 'music theatre', 'chamber music' or 'electronic music'?

Definitions are fluid. We are organic beings subject to the laws of variation, and this is why I think definitions are subject to change. My definition for the term 'sound art' changes over time. At the moment, I define it as 'being creative with sound' and try not to limit it any further than that. This means that The Wiggles are as equally umbrellaed under the term as Merzbow, or Balinese Gamelan, or ZZ Top, or Mozart, or Ernie Althoff, or La Monte Young.

There is a reason for this attitude that I take. I currently see the emergence of the term 'sound art' as a wonderful opportunity to be inclusive, as a way to inspire interest in the great work that happens in the sonic arts, and as a way to resist the tendencies towards prejudice in the arts. That being said, I have learnt over the past year of artistic directorship for JOLT Arts Inc., that if you are going to tell people about your event, it is important to make every effort to accurately describe it. Of course, one can try to avoid explaining – many artists try that – but, as an organiser of events, it's virtually impossible for me to avoid descriptions. One has to be careful with the terms that are used. This is why I spend a lot of time thinking about labels and categories in my role as an organiser of events.

As an artist, I make the art and usually worry about what to label it only later, when I put the organiser's hat on. Having said that, thinking through art and intellectualising it has been very rewarding to my artistic processes, and, as I get older, I am more and more inclined to step back from something I am making and to question it. And for those people who say that I might over-intellectualise my work, and therefore my work sucks – well, maybe my work would have sucked even harder for those people if I didn't think about it! Anti-intellectualising art has never really been my bag anyway.

I am mindful, however, that you don't want to kill your art with theories. On the occasions when I have experienced this outcome in my own work, I have found that it was because my theory was bogus, and not because all theories ruin art. Intellectualising is a tool that can help you. The hammer helps me bang a nail into the wall. If I use the hammer badly I might bruise my finger. But it would be foolish to say that all hammers are no good just because I was such a buffoon that I misused the thing.

Sometimes I use conventional terms as a subset of the term sound art – but only if I have to. You can tell people a lot about a work of art without having to 'ism' it. Rather than saying 'chamber music' or 'minimalism,' you might be inclined to talk about 'exploring the static textures of flute, clarinet, cello and percussion'. In that phrase I've been specific and concise and had no need for the term 'chamber music' or 'minimalism'.

At times, artists and promoters (myself included) can fall into the trap of thinking that audiences need big signposts to describe sound. My experience is that the big signpost is rarely needed. I have found that audiences, and especially those who are outside the circles of the more experimentally inclined artists, respond really positively to the ideas and concepts that can be expressed through sound. If anything, I have found that it is the artists who struggle the most when communicating the ideas and concepts of their practice beyond the art act itself – not the audiences so much. Audiences have the advantage of being detached from the making of the work.

As an artist I have certainly struggled at times when trying to verbally describe my work. I've always found it particularly difficult to sensibly talk about a work of mine immediately after a concert or on opening night of an exhibition. I'm still stuck in the experience of delivering the work. I've had to learn that, if you are going to be an artist, you most probably will have to find a way of talking about your art, and often in uncomfortable circumstances such as immediately after the gig. Sorting out your relationship with labels and categories is a great place to start.

I don't think it would be news to anyone to say that you should always question the terms used in one's trade. I think questioning the terms in relation to my work helps me explain my work more clearly. Questioning keeps the whole thing fluid and alive. Actually, it is my belief that you should question everything. And that the key to questioning is listening.

Some of your work aims at delivering a social message – do you feel that you succeed in getting it through to your audience, and how has your audience responded to these works?

I avoid trying to succeed. It is not about getting things through to an audience either. I like to think that it's about inviting the audience to share in questioning some aspect of society, and that they have the choice to participate or not. I created a work titled Kling that was made around the issues of torture and Abu Ghraib. It was performed for a working class audience at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, and it was received as a positive, creative act. It was also performed for a bourgeois audience who hated it with a passion and perceived it as an opportunistic act. A work like Kling, that has a very harsh edge to it, is always going to split audiences. The debate around Abu Ghraib and the showing of the Abu Ghraib images was very intense at the time. A guy by the name of Jordan Crandall started up Under Fire, an online forum about how the media portrays such events – the forum also addressed how the Abu Ghraib images were treated in gallery exhibitions. The curator Antonio Monegal wrote the following as part of his contribution to this forum:

Political attitudes of citizens depend not just on what the media say but also on the memory of a society. It may be true that showing what war is, and what happens in wars, is ... the best argument against war. The problem is not that the Abu Ghraib images were shown at the ICP [a New York art gallery], but that they will never be shown at the permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian.

One of the dangers in engaging in political issues is that audiences, having seen the one show, will often think that politics is all you do in art. It can be difficult for audiences, and especially for reviewers, to realise that each individual show is not the sum of all your parts.

I have also programmed a number of more subtle events involving issues. Working with the intellectually disabled performers of the Amplified Elephants – a sound art ensemble based at the Footscray Community Arts Centre – has been a great example of this. For the most part, audiences really respond to the work the Amplified Elephants do and appreciate being a part of an act of cultural inclusion. Occasionally reports get back to me about concerns that the 'professional artists' (their words not mine) involved in these projects might be pushing their own barrows, but these comments are nearly always from 'dilettantes' and cultural passengers who wouldn't be willing to devote their own time to some similar community activity.

There is also the issue of 'preaching to the choir.' As an artist and a curator, I make a judgement call – being explicit vs being subtle. If you go down the road of being explicit, essentially of being didactic, then there will always be people who don't like that, but sometimes it is a worthy thing to do. You have to be brave when going down the path of didacticism, because you know that you will nearly always be criticised for it. And it's not easy to make art if you have a rigid opinion on something – rigid opinions tend to lead to disaster, actually. I try and pose many questions through a project that is didactic. Being didactic is often undertaken by artists who are hoping to instigate some kind of social shift.

Currently, I feel that the best way to instigate social change is to do it through your work. I am a great admirer of Julian Burnside QC, who is someone who does this so well. I wish I could be half the person he is. You'd be surprised what you can achieve through the workplace.

It's important to emphasise that JOLT is not an organisation that seeks to always be overtly political or issues-based. We present shows that are primarily concerned with aesthetics as well. In the end, I think it is about having a balance across the projects, and respecting the audience by giving them an idea, in pre-show publicity, of what they might be in for. That being said, have you ever seen a kick-ass work of sound and/or art project that wasn't somehow engaged in questioning or celebrating some aspect of how we live in the world around us? It's pretty hard to avoid. Even if you are Donald Judd working with stripped-back geometrical sculptural forms.

Multitasking is something that is becoming more and more familiar to anyone active in the arts. Quite apart from being artistically multiskilled, you seem to be active in many other roles, from being an administrator to curating and organising concerts, producing records, doing publicity etc. Does some of this come naturally, or has it required a special effort to learn these kinds of skills? Do you see this as essential for being active and independent in the field?

Everything is hard work. Making art is hard work. Presenting art is hard work. My partner Charlotte always brags to me about what a great multitasker she is. For me, it doesn't come easily. I'm not actually sure that multitasking is real. You don't talk on the phone at exactly the same time as you are sampling a bell and writing a grant app, whilst washing the dishes. Those things don't occupy the same moment in time – at least not in my experience. I try to do each task to the best of my ability, one after the other. I try to give each task the time it needs. If I can find someone to help with something, I try to remember to ask. Most of the time, though, I end up doing things myself, seven days a week, and going to bed late at night. How many people do you know who love writing grant applications? I don't know any. Yep, you end up learning how to do it all, budgets, photoshopping flyers, media releases, organisational stuff, reports, grant apps, liasing with venues, setting up financial stuff, scouting out artists, mastering CDs, operating lighting desks, mixing desks, front of house desks, sitting galleries, making the art, curating, conceptualising, meetings, emails, phone calls. Eat, shit, sleep. Hang out with the Missus and baby.

I couldn't give a hoot about independence. If someone wanted to do all the organising for me, I'd name my firstborn – ah second born – after them (firstborn laready has a name). I think independence is an illusion. I operate under the view that everything is interdependent and that the key is to learn how to make a contribution to culture.

There is room in the world for artists who organise stuff and artists who don't organise stuff. If you don't organise stuff, but make sound/art full-time, expect the Van Gogh lifestyle. If you do organise stuff, also expect the Van Gogh lifestyle but at least enjoy the knowledge that someone else, apart from you, the maker, was able to share in what you do, in the form you intended it to be, in your own lifetime. If you luck out and make heaps of cash, then don't be greedy.

How do you feel the more traditional institutions of the music industry – festivals and concert organisers, for instance – are embracing the new? Are they actively looking for opportunities to cooperate, or does the initiative come from you?

Why should traditional institutions embrace the new? New institutions have no desire to embrace the traditional. If you want new sound art in a festival, then you'll have to put it on yourself. That's what Liquid Architecture did. I admire them greatly for that. NOW Now did it, too. And there are very few traditional sound festivals in Australia. Would you really want Sony to put out your weird-ass electro thrash black magic moment? If we wish to embrace the new, then we have to take responsibility for promoting the new and presenting the new. I think it is unfair to conservatives to expect them to foot the bill if we aren't prepared to give it a crack ourselves. That's why the Artist Run Initiative galleries, such as Kings ARI, Westspace, BUS, Conical, Trocadero and so on, are so inspiring: they created their own spaces for the new.

I think there are many dangers with trying to be 'new' as well. I've tried to present JOLT shows in such a way that people don't see us as breaking away from the past. It gets back to interdependence. For me, one of the most JOLTing things about being an artist and a curator is how interwoven culture really is, and that independence doesn't exist.

I would hope that most established venues are trying to run their organisations as sustainable businesses. I think where problems arise is less to do with unadventurous programming (I've rarely had venues knock back a JOLT proposal outright). Most venues realise that if they don't program some progressive stuff, they are going to miss out on government funding, which is largely geared towards innovation. Also, there is a lot of support for Australia establishing itself as a progressive arts nation from within the arts administration community. I think problems that arise are more to do with a) undervaluing a project, thereby short-changing the artists for their work; b) artists undervaluing the worth of their time; c) innovation for innovation's sake; d) poor communication between artists and organisations; e) an inability to consistently pick great projects; f) too many administrators on salaries and not enough artists on salaries; g) unachievable outcomes.

Normally I instigate cooperation with any other entity. I don't have a problem with that. Once working on a project with another organisation – a venue for example – the relationship is usually pretty good. I try to be mindful of the challenges that the other organisation might be facing and bear in mind that my show is not the be all and end all. If you are getting screwed and the problem can't be resolved (which happens), be prepared to vote with your feet. I haven't had to do this – yet.

Most of the time, the reality in the arts is that even if you are 'lucky' enough to receive a grant for a project, or payment from a venue, you are still going to be producing that outcome at a salary rate that is in breach of the Australian minimum wage laws. There are sweat shops in Australia, too. It so often happens that when we get funding, we are given two thirds of what we proposed in the application. What's the point of expecting us to draw up a professional budget? I've never gone to the supermarket and said to the checkout dude – 'Hey checkout dude, I reckon I might short-change you one third of that total you've quoted me there. Is that OK?' At JOLT it has been the reality that I 'donate' a lot of my time and money, and that JOLT – being a not-for-profit organisation – has been very dependent on many people volunteering their time. A lot of organisers are in the same boat. When arts administrators are receiving salaries in bloated organisations that are backed up by significant government funding, that's when I start to get cranky. But in the words of Con the Fruiterer's wife, 'I no complain.' I know that the better-run organisations will put the sloppy performers out of business in time. In Europe, it takes five really well-paid people working very hard and efficiently to put on a large festival. In Australia it takes 30 people, usually on significantly lower incomes and with less incentive to work efficiently for the dollar. When you do the maths, the Europeans are spending less on overall admin salary costs and more on artists. Everyone is much happier. This is a more sustainable business practice.

To reiterate: a large percent of the arts funding in Australia goes into arts admin salaries. Very little actually goes to the artists. It's unsustainable because it's illegal. Australians want a fabulous art scene, but they have to be ready to pay for it.

What are you working on at the moment?

The Sonic Body: Construction 1 exhibition (Westspace, Melbourne, 1-4 October) is the first event in JOLT Arts Inc.'s ongoing series of presentations that explore sound as being generated by bodies – it includes a sono-interview-based video work by the conceptual sound artist Brandon La Belle (USA), sound sculptures by Bruce Mowson and James Hullick, and a video and sound installation by Marcia Jane and Philip Samartzis. Two concert-style performances will also take place, the first (2 October) will feature James Hullick and the second (4 October) will feature Philip Samartzis and Lizzie Pogson. And, in October, there will be a showing of WIGGA – Neo Gothic sonic and visual wig-based installations at the Shifted Gallery in Richmond.

Questions I should have asked but didn't?

While I have the soap-box (unaccustomed as I am), there is one more important thing I would like to mention. If you are an artist, you need to question yourself as to whether you really should be an artist. I do this regularly over the course of a year. There are better things to do with your life than struggle away at being a D-grade artist. Nobody should begrudge you walking away from the life of an artist. If they do, they're arseholes.

In the late nineties, I reckon my composition teacher at the time (Felix Werder) would have challenged me on this one every second or third lesson. It was great. He had students who became doctors and philosophers and mathematicians. They all have much better lives than me! I reckon half of his students would have walked – which I thought was a very healthy and brave thing. In the end I just told him something along the lines 'cheetah's gotta run,' which has become a bit of a line for me. But I didn't stop questioning. We can't all be artists anyway. Someone digs those potatoes that end up in your pot. We can, of course, be creative and questioning in our work and home lives though, regardless of whether we make art or not. Maybe that is the essence of art anyway.

Further links

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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