Terry Fox – Audio Works (1983 / 2018)
I’ve said it before, but, for those of us who have been in the trenches for a while, the moment which we now occupy often appears as an undeniably strange and unexpected period in the history of recorded sound. The rarest artifacts – those objects which reached the smallest number of ears during their day, things which, only a short number of years ago, no one could have anticipated being reissued, have been reemerging a rapid pace, to wide acclaim. It’s a remarkable development, but not one which should be taken without a grain of salt.
There is long established, fairly reasonable truism within the arts – that greatest accomplishments are rarely celebrated in their own eras, or within the lifetimes of their makers. It’s phenomena which the world of art commits again and again – aware, but seeming incapable avoiding – what my old friend Rene Ricard, in his December 1981 article for Artforum on Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child, dubbed The Van Gogh Boat. All too often, we the inheritors of history, are left sifting through the rubble of loss, attempting to rectify the sins those who came before.
This process – the reassessment of history, attempting to give unjustly neglected artists their due, while noble and necessary, is not without peril. It is all too easy to make a fetish of the obscure and unknown – something extremely familiar within contemporary reissue culture and the vinyl revival. How many unsung holy-grails can there really be? Is such a record great because of its artistic merit, or because only the most obsessive and knowledgeable previously knew of its existence? As one such obsessive, I can certainly attest, at times, to having been seduced by lure of this fetish. That said, there is no denying that the historical reassessment which is widely underway, particularly in the hands of small record labels, is of immeasurable value, one indication of which is found through Song Cycle’s latest LP, Terry Fox’s Audio Works, initially issued as a tiny cassette in edition by the Exit & Exempla imprint, in 1983. It is as stunning and important as they come.
I wrote about Terry Fox roughly a year ago when Eddition Telemark issued, for the first time, the artist’s long lost work, 552 Steps Through 11 pairs, from 1976. I have adored and championed the artist for more than 20 years, having first encountered his early video work, Children’s Tapes (1974), in the Video Data Bank during my first year at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, later tracking down, after a great deal of effort, treasured copies of his two LPs from the 80’s – Linkage and Berlino / Rallentando. I couldn’t be happier to see his legacy emerging into the light – in this case, in the hands of Song Cycle, an imprint which, in recent years, has become a definitive champion of historic sound art, issuing long out of print recordings by a diverse range of figures like Christina Kubisch, Michael Snow, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the seminal Poesia Sonora, Revolutions Per Minute, and Fluxus Anthology compilations. Their efforts have done immeasurable good, bringing this remarkable, often definition resistant creative territory – laying between avant-garde music and the context of visual art, into wider view.
Terry Fox emerged, during the 1960’s and 70’s, as a definitive voice within the fertile ground of San Fransisco’s conceptual art scene – caught in an era during which the dominant institutions of fine-art, seeing it as a backwater, refused to pay California any mind. Unlike his peers Bruce Nauman and John Baldersari, he neither went to NY, nor waited it out – leaving permanently for Europe toward the end of the 1970’s. Despite, arguably, being a victim of geography, Fox was among the most important figures in the history of 20th extended practice – a pioneer of performance, conceptual, and sound art. From the early 1970s, until his untimely passing in 2008, he embraced a profound form personal practice, exploring sound and space, through a transformative processes of materiality, where his body often became the medium, illuminating what could be extreme psychological and physical experiences – at once embracing the sculptural materiality of nature, the industrial, and the every day – bridging territories explored by Joseph Beuys with those of Minimalists like Carl Andre and land artists Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, while also recognizing, similarly to Nauman and Baldersari, that materiality was only a vehicle for an idea.
Tragically, despite the profound historical importance of his ideas and actions, Fox has remained largely absent from the narrative of the practice he helped invent. Some of this is a natural consequence of the private nature of his performance, the obscurity of his recorded releases, and the timing in which appeared. The rest of the blame likely falls toward the fact that he is an inconvenient truth, representing an alternate, less tidy narrative of history and practice, defined with a degree of integrity – an emblem of where his generation began, which is rare to find anywhere else. His work is challenge to the hegemony of the institutions of art – the gallery, the museum, the histories they present.
While all of the discrete aspects of Fox’s work should be understood as existing within a multidimensional practice, most of those who have encountered him, thus deserving some of the credit for his small surviving legacy, will likely have done so within the artifacts of historic sound art. Here he is incredibly well represented – appearing in one of its earliest exhibitions at the Museum Of Conceptual Art in San Francisco during 1971, and on the seminal Airwaves, Sound, Revolutions Per Minute, and Audio By Visual Artists compilations, in addition to a handful of releases under his own name – Linkage, Berlino / Rallentando, Ataraxia, Insalata Mista, The Labyrinth Scored For The Purrs Of 11 Cats, and Audio Works, the reissue of which stands before us now.
Audio works, published in 1983, during a period in which Fox was living in Florence, by the Exit & Exempla imprint, has, until now, remained among the rarest documents of the artist’s body of sound work to be issued during his lifetime. Importantly, rather than focused on a singe work like most of the artist’s releases, it offers one of the broadest single representations of his practice, featuring five incredible works – Culvert, Lunar Rambles, Timbre, Cat Purrs Ending, and Flu Alarm, each opening a unique window into the diversity of his approach.
Generally speaking, the division between sound art and avant-garde music can be a complex distinction to negotiate – largely centering around the assertions of context, rather than the character of practice. Music is, after all, in the broadest definition, the organization of sounds – a definition which can be applied to most sound appearing within the context of fine-art. Are Dieter Roth’s Harmonica Curse, Mike Kelley’s Silver Ball (Light And Color Mostly), La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #1, Bruce Nauman’s Violin Tuned To D.E.A.D, orChristian Marclay’s Guitar Drag sound art or experimental music? You could make an equal argument for both, in most cases resolved by the fact that sound art is presented within one type of space or context, with music appearing in another. The five works which appear on Terry Fox’s Audio Works take strides toward establishing a more easily observed distinction.
While sound can largely been seen to be the central focus around which each of these works was created, the scope and diversity of processes which Fox deployed to generate them, extends far beyond the standard notions and definitions of musicality, transitioning toward a materiality so broad, that it is hard to define it as anything other than art. For example, Culvert is a the product of a 24 hour performance which was staged a number of times in 1977. During the the first 3 hours Fox, accompanied by two students, took the rowboat to the middle of the culvert, where they improvised on a number instruments. For remaining 21 hours, Fox stayed alone in the rowboat, running a wooden baton around the rim of a saucepan lid to the point of exhaustion. It is a work presents the interdependency between sound, enviroment, action, and idea – sound, body, and temporarily as a sculptural material. Lunar Rambles is a document from series of unannounced performances by Fox in outdoor locations in New York during a single week in 1976, taking place over the course of a single week. In each of the sites, Fox played a large metal bowl and a steel disc with a violin bow, creating an interface between time, place, and the resonance of action – the site specific and spacial responsive generation of sound. Timbre, of all the works presented within Audio Works, is arguably the most ambitious and insightful into Fox’s practice. There have been few things like it before or since. Sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and performed in 1976, it is a work for two instruments separated by a mesmerizing amount of space – a homemade instrument strung with piano wire, and a Cessna 172 engine airplane, which, over the course of two hours, made six passes over the performance, while Fox’s instrument, tuned to the pitch of the plane’s propeller, generated a continuous drone for 4 1/2 hours. The scale and ambition, not to mention the final document, while I expect nothing compared to being there, is absolutely stunning.
Filled with a remarkable range of sonority – drones, squeals, pluses, purrs, and klangs, Audio Works is a true celebration of creativity through sound – high art at its most musical. A world and practice, years ahead of its time, which offered attention to everyday phenomena and aspects of social existence, the LP is one of those rare objects which stands on its own for its own creative worth, while illuminating history, practice, and the shadowing line between avant-garde music and the world of sound-art. Absolutely wonderful and essential. I can’t recommend this one enough – yet another brilliant addition to the incredible and necessary historical reappraisal of Terry Fox, which I can’t thank Song Cycle enough for bringing back. You can pick it up from SoundOhm or your local record shop. In the meantime, check out some of its sounds below.
Terry Fox – Timbre (1976/ 1983 / 2018)
Terry Fox – Lunar Rambles (1976 / 1983 / 2018)