Present and Absent: An Interview with Mitchell Akiyama – Yan Wu

I first met Mitchell few years ago at a homeworker get-together, an initiative by Gina Badger as a solution to fight against the solitary nature of our work days. Back then, Gendai, a non-profit art gallery I was running at the time, didn’t have an office space and I had to work from home. That session was hosted at Mitchell’s house. I was immediately fascinated by the number of DIY projects going on in that household and his collection of rare music instruments.

During the break, he told us about the project he was working on at New Adventure in Sound Art. Coincidentally, I was looking for an artist, preferably with some sort of Asian background (according to the mandate of the gallery), to lead a workshop for a group of students from Japanese language school, and Mitchell seemed perfect for it. Fortunately Mitchell agreed to the proposal. He performed John Cage’s 4’33” to the students, followed by a soundwalk of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

When the Gendai Workstation happened, knowing he would be interested, I invited Mitchell to collaborate with the architects-in-residence to create some site-specific instruments that could transform the space and introduce new possibilities to the neighbourhood.

In this interview, I asked Mitchell to reflect on the project from a different perspective, in response to the theme of this issue: Haunted.

Yan Wu: Do you remember that project you did at New Adventure in Sound Art? That’s how I was first connected to your work.

Mitchell Akiyama: It was called Thankfully, we now know all. The piece involved getting multiple participants to simultaneously record environmental sound within earshot of each other. We then played back the recordings on a multichannel sound system and were able to hear the sounds, all recorded several metres apart, simultaneously. This allowed us to hear the particular area at a particular moment in time from a hugely expanded perspective. It was inspired by the Borges story “The Aleph,” in which there is a point that exists through which the entire universe, past and present, can be experienced. It seemed to me that the current technological moment is making this idea less and less fantastical, that we can collapse distance and experience many points of view simultaneously.

YW: Let’s talk about the title of your show at the Gendai Workstation, “Ur-sound, or, the noise no writing can store.” How did you come up with it? Maybe I am sensing a connection to some ghostly matter?

MA: The title came from a book by the German media philosopher, Friedrich Kittler. It’s from a section where Kittler discusses a text by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he imagines that running the needle of a phonograph over the coronal suture of a skull – which to him resembled the grooves of a phonograph record – would activate what he called the primal sound. According to Kittler, Rilke is imagining reading a writing, an inscription, that has no author – unless one’s willing to credit God as the author. Before the phonograph all inscriptions were created by human hand, but mechanical reproduction made it possible to bypass the hand of the author. What I was gesturing at in this piece is that there is always a quantity or an element that is in excess of any medium’s ability to capture or represent “reality.” I would go as far as saying that there is a haunting in that moment of inscription, or that arises because of it, in that there is an apparent slippage between what was, what is, and what will be. Any recording of voice represents a person as she was in a moment and can store it until, or even after, she is dead. The idea of recordings of dead people is pretty banal to us at this point. But it wasn’t always. Sound recording has always been connected to ideas of death and of haunting. Initially, one of Edison’s intended uses was for it to record the voices of “great men” for posterity. My PhD advisor, Jonathan Sterne, writes some really interesting stuff about the social world that anticipated recording. In the mid-eighteenth century people were obsessed with storage. Two important things were invented during the Civil War: embalming the dead and preserving food through canning (which led to the term “canned music”). So in a way sound recording was just one more technological hedge against death and/or disappearance. And, at least at first, it also had the uncanny outcome of preserving the voice after the speaker had died. Again, I don’t know that most of us listen to a Robert Johnson recording and think, as a first thought: wow, he’s dead. But my sense is that haunting is never so direct. I like the sociologist Avery Gordon’s take on haunting, which she describes as a “seething presence” – it a thing, a person, an event, that is apparent, that influences us, even in its absence. She also writes that haunting leads to “transformative recognition” and not to any sort of rational understanding.

Ur-sound, or, the noise no writing can store from Mitchell Akiyama on Vimeo.

YW: You mentioned in your artist statement for the show that “Synaesthesia is the new norm.” How is it related to your work?

MA: What I was getting at with that statement (which I admit is a little exaggerated) is that we’re living in a time in which so much of experience is rendered as data. Data isn’t implicitly visual or aural or tactile – it is just made to manifest in one sensory register. Any string of digital information can be turned into sound just as easily at it can be rendered as a visualization, which is something I examine in a lot of my work. For example, my piece “Seismology as Metaphor for Empathy” takes the seismic data of the 2011 earthquake in Japan and transcodes it into sound. Once rendered as data, the phenomenon of the ground moving could be translated in all kinds of ways – as colour spectra, as a bar graph, etc. And in “Ur-sound,” by actually dragging a phonograph needle through the suture of a skull, I was doing something along similar lines – translating marks in the world into sound.

Seismology as Metaphor for Empathy from Mitchell Akiyama on Vimeo.

YW: How and where did you come across the seismic data of the earthquake? Were you involved in the process of transcoding it into sound? What about the “sound of a skull”? Did you record that yourself?

MA: I found the data online. It’s pretty incredible how much data is available. I don’t expect anyone but seismologists would generally look at it. I then used software developed by Patrick Feaster and the people involved with a project called First Sounds to “sonify” it. They’re doing really interesting work – it was First Sounds that managed to convert a “phonautogram,” this pre-Edison sound recording technology that was meant to turn sound into writing, not to play it back, back into sound. I also tried to use their process to convert an image of the skull into sound but it didn’t work as well. And, in the end, I decided that the only appropriate gesture was to do exactly as Rilke had imagined: drag a phonographic stylus through the suture.

YW: It seems to me that direct references to historical events play an important role in your work, at least in this show. 

MA: Definitely. Pretty much all of my work comes very much out of historical narratives. But what I’m not trying to do is simply recreate archaic or obsolete technologies. For me it’s about finding the resonances between moments. So for example, my piece “The Third Ear,” in which one bites on a wooden dowel in order to conduct sound through the bones in the teeth and jaw, is based on a technique that Edison and Beethoven used to supplement their limited hearing. But the object is also built to recall Joseph Beuys’s “Silent Speaker,” which was basically a rectangular wedge of his signature grey felt. So, built into that piece were a few different thoughts on how the body receives or doesn’t receive sensation.

The Third Ear from Mitchell Akiyama on Vimeo.

YW: How apparent would you want to make these reference points to the spectators?

MA: That’s a tough question. Because, on the one hand, I hope that these pieces are all engaging as experiences of material and sensation, that they’re beautiful and engaging objects. But I realize that it’s really unlikely that most people will pick up on the references that are embedded in them. I always want these references to be available though, and I’m still trying to figure out how to best do that without interfering with the pre-narrative experience of the work. I was just at a sound art conference giving a presentation about a new project I’m working on and realized that, after having prepared a 30-minute presentation on the history of the idea of frozen sound (as a metaphor that predates the phonograph), I typically produce a pretty significant body of research for these projects.

YW: It’s interesting to see how different layers of reference points, that are each related to different senses, materialize into one piece of work. They are blended together, as a coherent experience. Do you consider this process of making as a means of translation?

MA: Yes, very much so. Again, what I don’t want to do is simply resurrect technologies that have fallen into obscurity. These projects are constellations of references that all revolve around similar concerns and then, as much as possible, are folded into an object. I don’t know if I’d call them translations so much as articulations or assemblages – to use two terms that have other lives in media studies and philosophy, respectively. 

YW: How do you see your multidisciplinary background – as a musician, an artist, a scholar, and a father! – informing your practices?

MA: I’ve been working on sound/music work, visual art, and have been reading and writing for years and always thought of these as separate practices. I’ve also been building things – renovating and repairing and things like that – for a while. But for some reason something changed relatively recently. I started making these works that drew from all of these backgrounds. It suddenly made sense to build objects that both produced or transformed sounds in ways other than simple speaker playback and that drew from my research on the history of acoustics.

YW: Another example of “finding the resonances between moments”?

MA: Sure, between moments and ideas and practices. Finding the right materials to tell a particular story, in addition to attending to their function. But also finding the intersections or resonances that exist between different events and texts and practices.

YW: Last question: What is a ghost to you? How would you address yourself to the ghost?

MA: I suppose a ghost is an entity or a thing or a phenomenon that was once with us that is vanished but recently returned. What is most uncanny and remarkable about a ghost is that it’s simultaneously present and absent. At least this is Jacques Derrida’s suggestion. If you’re asking how I, personally, would address myself to a ghost, I’m not sure I have a good answer for you.

Yan Wu is a curator and writer who lives and works in Toronto. Her work focuses on inventing alternative strategies to facilitate cross-cultural exchange and developing a curatorial approach that relates material to structure, body to site, and utopia to sustainability in the intersection of art, architecture and urban design. In 2008, she co-founded Tanso, a non-profit organization facilitates and produces cultural exchange programs between China and Canada and subsequently produced new music events SOUNDEYE (2008) and SOUNDREACH (2009). Wu has worked as facilitator and translator with Art Metropole and Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on two collaborative projects between Chinese artists and Toronto local artists: BAGART (2009) and Keyword School in Toronto (2010). Her curatorial projects include Residentcy in RMB City (2010), Vectors: Connections and Interventions (2011-ongoing), Arbitrary Triangles: Three Passages through Shanghai (2011), and the Gendai Workstation (2011-2012), a one year long site-specific project whose discursive programming encompasses exhibitions, lectures, performances, screenings, discussions, workshops, dinners, and an experimental furniture design studio. Currently she works at Art Metropole and serves on the programming committee and board at the Gendai Gallery. As a writer, she contributes to Artforum.com.cn and other art and cultural publications in China and Canada.

Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto based composer, artist, and scholar. He has released several records on labels such as Raster Noton (Germany), Sub Rosa (Belgium), and Alien8 (Canada), in addition to works on his own imprint, Intr.version Records. He has scored and contributed music to many films, including El Huaso by Carlo Proto, Puffball by Nicholas Roeg, and The Corporation by Mark Achbar, and has composed work for dance companies such as Victor Quijada’s Rubberbandance, Örjan Andersson’s Andersson Dance, and Pigeons International. Akiyama has received commissions from, among others, the Akousma Festival (in conjunction with the Canada Council for the Arts) and the Nouvel Orchestre D’aujourd’hui. He has performed across Europe, Japan, Australia, and North American in concert halls, clubs, art galleries, fallout bunkers, and festivals including Sonar, Mutek, and Send + Receive. Akiyama’s artwork questions received knowledge about the senses and perception. Grounded in his research on technological mediation and storage, his installations and multimedia work investigate the relationship between historical narrative and sensory experience. His recent work was featured in the solo exhibition, Ur-sound, or, the noise no writing can store, at Gendai Gallery in Toronto. He has participated in group exhibitions and media arts festivals including the Vienna Museum of Modern Art, Howard House Gallery in Seattle, Le Centre de Culture Val David, and the Signal and Noise festival in Vancouver. Currently, Akiyama is pursuing a PhD at McGill University in Communications. His dissertation examines “field recording” across a variety of disciplines, from biology to folklore to sound art. He has published on a variety of subjects, from sound art to urban ecology in journals and magazines including, the Canadian Journal of Communications, Canadian Art Review (RACAR), Offscreen, Locus Suspectus, and Matrix. A book chapter entitled “The Recording that Never Wanted to be Heard’ and Other Stories of Sonification,” co-written with Jonathan Sterne, was recently published in the Oxford Handbook to Sound Studies.