Read an online-only extended version of this conversation.
Trimpin—he only goes by one name—is a Seattle artist with a series of exhibitions in Northwest art galleries and museums through 2007, but he is as ensconced in experimental music as he is in sculpture and installation. Here, composer and Trimpin admirer Chris DeLaurenti squares off with critic Carrie E. A. Scott, whose master's thesis referenced Trimpin and addressed the limitations of the term "sound art."
CHRIS DeLAURENTI: Trimpin compellingly unites sound and sculpture. He works with the raw, but recognizable, elements of traditional music—instruments, notation, and pitched sound—and redesigns, agglomerates, and even explodes them, as seen in two installations recently shown here in Seattle, Phffft at the Henry Art Gallery and Sheng High at Consolidated Works. But he wants us to look, too. Pieces such as If VI Was IX—that frozen cyclone of electric guitars installed at EMP—impel us to re-see musical instruments that, due to mass manufacturing, have become lazy icons that all look alike to the hasty eye.
CARRIE E. A. SCOTT: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Trimpin is a genius inventor. But from what I've seen, his work—sorry, Christopher—does not make for compelling art. Often, it's sonically and visually boring. Take Sheng High. The jungle of bamboo tripods based on the Chinese instrument the sheng were hooked up to a scanner reading a massive wall of twinkling CDs as a musical score. While dazzling, this seemed random and more like something found in a dorm room than a gallery. Adding to its unfinished quality, its score was comparable to an orchestra warming up. It never reached a crescendo and it never seemed to matter.
CHRIS: Sonically and visually boring? We can argue this piece by piece, solenoid by solenoid. I advise viewers and listeners to just listen, and listen for a long time—and not just to what you hear but where you hear it. What is most musically significant for me is Trimpin's use of space, or more precisely, his spatialization of sound. Trimpin's SHHH at Suyama Space is promising; when I visited recently, he mentioned someday placing a speaker inside the ball rolling inside the metal ring. Several metal rings might be deployed concentrically to create true three-dimensional sound (with real Doppler effects!).
CARRIE: I went to see SHHH. While its gyrating rhythm is hypnotic—a friend, who is a movement therapist, said it looks like a neuromuscular reeducation technique that involves the rotation of one's pelvis—it'd be far more interesting to watch, say, The Stranger staff rotate their pelvises than to hang out with SHHH. Much like you, Chris, I've spent what seems like days in installations, so don't think my attention span for art is short. As I've said of Trimpin's earlier pieces, SHHH is a technological accomplishment but, as an art object, I have a hard time relating to it. There's no point of entry, no way to form a human relationship with the work. It is just an enormous and somewhat ominous object undulating in the middle of a room making the noise that its name onomatopoetically suggests. It doesn't shift or heighten my experience of the world.
CHRIS: Trimpin's work straddles the crevasse that threatens the comprehension of technologically dependent art. In America, the assumption is that when you walk into a gallery, a symphony concert, or a poetry reading, you'll get it just like that, just by being there. But access is no assurance of understanding. I've suggested Trimpin's work should be examined solenoid by solenoid. Someday, knowledgeable critics will wax poetic on an as-yet-unborn installation artist's use of the vintage Winbond ISD2560 ChipCorder chip—just as photography scholars understand Man Ray's use of solarization, and music scribes should understand how the inner workings of turntables, samplers, and ProTools have shaped popular music in the 20th century. Will critics deepen their knowledge or will we see a divide similar to the cordoning off of science fiction from the canon of great literature? Trimpin's work looks easy. Touch a button, twist a dial, and something happens. But in his strongest work, sculptural contraptions encourage us to loiter, wait, listen, explore, and make art out of Trimpin's art.
CARRIE: The problem is that when I stay and wait and listen, nothing comes. Though you don't say it, Chris, there's an inference that you get Trimpin because you understand some obscure technology like the Winbond ISD2560 ChipCorder—as if to say that Trimpin's genius lies in the way he is using this technology. Likely, this is precisely where his genius lies. But that's not where art lies. Art gets beyond its complex technologies and has an affect. Art doesn't lie in the creation of contraptions. And people didn't love Man Ray's work because of its technological accomplishments. They loved it because of the way it looked. I want to know, what does Trimpin's work do for you emotionally and physically, not intellectually?
CHRIS: My admiration is not predicated on some insider knowledge. Trimpin's best pieces go beyond his complex (or sometimes numbingly simple) use of technology and delight me, make me smile, flood me with wonder, and most importantly, impel me to listen and look anew at what I would otherwise ignore.
CARRIE: I'm presuming you buy into a category called "sound art." How should a sound artist be considered different from an experimental musician? What is to be made of the simple fact that nearly all sound installations have a visual component, even if it is not intended by the artist?
CHRIS: "Sound art" is a catchall category used by gallery curators, music writers, and artists who do not wish to grapple with music history, or who believe the works in question stand outside our musical past (Bach, the Beatles, etc.). Sound art may be purely sonic, with the artist offering little or nothing for the other senses. Pieces that imply sound, such as Marclay's "Lip Lock" (2000), which rams the mouthpiece of a pocket trumpet into the mouthpiece of a baritone horn, are sculpture, not sound art. Trimpin's work is sound art. Sound artists can simply attach sound to a sculpture and call it sound art, but to succeed, the sonic attachment must be effective and essential to the work. I suspect the definition of "sound art," as with "music," will remain a moving target. Would Beethoven have heard music in Merzbow?