Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play

By Elina Suoyrjö (Independent curator, PhD candidate at Middlesex University)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

On a late Friday afternoon on June 17, a bunch of us gathered at the entrance of London College of Communication in order to be escorted to a private view at the Museum of Portable Sound. The current exhibition at the museum is Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play, guest curated by Dr Irene Noy who runs What Sense is there in Art? series at The Courtauld. After a short round of introductions, we were guided through the labyrinths of the school into an auditorium, where the museum and the artist awaited.

Jessica Akerman’s practice focuses on processes of drawing, through exploring different kinds of materials and gestures. She works with a vast range of materials from playdough to mud to song, as the work takes shape as sculpture, installation or collaboration. The exhibition at the Museum of Portable Sound presents excerpts of three of Akerman’s earlier works focusing on sound, and especially song. After a presentation from the museum director John Kannenberg, we got to listen to Akerman’s works. This was followed by a discussion between Akerman, Noy, and the audience. During the talk central topics in Akerman’s practice were brought up, such as exploring relations between gender and labour, sound and song as material of work, and working processes with different kinds of communities.

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

While the exhibition focuses on Akerman’s sound based work, a certain sense of tactile materiality appears to push through her practice even in these pieces. Two of the works, Songs of Salt (2010) and Waulking song (2014) deal with traditions of song functioning as part of labour; as part of working processes where song, gestures and rhythms enable people to work together, and in synch. The songs and sounds are entangled with physical movements of the singers, and their handling of physical materials. The third piece, Darlinghurst playground songs (2013), features play songs the artist composed in collaboration with pupils at Darlinghurst Primary School in Southend. The recording is a lively playground soundtrack, which transmits not only the sounds of the playground songs, but also the echoes of acts and movements synchronized by the children along with the singing.

The Museum of Portable Sound is a project by John Kannenberg. The museum has collections consisting of sound as well as physical objects, an exhibition program, a gallery guide, and a board. The museum doesn’t exhibit artworks only. The collections present for example animal sounds and soundscapes from different museums. The immaterial sound collections of the museum are located on an iPhone. Despite its portable character, the museum does not exist online, but on one portable device only. In practice, you get to visit the museum by booking an appointment. Visiting the museum becomes an experience in itself through scheduling an appointment, arriving at a given place, encountering the space of the museum one on one, within a certain kind of intimate setting, through headphones.

4As a curator, I can’t help but think what does it then mean for an artwork to be exhibited in this museum? Is there a difference to how artworks are presented in non-portable museums or white cubes? In the case of Akerman’s work, all of the pieces presented are parts of larger installations. During the discussion we got to hear in more detail how, and in which kind of settings, the work has been exhibited earlier. Presenting the sound of the work can thus be seen as presenting one part of the work, not the work as a whole. In the case of Heave and Flow, I do not think the presentation of the work exactly takes anything away from the work, while on the other hand, it doesn’t show the work in its whole richness either. The encounter with the work is very different from their original settings, and through this the museum might offer new entrances to the work. The Museum of Portable Sound seems to offer interesting possibilities in terms of distribution of sound based art, and different and engaging visitor experiences. There exists a slight danger of diminishing the work into this peculiar encountering experience, but through careful curation, as in the case of Heave and Flow, this too can be avoided.