‘At the very heart of the scholar’s or artist’s thought, even the one most absorbed in his search, who seems most confined to his own sphere and face to face with what is most self and most impersonal, there is present strange anticipation of the external reactions to be provoked by the work now in the making: it is difficult for a man to be alone.’

Paul Valéry, ‘Course in Poetics: First Lesson’, 1937

Field Studies 2014, short film by Joseph Kohlmaier

Listening after Pauline Oliveros: A Meditation
Thu 12 – Sun 15 Oct 2017
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies
University of Leeds

Field Studies is a cross-disciplinary, practice-based workshop/summer school programme that locates composition and performance in an experience of place, material objects and civic life. First taught in 2010, the programme brings together experienced practitioners from the fields of sound art, composition, performance and choreography with a group of students from a broad range of different backgrounds around a social table of events, talks by scholars and artists, studio work, and food.

Departing from a minimal idea which evolves through conversations, contributions from students and support from a provocative programme of events, each masterclass sets out to create a work, conclusion or performance. The process in which this happens is not preconceived. It puts the class in a ‘predicament’, organised around dialogue and a subtle set of pedagogies that are rooted in the idea that music and work with sound, alongside other practices in the arts, is today a thoroughly social event which is ‘prophetic’ and speculative in nature.

In 2017, Field Studies explores these ideas for the first time in context with a much more ambitious and broader Open Programme based on a call for proposals and talks around the work of visionary artist, performer and composer Pauline Oliveros, which Field Studies students can take part in and contribute to.

Field Studies is hard to summarise, and different each time. Learn more about the unique atmosphere of Field Studies by visiting the archive pages, or read a summary of teaching Field Studies by Joseph Kohlmaier below, first published in Sound and Music’s The Sampler in March 2015.

Field Studies was created in 2010 by Joseph Kohlmaier. Field Studies 2017 – Listening after Pauline Oliveros was created by Ed McKeon, and is co-curated with Joseph Kohlmaier and Sam Belinfante in partnership with University of Leeds and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

The Transparency of the medium. On teaching Field Studies

John Tyndall, Sound, 1867

The bell in the jar. John Tyndall’s air pump, in: Sound. Eight lectures delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1867)

I The gnat and the bell jar

In 1672, some time after Evangelista Toricelli demonstrated that air had weight and exerted pressure in the atmosphere, Robert Boyle conducted a series of experiments on live animals he placed inside a glass jar from which the air was removed by means of a pump – amongst them a small flock of gnats. Boyle originally set out to investigate whether the gnats could live and fly in the vacuum, ‘free’ from the pressures of the air. To his disappointment, the gnats died. Boyle had inadvertently deprived them of the very essence they needed to survive, let alone fly.

In 1705, Francis Hawksbee conducted a very similar experiment. Instead of gnats, he fixed a bell within the receiver of an air-pump and demonstrated that its sound was rendered almost inaudible once the air was removed from the jar. John Tyndall recreated Hawksbee’s original experiment in 1867 with a perfected air pump and a bell that was suspended from strings. He gave a demonstration of the effect to a captivated audience at the Royal Institution, who saw the hammer pounding the bell – but heard no sound. Even when they ‘placed [their] ears against the exhausted receiver, [they were] unable to hear the faintest tinkle’.[1]

What makes these experiments so interesting is not the discovery of atmospheric pressure itself, or the nature of sound, but the transparency of air. I have often pondered if there are creatures whose sensory apparatus allows them to ‘see’ air, rather than just feel its movement.[2] The fact that we humans don’t is fundamental to our cultural constitution. The way we think about air (and, by consequence, sound), and the history of this thought, must be the very root of our imagination. In the litany of things that allegedly set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, the idea that there is life, motion and substance where we can’t perceive it, must certainly come long before language, cooking, and all the rest.[3]

Robert Filliou, Teaching and learning as performing arts [1970] (London: Occasional Papers, 2014)

Robert Filliou, Teaching and learning as performing arts [1970] (London: Occasional Papers, 2014)

II On teaching and learning as performing arts

The problem of the invisible is very pertinent in education, and Boyle’s mistake can teach us a lesson. Now that the arts and humanities are in the process of being eradicated from the national teaching curriculum in favour of mechanical skills that support economic growth (which incidentally is poorly linked to a better quality of life) [4], it is worth pointing this out. The discovery of scientific fact is worthless, if not suffocating, without the empathic capacity of the imagination, of which it is both beginning and consequence. In spite of what politicians may want you to believe, what holds society up is the ‘useless’ scaffolding of poetry, drama, music, religious myth and philosophical investigation, with no determined outcome. Inside Boyle’s air pump, myth and science separated from one common substance for all but one brief moment, and against his intentions.[5]

When Field Studies started in 2010, the original ambition was to provide architects with field recording techniques as a creative ‘tool’, and to present sound as an interdisciplinary paradigm that could expand the ways in which we engage with the city and its life. To do this, I invited a number of composers and artists to teach a masterclass on sound recording, who in turn attracted a community of more composers and sound artists who wanted to work with like-minded people. There were hardly any architects or town planners. The unusual curriculum of the course – a series of talks, workshops and extracurricular activities which culminated in a performance – probably further reinforced this, as did the sudden rise of ‘sound art’ in galleries and curatorial projects that is still ongoing.

For our first workshop we hired an arsenal of microphones and recorders. There were students pouring over laptops everywhere, editing what they had recorded and playing it back to each other. But almost instantly, ‘sound’ and field recording seemed to move to the periphery of what was happening. It is probably in the ephemeral nature of sound to do this, both as a phenomenon and a subject. What seemed far more interesting was what happened in the act of listening and performance (playing back), or what Paul Valéry would describe as the moment of transference when a work of art is perceived by the beholder.[6] For Valéry, this is the only instance when the ‘work’ actually has presence. The material character of art is misleading (as ‘sound art’ testifies seemingly more directly than sculpture or painting). It merely marks the intersection of two processes; one which has ended and one that is beginning. For the artist, the ‘work’ is both end and beginning of a new work; and for the beholder someone else’s work is the starting point for a work of her own. It is a type of trade – but to think of the work of art mainly as an object is to mistake the currency for what it represents.

In education, anything that does not require practice (such as removing an appendix without killing the patient) functions in exactly the same way. What Field Studies showed was the drama of recording and playing (with) sound in between people, rather than its potential creative application as a documentary tool. The air was charged with questions that formed tangents on the original subject, and people appeared to be more productive when they were eating and walking together, than when they were being ‘taught’. This was a turning point in the course, and more generally in the way I think about teaching and the idea of performance in education. The word ‘performance’ describes an act that gives form (in the sense of ‘furnish’) to an idea. Teaching and learning is such an act of performance. It requires people to be in a shared space, and a question or paradigm that animates their conversation. Education is about constructing a framework that makes this possible, and to a much lesser degree about imparting knowledge. The value of learning ‘not for profit’ and the development of a critical faculty is maybe becoming ever more important now that (good and bad) information is becoming ubiquitous.

But the idea pre-dates the information age by a long way. It goes back to Rousseau, or the works of Dewey, Valéry, Bergson, Montessori, the founders of the Bauhaus, the New School in New York and many others. Occasional Papers’ re-issue of conceptual/fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s Teaching and learning as performing arts (1970) is a recent favourite of mine which shows not just that the arts and humanities are important as part of education, but can in fact provide a model for all types of teaching and learning. The policy-makers in education need reminding of this; and that gnats can’t fly without the invisible and somewhat mysterious stuff that surrounds them.

Field Studies 2014: Eating together (pictured: Áine O’Dwyer and Helen Frosi)

Field Studies 2014: Eating together (pictured: Áine O’Dwyer and Helen Frosi)

III Atmosphere

Last year [2014], there were hardly any microphones and laptops in sight at Field Studies. The course was taught by a choreographer (Michael Klïen), a composer (Claudia Molitor) and two musicians (Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda), although none of these labels do justice to the work these artists do, which crosses over between many disciplines. There were guest workshops by performer/singer Melanie Pappenheim, artist and graphic designer Stefan Kraus, and a keynote ‘performance’ by David Toop (who fittingly preferred that term to ‘talk’) which he gave with Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda improvising in the background. Artist and writer Beatrice Loft Schulz cooked a pot of stew every day, which everyone ate from their own bowls around daffodils on small tables full of paint, borrowed from the fine art department.

What distinguishes Field Studies is the people who teach it and – its atmosphere. It attracts a diverse group of participants who want to spend time with interesting people, and create work in a social situation. Artists work mostly alone; musicians do sometimes; but architects practically never do. The social contingency of architecture and the restraints it creates probably constitute the most persistent interdisciplinary lesson Field Studies has learnt from the field it emerged from. It is no coincidence that architecture is one of the few professions that requires history and theory (or ‘critical and contextual studies’) as a core part of the teaching curriculum. To become an accredited architect in the UK, students are required to study material that is firmly rooted in the humanities and the arts. In architectural education, the development of critical thought and a general education in the humanities, social empathy, and the ‘duty of care’ of the profession go hand in hand.

In the beginning, Field Studies was designed to teach architects about sound and music. It turns out that the persistence of the humanities in architecture may one day teach something to the rest of the art world (and education in general). The most interesting lessons music, architecture and art can exchange have little to do with patterns and structures – harmony, proportion, typologies and taxonomies etc. – and a lot more with what people do when they come together in a room to teach and learn, and the atmosphere that surrounds them.

[ 1 ] John Tyndall, Sound. A course of eight lectures delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (London, 1867) |  [ 2 ] See Jakob von Uexkuell, ‘A stroll through the world of animals an men’ [1934], in: Claire H. Schiller (ed.), Instinctive Behaviour (London, 1957) | [ 3 ] See Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec’s Vampyrotheutis infernalis (Goettingen, 1987; English translation available) for a curious and powerful polemic against the supremacy of humans over animals in terms of biological and cultural complexity | [ 4 ] See Martha Nussbaum, Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities (Princeton, 2010) | [ 5 ] See Helen Mallinson, ‘Weather Dissidents: from Natura Naturans to “Space” and back again’, in: Ines Weizman, The architecture of dissidence (London: 2013) | [ 6 ] Paul Valéry, ‘Course in poetics: First lesson’ [1937], in: Brewster Ghiselin, The creative process (New York: 1955)

Listening after Pauline Oliveiros