Sonic Arcade: Interview with Julianne Swartz
December 6, 2017

New York-based artist Julianne Swartz combines tangible and intangible materials with existing and original technologies to create sculpture and installations. Her work focuses on ephemeral experiences pertaining to light, air, and sound, often involving audience engagement.  

MAD commissioned the artist to create Sine Body for Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound (on view through February 25). These acoustically reflective sculptures are made of anthropomorphic glass and ceramic; Swartz uses an electronic feedback process to read the air mass in the vessels to locate a pure sine tone—a smooth repetitive oscillation produced by a single continuous wave—which resonates in each work. The tone sounds at a frequency determined by the unique shape, size, and opening of each vessel, to which Swartz adds no additional overtones. The resulting piece is a chorus of pure sound.

Inspiration for Sine Body came from the Buddhist singing bowl, a standing bell that is frequently used to mark meditation or to accompany funeral rites. The bowls are played with a mallet, which is used to either strike the rim or generate friction along it, thus creating the harmonic overtones and thecontinuous “singing” that give them their name.

1. Tell us a bit about your background coming to work with sound as a medium. 

I came to work with sound through other ephemeral materials that had presence without a defined physical body: light and air. Sound was a logical next step, and it was also a material that could carry direct emotional content. My first works with sound used dated pop songs to access memory and association, and then recorded voice for the sentiment and emotion it could carry. Simultaneously, I was exploring acoustic transmission methods: sound contained in pipes to move through buildings, deliberate containment and leakage, and transmutation through physical materials. More recently, I’ve been interested in sound as a physical entity. I’ve shifted (for now) from mining sound for its emotion and affect to exploring the energy it carries. Right now I’m interested in vibrations that can be seen or felt as well as, or sometimes instead of, heard. Listening is a motivation for my work. With each work, I ask how I might engage my audience to listen with attention and duration. Right now I’m seeking to create a different kind of listening: not just with the ears, but with the body.

2. In what ways do you consider sound “material” and explore that through your practice? 

Sound can be directed, molded, and conducted. Though not visible, it can be given perceivable form when it is deliberately contained and released in objects and in spaces. Recorded voice can be an extension of the body and a surrogate for it. The sound of the voice extends beyond the boundaries of the individual, a material extension of one body to contact another. Touch at a distance. Sound is energy that can be harvested and directed. The Sine Body pieces translate form to a sound: the sound of the mass and space of a particular body.

3. Do you see yourself as a soloist in regard to your work, or does the way you work with space, materials, and other containers to make or transmit sound feel collaborative?

I do respond to materials and spaces. I let them shape the outcome to some degree. I see what is there (in a space) and then try to make that a material in the work, or use it as a resource to shape the components I bring in, so in that way I am collaborating with a space. If I use a material in a piece, it needs to do something. Function determines form and form determines function. I see what a material or form wants to do, or is able to do, and then I push that. I try to make materials do double or triple duty.

4. Sound practices seem to have increased in prevalence. Do you see a reason for sound’s wider practice and reception that is particular to our times? 

Hearing is a more somatic sense than seeing. Perhaps people are craving somatic experience in an increasingly digital world. Digital means can separate us from our bodies, sonic experience can locate us in them.