As a central new commission especially for the exhibition Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Mirza has constructed a residency studio within the gallery as a space for local and international collaborators to undertake week-long residencies, culminating in a live performance within the exhibition. Loosely structured on the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, Mirza has scripted a science fiction narrative with references to nature, artificial intelligence, psychedelic substances, and the healing potential of song as a provocation for each studio resident. Through the residencies, Mirza's original script will be transformed. Initially into a composition by James Rushford, then workshopped by Rushford with musicians Jessica Aszodi, Alexander Garsden and Freya Schack-Arnott, and interpreted into movement by choreographer Julie Cunningham, working with dancer, Chess Boughey. Finally, the writers Arben Dzika and Chi Tran will respond in a text-based form with consideration of all former collaborations.
To begin your conversation, I want to propose that we think about the idea of chance. As curator, I think of this exhibition, the residencies and the eventual performances, almost like a game of exquisite corpse, with each collaborator adding to the composition, but only at the end of the previous person's contribution. In that sense, there is a lot left up to chance, with no single one of us totally in control of anything, other than our individual contributions. Haroon, I wondered perhaps if you could begin by talking about if, or how, chance has informed your thinking about the exhibition?
– Annika Kristensen, Curator
This observation about chance is interesting. I didn't really think about it during the making of this exhibition but chance plays a big part in my practice. When I first started studying my undergraduate back in 1999 — looking at people like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen — I think I realised that in music there’s probably a more rigorous engagement with chance. Then I read people like James Gleick, especially his book Chaos1, and began thinking about chaos theory, leading on to fractal geometry and all kinds of things. But these days, for me, those things have become latent in my work and not something that I probably think about on an everyday level — it’s more of a subtext or undercurrent that's always there.
I think that meeting you, James, is chance, given that I didn't know your work prior to us being introduced. Coming to Australia and working on this exhibition with Annika Kristensen, Max Delany, and the ACCA team, has meant that I could be introduced to new people and that’s a kind of chance encounter in itself. Then, at the same time, there’s always this part of me that thinks about the notion that maybe there’s no chance, and maybe everything is meant to be. That’s an interesting idea for me, in working with chance.
James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, (New York: Viking Books, 1987). ↩
You speak about chance as a kind of undercurrent in your thinking. But with something like this exchange, there’s a gap that needs to be filled by the collaborative process. Do you see that as a chance thing, or do you see it more as something else?HM
Yes, it’s both chance and not. We’ve elsewhere discussed the element of control, particularly in the relationship between recording and doing things live. You have more control when you record things, and in the live context there’s always the element of chance. But there’s also trust. It’s like not having a fear of the unknown and just embracing it.
That chance element turns into excitement. I think about the Google Home device in this exhibition, where I didn't know if this technology was going to behave in the way it had currently behaved when I was testing it. In the UK, where I was making the work, the Google Home device responded to me when I greeted it with the term As-salamu alaykum (السلام عليكم), which an Islamic greeting. And it would say Wa ‘alaykumu s-salam (وعليكم السلام), which is the obvious response. But for some reason here, rather than responding to my greeting, it just plays some random Arabic music. I find this super interesting because in a new context this is something that’s happened with chance. It reminds me that I’m not in control of this technology. So, it took me a day or two to come to terms with it, but that’s also the beauty of chance. The more unfamiliar chance is, the longer it takes to kind of come to terms with it.JR
I typically would imagine chance — like you were talking about with Cage and Stockhausen — can be seen as either a kind of proposition for allowing the outsider in or for looking outward. But for me, it’s less about a material aspect of chance and more about a framing. As I was walking around the space today, getting familiar with the sound of everything, I realised there’s quite a bit of spilling of sound and images within the exhibition. This spill seeps in. And it’s also going to seep into my thinking.
Returning to what you said about the Google Home device — and the way it has differed with interpretation in a different global location — it poses, to me, a problem of trust, a framing and reference that’s going to come to life in this exhibition. And it’s a really strange situation for me when it comes to responding to the science fiction narrative you’ve provided me to respond to during my residency. Typically, a composer works by writing for an ensemble or an interpreter of some kind. With this, I’m in the position of both the interpreter and the composer.HM
I’ve never really thought about this until hearing you speak. It’s like the analogy for a blank canvas but when it comes to music, the blank canvas is a form of silence. And yet, there’s actually no silence in this exhibition. So, it’s a bit weird for you to start with silence, but already have something that’s not silent.JR
For me, it’s much better to not start with silence. To start within the world. Silence is often referred to as the ground, or sky. I think for me, this is really an environment, a new kind of atmosphere that will seep into the world of music. That’s a blank canvas, in a sense.HM
Yes, as you’ve expressed, there isn’t really ever silence. Does silence actually exist? Maybe when you leave the atmosphere that could be regarded as silence. But also your brain starts to make up sound if you sit inside an anechoic chamber, even after a very short amount of time, you start to have visual and auditory hallucinations. So, silence somehow doesn’t really exist. Maybe this concept is that it exists physically, but as a grey area perceptually. Perhaps the same could be said with a blank canvas? That there’s never truly a blank canvas, to contradict what I said earlier. I guess the question now would be: is there a shift of what we regard as a starting point, a space or a time frame to work in?JR
I think it comes from differing perceptions: the perspective of the creator and the audience. I have to find a perspective, an angle that makes sense to me. To enter this work and make within it. So again, I’m less interested in the materiality of it, and the science of it. A big question that reoccurs within your exhibition — and work — is this tension between sound and its reification, or modelling, or making an image of sound. The impossibility of this measurement. I state this because from your very first piece in the exhibition, Stimulate pineal function, 2017, with the temple bowls, I immediately felt this tension. Are you interested in this idea of reification, or are you more interested in the problem of tension, between the measurable and immeasurable?HM
It's probably more to do with the measurable and immeasurable. I end up having to think with different hats on. My rational side would think ‘oh, everything is measurable’, but my freer side would think ‘things aren’t measurable’. I believe the tension between the two is more important than the reification. What I’ve installed in this space is one thing, but then the reception of that is always invariably different. The interesting part for me, in a way, harkens back to Roland Barthes, and his essay ‘The Death of the Author’[^2].JR
When it comes to ideology, is there a sort of universality that you’re trying to highlight? You know, with sound healing, with sound perception?HM
I try and leave ideology out of my work as much as I can. I try not to take a position on things because I always have a double-edged feeling about how I approach my work. Are there certain frequencies that stimulate pineal function or are capable of healing? I don't know. Is it done through these methods? I don't know. Are psychedelics or plant medicines appropriate forms of healing? I don't know. But that question for me is building some kind of ideology, it’s an ideology based on the non-existence of truth, the idea we have of truth.JR
To me, it seems clean, fixed and somehow objective in a rationalist sense, when you’re dealing with these measurable things. Like voltage versus this messiness of multi-perspective presentation. Whether it’s Google Home, or an interview such as this. Which brings me to the collaborative side of things. This is something that really excites me, the messiness of it, which I think is a necessity in collaboration. Is there a kind of aesthetic with this kind of messiness verses a fixedness or cleanness?HM
Thinking about my previous work, there’s always this kind of order that comes from mess. We can talk about chaos again, and chance in that sense, which is probably inherent in the way I work. I don't really fetishise things. I don’t get too wound up in ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. It’s almost a constant battle to let go. I don’t worry too much about how cables look within in an installation. Or if something might be dusty. Or if there’s still IKEA packaging left on a shelf. It’s almost a challenge: ‘can I do this?’ I find this rewarding. It’s my process. I mean, what do you think in terms of your process? Is there something in this that you relate to? Because when we first met, I felt like there was a shared sensibility. I couldn’t really pinpoint what it was.JR
I tend to think very aesthetically. I think, in terms of sensibility and affect in sound. I’m quite sentimental with sound. But I’m also very into mess. I work with structure and I work with form, but I’ve always had to have something that messes that up. Not just to confuse the listener, but to confound the form itself.HM
Where does this come from? Because I find myself doing this quite a lot. If something’s too clean and precise, I want to fuck up a bit. I recently read an interview with Mike Kelley where he literally just said ‘if it’s too nice, I have to fuck it up’. Is this an insecurity?JR
I just feel it in my gut. I can hear when it's too clean. I don't think it's a self-conscious thing.HM
But is it something to do with production? Something being too produced?JR
It can be. It can also be the thinking itself, behind the making. If the thinking is too clean, or too straightforward, it becomes less interesting to me. Boring. So, throwing in a wildcard, formally, is like finding a way to sabotage your thinking. Or it could be a material thing, like a particular sound source. In the case of this project, I’ve got both. I have actual sounds that I have no control over, that are completely outside of an aesthetic that I usually work within. And I also have your thinking, permeating the way I will have to think. This new kind of messiness.HM
Yes, that’s messiness. I often respond to spaces, or other people’s work, which gives me the same feeling. But I wonder how you decide what the wildcard is. Say you’ve been working on something and you’ve got that problem of the project being too pristine. How do you decide what the wildcard is, and where does the wildcard come from? Do you find it’s something innate, or is it random, a chance element that just so happens to be there?JR
Because I am often a solitary worker, I have this annoying reflexive problem where I have to talk to myself about work. Sometimes, I think this helps to find the messiness, it’s about finding a different angle. Or, I think in a collaboration, that messiness just naturally happens. And I also like to work collaboratively. I probably work half collaboratively, half on my own.HM
It’s really refreshing to hear you say this, because it’s nice to have a bunch of wildcards and not be in control, but it’s also scary, because you just don’t know. I guess that’s the beauty of it. Do you feel like that’s what it is? Do you feel like it is akin to having sonography? I like to think about it like this and I like knowing that there will be other collaborators in addition to yourself responding to this exhibition. Knowing that there are people who will come in and respond with music, choreography and text. Do you feel like those are types of wildcards?JR
I don’t know if they’re wildcards, because I think that the frames themselves limit this possibility. They’re ways of breaking the form. But on this topic of making those problems visible, you’ve got a ‘band in a bubble’ situation here, where the process of making becomes visible to an audience. Are you interested in making visible something that’s invisible?HM
I’ve always been obsessed with demystifying things. If something interesting occurs, you can think of it as magical. Levitating magnets, for example, you might think are magical, but you also know they aren’t. I’ve always had this obsession with keeping everything visible. Everything that’s possible.JR
Is what the viewer finds interesting important to you? I know it’s a bit of a facile question.HM
I don’t know. I think not knowing is a reaction against this idea that art is somehow a magical thing, that thinking that only an artist can make art. But art is actually attainable, it’s a really simple thing. Making something is really easy. It’s what we do before anything else. Children draw before they read and write — and making noises whether it’s for communication or not.
Art making is a very diluted form of shamanism in Western civilisation and Western contemporary society. It engages with the ‘other’ and tries to communicate something that you can’t really communicate. You're trying to grab this stuff and represent it.JR
I want to continue teasing out this idea of the ‘visible’, and this process with the idea of electricity as well. When I initially saw your exhibition I thought about it critiquing the institution, and the structure of the museum. But on the other hand, you’re now talking about shamanism. I don’t know if I feel totally comfortable talking about shamanism, but I do want to talk about the idea of current, voltage and electricity — if that is also magic, or invisibility being conjured? If that means anything to you, or if it’s just a medium that happened to be workable?HM
I think there’s a magic to electricity. I think we often forget about electricity as a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s very volatile and we can’t really control it. We can harness it to create light, but it depends on how deep you want to go, you can’t really measure it. You can and you can’t — that’s the problem with measurement in general. There’s this famous thing about electricity, how it fluctuates. Depending on the country you’re in, the alternating current is usually set to 50Hz. And this frequency is the key to the exhibition.
If you look at electric frequencies on a graph, the wave form is really chaotic. It’s like a fingerprint. It’s a live thing. So, listening to electricity, and also seeing it, means that you’re encountering a natural phenomenon. It's akin to looking at the ocean, watching the tides. The reason I went to art school was because in my teenage years I used to paint seascapes. I was obsessed with the waves. At the time I just thought I was obsessed with painting landscapes and I wanted to be a landscape painter. But I was actually just obsessed with the chaotic nature of the landscape. The waves. It’s still what I’m obsessed with. The ebb and flow of reality. For me, that’s a really magical thing. So, when you encounter electronic music in general, like a modular synthesiser, it is exactly the same thing. It’s a current being made audible through various components. You’re encountering the live sound of electricity.
When you record sound, it’s a slightly different thing. You lose something. And what you lose is the chaotic liveness of it. The chaotic sound of that water is somehow magical and nothing at the same time. Immeasurable.
James Rushford is an Australian composer-performer who holds a doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts, and was a 2018 fellow at Academy Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. His work is drawn from a familiarity with specific concrète, improvised, avant-garde and collagist languages. Currently, his work deals with the aesthetic concept of musical shadow. James has been commissioned as a composer by ensembles including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Glasgow), and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and regularly performs in Australia and internationally.
Haroon Mirza is an artist who intertwines his practice with the role of composer. Mirza considers electricity his main medium and creates atmospheric environments through the linking together of light, sound, music, videos and elements of architecture. Regularly showing internationally in group and solo exhibitions, Mirza’s work has also been included in the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, China (2012) and the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011), where he was awarded the Silver Lion.
Alexander Garsden is a Melbourne-based composer, guitarist and electroacoustic musician, working across multiple exploratory musical disciplines. Recent work includes commissions from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Speak Percussion, Michael Kieran Harvey and Eugene Ughetti; alongside performances with artists including Tetuzi Akiyama (Japan), Oren Ambarchi, Radu Malfatti (Austria), Julia Reidy, David Stackenäs (Sweden), and with Erkki Veltheim and Rohan Drape. From 2014 to 2019 Garsden was Co-Director of the INLAND Concert Series. He has taught through RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
Freya Schack-Arnott is an Australian/Danish cellist who enjoys a multi-faceted career as a soloist and ensemble performer of classical and contemporary repertoire, curator and improviser within experimental music, electronics, popular and cross-disciplinary art forms. Schack-Arnott regularly performs with Australia's leading new music ensembles, including ELISION Ensemble (as core member) and Ensemble Offspring. Her curatorial roles include co-curator/founder of the regular 'Opus Now' music series and previous curator of the NOW Now festival and Rosenberg Museum.
Jessica Aszodi is an Australian-born, London-based vocalist who has premiered many new pieces, performed work that has lain dormant for centuries, and sung roles ranging from standard operatic repertoire to artistic collaborations. She has been a soloist with ensembles including ICE; the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras; and San Diego and Chicago Symphony Orchestras’ chamber series. Aszodi can be heard on numerous recordings and has sung in festivals around the world. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium, an MFA from the University of California, and is co-director of the Resonant Bodies Festival (Australia), and artistic associate of BIFEM.
Annika Kristensen is Senior Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.